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Academics reflections on the shift to Emergency Remote Teaching during Semester 1
Author: Claudia Swart
Published: 02/09/2020

​During a recent webinar, which formed part of supporting lecturers as they prepare for Emergency Remote Teaching in the second semester, we had the privilege of listening to four lecturer reflections on the first semester of ERT. We received so many positive responses that we decided to write it up and share on our Website.

Below is a transcription of the reflections shared by four lecturers during the webinar as well as an overview of the responses from 115 lecturers who answered the question, 'What advice would you give to a lecturer starting with emergency remote teaching in the second semester?' in an electronic survey.

You can also listen to a podcast of the webinar and download the PowerPoint used during the webinar:  click here.

Opening by Dr Anthea Jacobs
Not too long ago, lecturers were asked to provide feedback on the first webinar series. Amongst others, lecturers were asked what advice they would give to a lecturer starting with emergency remote teaching in the second semester. We received the most amazing and interesting responses, and well done and thank you to everyone who has submitted responses. We got a sense that lecturers find great value in listening to colleagues' experiences. This consideration gave birth to the conceptualisation of today's webinar.

We invited a few lecturers along who have been doing great work with regard to emergency remote teaching, to share their experiences with us this afternoon. So on this note, I would like to extend a special word of welcome to those colleagues who will doing a short input this afternoon. Firstly Dr Michael Owen from the Faculty of Engineering, Dr Marianne McKay from the Faculty of AgriSciences, Dr Marianne Unger from the Department of Physiotherapy at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, and also Dr Manfred Spocter from the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies.

We will have the honour of listening to these lecturers later on, in the webinar this afternoon. So let me give you a brief overview of the structure of the webinar today. We will start off with some theory behind reflection for transformation, and this will be led by my colleague, Karin Cattell-Holden. After that, we will delve into the lecturer survey that I mentioned previously, and Claudia will be taking us through the results of that survey. And then we come to the highlight of this afternoon, where we will be listening to our colleagues sharing their experiences.

Thereafter, it will be back to Karin for pulling it all together.

Introduction by Dr Karin Cattell-Holden
On the slide you may recognise that picture. That is the Nile Delta that was used on the webinar on designing, learning, teaching and assessment in emergency remote teaching, this last Tuesday. The picture reflects the DELTA framework, DELTA as in Design for Learning, Teaching and Assessment that we use to approach curriculum renewal, and this framework consists of five streams. So the main teaching 'river', in other words, can be divided into five 'streams' to facilitate the redesign of curricula, and those five streams would be context, outcomes, assessment, learning opportunities and reflection, which we will be looking at today.

But a river delta is also a place of change. The river divides into different branches, it widens, and the soil in the delta is rich and fertile as a result of those changes. So if we apply this to our situation of emergency remote teaching, we could concur with Ravitch 2020 that we are feeling individually and collectively vulnerable, which, while difficult, brings possibilities for societal transformation, as well as new connections and creativity in teaching and learning.

You can see that we're moving in the direction of an appreciative enquiry approach to this webinar. So in the past three months of radical and continuing uncertainty in teaching and learning, we have had to cope with incisive and far-reaching change. According to de Caluwe and Vermaak 2004, managing change involves learning new behaviours and creating new ways of thinking. Change therefore can provide opportunities to develop new skills, it can positively impact work performance, and it can build self-esteem.

So the question we would like to focus on today is how can we use this fertile context of change during the last three months, to transform our teaching in the second semester.

Overview of survey results by Claudia Swart
Thank you very much to those of you who completed our survey. We really appreciate and value your input. As part of our reflection on emergency remote teaching today, we are going to share with you what lecturers answered when asked, what advice would do you give a lecturer starting with emergency remote teaching in the second semester. After working through the feedback, it was actually amazing to see how themes emerged from the answers, with so many lecturers sharing the same advice.

