Active online learning: What have we learned from the Coronavirus Pandemic so far?

This is the final post in a series aiming to explore themes from the Learning and teaching @York in the Coronavirus Pandemic: A conversation event, following on from the recent postings that explored the themes of academic community building and inclusive learning.

The session took place in December 2020 and brought together a group of around 80 staff and students to share experiences of teaching and learning under COVID in Autumn term 2020, focusing on the following questions:

  • What have we learned from our experiences of teaching and learning in the Autumn term 2020 online and on-campus?
  • What positives can we take forward and share from these experiences in the immediate future and in the post-COVID University?

A similar Spring-term event is planned for Wednesday March 17th 2021, 2-3.30pm.

This post focuses on the theme of active learning and experiences of synchronous and asynchronous online learning.

Online teaching pushed me to move away from traditional classroom lecturing and to design the teaching in a way that is more engaging for student learning.

Two of the panel presentations focused on module redesign in response to the pandemic. They both detailed the ways in which resources and activities were organised within the VLE spaces to provide structure, clarity and consistency and how this provided benefits in terms of student engagement. They also focused on how increased use of asynchronous activities in combination with shorter synchronous sessions increased flexibility, providing support for independent and group working and allowed for more active-learning approaches during the synchronous sessions. Summarised below, these presentations suggested the potential of an increased role for online engagement with resources and activities post-pandemic and a shift in how ‘live’ in-person contact time is used. This was also reflected in responses provided by session participants to the question of what we have learned during the pandemic and what positives we may be able to take forwards:

  • We can shift our contact time to be more active, and to support learning in different ways than we have done before, and to be accessible to students (and staff) who aren’t able to be present in person at times.
  • Lots of high quality online teaching resources have been developed – these need to be taken forward into a blended offering for students (which will benefit staff and students).
  • I think that going forward that we can make better use of the online resources that have been created to give students a wider range of learning options and to enable different, more interactive, and more effective use of face-to-face teaching time.
  • Our students apparently really liked the recorded lectures, so maybe we can make that the norm and spend more time teaching students in smaller groups without the big lectures. This will only work, however, if we can re-use lectures every year to free up the time for more small group teaching. 
  • Use the pre-recorded material, and with the time freed up, expand workshop and lab provision.
  • Delivery of lecture material via recording may be good. Face-to-face teaching can then focus on more interactive learning via workshops etc.
  • Moving to blended learning allowed us to roll out more consistent and better organised teaching materials across all modules in all years. Students have been really appreciative of this and it is a template we will continue to use. It also made us more aware of the balance of workload across weeks during the term.
  • That some online learning and flipped content can add value to face to face time.
  • I am passionate about the possibilities of distance/ digital education. I believe it offers multiple pedagogical benefits for our students, including a more personal and flexible education. I have taught online only in the Autumn term 2020. My experiences and student feedback support my belief that high-quality, research-based online education is pedagogically advantageous.

Module 1: Skills for Business Leadership, Sue Porter, Management School

Sue Porter’s presentation addressed a number of the key challenges of dual delivery during the pandemic. She provided an overview of her experiences of leading a Masters level module called Skills for Business Leadership within the MSc Programme in HR Management with a cohort of 78 students, of which approximately three-quarters were off campus (primarily in China) and a quarter on campus. 

The approach to teaching and learning on this module had previously centred on weekly 3-hour workshops focused on a different key topic each week. The workshops tended to follow a regular structure with an introduction (involving both staff and student presentations) followed by group exercises providing an opportunity to apply skills and explore case studies. The workshops then concluded with a plenary discussion, reflection and feedback. 

Sue reviewed the structure of activities that would have been carried out in the ‘live’ workshops, opting for a more flexible engagement model to suit the different groups of learners within the cohort she was teaching. This involved spreading out the workshop activities across a week of asynchronous activities, leading to a 1-hour synchronous session. This followed a clear and consistent structure beginning with a short recorded video, followed by asynchronous group exercises carried out within nine sub-groups. These activities culminated in a synchronous session each week bringing groups together to review the previous week’s learning activities and introduce the next. These were carried out in on-campus socially-distanced sessions or via online web conferencing specifically scheduled at different times to suit different time zones.

Sue focused on how she organised the VLE space to make this structure clear to her students to provide a means of sharing group activities across the whole cohort. She also described how she responded to student needs and feedback through the module, and how she dealt with some of the logistical challenges of the group work activities, providing a structure in which students in different groups could make their own choices about organisation and communication tools. She ended with the observation that the structure seemed to bring advantages in terms of increased engagement – helping students to make more explicit connections between their learning experiences from week to week and across different topics. 

