Dr David Gehring, University of Nottingham
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.
Think back to those halcyon days when we regularly taught in a classroom. We, along with our students, were all within the same four walls, within the same physical environment. Then again, the playing field was never even for our students because their backgrounds and levels of cultural and social capital vary based on a range of factors well outside of our control as individual instructors. Despite the challenges posed by the uneven playing field, we, inside that classroom, could see if a student looked uneasy, uncomfortable, or confused; we, inside that classroom, could adjust the discussion, accommodate to student needs, and lift up those who needed the assistance.
Think now (February 2021). In an online teaching environment (Teams, Zoom, etc.), the playing field is even more uneven due to variations among our students’ IT hardware and internet connections, their levels of confidence when navigating the internet, and their study space while away from university campuses. How, therefore, can we create a welcoming community and learning environment for all when the challenges just got harder for those who need our support the most? At my university, Microsoft Teams has been the principal platform for online teaching, and, in many respects, it has matured remarkably since we all learned of its existence back in March 2020. When used alongside another virtual learning environment with which students are already familiar (e.g., Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas), Teams can be a real complement. Newer features and functions include breakout rooms, file storage, notebooks, blurred backgrounds, and collaborative tools. In time, Microsoft will add more bells and whistles. These tools can genuinely enrich the student experience, and embed knowledge and understanding in fun and fresh ways. What’s not to love?
Our own abilities as instructors vary significantly. Some of us aren’t very confident with these new bells and whistles; even if we are, the frequent updating of the software means that we’re not all running the same version of Teams, and, as a result, we may not all have access to the newest features. How can we expect our students – non-traditional, disadvantaged, middle-class, or well-heeled – to keep up with these changes when the world around them is in such flux, when, quite rightly, their priorities may lie in family care? Even if they’re savvy enough to know how to navigate breakout rooms, collaborate via the notebook, or use Talis Aspire, that doesn’t mean that their IT hardware or internet bandwidth can take it. (Never mind the limitations of my own network at home.)
So, what can we do? Less is more, with, ideally, no student left behind. No PowerPoints. No screen sharing. No breakout rooms. No whiteboards. No bells. No whistles. Just the equivalent of a seminar room with me and them, cameras on. It’s basic; it’s straightforward; but, in avoiding the complications and potential stress levels that come with the newest and latest, we can lessen the chances of losing students along the way. The move online has already put many students at a disadvantage, and I’d like to avoid exacerbating that disparity. Keeping things low-tech, à la March 2020, can make the seminar feel a little old school when our other colleagues are using the breakout rooms and collaborative tools that we don’t. Should all of us go ‘less is more’? No, I think not. Rather, variety in pedagogical style has always been part of higher education, and our students should continue to be exposed to different styles of teaching, to different modes of learning. Variety, after all, is the spice of life. Long may it remain.