Decolonising the classroom: Through the online space

Continuing on from his earlier blog, Shawn Soh builds upon his experiences in both online and face2face learning environments.

I recently attended a course on “Writing a data management plan” which was conducted online on 19th November 2020. Prior to this, I had also attended two other courses: “Stats for the terrified” and “A realistic introduction of R”. The courses were held online in response to the COVID-19 situation. In some way, I am fortunate that ECRF has made efforts to conduct the courses online. As I am away from Edinburgh doing my data collection, it would not have been possible for me to attend the courses physically at WGH. I was asked by the administrator ‘why I had signed up for these online courses?’. Besides gaining new knowledge, I must admit that the courses fees were more affordable for me, as a student, to attend. Further, the easy accessibility and convenience of attending the online course was the main reason for me.

Attending the online courses with WCRF was seamless. A link to the course session would be provided via email a few days before the course day. Then, Ta-dah! Students would usually appear on the online platform 5-10 min before the lesson begins. What a breeze to attend (with a cup of nicely prepared roasted coffee placed on my study table). In the recent course, when I joined in fifteen minutes earlier, there were no students in the online platform except the administrator and the course tutor. I took the opportunity to have a wonderful conversation with them while waiting for the other students to join in.

Similar to physical-based sessions, the courses conducted by ECRF were well-received. Each session would usually have about 15 to 20 students, depending on the course’s objectives and the comfort of the tutor to manage the group. Given the nature of online teaching, I found that the skill of the course tutor to facilitate the session would be paramount. If the courses were generally highly content-driven, the information would be seamlessly delivered as a form of didactic teaching. However, when courses were more practical driven, e.g. requiring the practice of skills, then the delivery may be more challenging to be conducted online. For example, the learning of the use of R had needed more hand-hold guidance of the tutor to help less technologically-savvy individuals and those who were unfamiliar with the programming language. Perhaps, one way to circumvent the issue would be to have more facilitators and the use of break-out rooms. Other challenges, such as the lack of students’ participation or inadequate group participation might also arise. Students would not be able to see each other, given that the option that the video may be switched off. Consequently, course tutors would not be able to see the responses of students and make the necessary judgement whether the course delivery had been paced appropriately. The lack of visual inputs restricts interactions among course tutors and students. One possible approach would be that the course tutor might request students to switch on their videos. However, such request might possibly affect bandwidth usage, which in turn cause video lags, affecting the learning experience.

Nevertheless, I had enjoyed my online training sessions with ECRF. The course tutors checked in with the students verbally or through the chat box to ascertain whether students had any issues with the delivered information. Vibrant and positively-vibe conversations were held through the meeting chat panel between the course tutors, course administrators and students.

For centuries, knowledge has been traditionally transferred from a teacher to a student in a place-based classroom method. One challenge emerged through this mode of knowledge delivery. What happens when the student is unable to be physically present in the classroom? For example, even though I was keen to attend the lesson, but I would be unable to attend physical-based lessons as I was not in Edinburgh. Should learning be stopped if the student is unable to be physically present in school? Does learning need to be restricted by geographical locations? In today’s modern world abuzz with technological advancements, what ways can the students’ learning be enhanced and enriched?

There is no doubt that the internet has decolonised learning in the educational field. Today, everyone can seek (or share) any kind of answers using popular search engines such as Google or Yahoo. The wealth of knowledge can incredibly be acquired at any time, at any place at the snap of my fingers (think “Ask Google…”). However, learning through the internet may not necessarily obliviate the need of teachers, or that “Mr Google” should be the Omni-teacher. It may be argued that there is a greater need for more course tutors to adequately guide the student to distil and discern knowledge through a critical, yet inclusive manner. Students do need some degree of guidance on what knowledge would be meaningful to them in an increasingly VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world. Skills such as critical thinking, ethical reasoning and moral agency cannot be easily taught through the internet, and such appreciation of knowledge should be guided through wise educators. I have no doubt that various elements of respect, professionalism and encouragement of participation, inclusion and emancipation could still be illuminated in the online space.

