Has it been 10 years or 10 months?

Emma Wood (MSc) is a Management lecturer in the Business School.

When Poppy asked Emma about the impact of COVID-19 on teaching, she replied in one, very relatable way: “where to start?”. As students and lecturers, we have all experienced the ups-and-downs of the pandemic in different, sometimes unexpected ways. The rapid transformation throughout Higher Education has been incredible. Emma was apprehensive about the new way of teaching, having spent many years lecturing in-person, moving everything online seemed impossible.

I think we can all agree that as students we do miss sitting in a lecture theatre to learn, or as lecturers like Emma misses, those informal chats with students outside lecture theatres. She places great value on the face-to-face teaching experience and the opportunities of sharing and collaborating within these physical spaces. For many, the digital world is daunting. Breakout rooms can be daunting. I know sometimes it’s just not my day and I’m stuck on what to say in my group and I sit quietly. But similarly, contributing to in-person seminars can also be intimidating. Emma wanted to highlight that she’s been unexpectedly pleased with the engagement by students in online sessions. Poppy and I were enlightened to hear that Emma has had such positive experiences of students being “flexible and supportive when trying new things” because at the end of the day, in Emma’s words “we have advanced 10 years in 10 months”.

Obviously, there are perks as Emma says “not having to travel” is always nice. Even as a student, not having to travel to campus each day is ideal, especially over the winter months. But Emma does mention that students definitely benefitted from the casual conversations with other students when attending in-person lectures. It’s this social side of studying that I miss. You know, when you bumped into someone you met in the first week of uni outside your lecture? And you didn’t realise they did the same module as you? But now you’ve got a new module friend. I find these friends harder to make over Teams or Zoom. Emma then described something that she does to get conversations flowing that I’ve not come across in my online sessions yet. But I loved the idea as soon as I heard it. If you’re a lecturer reading and are to take one thing from this post, this is it! Emma acknowledged that it can be more difficult to be inclusive in the online environment – even though it’s good for those that prefer anonymity, it can be hard to see who wants to engage. To encourage engagement and get people chatting, Emma describes how she uses random ice-breakers at the beginning of online sessions. This could be questions like ‘what are you watching on Netflix at the moment?’ or ‘My old iPhone is broken and it’s time for a new phone. Shall I get a Samsung or Iphone?’ Emma tries to normalise the use of Teams or Zoom through these questions and I believe they’d work well to re-engage students (i.e. me) throughout online sessions.

Emma put a large emphasis on the importance of moving forward together, “blended learning is the way to go”. I can definitely think of some modules that I study that would be best placed for in-person teaching and then others that actually work quite well online. Emma stresses the importance of identifying which modules work best online and which ones just don’t, but for now, we need to just respect everyone’s efforts in responding to the current situation. She revealed to Poppy and I, that she spent her summer doing some online courses and actually realised how tough online learning can be. “It’s hard to concentrate and stay motivated for a long period” especially when staring at a screen, “it’s so tiring’. Emma said she hugely respects students for their effort this year to online learning. Emma reinforced my views that we all need to respect and acknowledge each other’s efforts and concerns. Students and lecturers are both adapting as best as they can as we move towards a new normal. Emma is concerned for those students who had the opportunity elsewhere to remote learn but actually chose to do the full, traditional in-person experience. Emma explains her sympathy for those students that came to university assuming a traditional experience and they’re now faced with a situation that is neither students’ nor lecturers’ fault. Online learning works well for some but not for others. I think it’s the same with anything though, there’s always winners and losers. Those that are finding the adaptation challenging need to be supported and respected.

Emma spoke highly of online learning in the fact that it’s opened up new ways of “experiential and flipped learning”. I don’t know about you but at this point knowledge-based learning and scribbling down everything you can as quickly as possible, from PowerPoint slides, is a distant memory. Emma praises the ability to now use asynchronous sessions to give students the chance to learn the background knowledge in their own time. If you’re like me, I definitely appreciate the fact I can pause videos and not rush my notes so much! Emma explained to Poppy and I that she makes use of synchronous sessions to provide students the chance to apply their knowledge. “We need people to analyse and apply their knowledge to do well in the world”. Also, luckily for Emma as a Digital Marketing lecturer, she’s grasped the chance to use online tools to her advantage. For example, when outlining common digital analytics, such as Google and Facebook Insights, it’s been useful for her to use real snapshots along with the hotspot tool to help students identify patterns. This is something the traditional format doesn’t cater for. Emma is keen to keep a blended learning approach to allow her to keep some aspects online. As a Marketing lecturer, she has always used platforms like Instagram for her cohorts, but she admires Microsoft Teams explaining that it leads to natural conversations. The Teams channel lets students carry on discussions outside of the session and gives lecturers, like Emma, an easy place to post snippets of information or news. Emma prefers the set up on Teams for group work, students can easily share files within a group, collaborate and set up their own meetings. I’d say it’s definitely more convenient than finding out everyone’s numbers and setting up a WhatsApp group (that in reality, probably wouldn’t be used much).

I want to thank Emma Wood for an amazing interview and Poppy for hosting whilst I scribbled away. Poppy and I got some great insights from this interview and we hope that whoever you are, wherever you are, that you can connect with both the positive and challenging aspects of online learning that Emma discussed!

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