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What to keep and what to leave? Lessons to rethink your pedagogy

Introduction

We have all heard the word ‘rethink’ numerous times, especially now as institutions are planning their return to normal. We have taken many lessons during the pandemic, and it is appropriate to understand where we are, reflect upon what we have done and think about what good practice will look like in the future. Digital transformation has occurred across all aspects of education; a new landscape has appeared that identifies diversity amongst stakeholders and practices. The pandemic has changed the role of teachers and has had a significant impact on teaching and learning. A range of practical resources have been created — institution wide, collaboratively — and communities of practice have been formed. It is therefore important to utilise these resources and insights to build a robust future that is digitally capable, and perhaps more prepared for any future contingencies, so that we ‘thrive’ and not just ‘survive’.

One important point to note before we reflect upon our strategies is to remember that online pedagogy or learning is not simply a shift from in-person to online delivery; rather it is a well-planned, developed and systematically-designed teaching approach. So we ought to understand why certain ideas did not work well, what the key bottlenecks were, and how we could have done things differently to benefit the students. Identified below are four broad themes around teaching and learning within each of which there are aspects to discuss.

Effective use of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)

The most important starting point is the VLE space. Good design minimises the need for memorisation, sustains attention and focus, is interactive, displays consistency, is easy to navigate, and respects diversity among learners. The pandemic put a spotlight on VLEs but irrespective of whether we are in a pandemic situation or returning to the ‘next normal’, use and effectiveness of the VLE has a direct impact on the users’ learning experience. Points I keep in mind while designing the module site include clarity, organisation, inclusivity, and engagement. For instance, I have found that a site with self-descriptive tabs, describing in a few lines what students can expect within each particular folder, enables ease of navigation and ensures self-learning. I try to include aspects such as a Welcome Week folder introducing ‘what is what’, ‘who is the module leader’, and ‘an ice breaker activity’. I ensure that all the modules I deliver incorporate consistency of layout, navigation, images, and terminology. Over time, I have also realised that the less time students spend gathering information or distinguishing important information, the more time and energy they can devote to the learning outcomes.

The study guide rubric is another useful feature I have incorporated in my practice. I design a guide that is arranged clearly for each week or lecture and incorporates learning outcomes or objectives laid out for every topic. A more transparent and organised study guide scores over a plain and wordy document enclosed as an attachment. I adapted this approach during the pandemic, and have received extremely positive feedback from my students on how it has helped to organise their learning. An example structure appears below:

Week

Topic/
Learning Outcomes

Learning Material – All Topics (a.k.a. Lectures)

Seminars

Videos

Activity

Slides

1

Title for Topic 1

Objectives:

(1) State the learning outcome

(2)

2 –

(1) Description of what it includes

(2)

2 –

(1) State the question

(2)

Topic 1 Slides

Seminar Q&A

Engagement

A substantial body of literature suggests that high engagement influences good student outcomes. Engagement not only entails engaging with the academic content — that is definitely vital — but it also implies continued interaction with peers. Engagement often implies influencing motivation, as non-engagement could be linked to ‘boredom’.

There are several ways in which instructors could increase motivation levels by ensuring students connect (i) with you as the teacher: put simply, know your audience, (ii) with content: use varied activities, role play exercises, applied assignments, and (iii) with peers: give the space to create a learning network. For instance, I use a 'Participation Points' method in which student engagement earns points that are scaled and added to coursework marks. This facilitating game-mechanics technique enables greater student motivation, collaboration, and confidence. This is one approach that I have kept over the years, irrespective of mode of delivery, though during the pandemic I have tried to work within 'technology-enabled social space': a digitally-enabled platform where students could spend time and interact, and where I could offer additional support. However, I try to be cautious while using technology: not just deploying a technology or tool for the sake of it, but investing time to understand its pedagogic relevance.

Assessment and Feedback

Having the opportunity to talk rather than write was welcomed by students as it enabled them to develop their presentation and public speaking skills.