The module was repeated in the Spring term and Sue commented that the structure has proven to be readily adaptable to meet the needs of fully online synchronous sessions in the current lockdown. Again, she has observed similar advantages to the asynchronous component in increasing student engagement. Looking beyond the pandemic to the ideal structure for the module, Sue feels it will be beneficial to continue to allocate much of the time that was previously devoted to the weekly face-to-face workshops to asynchronous activities online in order to maximise engagement and spread workloads. She is now looking forward to being able to re-insert the in-person sessions back into this structure to ensure that students are able to get the most from the practice elements of the module and engage with skills-based exercises such as negotiations and presentations in person.

[Sue’s reflections]

Module 2: Infection and disease module, Aishwarya Vidyasagaran et al., Health Sciences

Aishwarya Vidyasagaran described the changes that had been made to the ‘Infection and disease’ module within the Masters in Public Health Programme. The module involves a weekly structure with a focus on different public health issues, interventions and methods of evaluation each week, typically led by different external speakers with specialist subject knowledge related to the week’s topic. Prior to the pandemic, the module was driven by three-hour face-to-face sessions and the VLE space was used largely as a supporting resource containing module information, slides used in the sessions along with reading materials and links to resources. It was also used to provide students with recordings from live sessions and provided a vehicle for submission of the module assessment. 

The need to take the module online involved a rethink of the role of the VLE space and, in a very similar manner to the Skills for Business leadership module, a regular weekly pattern of online activities was established. This involved the reallocation of the learning hours associated with the three-hour contact session, which were distributed across a week of asynchronous and synchronous activity. For each week, a single page was developed with an introduction, a recorded lecture with supporting resources and readings, a discussion board providing questions for consideration prior to the live session and a link to the live synchronous session (replaced with a recording of the live session afterwards). 

A key issue revealed in student feedback prior to the pandemic was that the input of so many external speakers reduced coherence and consistency. The creation of this standard pattern of activities and resources for each week intended to address this issue, whilst also making it easier for students to engage with the module and plan for a predictable workload. The move to online learning thus accelerated developments that had been planned before the pandemic. This was also the case in the ways that the module team provided increased support for the module assessment with opportunities at an early stage to explore and plan for assessment as well as to engage in activities aiming to develop understanding of assessment criteria. Both these aspects are likely to continue beyond the pandemic. 

The module concludes at the end of the Spring term and the team plan to carry out a survey and some focus groups with students in the coming months to evaluate the impact of the changes and to consider future plans beyond the pandemic.

[Aishwarya’s supporting document]

Asynchronous activities and engagement

Sue and Aishwara both provided some insight into how they engaged with their students through the asynchronous activities and they both stressed the advantages of making close connections between these and the synchronous sessions at the end of each week. Engagement with asynchronous discussion-based activities was something that numerous participants highlighted as a challenge and, for some, the choice of tool was an important consideration. Several participants noted that Padlet provided a more accessible and enjoyable format for discussions than discussion boards. This included Nicola Sinclair and Gabriel Vyvyan who provided an insight into their experiences of asynchronous discussion-based activities linked to live seminars in a module in the History of Art. Alongside this, they focused on the importance of task design (integration, purpose, structure, clear expectations and attempts to ensure a ‘low entry threshold’, whilst incorporating ‘scope for the most engaged to spread their intellectual wings’) and close integration with seminars. One of the key aspects that they identified as a missed opportunity was that, although students were actively engaged in the asynchronous discussions each week, it tended to fall to the tutor to provide responses and connect them through to the live seminars.

Both Nicola and Gabriel felt that the asynchronous discussions enriched the live seminars and that they would like to see them continue, as and when there is a return to live in-person seminars. However, they felt that maximising their benefits would require tasks designed to encourage greater student-to-student exchange before the seminars and/or to increase student responsibility for summarising the discussions and identifying key points for further discussion during the seminars. Whilst Nicola is clear that this requires structure and time-frames that allow for maximum engagement, she believes that such activities will have a firm place in the tool kit for post-pandemic learning and teaching designs.

The potential benefits of such an approach are highlighted by research on the impact of allocating roles to students to manage and summarise asynchronous discussion. For example, Yilmaz and Yilmaz found that the assignment of roles increased knowledge-sharing and exchange1, whilst Warren found that role allocation supported students in ‘distancing themselves’ from challenging aspects such as being critical or questioning the views of others2. De Wever et al. found that students adhered closely to the requirements of their role but that the role allocation also stimulated activity and increased ‘listening behaviors’ more broadly3.  

