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Teaching postgraduate students during the COVID-19 pandemic: The experience of a Global Health department in a UK university

07 Aug 2020 | Anne Gatuguta and Sarah Marshall Anne Gatuguta and Sarah Marshall (pictured right and left), lecturers in Global Health at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, University of Sussex, reflect on their experience, incorporating insights gained from feedback provided by their students. They share 10 elements that ‘worked for them’ and hope others find these useful.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed teaching in higher education globally. In the UK, virtual learning was quickly adopted by many universities (1). Course leaders, administrators and lecturers with little or no prior online teaching experience were suddenly required to deliver courses online fulltime. Our MSc Global Health and Global Pharmacy courses which were previously classroom-based with no online teaching had to be delivered virtually. This effectively thrust us into an area we were neither familiar nor fully comfortable with, but, we nonetheless had to navigate. We have had to adapt rapidly to meet the learning requirements of our students whilst ensuring we maintain quality of delivery.

As courses that admit students from different disciplinary and geographical backgrounds, one of the hallmarks of our courses is the vibrant classroom discussions that such a divergent mix of experiences and opinions brings on board. Additionally, our lecturers are diverse including many external  speakers who come to lecture on campus from different organisations. Going online meant losing that face-to-face interaction that is fundamental to our teaching. While this seemed insurmountable at the beginning, more than eight weeks since we started online teaching we have successfully completed three modules from the Spring term receiving very positive feedback and satisfaction ratings from our cohort of students.

This paper reflects on our experience  incorporating insights gained from feedback provided by our students. As the COVID-19 situation remains unclear, and, there are indications that online learning will continue possibly even into the next academic year; sharing the elements that worked for us may be useful for other courses considering online delivery or wishing to improve their experience.

  1. Timely and efficient transition

It is important that sufficient time is invested in ensuring an efficient and timely transition to online learning. For most courses including ours, transition was necessitated by decisions beyond our control as social distancing measures were introduced in the whole country. This should however not compromise delivery and courses should maximise the expertise within their departments to make a smooth transition.  We found that working together as a team allowed us to think through most of the issues that may arise. A streamlined admin process was greatly valuable in ensuring a successful transition. We have a great teaching team but our course administrator is the glue that holds the team and the students together, keeping everyone informed of all developments. Such a central and clear channel of communication is important to ensure that the students and the team get regular and up-to-date information throughout.

Students and lecturers need detailed and timely information about how to access online sessions and available training and resources  for online learning as early as possible before learning has started. In our experience, students particularly appreciated efforts to ensure they do not lose any time in their learning as some of the feedback we have received indicated:

The Global Health team quickly adapted to online learning which minimised the unavoidable disruption and allowed us to continue our learning in new, fun ways.”

Adapting quickly, in addition to effective preparation and communication has contributed to our ability to maintain online attendance and morale at a high levels.

  1. Training and IT support

Online teaching and learning is not intuitive to most students and lecturers, with many challenges reported (2, 3). Even with experienced teachers, online delivery can be daunting therefore, it is important to make sure lecturers have the skills required to deliver online teaching. In our case, the School provided training for the online platform we are using (Microsoft Teams) to both students and staffs. In addition, recorded trainings, written guidelines and links to online resources were provided. These latter resources were useful as they ensured continued access for those who needed to refer to them later- it is a lot to take in at once! They also enabled those who could not attend live training sessions to access the materials at their convenience.

It is worth remembering to incorporate training for guest lecturers who may not have had training in their primary institutions or may be using a different teaching platform: our guest lecturers found this very helpful.  Guest lecturers may also need support in redesigning teaching sessions for online delivery.

Even after training, additional support may still be required during live sessions. Our course administrator provided extra IT support to lecturers including organising pre-session Teams trials and sat in on nearly all the lectures earlier during the transition. This ensured that any technical issues during the online session were dealt with as quickly as possible. 

  1. Variety of delivery methods to keep students engaged

When delivering content online, engaging students can be tricky. It is important to avoid passive learning which involves students listening to long live online lectures or pre-recorded lectures with no interaction at all. We endeavoured to involve the students as much as possible during the online sessions and used different methods to engage them. For example during some lectures students were asked to explore different ideas/topics in small ‘virtual discussion groups’. Students were then required to prepare a short presentation for the whole class. Exploring different ideas/topics in small groups ensured a good level of engagement by all students, avoided monotony and ensured vibrant discussions in live sessions. In other lectures, we use online discussion boards, chats and breakout groups during live sessions.  

In our experience, student engagement in live sessions was better when they had carried out preparatory activities beforehand. We used activities such as individual independent study reading and scenario-based exercises followed by online group tutorials to discuss students work. Some pre-session activities made use of relevant films and documentaries available on YouTube.

  1. Recording live sessions

According to our students, live online sessions were the most preferred mode of delivery. However, not all students will manage to log on during the session for various reasons. We have had students confess to struggling to get up for an online meeting either because they were psychologically or physically exhausted. And truth be told, it is not only students who are struggling with fatigue, illness and mental health issues during the lockdown, emerging evidence indicates the pandemic and the associated isolation are having a major impact on the physical and mental health of many people in the country (4, 5, 6). Other students are at work- some having been required to dedicate more time delivering essential services- or held up for other reasons. Internet and equipment failure are not uncommon, we have had students log-on to a live lecture and then drop out due to technical failures. It is important that we ensure that our students are not excluded in any way and recording sessions and making these available for students gives them the flexibility to view them later. An important point to remember here is the need to get attendees permission to make recordings, and, sharing and storage of the recorded session needs to be aligned to the relevant institution’s guidelines.

