Online teaching in 2020: A personal view from inside the York Management School

2020 the year of Covid and no commuting to the campus. The year in which I reorganised my home
workspace and am grateful that I have an office at the bottom of the garden and food on the dining
room table at the end of every day. How lucky we are, and still drawing a salary, so first off, I feel
very fortunate on many counts.

Preparing for online delivery

I refused from the outset to break my neck reinventing everything to fit online – there was never any time to do that anyway, and the first ‘lockdown’ involved a lot of mental readjustment. My teaching online over the spring term was all for the Online Programme and I’ll not comment on that here; it was relatively unaffected by Covid. In the summer, my teaching was all PG supervision or undergraduates on placements. Everything worked well using Google Hangouts and email. Sharing documents was straightforward.

Adjustment, preparing the workspace

The main strain was hours sitting on a sofa tied into a keyboard and a far too small laptop screen. Eyestrain and headaches, and backache, kicked in. But eventually, when I complained, the School sent me a docking station and a 24-inch screen and now I don’t know how I managed without it. I upgraded internet connectivity too and moved my working exclusively to a converted shed in the garden. It’s great to have that.

Teaching material

I had last year’s PowerPoint lecture slides from face-to-face teaching. I began by editing the lot as I would do before any new term, keeping the stuff relevant and good to look at. One module required a substantial overhaul anyway as last year had been awful, partly due to content overload. I got some instruction on using Blackboard Collaborate and while I found it clunky and not that intuitive, it improved – or I should say, I did. By week 4 or 5 I was reasonably competent.

The School recommended filmed lectures using Panopto but there were many reports of it not working – so I didn’t even try. I used audio recordings inside PowerPoint instead. I’d done short Podcasts in previous years. I replaced these with longer audio accompaniment using the recording facility within PowerPoint. I was not interested in adding a video component as the timetabled online lectures could use the camera anyway.

Lectures

The University said we were to use just asynchronous pre-recorded lectures so the timetabled lecture slots could work like Q and A or office hours. I couldn’t see the point of this. I decided to deliver the lectures in the timetabled slots, displaying lecture slides inside Collaborate and watching the chat function so students could interrupt or ask anything whenever they wished. I also stopped every few minutes specifically to ask questions of the students, trying to make the sessions more interactive. 

Mostly this worked well. Students can re-watch the recordings within Collaborate, or listen to the lecture audio accompaniment through PowerPoint, or they can just watch the slides and test their recall of what was said around each slide. So, there are three ways to catch up on the lecture content, plus the ‘live’ delivery if they tuned in at the given time.

Seminars

I used pre-prepared worksheets and designated readings for all seminars. The worksheets were all posted well in advance. I use a variety of formats in each – TRUE/FALSE statements, multiple choice, Yes/No questions, WH questions which need more discursive answers, as well as exercises focused on understanding/explaining key words or concepts critical to the chapter, or other linked reading and module learning. Collaborate records the seminars, but they sound awful to be honest: too may gaps, silences, students don’t talk, the chat isn’t there, so hardly useful. The chapters/readings I have used for seminars are mainly from the course book for one module or are uploaded and available on the VLE so students can almost rely on the VLE as a one-stop-resource. This is far from the traditional use of a physical library that we are used to, but the opportunities to learn are there for those who take them.

Student participation

This has been extremely variable. My impression is that it is not unlike our conventional face-to-face experience, given the typical postgraduate cohorts we have in the Management School. Many students are passive, partly due to a cultural reticence to engage, partly a lack of confidence in articulating views, or a language barrier: some 90 per cent of our PG students are from China, some with very poor English. About 20-30 per cent contribute a lot to seminars via the chat function.

I am confident that the VLE resources are extremely comprehensive. In one of modules I teach, the course book is a fantastic resource that I have insisted students buy. I doubt more than a small proportion have done so – but that’s their problem, their choice. Old editions of this book are just as good and available cheaply on the Internet: there’s no excuse. 

I subsequently learned of Kortext, a library initiative that allows unlimited access, so I should have had this set up.

The teaching experience

For learning – we will see how the assessment goes – that’s a few weeks away. For teaching, my impression is there have been real advantages with online delivery. As mentioned, students have various ways before and after classes to access lecture and seminar material, including the live events. The chat function in Collaborate is a massive advantage over purely oral input as many non-native speakers may struggle to understand spoken English which is gone in an instant. With the chat they can read it, process it, and work out what is there even if they do not immediately fully understand. The chat is also very targeted, clipped language, short answers, and so easier to follow. I suspect this is a major boost to learning for many students. Collaborate also offers Padlet and break out/group functions that aid participation, the former being especially useful to focus on key ideas and check student learning.

Poor participation

I cut short a couple of seminars when students had not prepared anything. Seminars are for student input, not tutor input. As seminar tutors we facilitate, we do not lecture, so if students have not even read the material, or done the work in the worksheets, I have no compunction is saying ‘Okay I have other things to do’, and closing the seminar early, adding ‘If you haven’t prepared next week, I’ll stop the seminar even earlier’. On the two occasions I did this, once in each module, it brought a much better response the following week, as well as apologetic, rather guilty messages in the chat. Incidentally, the great majority of students barely say anything – the oral contributions are always from the same individuals each week. I soon learn who will speak out. No-one turns on their cameras either. Initially I found this disconcerting, but I accept it now.

Student-centred learning

One module used group work in assessed ‘poster’ presentations. This worked well. Students formed their own online groups, did the work, and provided excellent results which we shared in timetabled ‘lecture’ slots. This proved an excellent example of peer support, teamwork, and student-centred learning. In seminars on the other module various students contributed their own PowerPoint slides, some with audio accompaniment. These were term highlights showing first class engagement. Most students did not take up this opportunity, but hopefully seeing others’ success will inspire more to do so in subsequent modules.

Conclusion

The teaching has been more enjoyable than I anticipated. The usual lack of participation by many is frustrating, but there is such a thing as the silent learner. Hopefully, results will be positive. I feel that the online provision is excellent and offers real opportunities to enhance blended learning approaches in future, incorporating more innovative uses of technology. Students who want to learn and are truly committed have every opportunity to do so. And Blackboard Collaborate has been a good tool, despite my initial reservations. I’m still learning. I’m sure there are other features I haven’t taken advantage of yet.

Dr Simon Sweeney, University of York Management School

Module Leader: International Political Economy and Business; Contemporary Issues in Business

Each module has around 120 students.

Programmes: MSc International Business and Strategic Management (suite) MSc Corporate Social Responsibility and the Environment; MSc Management.

Acknowledgements to Jonathan Brown for technical support, Jon Fanning and Chris Corker, fellow tutors on these modules, and Jill Webb – Director of Teaching and Learning, York Management School.

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