Over the course of pandemic, we have thought around how we digitise exams and coursework. Institutions have made widespread use of online submission and marking. Alongside the question whether these approaches have been innovative or well served by digital tools, an important aspect is to take a step back to decide what we should be really assessing and what and when is best to assess. An essential question to ask ourselves is ‘do we measure what we teach?’ – are questions based around information delivered, do assessments require a need for self-learning, are we incorporating scope for students’ curiosity, and what is important to be tested?

A key suggestion is to plan the assessment first. While designing the module specifications and content, it is important to keep in mind what are we trying to measure and how and when. Try to fine-tune the subject matter to link it to the assessment questions, and adapt to ensure the best working relationship with students. Online learning, using video and audio, has become a major contributor; it is often useful to go one step forward and incorporate a test for listening and analysing the information gathered. It is often useful to ask students for their thoughts around the design of assessment; this can inform a more learner-centred objective for next time around.

Finally and most importantly — something that also leads us to the next theme — is accessibility. The "Assessment and feedback higher education landscape review" by JISC suggested that, compared to 2014 when only 6% of staff identified accessibility as a significant issue, in 2021 51% identified accessibility as their biggest pedagogical concern. Understanding the need for ‘compassionate pedagogy’, we must ensure we use varied formats when it comes to assessments, whether in online/hybrid teaching or in the classroom. A simple option or choice between a written piece, audio podcast, and video presentation could make a difference.

Incorporating the ideas of getting students’ opinions and allowing varied submission formats, one of my modules, during the pandemic, tested students' ability to present a business case by critically analysing investment decisions of multinational corporations. Students were given a choice to write an essay or submit a 10-minute recorded video presentation, and to my surprise most opted for the second format. Having the opportunity to talk rather than write was welcomed by students as it enabled them to develop their presentation and public speaking skills, suggesting why I need to continue with strategies such as these.

Accessibility/ Different learning styles

Accessibility means optimising access, designing out any barriers that would make it difficult to engage. Students have diverse needs, skills and abilities. Learning should not be a barrier, especially for students with special needs. It is important to ensure that learners who use assistive technology are able to complete crucial and essential tasks. For instance, I often simply add captions to my recorded videos and file descriptions to the attachments I upload, and it makes a huge difference.

Further, we have an incredibly diverse range of students, where diversity comes in the form of gender, culture, nationality and age. Making one’s teaching as inclusive as possible is an important objective; are you able to explain to all students what you are trying to achieve during the session? Is there clarity of thought? All these are beneficial questions to ask while planning your teaching.

One of the programmes I lead and teach is for property managers, who are working professionals with varied educational backgrounds. I realise that to be effective I must provide a range of learning opportunities to meet as many of their needs as possible. To achieve this, I do not use a special technique. This is achievable by simply doing, thinking and planning a little bit every day. I ensure that the modules on this programme follow an integrated approach and the design meets clients' requirements including their background and work practices.

Therefore, as a starting point, the most basic requirement is to understand your student community. Suggestions or ideas include: (i) be specific, yet detailed and thorough around the material, questions asked, and requirements; (ii) be transparent and clear around objectives and expectations; (iii) be approachable and vigilant; have conversations; respond/ react; monitor progress, especially for what could be the reasons behind lower participation.

Now that institutions and staff are making plans to return back, with lessons learned during the last two academic years, it is important to reflect on our experiences, numerous approaches we have developed and practices formulated. Personally speaking, given the amount of content, time and thought invested in developing numerous and effective short topic-focused videos, which are extremely popular with my students, I would be inclined to "leave" the traditional lecture style and incorporate more flipped classroom techniques. Similarly, ask yourselves: what will you do when you return to the lecture theatre, what will be the behaviour of your students, how will you enhance their engagement, will they feel connected, and which innovative approaches will you adapt? In short, what will you keep & what will you leave?

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