We have included some of the comments under each theme on the slides. I'm only going to give you a very quick overview, but we have shared a copy of this presentation with you.  Please take time to read through the feedback on your own. It's incredibly valuable. The lecturers who will be sharing their experience with us today however, will elaborate on this advice after I have shared with you a few slides.

So, in answering the question, what advice would you give to a lecturer starting with emergency remote teaching in the second semester, the following themes emerged. First of all, use the support available. You are not alone in this. You only need to ask. The CTL advisors, the BLCs, colleagues working with you that are available, and you are in this webinar already attending it, so there's lots of support available. You need to start preparing for emergency remote teaching early, as it takes a significant amount of time.

Several lecturers commented, keep it simple. Start small, take it one step at a time.

Carefully plan your semester. Take time to think about the online teaching, learning and assessment of your module.

Lecturers shared that they quickly realised, you will have to rethink your module outcomes. What is actually achievable in the online space, and then carefully think about how to align your learning opportunities to that.

Many comments about rethinking your assessment strategy, to include more formative assessment, and also to test your online assessment methods.

Organise your SUNLearn page to include clear, simple instructions, and also ensure you have good internet access and lots of data.

Put yourself in your students' shoes. Communicate your expectations clearly, and regularly, and ask the students for feedback.

Show your students that you care, by asking them how they are doing, following up on those who are not active on SUNLearn, and remembering that they have very different circumstances at home, that might impact their learning.

And lastly, and to me the most important, is to take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself, and take time to rest.  So the lecturers sharing with us today will now elaborate on this. Thank you once again for those of you who completed this survey. We so appreciate it.

Dr Michael Owen
Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering
Faculty of Engineering

I think a lot of what I have to say will echo the results of that survey. One thing I would like to recommend to everyone that really helped me, was a paper that was circulated in our department, or in our Faculty, called the difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning, which is on the screen in front of you now. And that really helped me understand expectations of this emergency remote teaching space and how that differs from the expectations of a module that's dedicated to online learning, or designed specifically for online learning, and kind of locate myself in the space and calibrated my expectations.

So if you aren't aware of that, if you haven't read it, I really think it's a valuable thing for anyone going into teaching in this emergency remote space. So I have tried to, or perhaps to start off my context a little bit on the next slide, I teach a final year engineering module. So fourth year, relatively large class for our Faculty of 260 students or so. We have several outcomes assessed in this module, graduate outcomes specifically. So that's something to keep in mind when you listen to what I have to say, because I think how you deal with this emergency remote teaching is quite context specific. What you might need to do for a first year student and a fourth year student could be quite different.

So that's just something to keep in mind as I go forward. So I have tried to summarise my reflection or my experience in terms of the acronym, COVID. The first C in that acronym is for communication, and this for me was sort of the cornerstone of the entire emergency remote teaching scenario, that communication was absolutely essential and specifically that the communication of expectations. So what one communicates, you know, what you expect from your students on a weekly almost daily level, is really important to communicate, and what your students expect from you, or can expect from you in terms of how to communicate with you, when things will be available, etc, is absolutely essential. And definitely make sure that any communication is carefully considered, because the students that I spoke to during the first semester reported being completely overwhelmed from e-communication.

They're getting emails from institutional level, all the way down to individual lecturers and communication amongst students in various groups and sub-groups within classes, and there is a lot of broken telephone that happens along that chain, particularly towards the individual lecturer and lower range. So being very careful with what you do communicate and when you communicate it is important to prevent this feeling of anxiety and confusion that kind of permeates the emergency remote teaching space. Linked to communication is the next point, O for organisation. And really, in emergency remote teaching I think organisation is absolutely essential. Here your SUNLearn page kind of transitions from probably a bit of a supporting role under normal circumstances, to the primary teaching and learning role, or as the primary teaching and learning tool almost.

