Your experiences of digital teaching

Our learning and teaching colleagues share their experiences of digital teaching and working over the last few months during the coronavirus pandemic.

The government announced coronavirus lockdown measures at a time when many of our students were preparing for their end of year exams and assessments. The following wide-scale switch to digital teaching has been an unprecedented challenge for our University - but one that everyone has risen to.

And as we make preparations for the new academic year, digital delivery will inevitably remain an integral part of how we deliver our courses. So, to shine a light on just some of the hard work and creativity from across the University, here are some of your experiences:

Using the Blackboard to make group-work engaging

Janet Chamberlain from the Department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascular Disease, describes how she has used Blackboard Collaborate as a means of delivering lectures, seminars and drop-in sessions with little more than ‘teething problems’.

She has also noted the readiness of her students to adapt to this new way of teaching, including through group work Janet said: “I converted an interactive session where students would normally work in groups with pen and paper to do several exercises - and instead used the breakout groups and a whiteboard - students would have to download the exercises which were supplied by Blackboard prior to the session.

“Separately, in the same session, I shared a document that students could then highlight errors on, using the pens supplied in the Blackboard application.

The emergency pivot - creating an emergency online timetable

Dr Louise Robson, Director of Learning and Teaching from the Department of Biomedical Science tells of how she adapted to digital teaching and why a change in the standard timetable was necessary.

Louise said: “What is meant by the Emergency Pivot is that, while I had limited experience of teaching online, I was actually able to adapt my normal approach, simply by turning all my sessions into flipped learning. I released the lecture captures to the students so they could watch and digest the information in advance and then ran online interactive sessions to support student learning.

“As Director of Learning and Teaching in Biomedical Science, I took us off the standard timetable, as didactic lectures were being provided as captures. Instead, we moved to an emergency online timetable, where each module had a regular time slot. In this weekly (or bi-weekly) slot, we ran live interactive sessions, mostly using Blackboard Collaborate (although some people used Google Hangouts/Meets). These were aimed at supporting student understanding of the content in the captures, and to provide opportunities to apply this understanding to problem solve. Students have told me this structured approach helped them with their planning and motivation.”

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What is meant by the Emergency Pivot is that, while I had limited experience of teaching online, I was actually able to adapt my normal approach, simply by turning all my sessions into flipped learning.

Dr Louise Robson, director of learning and teaching, biomedical science

Reducing emails by responding to live feedback

Judy Clegg, Head of Division of Human Communication Sciences, recognises that as many students are not available for live/synchronous teaching (and nor are many staff who have childcare and other commitments working from home), an approach was needed which is accessible to all. This involved effective communication with all students, including PGT and PhD, from the first day of the University closing the buildings. She says that consistency is key.

Judy said: “To do this, we have a central Google document where all students can put their question/query and we answer it there. This takes the pressure off staff in dealing with many emails from students asking the same questions and also helps students as there is one accurate message. We do believe that confusion can cause anxiety in students so the less anxious students are, the more we are able to focus on what we need to do. Staff can also view this so they know the answers.”. If your students are based in China access to Google tools are limited, this approach can also be achieved via the discussion boards in Blackboard.

Creating helpful guides to structure learning for students

Teaching in the Faculty of Science and the Division of Human Communication Sciences has involved programme directors putting together learning programmes for each level of their respective programmes for all students, offering students a guide by which to structure this learning over each week of the online delivery so far. This has been sent by programme directors rather than each module coordinator or staff member delivering the session, again offering a more consistent message to students. Feedback from students indicates this has worked well.

Adapting face-to-face training sessions 

Beth Rodgers, Organisational Development Adviser said: “In the People Development team, our main focus has traditionally been face - face training for groups on either team or leadership and management development. Whilst we have supported face to face learning for our colleagues with links to online resources, the transition we have recently undertaken has meant that we have had to consider how we blend and flip our approach so that we can add value for people in a way that is still engaging.

One of the key challenges for the team has included converting extensive face to face learning sessions into online manageable chunks.

Beth said: “It has been a huge learning curve for the team in terms of producing content that is consistent, engaging and also professional-looking. It has been our first experience of ‘flipping’ learning, converting full or half day learning into more bitesize and flexible online learning.

“There have been some learnings for us in terms of production and post-production for example, considering how we capture audio and screen casts - in bitesize chunks where possible, avoiding extraneous sounds and making full use of animations and transitions on PowerPoint. We have also explored using Xerte in this context to provide more flexibility for learners in terms of pacing, which is a really good tool once you get your head around all the features. This has been particularly helpful in supporting the development needs and learning of new Wellbeing Champions across the institution. With all of this, we have found a balance between reading guides and watching tutorials as well as just giving it a go and trying to share learnings with each other as we do.”

Screengrab of title slide from new Xerte course for Wellbeing Champions

It has been a huge learning curve for the team in terms of producing content that is consistent, engaging and also professional-looking. It has been our first experience of ‘flipping’ learning, converting full or half day learning into more bitesize and flexible online learning.

beth rodgers, organisational development adviser

IT Services report record breaking usage of systems

The scale of change in practice can be seen in preliminary data results, with Encore Universal Capture now reaching up to 102 sessions in a day, up from around just 1 or 2 a day previously. We have had almost 2000 videos uploaded to Kaltura in one week, compared to 250 videos uploaded during the week before lockdown. Similarly, Blackboard Collaborate reached a peak of around 3,000 sessions in one day, with almost 12,500 unique users, up from around 30 sessions a day in February.

We are also seeing data that suggests students are logging into Blackboard from 140 countries - reflecting our international cohort many who have returned home during the coronavirus pandemic.

These successes don’t come without hard work

Dr Rachael Rothman from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering identifies some of the challenges associated with remote teaching of group projects and flipped classroom modules, particularly when having students all around the world can mean working longer hours during the week to ensure they are fully supported.

Rachael said: “Design week is a project based learning activity and had 174 students across 30 groups - a logistical challenge to deliver online! I ran two parallel Blackboard Collaborate sessions (each can only take max 20 breakout groups), with a third Blackboard Collaborate session each day for information briefings, plus made use of google sheets to compare calculation values and designs.

"Hardware is important for this level of delivery and I couldn’t have done it without two laptops and an iPad running Blackboard simultaneously. With students all around the world I worked incredibly long hours all week to ensure they were getting support. The team of 6 staff/GTAs were fantastic, however in future I would have a larger team of people involved so that everyone could take shifts to provide support for students in other timezones without it being on me as module leader to work out of hours.

“Students have learned a lot about project management and communication, even more so than if they had been doing the project in person. In future years I will consider doing more online preparatory material that students can view in their own time (e.g. prerecorded lectures), thereby leaving the 'contact' time for project based learning activities.”

Students have learned a lot about project management and communication, even more so than if they had been doing the project in person.

dr rachael rothman, department of chemical and biological engineering

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Watch: How does digital teaching work at University

Hear more from colleagues and our students about how they are engaging positively with digital delivery in this video which has also been shared with prospective students:

Support for teaching in 2020-21

To provide support for teaching in September, the Elevate team is preparing a comprehensive package of support to help you plan for remote and blended teaching. This will include a mixture of web-based resources, 1:1/small group support sessions, and webinars to give you the tools, knowledge and confidence to teach in different ways while maintaining quality and student connectedness.

If you would like to share your experiences of online teaching, please email: internalcommunications@sheffield.ac.uk

For the most up-to-date information visit our coronavirus web pages.