COVID-19: Educator Priorities and Some Tools to Help

Monday, March 16, 2020

COVID-19 has caused major disruption across UK higher education this week, with many universities, including my own, suspending face-to-face teaching indefinitely. This has triggered much work across the sector to find ways to move efficiently and effectively to online delivery. It’s meant assessing the impact on student projects of facilities and resources like laboratories and workshops becoming unavailable. And it’s meant a shift in thinking about assessment to reconsider robust and reliable ways of measuring students’ progress when traditional exam halls will not be available.

Most importantly, it’s also meant working hard to support our students through great uncertainty; uncertainty where we, ourselves, do not have all the answers right now. Final year of any programme of study can be stressful enough, without the unexpected and truly unprecedented disruption a pandemic causes, when you’re counting on your results to transition into a graduate role that you’ve accepted. And for students studying with us from overseas, thousands of miles away from home, anxieties are, understandably, heightened.

However difficult finding new assessment methods, or quickly getting up to speed with online delivery is for us as educators, supporting students through the uncertainty has to be a priority, and that means finding ways to communicate with them that go beyond blanket emails. We need ways to check in and make sure they are okay, and to give them opportunities to ask questions and seek whatever clarification we can provide. This requires a shift to online channels.

My approach to achieving effective support quickly has been to keep it simple: to stick with technology we already had, but finding new ways to use it. There may well be better technical solutions out there, but a time of crisis is not a time to test them. Less polished but workable solutions, using systems that are already part of our operation, and with which everyone has at least some familiarity, can be deployed more quickly and allow us to get on with the job.

And so, today, I shared with colleagues two approaches to using Google’s GSuite technologies to support students: one to transition to online personal tutorials, with individuals or groups; and another to run online drop-in sessions and open office hours – a digital version of having an open classroom, with an invitation to students to call in with questions, concerns, or to get feedback on their work. I’ve received positive feedback from several colleagues who were able to get up and running quickly, and reported success – some saying that they wouldn’t have thought to use these technologies.

So, in the community spirit of helping each other through a difficult time, I’m sharing below approaches I’ve taken, including the documentation for staff. They use Google’s GSuite technologies, because that’s the platform we use across our University. If you use Google, are an educator transitioning to online technologies at this time, or otherwise find these approaches useful, please feel free to take, adapt, and use these documents, and to share them with your colleagues.

Holding online meetings

Lots of technologies exist for video calls, but many of them require you to share usernames, add/accept contact requests, or, in a group call context, for one person to initiate the call and bring everyone else into it. Most platforms also require that you install software or a plugin on your computer.

Google Calendar provides the option to add conferencing to meeting invitations. Sending a calendar invitation to students with conferencing enabled means that either the individual you are meeting with, or all the students for a group meeting, each receive an email invitation. The meeting also appears in each students’ calendar. To join the meeting, they simply click a link, and the call opens in a browser, using Google Hangouts. No additional software is required, you don’t have to exchange usernames, and you can have up to 24 students on the call simultaneously. It works across all desktop platforms, and on mobile devices. On desktop platforms, it also supports screen sharing, so you can present slides or files to your students, or have them share their work with you.

Holding online drop-in sessions

Online meetings are straightforward, because they are planned: you know who is coming, and at what time. But what about an open office hour or a drop-in session, which has an open invitation, and for which students would usually just turn up at your office or a classroom, and know you’ll be there to help them?

What’s necessary is a queuing system, so that students can request your attention, and then wait until it’s their turn to talk to you. Google Hangouts doesn’t provide a fancy technical solution for this need, so this is where my strategy of keeping it simple is most evident. Ask the students to send an email during the drop-in session, simply with “Drop-in” in the subject line. These appear in your inbox in the order students sent them, and so allow your inbox to build the queue. And because Google Hangouts is integrated into Gmail, you can easily video call them in the order that the emails arrive.

Having used these approaches myself today, I’ve been able to talk with my students through video calls, allowing students to ask questions, and, I hope, to feel supported. I even found that some students who can be quiet in face-to-face meetings engaged more comfortably through a video call. Interesting learning from day one, and I’m intrigued to see what else I’ll discover through these new approaches. Let me know what you discover, or how you are able to adapt and use these approaches, in the comments below.

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  1. A couple of tools we've recommended to our students doing remote team working, that may also be useful to staff doing the same: - An online whiteboard, complete with drawing, post-its, and laser pointers. - A sharable to-do list, with columns for quickly and visually indicating the state of a project (Kanban style)

    1. Thanks, Harriet - two more really useful tools.