So keeping that page really well organised, and specifically simple and easy to work through, was very important for my module, and specifically and in discussions with my students and other colleagues in my Faculty or department, the use of forums was very useful for me specifically. But I was very careful to keep forms very, very specific in their target content. So I had split forums. Each topic would have its own forum, and that worked relatively well to allow students to find information about a specific topic, rather than in some circumstances where colleagues had a very general forum. it became so overwhelmingly full of information about a vast variety of topics, that it became almost useless in terms of helping the students access information.

So that was something that I thought was important to communicate. Then V is for vulnerability, and I think in any teaching scenario, establishing a rapport with your cohort is important, and it facilitates and assists in teaching. And particularly in this emergency remote teaching, I found it very useful to communicate my sense of vulnerability to my students to tell them, you know, I'm also unsure about what to do here, and I'm worried about if what I am doing is okay, and how they are finding it. I asked a lot for feedback, and I got some very useful feedback, including very long emails from students with step by step instructions about how to organise certain assessments.

It was actually very useful in helping me understand the practicality of how the students are working at home. So communicating vulnerability and being open to your students as a support mechanism as well, I think was important for me. then I is for integrity, and obviously in the space I think the integrity of assessment is a major issue, and I don't have a good solution for that. I make use of a take-home exam, open book. But what I can say is that we've just finished marking that exam and that the class average was ever so slightly below normal, which gives me a sense that the students really were honest in how they tackled that assessment.

I think we shouldn't underestimate the fact that the integrity of our students, particularly in this situation, because they really want a valid assessment, and they really want their degree to mean something. And so they are really trying to do things the right way. The final point then is D for difficulties, and I think we're all aware of, and sensitive to the fact that our students are facing extreme and quite a variety of difficulties. But my experience was that the students in my group who experienced the greatest difficulties were the ones who were the least likely to speak up about that. So I had many students saying that they had this problem or that problem. But the guys who really struggled, they didn't have access to computers or tools that they needed in order to complete my  modules successfully.

They didn't speak up, despite my attempts to sort of elicit that kind of information from them. So one needs to be really proactive in finding out which students are really in trouble here, and being flexible to try and accommodate them within the program, and to achieve the outcomes of whatever module it is that you teach. So that is pretty much my reflection then on the emergency remote teaching in semester one.

Dr Marianne McKay
Department of Viticulture and Oenology
Faculty of AgriSciences

If you look at what we did previously with the blue headings, and you compare them to the emergency remote activity and assessment, you can see that there's a hang of a lot more involved in doing it remotely, and in doing it online. I was completely unprepared for that. I really worked hard to scaffold and to set up little learning exercises to do what I would have done in class, but in an engaged way online. And in the end, I got told by the students, this is all too much, please just load your slides on with voice notes, and just give us an MCQ.

I was very deflated, so a lot of the work that I did was actually – it was too much. It was too much for them, and in the end, it was too much for me. That was a hard lesson that I learnt. One of the other lessons that I learnt, where the red arrow is pointing, is to the health and safety legislation. Legislation is a nightmare at the best of times. But this particular exercise, what I did with them, was to get them to actually draft a health and safety plan for a small winery. Actually, it's been remarkably successful in terms of the student learning. They got completely hysterical about it and contacted me every five minutes about what they were supposed to do, and where they find this, and what must they include and how does it hang together.

I ended up feeding back a lot to them individually about what they needed to do. But in the end, the learning that I am getting back, or the evidence that I'm getting back in terms of what they have produced is really, really nice. So despite the level of work that was involved, I feel it worked quite well as an exercise. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it worked better than what we normally did in class. If you could move onto the next slide please. Okay, well, I will keep working while it's not moving on.

What went right, for me, the organisation of space. I was very careful about that. You can read down the list. I'm not going to go through them all because I will come back to some of these in the next slide in a different context. I could not use chatrooms and forums. I don't know why, but they did not work for me. I know that they worked extremely well for other people, and I sat jealously listening to other people saying how marvellously they'd managed to get the students to engage, when I got cricket silence throughout the entire thing. So for me, that was also a big learning lesson, and comparing my own teaching to other people and what other people were doing, was not a useful exercise for me, because in the end, the feedback that I got from the students was that I did manage to make it work, despite everything. But I didn't use any of the functionalities.

