Law lecturer Dr Zoë Prebble says feedback at the student engagement day showed her students wanted to be able to see her on Zoom sessions—“not just hear my disembodied voice”.

“In a weird way,” she says, “I think students actually came to feel they had a more direct relationship with me, because the experience of watching a lecture chunk feels like I am just talking one on one to them, rather than them feeling like one person in a large lecture theatre.”

Film Studies senior lecturer Dr Missy Molloy had a simple goal in the early “shell-shocked” days of the pandemic—reassuring students they could continue learning. “I tried to keep the energy high during Zoom lectures and didn’t object when conversations about film culture [not strictly relevant to the subject at hand] developed in the chat.”

Zoë agrees it was important to discuss coping strategies with students. “I acknowledged this year was inherently incredibly stressful. I encouraged students to think about what was within their control and what was outside it, and to focus on what they could control and not feel guilty if their study looked different due to factors outside their control.”

Annemarie also put high value on student engagement. Teaching a course after lockdown with some students in the room (roomies) but others still working remotely (Zoomies), she needed to be agile. She did things like assigning a student to keep an eye on the chat and made a point of asking the students on Zoom to speak first. She also broke up the material by, for example, giving a talk, then getting the students to work in breakout groups, and finally bringing them back to watch a discussion she would have with a colleague.

A zoom call

“Online learning gives us tremendous opportunities but it should not allow students to disengage from their peers or lecturers,” says Annemarie.

Senior lecturer in Software Engineering Dr Simon McCallum moved online early and, as a result, was able to help students “feel everything was going to be fine”.

He moved his lectures to Twitch, a streaming platform for gamers, because it encourages interaction. “Also many of the students were watching Twitch during lockdown and in the normal lecture slot—before lectures resumed again—I twitch-streamed me playing Minecraft with my son, who was at home with me during lockdown. It was a way of keeping connected while we waited for formal online learning to begin in late April.”

Figuring out how to manage teaching programmes with a practical component was another challenge faced by many. Professor of Ecology Jeffrey Shima had a group of students who were due to be spending 10 days on coral reefs near Tahiti. Instead, a few days before their first Zoom session, he sent them on a virtual tour—using a mix of video, photos, and Google Earth. A virtual itinerary mapped out the activities for the week, with students moving between all-of-class meetings on Zoom to smaller group Zoom sessions.

“While the initial disappointment was high, in the end it went very well—all students were highly engaged in a series of research projects, all had smiles on their faces in our final Zoom meeting, and all are on their way to meeting the learning objectives for the course,” says Jeffrey.

Accounting lecturer Dr Yinka Moses was in the fortunate position of having piloted a number of online teaching technologies in Trimester 3 2019. A key for him in 2020 was increased flexibility for students through the way the teaching and assessment was structured—for example, redesigning assessments into quizzes delivered every two to three weeks. “Students were able to complete each assessment item over a 48-hour window, which added a further layer of flexibility, especially for students outside New Zealand and in different time zones.”

Director of the University’s Centre for Academic Development Associate Professor Stephen Marshall says the experience of moving to remote then dual-mode teaching has emphasised the importance of the University’s digital tools for learning and teaching.

“Our tools have performed exceptionally well in the face of an unanticipated level of demand that far exceeds anything we have expected previously,” he says.

“The experience is informing ongoing investment in our learning platform and in the ongoing development of the capability of our staff to use these tools effectively and responsively. Absolutely key is the need for engagement and support for learners, who are often isolated and uncertain.”

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