Academics typically spend around a third of their time complaining about the extra work they are being made to do as a result of ‘institutional changes’¹ Another third is spent worrying about the state of HE in general. This leaves us with a relatively small amount of time to dedicate to the pursuit and dissemination of scholarly knowledge.

Yet, in these most unprecedented of times, most of us have managed to find and compress the ‘pause’ button on the former two demands of our time. Conscious of how fortunate we are to have jobs at all (for now at least), there seems to be a general willingness to adapt to the new climate in which we find ourselves.

For some of us the transition to online teaching feels vaguely exciting, while for others it is a source of anxiety and frustration. Whichever camp we find ourselves in, there are challenges to be faced and lessons to be learned along the way.

For that there is a deluge of videos on YouTube and social media which can tell us how to conduct ourselves online. For anyone who has the the time (and cares enough) you’ll find everything you need to become a Zoom expert, including tips on camera angles and lighting, what not to wear, how to make your front room look like a page out of Ideal Home and not the scene of a recent domestic incident, and so on.

Few university lecturers are renowned for their snappy dress sense and on-screen charisma

All great tips no doubt, but should this be everyone’s aspiration? If we become too preoccupied with the presentation aspect of it all, don’t we run the risk of turning universities into over-priced MOOC factories? (Massive Open Online Courses for anyone fortunate enough not to know that.) Few university lecturers are renowned for their snappy dress sense and on-screen charisma (bar one or two exceptions), so it seems fairly safe to assume that is not what most students are looking for from their tutors.

What is it that really matters?

With that in mind, I’d like to start by reconsidering the role of the tutor in order to focus on the things which are most important. Everyone will have their own variation on this list, but here are the things I consider top of my ‘responsibility to students’ list:

  • creating a safe and supportive environment in which to learn
  • providing quality resources to support learning
  • creating a sense of community among learners and fostering collaborative learning
  • setting transparent, formative and meaningful forms of assessment
  • providing clear, constructive and continuous feedback
  • taking an interest in each individual’s academic progression and general well-being

These are the things which should be forefront in our minds when planning for online delivery, and, with the best will in the world, a great home studio setup ain’t gonna get you there.

Learn from the pros

Remote collaboration is nothing new. A lot of people are already very good at it.

So where do we start? Well, we could start by gleaning know-how of people who have been doing some or all of the above for a considerable time. Remote collaboration is nothing new. It’s something a lot of people spend their lives doing, and they have become very good at it. Not only that, there are a plethora of tools out there which can help. But don’t be too hasty! First let’s take a few lessons from our industry counterparts and we might just spare ourselves from yet another dreaded ‘Moodle update’.

Lesson 1: Whiteboards

There’s a tendency in academia to reach for the latest gadget or e-learning tool in an effort to ‘prove’ we are at the cutting edge when it comes to education. Indeed, ‘innovative use of technology’ is one of the key areas we are often expected to evidence in interviews and PG teaching qualifications.

As someone who has experimented endlessly with all manner of e-learning tool to no great avail, I can tell you that some of the best teaching I have witnessed was delivered by industry professionals with no pedagogical training and little more than a sharpie, some post-it notes and a good old-fashioned whiteboard² at their disposal.

A whiteboard is a form of technology that can be used in all manner of innovative ways

I doubt there are many who would be surprised by that. After all, a whiteboard is a form of technology that can be used in all manner of innovative ways (best don’t put that on your FHEA application). Without a doubt the most notorious innovators of the whiteboard are the so-called ‘agile’ practitioners, and it is from them that I learned why a whiteboard can’t be rivalled when it comes to group learning.

One of the reasons whiteboards are so effective at facilitating learning is their tactile and sensorial nature. You have to move your body to interact with a whiteboard. You can touch it. You can hear the satisfying sound of a sharpie pen on a post-it note. You can smell the alcohol from the dry-wipe marker (not something I encourage students to do by the way). You can see a concept represented pictorally. All of this can make a whiteboard sketch more memorable than bullet points on a powerpoint presentation, as Matthew Skelton tells us in his book Better Whiteboard Sketches³.

A second reason is that they are very inclusive. Get a group of people huddled around a whiteboard and even the most introvert of them will start contributing (something I learned from the guys at BAD toolkit who kindly spent some time with my students). It’s interesting to see how discussion will start to flow naturally as the post-its emerge.

