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Educational dilemmas on the subject teacher training programme when switching to remote teaching

Person thinking

Below, Sinikka Neuhaus reflects on her experiences of the course The Teacher and School (7.5 credits), which is the first of eight core courses in educational sciences within the extensive cohesive subject teacher training programme at Lund University. Although the students had already studied 45 credits in their respective subjects, this was the first time that all 75 programme students were gathered in one single course.

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

When we received notice about switching to digital teaching right before the start of the course, I, the course director, like many others, had to act fast. What changes were required? What was reasonable and realistic? How should we substitute any components that were no longer possible? What would I need to learn to be able to adapt at such short notice: how to stream, how to record and save videos? There were many questions, much concern and my starting point was not the greatest – I have never been one to feel comfortable with digital tools and concepts, on the contrary. My understanding of digital skills was that they were generally good to have, but I questioned whether they in fact could solve all the problems that the most eager advocates argued they could. As I now briefly try to summarise my experience of this transition, I do so from the point of having limited experience and little interest in digital teaching.

My course in Canvas – like a book with a foreword and chapters

Already in connection with the transition to Canvas, I was given the advice to think of it as a book comprised of a foreword and chapters. To me, this advice has meant that the “chapter structure” in Canvas has facilitated presentation of the course structure and aim. This applies not only to the course placement within the study programme structure as a whole, but also to the individual components of the course. Each chapter (week on the course) starts with a general introduction on the theme and tasks of the week and serves as the course “skeleton”. When we received notice of the necessary change, course components and elements had to be reworked to a certain extent, but I could wait to publish the changes week by week and try to adapt to the changing conditions. As the course director, the chapter structure in Canvas became important to me, partly because it seemed familiar and logical, and partly because each individual chapter constituted a unit that provided an overview. It was relatively easy to see what could be done according to plan, albeit digitally. I also saw which assignment I needed to change based on the current situation. Lectures and seminars were held via Zoom as scheduled, lectures were recorded and then posted as a link in the relevant “chapter”. The idea was that everyone involved would get an overview of all included course components during the current chapter/course week, and that we would avoid cancelling.

However, the previous school visits and the individual written assignment linked to the visit had to be replaced by a school visit in reverse, where a teacher and a principal visited us and gave a lecture here. The assignment was based on these lectures, which were also recorded, as well as on an article on the transition to remote teaching in school. Almost all students submitted the assignment on time, and they also took the opportunity to reflect on what remote teaching does to learning in itself.

The course was completed and evaluated, and the overall assessment is that it worked surprisingly well. I felt that the students were comfortable when it comes to digital skills. Very rarely were there technical problems, the chat was frequently used to ask questions and post comments. If I failed to see an asked question, someone else would answer it quickly, and send links. Attendance was very high and in the breakout rooms, it seems that more students had the opportunity to speak. So what educational dilemmas arose?

Educational dilemmas

My answer to that question is based on the students’ individual written assignment, course evaluations and my own reflections:

  • Concentration and motivation. How to find a common place for learning when the medium, by definition, separates the rooms? The students expressed that they became more tired, I was definitely more tired, and if you look at the recordings you can see that I get closer and closer to the camera, as in an attempt to reach out for feedback. Streaming lectures and not being able to see if the students understand and are with me changes the learning experience – the students have to take a lot of responsibility and I become more of a “provider”.
  • Social boundaries are different – in the chat, participants may joke around and give each other thumbs up in a way that would probably be unthinkable in a classroom. As a middle-aged person who is not used to chat communication, I also had to ask what certain symbols meant. The change of this social boundary was also noted in the fact that many people emailed more general questions. It was as if the need to establish contact increased.
  • Focusing on faces in a box required some adjustment. In general, I myself found it difficult to be so disembodied, to make gestures and show the size of something big by extending my arms does not work if no one can see it. Not being able to walk around, change positions, was also a factor.
  • A recurring and exciting discussion among the subject teacher students was whether a form of teaching developed during a crisis should be the starting point for changing the fundamental conditions of teaching. Many expressed that it was not until now that they understood the extent of the social and relational aspects fulfilled by the school.
  • Several of the students discussed inclusion and exclusion and argued that the digital transition enabled some pupils (and students) to be heard while others were excluded.
  • Many students also write about their longing for an academic environment where unexpected encounters can take place. Talking to someone on the same course, randomly meeting one of your lecturers who recognises you, or letting studies and student life come together. For me, this has shown how universities, similar to schools as an institution, also have social and relational aspects for us to consider when contemplating how to organise teaching.