Digital learning and teaching: reflections on identity and efficacy

An Opinion Piece by Doug Specht, published by MeCCSA - Three-D

I just checked – the first email in my inbox about how COVID-19 might impact our school appeared in early February. It was raising concerns for students studying abroad, and for those with families in other parts of the world who might be affected and need support. It only hinted at what was to be the full transformation of our teaching, learning and sense of self that came as the full global pandemic took hold.

We know the narrative well by now. By March students and staff were beginning to become more concerned. Emergency plans were drawn up, designed to strike a balance between safety and learning. Then by April we were banned from campus – not even allowed to pop in to clean the coffee mug left on our desk (I am still fearful of what moulds I might one day return to). These emergency measures were just that – a quick sticking plaster to get to the end of the semester. Staff and students alike pulled together to get through it. A wonderful sense of camaraderie and support emerged. But as Easter rolled past, and the classes gave way to independent study, exams, and course work, the magnitude of what was to come began to take hold. It quickly became apparent that online teaching would (to indulge in the over used phrase) be the new normal. It also became clear that a new normal that looked like the teaching that took place in the dying days of the semester was not going to cut it. That’s not to say that colleagues around the country didn’t mobilize to achieve amazing things in a very short time, but rather this mode of working was unsustainable; physically, mentally, and pedagogically. The transition to working online, the pros and cons of remote learning, the joy of digital hand raising, and the despair at lack of ‘human’ contact have been written about endlessly already. While these are worthy reflections, they only skirt around the real shift in our work as educators, and the challenges that have been presented to us.

Working with colleagues from inside and outside the university, we looked at how to support our 117 staff (including all visiting lecturers). A six-week period of classes, discussions, demonstrations, workshops, and resource building followed. I sensed there were nerves all round at the start of our course, or perhaps I was just projecting my own – as I questioned my efficacy. I certainly couldn’t shake the feeling that supporting people in preparing to teach online would be a great deal easier if we could all just get into a room to thrash it out together and try out some tools looking at each other’s laptops. Instead here we were, staring into our boxes of light wondering how to make it all work. The fantastic resources and materials produced by our University’s Associate Director of Digital Engagement and Library Services helped to stem some of these nerves, and indeed, formed the backbone of the learning undertaken by our staff. Yet, while the focus was on online learning, tools, and pedagogy, it quickly became apparent that these were, in many ways, secondary to the internal, personal shift needed to move online.

In the opening weeks of the course, and indeed even before it started, there were a deluge of questions to be dealt with and considered. Some of these we expected, others we had not anticipated at all; What tools? What quality? What style? How can group work work? What about pastoral care? Can I access the campus at all? How do we get equipment to students? And later, in relation to our working in China, what content? These are all very important questions, and ones that are being asked around the world right now. They are also, for the most part, very pragmatic questions. Thus, they may well be answered in very pragmatic ways – no you can’t be on campus; yes, we will pay for laptops for students etc. There seemed though to be something much more to these questions. It felt that beneath all this seeking of ways through, there was a growing sense that each person was really asking the same thing – how do I maintain my sense of self as an academic in this situation? No amount of tutorials on software would fully resolve that internal question.

For all of us, there is a performance we undertake in our classrooms and studios that make us the scholars and teachers we are. The questions of platforms, video quality, and tools, are as much about this identity as they were about the practicalities of teaching. To evoke the work of Goffman, a text that many of us use in our teaching – our teaching is created through the setting, appearance and the manner of delivery, which all play a crucial role in the presentation of our consistent, coherent, and authentic self as an academic. As we move to a digital delivery we are stripped of all three of these. “A status, a position, a social place is not a material thing to be possessed and then displayed; it is a pattern of appropriate conduct, coherent, embellished, and well articulated” notes Goffman (1959 p.75), yet there is a sense that our position as an academic and teachers might well become a static and material thing to be possessed and displayed as we pre-record lectures and begin creating content in preparation for the new semester. Pedagogically and in relation to accessibility, asynchronous delivery of learning is a key part of how we teach online, but this also has the effect of freezing us in time. In the haste to prepare for the upcoming year, like many of my colleagues, I have already started making video lectures, but the world might change before they are screened. I might change before they are viewed. Worse perhaps, the world might change after they are public. It isn’t that we can’t make video lectures – we have the tools and can learn the software – but rather there is a fear they are not able to capture the now. They may become a snapshot of a potentially disconnected moment in time. The desire to create a fully formed online module with high quality videos and polished resources butts right up against our own understanding of the world being more fluid, reactionary, and changeable.

Furthermore, as media scholars we are perhaps all too aware of the affect that mediation through tools such as Zoom and Teams can have on information and connection. We fear that we might not be able to make meaningful connections with students through these platforms, that they will create an inequality of access, and will completely change the stage upon which our teaching takes place, removing its authenticity. While much of our learning about how to teach online focuses on the affordances of technologies, we know that affordances do not the teaching tool make. Within these concerns our teacher efficacy takes a bashing. We might start to worry that our capability to bring about the desired outcomes of student engagement and learning has been taken away from us by this pandemic and the removal of our familiar classroom surroundings.

These are very real concerns, but they are not fully new. Many of us like to arrive early when teaching in a new classroom, or go to see a presentation at a conference because it is in the same room we will be speaking in later. We are keen to see our stage before we perform. We perhaps need to see the learning of new tools as like stretching our legs around a new classroom. Of course there are differences, and there are important pedagogies related to online teaching and learning that should be drawn upon. But what has always made effective teaching in universities has been the authenticity of staff. By continuing to work with our students in solving issues (both theoretically, and now technologically), having discussions, sharing experiences, collaborating, and connecting as best we can we return to the core of teaching. Some of our best teaching moments come from crisis, the unexpected and chaotic – this is what students come for, not for a beautiful ‘finished’ package of lectures. There is a feeling that students may be expecting much more from us in September, that we are no longer ‘in it together’. But I would hazard a guess that there is a lot more goodwill on the part of our students than we might think, especially if we stay true to teaching in dialogue with them. I, like most, can’t wait to be back on campus (when it is safe and proper to do so), but along the way questions of identity and efficacy have been brought to the fore. Taking some time to reflect personally on these can only make us all better educators both online, and when we return to the classroom.

We have done so much, and we haven’t even started yet.

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Doug Specht

About

Doug Specht is a Chartered Geographer (CGeog. FRGS) and a Senior Lecturer (SFHEA) at the Communication and Media Research Institute, within the University of Westminster. His research examines how knowledge is constructed and codified through digital and cartographic artefacts, focusing on development issues, and he has written on this subject in numerous books and papers. He has also spoken on topics of data ethics and mapping practices at conferences and invited lectures around the world. He is a member of the editorial board at Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, and sits on BSi committee IST/36 Geographic Information, where he focuses on geographic data in the SDGs. Doug is additionally a trustee of the Santa Rosa Fund, an educational charity; and a core member of the Environmental Network for Central America.

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18 August 2020
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MeCCSA - Three-D
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