Teaching in universities has always been a strange thing. Anyone that has been through the university system is oh too aware of it’s inconsistencies, eccentricities and tweed.

Being a good lecturer has often come second to being a good researcher (or more accurately paper publisher) and any training has been all too focused on “you’ve been in a lecture, that means you can give one”.

But things have been slowly changing. Universities have been trying to promote best practice (e.g. not using 10,000 word slides) and trying to ensure lecturers have basic training and a certificate of higher education teaching.

As a lecturer there has been more support and across the UK some fairly consistent recognition (albeit small) that teaching is a real skill that takes work and time to hone. It’s not just something you can become an expert at in just 2 months.

Then in just 2 months a virus came along and demanded that everyone become totally different teachers. Teachers that are in separate rooms behind low resolution webcams.

To some it may seem like not a very big difference between teaching to a room and teaching to a video call but there’s so many things that make it a whole different world of teaching.

For starters (and possibly the most obvious) is the difference in live feedback. Teaching to a room full of people you get an almost immediate feeling as to how well what your explaining is going in (or even being understood) and it can frequently inform lectures about pace and even potentially stopping and asking students questions to gauge comprehension.

Online you loose that dramatically. Firstly your class room is now a single screen with all your students reduced to 20 pixel squares. Furthermore those 20 pixels are mostly on mute so any passive feedback is practically zero.

The solution is to have a more interactive sessions with more questions and more routes to other feedback things (there are apps, there are apps for everything). It’s hard to get used but it really helps because without feedback then you are going to end up with some very dry lectures.

Even simple things like slides need to be very different. Showing people powerpoint slides is simple enough but if you do that then you have instantly been reduce to a radio show lecturers as your disembodied video talks over powerpoint slides. It might not seem like a big deal but seeing a lecturer speak/gesticulate can make a big impact on the way materials are conveyed.

You can solve this fairly well with some edits to make room for a little picture in picture you but I’m not sure about any other academics but I didn’t make my slides thinking that I needed to leave room mini me.

I hope that as this all carries on that academics and teaching staff everywhere get cut a lot of slack while they frantically re-learn how to teach. And likewise I hope that students get a lot more support to do home learning as while this article has been about teachers suddenly having to become a distance learner is no picnic either and deserves it’s own article and set of advice.


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