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What do students want?

Ahh, the everlasting question… what do university students want in the pandemic world of online teaching?

Is it a series of 10 minute pre-recorded chunks of lectures that they can listen to asynchronously? A pre-recorded one-hour banger edited with all the trimmings of a typical Sir David Attenborough documentary? Or a live online, face-to-face (or at least, Zoom or Microsoft Teams) session?

These are the questions that I asked myself A LOT before I commenced my own teaching in the pandemic world.

I was lucky to not be in the classroom in the first half of 2020 when COVID-19 hit our university, but it meant some serious work behind-the-scenes helping other lecturers out there.

By the time my own teaching came around in July of 2020, I had time to think, prepare, and most importantly, chat with the current cohort of undergraduate students about what works, what was a little bit meh, and what I should avoid completely.

I asked previous student cohorts about what worked and what didn’t. I dropped-in on teaching workshops led by other professors, spoke to lecturers at the helm, and came-up with a strategy.

A clear consensus

What students absolutely didn’t want was recycled lectures from previous years. You know, if you recorded a lecture live in the physical classroom sometime in the last few years, then re-upload it, don’t change anything, talk about what was happening that weekend in the footy or in the news sometime in 2017, and act like it’s all good.

Students absolutely hate that.

I get it. They give-up a lot to come to university, plus pay quite a bit for the experience. They expect something fresh, engaging, and want bang for their buck.

So is the answer new, pre-recorded mini-chunks of lectures? Or the full-blown hour-long highly-produced video?

In my experience, it’s neither.

What students want is to engage. To have the ability to ask their professor live in class about the content. To give their point of view. To have their say. To talk to other students in the virtual classroom.

You can’t get that experience with pre-recorded content. And you will seriously peeve your students if you just re-upload last year’s class.

The benefits of going live online

Engagement. Engagement. Engagement.

I’m not talking about a student simply writing to a lecturer after a class or posting into some online class forum.

I’m talking about giving students the opportunity to respond LIVE directly to the lecturer, the class, and anyone else who cares to listen; to ask questions, give their point of view, or just to say ‘hi’.

These are the sorts of experiences that you just can’t recreate with a pre-recorded lecture, let alone a re-posting of content from some years before.

Class attendance thus far in my live online teaching is regularly hitting around 40% for my first year class (intro to Earth Science) and around 70% in my second year class (Palaeobiology). This even exceeds my usual in-class, pre-pandemic teaching attendance rates.

The live lessons of course lack the polish of a typical Attenborough doco, plus they go anywhere from 1 to 2 hours depending on the class, but the students do come online for the sessions.

If they happen to miss a class, I’m always sure to record the sessions and make them available online within hours after it finishes.

What I would do differently in the future

Almost nothing.

In the future I will still teach live online. I will still allow opportunities to directly engage. I will still ask the students for their points of view.

I’m not here to say that I got it exactly right first time around. I’m sure that I didn’t. But I just loved the way that the students really got into it during my time in the online classroom.

I appreciate that you can’t capture every student, especially those who aren’t able to digitally login to your Zoom classroom because they have clashing commitments, or because it’s 3 am where they live.

But they can listen and follow-along with the class or engage asynchronously, and still be active participants within the course.

In a post-pandemic world of teaching, going live online is one thing that I would like to continue with at least for theory-based classes.

You can’t really capture the experience of doing physical practical work, experiments, or fieldtrips, so ideally these will be face-to-face sessions, but for straight-out theory, I don’t see any advantages in teaching in a physical classroom versus teaching live online.

About The Author

Dr Gilbert Price

...or Dr G to his students, is a multi-award winning lecturer at The University of Queensland, Australia. He teaches introductory Earth Science and second year Palaeobiology, as well as supports several other courses behind-the-scenes. He teaches by instinct and knows what works to inspire and engage students. Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, his teaching has thrived in the digital classroom and he is pleased to be able to share his experiences with other educators.

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