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Teaching in times of uncertainty

Published: 9 April 2020 at 15:54

Dr Beatriz Acevedo has drawn upon her extensive experience as an Academic Lead for Employability and a Principal Fellow of the HEA to produce this blog post and video on YouTube for academic colleagues to inspire them in thinking about how best to make the move to online teaching.

She offers  five key tips to: Keep it simple, Avoid perfectionism, Use the technology you know, Keep interventions small and beautiful, and Imagine! Watch video.

In her following blog ‘Teaching in a Time of Uncertainty’ which she has produced for Anglia Learning & Teaching, Beatriz advises that it is not a time for ‘business as usual’ or a simple migration of face-to-face practices; instead she says “It is a time of imaginative solutions that can give us answers about the very essence of teaching and learning.”

She highlights the advantage of podcasting as “an opportunity to use our storytelling skills as in the effective and often overlooked oral tradition.” On assessment she says, “the lock-down is only physical not mental” and she makes recommendations for the use of scenarios as the basis for Problem-based Learning. She says “the act of exercising our imagination becomes a pedagogic act in itself...” It is about coming back to “the basics in our teaching: to be able to transmit an idea in the simplest way, to break it down in its essential components and to communicate it briefly.” 


Among the midst of this great historical time of uncertainty, I keep remembering that famous phrase by Jean Paul Sartre, about the power of freedom during times of crisis and, borrowing from him, I would say, “Never were we freer than under the Covid-19 crisis”. Before the historians and philosophers try to lynch me about the accuracy of this phrase, allow me to use it as a starting point for this very personal reflection about being an educator during these times of uncertainty.  

First of all, I acknowledge that it is not business as usual. To think that we are doing the same, but online, is to deny the fundamental shift in the materiality of our existence where all what we took for granted is being questioned.  This goes both for the opportunities that we have enjoyed, the access to food, travelling, communication and “normal” life, as well as for the limitations we had believed were unsurpassable: e.g. to stop flying across the planet and dramatically reduce our impact on CO2 emissions and welcome dolphins into Venetian waters. 

In a similar way, the barriers to using different ways of teaching and learning, that we considered needed to be addressed in the “future”, are becoming real and present opportunities for change and also for questioning the way we teach. As a newcomer to digital and online learning, the consistent message I’ve heard is that “it is not about “technology” but different ways of learning” and this seems the perfect opportunity to bring these ideas together. 

Let me explain; for starters, we cannot pretend to “migrate” from face-to-face teaching towards online teaching by simply ‘doing lectures online’. This view assumes that every student and lecturer have the same access to broadband services and that the routines of family/personal life remain unaltered. This is a mistake: it is possible that different students can or cannot access the internet at the same time, or that there is only one computer at home, or that there is not a designated space for students and lecturers to do their academic work. And this is without mentioning the many other duties that are required of staff and students such as caregiving, cooking, cleaning, life administration, etc. (many of which traditionally are assumed by women). Hence, only thinking about synchronous lecturing needs to be challenged.  

On the other hand, there is a potential of imaginative solutions that can give us answers about the very essence of teaching and learning. For example, the idea of using simple technologies already available, such as the versatility (and the constraints!) of PowerPoint (the narration recording tool is often ignored and it is an easy way to explain the material). It’s not enough to repeat the slides (in fact this can be a counter-productive approach), but to see this as an opportunity to use our storytelling skills as in the effective and often overlooked oral tradition. Hence, we can use the power of the voice in podcasts to connect to the imaginative power of our brains. 

For example, I decided to hone my storytelling techniques by reading some short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Soon I realised that it is not enough to share the content of these stories by simply reading the words as this does not give justice to the universes created by this Colombian novelist. In order to make them alive in my narration, I imagined going to the places being described, becoming the diverse characters, and using their voices and expressions. One of the tricks of doing a professional voice-over is to use your hands animatedly - to point or to embrace, to signal and to touch. That may sound mad, but it is the theatricality of the storytelling that conveys the message and makes it memorable to the listeners.  Perhaps we can learn more about what we say and how we say it by applying these performance techniques in engaging with the emotionality of learning. One of my favourite applications is Voice Record Pro, it is a tool that can upload the sound files in YouTube or any other platform (just make sure that your YouTube email account is certified so you can upload unlimitedly). 