That actually brings me to the next slide, which is on the left hand side, you can see me, and that's what I know about SUNLearn, and on the right hand side, you can see what functionalities you actually have in SUNLearn. SUNLearn is an incredibly powerful and potent platform, and we are really, really lucky to have it. I can tell you that feedback that I am getting from colleagues who are in France and England, they are really struggling because they don't have something like SUNLearn. But, in order to keep flying, you really only need a few simple tools. So you need to find the tools that suit you, and this what I am taking from it. Chatrooms and forums, not my thing. Worked brilliantly for other people, wonderful.

So use what works for you from the flight deck to keep yourself flying, scaffold your learning with concise, doable exercises. They do take time to set up, but do it just – do what works for you and do it as concisely as possible. And then one thing that I found really useful and worked for me, was I fed back personally to the students via email. I wrote personal rubrics for each of them. It took a hang of a lot of time, but they really, really appreciated it and they engaged with me about that. Load instructions once, at one time. Don't muck around with the instructions and issue new instructions on the chatroom, and issue new instructions in WhatsApp, and then go back.

It confuses them so much, and what's worse, is it confuses you. So I loaded instructions once on Sunday evening, it opened on Monday morning. That was it for the week, and I always had a submission time on Friday afternoon at five o'clock, and for everything. The students knew that, and I never had any problems with submission, I have to say. Then the last but not least, don't compare yourself to what other people are doing, because the chances are, you are doing it right. And try some experiments, but don't hold yourself up against other people, because at the end of the day, we're all different. We all have different ways of doing things, and your way is probably exactly what works best for you. So, that's my advice.

Dr Marianne Unger
Department of Physiotherapy
Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences

Karen had a quote in one of her slides from Sharon Ravitch, I'm not sure how many of you  have read about her work, and I'm also not sure if this is from the same paper or blog in which she advocates for us to consider flux pedagogy in this time of COVID. I think it's relevant to the opportunity for sharing. She said “that while the work of socially transformative teaching requires considerable focus and energy, our freedom, born of growth, is truly what is at stake here. We are in this together, and the teachers of the world need to teach that way and to support each other".

Then just to say that I think what we have heard from both the previous speakers, we can all identify with. I think we all have had the same experiences in more or less the same – similar, but not necessarily the same. In physiotherapy, I think one of the added challenges is that we have excessively large credit bearing modules, on which 10 to 12 or more lecturers sometimes teach. So already pre-COVID, this was a problem in terms of how we teach, and COVID to some extent has widened that gap, and while diversity is good, within one module it's not always the best from the students' perspective, or for student learning.

Some of us are more tech savvy than others, so in the beginning that was a serious challenge for us. But now, three months later, we're in fact getting it right to narrow that bridge, and more of us are jumping onto the same page and beginning to see a bigger picture than just that little bit that I am responsible for.

So in the beginning, one of the other things we had to do was relook our exit level outcomes. And it's amazing when you look at your slides and you've got to condense your two hour presentation into a ten minute voiceover PowerPoint, how much unnecessary – well, unnecessary may be the wrong word, but how much nice to know information we tend to share.

While it is good and enriching is, is it really necessary? It's amazing how much we could quite comfortably accept that we're not going to teach now without not being able to reach the outcomes. Obviously, we also had to change our assessments to align with these new ways of thinking and of course, it had major timetable implications. I think for me, and I speak for me here, because I don't think this is true for all my colleagues in physio, lockdown has actually provided a forced opportunity to fast forward what we have already been planning for, for our renewed curriculum in physiotherapy. Here I'm talking specifically to understanding all the accordance SUNLearn offers us for doing things better and also more efficiently.

