Tips for teaching and learning online in a pandemic

As communities all over the world isolate themselves, hundreds of schools, colleges and universities are shifting their classes online. Here are some ideas for anyone affected about how to manage your studies in this new learning environment.

Putting everything into focus
We are living in a global pandemic so you should not expect ‘business as usual’ nor to be ‘at your most productive’. Accept that unusual times require radically different approaches. Lower your standards and expectations accordingly. Put your mental wellbeing first. Studying/teaching is important, but not as important as you. You can find advice on managing your mental health here and here plus calming strategies here. Additional help resources (including crisis numbers) can be found here.

Don’t dis distance learning
I’ve been teaching by distance learning for over 21 years, online for 18 of those. In that time I’ve supervised MScs and PhDs, provided hours of pastoral care, examined theses, collaborated on global research projects and awareness campaigns, co-written papers, and supported healthcare practitioners to make differences in their communities. Online learning is an established and effective method of teaching and learning. Notable alumni using online, distance and flexible studies like you’re using now include Nelson Mandela, Luísa Diogo and all of these people who’ve obtained degrees from the Open University. Hopefully that reassures you this approach is as valid as the face-to-face/offline teaching you’re used to.

Responding to a crisis
Recognise what is currently happening is an emergency measure. It takes time for students and teachers to become proficient in the theories, pedagogies and approaches for online/distance/flexible learning. In this fast moving crisis we’re putting work online without the usual structures and strategies in place because it’s the safest, swiftest and easiest way to ensure teaching can continue. For this reason it is wise to accept that:
– things will go wrong (and lots will go right).
– you will learn and adapt along the way.
– everyone reacts differently to the online learning environment and some people need more time/support to adapt to it than others (and that is okay).
– everyone is doing the best they can, given their circumstances and experiences.

Unless you’ve specifically signed up for an online course – either as a student or teacher – it is okay to be uncertain, frustrated and even disappointed about recent changes to your academic world. More so if work you were doing like experiments, archiving, dissertations, field or lab work are currently impossible. Give yourself permission to vent these feelings, remembering we’re all in the same situation and will understand. All of us will have to adapt – and you may find this gives you greater opportunities to learn and grow. It could work out way better than expected and suits you more than face-to-face teaching/learning. But if it is challenging, working within your specific limitations is appropriate.

Are you ready to go online?
Check you have what you need to in order to work online. There are ideas here for basic set ups but you should also check what your college is requiring you to use and continue to do so in the weeks/months ahead as online teaching/learning systems and syllabi may alter.

Create a weekly timetable you check and update daily
1. Note refreshment breaks, rest and relaxation time.
2. Highlight live sessions where you’ll need to be connected online with others for lectures, meetings, tutorials etc.
3. Schedule in time for reading, writing, reflection.
4. Agree times when you’ll connect with colleagues/friends to talk about how things are going, share tips and check everyone knows what’s expected.
5. Include time for household chores and other essential activities.

If you are studying/teaching alongside other people who are working/studying at home your schedule may need to be flexible to accommodate everyone’s need to get online and also to have times of privacy and peace.

Let your tutor (for students) or supervisor (for academic staff) know if you:
– don’t have access to any resources or online learning platforms/tools.
– are a frontline healthcare/other essential worker required to work outside the home (and might struggle to match this with online teaching/learning schedules).
– are aware of any issues that are likely to affect your ability to work/study.
– have accessibility needs or accommodations (your college/university may already be aware of this, but your needs for home/online study may not be the same as on campus and will require adaptation).
– are struggling with financial hardship meaning things like printing, paying for extra phone/internet use, heating/lighting etc is causing problems for you.
– have other family members working/studying at home with you and/or carer duties; particularly if these are liable to interrupt your work/study.
– have children or other adults living with you who have special needs or care requirements that may make it difficult for you to deliver the tasks your university is expecting.
– are sick; have hospital, therapy or other essential appointments; and will not be able to make a specific meeting/tutorial etc. Unless there is an emergency alert people in advance about absences and if there is an emergency either tell your university yourself or appoint a friend/family member to do this.
– can’t understand any instructions you’ve been given, or if you are unable to complete any tasks as requested.
– need pastoral support as this can still be given online and may be particularly appropriate if you are experiencing problems within your relationship (including relationship violence), family (including estrangement), finances, or any issue causing you distress.
– are aware that things you’ve been working on are either not going to happen or might go wrong (for example if you haven’t yet collected data for your dissertation and now there isn’t any chance to do this due to lockdown). This may be scary, but remember anticipating problems and planning for them and being frank about what isn’t working is better than hoping it’ll sort itself or hiding difficulties.

