Panic in the (virtual) classroom: Recent challenges and opportunities of online learning and teaching

Issued: Wed, 16 Dec 2020 15:56:00 GMT

Teaching online requires a “new way of seeing and thinking” (May and Short, 2003, p.674). COVID-19 demanded a paradigm shift which many of us were not ready for. When COVID-19 fundamentally changed how we socialise and engage with each other, it also rapidly altered the way we teach, and think about teaching, at higher education institutions (HEIs). For many, it forced an engagement with practices that evoked panic and confusion as teaching staff were bombarded with information on online teaching platforms, skills, tools, ideas - while at the same time, many HEI managing structures also advised against trying to do too much and to ‘keep it simple’. With no time to engage with existing pedagogical literature on online learning and teaching, for many the cart led the horse and lectures were hastily pre-recorded and posted online for student engagement. 


What informed much of our online teaching efforts - at least at the outset - was that it was simply transferring what we usually do face-to-face onto a web-based platform. The idea was that if we mastered the technical aspects of the online world - using the right recording platform, getting accustomed to new software, checking recordings and transcripts, dealing with basic technical issues - we would succeed in obtaining the same learning objectives as teaching in a traditional classroom. Any software training undertaken by many teaching staff entailed a quick training tutorial to come to grips with the basics and word-of-mouth from others on what works and what does not. Without time for a paradigm shift, in our panic to produce, we were confronted with issues we had not considered before - issues of privacy, security and data exclusion, accessibility issues and a range of online challenges unforeseen (such as Zoom fatigue, engaging with students, ‘reading’ the room, and stimulating discussion). Was this online world of endless pre-recorded ‘talking heads’ and engaging with a void of faceless and voiceless virtual classrooms on Zoom or Teams the new reality of teaching?


Not at all. What should have come before this doing was a new way of thinking. A paradigm shift was needed to challenge traditional ideas about teaching to be able to approach online teaching not with panic but with promise. Much of the challenge we faced was our own constructions of what teaching online meant, whereas shifting our way of thinking, our mindsets, our paradigms, could have allowed us to ‘see’ the promise that online teaching holds, as ‘paradigms are powerful filters of reality…” (May and Short, 2003, p.674). 

On 7 and 8 October 2020, we organized an online conference titled ‘Online Teaching Pathways for Early-Career Criminologists and Sociologists’, funded by the Universitas 21 Researcher Resilience Fund. The conference was specifically aimed at Sociology and Criminology ECRs and PhDs, to address challenges and opportunities that the recent push for online teaching had brought. Thirty-five early-career academics from around the world came together to think creatively about potential solutions to the new demands of teaching in the digital age among a group of supportive peers. A diverse and dynamic line-up of international speakers shared their thoughts and practices of online teaching, providing in-depth insight and actionable and practical tools to those attending. 


Recurring discussion themes were diversity, inclusivity and equity, reflexivity, precarity, and student and staff wellbeing. Participants emphasized the stress that lack of training, resources and time brought. Working from home proved challenging for many because of a wide variety of circumstances: the lack of a barrier between ‘home life’ and ‘work life’ was often mentioned. Some felt as though the current push for online teaching and learning exposed the risks of precarity even more and provided their employers with an instrument to fuel competition amongst colleagues.  


Yet these struggles also came with a range of learnings and opportunities. What our online conference taught us is the value of listening to inspired and inspirational speakers about how they ‘do’ online teaching, while making use of the extensive literature available on online teaching by experts in this field. Your filter begins to change when you hear about the innovative ways others have inspired their students, turning panic into promise. We are learning together, changing mindsets and mentalities about online teaching along the way.


Related to the last point, hearing others speak enthusiastically about the possibilities available to you, allows you to understand technology as being a tool to enable what you want to do, rather than as something that shapes what you have to do. And once you realise what you can achieve online, you can then search for the tool that is right for you, instead of the quickest or easiest one. Our teaching practice is shifting from technology-led to technology-enabled learning.

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to change universities for good. The current situation will likely have a lasting impact on higher education, not only creating opportunity for online learning to become a widely established pedagogical method, but also to reflect on the in-person and blended teaching we were already doing. It has opened up a space for creativity and innovation – initially out of necessity, but increasingly by choice, reflecting the deep commitment of academic staff to student education and wellbeing. It has also facilitated knowledge exchange and connections with people across the globe, more so than before.


Dr Emiline Smith is a Lecturer in Art Crime and Criminology at the University of Glasgow. She is part of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and the Trafficking Culture research consortium. Her research focuses on the trafficking of cultural and natural resources, transnational crime, white-collar crime and cultural criminology. She is currently the PI on two GCRF-funded projects in Indonesia, Myanmar and Nepal. 


Dr Julie Berg is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the School of Social and Political Sciences, and an Associate Director (Internationalisation) of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR), at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on innovations in security governance, collaborative policing and policing networks, community safety, as well as the challenges of achieving inclusive and equitable security provision.