A third reason is their high visibility. This is perhaps the main reason why they are favoured in offices and schools the world over. You don’t have to go out of what you’re doing and trawl through your browser history to resurrect a spreadsheet if the core elements of that spreadsheet are on the wall right in front of you.

Enter Miro…

Hopefully you don’t need much more convincing than that as to the benefits of whiteboards, but the idea you can replicate the whiteboard experience online (to a degree) may be met with a bit of skepticism at first. Perhaps the best way to convince you is to let you experience it for yourself, and for this I highly recommend Miro.

Miro is essentially a virtual whiteboard tool. More specifically, it’s a web-based application which allows lots of people to move things around on the screen simultaneously. It is very easy to use and provides templates and various other features which offer lots of potential for facilitating group-based activities.

Here is an example board we have actually used our students.

Fortunately Miro is simple enough that it feels vaguely tactile when you’re using it and you aren’t distracted by lots of tools. The high visibility of a real whiteboard is hard to replicate virtually, but Miro does it relatively well by removing surplus junk from the viewing area and offering a desktop version for faster performance.

Whether its Miro or something else, find a way to recreate the experience of using a whiteboard to the best extent possible.

Lesson 2: User experience

User Experience (UX) is the systematic investigation of users and their requirements, in order to add context and insight into the process of designing the user experience.⁴

I was introduced to Miro in the run-up to an online Intro to User Centred Design event which we were co-hosting with Hippo Digital as part of Leeds Digital Festival. The neatness and simplicity of the tool appealed right away, and the careful way Hippo had set up the board immediately gave me confidence this was going to be a quality event.

They had set it up like a road map, with various activities spread chronologically across the board. Timings and instructions accompanying each activity were given careful consideration, and there were nice touches such as rosettes for the winners which would have the participant names written on.

Hippo have clearly had some practice at this (after all, user experience is what they do) but there was still a lot for a non-expert to learn from their approaches to online facilitation.

Here are a few tips I learned from Hippo about online facilitation which I believe stem from a sound understanding of user experience.

1. Attention to detail

It requires meticulous planning to pull off an event as complex as the Hippo one, but that’s partly because we had invited complete strangers along. I suspect that the first couple of sessions with a given group of students will require a similar level of attention to detail, but after that (one hopes) it will become easier. You’ll have the opportunity to know how they behave together, and whether certain activities will work better than others. Time is a luxury most academics don’t have, but if you can afford to take a few preparatory measures such as rehearsing timings or talking through an activity with a colleague beforehand, it may help you identify the little niggles or ‘pain points’ as the UX types call them.

2. Focus on engagement

They say it’s the little things that count, and that’s probably true of student engagement too. Coming up with a little game or reward will help make each session unique and memorable as well as helping you to develop rapport with your students. There are 1000s of creative ideas for icebreakers and group activities out there, many of them posted by industry bloggers. Some of them even involve getting participants physically active in the video call. Select activities you feel comfortable with, and experiment as you gain confidence and get to know your audience.

3. Act natural

You don’t really need to behave any differently in a virtual environment. Embrace your inner human. If you have a tendency to crack terrible jokes in your usual classroom setting, or to wander into the lecture theater with your cardigan inside out, you can still do that — it’s OK. It is these human qualities that are going to allow you to bond with your students, and to avoid sessions becoming too clinical.

4. Allow some freedom

One of the more challenging aspects of online delivery is the lack of feedback from students during the session. Often they have webcams off and many won’t turn their mics on either, so it can be really hard to gauge their engagement and comprehension of what’s going on. I’ve found that the best way to cope with this (besides building in opportunities for interaction where possible) is to try to relax and trust in the students’ ability to self-manage. Allow them to break out for group or independent activities and trust that they will come back again. You can’t control what’s going on in 50 different living rooms so don’t even try. Let go and let your students share the responsibility with you.

¹ Bogus statistic

² I’ve also witnessed some pretty spectacular work with a blackboard. I’m sure John E. Szymanski’s lessons on calculus would kick up a storm on YouTube.

³Skelton, M. (2019) Better Whiteboard Sketches

Interaction Design Founation (2019) What is UX Research?

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