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Lecturers Miss Student Engagement the Most during Online Learning

Last semester the UCD learning experience was flipped on its head as in-person teaching was suspended and the announcement made that teaching would be moving online. The College Tribune spoke to lecturers Judy Walsh, Dr Karen Smith, and Dr Mary McAuliffe from UCD’s School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice about their experience of online-teaching and the challenges it posed.

When asked about the training they received from UCD, the feedback was quite positive. “We are fortunate within our School to have an excellent educational technologist who provided training and support, which was also available at College and University level,” said Smith. “There was investment in technologies too which was very helpful.”

McAuliffe noted that the initial focus was on “basic training about how to get things up online,” however she added that “since teaching stopped we’re getting more training to do more things online,” which is promising for September next, when most of us expect the emphasis on online-learning to continue.

When it came to discussing what they were most apprehensive about beforehand, concern for the well-being of their students jumped out as a priority. “I was very conscious that students were dealing with a very stressful situation, many of them having to move home suddenly, give up their accommodation, not having access to broadband or Wi-Fi at home or a dedicated study space and how stressful all of that was,” said McAuliffe.

Another concern that stood out was student engagement: “I think what I was most apprehensive about was trying to ensure there was still student engagement,” said Walsh. “It’s very unusual to get to know a group of students [online] and both my modules were very participatory. I had a lot more Zoom meetings with individual students to make of up for that lack of engagement and I really enjoyed that.”

When asked about the main challenges they faced, the time-constraint was a factor. “The shift to online learning was of course very sudden with very little time to prepare,” said Smith. “Delivering modules online is very time intensive and demands a different skillset so the first couple of weeks particularly were very hectic.”

Additionally, as noted by Smith, it was particularly challenging “figuring out what medium students would best engage with” and how best to conduct online classes.

Walsh noted her decision to do all her teaching asynchronously (i.e. to upload material and let students view it at their own pace) which she admits in hindsight might have been an error. “I think the staff that did at least some synchronous learning had a better experience and I think the students did too. The fact that there was some live engagement with the whole group seemed to be beneficial for both the teacher and the student.”

A clear preference for in-person teaching and the unique atmosphere of the classroom setting was also expressed. In particular, they missed the interaction with students. “I like to see people and have chats with people,” said Walsh. “Before lectures and during the break you often get students coming up to you and I just feel like you develop a much better rapport with students face to face.”

There was also a feeling that online platforms could only go so far in recreating the classroom experience and the discussions they encourage. According to McAuliffe, “Nothing beats the physical presence of you and the students together in a classroom, and that energy flowing. I think in-class discussion can go places whereas the online space is more contained and controlled [and] that’s what I find so fascinating and interesting about in-person teaching, it’s that energy and that critical thinking right there in front of you in real time.”

Despite the preference for in-person teaching, a willingness to embrace online learning tools in the future was also evident. They all seemed to have a greater appreciation for the ability of such tools to enhance in-person learning. Smith noted she had become “more comfortable using educational technologies that [she] hadn’t used before”.

There was also an acknowledgement of the benefits of “blended learning” and how online and in-person teaching don’t have to be “mutually exclusive.” Another positive which emerged from the experience for Smith was the “quality of the interaction with students through email and chat functions during classes”.

While “not how [she] expected to be interacting with students this year, there was a strong sense of community and care.” Even Walsh, despite describing her experience as “overwhelmingly negative,” noted one benefit being that it helped her to “think through the learning outcomes for each class in a more considerate way”.

Still, the desire to get back to in-person teaching was clear. “I can’t wait to be back in the classroom again,” admitted McAuliffe, “however long it takes!”

Sadhbh O’Muirí – News Reporter