Snap Back or Build Back Better?
Clíodhna O'Callaghan reflects on her observations and learning over the last two years of supporting UCC staff in their digital education professional development.
Snap Back or Build Back Better? Let’s Get Intentional.
- A Reflection on Two Exceptional Years, June 2022
Clíodhna O'Callaghan, Digital Education Officer, Centre for Digital Education & Project Lead, IUA Enhancing Digital Teaching & Learning, University College Cork, #IUADigEd
Over two years ago, we, as global citizens, signed our virtual signatures on a social contract with respect and agreed to ‘stay at home’. This being the modern-day equivalent of living in emergency times, we were responding to the global public health crisis that is Covid19. In the early days of the pandemic, the use of the word ‘emergency’ was often heard and in the context of this reflection, I’m referring to ‘emergency remote working/teaching and learning’. Let’s be honest, most of us who work in this field have never had to respond in an emergency fashion to anything of this scale before now.
In December 2019, just three months before the pandemic hit Ireland, I had just commenced a new role working as Digital Education Officer for University College Cork (UCC) leading out on an Irish Universities Association (IUA) project on the topic of ‘Enhancing Digital Teaching & Learning’ (EDTL). The EDTL core objective is the mainstreaming of digital in teaching and learning by addressing the professional development of all who teach or support teaching and learning. When I commenced in this role I, along with my colleagues working on the project nationally, were acutely aware that it was going to be an uphill struggle given the challenges all staff have with finding time to engage in digital education professional development. Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined what lay ahead…
In prior roles I have had the privilege of ‘intentional’ online lecturing/teaching, both as a law lecturer and as a programme manager. Supported by Instructional Designers, IT Services, Teaching & Learning expertise, and the whole shebang. Remote teaching since March 2020 has not been intentional per se. It has been a response, an ‘emergency’ response and everyone has done the very best that they could do, given the circumstances. These circumstances, of course, varied across a wide spectrum depending on your housing situation, availability of broadband, your caring responsibilities, your health, your wealth and much more.
“I can’t wait to go back to normal”, or “When we go back to normal…” …how many times have we heard this? I believe that all of us, as higher educational professionals, have learned so much during these past two years that it would be a crying shame to go ‘back’ to ‘normal’. Instead:
- Let’s get intentional.
- Let’s recognise that we have learned a lot that we can build on.
- Let’s listen to what our students are saying, as well as listen to what our peers are saying, nationally, internationally, and let us reflect, together.
In that way we can claim back our futures and build back better. I believe we can take ownership over our own teaching practice and our own professional practice as educators, ensuring an enhanced, and inclusive, educational experience for all.
In this reflection I will present informal advice by way of a summarised version of my observations and learning over the last two years of supporting UCC staff in their digital education professional development. ‘Teach Digi’ was launched exactly two years ago in June 2020 and has been our UCC EDTL digital education professional development initiative. I hope you’ll enjoy my play on words: ‘Teach’ being the Irish word for ‘home’, as well as the English word ‘teach’. This branding is a play on the Irish word for Digital which is ‘Digiteach’ backwards: Teach Digi = Home of Digital.
These reflections, and recommendations, are based on my experience of supporting and listening to staff, listening to our students and working with students as partners over the last two years and are thematically explored under the five following headings:
- Recognise all that you have achieved
- To Record or Not to Record? That is the question!
- Flipping the Classroom
- Be Consistent about Consistency
- Another Word for Resilience?
1. Recognise all that you have achieved
Step back for one moment and think about your pre-covid digital skills, competencies, and literacy. Pre-covid can you imagine yourself setting up an online meeting? Can you imagine yourself ‘chatting’ online with students or your colleagues? Can you imagine recording a video or managing breakout rooms? Emergency remote working/teaching/learning was not easy, but you did it! And you developed a lot during this time. Recognise yourself for this. One way you can do so is by completing a self-assessment on your digital skills which will document for you a moment in time which you can then build on. This will also help empower you with the language to articulate your newly developed digital skills so you can impress that upon your peers and management. The language and rhetoric we use is critically important for boosting our digital confidence, and that of others. I recommend the following frameworks for self-assessment but there are many more, and which ever works best for you is perfect:
- The European Digital Competence framework for Educators (DigCompEdu)
- All Aboard Self-Assessment tool based on DigCompEdu
- Digital Skills Assessment Tool (SPEEDS)
2. To Record or Not to Record? That is the question!
Lecture ‘capture’ or lecture recording has to be one of the most contentious topics of our modern-day teaching and learning. Most academic institutions hold a policy in this regard, including UCC. As a campus based university our objective with digital education is to underpin and enhance the student experience.
May I ask you to consider this question: When you were a student how incredible a resource would recorded lectures, or pre-recorded asynchronous content, have been? Think about your own personal circumstances. For example, I spoke with a most diligent final year UCC student this year during one of our Teach Digi ‘Ag Caint’ podcasts, now on Spotify, Ms. Amano Miura, who told us she suffers with IBS. This means she must leave class early sometimes, and other times arrive late which she absolutely hates doing because she is conscientious, kind and just lovely. She said, the lecture recordings during Covid19 were life-changing for her. It meant that she never missed invaluable lecture content which she previously had to contend with given her medical illness. It meant she could recap and review lecture content regardless of these medical challenges. Note that this student is not registered with the Disability Support Service and there are many more students like Amano out there.
