by Eoin Moynihan, Molecular and Nano Materials Cluster, Bernal Institute, Department of Physics.
This article was written for the YESBernal Writing Competition, July 2020.
One of the big challenges in the post-Covid world of third level education is to engage students with their coursework. Now this was not an easy task prior to the current pandemic. Anyone who has found themselves in front of a classroom filled with students can attest to the dread one feels when speaking on what should be an interesting topic and receiving blank stares in response. In the classroom we have tools to combat this passive engagement of content. Questions, call and response, and round-table discussions can get students more active in their learning. However many of those tools now have to be reworked for the online instruction of classes.
From the teaching side of the screen, whether you are a lecturer, tutor, or guest speaker, presenting content to a screen can be more daunting than blank stares from uninterested students. The lack of auditory and visual response from real people in front of you makes it difficult to discern whether or not you are being heard and listened to. We have to find new tools to engage with the students. In the University of Limerick (UL) we have SULIS as our online teaching resource. We can upload lecture notes, conduct online quizzes, and even have forum discussions. I’ve had my own experience so far with the classroom streaming service BigBlueButton available through SULIS. After a bit of getting used to the format is actually quite nice. There are tools for sharing lecture notes, conducting polls, and even an interactive whiteboard. As someone who works in physics who needs a whiteboard to explain concepts, either through an equation or through a diagram, I am appreciative of these tools. When I first started doing online support tutorials with students I was surprised how good these services were considering I don’t imagine they had as much use before the current crisis.
From the students perspective though it’s not just having lecturers and teaching assistants equipped with the necessary tools. Students come to university for the active learning experience of interacting with leaders in their field, professors and researchers who lecture on subjects they have extensive experience in. UL’s plan going forward of having a blended learning approach is definitely a boon to the students who can still have that in person face to face experience of asking questions directly to their lecturer. Integrating online teaching into modules was likely an inevitable step forward in the evolution of teaching but I do not think it would have progressed as quickly without the pressure caused by a worldwide crisis.
Outside of universities there are some good passive learning resources available particularly in the field of physics and especially on youtube. MinutePhysics  covers some excellent bite-sized physics concepts and 3Blue1Brown  does amazing deep dives into the mathematical tools such as linear algebra and calculus using very visual teaching methods. These videos make many topics much more accessible and understandable to students. The downside of this though is that it only requires students to watch/listen to a video. There is no exam, no quiz, no assignment. An active approach to learning is required to help students understand and remember the information they’re learning. On the other hand though overburdening students with assignments and quizzes can lead to burnout and frustration. A balanced approach is needed.
A big change going forward as well is the complete collapse of the old school standard of the big final exam worth over half the module. We can’t put hundreds of students in a hall together for a two-hour exam when there are concerns about the transmission of a dangerous virus. As such, the entire approach of preparing students for the one big exam needs to change. This ultimately means that teaching requires a new workflow with new consumables, in the form of recorded lectures and online webcam tutorials, and new outputs with a heavier emphasis on assignments and continuous learning.
In my mind the new workflow should start with providing the students with the content they need through recorded lectures and reading material. Recording lectures is a new experience for many lecturers and can be a time consuming endeavour. Ian Clancy, a lecturer from the Physics department here in UL, has uploaded a video that explains his process for recording lectures . The next step in the workflow should be engagement. Once the students have the necessary prerequisites then all of the in-person and online interactions between the lecturer and student should be able to assume that the student has watched the lecture for that week. As a result, there is no time wasted talking through the same PowerPoint slides again. The lecture can engage with the students, answer questions students have from the recorded lecture, probe their understanding of the content, and try and use the building blocks given in lectures to lead them to answers. Pre-recorded lectures should be the way forward for a more active learning experience rather than the fears some people have about online teaching, where they believe students will be doing nothing in the times that they are not on the university campus. Finally, if students have the content available and accessible to them, and they have the resource of the lecturer and teaching assistants to help them tear through that content and understand it, then we should be able to do away with the big final exam and focus on more independent and active project work and continuous assessment.
The only other big hurdle we face in physics and the other sciences is how we can handle labs. Scientists need hands-on experimental experience to fully understand the concepts they are presented with and to be effective at making new discoveries. The blended-learning model offered by UL should allow some in-person engagement with the labs and experiments during on-weeks. For students at home, McMaster University has implemented a system where they send students kits in the post so that they can do experiments at home . In terms of engagement, this is wonderful and they even have had students explaining the experiments to younger siblings at home.
In a post-COVID world learning and science will move forwards but it is going to require extra effort to keep people engaged and active in their pursuit of knowledge.
References “minutephysics” [Online] Available: https://www.youtube.com/user/minutephysics [Accessed: 10-Jul-2020]. “3Blue1Brown.” [Online]. Available: https://www.3blue1brown.com/. [Accessed: 10-Jul-2020]. I. Clancy, “How To Record Lectures – YouTube.” [Online]. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcmSn8Izh5U. [Accessed: 10-Jul-2020]. A. Fortais, “Physics in the pandemic: mailing lab kits to students enhances learning at home – Physics World.” [Online]. Available: https://physicsworld.com/a/physics-in-the-pandemic-mailing-lab-kits-to-students-enhances-learning-at-home/. [Accessed: 10-Jul-2020].