What should universities keep after Covid?

On the last day of teaching for this academic year, with reasonably encouraging signs of some form of reopening of campus education being possible in September, it will shortly be time to think about how we proceed next academic year.

It seems obvious to me that although university staff have worked very hard over the last year the Covid-19 restrictions have meant that we have not been able to provide the level of education we would have liked and most of us are longing to get back to some form of face-to-face teaching. On the other hand, the restrictions imposed upon us have generated some new approaches and it would be silly just to abandon what we have learnt and go straight back to the way things were before the pandemic.

I have two main things in mind, one on teaching and one on assessment, both of them relating to my own discipline – theoretical physics – but hopefully of some wider interest.

Implementing the Lane-Emden equation as two coupled first-order ODEs.

First, on teaching. Over the past year we have mainly been delivering lectures and tutorials remotely, using a mixture of platforms (Zoom, Panopto, Microsoft Teams, etc). Most lecturers have done lectures as live webcasts as well as recording the sessions to be viewed later. I have used Panopto for most of mine, actually. I am actually looking forward to being able to dismantle the setup I have in my study for this, to reclaim a bit of space, but probably won’t do so until we know for sure what we’ll be doing next Semester!

(By the way does anyone know where I should send the bill to my employers for their use of my study over the last year?)

For the record, I have found about 50% of the registered students have watched the lectures as live broadcasts from my home; the rest watch the recordings offline.

Maynooth didn’t have any facilities for lecture capture on campus until September 2020, in contrast to my two previous employers – the University of Sussex and Cardiff University – who both had systems in place long before the pandemic. I blogged about this 8 years ago, in fact. In Cardiff they actually use Panopto; all lectures were recorded as standard. In my view the benefits of lecture capture far outweigh the disadvantages, and we should incorporate recordings of lectures as part of our standard teaching provision, as a supplement to learning rather than to replace face-to-face sessions.

It seems to me that much of the argument against providing lecture recordings is from older staff who thing the younger generations should learn exactly the same way they themselves did despite the reality that classroom teaching in schools is now utterly different from what my generation experienced.

My view is that every student learns in a different way and we should therefore be doing as much as we possibly can to provide a diverse range of teaching resources so that each can find the combination that suits them best. Technology allows us to do this far better now than in the past.

Some really enjoy live lecture sessions, but others don’t. Others have reasons (such as disability) for not being able to attend in-person lectures, so providing recordings can help them. But why not in that case provide recordings for everyone? That seems to me to be a more inclusive approach.

The problem with continuing lecture capture beyond September 2021 in Maynooth is that we will need to improve the cameras and recording equipment in the large lecture rooms to make this possible for lectures with a significant mathematical content, as the existing setups in teaching rooms do not easily allow the lecturer to record material on a whiteboard or blackboard. In Cardiff the larger rooms have more than one camera, usually one on the lectern and one on the screen or whiteboard (which has to be placed further away and therefore needs to be of higher resolution). In Maynooth we only have small podium cameras in the teaching rooms.

The next topic is assessment. Since we were forced to switch to online timed assessments last May we have been doing most of our assessments that way. The student is given an exam paper at the appointed time, which they do on their own, then scan and upload their answers online (in our case via Moodle).

This mode of assessment has its problem. One is the possibility that students can collude (as there are no invigilators). Another is that not all students have a home environment conducive to taking an examination, nor a decent internet connection.

We decided to implement these as truly “open book” exams in which students are free to consult their notes, textbooks and internet resources. That format means it is pointless to ask the students to regurgitate definitions or learn derivations by rote so we concentrate on problem-solving, testing the understanding and application of concepts. Although it makes it a little harder to construct the examination papers, I think this a good way of assessing ability and knowledge of physics. If we can go do exams back on campus I think we should retain this approach at least for advanced topics, providing supervised spaces on campus to prevent collusion.

There are doubtless many other innovations we have brought in over the last year that people feel strongly about (one way or the other). Feel free to share them through the comments!

3 Responses to “What should universities keep after Covid?”

  1. What I missed most was the interaction with the class. During a live lecture students ask questions, or by their blank faces communicate a problem with the presentation, and you can answer the questions or explain the material in a different way. It slows down the lecture to a better speed. Video recording go invariably too fast. I did not miss the white/blackboard. There must be better ways to present equations than writing them down with the back to the audience

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