Transnational reflections on online teaching and learning
It’s been over 15 months since we’ve had to suddenly move our courses online. A time during which we have learned many new things about synchronous versus asynchronous learning, about the technicalities of Microsoft Teams and Zoom, but also about the difficulties of maintaining a learning community of students and staff in an online setting.
The two of us have always had an interest in issues pertaining to teaching and learning. Something that we’ve written about (for instance here and here) and also discussed during several conferences (including the first-ever European Teaching & Learning Conference in Maastricht in 2014).
A few months back we were having an online chat about our online teaching and learning experience. We thought that it would be nice to organise a transnational exchange between the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Social Sciences and Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. On 28 May 2021 over 20 colleagues from both faculties, plus a student from each, joint us to reflect on over a year of online teaching and learning. This is what we discussed.
There was a general feeling that technology should not replace the personal touch but can add a personal touch. Many of the participants noted the increased accessibility and flexibility offered by (a)synchronous online teaching. In both faculties, there was a sense that components of active learning pedagogy particularly made online teaching more effective and enjoyable. Some tools allow for more interaction.
Students who might normally be reluctant to ask a question in a large lecture setting, seem to have been more willing to do so in the Zoom chat. Padlet, an online collaboration platform, offers opportunities for students to jointly tackle an assignment or question without the at times awkward setting of the breakout room. In addition, tools such as podcasts and videos allow students to study at their own pace and in their own time, which can be particularly important for those with caring duties or jobs.
The way that technology can unlock time for some students does allow flexible learning to suit the increasingly diverse student body. Lastly, colleagues also observed that more than ever before students thanked staff for their lectures, seminars and workshops. This was very much appreciated in these challenging times.
Participants also noted several challenges pertaining to online teaching and learning. This first and foremost concerned the lack of informal interaction, not just during lectures, seminars and workshops, but also before and after. This can even result in a feeling of isolation that might come with more problems than just a lack of engagement with university. This issue was raised by both academic staff and the two students, Lara and Luke.
Staff also noted the issue of workload. Recording a podcast or a video can be time-consuming and is often not compensated in the same way as an on-campus lecture. In addition, while such asynchronous activities certainly can be a contribution, they often require additional lectures, seminars or workshops to go into detail or to have time for Q&A.
Finally, while more active learning activities were valued, many felt that they came with a need for more scaffolding to help students make the most of online learning. Keeping the balance between student-centred and teacher-led learning was seen as a challenge.
Overall, we found the event very fruitful. And judging from the many positive reactions we received during and after, other participants thought so too. Several important issues were brought to the table, including staff and students’ digital skills, the role of emotions and human interaction, and the issue of workload.
One particularly telling observation was that perhaps the online/face2face dimension is less of an issue in some areas than we first thought. For example, some of the reflections were more about engaging versus non-engaging learning activities rather than online versus face2face and that good pedagogy – whatever the platform – requires structure, ground rules and clear instructions.
Colleagues had embraced the opportunity to adapt teaching formats and activities to make them more engaging. They did this via enhancing student ownership/co-creation, addressing emergent real-world issues such as the COVID pandemic from an interdisciplinary perspective and experimenting with new forms of assessment. Many of these changes indeed do not depend on online or face2face formats, but some elements were easier to organize online, for example creating opportunities for students to consult with external experts.
We are looking into possible follow-up events to address these issues in further detail. Given that both institutions are members of the World University Network, we hope that this is the starting point of a broader discussion, perhaps resulting in a live event in the future. Because, as one of the participants, Alexandra Mihai, has emphasised time and time again in her excellent blog The Educationalist, continuous reflection on teaching and learning is important and something that ideally takes place between colleagues across departmental and even national borders!
About the authors
Patrick Bijsmans is Associate Professor in Teaching and Learning European Studies at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Simon Lightfoot is Pro Dean for Student Education and Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Social Sciences. In addition to an interest in teaching and learning, Patrick and Simon also share an interest in cycling and a good beer.