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Teaching Online Dialogue: Responses #1

We are delighted to share the first two responses in our dialogue centred around Teaching Online. In last month’s issue, Lee Skallerup Bessette started the conversation with her piece ‘Teaching Online in Extraordinary Times‘. Here, Naomi Milthorpe and Jessamy Perriam reflect on the importance of connection and simplicity in these challenging times. 

Only Connect

Naomi Milthorpe, University of Tasmania

With the setting-in of COVID-19 worldwide, April looks likely to be not only the cruellest month but also, to borrow a phrase T.S. Eliot might never have used, colossally fucked.

COVID-19 has ushered in a new paradigm for university teaching. The structures and practices in which many of us have been trained, and which directed our teaching – frequently social, interpersonal, and face-to-face – have been quickly abandoned as we bunker down in an attempt to flatten the curve. For some, the new paradigm is dystopian, swapping human warmth for the cold blue light of the screen. But there are upsides to this for the world of work: 1) that we abandon the pretence that more hours in the office equals a more effective worker, 2) that can paradoxically rediscover analogue pastimes (cooking! gardening! Lego!) even as we digitally connect with our workplaces 3) that we now legitimately work in our pyjamas.

So how can you make the new world order that is teaching online – immediately, with no training, no resourcing, no childcare (and potentially no toilet paper) – if not wholly enjoyable, at least manageable? (And no, the answer is not Zoom: it can’t handle any more traffic).

Make a map: you might think your way of uploading your course documents to the Learning Management System is intuitive, but not everyone thinks the way you do. So make a course roadmap, and signpost it. Mark out modules of study in a clear sequence, showing students how and when they can progress. Make sure everything is clearly labelled.

Forget equivalence. Stop trying to make your online classes like, or equivalent to, your on-campus classes. They can’t be. But they can still be great, as long as you’re prepared to do things differently, and maybe to do different things. As I and my colleagues have written elsewhere, ‘online and mobile technologies can enhance disciplinary learning; increase accessibility for students in remote and regional areas; facilitate enhanced scholarly enquiry; and encourage staff to develop innovative, collaborative, and flexible teaching and learning practices.’[1] Online necessitates a different approach to time, so give Zoom a break and try some asynchronous activities that students can undertake in their own time, using some of the fantastic digital modernist resources around: I’ve used the Modernist Archives Publishing Project and Woolf Online with great success. A great resource for designing activities for online learning is Gilly Salmon’s E-tivities: I’ve largely built my online practice (including the online teaching handbook, Digital English, edited with my colleagues Robert Clarke, Robbie Moore, and Joanne Jones) using an etivities-style scaffolded approach.[2]

Unlock the screen. Teaching online can quickly become dystopian: to lag is to send into penal servitude, as well as to fall behind. It’s easy to feel imprisoned in this mode, and to resent your cellmates/students/colleagues. But as Lee Skallerup Bessette wrote in The Modernist Review recently, ‘remember the human beings on the other side of the screen.’ Your students are likely also feeling pretty incarcerated. I always do an activity called ‘Pleased to Meet You’ on my discussion boards, introducing myself informally and asking them to do the same. I also try to check-in in multiple ways – a few informal video messages, weekly round-up emails, and emailing or calling students who are falling away from the weekly content.

Equity and accessibility. One of the biggest lessons we need to heed when we teach online is in equity and accessibility. If you’re unsure, check the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or your home institution’s policy page. Thinking intersectionally – particularly across class, age, and disability – is crucial: can my students access course documents in a stable format? Are they available in vision or hearing accessible forms? Are students digitally literate or comfortable with online technologies? Do students even have a computer or wifi access at home? I’ve also met with students who have experienced trauma related to online environments and social media, so being open to alternative arrangements is important.

Log off. A lot of people new to online teaching can be tempted to try to mediate every post, every email, every request, immediately. This is a way to send you bonkers, quick. But also, it’s unnecessary. A key concept in online education scholarship is interactivity, seen at three levels: student–teacher, student–content, and student–student.[3] You want the most interaction to occur in the latter two groupings. So log off. Let them write to each other, and to the content, before you jump back in.