Other useful things to know and do
Join a union.

Create a support network of friends/colleagues/family members who can help you navigate a rapid learning experience and comfort/distract you outside work/study.

Accept there may be some academic work you cannot do right now. Note this and record it with your tutor/supervisor. And find other things you can do in the meantime (for example if you can’t do fieldwork you can catch up with literature reviewing).

Resist the pressure to be perfect. If you’re coping with multiple tasks, being good enough is fine. Let non-essential tasks go.

Be mindful of your own stress levels. If you are being snappy, angry, passive aggressive or otherwise unkind it is time to have a break and focus on making a more manageable schedule. Take care that your stress doesn’t come over as rude, demanding, or bullying.

There is no need to overwork at any time, but in the current environment be aware if your hectic schedule is making things stressful and difficult for your students, colleagues, or your family.

Whether it’s setting work or replying to your tutor/classmates whatever you put online will take way longer than you expect for people to read and process. Don’t feel obliged to ‘look busy’. Less is always better.

It’s fine to set limits with your time, workload and your expectations.

Presenteeism is toxic in academia and we don’t want it infecting our homes. Pushing yourself or others to compete in who can be online the most is unhelpful. Online teaching/learning is a misleading title as most of our academic activities still need to happen quietly, away from phones and computers, as we digest and complete our studies/work.

If people are sick they are sick. That means they can’t work or study. Being at home makes zero difference. Don’t feel obliged to work if you are sick, nor push people to do so.

During online meetings/lectures mute your mic if you aren’t talking (and if whatever platform you’re using doesn’t do this for you).

It’s great to be helpful but check if people want resources rather than overloading them with cool things you’ve found on the Internet.

Text and audio may be better than video or livestreaming. It’s fine to switch to majority text based teaching/learning if video and livestraming is too time consuming, costly or keeps crashing.

If using text, then emojis can help clarify meaning 🙂

Switch off social media while you are teaching/learning and stick to key sources (online library, instructional video, archive etc) while working on a task. Schedule time when you will attend to email (and let people know when that availability is on your brief email signature).

Gifs, videos etc can liven up discussions but judge whether they’d suit the situation and be mindful many gifs are racist, sexist, ableist or excluding in other ways. Check before you share.

Note your surroundings/background so you don’t reveal things online you don’t want others seeing (this includes taking photos of your desktop).

You don’t have to dress formally if you’re doing video calls/classes, but getting out of your pjs is definitely a good idea.

Accept that kids, pets, partners, noisy neighbours and other interruptions are inevitable if communities are all now isolated at home. If you have kids they won’t suffer any longterm damage if you use TV or tablets to occupy them if you need time to focus or attend/give a class.

You may not like the way you look/sound online, appreciate it’s not a competition and you’re doing your best (see also fretting about making an online lecture into a Hollywood budget movie).

If you get stuff wrong, and you will, apologise and put it right.

Be realistic about other people’s timeframes. You may be online 24/7 but they may not. If there are deadlines that need meeting, make those clear. Otherwise accept things will have to slide right now as people juggle with their lives.

Accept we all have different levels of digital literacy and you – or those you teach and work with – may be on a steep learning curve now. Acknowledge and appreciate efforts people are making – especially if you know they are struggling.

Bullying is an ongoing problem in academia, but it can be more pronounced online. The good news is online abuse is in many ways easier to record and report. The bad news is those who bully offline often have few qualms about bullying online and some people who are usually okay offline don’t cope online. If you’re being bullied take advice, gather evidence, ask for witnesses, and don’t be afraid to report. If you see someone being bullied, be an active bystander, don’t let them struggle alone.

Keep a diary – there will be lots you learn now that could be really helpful to yourself and others in the future.

If you enjoy teaching or learning online, consider signing up to other online courses in the future. Or to invest in creating bespoke online courses.

Look for the positives there are people who are being generous, helpful and creative. Find their accounts online or gravitate towards them in your virtual college spaces. Remember to thank them in person or in a message once this is all over.

You may have more ideas for learning online – based on past experience or perhaps what you are now about to discover. Share your tips and resources in the comments so we can help each other out.

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