Some pros of online space

  • Ease and convenience of attendance
  • Lower course fees
  • Accessibility to global course tutors and audience

Some cons of online space

  • Lesser feedback, e.g. body language obtained from course tutors and students
  • Need to have greater awareness on pacing the session accordingly based on verbal or written cues
  • Need for logistic planning, e.g. synchronising breakup rooms and online quizzes
  • Require a basic comfort of the use of technology

Decolonizing learning helps us to recognize, understand, and challenge the ways in which our world is shaped by colonialism. It also prompts us to examine our professional practices. It is an approach that includes indigenous knowledge and ways of learning, enabling students to explore themselves and their values and to define success on their own terms.

The time is right for us to review the decolonisation of the curriculum, even in the practice of various modes of course delivery. In critically re-examining our approach of teaching and learning, education would be transformative, not just for the student, but for the educational institution and the course tutors. It would not be an easy transition, but it is long overdue and must be addressed to advance our educational practices. Perhaps, we might also consider that physical-based learning or online learning might not need to be a binary option, but the choices that could complementary (blended teaching) or offered simultaneously (to allow better accessibility). Nevertheless, whatever the teaching pedagogy selected, online teaching and learning will be part of mainstream education in this present time and age. If educational institutions resist the use of online teaching, other online learning resources would still be readily available to the students through the internet. To prepare the student for the future, educational organisations need to be forerunners, to decolonise the curriculum and to explore different pedagogy. The adoption of forward-looking educational culture would nurture the learners for them to flourish through the provision of diverse teaching and learning methods.

Decolonising the classroom: On different modes of training courses

This week we have a the first part of a super guest blog from one of our students, Shawn Soh.   Shawn highlights his experiences attending ECRF Education Programme courses in both an online and face2face capacity.

The review of curriculum for teaching and learning has always been done within organisations for its objectives, relevance, and the need to keep abreast with best current practices. Depending on the agenda, decolonising the curriculum is one perspective which may be brought alongside the review.

The idea of decolonisation of higher education started two decades ago as a movement to ensure that the knowledge and practices of indigenous people were represented in the higher education curricula of post-colonial countries. Recently, the concept of a decolonised curriculum has been raised amongst educational institutions to emphasise an inclusive curriculum that considers the broader diversity of all learners. Decolonisation of the curriculum challenges our assumptions of knowledge and the ways of teaching and learning. Through an approach of embracing the diversity of knowledge, the different epistemology towards learning, and the provision of learning resources, the student may embark on a rewarding self-discovery journey of exploring and defining success by themselves in their own ways. In this context, I will discuss decolonising the classroom through my personal experience with the different delivery modes of training courses offered by Edinburgh Clinical Research Facility (ECRF) for my flourishment of academic learning.

I still vividly remember my first training course held at the ECRF, Western General Hospital (WGH) on 29th May 2019. The course was “Planning and conducting a systematic review: From quality appraisal to publication (Part 2)”. The training came timely for me as I was a first-year PhD candidate and needed to inaugurate my PhD journey with a systematic review. When I first heard about the course I rushed excitedly to sign up. You may wonder why I had only signed up for Part 2. Well, as a student, I had to be price-conscious and needed to be selective on the courses to attend..

The course was well-attended with about twenty participants. I remembered feeling slightly out of place, given that I was only attending the second part of the course. The group of students appeared to know each other, perhaps from the early interactions during the first part of the course. However, the momentarily discomfort dissipated when I was warmly received by the staff and the course tutors. I was also glad to meet three of my PhD classmates.

The course was well-planned and well-conducted. The course tutors took no assumption of the current knowledge of the students. They paced the teaching according to the feedback received from the students. The session catered well to the different levels of students’ knowledge. Many students were keen to learn about the planning and to conduct the systematic review, with a view of an eventual publication. The course tutors were supportive and attempted to clarify any doubts that the students may have. Students also had the opportunity to give their opinions on various subjects. There was no sense of power imbalance between the tutors and students. Each concern raised by the students was respectfully answered. There was no sense that one needed to have the lingua franca to articulate their concerns. I felt that the message brought across the classroom was that “we endeavour to help you succeed”.

The course was useful for those who were doing systematic review through a form of the Cochrane Review. Unfortunately, I later discovered that I had to use the COSMIN (COnsensus-based Standards for the selection of health Measurement Instruments) method for my systematic review. Nevertheless, I found the course well delivered and met its course’s aims and objectives.

