Monthly Archives: September 2020

The Online Transition in HE

By James Flanders (City University, London) and Maddy Thompson (Keele)

In March, most Universities announced an end to on-campus teaching. Drawing on our differing experiences as a final year student (James) and lecturer (Maddy) doing a Geographies of Digital Health module, we reflect on some of the critical challenges and opportunities that this swift transition has created. Despite our differing experiences, we hope our overall reflection will be useful to students and staff embarking on or returning to online teaching.

The Perils of the Digital

Coincidentally, the transition to online teaching began with a lecture on Digital Health geographies. Previous planning dictated that this would include an interactive activity with students communicating via digital technologies to produce a presentation from opposite ends of a lecture hall to experience distanced health. The need for students to go online made this a more realistic experience. Figure 1 illustrates the students’ reflections on distanced and digital work. The issues and opportunities identified are applicable to our broader experiences of online teaching. Here we focus on communication and technology.

Figure 1: Slide produced by GEO3151 Geographies of Health students at Newcastle University March 2020

Communicating Online

As the Geographies of Health students identified, online communication is complicated. More communication is required to make up for what is lost without face-to-face interaction. This meant more emails. We both felt compelled to have push notifications on 24/7 to prevent email build-up and inevitable confusion. Online teaching makes it harder for students and staff to ‘switch off’.

Online communication in teaching settings creates additional problems. For example, Maddy’s early lectures over-ran. She was more concerned with speaking slowly and repeating key points where she would usually have gestured. Online communication requires additional time to communicate the content; hence, there is less time for content.

If students can easily switch between the lecture and external information (websites, videos, quizzes, etc.), then less content is required in lecture form. James, with a laptop and tablet, was able to easily view the lecture on one screen and take notes and undertake research on his other (see Figure 2). Students confined to using a single device cannot. We both firmly believe that universities should provide complimentary tablets/laptops to students who enrol. To give all students a better opportunity to engage with online teaching equally.

Figure 2: James’ laptop screen set up – he watched recordings on a tablet device

Pre-recorded lectures may be attractive for many staff and reduce the risk of over-running, but for James and his peers, live lectures are essential to maintain motivation and a sense of ‘being there’. Maddy also found the live lectures preferable for this reason, particularly as she was able to gauge understanding through using the ‘react’ option on Microsoft Teams chat (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Example of a message posted by Maddy in Teams chat to check student understanding

In some sessions, we shared open dialogue at the end of each lecture. This allowed us to have a friendly and unstructured discussion between ourselves. Due to the unprecedented times, this was beneficial to restore a bit of normality in the storm. However, while James had the technology available to go on video, others did not.

Issues of privacy and accessibility meant students had a choice to be on camera, and chat functions were used for discussion. This necessitates multiple forms of conversation, and for Maddy as moderator, created additional challenges. It is easy to prioritise students that can be seen and heard, but care should be taken to ensure this does not happen. For students like James, who were willing and able to share an insight into their home lives, these discussions were more enriching than talking in lecture halls. However, lower engagement reduces the chance of diverse opinions from entering the teaching space.

Interestingly, many issues disappeared in one-to-one video calls. These more personal meetings provided a greater sense of normality as we could focus on body language and engage in natural forms of speaking. Furthermore, there are fewer connectivity issues with fewer people on a call, mainly as smartphones can be used. Students were much more likely to use video in this smaller setting.

The transition to online teaching necessitated a steep technological learning curve for us both, particularly due to the multiple options available and lack of planning time to plan. Maddy used various options as university preferences changed, but James was subjected to countless more across different modules. Innovative forms of online teaching are additional things for students to learn. They can quickly become a technological burden.

Additionally, while our experiences were mostly trouble-free, key issues on accessibility and engagement arose. It became clear that Zoom is smoother than Microsoft Teams, less likely to be impacted by poor connectivity. The features of Teams, however, are better suited for group work, and the slide above was produced via students in chat groups. As groups could call in Maddy and other teaching staff, it also helps produce a feeling of normality.

The future of HE Geography teaching

Covid-19 has created striking new norms and associated challenges. Our experiences highlight two overarching concerns universities and teaching staff must address to ensure equality in learning and teaching.

  • More uniformity among online teaching across modules, courses, and universities.
    • This reduces the demands of training for both staff and students and reduces complexity in learning and teaching environments.
    • Teaching staff should also consider their own technological practices to avoid over-burdening students for innovation’s sake.

