27 March 2020

Simon Usherwood has kindly given permission for two of his blogs about teaching online to be republished by the PSA Teaching and Learning Network.



The first is called ‘Coping by learning’ and gives an overview of how to help students cope. This was originally posted on Active Learning in Political Science (http://activelearningps.com/2020/03/24/coping-by-learning/).


Coping by learning

It’s been one of the more heartening sides of all this that colleagues have been so forthcoming in sharing their ideas about how to move teaching online: I’m guessing you’ve seen at least half-a-dozen pieces on models and techniques and how-tos in the past week alone.

Rather than add to that, I want to think about another aspect of this crisis: coping.

This matters not only because it’s a very stressful time, but also because the move to self-isolation has deprived us of one of the most powerful tools for managing that stress: face-to-face interaction.

Sitting around your home, with time on your hands and limited options, is not a good recipe for positive thinking.

But learning can be a help in all this.

Giving people the tools to rationalise and explore their situation more dispassionately can be support more general efforts to keep our shit together.

In essence this is about Type I and II thinking [I’m not even going to put a link to that – it can be your task for the day, to lose yourself in some behavioural psychology]: we can balance our gut reaction to the situation with some more systematic and unemotional reasoning.

Indeed, all this time we have on our hands will be the perfect opportunity.

So what does that look like, in practical terms.

To take one example, I used my (online) class last week to ask students to do some quick digging on what the different institutions of the EU had done so far in the crisis, putting their notes into a Google Doc. 5 minutes later we had a good list of elements and the basis of a discussion about it.

That discussion was partly about why some institutions had done lots and others had done nothing, but also it become a discussion about more abstractedly models of how political systems react in such situations and how it taps into our feelings about it all.

In particular, we ending up talking about “something must be done” as a social/media demand and how that balanced with what could actually usefully be done.

As a result, we moved from a comment about the European Parliament doing nothing – except stopping plenary sessions – to a recognition that its role as law-making and overseer of due process means its time will come a bit further down the line.

None of this was an attempt to say “everything’s fine”, but rather to help students have more tools for making sense of what’s going on around them.

And this can be more generally applied: as one of the many who has had to deal with the vast complexity and rapid mutability of Brexit over the past few years, the principles are much the same.

Think of your subject area as a set of analytical skills and models more than as a description of ‘how things are’: give students tools and language to get a grip on it all.

Invite students to put themselves in the position of others, so they can see why those others reach the decisions that they do: your own way of making sense of the world isn’t the only way.

Get them to consider hypothetical extensions of the current situation and how they might act then: this can help make more sense of choices being now.

And remind students that politics – and life – is rather tricky. Even with the best available information and the most rational decision-making, missteps happen and costs are incurred.

Those costs are human lives and that is a terrible thing and cannot – should not – be smoothed away (especially as this pandemic comes ever closer to us individually), but it does not mean we have to stop trying to help our students, our families and ourselves from becoming better equipped to get through these exceptional times.




In the second, originally written for Advance HE, Simon gives his thoughts on managing the move from classroom to online teaching. You can find the original article at Advance HE: https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/news-and-views/getting-through-getting-your-learning-online.


Getting through getting your learning online

Ask anyone who has done a significant amount of online instruction and they will tell you is a rather different place to the physical classroom.

Sure, there are still students, and materials, and assessments, but the way each of these work and interrelate is not the same as in a face-to-face environment. It takes time and effort to optimise this new space, which is a bit of problem if you’re currently on a crash programme to move out of the classroom and onto your laptop.

Coronavirus is possibly about to achieve what hundreds of deputy Vice-Chancellors for Education, Associate Deans for Learning & Teaching and Centres for Education have failed to do in the past decade: get everyone doing much more online.

The severity of the situation brooks no dissent, plus you might soon be told that even you yourself aren’t allowed on campus, even as teaching must continue.


So how to get through this?

The first key message is to listen. Lots of people can help (and probably have been trying to help you for a long time).

As well as all those emails you’ve been receiving, with links to all the support you might need, your institution has also been producing lots of materials in recent years that helps you to know what options and opportunities there are. Your study association probably has a Learning & Teaching section who can help too.

If any of that is too much, then a quick search of the internet will pull up many excellent tutorials and how-to guides, often by avuncular American types. And remember that even PowerPoint has a ‘record presentation’ function, if a new system is too much.

Your time is at an absolute premium right now, so make the most of that work as you work out how to make the move.


The second message is to practise.

Even with all those guides, until you’ve actually had a go in (metaphorical) anger, you’ll not feel properly prepared. So try stuff out. The easiest thing to do is to set up test sessions and invite colleagues to join them. That way you get to make sure your system works (check your updates are all updated), you can see what students see and what functionality there is.

Practising matters because it will highlight what you can (and can’t) do on the platform. That might mean dropping some stuff for now, but equally snooping around might offer a new possibility for you to try. Remember that this is currently a stop-gap proposition: you’re not trying to achieve that optimisation I mentioned at the top. Students will accommodate you being rough at the edges, but you’ll need to be able to deliver the core of it all.


And that mention of students takes us to the final message: talk.

Just as it’s a new thing for you, so it’s a new thing for students. So take them along with you. Explain what you’re planning to do, and how you’re planning to do it. Get feedback ahead of the Easter break on how it’s going (lots of polling options online too), in case you’re going to be doing this for the rest of the seminar (spoiler: you almost certainly are).

The big danger of online learning is disconnection. You’re not there, and they’re not there, so all the soft stuff that happens around your classes – the checking-in, the responsiveness – drops away. Basically, it’s really easy to lose touch. That means you will have to work harder to keep your students on course and on programme. It’s not going to be enough just to record a lecture, post it and then leave it. Consider how you can keep them engaged and participating.

If you can keep those three messages – listen, practise, talk – in mind, then life is going to be that much simpler on this change to your teaching. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to work, and only you can really make that happen.

Good luck!


Simon Usherwood is Professor of Politics at the University of Surrey, and a National Teaching Fellow. You can find more of his thoughts about teaching online on the Active Learning in Political Science website (http://activelearningps.com/) as well as comment and useful online teaching resources and guides from many other experienced academics.


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