Some reflections on lecturing during a pandemic

I noticed, via Twitter, that a colleague had written an interesting post about survival strategies for lecturers [Edit: I hadn’t appreciated that this had been written pre-pandemic, but it is what largely motivated my post]. I had been thinking about writing something similar, so thought I would pen some of my thoughts about how this pandemic has influenced university teaching. They won’t be quite as insightful as my colleagues.

I was quite fortunate that I wasn’t doing any lecturing when the pandemic struck, so I didn’t have to suddenly switch teaching modes in the middle of a semester. However, I do have a fairly heavy teaching load in the first half of semester one (which typically starts in September), so was rather dreading preparing for it. I also really dislike watching myself in a video, or even listening to myself, so really wasn’t looking forward to editing and captioning my lecture recordings.

A consequence of this is that I started early. I spent most of August and September turning my lecture notes into a presention (in one of my courses I normally do what is often referred to as “chalk and talk”) and pre-recording my lectures, which I would try to divide into 20 minutes chunks. I would typically re-record these at least twice, and spent virtually every morning drinking my coffee and editing the captions. I eventually did get into this, and got over my dislike of listening, and watching, myself. I don’t think I ever didn’t find some silly mistake in a recording, but I eventually realised that it wasn’t possible to re-record my lectures enough times to entirely avoid this.

The actual teaching involved releasing about a week’s worth of lectures in advance, then running one live online lecture. In one of the courses this involved working through an example problem, while in the other it involved going over one of the pre-recorded lectures. We’d then have one live online tutorial, and a set of in-person tutorials, that were very socially distanced (a few students in a room that would typically have a much larger capacity).

The response from the students was fantastic. Even though not everything went as well as it possibly could have, they really seemed to appreciate that we were doing our best. They also seemed to like having some live classes (either online, or in-person) and they seemed to appreciate having the ability to watch the pre-recorded lectures in their own time.

Even though it was a lot of work, I ended up quite enjoying it. I think it mostly did work quite well, and it did make me appreciate that there are alternative ways to teach. I wouldn’t like to repeat exactly this, but it has made me think about things we could start incorporating into our teaching (although I haven’t got any firms idea about what, or how).

I was possibly fortunate that I was teaching first and felt nervous enough about it that I started pretty early. Probably also fortunate that I had the time to do the preparation. I’m looking forward to going back to a more standard style of university teaching, but I do think that I’ve learned from having to teach under different circumstances, and I hope the students found it a reasonable learning experience too.

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11 Responses to Some reflections on lecturing during a pandemic

  1. Back in the day, it was assumed that it would take about four hours of pre and post production effort to yield one minute of broadcast quality television, so it seems as if you’re a bit ahead of the game.

    I don’t know if Edinburgh has a Media and Arts Department, but if so may I suggest that you reach out for some assistance? I’m sure some media students would earn some credits for doing things ranging from captioning to light editing.

  2. Tom,
    I worked out that it probably took me about 2-3 hours to prepare a 20 minute recording, which included recording it more than once, editing the recording, doing the auto-captions and then editing the captions.

    Edinburgh does have such a Department (I think) and we have an Information Services department who were providing all sorts of resources (editing recording, doing the captions, posting them, etc) but I suspect there were far too many of us doing this for them to have provided much in the way of individual help. If we do carry on with some of this, then I probably would want to do something more.

  3. Most ‘amateur’ videographers have difficulty with lighting and sound, as well as captioning, which should include optional closed captioning for the hearing impaired and potentially even translation. A one-person crew would almost certainly be over-extended…

  4. Tom,
    Sure, and those were issues. However, the way we were doing it was doing Zoom recordings where most of the screen ends up being taken up by the lecture slides and we’re just an inset. So, the lighting isn’t too much of an issue. Sound, on the other hand, could probably be improved. I did consider getting a better microphone, but had pretty much done it by the time I thought of that (and I don’t think the sound was all that bad).

  5. Chris says:

    My experiences are not so different: I’ve made around twenty-five 20 min videos so far (my yearly teaching heavily skewed to the first half of the Autumn term) and have definitely improved my lecture technique over the course of preparing these. Have tried to be more animated (presentation style in the first few lectures was a little dry) and have gradually improved the recordings with an external microphone and better lighting.
    The first few lectures in early October were entirely new and these took forever (2-3 days for each 20 min lecture and I was panicking about being able to get these done!) but repreparing 45 min lectures from previous years into 20 min chunks (with some alterations to give students some pre-and post-lecture tasks to help with their engagement) is “only” taking 2-3 hours now per 20 min recording. I’ve done only one face-to-face session – a workshop, which the students really liked – they are definitely missing face to face engagement (the new first year students are not having a great intro to Uni life unfortunately – they’ve come to Uni to spend most of their time in what’s effectively a bedroom and we keep reminding them that things will get better!). Doing loads of on line tutorials and redesigned all my 3d and 4th year research projects to computational/bioinformatics ones with regular Zoom meetings – these are working pretty well IMO
    I’ve done a few lectures using continuous Zoom recordings but mostly doing narrated Powerpoint with myself as an image inset on just the first and last slides. That allows individual slides to be recorded but can take forever since its tempting to go back and correct mistakes. In preparing especially 1st year lectures I realize how much time i spent drawing stuff on the chalkboards and so had to modify these lectures quite a bit.
    Overall it’s been an interesting experience and I totally agree with you that some of this stuff will be usefully incorporated into new teaching styles once things return to normal..

  6. an_older_code says:

    what’s the general consensus about tuitions fees amongst the academic community, is the current level justified based on a move to online teaching

    aka should current students get a reimbursement and future students a reduction in their fees

  7. an_older_code,
    I think academics, in general, dislike that some students pay fees for undergraduate degrees. Of course, in Scotland it is free for Scottish students and, currently, for EU students. Students from the rest of the UK pay £9000 (IIRC). I think the preference would be that it should mostly be free for UK students. However, it does actually cost about £9000 per student, probably slightly more for a STEM student. Also, I think the cost this year has been higher, given that we’ve had to put much more effort into preparing than we might have done, we’ve had to add IT infrastructure, we’ve had to have more support, and other costs haven’t just gone away. So, I don’t really see how universities could be expected to simply refund students because the experience is different, given that the cost per student has almost certainly not gone down.

    If this were to carry on, then I guess one could argue that things should change. However, again, there is a real cost to doing this and it has to be convered somehow.

  8. an_older_code says:

    thanks for the considered reply ATTP,

    yes, its tricky, I can see the logic re the initial costs in moving to an online learning model have meant there is little room for Uni’s to reduce fees this year

    whether that is sustainable in the future who knows, i supposed the “marketisation” of higher education will play out in some way – which may not effect the top tier institutions too much

    I just feel desperately sorry for this generation, my eldest graduated from Edinburgh this year, and is working even harder trying to get a job and I have a son in the second year at Manchester, (Economics) he seems okay, but he suggest lectures are over compensating by piling on the work……

    anyway keep up the good work

  9. I just feel desperately sorry for this generation, my eldest graduated from Edinburgh this year, and is working even harder trying to get a job and I have a son in the second year at Manchester, (Economics) he seems okay, but he suggest lectures are over compensating by piling on the work……

    Yes, I also have a lot of sympathy for this generation. Apart from changing how we deliver the material, we haven’t changed the amount of work. It may be that it’s reduced slightly as we may have had to reduce the number of labs that some of the students do.

  10. Pingback: 2020: A year in review | …and Then There's Physics

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