Sunday Longread: From lecture halls to Zoom calls

Similarly to students, college staff have also had to adapt to some of the difficulties associated with online teaching

As students, we can all agree that the past year has been extremely challenging. These mental and physical challenges have undoubtedly made things difficult for the student, but how have staff coped with the drastic switch to entirely online teaching? I spoke to one of my lecturers, Dr Jacqueline Hayden from the Department of Political Science, to gain insights into the experiences of the College’s teaching staff throughout the pandemic. In many ways, the student and teaching experiences appear to have been strikingly similar, from the emotional impacts to balancing the new merging of our work and home environments.

Dr Hayden reflects on the initial chaos that ensued just over a year ago when colleges across the country, including Trinity, shut down for the first time and staff were suddenly faced with the daunting prospect of online teaching. “When it happened, it was almost a panic. It was all unreal because [the Phased Resumption of Activities Group] were working towards something where the goalposts were changing constantly.” She explains that there was a lot of outside pressure to attempt to deliver some classes in person, but this was unfortunately not a feasible option. A number of obstacles, such as a lack of appropriate ventilation in indoor settings on campus and the fact that, as Dr Hayden points out, “an awful lot of the academic population are in a cohort that are very vulnerable to Covid”, stood in the way of the continuation of in-person teaching, prompting the inevitable transition to online teaching. When asked what tech supports were provided to staff to help them cope with this transition, Dr Hayden commends the I.T. staff, stating that they “really responded” to the situation and the “sheer volume” of workshops available for staff to help familiarise themselves with new online platforms and teaching methods were helpful. She adds enthusiastically that “academic and administration staff have worked very hard to deliver and to keep the show on the road, and largely speaking the show has remained on the road”.

Expressing her empathy for the entire student population, and in particular first years who are missing out on the rewarding social and developmental aspects of starting college,  Dr Hayden acknowledges that “the social side for students is vital, and as important as anything else they do”. Regarding online platforms such as Zoom or Blackboard, Dr Hayden admits that she found it “extremely difficult when starting with a group that you have never met before”. She describes the difference in the connection she felt with new classes as opposed to groups that she had experienced teaching in person and continues to work with online this year, saying that “they knew I was a human being, I wasn’t alien to them”. Evidently, the feeling of distance between the student population and teaching staff is mutual. When I ask what Dr Hayden misses the most about being on campus, she responds decisively: “I absolutely miss face to face engagement with students. For me, it has almost sucked the joy out of the thing I love most. If you are passionate about education and learning you want to see people enjoying that experience and it is very difficult to do so in an online learning environment.” Her key takeaway from the online teaching experience is that lectures need to be as engaging as possible to avoid students being left passive. Having experimented with online seminars, Dr Hayden is surprised at how effective they are and saw the benefits reaped by students from engaging with “peer to peer learning”, an element of college that is crucial and yet has become largely absent.

Balancing the merging of our home and work environments into one and the same has been a universally challenging experience.”

Balancing the merging of our home and work environments into one and the same has been a universally challenging experience. Dr Hayden explains that she uses an upstairs sitting-room turned study for performing college work, from emails and lectures, to lengthy seminars and an abundance of meetings. She describes the conflict that arises from “trying to separate the fact that this is somewhere that I might occasionally sit and look at television, but also the place that I work”. She also emphasises the importance of “trying to keep rituals that make you feel as if you do have a work and a private space”, in an effort to maintain a sense of normality in our lives.

We both agree on the disjoint in communication that results from this now somewhat familiar learning environment.”

When asked about the biggest challenges she has faced thus far, Dr Hayden delves into the combination of personal and professional hurdles that the pandemic has created. The resounding message was that the emotional impact has posed a major challenge and overall, the experience has been extremely draining for teaching staff. Dr Hayden confesses that “it was the challenge of every day putting on a face, being happy, going in, doing the job, being enthusiastic even if I was feeling a little bit down myself” that she struggles with the most. She proposes that the shared challenge for humanity in general has been to keep on going despite the difficult circumstances. We both agree on the disjoint in communication that results from this now somewhat familiar learning environment, with Dr Hayden weighing in on how easily messages get lost in translation in the online abyss, without the aid of body language to register a lack in understanding. “You are struggling to engage and to get the feedback that, in a normal context, triggers you to explain something better.” Dr Hayden also touches on the major professional challenge of embarking on new roles within College during the pandemic, saying that, “taking over that role (as Director of European Studies) and not being able to learn the ropes from people face to face” was incredibly difficult.

When asked whether there have been any perks accompanying the transition to online teaching, Dr Hayden acknowledges that “you have to stand back and assess the parts that are good and the parts that are bad.” As the Social Science coordinator for the Trinity Access Programme (TAP), she expresses her excitement at the numerous doors online teaching has opened to people. “Creating a much more diverse, open, and accessible education for all” is something that Dr Hayden values enormously. She adds, “It is an enormously liberating thing for people who perhaps can’t go to college. There are an awful lot of categories of people, including those who are childminding or looking after ill people, that this has opened up learning to in a way that mightn’t have been otherwise possible.”

To conclude our interview, I ask Dr Hayden what message she would like to give to students. Her answer is simple yet touching: “Be yourselves, mind yourselves and look out for each other.”