As evidenced by the deserted Arts Block and the quiet of the Hamilton, lecture halls remain empty this semester with online teaching having usurped face-to-face classes. While some students lament at the difficulty of studying at home or rejoice at being able to attend their 9am lecture in the comfort of their own bed, lecturers have also had to adjust to this entirely new form of teaching.
The decision to move teaching almost entirely online was made in response to Level Three restrictions just before term began this September, leaving many lecturers who had prepared for in-person classes with the challenge of adjusting to virtual teaching with very little time to adapt to this new online format. The decision primarily affected lecturers in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences faculties, since those in Health Sciences and Engineering, Mathematics, and Science departments were permitted to continue in the cases of laboratory or practical learning.
The initial response to the prospect of online teaching was not an all-round positive one. Dr Clare Kelly, Associate Professor of Psychology, said she was “initially filled with dread about the prospect of recording my lectures,” not only because she tries to avoid listening to or watching herself back, but because “adapting, preparing, recording, adding captions, editing, etc. takes a long time”.
“There was at least a doubling, and arguably a trebling of the amount of work that went into both preparation for and delivery of classes.”
Dr Miranda Fay Thomas, Assistant Professor of Drama, agreed that virtual classes “take more preparation”, and Dr Neville Cox, Professor of Law, explained that “there was at least a doubling, and arguably a trebling of the amount of work that went into both preparation for and delivery of classes”.
“I was able to adopt an animated recording ‘persona’ that I find quite difficult to replicate ‘live’.”
While recording, editing and uploading lectures takes a significant amount of time in comparison to delivering a live lecturer, many lecturers agree that online teaching has been worthwhile, and made so by the students who are encouraging and ready to participate. Dr Cox said that his experience this semester was “largely positive (albeit that obviously all our expectations were framed by the constraints of the pandemic)” and that there were “useful lessons to be learned” from the new format. Dr Kelly said she “much preferred pre-recording to live online lectures – I was able to adopt an animated recording ‘persona’ that I find quite difficult to replicate ‘live’.”
Dr Chris Morash, Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing, said that while he misses the live interaction with students in the classroom, he has “learned a whole new set of teaching skills”, and believes that “It’s always good to learn new tricks.”
Dr Thomas remarked that she has “really enjoyed online teaching”, which has been largely thanks to her students, particularly their “ideas, their curiosity, and their hard work.” This sentiment was echoed by Dr Cox, who said that his experience was improved by having “truly excellent buy-in from students who really went the extra mile in terms of seeking to participate.” Dr Kelly agreed, stating that the effort has “been worth it” partly because “feedback I received from students has really helped motivate me.” Continuing this thread of positive aspects of virtual classes, Dr Thomas mentioned a hidden but very important perk: “I’ve been introduced to a whole host of dogs I wouldn’t have otherwise met.”
Former vice-provost Dr Morash revealed what he believes to be the “secret to online teaching”, which is “not to think of it as a live seminar trying to accommodate itself to a technology, but to think of it like radio.” He continued to say that he’s always loved radio for “its uncanny way of making a voice present.” Describing his set-up for recording, Dr. Morash detailed his “big old pair of Sennheiser studio headphones” and “big retro desk microphone”, and added that he “never, ever” watches himself on screen.
Dr Kelly, on the other hand, has “followed CAPSL’s recommendation to break my lectures up into chunks”, whereas Dr. Thomas has another remedy for combatting what she calls “the dreaded Zoom-fatigue.” She recommends beginning Zoom classes with breakout rooms, which gives students “a chance to warm up a bit and share ideas in a lower-stakes environment”, since, as many students know, “immediately having to announce your views on the reading to a whole screen full of faces can be daunting!” Dr Thomas added that this also gives students a chance to regain some of the social time that they may miss out on with college having moved online. She also tries to include “a couple of breakout activities per session”, which can assist in changing the pace and “provides some welcome structure”.
The chat function on Zoom has also been useful for Dr Thomas, giving her classes “this additional running commentary” which can serve “for students to contribute ideas or back each other up, or even just to make jokes”.
While online teaching poses plenty of challenges to both students and lecturers, and significantly increases the teaching workload, several lecturers acknowledge the necessity of the new format and are appreciative of the work put in by students. Dr Thomas, believing “people need to know that their efforts are appreciated”, asserted that “students and staff alike need reassurance that despite the problems and the sacrifices it has been worth it to keep people safe.”
“The notion that online teaching could or should replace normal face to face engagement either in large group or small group teaching is not a good one.”
So, what is in store for next semester? In an email circulated to students last week, Provost Patrick Prendergast revealed that College intends to “increase the amount of face-to-face teaching in small group seminars and tutorials” in Hilary term. He continued that this increase in face-to-face teaching will focus on courses which “under Level Five have been entirely online.” This means that, with proper adherence to public health guidelines, a considerable portion of teaching will move from the realms of Zoom and Blackboard into lecture halls following Christmas break. Despite recognising the need for online teaching in the current climate, many lecturers are concerned at the prospect of teaching moving online for good, with Dr Cox stating that “the notion that online teaching could or should replace normal face to face engagement either in large group or small group teaching is not a good one.”