Blank faces, or blank screens? Teaching in Higher Education under conditions of the “new norm”.

By Wesley Fraser

The covid-19 pandemic has substantially changed the face of teaching in HE. Rather than walking around waving our arms in front of lecture halls full of students we are sat in front of computer screens, wearing headphones and speaking to a microphone. When teaching face-to-face I often experience blank faces staring back at me as I delve into the more complex aspects of whatever the topic might be that day (e.g. partial differential equations for physical oceanography), but, hopefully, there is that moment of enlightenment when my students begin to grasp the key concepts. A wave of changes in facial expression sweep across the lecture hall, and this is actually a pretty good feeling – one of the big feel-good factors with teaching! However, we are now working under the “new norm” where large group teaching is being delivered via Zoom (or equivalent online mass-conferencing software), and often the only camera that is switched on is that of the staff member delivering the session. How does one judge the reaction of a student cohort to challenging material when all are blanks screens? The instantaneous visual clues that serve as feedback are no longer available to us to judge when to repeat a section, or if something we have just said needs breaking down a little into more manageable chunks to aid understanding.

A typical view of a virtual teaching session with most participants switching off their webcams. Note: identities have been redacted for privacy.

While this may initially sound like a problem, I think online-learning has a lot to offer. Indeed, from my own experiences this semester, I have already found there to be so many more questions being asked during the lecture sessions, and often these questions are more insightful and probing than those I might normally receive in a physical lecture room environment. Perhaps the relative anonymity of a virtual lecture room provides a more secure environment to pose such questions, primarily via the chat function in a direct message to the lecturer, thus avoiding any perceived peer-judgements? So, while online virtual teaching in higher education may be a different experience to what we are used to, this does not mean it is a bad experience, merely different.

I know for my own teaching delivery I have already learned a great deal; it has made me think harder about what I deliver, and how it is delivered, as well as force me to develop new methods of conveying information that until now have been relatively dry lectures. The greatest success I have had so far has involved activities/exercises that require access to computers, e.g. analysis of data, running computer models etc.; as is often the case, module cohorts are too large for any single computer laboratory, thus multiple repeat sessions must be run, which is inherently inefficient and time-consuming – when teaching virtually, all participants are already sat facing a computer, resulting in a more-direct, focused learning experience. Looking to the future, I fully intend to embrace blended learning within my modules, particularly in light of the opportunities for computer-based exercises that require sole-access to a computer station.

It would be interesting to hear about online teaching experiences from across the geochemistry community – please feel free to share via our Twitter feed using the #geochemHEonline.

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