The practicalities of an online pivot: adaptation in real-time

 Author: Kirsty McIntyre

Introduction to context

It was the summer of 2020, and Higher Education in Scotland was facing indefinite suspension of on-campus teaching following a rapid emergency pivot to online teaching in March 2020. In my role as coordinator of the first semester of year 1 of an undergraduate medicine course, I had many questions.

How were we going to deliver a successful course moving into the new academic year? What could and should that look like? Did I have the relevant skills to support this transition?

Up until then, we had typically used a range of face-to-face teaching formats to achieve the goals of the curriculum including large (labs, lectures) and small group (clinical and vocational skills training, problem-based learning) teaching.

Whilst there is a lot that I could write about here, this piece focusses on the practicalities of shifting a course online, and how we worked together with our students to improve the course in real-time.

Starting out

My initial focus was on upskilling, fact-finding and engaging with the existing and emerging pedagogical literature. On diving into the literature, I discovered the, until now unfamiliar, terms ‘synchronous’ (what are essentially online, ‘live’ activities) and ‘asynchronous’ (online anytime). This quickly led me to consider the next question – what would the ‘ideal’ balance be for our students? Our decision in the end came down to a combination of a leap of faith of what we thought would be the best approach, based on our reading and discussions with colleagues.

We decided to have most lectures available online anytime (asynchronously) and introduced new live synchronous feedback sessions, primarily designed to include interactive elements (quizzes, Q&A). Small group teaching (vocational skills and problem-based learning) shifted to a live synchronous format on Zoom.

Setting up

To support the pivot to online, we made some significant changes to our student virtual learning environment (Moodle). We designed a new consistent and intuitive format that could be rolled out to years 1 and 2 of the undergraduate medicine course.

We constructed the course to provide structure for students as they learned to manage their studies. For example, we used ‘groups’ to allow staggered access to content (e.g., for release of materials for small group teaching). A key element was turning on completion tracking, giving students the ability to tick off tasks or lectures they had done. In the early weeks of the course, learning activity access was restricted by completion of other tasks, e.g., when students had achieved a cut-off score in a quiz. This, in part, was trying to mimic a normal timetable where lectures/labs would only be available at a certain time. This was important as the long list of Moodle tasks could be overwhelming. Over time, as students learned to manage their time and learning week, students asked that we remove this structure as they were now clearly comfortable with organizing themselves.

We introduced several new software platforms to supplement various teaching elements. A key change in terms of course coordination was the introduction of Microsoft OneNote to host all the course Intended Learning Outcomes in a single notebook. This has been a huge success because it both helps students to keep track of their learning and streamlines the assessment mapping process for staff.

We also introduced Microsoft Teams to provide students a space to share resources, files and build peer support networks within small groups. The platform has also been used by staff for ad hoc notifications and for linking to supplementary resources such as links to relevant videos or television programmes.

In each instance, training was required for staff and students to support use of new software. This was provided asynchronously via instructional documents and/or screencast demo recordings.

Student partnership to inform course design

We collected weekly feedback from students via an anonymous Moodle suggestion box. The suggestion box provided an anonymous space for students to tell us what was or was not working, and why. In previous years this feedback has helped us identify specific areas that we could consider changing for the next year. However, this academic year the suggestion box helped to support the iterative process of developing the course in partnership with students as we explored new approaches and experimented with different formats.

We also adapted our guidance for students by priming students to give respectful feedback. This was introduced verbally in live sessions, and by adapting the wording used in the suggestion box. These simple reminders had a major impact in how students communicated with us.

To close the feedback loop, we responded to all student feedback at the fortnightly synchronous feedback sessions. The feedback sessions provided a platform for an open dialogue with students with an opportunity to explain any changes we planned to make, justify stances that would remain unchanged or, where queries had been raised, offer a short live demo, e.g., of how to access their reading list.

Based on this dynamic process of staff-student feedback, we made several changes to our course that we had not even considered before beginning the semester. Many suggestions were adjustments that would support students to manage their time effectively. For example:

  • Making the upcoming week’s content visible to students on the Friday of the preceding week
  • Adding approximate completion times to lesson (lab, lecture, essential reading) titles
  • Automating the release of slides at midnight on day of release (not 9am) to accommodate overseas students

These adjustments were necessary because in this ‘new normal’ much of their weekly teaching content was available asynchronously, and on top of that the time required for each asynchronous task varied, in contrast to the ‘old normal’ where lectures were 1 hour as standard.

What became clear as the semester progressed was that our students struggled with having most lectures delivered asynchronously, even with associated synchronous feedback sessions. Whilst the decision to offer content asynchronously was evidence-based, we will look to offer more synchronous lecture formats for the upcoming academic year.

What we have learned

The biggest take home message was the fluid nature of the pivot and how we had to be adaptable and ready to change as we listened to student feedback. This relationship was so important as, while we anticipated many issues with the pivot to online, we couldn’t anticipate them all.

The ongoing communication and dialogue with students that was generated meant that we learned so much more than we would have, which will support the development of future blended learning approaches. End of semester feedback, reflection and discussions with colleagues and students highlighted some changes that we didn’t make but would be beneficial for next year. These include:

  • Being more upfront and explicit about communication. In some areas we were good at this, but clearer guidance could be offered to establish reasonable expectations when communicating with staff: acceptable contact hours, appropriate platforms (Teams, email, Moodle, etc.) and expected response times.
  • Including a weekly checklist at the start of the semester to help guide students through various tasks and Moodle sites.
  • Creating a glossary and encouraging students to co-populate it with new terms as the semester progresses.

The pivot to online teaching and learning for academic year 2020/21 was a huge opportunity for experimentation, student partnership, and the overhaul of entrenched norms. I am excited to build upon the innovations that have been made in response to this need and use these to support future blended models of learning and teaching.

Top 3 resources to check out, if you have…

5 minutes

Top Tips for Getting Started Teaching Online Padlet wall from the National Institute for Digital Learning, Dublin City University

30 minutes

Nordmann E, Horlin C, Hutchison J, Murray JA, Robson L, et al. (2020) Ten simple rules for supporting a temporary online pivot in higher education. PLOS Computational Biology 16(10): e1008242. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1008242

A few hours

How To Teach Online: Providing Continuity for Students’ FutureLearn course

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