Delivering undergraduate teaching during the pandemic – some reflections

Dr Tim Reinke-Williams, University of Northampton

This blog is based on a presentation at the EMC History Teaching in the ‘Age of Covid’ workshop which was held in January 2021. It was also posted as part of the History UK Pandemic Pedagogy series.

This blog focuses on how the undergraduate History programme has been delivered at the University of Northampton since March 2020. For the most part History staff and students have adapted well, but there have been challenges and we’re continuing to adapt to a changing situation.

Prior to the third lockdown in January 2021 most content was delivered online via weekly sessions in virtual classrooms. Attendance was good, but getting students to move beyond posting brief comments in chat boxes was challenging (notably at level 4), and there were concerns about whether students were staying in the virtual classroom throughout the session, or simply “logging on then buggering off” (a phrase I glibly included in an email, which a colleague decided to abbreviate to LOBO). We have evidence of this: one colleague stayed behind in the virtual classroom until only one student was left, then asked the person “present” if they wanted to chat – the lack of a response suggested they had been gone for some time!

Before Christmas the university insisted that we offered two hours per week of onsite teaching, which we were able to do through core modules at levels 4-5. First-year attendance was good, but staff noted that interactions between students were not as close as in previous years, suggesting that learning mostly online has made it difficult for new students to form friendships and interact in person. Attendance at level 5 sessions was lower than at level 4, but second-year students valued having onsite sessions.

The main challenges were at level 6 where there were no existing core sessions for students to attend each week. We usually run dissertation workshops at level 6 (four across the year) so some of the onsite delivery came through those, but we had to set up a rota to deliver the other sessions, and in general third years were reluctant to come on to campus, so attendance was poor. 

The other challenge with onsite sessions was that we were expected to use hi-flex to enable those who did not want (or were unable) to come to campus to participate. Leaving aside that staff had to learn how to use the tech, the overall experience was unsatisfactory, with neither onsite or distance learners getting as much out of the sessions as they would have done had everyone been onsite or learning remotely.  Overall the team were pleased when everything moved online in January 2020. Blended sessions were difficult to deliver, and attendance declined as the term progressed. To conclude by focusing on the students: most have accepted the ‘new normal’ and many have told us that we are doing a good job in difficult circumstances. Some have been frustrated by the inability to chat immediately after classes, so we’re staying in the virtual classrooms after formal teaching concludes and offering weekly drop-ins, but attendance at both have been patchy and despite many being digital natives, it’s clear that undergraduates still want real life interaction with lecturers.

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