How well are our universities equipped to engage all students in an online experience?
Like many programme and module leaders across the UK and the world, staff at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine are working hard to adapt their face to face programmes to be delivered online in three weeks’ time. Many programmes already embrace new technologies and provide a blended experience (both face to face and online) for students but that is very different to the completely online format that will, of necessity, be on offer.
In my role as Assistant Professor in Learning and Teaching, I am working with these staff colleagues to reconfigure programmes and assessments so that students, many of whom are now back at home in different time zones, can have confidence that their degree experience will meet the expectations they had when they first embarked on the academic year in October.
Apart from the challenges of getting to grips with the technology, much of which is completely new to these colleagues, perhaps the greatest challenge is that of engaging students in the new experience. Students signed up for a face to face experience and many enjoyed building positive relationships with staff and students and working and learning from and with both.
In my conversations with staff we are therefore concentrating on designing an online experience in which the students can engage purposefully. The first step in doing so is to explain to the students how they are expected to engage and how the staff will work with them. This cannot be explained merely by words in an email but requires active participation from the start. Students need to be provided with a worthwhile activity to perform before the module commences, for example, a response to an academic paper which the staff members will acknowledge with confirming or correcting comments. This modelling of how the module will proceed provides the students with the confidence to engage in subsequent online sessions. But what about the students who lack the confidence to engage in this way or who prefer not to engage so publically (they could have been the students who kept quiet in the classroom)? It has become apparent that very early monitoring of student engagement is vital with subtle follow up to encourage re-engagement.
The worry of my academic colleagues and myself is that the students who do not traditionally put themselves forward to declaim their knowledge and “try out their understanding” publically will not be suited to an online environment that has been designed by those and for those who embrace talking in an open arena without fear or shame.