We are human beings and so we all have unique circumstances which often mean that attempting to fit all the circumstances faced by each one of us into the mould of traditional lectures is just not always feasible or possible. There are also new socioeconomic norms and challenges facing today's student cohorts. With many struggling to cope with the societal challenge that is increased living costs, the reality is that they now need to work to afford to live in Cork and may occasionally have to choose between paying bills and attending all of their on-campus lectures. Recorded lectures are therefore seen by many as a more inclusive option. Accepting that there is a time and a place for these lectures, I would ask for some flexibility around recording content for our students.
Please remember that these do not have to be professionally produced fancy videos! As long as the student can hear the content, that is the critical thing. The students understand that you as lecturers are not digital content specialists and we have heard this from our students' time and time again. Being expert in your own discipline can sometimes foster a self-expectation and pressure to be expert in all that you do, but trust me, this is not the case when it comes to the use of digital. Given the pace of change none of us can be expert in this space.
There are many classes and lectures where recording just isn’t possible or ethical. This decision has to be made on a local school level of course. In our work we advocate for a pedagogy first approach and students as partners. The technology underpins or enhances, and as such, simply helps, what you are trying to achieve. I appreciate that the technology can seem overwhelming and rather unhelpful at times, but that’s what people like me are there for, to help! Reach out and ask. Technology can be frustrating at times, especially getting the basics right, but it is not to blame for challenges around attendance and engagement. Exceptional times, and complex socio-economic challenges, contributed towards our low attendance issues this year.
3. Flipping the Classroom
How about the pre-recording of some of your lecture content to allow for more interaction within your classroom time? This is sometimes referred to as the ‘flipped classroom approach’. I spoke with a lecturer in one of our early ‘Ag Caint’ podcasts, Dr. Philipp Hoevel, from the School of Mathematical Sciences, who absolutely thrived while learning this new skill during Covid19 and couldn’t wait to put it into practice when returning to class-room based teaching. This approach allows for rich interaction during your in-person class time as well as facilitating your students in providing content for them to learn in their own time. We all learn at different paces, and in multiple ways.
4. Be Consistent about Consistency
I often speak about ‘consistency’ when supporting staff around the use of digital, for example, how they present their content on their virtual learning platform (be it Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard etc.) We all crave consistency and routine in our lives. We know that now more than ever before. It creates a safe virtual space which fosters and inculcates effective learning. Consistency requires an intentional component as you must plan, possibly liaise and consult with colleagues teaching on the same programme (ideally do this) and structure your content. Be consistent with headings, with assessment, with communications etc. Let’s get intentional with consistency on Canvas, our virtual learning platform, or virtual campus as some call it.
5. Another Word for Resilience?
We need to start a discussion about the meaning of resilience, don’t we? In the meantime, though, let’s take a moment to switch off, and then on again! In every sense. Our digital resilience depends very much on our ability to be kind to ourselves, and the process of adapting well to the impacts of changing digital environments and applications. Change is inevitable, and that speed of change when it comes to technology can feel like the last six months does, a blur! It is natural to feel overwhelmed by this, out of your depth maybe, or possibly even feel like a luddite! I can assure you; you are not alone. It is the little things that make a big difference in supporting our own digital resilience and here are some practical tips:
- When you need focus time, to write that report or research etc. I recommend creating a personal symbol that acts as an alarm for focus time. I light a candle. It reminds me to switch off those notifications, turn my phone on silent, close off social media and just focus. Every time that flame catches my eye it reminds me to focus. Lighting a candle works for me, but it might be a post-it or a picture frame or anything at all that symbolises focus time for you. Please do switch off the unnecessary notifications.
- Reaching out and asking is one of the hardest things to do, isn’t it? Either you feel you don’t have the time to ask, don’t know who to ask, or just don’t want to be the person asking what you might perceive as a simple question. Ask us! Or me! Clíodhna in the Centre for Digital Education (email@example.com) or call me on Teams! I will do my best to help and certainly send you in the right direction. Also, that critical friend you might have for your research, I’d recommend one in the context of using digital in your work / teaching too. I'm part of an informal peer support group here in UCC and it is a fantastic support for all of us and is available to you. Supporting each other helps develop your digital confidence and build your resilience.
- Stop Multitasking! We have so many applications and documents open at any one time, let alone our email and other platforms that it can be distracting. Incredibly distracting. It creates an environment that impacts on our capacity to concentrate on any one task. Switch between these tasks less often and you are more likely to make progress on them. Decide on specific times to read and respond to emails, for example. You can create an automatic reply that tells those who email you when to expect a reply. Manage the expectations you have of yourself and that of others. Multitasking can sometimes mean we produce many things but remember it can also mean we are masters of none.
All staff in all educational settings have substantially developed their digital skills and competencies throughout the last two years of emergency remote and blended teaching/working. It has been deeply frustrating at times for all of us regardless of your digital prowess. I would advise you to take some time out now to self-assess how far you have come in the context of your own digital skills and what you might like to build on into the future. Intentional practice is critical but is not always possible because of digital overload and brain fog. What we need here is some self-compassion and the normalisation of imposter syndrome in the context of technology. Reach out to your colleagues in your university settings who can support you in this regard, for example you are welcome to contact me and the Centre for Digital Education team in UCC. We are there to help you. Digital is here to enhance your pedagogical practice, enhance your professional work, enhance the student experience, and effectively prepare both our students and our staff, for the future.
For more on this story contact:
Centre for Digital Education, UCC