So, what are the lessons learnt? I think this slide summarises it in a nutshell. Nothing is really impossible. Physio is very much a hands-on practical skills activity, so we really stressed in the beginning re how the hell are we going to do this– we can't just wait for us to return before we teach practical skills. We have to begin the process online, and this is where sharing really stuck its neck out for us. Colleagues from all over the world, who already have a lot of online material, and  I'm talking specifically about practical techniques, were unbelievable, came to the party, made everything freely available for students and lecturers.

So that was a significant help to us, but it also helped us realise that we can do a lot more than what we are currently doing online. Aligned to that of course, as I mentioned earlier, was our assessment practices that had to change. One of the things that we're considering was replacing the highly stressful sort of OSCE examination process for practical skills competency to adopting a portfolio of evidence. Which  means that students get the techniques, they can practice it as many times as they want, and once they think they are ready, they self-record themselves, they upload it onto the workshop function on SUNLearn. That has added benefits in that we can provide them at that point with a benchmark video, which they can use to reflect on their own performance, and they can self-asses. We used peer assessment to reduce the workload on us to mark all of these videos, which we have kept a close eye on and moderated. And so far, there is a strong correlation between our marks and their marks. So that's something we are quite positive about.

In clinical physiotherapy, and this is a bit ironic, one would think in this time of COVID and where there is a shortage of hands, it wouldn't be difficult to get our students back onto the clinical platform. It's proving to be really difficult, and there again, our regulatory authority, the Health Professions Council, have granted a little bit of leniency. 10% of the required minimum hours, they have granted to alternative clinical activity. This again has been such a WOW, eye-opening experience. We have had completely next-level opportunities for next-level thinking and discussions for promoting development of clinical reasoning. We have had ethical debates. We have had students develop material for information. Physio carries on in the home and patients should take on the responsibility for carrying on with their programs and exercises. The material that they have developed and the tools that they've used is as I said, mind blowing.

I don't think we ever recognised this potential in our students, and that's great. I think the students, when they go back to clinical now, are going to be way better prepared for clinical than ever before. Then the last thing, in applied physiotherapy, were we do problem-based learning, the spin-off there during this time, is that we were forced to, or we actually exploited the lesson function on SUNLearn. The benefit of that was the improvement in the quality of the case documents at the end. Again a really a positive experience for us.

Other big lessons learnt is that having now developed a lot more material online, it's creating space for us to deal with all the things that previously we thought we didn't have time for. So there is more time for student support at the one end of the spectrum, and for the higher level functioning students, we now have time to have more in-depth engagement with them. The third big lesson, and that was reiterated by Mike, was that communication and kindness is key. Right in the beginning, getting the students to understand that we also didn't sign up for this, really went a long way to get their cooperation and to get them to help us when we were developing stuff online.

At one stage, halfway through when I noticed there was a decline in engagement online, I did with the students what I termed the lockdown diaries. It was synchronous, where they weren't allowed to talk about work or their classes. They were only allowed to mention one thing that was positive, anything good, or what has changed in their lives because of COVID and lockdown. Apart from again discovering their amazing talents and things that they get up to outside of the classroom, it significantly improved their engagement post that activity. Just knowing that we actually care, goes a long way in encouraging them and motivating them to engage online.

Then I think the last thing, and that has also been said before – keep it simple. It's baby steps, and as we better understand, then it becomes more creative. And instruction, good clear instruction is clear. Thank you, the last slide. While I can only really speak for myself, I do believe that for physiotherapy, COVID was a necessary evil to kick-start change that was needed in physiotherapy education. Here is hoping, holding thumbs, that the future is looking a lot brighter for it. Thank you for this opportunity.

Dr Manfred Spocter
Department of Geography and Environmental
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

My experiences overlap a lot with what the previous speakers have touched on, so I don't want to repeat things, or repeat what was said. However, there are a few things that I'd like to share and just highlight. Just the brief lecturing context, I taught the first year module with approximately 300 students, and that module was completed just before lockdown. But the predicate test of the module was set for a Saturday, the 23rd of May. So I'd like to say a few words about my experience with that online predicate test.