Some colleagues and I recently developed a set of guidelines for good practice in online teaching, and a scalable checklist for use throughout the semester. Though aimed explicitly at teacher-educators, these guidelines have broad applications for folks teaching online. The most important thing is – to borrow from E.M. Forster – only connect. Nurture each other, even if at a distance. Education, my colleagues write, is ‘a profession centred on relationships, trust, and support’.[4] In these strange times, we need to nourish those things in order that our students can keep learning. For the foreseeable future, the only way to do this will be online.

[1] Naomi Milthorpe, Robert Clarke, Lisa Fletcher, Robert Moore, and Hannah Stark, ‘Blended English: Technology-enhanced teaching and learning in English literary studies’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 17.3 (2018), pp. 345-365.

[2] Gilly Salmon, E-tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning (London: Kogan Page, 2002).

[3] Brent Muirhead, ‘Enhancing social interaction in computer-mediated distance education’,

Educational Technology and Society 3 (2000), pp.1–11. Gail Wilson and Elizabeth Stacey, ‘Online interaction impacts on learning: Teaching the teachers to teach online’, Australian Journal of Educational Technology 20.1 (2004), pp.33–48.

[4] Janet Dyment, Jill Downing, Cathy Stone, Naomi Milthorpe, Tracey Muir, Elizabeth Freeman and Belinda Hopwood, Good Practice in Online Teacher Education. University of Tasmania, 2019.

Simple is best; do what you can

Jessamy Perriam, IT University of Copenhagen

Two weeks ago, I wrote a fairly mindless tweet before heading off to work at the IT University of Copenhagen. This was after seeing a few days of tweets where fellow academics worldwide were coming to grips with the fact that teaching was going to radically change over the next weeks or months. The tweet reads:

As someone who up until recently worked for the Open University, producing predominantly online distance learning material for a sociology module called Understanding Digital Societies, I know firsthand the effort, the planning, and valuable but friendly critique that needs to take place over the course of those two years. It’s hard and often lonely work. But the rewards come in the creativity you’re able to have (under normal circumstances). You can see the rest of the thread on Twitter; my intention was to be helpful and pragmatic, but not prescriptive.

In the thread, I mention teaching asynchronously, which is the format used at the Open University – that is: not presenting live on Zoom or Skype, etc. (see examples on OpenLearn). What I liked best about producing materials in this way was that writing for online settings allows you to take a more informal and less academic tone in your teaching. I found it liberating to explain concepts such as The Sociological Imagination and Capital in accessible ways, as though I was telling a non-academic friend about it over coffee, bringing in examples from the world around us. It also allows you, where possible, to cherry pick audio visual resources to support and illustrate the week’s teaching.

If you have the time, bandwidth and resources to test new modes of teaching and learning activities, go for it. One of the best innovations I’ve seen this week is lectures presented in podcast format. You can listen to Paula Bialski’s lecture series on Spotify. I’m looking forward to seeing other innovations that will be resources to draw upon once we’re past this crisis.

A word of warning, though: sometimes simple is best. Just because you can use a new online tool, doesn’t mean you must. It goes without saying that our students are also likely dealing with job losses, caring responsibilities and concern for their friends and family.  Step back for a moment and consider what you must teach and the simplest and clearest way to do this.  If you’re working to a Northern Hemisphere term, your students may be reaching the point where they are producing summative assessments. The teaching load may become more of a supervisory role. Find ways to be supportive of your students as they navigate what it means to be learning at this time.  Emails, forums and online office hours may be your best teaching tools. Now is not the time for bells and whistles. 

We are all navigating this shift together and we all have lives and concerns outside of the academy. We are, after all, human. And I think this is what my tweet was getting at: we don’t have two years, we don’t have the mental bandwidth, we don’t have the resources to reach our usually high standards. Acknowledging this is crucial and liberating as we give one another grace through this time. 

TMR will be publishing further responses to this dialogue throughout the month of April. As always, we warmly encourage your ideas, contributions or thoughts. Please feel free to get in touch with us at or on twitter at @modernistudies.




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