As we approach the milestone of a year since the Covid-19 pandemic forced a seismic shift in the delivery of teaching in universities around the world, I reflect on our experience of blended learning here in the School of Biological Sciences.
At the beginning of 2020, the term “blended learning” was unknown to almost all of us, sounding as it does like some kind of teaching “soup”. And yet, along with “lockdown”, “self-isolation” and “R rate”, blended learning was to become not only a part of our everyday Covid-era lexicon, but an integral part of our role as teachers and learners.
In the middle of March, on-campus activities were scaled down dramatically. By the end of the month, we tentatively began online teaching using Blackboard Collaborate, a video conferencing platform that few of us had used before, but that had been lurking in the depths of MyAberdeen all along. We held our breath, crossed our fingers and jumped in.
Online teaching wasn’t easy at first. Instead of the buzz and energy of a lecture theatre, here was a black screen with names in boxes. We had no way to gauge what the students were thinking; was anyone even listening? In those early days, the questions pinging into the chat box came as a relief. There were signs of life after all! As time went on, both staff and students grew in confidence with our new model of teaching and learning. By now, the chat function was well-used, not just for questions, but for cheery greetings and post-session banter. Students began to unmute their microphones, turn on their cameras and share their screens. Setting up polls, using breakout rooms and interactive whiteboards became second nature, and it felt as though we had hit our stride.
The new academic year presented our next challenge – providing face-to-face teaching alongside online delivery. In line with travel restrictions, physical distancing requirements and hygiene measures, we devised lab practicals, field trips and tutorials to give students as wide a range of learning experiences as possible. We could finally put faces (albeit with face coverings!) to the names on our screens.
Moving forwards into 2021, the million-dollar question of when we will return to “normal” is still unanswerable. No-one would have chosen that path we have had to follow in the last year. However, the radical change in our teaching delivery has forced us to find creative solutions in how, why and what we teach – new perspectives that will surely help us to improve the student experience in any circumstances. But perhaps the most important lesson is the vital role of community in teaching and learning, and we must continue to find new ways of building these relationships in the face of these unprecedented challenges.