Victoria Honeyman, POLIS, University of Leeds 22 May 2020


It is an odd dichotomy that I have an array of electrical devices at my fingertips, all promising to revolutionise my daily life, but I can only use about half of them effectively. So much technology with so many promises, but I tend to use it all in a fairly basic way to ensure I can complete the tasks I need.

That, for me, is generally good enough. I don’t want my routine, my tried and tested methods, changed and upended by technology. Unfortunately, that has been my tendency professionally as well. It isn’t that I dislike technology, it is that I want it to do what I want it to do. I don’t want it to change everything without good reason.

I should say that the term ‘digital luddite’ is perhaps not wholly accurate in my personal case. I studied for my PGCLTHE about six years ago and specialised in digital learning. However, anyone with any technical knowledge will tell you that six years, in technical terms, is a lifetime, and therefore I was largely out of the technological loop when the corona virus arrived. I doubt I was alone in that. Until the beginning of this year, I was fairly happy with my use of technology in teaching. I recorded my lectures and posted them on my institutional VLE, I posted links to interesting articles or twitter stories on the VLE page, and inserted video clips into lectures to break up the content. I mark using the VLE and Turnitin and the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds has a reputation for being fairly technologically advanced in terms of assessment. But that was about it.


For many academics, we use technology when needed, but tend not to explore the new horizons without good reason. One of the main reasons is time. Exploring new technology, learning how to use it, discovering how it can assist with learning, these all take time, sometimes lots of time, and few of us have it. Those who have made a conscious decision to engage with digital learning are often very happy to share their knowledge and discoveries, but when, under normal circumstances, can we fit the required learning in around research, teaching and administrative tasks, while maintaining some kind of life? Teaching is, for many, a face-to-face activity where we use body language and visual cues to know if our students are understanding the topic. If a student isn’t participating in a seminar, or looks confused, they can be approached, you can establish quickly where their lack of understanding or confusion is. In a classroom there are places to hide, but not many. Digital learning potentially undermines that connection, creating more barriers with students rather than that face-to-face contact, or at least that is how it can appear.


Corona virus has changed almost everything, including our pre-existing attitudes to teaching. Suddenly teaching cannot be done as it has always been, using the same materials and the same methods. We don’t know when we will all be back in a seminar room, and how many students we will have when we arrive. For those of us who have resisted technology, we now have no choice but to learn, and to learn quickly. It will require time and it will require learning, but there is nothing we can do now but to try and catch up as quickly as we can, and that is what I have been doing over the last couple of months. It isn’t easy to find the time. I am Deputy Director of Student Education in POLIS, so have been engrossed in meetings on assessment, teaching, resits, exams and future planning, but I have a few suggestions.


Firstly, as is usually the case, your colleagues will be a mine of information. Either within your department or within your faculty there will be individuals who are experts in digital learning. In my experience, the vast majority of them will be happy to help if they can. As long as you don’t expect them to teach you how to use a computer, they will (hopefully) be able to point you in the right direction of departmental or university wide training and guidance. Most universities have a staggering array of training material, and now is the time to search it out and start working through it. An extension of this is the PSA Learning and Teaching online seminars, where individuals with an interest in digital learning are offering up their ‘top tips’ as well as discussing the underlying issues of moving physical learning online. A nice feature of these talks is the sense of comradery, the sense of inclusion, as you realise that there are 70 other academics on the zoom call, all of whom are facing the same problems as issues as you are. Digital learning can be isolating, and it is nice to realise you are not alone.


Secondly, the Open University are the experts at digital and distance learning. No academic can learn in three months what the Open University have been developing for the best part of sixty years. Luckily, however, they also like to share. I am currently five weeks through their OpenLearn course entitled ‘Take your teaching online’. While this is a short course (eight weeks) it does have some considerable time demands, but it can be managed around other work, and is really useful in considering the pedagogic backbone to digital learning, as well as some of the practical elements. There are other online courses available, including some from LinkedIn Digital Learning as well as from the Staff Development Divisions of your university. The trick here seems to be to select carefully. There is a lot of information out there, which could easily overtake your life, so try to focus in on what you actually need rather than trying to become the Steve Jobs of the UK University sector.


Thirdly, there will be some trial and error here, and that also takes time. What elements of your modules and programmes can no longer be taught physically? What do you need to maintain the integrity of the module or programme? Once you know the answer to that, let your fingers do the walking. The internet is full of information, including information from teachers in different environments and university academics, all excited to share their practice with you. Some of it may just be noise. You may well have no interest in how a teacher in a High School in Ohio encourages her students to write book reports online, but don’t dismiss material because it isn’t based in an identical setting to you, nor watch a three hour video on it simply to tick it off your list. We are all experts at streamlining and being selective in terms of gathering material. That skill will serve you well. A good place to start is the PSA Learning and Teaching website, which will hopefully guide you towards suitable and applicable material.


Finally, be realistic about your abilities and capabilities and those of your students. Some level of engagement with digital learning will now be required from all of us, there is no other option. But it would be foolhardy to suggest that many of us have the time to become overnight experts in digital learning, or that we can learn in a few weeks how to create a cutting-edge digital learning experience for our students. It is also wise to remember that all of our students do not have perfect digital knowledge either, or necessarily access to the internet or appropriate technology for online learning day-and-night.


We can only do so much, but by engaging with the information out there and learning a little along the way, it might be possible to save ourselves a lot of work later on when we would be forced to introduced digital learning practice at short notice. I find a certain level of comfort in knowing that many of us are in the same boat, facing the same issues and problems, and that we can reach out to our colleagues, our friends, and learn from each other. Or, at the very least, sympathise with each other as the dog barking at the postman interrupts your seminar discussion or your children announce they need your help in the middle of a staff meeting. Welcome to the new normal.


By Victoria Honeyman, POLIS, University of Leeds

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