  1. Checking-in with students

Checking that students are doing well, and they have what they need to continue online learning is important. It is worth remembering that online learning is just one of the things that students are going through. Some will be dealing with other issues such as having to relocate back home, being away from family during very uncertain times and physical and mental health issues among other things. As a course, we actively encouraged tutors to contact their tutees and check how they are doing, especially students with learning support needs. We also encouraged students to get in touch with their tutors and supervisors as frequently as they needed. The course administrator also regularly followed up students who missed an online lecture to find out how they were getting on and signpost them to available resources for the missed session or other support needs. To ensure inclusion, it is particularly important to discuss any practical issues and support that is required so that students have what is needed for online learning. Even providing simple advice on coping strategies may help, for example, we had a student who was studying in a noisy environment and we were able to recommend noise cancelling headphones.

  1. Shorter online sessions are better than longer sessions

Our sessions are usually a three-hour mix of a lecture presentation and seminar or other interactive elements. While this works very well for classroom-based learning, it was too long for online learning. Sessions of one hour to one and half hours may work better, and it may therefore be useful to modify the content so that students cover some of it independently before sessions. Incorporating breaks in the teaching for students to stand and stretch or get a drink is useful, sitting still and staring at a small computer screen for hours is tiring and unhealthy in the long-term. It is crucial to avoid full day lectures as these can be quite exhausting.

  1. Smile, you are on camera!

We found it helpful for students and lecturers to turn on their webcams. Although this may be hampered by internet connectivity or personal preference, we found that it improves interaction and discussion tremendously. As one student put it

It's nice to still be able to see faces and hear voices when learning content and to try to have discussion where we can. It's as close as we can get to normality.”

One thing to note though about having cameras on is the potential for background distractions. As we are teaching and learning from home and having to adapt our living spaces for learning, there is potential for students to be distracted by the interesting mural, laundry or cooking equipment behind the lecturer or fellow students. It may not be just a mural; it may be that it portrays an ideology that could be potentially disturbing or offensive to some. asking participants in advance to join in with blurred backgrounds – a feature available in many conferencing software – can help minimise distractions. Similarly, it is useful to request that students mute their microphones when not speaking to reduce background noise.

  1. Encourage participation

Speaking on camera does not come naturally for many people and this can result in many awkward silences during a live session. However, lecturers should not be discouraged if students are not speaking, we are all navigating a new environment and are bound to get better with time. As one of our students put it,

Interacting can get a bit awkward with long pauses and waiting for people to respond but that is a minor thing.”  

Like classroom-based learning, lecturers should find ways of encouraging participation from all students. Varying methods of delivery to include student presentations, discussion boards, the chat function and quizzes helps improve participation.

  1. Be ‘topical’ but within reason

COVID-19 has profoundly changed our lives and students are constantly bombarded with news on the pandemic: it would be peculiar if it did not come up for discussion in class, even if it is only to reassure the students. As a global health department, the COVID-19 pandemic is very relevant to our courses and it was imperative that we incorporate it into our classroom discussions. While we did not suddenly change the curriculum to accommodate this new topic, discussions were incorporated to co-existing topics e.g. during our scheduled lecture on structural violence, we incorporated discussion on how structural violence and  COVID-19 are inter-related, and how this inter-relationship may have contributed to the differential impact of COVID-19 on various populations.

Even if your course is not global health or health-related, COVID-19 is affecting all areas of our lives and there are some ways you can make the current environment relevant to your students. However, it is prudent not to let COVID-19 completely take over your curriculum or your class discussion time. An overemphasis on COVID-19 may add more anxiety to students who are already receiving an overwhelming amount of news from elsewhere. More crucially, the issues that were important to your course e.g. other health problems, inequalities, politics etc. have not suddenly become insignificant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. Extra support and flexibility for lecturers

Extra support for lecturers to deliver courses from home may be necessary. Many lecturers will have no training or prior experience and will be delivering online content for the first time in their lives. In addition, some may be limited by the equipment they have at home e.g. inadequate bandwidth and many will also have other caring duties at home. It is important to be flexible and understanding while dealing with them. For instance, although our preferred mode of delivery was live lectures, in some circumstances, this was not possible. Therefore, some lectures were pre-recorded for students to listen followed by a short live online Q & A session.

Teaching online is vastly different from face-to-face teaching but that does not mean it cannot be enjoyable or successful, even for a course team that has had no previous experience like ours. Willingness to adapt and learn is key to success, and, adequate support for both students and staff is paramount.

In response to the impact of Covid-19 on opportunities for face-to-face learning, Advance HE is supporting universities to adapt to the 'new normal' by providing support in developing staff for an environment for flexible learning. Our Active Digital Design service, Teaching Skills Masterclasses, and New to Digital Teaching programme help institutions to develop curricula fit for the 'new normal' and to provide staff with the tools and skills to deliver teaching in this flexible environment.



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