I taught one of my Autumn 2020 classes face-to-face on the evening of March 16th as the pandemic started to spike in NSW. My students, mostly first-year, were engaged and excited to be kicking off their university degrees. Then, that evening, I saw the notification that teaching was paused for a week to prepare for online classes.
This is my fifth semester teaching Marketing and Communications tutorial classes at UTS. I had spent the previous few months thinking about the teaching activities and ideas I was going to implement to encourage active, collaborative classrooms. Most ideas were, well, not really possible online (for example the IF-AT Scratch Cards) – so, I knew I was in for a steep learning curve.
During that week of preparation, me and my peers learnt the functionality of Zoom. We were also assessing and tweaking tutorial class plans and activities for online classes, and brainstorming how to change assessments for the online environment. We certainly all came together, but it was a rather frantic time, as everyone globally went into survival mode.
I admit, I was nervous – nervous about the technology, nervous about my internet connection supporting the technology, nervous about the loss of face to face connection with students (which is the highlight of my teaching work), and nervous for my students too – many of their hopes and dreams of the university experience were somewhat crushed.
Also, I had not taught online before, and feel that my teaching style is somewhat led by my personality and ability to interact with, engage and connect with a room of students face to face. I started researching what ‘good online teaching’ looked like. How could I create an active, collaborative classroom online? How could I help students with that loss of face-to-face collaboration and connection, and transfer this experience to an online environment?
The first week of remote teaching
As I sat down to my first online class, just seven days later, I felt as prepared as I could be. The various workshops I had attended that week, hosted by IML, were extremely useful in both learning the technology and functionality, and also connecting with teachers from various faculties and diverse backgrounds. We were sharing our fears and also our ideas. This expression of vulnerability, whilst also focusing on the opportunities, formed part of my thoughts on how to create connection and collaboration in my online tutorial classes.
I conducted Zoom polls with most of my classes in the first week and asked students ‘What is the worst thing about studying remotely?’ Most responded, ‘Not being able to interact with my group members naturally.’ Considering this – students fear of lack of interaction and connection with their peers based on learning in an environment they had not learnt in before (online) – I started thinking about how I could support students with this, and also turn this into a positive experience for them and for their future professional careers.
Student connection & collaboration
To help create the type of classroom I favour (a collaborative, connected space), I set about understanding the Zoom Breakout Rooms and the functionality here. By using the Zoom Breakout Rooms, I am able to emulate the classroom environment, whereby students are problem solving together in smaller groups with the same people each week, and come back together to discuss our thoughts as a class.
For every class we start off with a ‘tech check’. I ask all students to turn their cameras on, and unmute themselves to say hello. The screen is filled with smiling faces and it’s nice to hear everyone’s voices, similar to when everyone enters the physical classroom.
Before we break out into our rooms I set the scene, suggesting students nominate a scribe who shares their screen in the Breakout Room and captures the problem solving “on paper”, nominate who will speak for the group when back in the main room, and so forth. I think that structure starts to build student confidence, and that they start to naturally take on roles within the group. These Breakout Rooms can also provide a space for students to ask questions that’s less intimidating than the whole face-to-face classroom.
I check in and ask how people are with their studies, but also personally. What are their coping mechanisms? What has been their self-care tip of the week? Showing our human side, especially through this time, seems to help in enhancing the connection between students, and between myself and students.
When I drop into the Breakout Rooms and hear rich conversations, and see students solving problems amongst their smaller groups, I see active, collaborative learning in motion. As we have progressed through the semester, I see students connecting – not only talking about the subject content, but also about their days, their dinner, their pets, their coping mechanisms. And I too feel connected with my students.
Focusing on the positives in all this also helps. For example, helping students see the opportunity in practicing remote working, for their future careers. Suggesting technology they can use for group projects to streamline actions and commitment to deadlines, programs that many marketing organisations use in industry. Helping students to see that this is building upon their “employability”, with many teams spread geographically around Australia, and around the world, particularly for many marketing roles, helps too.
I’ve also observed many similarities between the online and offline classrooms. For example, we are now at week eight and I have seen, post-StuVac, many students are tired – so I’m having to encourage a few more of them to turn their cameras on than usual, at the start of the session.
Whilst I certainly prefer the face-to-face environment, connection and collaboration is still happening in my online tutorial classes, with the right combination of technology, structure, vulnerability and consistency. Also, I have learnt a whole new skill in teaching online – so I can be grateful to COVID-19 for that.