[Nicola and Gabriel’s presentation]

Active learning in synchronous sessions

The examples above suggest that a purposeful combination of asynchronous and synchronous activities can be beneficial for learning, and that structured asynchronous resources and activities can improve engagement in live sessions. In line with Nicola’s recommendations, Thomas Ron’s reflections on his experiences of teaching in small groups via web conferencing during the pandemic, as compared with in-person seminars on campus, also highlighted the importance of designing live sessions to encourage student activity and responsibility. He compared the challenges of teaching online to those in in-person sessions and outlined some of the practical steps taken to encourage participation, inclusion, and a shared responsibility for the success of seminars both in-person and online. These included allocating roles to encourage students to direct and summarise discussions, avoiding fixed groupings to encourage inclusion and avoid the formation of ‘cliques’, and taking steps to encourage participation,  such as allowing for silences and waiting for contributions rather than being too quick to jump in to ‘fill a gap’. Whilst he highlighted some of the specific challenges he perceived in online sessions such as managing the flow of discussion, gauging understanding and time pressures, he also pointed to some of the advantages in allowing students to participate in various ways including via video and audio but also through text chat and using online whiteboards and mind maps. Participants also provided some pointers based on their experiences:

  • One of the best things I have done is to ask students to discuss questions & leave them to talk among themselves for a bit. Then come back. Repeat…at first I was trying to teach & talk the whole time. But students need this peer to peer contact that they would normally have…whether they unmic to chat or use the text chat function
  • Making students feel comfortable in the first few minutes of an online lesson by talking and asking them all to say hi in the chat and using polling features during the lesson, improves engagement.

Thomas’s comparisons point to some potential enhancements to in-person small group teaching drawn from experiences of online synchronous sessions such as the use of shared collaborative tools for supported group work and to facilitate sharing of findings between groups.

[Thomas’s reflections]

Conclusions and next steps

Taken together, the presentations, panel discussions and participant contributions from the event highlighted here and in the previous blog postings on academic community building and inclusive learning suggest that there are genuine grounds for optimism and that the experiences of online learning will prove useful in making the most of valuable in-person contact time through flexible access to resources and asynchronous activities. This is consistent with the conclusions of Julia Sarju’s (2020) evaluation with students of the impact of the rapid shift to online learning in a large undergraduate module in the Department of Chemistry:

“It could be assumed that adapting traditional courses to online platforms would be inferior to traditional courses but in many ways this course has been enhanced through redevelopment[,] achieving overwhelmingly positive student feedback related to the quality and range of learning resources, engagement, and accessibility.”4 [Full paper]

Julia is clear, however, that the benefits in terms of inclusivity will only happen if this is prioritised in the design and development of courses. As such, she recommends learning from colleagues with expertise in inclusive and online education and listening to students to learn from their diverse experiences.  

Further evaluation and collaboration with students will hopefully provide a solid base for considering what has worked particularly well during this challenging period, which elements of online resources and asynchronous activities should be maintained and further developed, and how best to make the most of face-to-face contact time in combination with online learning.

The next ‘Teaching and Learning in the Coronavirus Pandemic’ takes place next week on Wednesday 17th and we hope this will provide further opportunities to discuss experiences across Departments and consider future plans. Again, we will make the resources and recordings from these available for future reference.

1. Ramazan Yilmaz and Fatma Gizem Karaoglan Yilmaz, “Assigned Roles as a Structuring Tool in Online Discussion Groups: Comparison of Transactional Distance and Knowledge Sharing Behaviors.” Journal of Educational Computing Research, 57, 5, 1303-1325 (2019) [UoY Library Permalink].

2. Amber N. Warren, “Navigating Assigned Roles for Asynchronous Online Discussions: Examining Participants’ Orientation Using Conversation Analysis,” Online Learning Journal, 22, 4. 27-45 (2018) [UoY Library Permalink]

3. Bram De Wever et al., “Structuring Asynchronous Discussion Groups by Introducing Roles: Do Students Act in Line With Assigned Roles?” Small Group Research, 39, 6, 770-794 (2008) [UoY Library Permalink]

4. Julia Sarju, “Rapid Adaptation of a Traditional Introductory Lecture Course on Catalysis into Content for Remote Delivery Online in Response to Global Pandemic,” J. Chem. Educ., 97, 9, 2590–2597 (2020) [UoY Library Permalink]

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