A similar imaginative approach may be required for assessment and here again we must remember that the lockdown is only physical not mental. This can be relevant when we talk about Problem Based Learning (PBL), and we tend to go externally to provide those scenarios. But in the current context, we can think about our own household and personal habits as opportunities to understand complex concepts, like sustainability or ethical consumption. For example, trying to reduce our carbon footprint in the household can be a great place to learn about environmental management, communication strategies, project management and leadership. 

However, the immediate context is not always enough for educational purposes.  For example, I was talking to a colleague in Colombia about different ways to teach and assess the “History of Urban Art”. Usually she takes her students to different parts of the city and integrates a psycho-geographical approach to her teaching; but in the lockdown how can we continue this kind of engagement? I suggested that it is not so much about the “physical” city, but the way in which each of us inhabits those places. Although we share the same physical space, we have a different relationship with places and landmarks. 

We talked about the classic book of Italo Calvino: ‘Invisible Cities' in which the author imagines Marco Polo in conversation with Kublai Khan about the many cities he has visited; by the sole power of narration, the author weaves a thread between cities and desire, cities and memories, cities and signs.  The readers are able to experience the awe and mystery of such distant places: the city of the mirrors, the city of memories, the city of water… at some point Kublai Khan asks Marco Polo about a city he never mentions: Venice… and Marco Polo reveals that each of the descriptions contain his beloved city. My friend said: “I’ve got it! I’m going to ask them to create and describe their “city” using the categories of analysis in the module and to follow a specific path to guide them along their imagined journeys.”  

These examples point to exploring learning and teaching attitudes in which the act of exercising our imagination becomes a pedagogic act in itself. Perhaps we have lost the capacity of using our creative brain when everything is given to us in the form of information, weblinks and unlimited internet acess. But my point is to come back to basics in our teaching: to be able to transmit an idea in the simplest way, to break it down into its essential components and to communicate it also briefly. There is an important point here with regards to migrating online. We need to keep it simple and use the technologies we know (and may have forgotten!) to gain an unexpected freedom. This is the time to create and to innovate, without making it much more complicated (it is not the gizmos or the apps), and to return to the basics of teaching and learning: a shared passion for knowledge, curiosity and questioning. 

We cannot assume “access equality” in terms of broadband and internet services, and we rather should think of students having to use their mobile phone as their main source for learning. How then can we deliver accordingly? Once again, back to basics: small files, short phrases, key ideas, mind-maps, and most importantly, an extra effort to engage emotionally with the students. Before we drown them with information and requests, have we asked them how they are? Or what have been the main challenges of this situation in terms of their learning? Can we think about how to help them to create a learning space even in confined places?  The same types of questions should be asked in our academic teams and university community. Ideas can spring from simple questions and acts of kindness and compassion, as well as creating social media groups and promoting peer support (the idea of the ‘buddies’ can be crucial at this stage).  It is now when the “community spirit” that we announce in our marketing brochures needs to become a reality for everybody: staff and students to feel supported and to realise that we are all in this together.  

I would like to finish by inviting colleagues and creators to push the boundaries of what is possible in education. I am sure that many ideas are emerging from the constrictions, after all ingenuity is the daughter of necessity. We need to open our mental imagination but also our emotional ingenuity!

We know that after this time we won’t be able to return to “normal”; we have been reminded of who are the key workers, what are our basic needs, about the simple pleasures, and our gratitude-quotient. This is an opportunity to create the world we want to live in where social justice and environmental harmony are possible, and where we can really engage with our students to enhance our learning. 

To learn more about the support available for moving your teaching and assessment online visit the Anglia Learning and Teaching website and Canvas site. 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Strange Pilgrims. Read by Beatriz Acevedo in YouTube.
Italo Calvino. Invisible Cities. London. Vintage Classics.