The unexpected benefits of a hybrid approach

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As we continue to navigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on all aspects of University life, the ever-shifting guidelines mean that we’re still constantly adapting and responding to new restrictions.

The transition to hybrid teaching has been incredibly challenging but almost a year after the first national lockdown, we’ve seen countless examples of the commitment and excellence of our University teaching community.

Susan Kemp and Jane Sillars, Programme Directors of the postgraduate taught degree, Film, Exhibition and Curation, in the School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures, had never considered online platforms for their teaching before March last year. Although the prospect of undertaking this shift was daunting, they found that the process led to unexpected benefits.

Jane reflects on what it was like back in March: “We came into this at a time of crisis, at a time when the world had changed around us and we were all having to try to think about how we might change and adapt in ways that could make this work for a student body.”

Susan agrees the idea of embarking on this transition was incredibly daunting: “I had absolutely no knowledge of online teaching at all and we were faced with this. Already for Film, Exhibition and Curation, our numbers had increased enormously so we’d just finished a redesign to try and cope with this. In terms of how we would change our new delivery to hybrid, it was terrifying really.”

The Edinburgh Model for Online Teaching course was key in influencing and supporting how they took their degree online. Michael Gallagher, Lecturer in Digital Education at Moray House School of Education and Sport, is one of the leaders and co-creators of the course. Originally developed in 2019 in response to the growth of online learning, Michael worked with a team from the Information Services Group to adapt it to support staff in their transition to hybrid teaching.

For Susan and Jane, the course allowed them to successfully adapt their programme and connect with their students in new and enriching ways. “There’s been so much about what we learnt that’s been transformative,” said Jane.

The Edinburgh Model for Online Teaching

One of the most important things Jane and Susan took from The Edinburgh Model for Online Teaching course was that building a strong foundation of regular communication is key to creating a successful programme and building a sense of community among its participants.

Susan explains more: “The first thing that immediately struck me was that Michael completely understood the importance of communication through the medium of LEARN and he carefully constructed patterns which were immediately visible and immediately comforting in their visibility.”

Michael shares why these patterns are so important online: “That idea of time immediately becomes stretched and ideas of contact and care have a different time dimension to them and so the structure that you build the content around becomes a consistent communication.”

The course really emphasises what it feels like to be a learner in this new online environment. Jane explains how this particularly struck her when she started the course: “There were two dimensions to understanding this new experience for me; one was learning to navigate these new environments and tools, and learning about how to pattern them, but the other was just being reminded of what it is to be a learner, and to feel uncertain, anxious and disorientated and to have the possibility of failure.

“I was reminded of some of those relationships which were at the heart of teaching and help us to think about how we might carry our thinking about that across to another space or platform so those were things that were really valuable,” she concludes.

Michael shares how that was an intentional aspect of his teaching: “The course was designed specifically as an experience. I wanted the faculty to experience what it would be like as a student and how easy it would be to be cast adrift in the nebulous and ambiguous spaces between the technology and the tools.

“A lot of people found certain parts of the course very overwhelming and they would often retreat into the blog. So we had the one-to-one connection on the blog for students who chose not to participate in the discussion board. These are all perfectly legitimate forms of communication; wherever they found the safety or the space, it’s important to go to them.

“Communication is your best friend in that approach; it just brings people in and gives a pattern to your teaching in a very positive way.”

Putting it into practice

When it came to using what they’d learnt to build a new programme, the most important thing was to define their understanding of offering a hybrid course. Susan shares what they discussed: “I think this misnomer of hybrid only relating to that distinction between online and in person is something I want to argue against and the course taught us hybridity covers lots of different ways of delivering, not just whether it’s in person or digital.

“I see hybrid as being that mixture, of live videos, text, discussion boards for example – those different modes of delivery. The course showed us lots of different tools as well as a range of ideas, structures and patterns and we were able to cherry pick the ones that would work for us,” Susan adds.

Implementing the lessons learned from the course has had striking results for Jane and Susan. “We talked a lot about how economic the spoken word is to convey lots of information but we’re not always sure how it’s landing with our students whereas this year we had to pick absolutely every element of induction apart and make sure it was all present,” says Jane. “By being much much more explicit about expectations what we’ve found is, rather than being completely engulfed with student queries and student confusion, we’ve had far less than usual.”

The importance of choosing your communications carefully, and not overloading students is vital to keep in mind. Michael explains more: “Something that came up again and again is that the idea of sparseness felt bare and the participants felt they just needed to include more and more activities like weekly group exercises and deadlines. It was a lot; the idea of restraint is so important.”

Susan shares how they used this to think carefully about what they wanted to communicate to build a sense of community from the very beginning: “One of the first things we did was to get the students to post a picture of where they were because this recognition of the new environment we’re in is like film exhibition itself. We wanted to bring in that whole presence of them as people and where they are.”

Michael completely agrees: “The simplest and most mundane things, when seen in an aggregate all together as one montage of existence, is radically intimate and it builds that community.”

Unexpected benefits

Using a variety of online tools and working to build an online community has had unexpected benefits. In place of lecture recordings, Susan and Jane decided to run weekly live discussions which included a range of media to engage their students.

For Susan, combining these discussions with online tool Padlet has been a game changer: “The Padlets really enhanced the learning of the students on our course but it was also community building in ways that we hadn’t really anticipated. The way it can combine images, text, footage, allows students to both demonstrate and build competencies in a democratic space of exchange.

“Our students have inhabited that Padlet site as a space of pleasure and fun and joy. The environment we’re teaching in is so peculiar this year and people are facing so many challenges outside their learning spaces, so having a space that you can feel the enthusiasm in has really supported us,” she adds.

Michael explains further: “It allows for joy, which should never be overlooked in online education because it can be reduced very quickly to a very programmatic structure, very linear and predictable, and ultimately unenthusiastic.”

Susan continues: “We’ve got a diverse population of students from different cultural backgrounds and we realised Padlet was resolving an issue that we’d encountered many times before which was there are different cultural backgrounds and linguistic capabilities, but actually what you realise across the space of Padlets is the quality of engagement with the ideas, and that the level of sophistication and critical thinking is way up here. It’s a shared knowledge and, in that space, there was a visibility to the student body themselves of things they don’t normally see.”

Although not without its challenges, Susan has found the whole experience has taught them so much. She concludes: “Jane and I have been on a voyage of discovery.” They’re excited to take forward everything they’ve learnt to future iterations of the course, even when teaching returns to in-person.

Implementing hybrid teaching across the University is an ongoing journey. But even looking to a future where normalcy is restored and regular in-person teaching returns, there’s no doubt that lessons learned during this difficult time will continue to influence and shape, not only learning and teaching colleagues but the University community as a whole.

MSc Film, Exhibition and Curation is a pioneering taught Masters which integrates theoretical and applied approaches to the study of film exhibition, with an emphasis on project work and collaboration. It currently has 72 students (FECers) most of whom are international students.

You can find out more about the Edinburgh Model for Online Teaching course on the Information Services website.