Keeping up appearances – teaching ecology under lockdown

Article by Dr Lesley Batty (School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham), Dr Karen Bacon (Botany & Plant Sciences, School of Natural Sciences, NUI Galway), Dr Barbara Tigar (School of Forensic and Applied Sciences, University of Central Lancashire)

We are all probably still reeling at the sudden and significant disruption that COVID-19 has created in our daily academic lives. As we start adjusting to this very different way of working, we can reflect a little on what this means for teaching in Universities both now and in the future. The last couple of weeks here in the UK and Ireland has seen wholesale movement of teaching on to online platforms at very short notice and we are still working through new ways of staying connected with our students and colleagues. It is important to note that this is not a planned move to online teaching, nor is it a pedagogic choice – it is a response to an unprecedented situation and the immediate aim is to try and alleviate any lost learning opportunities to students. Currently, it looks like exams are unlikely to go ahead in many institutions, either replaced by alternative assessments or removed if programme learning outcomes have been met or be held online, which is entirely new for many of the institutions undertaking this option. This raises some important questions for us, many of which have been circulating for a number of years, but have now come into stark reality.

Delivering course content

In the immediate response to the move online, the easiest thing that we could do was to record lectures or indeed, use recordings that had been made from a previous year (assuming of course that content hadn’t changed). This has been easier for some than others, as although recording of lectures is standard in some Universities, this is not the norm everywhere.

There are significant challenges to delivering lectures online and what works in a lecture theatre doesn’t always work as effectively on the screen. Staff may be reluctant to be recorded visually and therefore the recordings are reliant on a voice-over and PowerPoint. This may not be particularly engaging and it can be difficult to keep attention for the hour or even two that some lectures last. In some instances, materials in lectures have an aspect of confidentiality that makes them unsuitable for being recorded and it can constrain some of the discussion on more controversial issues. It is important to note that creating high quality recorded content and supporting materials needs a range of expertise, not just that of the teacher. The importance of input from technology teams, editors, producers and designers from both within and beyond the University are needed to produce effective materials that are fully accessible for all, not something that can be done in the immediate response to our current situation.

Delivering content online is not new, and many organisations both within and beyond higher education have already developed a range of materials that can be accessed. The development of good quality resources requires time and a different approach which has not been possible for many of us trying to create materials very quickly. Our inboxes have been filled with information and suggestions for resources that can provide support and ideas for delivering teaching online, and it is easy to feel a little overwhelmed with information. We have included a few recommended resources at the end of the article that readers may find useful.

Some institutions are conducting live sessions using online meetings tools which allow the recording of a lecture at the same time and to share your computer screen with students. One of the main advantages over pre-recorded delivery is that students can interact with the tutor and each other, either verbally (although this can be difficult if more than one person speaks at the same time) or using a chat facility to type queries. This can slow the pace so the tutor can deal with them. However, not being able to see your audience can mean that you miss important visual cues indicating confusion, interest or boredom! Early informal feedback from staff is that this is quite nerve-wracking compared with normal face-to-face, however the benefit to students is that they can hear and see you (you can turn the camera off if you prefer) and see queries or positive feedback from each other. Experience has shown that this approach works better when there are teams of teachers involved so that tasks can be divided up, with one person for example providing content while another manages the chat box.

The move from campus-based delivery to online learning clearly provides a wide range of challenges, unlikely to be fully addressed in the timeframe that we are currently working to, but may provide some opportunities for change in the future.

Challenges for staff and students

While many educators and universities are highlighting (often quite correctly) the great opportunities offered by online, live streaming of classes structured around the usual timetable for students, there are many negatives to this – particularly for students who did not plan for online studying as the norm. While live streaming of lectures has many advantages, such as allowing real-time interaction and supporting structure to both lecturing staff and students, it has a range of problems that should not be overlooked, particularly under the current circumstances. The most basic of these potential problems is that students have not planned to be taught remotely from home and therefore may not have their own laptop or other device, reliable internet access or in some cases any internet access. Many students rely heavily on using University based Wi-fi and do not have the resources to fund good internet access, disadvantaging these students. A recent small survey of final year students taking an ecology and conservation module carried out at National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway showed that 15% raised concerns about their internet connectivity. Additional problems with compatibility of different devices and access to specific software have also been noted in many cases.

