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1 July 2020

What is a Lecture? And other mysteries


Jackie Labbe 
Pro Vice-Chancellor Academic, De Montfort University 


Alasdair Blair 
Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor Academic, De Montfort University



QAA has published guidance on digital learning to help the sector achieve consistency when talking about digital learning. In this blog, Jackie Labbe and Alasdair Blair from De Montfort University talk about how their institution has developed companion advice to make sure the terms they use are clear, appropriate and widely understood. 


Like many institutions, De Montfort University (DMU) decided some time ago that COVID-19 rendered the idea of herding large numbers of students down narrow corridors and in and out of packed rooms was not consonant with public health needs. So we agreed that all our lectures should move online and be delivered asynchronously in the coming academic year, for the whole year. Almost immediately, the question arose: what counts as a lecture? 


We have constituted a Strategic Planning Group, led by Jackie and tasked with developing advice and guidance for a blended academic year, including the pedagogy of mixing asynchronous and synchronous online teaching with face-to-face teaching. From the beginning, we knew we had to figure out how to explain the difference between distance learning and the mixed teaching economy we are planning. What, indeed, does ‘face to face’ mean? When we’re on Teams (or any platform that utilises a camera), aren’t we able to see each other ‘face to face’? Aren’t words like ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ needlessly complicated? Where’s the plain English?


Even though, as a Humanities scholar, Jackie is comfortable with – indeed, in her research, has thrived on – the ambiguities of language, in these cases it has been clear that precision and specificity are mandated. Alasdair’s background as a Political Studies/EU specialist had him thinking about this too. But it’s surprising how difficult it can be to precisely define a ‘lecture’, for instance, even though for many years DMU has issued an annual glossary of the terms it uses to describe teaching events. When is blended learning not distance learning? If I can see your face, why aren’t we ‘face to face’?


Colleagues across the University, and indeed the sector, are seeing out the current academic year, with all the normal pressures attendant on finalising marks and conducting assessment or exam boards ratcheted up by no detriment policies, lockdown, and continued anxiety attendant on COVID-19. Simultaneously, we are planning, planning, planning for the coming year. How to make our offer clear to ourselves, let alone our students?


We realised that our usual glossary required a mirror version, one that ensured a common understanding of the terms we use so regularly and, it has emerged, so loosely. As a companion to QAA’s newly-released Taxonomy of Digital Learning, we have developed our own set of remote teaching resources that colleagues can easily access via our Centre for Academic Innovation. We already had a well-established platform of resources to draw upon, such as the work of our Centre for Enhancing Learning through Technology. We were also fortunate to have an active community of scholars with a keen interest in pedagogy, as evidenced by our Teacher Fellow scheme and success with National Teaching Fellowships and Collaborative Awards for Teaching Excellence. 


Our challenge was to bring this collective work together and to identify gaps that we needed to address. A lot of this work was initially undertaken in a pedagogic working group, led by Alasdair, which was one of a number of work streams in our Strategic Planning Group. By focusing on the pedagogy of how we would approach this new learning environment, we recognised that it was important to bring to the fore issues that we would have to address in other workstreams, such as training and technology. 


It was important as well to ensure that the language we used to describe our blended year had a commonality across DMU.


This meant that we sought to capture the nuances of the learning environment in an online space. We have broken down teaching delivery modes into 14 elements that range from broad classifications of synchronous and asynchronous learning through to online laboratories. In coming to these definitions, our thinking was heavily influenced by the work of our Associate Professors Quality who took a lead in putting together an initial draft of our online teaching glossary. This was then reviewed by a group of colleagues in the pedagogy workstream that included representatives from all Faculties and key Directorates such as student support, legal affairs and IT. The input from these colleagues, and from our students, was crucial in clarifying what the characteristics of each session should be, as well as the technological platforms to be used, and most critically when to (and when not to) record sessions. 


In building our online glossary, our focus has been on teaching delivery rather than an A-Z of digital learning. We built on our existing campus-based learning and teaching glossary to enable colleagues to consider how a face-to-face seminar or laboratory could best be adapted into an online environment. This actually meant that our online glossary became more extensive than our existing glossary for onsite teaching as many of the newly differentiated practices, such as simulations or games, had tended to sit within more traditional activities such as a seminar.


The process of creating a glossary for online teaching has been a fascinating and invigorating one. It has brought to the fore the innovative practice that was already taking place and has led to some creative technical solutions, such as remote access to laboratories. 


We recognise that a real challenge is going to be maintaining our educational presence and keeping our students engaged. But we also recognise that this is a process, and not an end, and that just as it is important to signpost resources for academic staff, it is vital that we provide our students with the appropriate level of resources to enable them to succeed too.


This, indeed, is our current focus. For students, too, want to understand what, exactly, is a ‘lecture’.