A reflection of my online teaching practices
So far taking part in this online teaching course has helped me to identify the things that I’m already doing well as an online teacher (of the veterinary anaesthesia rotation) and the things that could be improved.
I have discussed the importance of teacher presence in a previous blog post, but am I actually doing any of these things?
Teacher presence should be built into the structure of the course. Before the students started the course, I contributed some study material to the online anaesthesia rotation. The structure of any new material had to be fairly simple given that we had to move everything online with such short notice. My main aim was to complement the learning experiences that the students have foregone by not being on clinics in person. For example, I made a couple of powerpoint tutorials (just slides, no audio) about monitoring anaesthesia, where there are questions, short exercises, and encouragement dispersed throughout the slides. I wanted to make the slides feel like a tutorial rather than a set of lecture notes; this is what I now understand to be a type of teacher presence. What might have been even better (time permitting) would have been to record myself talking over the slides, but also to have the slides available without audio for those with a slow internet connection.
Ongoing teacher presence is essential during the “teaching period” of the online course. There are a few of us working on the online teaching team for Anaesthesia. Between us, we signposted the Learn page with how we would recommend the students to approach the tasks that we had set (bearing in mind that all of this is voluntary at the moment, as the students have all fulfilled their graduation requirements due to the lockdown). The students can choose from taking part in case discussions on discussion boards, analysing a scientific paper (discussion board), going through online lectures (some have audio, some are just slides), doing self-test quizzes, and watching videos of practical tasks (mainly found on Youtube). We haven’t scheduled any synchronous, live sessions because of the speed with which we had to transfer the course online and the fact that most of us are fairly new to online teaching and tools.
The course runs in blocks, with a new set of students starting every three weeks. My role is mainly pedagogical, monitoring the discussion boards, posting replies to comments, and producing learning material. My colleague, who is the course organiser, looks after emailing the students with updates and checking if anyone is in need of support. Our main aim is to provide alternative learning material to being on clinics, but it is up to the students to decide how much they wish to engage with it. Clearly when the new term starts this will change and some tasks will become mandatory and part of assessment.
Because my main way of communicating with the students is through the discussion boards, I have done some research into effective strategies for managing these interactions. It seems like posting a reply to comments every 24-48 hours is a recommended approach, but because we only have 5-7 students per group and quite a large number of cases to go through, I usually reply within 24 hours in order to keep the momentum going. Not all students in each group necessarily engage with the boards. If we were on clinics, students normally discuss a case individually with an anaesthetist rather than amongst themselves, so I feel like replying withing 24 hours has worked quite well as a strategy. I aim for a positive and encouraging tone with a few succinct, targeted questions to keep the discussion going. I use professional language but keep the tone friendly. Sometimes I find that my replies are quite wordy, but I think this is fine as long as the replies to individual aspects of the post are succinct.
As I understand it, the aim is to strike a balance between being present enough to maintain engagement but not being so zealous with answering speed/content that you effectively kill the conversation. I do put a lot of time and effort into my replies to student posts to make it worth their while, but only during office hours. I would say the students respond to my questions around 80-90 % of the time, which I’m quite happy with. If the response rate is consistently low, my colleague usually sends an email to the group or to individual students to see if anyone needs support.
Things that I would like to try
Learning more about online teaching has definitely affected how I am approaching it now. Online teaching has different advantages and disadvantages compared to face-to-face teaching. I’ve learned that trying to transfer face-to-face teaching to an online format is generally not a good idea because you are not making best use of the tools that you have available. It’s also good to remember that our sudden shift online is a learning curve for the staff but also for the students. Keeping things simple in the beginning is advisable.
Now that I have found my feet a bit, I’m trying out new tools. I like the idea of using more audio and video, and have made a short teaching video about monitoring anaesthesia. This is an ad hoc tutorial that I do with students on clinics using just pen and paper. In the video, I decided to keep the pen and paper to give it a more “hybrid teaching” feel. Perhaps the next step could be to do this tutorial live in a Collaborate session with a small group of students on a virtual whiteboard? I would also like to try speaking over slides with maybe a little video of me in the corner so that the students can see who is talking.
I often like to quiz the students on clinics, so I’ve created a couple of quizzes online for them to use as self-assessment in a private, low-stakes environment. This is an example of using an online tool to create something different from the original face-to-face teaching method. The downside is that once the quiz is up, there is no further teacher interaction. Perhaps having a synchronous video session at the end of each week to allow for questions might be a good way of adding teacher presence?
In conclusion, it has been a useful exercise to reflect on what I am doing now as an online teacher and how I could develop my skills further. Rather than trying to make the online environment as close as possible to a face-to-face teaching environment, it is more helpful to ask the questions “What do I want the students to take away from the teaching?” and “What is the best way to deliver this with the online tools that I have available?”