It’s higher education – but not as we know it

Dr Louise Robson, departmental director of learning and teaching at the University of Sheffield, examines the impact moving lessons online will have on higher education

COVID-19 has had a marked impact on higher education, with universities closing their doors to students and moving lessons online in an effort to prevent students’ learning from being interrupted.

But will the lockdown fundamentally change the way universities deliver higher education for good?

Thinking differently

A large number of lectures in this sector are didactic. Essentially, they are one-way communications, whether they are face-to-face sessions or streamed through an online platform. So, if a lecturer stands at the front of the room and talks for 50 minutes, with little or no engagement from their students, does it really make a difference whether they are present either physically or virtually?

These are issues I have been exploring for a number of years. I teach biomedical science at the University of Sheffield and I’m constantly looking for new ways to evolve traditional methods of lecture delivery to engage my students more in what they are learning. As part of this, I’ve recently introduced more interactive teaching into my face-to-face sessions.

In a typical lesson, I might deliver some content in a didactic way, then give students online access to a set of questions or a controversial statement to think about, get them to type their answers and thoughts during the session, and then discuss these to provide instant feedback.

In some sessions there is no didactic teaching at all, the class takes the form of a group discussion around a piece of digital content shared in advance, or students work collaboratively to explore the results of an online poll or solve a problem. Students have told me how much they enjoy this mix of didactic and interactive learning.

New experiences

I used the initial part of my first virtual session to share information about the upcoming assessment, just as I would if my students were right there in front of me. I use the Echo360 lecture capture and active learning solution in both online and onsite teaching.

As this was an active learning session – where the aim is for students to build knowledge of a subject for themselves – I had prepared online questions for them to answer. These were there to help the students assess their own understanding, and for me to give individual feedback.

By livestreaming the session, I was able to ask students to fill the questions in, show their anonymised answers, and still provide feedback. Students remained engaged throughout and I felt I had a good understanding of their knowledge and where I could take it next.

So, if a lecturer stands at the front of the room and talks for 50 minutes, with little or no engagement from their students, does it really make a difference whether they are present either physically or virtually?

Foundations for change

It’s unusual to be teaching my subject area completely online and the experience has helped me to refine the interactive elements of my teaching.

In the same way, I think many lecturers who may be teaching online for the first time will be reflecting on how to make their sessions more interactive to keep their students engaged through a screen. Hopefully, these lessons will stay with us when this is all over.

It’s not all about technology

It takes much more than simply flicking a switch or uploading a piece of whizzy software to deliver a great lesson.

It’s vital that the foundations are put in place if change is to become the new norm. There are teaching staff who will take to new ways of doing things without even batting an eyelid, but for others, it could be a steep learning curve to move from didactic teaching to more interactive learning methods. Some staff may need additional training, or the chance to sit in on another lecturer’s virtual or live class.

I have a feeling that as interactive teaching methods become second nature, it will simply become part of what we do, long after the current crisis eventually comes to an end.

You might also like: Connecting students and delivering learning in the age of self-isolation


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