  • Universities must provide students with additional technology to ensure that those confined to single devices are not excluded from learning opportunities.
    • As online communication is more time consuming and creates additional challenges relating to equality, diversity and inclusion for students, staff need to ensure their teaching practices (such as in group discussion) are inclusive.

Six months on: What does compassionate and courageous pedagogy look like now?

By Sarah Dyer (Exeter), Helen Walkington (Oxford Brookes), and Jennifer Hill (Gloucestershire)

The Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography, published in December 2019, ends with a synthesising chapter proposing four principles with which to build strong foundations for the future of geography higher education: entering pedagogic borderlands; embracing partnership working; acknowledging the whole student (which includes embracing compassionate pedagogies); and adopting courageous pedagogies (Hill, et al., 2019). [For a summary, see this blog post; the chapter itself is open access and can be found here].

As we write in summer 2020, the need for the compassionate and courageous pedagogies argued for in the Handbook could not be more pressing. However, the aspiration of building strong foundations feels, just now, like it comes from another world. In the seismic biological, economic, social, and cultural shocks of this global pandemic, we are experiencing a liquefaction of the earth beneath our feet. In this moment we wish to pause and reflect, using what we wrote less than a year ago as our prompt. Our reflections coalesce around three questions. We set these out below in the hope of inviting you into a conversation. We believe that, as a community of geography educators, we need to collectively discuss what a compassionate and courageous pedagogy looks like now.

Question 1) How might we navigate disruption to create learning spaces as pedagogic borderlands in the coming academic year?

In the Handbook, authors discuss the productivity of pedagogic borderlands, spaces of “novelty and ambiguity (that) offer challenge to student and faculty…….. (which) are liminal, operating as a transition between secure knowledge and new understanding” (Hill et al, 2019; p.475). In the academic year 2020/21 all teaching and learning spaces will be novel and ambiguous. Faculty and students will be learning together in these spaces in all sorts of as-yet-undetermined ways. This has the potential to create “the process of joint working between students alone and with faculty, sharing inherent risks and rewards, but leading ultimately to enhancement for all concerned” (Hill et al. 2016, 375). However, as we noted in the conclusion of the Handbook no space is automatically a pedagogic borderland space. The question we want to pose here is, how can we work to ensure that navigating the ‘unpredictable’, ‘messy’, and ‘confusing’ learning spaces of 2020/21 is productive; that we are able to create the conditions for learning that builds empathy and understanding?

In the spring of 2020, many academics managed what has been called an online pivot, quickly moving teaching online. Over the summer, faculty are assessing what they learnt, trying out new software, and redesigning courses all in the context of uncertainty about what the academic year 2020/21 will look like.

Many of us are being asked to plan for being back on reconfigured campuses. Our lecture halls, seminar rooms, labs, and fieldtrips will not be the same (McClure, 2020). We will need to navigate uncertainty; how different intuitions and individuals construct and practice ‘Covid secure’ will be ambiguous for some time, and will require us to engage with colleagues and students holistically, respecting their embodied emotional experiences of university, as well as their roles and responsibilities – their lives – beyond campus.

A heavy reliance on online educational spaces will be novel for most of faculty and many of our students too. As educators we must step out of our comfort zones and experiment; be willing to feel vulnerable. We will experience – and have the opportunity to model – the discomfort of learning that we routinely ask of our students. Developing the skills we will need to teach online seems the least of it though. To create a pedagogic borderland we have to negotiate cultures and ways of being in online education environments. Ours is the challenge to use the affordances of online spaces to build inclusive and emancipatory cultures of learning.

New educational spaces (Credit: Sarah Dyer)

Question 2) What does it mean to be hospitable as educators?

Our second question extends the first. In the Handbook, our authors call for a number of qualities in education. These include resisting traditional academic hierarchies as we choose to work in partnership with students and others. They argue we must acknowledge the ‘whole student’, recognising, and indeed welcoming, both the emotional aspect of learning and the diversity of experiences students bring with them.  Such a commitment to compassionate pedagogy entails a willingness to “explore and share excitement, insight, passion, vulnerability…” and “embraces the idea of hospitality in teaching and learning (p.480). The authors recognise too that faculty must be courageous as educators in the context of working environments which lead to ‘pedagogic frailty’ (Kinchin et al., 2016 cited on p.481). Compassion, courage, and hospitality, to support students’ transformative learning are needed now more than ever. And yet, conversely, they are also more at risk.

In the coming academic year, we will not (yet) be at home in our new educational spaces ourselves and the challenge of being hospitable (p.481) to others may be weighty. All of us, even the most experienced online educators amongst us, must configure learning spaces in the context of a world with heightened insecurity and anxiety. We know the pandemic has been experienced diversely and has exacerbated existing inequalities. How, in the face of psychological and existential unease, can we create the sense of security needed to learn?

