George Gosling, University of Wolverhampton
What works at any given time is, of course, historically and contextually contingent. So it proved for teaching online during lockdown last time, and so it will prove again.
When university teaching in the UK migrated online in March 2020, most of those teaching at universities were completely unprepared for the tasks suddenly facing them. Nearly a year later, our latest full national lockdown has wrought more confusion.
Yet, most universities have invested significant time and effort into developing their policies and practices, even if not always the material provisions on offer to staff and students to equip them for online teaching and learning. Teaching staff themselves have learned a lot from the exhausting and anxiety-inducing experience of 2020.
We begin 2021 with a far greater understanding of what quality online teaching requires. The ways in which it differs from what we’re used to, and importantly the ways in which it might not differ as much as we at first assumed.
Simply move the class online?
One of the fundamental questions when designing online teaching is whether it should be accessed synchronously or asynchronously by students. In other words, do you simply move a class online or do you recreate its various elements as activities to be undertaken at the student’s leisure?
Initially, I opted primarily for the latter: recorded lectures, online reading materials, discussion boards and learning activities that could all be undertaken whenever best suited the student. Such an approach was geared towards providing as much flexibility as possible at short notice amidst the upheavals, uncertainties and anxieties of the arrival of COVID-19. At the same, other colleagues in my own department favoured various kinds of virtual classes and chat functions, in keeping with student calls to keep the feel of regular classes as much as possible. Both approaches were informed by serious thought about the needs of students at such a difficult time, both in keeping with different threads of early student feedback about what they needed and wanted during the great online migration. Neither found much of an audience. Participation across the board was minimal.
At first, I felt this was a great failing of some kind or other. Even after all the work I’d put in, had let my students down? But I gradually extended what I was saying in the rest of my life to my teaching: just getting by is a success. Very few students were unable to complete their assignments, and those who couldn’t benefitted from flexibility and support from the university. Lengthy Zoom and MS Teams meetings were added to the emails and phone calls where the most anxious students could be reassured. Repeatedly students who were being offered more time, further guidance and additional resources just wanted to get their assignments done. And they did. Everyone got by. And I slowly came to terms with the fact that, in such unsettling circumstances, that is a success.
Heading into this academic year, we were all more ambitious for online learning. My own institution put online provision alongside face-to-face classes in a ‘blended learning’ mix until the government instructed them to close campus in early December. As a result, the teaching I had done before (mostly on-campus with some supporting online activities and materials) split in a mix of directions. Lectures became a series of videos to watch ahead of seminars. There were then many more of those seminars: smaller, socially-distanced on-campus classes where nobody could leave their seats as well as an online iteration for those needing or preferring to participate remotely. Discussions of regular set readings, making heavy use of break-out groups, could now practically only happen online. Meanwhile, discussion boards became a necessary back-up to ensure students with increasingly complicated lives were not disadvantaged by the participation grades I had introduced just before I first heard the word ‘Coronavirus’.
With teaching bouncing around between on-campus, online, a mix of the two or even both in parallel, everyone in Higher Education has had to think about what good university-level teaching looks like in their discipline.
The distinctiveness of historical study
When it comes to teaching online, some of the key thinking and advice can be helpful regardless of discipline. For example, the importance of ensuring resources and activities are inclusive – with captions on videos and sign language interpreters being visible during online classes. Some of the etiquette we’ve become used to for online meetings and conference sessions will apply to online classes, such as letting people participate on their own terms. Feeling obliged to turn on your camera can be unnerving for those having to work from their bedroom or with their children running around behind them, while chat functions can be the easiest way for those with poor internet connections to have their say.
However, we also need to think what works best for teaching History specifically. In particular, it is a content-heavy subject in which there are few agreed correct answers. As with many other subjects, there may be scope for embracing more enquiry-based learning or creating more opportunities for students to become producers. Yet there is also a characteristic of historical enquiry that means such developments will always need to be balanced with the continued prominence of content delivery. In most disciplines, students are learning to apply new theories and frameworks to an aspect of the world around them or an area of activity with which they are already familiar. For most modules on a History degree, students will be learning about a time and place, or at least an aspect of that time and place, that is new to them.