The NUI Galway survey also suggested that the vast majority preferred the option of recorded lectures that they could watch in their own time without missing out on live learning opportunities. If students had planned to be taught remotely, this perhaps would be different, but it is important for us to remember that this is an emergency response to an unprecedented situation.

Beyond this, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, students have returned home and the environment is wildly different to that of the university. They will have increased demands on their time – perhaps aiding in care of younger siblings who are no longer in school or older relatives, assisting with household chores and helping with family businesses (if they remain open at this time). This means that the “structure” of a rigid timetable could be an additional source of stress and anxiety in already anxious times.

Many staff are also facing these types of challenges, with additional responsibilities at home of child care, home-schooling, or caring for elderly relatives and neighbours. They may also not have experience of teaching online so learning a new technology may also not be the most time-efficient way to tackle the current problem Using simple technology, such as recorded PowerPoints (one step more than most of us use already) is a simple fix and allows flexibility to students for when they listen to lectures and to lecturers for when they record them – once students know when to expect uploads, they can then download files when they have internet and do not have to worry about being available at a specific time.

The importance of the inclusive curriculum and accessibility for all has been highlighted in several recent reports (e.g. Dept for Education 2017; UUK 2019), and the current situation has highlighted some of these issues, particularly in terms of equity of access to resources. We have a responsibility moving forward to consider these aspects of our online learning as we develop and adapt to the changes that will result from the crisis.

Exams

The second biggest challenge that faces us in the coming weeks is what to do about exams. Crowding hundreds of students within a hall is no longer an option and it seems that we are unprepared to find an alternative. Some institutions already do many of their exams online, but this often requires students to be present at a specific venue or monitoring to avoid problems with ‘cheating’ (e.g. Harmon & Lambrinos 2008).  It is possible to complete online exams remotely within a set period of time, similar to an open book exam, but this again raises the problem of access to reliable internet for many students. So how are we to get around this? It seems that for our prospective students, we can for this year rely on mock exam results, coursework and a teacher’s assessment of a student’s ability. In HE many are considering something similar, but mainly based around coursework results and replacement assessments that can be completed at home. At this moment, it isn’t entirely clear what the overall strategy will be, but this clearly needs some careful thought and supporting research to identify how assessment could change in the future.

Fieldwork

As ecologists, one of the generally accepted skills that we want our students to develop is fieldwork. There are strands of ecology that may not need this, for example ecological modelling, but we tend to accept that students do need to have an understanding of, and engagement with, their environment (we recommend McCauley 2017 for a good reflection on this). One of the biggest impacts that the recent outbreak has had is in the cancellation of field courses. This includes at home or local fieldwork project for students and some remote-access fieldwork options developed for distance learners and to increase accessibility to fieldwork. Fieldwork is not something that is easily replaced in the virtual world. There are some very good examples of virtual field courses but these are never seen as a full replacement. The current virtual courses cannot replicate the uncertainty and unpredictability that occurs in real life, nor can it replicate all of the additional stimuli that we rely on, especially in relation to ID skills, such as smell and touch. The technology can do this to some extent and the gaming world shows us that we can construct complex interactive landscapes. However, to get this level of reality requires significant expenditure and time which may not be appropriate at present to HE. In addition, online fieldwork does not allow the same opportunities for social interactions, particularly important when building students’ confidence so they get to know and work with each other not just when completing field work but also at mealtimes and during social activities (Larsen et al 2017). Looking ahead 10-20 years, the availability and costs of creating virtual environments is likely to change, and there are important ways in which they can be used to improve accessibility, but will we ever really be able to replace the real thing?

Now vs the future

While packing up the office last week to move it home, one of the questions that was being asked was ‘do we really need the campus if we can deliver it all online’? A valid question and indeed there are many courses that are delivered entirely remotely very successfully. As we think ahead to the 4th industrial revolution, it is likely that much of our work can be carried out in virtual space and we are seeing moves towards that already with increasing use of recorded lectures (e.g. Bos et al 2015), virtual field courses and labs (e.g Argles et al 2015; O’Malley et al 2015), and online meeting platforms.

