Deadlines or Dead Lions?

A short thought-piece by Poppy Osborne from our Auditio Interview with Graham Perkins

This is our first write up from a series of Interviews we are currently hosting with academics. We are finding out their views on digital learning and looking at the opportunities and challenges that come along with this!

Graham Perkins, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management, hasn’t set foot in a classroom since March 13th, 2020. Living with 2 vulnerable people means he has been taking extra precautions to ensure their safety, just like so many of us have been doing these past 311 days. It is currently 311 days since the 23rd March, that gloomy day that we set foot into the first ‘Lockdown’, a totally obscure term at the time but one we have now grappled with for almost a year. Auditio has been delving into the biggest challenges and opportunities experienced by students and academics throughout the pandemic, especially with regard to digital learning. We managed to steal 30 minutes of Graham’s incredibly busy schedule to hear his thoughts on all things digital education from video captioning and breaking down barriers to inclusion, and work-life balance. We wanted to bring you the highlights from our chat in hopes that the more we share and understand one another, the more functional and positive we can make our new learning environment.

Graham’s background is in writing and he has written for external organisations such as CIPD for a long period of time. His background gave him a head start in digital because delivering content in an engaging and informal way wasn’t a new concept. This enabled Graham to rather seamlessly translate some of his content into eloquently written material easily, in ways other lecturers may have found more taxing. The biggest challenge for many lecturers, Graham ponders, is that we often don’t know what ‘good online learning’ looks like. How to provide world-class digital higher-education content isn’t something that has been done before in this way, certainly not on the scale that it is happening now. Without a benchmark, or a handbook, lecturers have to jump these hurdles by themselves, learning through feedback and personal experience, as well as the Digital Learning Assistants and Digital Learning Developers the university has hired. Graham’s solution is open and honest communication and he’s reiterated to students “Just tell me if you don’t like it, I won’t take it personally!” It’s important that students feel empowered to share their feedback with lecturers… No, your student reps aren’t bored of you, yes David Boughey, associate dean of education, is too busy to deal with 20’000 individual email enquiries, so please make sure to check out the dedicated reps and specific channels for this feedback as well as reaching out to individual lecturers. More often than not, the lecturer would love to know that the typo on the ELE page is confusing you all or that the GIF of a cat on their recent PowerPoint slide isn’t working! These feedback loops keep us all going and help improve everyone’s experience – please keep sharing!

One of the biggest challenges for students, that we identified when chatting, was the need for support with independent study techniques. While it has always said ‘150 hours of study per module’ – the reality was often much different but now these kinds of hours are really being reflected in the work students are having to do. Graham, as a personal tutor, is helping students develop these wherever possible and is providing additional guidance on how to structure a ‘typical day’ of university study in the new digital environment. We can all be guilty of checking our timetable and thinking “Oh fantastic! I only have one hour of synchronous content today” (actual translation – I’m off the hook! Back to binge watching Suits and moaning about how much we miss the Lemmy). However, the new digital environment requires that we actually stick to these time pledges and manage our lifestyles accordingly (very unfortunately for Harvey Spector who I’m sure was avidly awaiting my return to the couch!) Reaching out when we aren’t sure about our schedules, workload or how on earth to navigate our extensive reading lists is vital. Graham is totally right in stressing the importance of personal tutors here. If you were looking for a sign to book a meeting with yours – this is it.

Lecture culture, another concept Auditio are coining today, is something Graham touched on when discussing the opportunities for students that this new environment creates. Yes, the contract we ‘signed’ with university included 2 hours of lecture content and 1 hour of seminar content per module per week. But the reality of this is often far from what we pictured it to be. Low attendance, online Panopto-recording catch ups and a dash to the library to re-read that chapter before our assignment is due. The digital environment does undoubtably come with a number of challenges, but the amount of content we are getting is not insufficient in comparison to what it was before. In-fact if you were missing lectures, just like we were on a Thursday morning, Wednesday TP isn’t avoidable, we know, then we are actually getting the added benefit of the time-less online content and hopefully not sitting at the back of the forum lecture hall feeling very unwell. Lecture culture doesn’t always work for everyone and the new digital environment certainly enables us to access content as and when we wish to. The engagement can be much higher with successful online content too. As we all know a question asked in a 500-person lecture theatre isn’t that likely to be answered voluntarily so digital content is able to increase interaction, without the dreaded stare of 499 other students, as we ask a question.

If you’re still reading, thank you and yes – I am about to explain the ‘dead lions’ title. When discussing inclusivity in digital education with Graham and hailing all the newly accessible features of Teams and Zoom, we got onto captioning videos. Graham talked proudly of the inclusivity that can be found from the enhanced features of digital learning. Namely for international students who may particularly benefit from captioned videos as well as those with additional or more specific learning needs who use the captions. Maria, our co-editor and fantastic DLA speaks from experience, as an international student, for whom English is not her first language. As an English student myself, I will never quite be able to articulate the awe I feel for those learning in another language. I can only just manage “Je ne comprends pas. Parlez-vous anglais ?” So, to be unpacking the origins of Shakespeare, or analysing the figures of Forbes 100 countries in your second language is something I will forever consider to be a super-human power. Automatic captioning is only so good, and our dedicated lecturers, such as Graham, have been editing the captions themselves and correcting errors. Graham’s explanation of an assignment’s deadline turned into the caption ‘dead lion’ and therein lies the title of this blog.

Graham spoke of how important balance is and, as students, Maria and I were so pleased to hear how much emphasis Graham and many other lecturers, are putting onto this work-life balance. We are all in the same boat and trying to figure out exactly what structure and routine fits us best. Graham was adamant that we shouldn’t forget all we have learned from this chaotic and unprecedented (sorry, I know you’re sick of the word) year if ‘normal’ does ever return. He spoke of how he plans to re-design his teaching into longer seminars in which learning can be applied by groups of students in an even more interactive way while still exploiting all the added benefits of digital content for things like knowledge delivery. Blended learning has been on the horizon for many years as digital advances get even more compelling to the higher education sector but Covid has accelerated this process hugely. In a post-COVID world, we surely won’t forget the drama of our nightly news briefings and though there are some more difficult times we may want to forget, as students, as individuals, and as a cohort, we have learnt so much. Alongside our academics, university staff and senior management teams, this transformation has been huge, and the effects are being felt by us all as we move through this new term. Graham puts it fantastically when saying “Let’s take the best bits from everything [and make an even better learning environment than before].”

Thank you to Graham Perkins for a fantastic interview and to Maria for co-hosting with me. I hope this thought piece sheds some light on Graham’s perspective and teaching experience, as well as inspiring students to explore the positive aspects of digital. Good luck with all your dead lions this term. We can do it!

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