Decolonising learning helps students to recognise, understand, and challenge the ways in which our world is shaped by colonialism. It also prompts us to examine our professional practices. Through my learning in the physical-based space interaction, I was able to witness the interactions between course tutors and students. Learning through the physical space allowed diverse learners (their voices, background, gender, different level of knowledge, etc.) to come together and transform the learning practice. I greatly appreciated the various elements of respect, professionalism and encouragement of participation, inclusion and emancipation illuminated in the course.

Some pros of physical space

  • Physical interaction between course tutors and students
  • Ability to pace the session accordingly based on verbal and non-verbal cues
  • Ease and accessibility of hand-hold guidance offered by course tutors

Some cons of physical space

  • Travelling time
  • Higher cost
  • Need for logistic planning, e.g. bring a laptop

Webinar 3 – Providing a Genomics Platform for Covid Research

Continuing our exciting Webinar Series with Lee Murphy who is Head of the Genetics Core at the Edinburgh Clinical Research Facilities. This week Lee tells us about Providing a Genomics Platform for Covid Research, elaborating on the sample processing data produced for the ISARIC study, and also the GenOMICC study led by Prof Kenny Bailey. He explains how he and his team were in the fortunate position to be able to turn their normal lab space into an environment ready to undertake Covid research in 3 weeks.

My Time as a Research Participant

This week we have a fantastic guest blog from Ruaridh Buchan, Scottish Pharmacy Clinical Leadership Fellow at NHS Lothian.  Ruaridh highlights his experience as a first time research participant in the SIREN study and what it feels like to be on the other side of the table.

Over the past few months, COVID-19 has impacted my personal and work life significantly.  Both my wife and I had COVID-19, as did close family members.  Thankfully all our symptoms were mild, and we recovered quickly, but I am all too aware of the devastating effects that the virus can have on our patients.

Research has a key role to play in the fight against COVID-19 by helping to develop new tests, treatments, and vaccines to prevent and manage the spread of the virus. I have been involved in supporting delivery of the numerous COVID-19 drug and vaccine studies that have been delivered in NHS Lothian and recently had my first experience of being a research participant when I enrolled in the Siren study at the Edinburgh Clinical Research Facility.  Despite being in familiar surroundings, it felt strange going into the CRF. I work as a clinical trial pharmacist, so my job is usually supporting delivery of clinical trials in the CRF opposed to being a research participant.

The purpose of the Siren study is to understand whether prior infection with the virus that causes COVID-19 protects against future infection with the same virus.  It is thought that antibodies which are produced by the body when someone is infected with COVID-19, remain in the body and help to protect against future infection.

I decided to enrol in the Siren study because I wanted to do my part to help us understand more about COVID-19 and how to manage it.  I was interested to learn if having been previously infected with COVID-19 meant I developed antibodies that might give some protection against the virus.  In my job, I usually don’t meet the patients that take part in the clinical trials that I help deliver, so I was interested to understand more about what it means to be take part in a clinical trial as a participant.

From the outset, I was struck by the knowledge and professionalism of all the research nurses.  I had an initial phone call, where everything was explained fully and carefully.  I would be asked to complete an online enrolment and consent questionnaire, a nose and throat swab every 2 weeks to look for the presence of COVID-19, a blood test every 4 weeks to test for antibodies and a short follow up questionnaire every 2 weeks. The first visit would be face to face, and after that I could swab myself and ask a kind nurse colleague to take my blood.  After reading the participant information leaflet, I agreed to take part, so my first face to face visit was booked.

It was nice to see a familiar face when I came to the CRF for my first visit as had worked with the research nurse on several clinical trials previously.  After completing the online enrolment and consent questionnaire and giving a blood sample, came the bit I was dreading – the throat and nose swab.  Anyone who has done this will know that the process invariably results in an unflattering combination of gagging and sneezing, and this time was no different.  I was reassured to hear that this gets easier with practice. On balance, I think that putting up with the nasal and throat swab is a small price to pay if it helps to discover more about how we manage COVID-19.

While I walked back to the car, I read the schedule of assessments that was given to me to remind me when swabs and bloods would be required.   I thought it looked like a lot of things to remember, but I know that Siren is straightforward compared to some of the more complicated drug studies that we support in Lothian.

Being a research participant myself, helped to remind me of the time and effort that research participants put in to supporting research.  As someone who works in research, but has never participated in research, enrolling in the Siren study has taught me a lot and reminded me of the important contribution that research participants make to scientific research every day.

We would like to thank all of the Research Participants who dedicate their time to helping science!