We will be learning and teaching, at least in part, in each other’s homes. For most this is unchartered territory. What does it mean to teach with other (unknown) people present? What can we safely assume about students’ ability to access these educational spaces, or their safety to participate/speak once they have ‘joined’? How can we practice hospitality, meshed as we will be in each other’s domestic and personal space?

We know that students arrive in HE with different senses of belonging aligned with class, ethnicity, and family background. All students are more likely to experience learning spaces as novel and confusing. Most won’t have had any formal teaching for many months. All will need our welcome more than ever. Our effectiveness at extending our welcome, particularly to those who do not feel welcome or ‘at home’ in HE, will be heightened as a political, as well as pedagogic, act.

Hospitality is the (desirable) relations between a host and their guests. It entrusts educators to be welcoming and generous, with the hope of helping students to feel comfortable enough to learn. We need to value the role hospitality can play in learning but be wary of valorising it. We know from the hospitality industry that workers can be experiencing precarity and insecurity themselves, yet still be able create a feeling of welcome. We know too from the study of hospitality and the work of care that this type of work is systematically de-valued. As this comparison suggests, it will be important to vocalise and make visible both hospitality and care not only as pedagogy but also as labour, not least because we need to be attentive to who does this work and for what reward (Dyer et al, 2016).

Question 3) How can we be courageous as educators?

The coming year will require courage. We will face multiple, sometimes competing, demands from institutions, students and their families, the media, governments, and regulators. At times, what is good education won’t always seem, to these stakeholders, to resemble good education or ‘value for money’. In the face of these expectations and the ambiguities about how they will play out, there will be a temptation to play it safe, to provide an education which looks as similar as possible to previous years’.

Being courageous will mean challenging ingrained practices and tropes. Kinchin et al (2016; p.1) argue that universities are places of ‘pedagogic frailty’, where accountability and labour restructuring have led to a lack of adaptive capacity. Pedagogic frailty manifests itself in a retreat to conservatism and authoritarianism in teaching, and a fear of true dialogue with students. Institutions respond to student dissatisfaction and challenge with a requirement for educators to “just do more and do it faster” (p.4). Even in 2016 Kinchin el al (p.4) identified “relatively minor events” could cause real problems in fragile systems. Clearly, the situation we face now is anything but minor.

Being clear of the need to be courageous as educators helps focus our minds on both the risks and the costs. We need to be courageous at a point when many of us are exhausted and beset by uncertainty. We will need to decide which actions are courageous and which are foolhardy, making assessments about the risks and the costs of courage. We believe that the proper response is to insist that the courage we need is a collective, rather than an individual endeavour, one wedded to a care for each other and our students. So we ask, does that ring true for others, and if so, what might it look like in practice?

And finally, we have the sense that these are questions which could provide a structure to the conversations we think we need to have. The challenges we face are collective, as well as individual ones. We want to move beyond ‘pandemic platitudes’ and explore what has changed, what persists, what that means for both our identity and practices as educators. There may be other pressing questions that we have missed. We would welcome responses in the form of blog posts. These might respond to the questions above or identify other questions that need to be addressed. We see the need to address these questions both in the abstract and at a very practical level too. How can we be hospitable and welcoming in any particular session, is just as important question as we plan for the coming academic year, as more abstract consideration of hospitality.

If you are interested in responding to this blog, please contact Sarah Dyer with submissions. We will also be discussing ‘courageous and compassionate pedagogies’ in a workshop run by the SRHE on 18th November and will likely be organising a session at the next RGS annual conference.

Dyer, S., Walkington, H., Williams, R., Morton, K. and Wyse, S. (2016) Shifting landscapes: from coalface to quick sand? Teaching Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences in Higher Education Area 48(3), pp.308-316.

Hill, J., Walkington, H. and Dyer, S. (2019) Teaching, learning, and Assessing in Geography: foundations for the future in Walkington, H. Hill, J., and Dyer, S. (eds) Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA Edward Elgar Publishing pp. 474-484. [Accessed 25th July 2020 at ]

Kinchin, I.M., Alpay, E., Curtis, K., Franklin, J., Rivers C. and Winstone, N.E. (2016) Charting the elements of pedagogic frailty, Educational Research, 58:1, 1-23, DOI: 10.1080/00131881.2015.1129115

McClure, C. (2020) Experiencing COVID-Style Classroom Teaching Inside Higher Ed [Accessed 29th July 2020 at ]