Dr. Caitlin Kight, Senior Academic Developer at the University of Exeter has faced significant changes as an education professional during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the programme director for the Learning and Teaching in the Higher Education (LTHE) Programme, she is actively involved in training early-career educators to deliver high quality teaching. She is also a lead on issues, such as inclusivity in the curriculum, a major topic of discussion throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Caitlin is studying for an Education Doctorate and focuses on how educators use reflection to improve their teaching and learning techniques. The Auditio blog is dedicated to exploring how the pandemic has affected the university learning experience, what changes were implemented and how the wider university community views them.
Millie and I heard Caitlin’s thoughts on the new digital environment including how she’s adapting her teaching to make learning more inclusive.
Credits: Michelle Trottier
Acceptance of online learning
As most educators, Caitlin had to rewrite sessions that would usually be face-to-face into an online friendly format. However, Caitlin noted an interesting change, the accreditation from LTHE by an external organisation. Early 2020 LTHE was already working to adapt so that learning was more inclusive for off-campus students, and the project was launched mid-pandemic. This meant that what was supposed to be a programme directed for a minority of students (those off-campus or with other time commitments), suddenly became the new ordinary for every student. I guess this was a happy coincidence for the University and the LTHE community who had developed online resources already. Caitlin spoke about how well suited the LTHE programme is to online learning and that when on-campus teaching returns, it’s possible a high percentage of LTHE students will stick with online sessions.
Bringing back the sense of community
When asked about what she thinks is the biggest challenge for students in the new environment, Caitlin started by saying that her students have been very complimentary of the online content. However, like many, some of her students reportedly miss interacting with peers during the course. Thus, the challenge for her is creating an interactive environment for all. Some staff are worried that monitoring and assuring the quality of synchronous (and even asynchronous) interactions is difficult due to the flexibility of online learning. As a way of tackling this challenge, following a suggestion from LTHE tutor Giorgia Pigato, drop-in cafes have been made available to increase student interactions. Sadly, participation in these cafés have been lower than expected but this may be because nothing can really beat an in-person chat. Millie described how it’s difficult to create the same ‘sense of community’ and effective peer-to-peer interactions, as those created on-campus. Caitlin and Millie discussed how spontaneously bumping into old friends outside a lecture struggles to be re-created in an online environment. The two of them spoke about possible solutions to this issue and implementing a strong induction programme was seen as a way of making students more comfortable about joining the café sessions and building friendships with other students they might not, initially, know.
Online learning as a permanent alternative
Caitlin was enthusiastic about keeping online learning an option if we were to return safely to in-person teaching. She has many students that prefer the digital environment as a convenient form of learning. Some may be unable to participate otherwise. What is interesting to her is how those that she teaches (academics and staff) have reacted positively to this option as well, due to the flexibility online teaching allows. The digital environment prevents the need to run from building to building in minutes, saving time and energy. To her, delivering sessions online increases the chance that students will come. Thus, for Caitlin, regardless of when face-to-face learning can be restored, there will always be an online version available to her students. She indicated there may be a parallel with patterns observed in the Doctoral College, where many of Kelly Preece’s Researcher Development Programme sessions were more highly attended as webinars than as in-person sessions. As a result, she started scheduling more webinars and more people kept coming. Like Kelly, Caitlin argues that going online may remove some barriers to learning, and so this is an option that should always be made available.
Challenges blended learning approaches
Millie questioned whether if eventually being able to blend online and face-to-face teaching would make learning more difficult, in terms of logistics. She asked whether having one online session and one face-to-face session would be too complicated when compared to having two in person sessions. She wonders if once we are able to spend the day on campus or any other place, finding a quiet spot to attend an online session would be impractical. Caitlin agreed that such issue could impact some of her students – primarily undergraduates and postgraduates, with this likely being less of an issue for colleagues who have office space. She suggested the introduction of some sort of ‘online-learning friendly’ spaces that could potentially solve this issue, but also identified that it’s more of a logistical challenge in terms of timetabling and facilities use.
The next subject was how Caitlin made her teaching more inclusive due to the digital learning. This was a particularly relevant question, as Caitlin actually teaches how to make learning more inclusive. She surprisingly thinks that there are many issues regarding inclusivity that still need to be considered, highlighting digital inclusivity as a particular concern. How do we guarantee the quality of somebody’s broadband if they aren’t on campus? Do they have a computer, or will they study through their phones? This issues first came to her during one of her sessions when a student couldn’t engage with the resources properly because he was joining the session through their phone.
A solution Caitlin suggested would be to alleviate the student’s digital burden. Something Caitlin kindly does for her students, is some resources into alternative formats, e.g., turning articles into podcasts to give them a chance to take a break from staring at the computer screen. It also makes it easier for someone using a phone or even commuting to go through the required content. Caitlin also highlights the importance of making webpages screen-reader friendly. Sometimes making an ELE page too pretty might just make it harder for the equipment to read through it. Lastly, she talks about the importance of trying to figure out how parts of her lessons can be delivered offline or without having to use the computer, again, to alleviate the digital burden. Simply creating a task that can be printed and solved with a pen would make a huge difference for a pair of eyes staring at a screen all day long. Millie and I agreed that such solutions were great ideas to alleviate the digital burden that students bear.
Remember what is important
When asked what she would tell people who are still worried about learning or teaching online, Caitlin had a simple answer. We tend to get caught up in the online, digital aspect and forget that “at the end of the day, learning is learning, and teaching is teaching”. Online tools are fantastic, but they are exactly what they sound like: tools. If you don’t know how to use them, someone can tell you how to. The digital aspect can’t dictate your learning. The learning should be driving the digital, and not the other way around. Millie believes this tip is especially useful for more traditional lecturers, who are sceptical about the digital environment. They should trust that they know what the students need to know, and from there they can work out which additional digital resources are necessary.
Finally, the last topic of our conversation covered any unexpected benefits Caitlin perceived in this new environment. Caitlin is very interested on how when delivering certain things online, some people are more talkative and willing to engage. The in-person sessions can make people self-conscious but having the screen “sheltering” them sometimes makes students more comfortable with interacting, whether by turning their cameras on or by typing in the chat. Specifically, she believes that the chat allows the conversation to grow beyond the lecturer, with students collaborating and exchanging ideas secondarily to what the lecturer is presenting. To Caitlin, the increased dialogue in her online sessions made them more enjoyable. She wants to find out how to capture this collaborative essence, that the chat function provides, so it can be applied when we go back to face to face teaching.
Thank you, Caitlin, for agreeing to this interview and thank you Millie for hosting it with me. This chat has exposed some great and positive thoughts on the digital learning environment. I hope it will make more people feel positive towards the new way of learning and see all the opportunities that come with it.