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18 August 2021

Reflections for the future: Taking forward learning from the global pandemic


Bethan Gulliver

Lecturer in Medical Education at the University of East Anglia


In this blog, Bethan Gulliver, Lecturer in Medical Education at the University of East Anglia, shares key findings from a recent School of Biological Sciences event - ‘Learning during the COVID pandemic: successes and lessons for the future’ - and explains how remote teaching during the global pandemic is having a positive impact on pedagogy heading into 2021-22.


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about some fundamental changes in the delivery of learning and teaching in higher education. With educators and students confronting many challenges, in June the University of East Anglia’s School of Biological Sciences Teaching Theme met to discuss ‘Learning during the COVID pandemic: successes and lessons for the future’. The day was split into two, with short presentations on lecturing, practical work, group work and student engagement followed by a general discussion. Three students were engaged to capture the outcomes: an executive summary, short ‘how-to’ videos (available at the end of this blog) and a blog reflecting from the student perspective on the discussions.


This blog introduces some of the key recommendations from the day, that we felt may have universal impact.


One of the most discussed topics amongst HE academics this summer seems to be whether to insist on cameras on, or to accept cameras off. We chose to take a pragmatic approach to this, student Wi-Fi quality, often making it a rather academic argument, instead we focused on encouraging engagement by alternative methods. A wide range of technologies was used including polls, chat boxes and write on slides. It quickly became clear that whatever the method, levels of interactivity increased over those ‘normally’ experienced. The students loved the anonymity and were much more willing to answer questions in this way than by putting their hand up in a lecture, with workshops typically having between six and 10 interactions per student. Opening anonymous chat boxes running in real time throughout the lecture or workshop will allow us to keep this high level of engagement when we return to face-to-face teaching. Additionally, many courses are considering keeping online synchronous drop-in Q&A sessions where students can ask questions anonymously.


Student engagement with pre-lab and pre-lecture material was also very high, with many reporting that these helped them to gain more from their learning experiences. Whilst there are many generic materials available, the most useful were the ‘bespoke’ videos made in-house, with the lecturer on screen explaining the key concepts, knowledge, techniques and equipment that the students would need or use. In a period where anxiety was often high, these short five to 10-minute videos enhanced students’ confidence and knowledge when ‘attending’ the lecture or laboratory. Students reported using these short videos in revision and many watched the same video several times.


Many of us acknowledge that we were surprised by the difficulties that we all - educators and students - faced in overcoming the complexity of online and blended learning. For some students the absence of a pal to follow about meant that their lack of organisational ability was cruelly exposed. Weekly module checklists with accompanying two-minute explanatory videos were a very popular remedy for student confusion. These brief summaries of the activities taking place were posted on the VLE and gave students a framework to use in planning their time and studies. We will be continuing to use these in foundation level and some level four modules, using them in part to model good organisational strategies to students for them to take forward into subsequent years.


One of the most popular interventions made in this time was the use of check-in slides. These simple to use, anonymous, write-on slides allowed us to gauge students’ well-being and to signpost them to sources of support. Time and time again, check-ins were cited by students as a positive feature of a module. As educators we also gained useful information about how to pitch a session. If you realise that your group are all stressed and tired after submitting a summative piece of course work minutes before your workshop started, you might approach it a little differently and perhaps with more effect.


Our final recommendation is to encourage the sharing of resources for workshops and seminars before the events take place. Allowing students sight of the starter questions reduces anxiety, allows preparation and encourages participation. This was done in many ways, some posting a simple list of questions while others used interactive Padlets to allow students to quickly access videos, relevant papers and post answers to preparatory questions. In all cases, allowing students access in this way led to higher levels of engagement and higher levels of discussion.


The recommendations we are taking forward - anonymous questions, access to bespoke pre-lab or lecture videos, checklists, check-ins and the sharing of materials in advance - are all aimed at providing a human and empathetic face to the course, and building collaborative communities. They encourage students to engage, to participate in ways in which they feel comfortable, and to ask questions of us as educators.


Perhaps one of the more positive legacies of the pandemic is the realisation that as educators and learners we are in this together and it is teamwork that will lead to our success.


Student-authored ‘how to’ videos


The following videos, produced by Bioscience students at the University of East Anglia, explain the benefits of utilising different technologies and teaching approaches to support student engagement.