In at the deep end: teaching online at short notice

Mount Fuji
A snow-capped Mount Fuji

It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.

From ‘A Journal Of The Plague Year‘ by Daniel Defoe (1722)

Thus opens Daniel Defoe’s fictional account of when London was struck by the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague that had ravaged populations since the Middle Ages. As Grover points out, Defoe’s novel describes ‘a city beset with a pandemic far more terrifying than the one we face today’ and details the ‘rigid order’ that emerged in the capital in order to contend with it. Fortunately, the London of today is not the London of then, but I open this post with a reference to Defoe’s novel as a marker to remind us that the city, the country, and indeed the world, have been through considerable public health constraints and conditions in the past and subsequently come through them. Admittedly, not on this scale in modern times, but we do nevertheless find that the coronavirus lockdowns provide us with a shared moment of extraordinary circumstances and common experience.

Why the Japanese don’t say ‘bless you’

My formative years as a teacher were spent in Tokyo, teaching eight English language lessons a day in a small perspex cubicle that fitted me and up to three other students at a small round table. As a teaching experience, it felt somewhat of an educational production line at times, but given that my job was talking to Japanese people from all walks of life every day, it did result in both some fascinating conversations and also some insights into the culture that I’m unlikely to have gained otherwise.

As can happen when confined to a small space with others over long periods of time, occasionally somebody would sneeze around the table. European that I am, I’d instinctively say ‘bless you’ to whoever it was that had sneezed. It turned out that none of the other students would. After a handful of unreciprocated bless-yous, I began to ask my students what the Japanese equivalent of ‘bless you’ was. I found out, to my surprise, that there wasn’t one. This led to me investigating further, for I do believe that teaching should also be a learning opportunity.

I discovered that the phrase ‘bless you’ (or whatever its local variant might be), uttered unthinkingly today in many cultures, was originally a response to assuming that the sneeze was an early warning sign of plague. Some think it may have originated from Pope Gregory the Great, around 590 AD, as plague was hitting the weakening Holy Roman Empire. Invoking God – the phrase ‘bless you’ is a more common contemporary contraction of ‘God bless you’ – indicated hope that blessing the sneezer would ward off evil spirits from entering their bodies. It’s perhaps more commonly understood today to infer that ‘I wish you good health’ or ‘I hope that you don’t get sick’.

Japan never experienced the bubonic plague or, at least as far as I’m aware, other outbreaks of pestilence on the same scales as those visited upon Europe. A country to the east of the Silk Road trade paths that served as transmission routes for the medieval pandemic, that has long-standing cultural behaviours around cleanliness, personal hygiene and innate social distancing practices, and where Christianity never got as much of a foothold as elsewhere, it is perhaps understandable that the Japanese don’t say ‘bless you’ when somebody sneezes.

In at the deep end

Tokyo was also where I got my first experience of teaching online. The company I worked for had a ‘Multimedia Center’ based in Osaka, which was similar to a call centre but where instructors would sit in cubicles in front of TV monitors and where their students would appear in quadrant sections of a video-based grid on their screens. Somewhat similar to teaching via Zoom these days, I suppose. The students could be dialling in from anywhere in the country, and if a teacher was unavailable in the Osaka centre, staff would patch one in from elsewhere too. One day at my school, a stricken member of the branch staff burst into the teachers’ lounge to ask if somebody could help them out at short notice, as one of the teachers due to take a class at another branch hadn’t shown up. All of us teaching staff were quite used to face-to-face teaching in the conditions that we worked under, but none of us had ever taught ‘online’ in this way before. I can still hear some of the almost derisory snorts from some of my colleagues in that staff room, who refused to step in, mainly on the grounds that it wasn’t ‘real’ teaching!

I agreed to help out and to take the class, thus plunging in to the deep end of online teaching. I had no idea how to function in this unfamiliar environment, and was given about five minutes ‘training’ in how to use the system by the very grateful branch staff member, who also quickly left me to it. So there I was, once again sitting in one of our familiar perspex cubicles, but talking to my student through a TV screen instead of about a foot away from me. This was about a year after Skype had launched and a few years before the iPhone existed, so this sort of thing was a lot less common than we take for granted today. I had to think somewhat on my feet about how we were going to share the teaching materials, and had to hold my textbook and note paper up to the camera on a few occasions. The student themselves was also unfamiliar with learning in this way, and had been expecting a face-to-face lesson at her local branch. She got offered this instead, as a short notice substitute.

It was lucky that this was a general conversation class and there was no summative assessment that would need to follow our encounter. Despite our respective inexperience with the format, both of us adapted to the unusual mode of delivery and she was glad to have had a class at all rather than have it cancelled. As for me, having got through both the initial shock of delivering a lesson in this way, I’d managed to chalk up my first experience of teaching online. It wouldn’t be the last one either, although my subsequent experiences of teaching online have been considerably more prepared!

How was it for you?

I was reminded of this moment during what we may come to look back on as ‘the Great Onlining’ that happened at City and across the rest of the entire higher education sector last month. Even though I’d read the warning signs and was anticipating a shutdown of the university, it still came as somewhat of a shock to find myself and my colleagues in Educational Technology suddenly in the position of effectively being an ‘emergency frontline service’ (with a respectful nod at this point to those in the NHS – a sudden surge in demand for support from a university professional service is, of course, very different from being in a hospital ICU during a coronavirus spike).

It has been a frantic few weeks within LEaD, as we have had a flood in requests for the tools we manage, or the services and advice that we provide. Technology-enhanced learning used to be a rather slower beat than this, but with the sudden pivot to fully online learning, it had become the only way to get through the remainder of the term and all of a sudden, everyone’s doing it.

We’re now on the other side of Easter, and for some of you, the dust may be beginning to settle a little. I’ve written this post to reach out and ask ‘how was it for you?’ What did you find that worked? What challenges did you experience (that you’re able to share on a public forum)? What tools have you newly discovered? What questions has this experience raised for you about teaching and learning online? And I suppose, most importantly, what do you think this experience means for your teaching moving forward, next term or next academic year?

You can add your questions or responses as comments on this post. You can reply to our tweets of this post. Or if you feel that your own deep end during the Great Onlining has given you a story you’d like to share, we’d be very happy to publish it here on Learning at City. You can drop me an email – Domininc.Pates[at] – if you’d like to write a post yourself. You’ll find that, unlike me in that Tokyo staff room in another era, you won’t have been alone in your experiences.

Creating Learning Resources with Mobile Devices

In return for your stories, I have something else to share. You might have found yourself suddenly having to make learning resources at short notice and with limited tools to support you in doing so. With the shutdown of the campus, regular users of LEaD’s MILL multimedia recording facilities will have also been without things like access to our studio or equipment. I’ve therefore made the below tutorial, to give some ideas for how you can use a mobile device for creating resources for use in your teaching. The video covers screen recording on an iPad (or similar device), different types of content, how to upload to MediaSpace, and how to add your mobile-created content to Moodle.

I hope you find this useful, and look forward to hearing those stories.

Stay safe.

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