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Three pairs of hands pointing to laptop

Back in January, a group of us from Leeds Trinity travelled over to UCLAN to learn about their ‘digilearn’ environment and how they were using Microsoft Teams, as well as weird and wonderful things such as Flipgrid and Sway, in teaching across the university.

As someone who is happy to try out new technologies, but is no way technologically savvy, it was pretty interesting. What impressed me most, was how they had, over several years, built a mutually supportive network; with academics who were more advanced in using technologies, mentoring and coaching those new to it.

I went home, made myself a Wakelet account (a very intuitive repository for sharing resources with students – I highly recommend it) and played around with a few apps. But, being busy with teaching and other priorities, I left it at that. Plenty of time to get my head around some of this, I thought.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, suddenly there was no time as we all frantically looked at ways we could deliver what we would normally deliver in person, remotely. Moodle, Panopto, Skype all became our short-term fixes and for the most part they were good enough.

What became apparent very early on however, was the need for much more flexible platforms and technologies that would allow us to engage with students in more creative ways; ways that to some extent mirrored how we might engage with them in person. What was also very apparent, was that we were all on this learning curve together. Some may have been a bit further ahead, but looking towards online delivery for September, it’s a journey we are all on together.

Developments were delivered at breakneck speed, particularly in those early days. An eight-month project to roll out Teams was done in eight days, and Marcus Sugden and his team have been doing ground-breaking work to integrate Moodle into Teams so we have a seamless, integrated platform ready for September.

Key to this has been testing out these platforms in what became known as our ‘early adopters’ group; a group of academics continuing to teach modules into the summer. These colleagues have done much of the trial and error testing, not only within Teams, but also in the structuring and delivery of online teaching. Valuable lessons have been learnt (lessons that we’ll share in the upcoming Learning and Teaching Day on Thursday 2 July!), but encouragingly student feedback has been positive overall, with efforts appreciated and glitches forgiven. A timely reminder that the tutor/student relationship is at the heart of what we do, be it in person or remotely.

Work for all of us has been pressured over the past few months. Not only are we learning new ways of working, but we’re trying to work in what can be stressful and challenging home circumstances. The body of work in planning for online delivery in September has reached out across the University, encompassing every area. For academics, as we start to plan our online delivery, developing a collegiate community of learning is key, so that no one feels alone in this process. Alongside the principles and guidance for online delivery, the webinars have hopefully been a useful starting point to start thinking about how to get going with planning September’s work. We’ve also set up weekly drop-in surgeries staffed by academics and IT, to troubleshoot questions and pick up on potential issues. Finally, we’re in the process of identifying and sharing some of the good practice and experience across the University in the form of short videos and accompanying documents (for those who like to read how to do things…I’m one of those people).

We can’t ignore the fact that these are very different times to be living and working in. What we plan for September is not only about a solution to the current crisis, it is looking at a new way of working that allows us to move flexibly between remote and in-person delivery; a way of engaging students into the much talked of “flipped classroom”. Central to this is us learning and moving forward together as an academic community, a community that: shares successes and the things that didn’t quite work (I hesitate to call them failures!; asks what we think are the stupid questions; and importantly, also asks the difficult questions. It is a challenging time ahead but a time of opportunity too.

Take a look at the Teams@LTUCommunity Working with Students channel, which is the space where resources, experiences, questions and answers are shared. I hope you’ll find it as useful as I do!

Dr Alison Torn is a Senior Teaching Fellow at Leeds Trinity University. She leads the Pedagogy and Online Learning and Teaching Technologies subgroup as we plan ahead for the Academic Year 2020/21.

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