Even as they become skills-rich over the course of their degree, History students will regularly be encountering topics where they are information-poor. And even if there was an untapped reservoir of desire amongst our students for more independent study, they would require some detailed orientation. For these reasons, History students in particular might easily feel lost if faced with the chance to roam freely around curated content as recommended in some learning and teaching scholarship. Without the ability to quietly ask a question at the end of a lecture or seminar, the need for direction or a guided tour of online learning spaces and materials becomes all the more important.
Meanwhile, generic advice for designing online courses, or that with other disciplines in mind, often assumes content will be curated, drawing upon a vast array of available options, rather than created specifically for that course. This may work for many subjects but misunderstands the nature of History as a debate-focused discipline. It is in our DNA as historians to debate everything, including what groupings of themes and issues should be recognised as key topics and where we should place their chronological and geographical boundaries. And this is emboldened by a (poorly-evidenced but nevertheless unshakable) commitment to research-led teaching, expecting historians to reconfigure topics around their own specialisms and insights wherever possible.
The result is that all but a small number of modules on History courses require purpose-made content week in week out. Of course, curated content is also essential, in the form of set and recommended readings, primary sources, documentaries and external lectures, which might be used in full or in part. As with any subject, their curation requires serious thought about how they fit together, and what we want students to focus on with them. Yet, where it is often recommended that (pre-recorded) content delivery is kept to a minimum for online teaching, this is not realistic for a History course.
The otherness of the past ensures that students need (and want) content delivery to be a core element of how they are taught. This provides the foundation for independent study, the platform on which they can become active learners. While this can, and should, be broken up into manageable chunks, it would not serve our students well if the content delivery on every module was suddenly reduced to a weekly 10-minute introductory video (which I have seen recommended as good practice in another discipline).
Relying largely on purpose-made content means, of course, that it will reflect us more than might be the case in subjects that can make greater use of curated content. White male historians have fewer opportunities to hide behind a diversity of faces on the screen from YouTube videos. This is, of course, all the more problematic because of our discipline’s depressing record in changing the profile of our profession. As wonderful as they are, David Olusoga clips from the iPlayer cannot be used to distract from the shameful reality. Change on this front will require much longer and harder work.
Learning from our own history
The good news is that, in most aspects of moving our teaching online, we have long-established traditions of good practice to draw upon. We shouldn’t be thrown by the range of digital tools available to us. Instead, we can focus on what we know works and think about how to most simply translate that to a new environment.
Hour-long (or even longer) lectures are simply too much to pay attention to online, even if your internet connection holds out. But we know what the key ingredients are, so we should be able to break them up. On MasterChef they’d call it a deconstructed lecture: initial introduction to the topic, background, overview, key actors, major debates, influential scholars, how this links to the overarching themes of the module, whether it is related to an assignment or another learning activity. Each of these could be its own video or identified as a topic for discussion in a live online session. We often do this in the lecture hall anyway, with lectures broken up into different sections and interactive elements interspersed to ensure the learning experience is not entirely a passive one. There’s no reason we should approach a pre-recorded lecture any differently.
Moving online is a great opportunity to embrace flipped learning, we often hear. Luckily for us, this is essentially a reinvention of the History seminar as first practiced in this country at the University of Manchester over a century ago. We might say something similar about group activities where students work with primary sources, as were found in the Special Subjects offered at Oxford and Cambridge (and further afield) by the end of the 1880s. Who gets to be a History student, what primary sources we use and what questions we ask of them have all changed dramatically over nearly a century-and-a-half, but many of the fundamental formats for learning and teaching in History have remained largely intact.
This does not mean that we should shy away from innovation. It does, however, mean that we already know what we want to do with new technologies. We might not be able to hand out materials in class but instead need to be make them accessible on a variety of devices. A show of hands in a lecture hall might be replaced by either a quick poll conducted during a live online class or an online quiz set for students between short lecture videos or to assess understanding of them before a live online class. Small and large group discussions will take longer with some people speaking and others typing. And we will need to explicitly justify each piece of content delivered in a way we might not have done for an aside offered mid-lecture.
None of these things, however, change the fundamentals of learning and teaching History. We may find ourselves wondering whether some of them work better as virtual learning activities and counting the days until we can get back to doing others in person. Yet, in these times of heightened uncertainty and anxiety, it is worth reminding ourselves that there is no question mark over what our teaching, on-campus or online, needs to do.
About the author: George Gosling is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Wolverhampton, where he is currently the History, Politics and War Studies Department’s Online Learning Champion.