When College Closed

  • 7 July 2020
  • Education
  • Dr Stephen Webster

When college closed we saw our teaching turn upside down and inside out. It was Friday March 13th and I remember two particular moments from that day. The first was an email I sent out to all students, in the afternoon, assuring them teaching will continue till the end of term. We could have our final exciting seminar, and also the cherished presentations of term-long practical work.

The second moment was at 9.55pm that evening. The email from the college president Professor Alice Gast was blunt and to the point: from Monday all teaching would shift online and the campus would close entirely.

My science communication master’s programme concentrates its practical project work in the summer term. Students work together, travel, and enjoy being in a creative ensemble. How do you make a film when you cannot leave the flat? If you are self-isolating you cannot even leave your room. You certainly won’t be coming in to the department’s edit suites, to do the post-production. Looking at Alice Gast’s email I wondered: what happens now?

Good teaching depends on good relationships. Because of this all courses are fragile. Lose the relationships and you lose the course.  Fortunately, closure being in March, the students had completed around six months of normal classes. Good habits therefore were already established. But could we keep them going?

When college closed it was important to get back in touch with the students and work with them on the best way forward. All of us are in shock, we said. We are feeling our way here. But the basics remain the same. You want to learn, and we want to teach. We may have lost our classroom and our editing suite but we will find a way. And so it proved.

When college closed I was forced to think differently about teaching. I am not one of those who get excited by video conferencing software, or who feel great glee at developing ever more complex versions of the remote classroom. I worry that the current crisis will normalize online teaching, and downgrade the ordinary classroom. 

When college closed I asked myself: what are the important things about the course? What must be preserved at all costs? I decided there are two core methods running through our teaching. First, the students learn from each other, whether they are studying the philosophy of science, or the elements of podcast production. Second, our student-teacher relationship is essentially that of the apprentice-instructor. For example, in the case of video projects, the teacher sits next to the student and together they explore the editing technology, and the rough video cuts. Together they work out how to produce a finished and convincing film.  We never have lectures. Our teaching sessions are more like workshops. There is a degree of intimacy.  I wondered: can we maintain this style of learning, when we have just been scattered across the UK, and across continents, and are communicating with each other as tiny little faces on a tiny little screen?

I’m marking now the summer projects. Four months after college closed I am reassured. I can see that all went well enough, in the end. The practical work went smoothly and the students learned their skills. Teachers put to good use all the little tricks of the online world: breakout groups; screen sharing; guests.

We wanted to replicate remotely the styles we know so well from the classroom. The teachers tried not to talk too much. We put students in groups and gave them tasks. We taxied equipment to their flats. And to an extent, by screen sharing, we sat next to them and helped them edit. The telephone lines burned hot.

Now we await the Autumn Term. Universities are publicizing to their students the ‘multi-modal’ approach. Campus will be open but things will be different. Big lectures and crammed classrooms and corridors are out. Small groups and spatially-distanced seminars are in. Remote learning will be the norm till Christmas, with practical work kept ‘live’ through elaborate choreography within the departments.

Meanwhile we are asking the students: what do you like and what don’t you like about this style of working? Their answers are illuminating and point in many directions. They say it is a relief to skip the commute but complain there are issues with the broadband.  They report that break-out groups are important and make things lively, but note also that it seems difficult to awaken the esprit de corps that keeps group work productive. They miss simply being together.

It is this final point, the lack of esprit de corps, that seems a decisive challenge. With remote learning it is very easy to jam people together. You can set a task, or a topic for discussion, and send the students away for ten minutes to some distant part of cyber-space. Press a key and they quickly re-assemble on the screen. Yet something is lacking, and students suggest that discussions in these groups can falter, or lack direction. In the classroom, or the corridor, students bunch chairs together. As they discuss their topic, the sense of urgency, of togetherness, grows stronger. The teacher may be elsewhere, but because of the security and familiarity of the department, something is happening. 

We need our classrooms. A classroom is like a theatre. Something mysterious and magical occurs there, which has only a little to do with the person standing up front. The walls, the doors, the sense of being with other people in another world – there is a physical space and an expectation that leads to learning and to transformation. For now we can be grateful for our learning technology and we will make the best of it. Before too long however we must return to the classroom, and re-connect with each other and with our courses.

Dr Stephen Webster is the director of the Science Communication Unit at Imperial College London.