We have seen that lectures and other supporting materials can be provided online, either pre-recorded or as live sessions. This raises the obvious point of why are we still using the age-old lecture when we can simply provide a recording? This question has been floating around for a number of years and some educators have moved the flipped lecture or similar (e.g. Nordlund, L.2016; O’Flaherty & Phillips 2015). If we can record a lecture, what is the benefit of having sometimes upwards of 3-400 students sitting in a lecture theatre?  Having students in the same space as each other and the lecturer can be beneficial due to the personal interactions, being in an environment where everyone is learning and opportunities to ask questions. Timetabled lectures can also provide a good structure for study. These aspects can provide positive experiences for students and staff, but do we need this to be centred around a lecture that could easily be provided online?

Why are we not instead using the campus to provide the active learning that really benefits from face-to-face interaction? Probably the biggest barrier to this is class sizes. In some sessions, we can be teaching upwards of 4-500 students and in this scenario active learning is challenging which in part is why a lecture works in many cases. The debate around the value of lectures and the use of recorded sessions is likely to continue but maybe the current situation might help us question whether we are always choosing the most appropriate way to engage students with the teaching materials. The lecture may still form a valuable part of any teaching, but is it always the best choice?

It looks likely at present that exams will be shelved for the current year and students will be assessed in other ways. If this is the case, then what place do exams have in modern education? There are clearly issues with many types of coursework in relation to essay mills (Medway et al 2018) and other mechanisms for cheating, but are there opportunities to design assessments that avoid these? It also raises the question of what exams are actually testing. If we can assess learning outcomes with course work, then why bother with exams at all? Some subjects do need students to be able to recall information quickly, medicine is an obvious subject where this is needed. However, there are many subjects that don’t need this to the same extent. Can we test these in other ways, rather than the traditional examination? Maybe we need to consider how people are assessed within the workplace to make our testing methods more authentic? A portfolio of work may be more appropriate to some subjects.

We are only a couple of weeks into the COVID-19 crisis and things are developing and changing daily, leaving both staff and students in a state of uncertainty and anxiety about how education is going to work in the next few months.  These fixes are not designed to constitute a long-term shift in teaching strategies, but as we move through this situation, we may have the space to think about some of these questions that have been bubbling away under the surface for years. As we move forward maybe this is a time to really question some of the ways in which we create learning opportunities on campus and consider whether we could be making more wholescale shifts towards a different way of teaching, learning and assessing which is fit for the future.

 Some recommended Resources 

Please let us know if you have other resources to recommend by tagging us on Twitter @BES_TLSIG and use #fieldworkfix for ecology fieldwork alternatives

References

Argles, T., Minocha, S., Burden, D. 2015 Virtual fieldtrips have evolved: benefits of a 3D gaming environment Geology Today 31, 222-226

Bos, N.,Groeneveld, C., van Bruggen, J., Brand-Gruwel, S. 2015 The use of recorded lectures in education and the impacton lecture attendance and exam performance. British Journal of Educational Technology 47, 906-917

Department for Education 2017 Inclusive teaching and learning in Higher Education as a Route to Excellence. Crown, London 39pp

Harmon, O.R. & Lambrinos, J. 2008 Are Online Exams an Invitation to Cheat?, The Journal of Larsen, C. Walsh, N. Almond & C. Myers 2017 The “real value” of field trips in the early weeks of higher education: the student perspective, Educational Studies, 43:1, 110-121, DOI: 10.1080/03055698.2016.1245604

McCauley, D. 2017 Digital nature: are field trips a thing of the past? Science 358, 298-300

Medway, D, Roper, S., Gillooly, L. 2018 Contract cheating in UK higher education: a covert investigation of essay mills. British Educational Research Journal 44, 393-418

Nordlund, L.M. 2016 Teaching ecology at university-inspiration for change Global Ecology and Conservation 7, 174-182

O-Flaherty, J. & Phillips, C. 2015 The use of flipped classrooms in Higher Education: a scoping review. The Internet and Higher Education 25, 85-95

O’Malley, P.J., Agger, J.A., Anderson,M.W. 2015 Teaching a chemistry MOOC with a virtual laboratory:lessons learned from an introductory physical chemistry course. Journal of Chemical Education 2015, 92, 10, 1661-1666

Universities UK & National Union of Students 2019 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Group Attainment at UK Universities: Closing the Gap. Universities UK, London 88pp

Featured image: By CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #23312.Note: Not all PHIL images are public domain; be sure to check copyright status and credit authors and content providers., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86444014

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