The other module that was teaching is a second year module, with 80 students. Now, I think the key word in emergency remote teaching is the word emergency. Very often one is caught unawares in an emergency situation. We are not prepared. You must remember, my lectures and assessment, like all of us, was already set up for class-based teaching by mid-January. So when the lockdown was announced, it obviously and definitely required a retuning and a rethink of lectures and assessments. Nevertheless, my overall experience was positive. The one thing that I did miss was the class interaction, especially debates on specific topics.

So in my opinion, online teaching has a place and a space, but I don't think it's a substitute for the class-based experience. However, the exercise of creating audio based PowerPoint slides for example presented a perfect opportunity to update the learning material, particularly new self-learning activity posts. In terms of lessons that I've learnt during ERT, be prepared for a lot of student uncertainty and a whole lot of questions. If I can just touch on one or two experiences during the time of emergency remote teaching, experience one, just to get back to the first year online test. So that predicate test was set for a Saturday morning, as per the revised timetable. So I elicited the help of the learning technologies advisor, and together we set up the SUNLearn based test.

However, on the morning of the test, there was a gremlin – let's call it a gremlin that crept in. There was no helpline, and there was no advisor available for assistance. It wasn't a very situation for both the students and myself, students started emailing me once they encountered the problem. It goes without saying, that I went from total panic mode, then okay, settled down, troubleshoot the problem, and eventually solving it. But I must admit, it did shake my faith in the online testing system. So here is what I would suggest. This is what I would have done differently.

If possible, I would have a dry run of the first year predicate test before the actual test, test the system, and I would recommend that for everybody. You don't want any issues during an online test. The second experience, and this was mentioned before by one of the speakers, this is with regard to the second year class. They had a WhatsApp group before lockdown, but not all students were on the group. So just after lockdown was announced, the class rep and myself, we contacted the students who were not on the group, and after a few days, we managed to get everybody together on the WhatsApp group. I wasn't part of the group. It was a student group, with the class rep as the administrator.

So the group chat platform helped to maintain, in my mind, a certain level of what I'd call virtual class cohesion. Students could interact with one another, as they were permanently connected to the WhatsApp platform. There was no logging in, like with SUNLearn. Now, I know many other lecturers did the same, and I would recommend it during a period of online teaching.

Closing by Dr Karin Cattell-Holden
I am bowled over by what these four lecturers shared with us. I want to thank you, not only for sharing the lessons you've learnt and the affordances of ERT as well, but for your authenticity in doing so, and saying what you struggled with and what worked for you, and for your students. So thank you for your honesty and for your openness, and I think you provided us with a lot of very helpful information, looking at semester two coming.

I think you actually confirmed the themes of the survey, because a lot of the things you had in common that you mentioned, also came out from the survey. For example, that communication is key. That one needs to keep it simple. That there are always opportunities for renewal and for change; even when the difficulties looked insurmountable, there is support available, and the importance of care in this time of emergency, as Manfred also reminded us. So that fits in very well with the Ravitch flux pedagogy that Marianne Unger also referred to, where one looks at the online teaching and learning and you look at the goal of successful learning of course, but always through the lens of compassion. Its also called a humanising pedagogy.  

I think within this context, we have also seen now the possibilities that one can find in a fertile place of change. Just to go back to where we started today, there are many opportunities for growth and for transformation, really giving one new eyes to observe the teaching and learning landscape around us. Teaching online brings us new resources, new tools, new ways of being together, and new ways of thinking about teaching and learning, as McQuiggan 2012 says. We can't really afford to miss this opportunity to look at education through new eyes, to envision new possibilities, deeper and more effective learning, personalised learning, enriched and meaningful teaching experiences, and of course, to provide wider access to learning.