Inside Track - Professor Neil Morris: Transition to online learning

As we transition our student education activities to online learning in response to current circumstances, Professor Neil Morris shares his thoughts and experiences about this and offers his support.

As I write this, we are preparing to transition all of our student education activities to online learning. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe that the situation is real. Here, I would like to share my thoughts about this extraordinary reality, and offer some support.

You may be thinking that I am enjoying this focused attention of digital education after all the years of me ‘banging on’ about increased use of digital technology to support students’ learning and experience. Well, that is only partly true. I am pleased that the University is well prepared from a systems and content perspective to be able to respond to this situation rapidly, and provide mechanisms for staff and students to continue to interact, and for students to learn. However, I am very focussed on trying to provide as much support as possible for colleagues and students experiencing this new situation, and I want to try to make this a positive experience, to enable a more digitally-focused future for universities.

Of course, no-one likes to be put in a situation where they have to change their practice very abruptly, particularly where that practice is established, well proven, and comfortable. Rapid change can be challenging, and this can be exacerbated by a lack of familiarity or confidence with technology. I am acutely aware that we are asking staff and students to undertake rapid change using technology, to respond to an emergency situation. 

Over the last few weeks, I have tried to find a couple of minutes every day to scan Twitter, which is full of advice, stories and predictions from all around the world about how this rapid pivot to online learning will turn out. The overriding message that I am taking from this is that we are all in this together, and we should be kind to one another, and use the situation as an opportunity to learn together, acknowledge our position and make the best of it. When teaching online for the first time from a remote working environment, that might mean laughing with your students when your dog jumps on your lap during a class, or your child pulls a face to the camera over your shoulder, or you realise there is a weird object on your bookshelf which is in the camera shot. These things have all happened to me when teaching online, and my students have had a better, more engaging, experience when I make it part of the session, and use it to show my personality. Remember that your students are in the same boat as you, and many of them will be nervous about posting messages in the chat, turning on their microphone to speak or showing their faces on camera. Only through kindness and humility can we make the best of the situation we face.

It is incredibly important to create a sense of community when teaching and learning at distance – human interactions are still possible, just mediated through technology. We can suggest students arrive early to the online class and chat (as a full group or through individual chats); we can allow time during the classes for students to raise concerns, ask questions or just tell others about the situation they face; and we must look out for each other, and particularly for students who may be struggling with the change more than others, particularly students with health issues and disabilities, or those needing additional support. As staff, we can also create communities of practice to share our experiences: we can use social media, email, Teams, Yammer etc to tell our stories, share ideas of things that have worked well (and things that went badly) and look out for one another. 

In terms of the potential long-term risks of this ‘experiment’, there has been vociferous discussion globally between online educators and researchers about our ability to move to online learning over such a short period. My own view is that this is an appropriate response to an emergency situation – the alternative would be to just stop teaching, learning and assessment completely until we can all go back to normal. However, we must recognise that this is not an ideal solution. To plan, design, develop and prepare to deliver online education optimally does take time, and involves detailed consideration of intended learning outcomes, curriculum design, learners, learning and teaching activities, and a whole range of technology issues. But in this situation, we don’t have that time, and we must try to respond as effectively as possible to protect our students’ education, and to support them through difficult times. Ideal is not possible right now. But, at Leeds we are well positioned to get this as right as possible. We have a good technology infrastructure, including a wide range of education-focussed tools; we are starting at a good place in terms of our online learning content in Minerva; and we have a lot of advice and guidance available for staff about how to leverage the technology to deliver the pedagogy which best supports our students’ learning. As we all upskill on the technology, we can go back to focusing on the pedagogy, and over the coming weeks and months we can embed principles of effective pedagogy for online education into our learning and teaching.

I hope your experiences of online learning and teaching go well. I know that they won’t always, but I also know you will approach the problems with humility and understanding; remembering that everyone is working incredibly hard and doing their best to get the technology to behave, and support you and your students. Finally, I hope you will realise some of the affordance of digital technology, to support and enrich students’ learning. I know our students will be extremely grateful for everything we do to support them, and they are counting on us. 

Professor Neil Morris

Dean of Digital Education 

Related information

Coronavirus: Latest guidance, advice and communications are being hosted on our coronavirus website

Book onto a training session about online learning (for teaching colleagues)

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