Lessons to be learned

Oof, it’s been a tough few weeks, hasn’t it? We thought that worldwide lockdown and 100,000s of deaths were the worst 2020 could throw at us – what fools us mortals be! I’d originally planned to write a post about the trials and tribulations of exam marking but that seems inconsequential now.

I am well aware of my privilege as a member of the majority community in Sri Lanka, and I cannot begin to understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of centuries of systemic racism and discrimination. I am however a first generation immigrant in the UK and I have many tales of the microaggressions I have experienced over the years. I have seen many others sharing their own experiences but I’m wary of doing the same; it would feel a bit ‘all lives matter’-esque to me, and this is primarily an L&T blog after all.

So what I’m going to do is share two more of my L&T observations based on situations in my life. Both have implications for equality and inclusivity in Higher Education but only one of them relates to the experiences I’ve mentioned above. The UK HE landscape has students from a variety of backgrounds (educational, geo-political and socio-economic) and it’s important that we, as academics, take the time to reflect on any microaggressions that we’re guilty of and try and be better.

Observation #4: Every student in your class is one of YOUR students

I spent some of my primary school years in Oxford and being a brown kid in an English state school in the ’80s/’90s was no walk in the park. That said, I was well-behaved, quiet and hardworking, and my teachers seemed to like me (even if my classmates didn’t). I remember we had a weekly spelling test, and thanks to my mother’s home tuition and Ronald Ridout, I topped the class every time. This went on for a while, until one week another classmate also got full marks. That afternoon my class teacher gleefully told my mother:

Today one of OUR kids was the champion!

I may be paraphrasing  (it was a long time ago) but that was the gist of it. Never mind the fact that they were wrong (joint champions, thankyouverymuch), ‘our’ kids? Was it because of my skin colour? Was it because I’d only arrived in the UK a year prior? We’ll never know. All I knew was that I didn’t belong.

We talk a lot about ‘building cohort identity’ amongst our students, especially for the freshers joining us this September, with a lot of non-critical activities being moved online. Whilst activities and initiatives are great at instilling a sense of community, we must take care to be as inclusive in our day-to-day interactions with students.

Observation #5: Everyone has the capacity to learn

The second case study is far more recent, and by contrast extremely positive…because goodness knows we need some positivity right now. Earlier in the week, this happened:

Now without divulging too much personal information, I can say that my father is a retired surgeon, currently in his second career – management. He’s roughly twice my age, and we got our first computer when I was a teenager…so it’s safe to say he’s not a digital native.

We had our IT lab session yesterday. It took about two hours, and we went through the following:

      1. Creating a Team in MS Teams
      2. Adding a guest (i.e. me) to a Team
      3. Sharing the screen in MS Teams
      4. Using the Read Mode in MS Word
      5. What is MS Forms?
      6. Creating a Form
      7. Copying a Form
      8. Adjusting settings on a Form
      9. Displaying real-time responses in MS Forms
      10. Sharing a Form

It was fascinating to see how quickly he picked it up. Of course that’s partly due to the way Microsoft has designed its platforms, but I’d say a lot of it is due to my father’s willingness to experiment and learn. I had to be careful not to overwhelm him with information, and I made sure the workshop was set up the way he’d want to run it (I resisted the urge to teach him how to embed forms in a Stream video and create break-out groups in Teams!). The true test will be when the workshop takes place next week but I’m confident that he’s got it in the bag.

All too often we give up before we’ve even reached the starting line. Students start the lesson saying “oh this is too hard, I’m no good at it”, and academics start using EdTech tools with “oh I’m too old for this technology malarkey”. What are we so afraid of? The world won’t stop spinning if we make a mistake in the classroom, it’s all part of the learning process.

At the same time, as educators we need to recognise the different learning styles of our students. If I’d run the same session with students straight out of school, I would’ve taken a different approach (and we’d definitely try out the break-out groups!). It’s important to bear in mind that the whole point of me teaching is so that my students learn…every single one of them.

I will close with the Queen’s performance of Freedom at the 2016 BET Awards. Because…well, no explanation necessary, surely?

 

 

A balancing act

I grew up in a very traditional educational set up, where the student-teacher relationship was extremely formal. I got a real culture shock when I came to the UK for university and my tutors were happy to be addressed by their first names (I still remember feeling extremely awkward when I bumped into one of them at Nando’s). Over the years I’ve developed my own style – I remember a new student once asked how they should address me, and I just said “I don’t really mind, as long as you’re respectful”. So I get Sam, Dr Gooneratne, and everything in between (even the dreaded ‘Miss’, which I do try and discourage).

In terms of my interactions with students, I try to set the expectations at the start and over time they ‘earn the right’ to engage in a bit of banter. I try to be friendly, but I am not their friend. As one student put it:

You’re great until we do something stupid, then you give us that death stare.

I’d like to think it looks something like this

All those lines have got a bit blurred since using Teams. I’m not sure which letter my generation belongs to, but I am reasonably comfortable with internet vernacular and I use it quite a bit when chatting with friends. I’m also partial to the occasional emoji, and you’ve already seen my gif game! The chat feature in Teams is great but now my brain is really confused. Do I maintain proper sentence structure? Do I avoid using emojis for fear of not being taken seriously? Is it OK to type ‘lol’? I try to maintain professional email etiquette at all times but professional chat etiquette is a new one for me. I want my students to feel that I’m approachable but work is work…right?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a very private person, and I like to keep my work and non-work lives separate (lockdown is making that extremely difficult). I also mentioned in a previous post that I was really missing singing. So yesterday, this happened:

I agonised for days (maybe weeks) about whether to record it at all, and if so, what to do with that recording. Once I recorded and uploaded it, I agonised about whether to share the link online, or just leave it there for anyone (or no one) to watch. Once I decided the share the link online, I agonised about what people might say, whether it was inappropriate (are academics allowed to have hobbies?)…yes there was a LOT of agonising.

Producing the video for me was as much about the process as the product – I worked out all the harmonies myself, and I combined the videos using PowerPoint – I know there are fancy apps that’ll do all that for you, but this is partly about teaching myself a skill. So yes it’s not perfect (trimming videos is really hard in PowerPoint!) but it’s all mine…and I’m pretty proud of my first attempt. In the end, I decided to post the link on twitter, as you can see (although I did try to sneak it in late at night when I thought no one I knew would be awake!). Thankfully it seems to have been received well, which is nice!

I think at the end of the day, it’s a balancing act (“ah now the title makes sense!”, I hear you say): between being casual and professional, between having a clear line between work and non-work and being an open book, and between quietly indulging in a hobby and being a fame-hungry YouTube star (ahem). I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

Until then, I’ll leave you with…no, not Kacey Musgraves (although you can be amazed by the original ‘Rainbow’ on YouTube). How about some glorious Tom Odell (with Alice Merton) instead? Enjoy.

The kids are alright but are we?

Observation #3: Academics are human too

Yes it’s been almost a month since my last post, and that’s not entirely down to laziness. It’s absolutely right that a number of adjustments have been made to student assessment deadlines etc. to allow for the fact that their lives have been turned upside down but it’s important to recognise that academics’ lives have also been affected in exactly the same way.

Rather than list all the ways in which our lives have been impacted (I’m not feeling sufficiently “woe is me” for that right now), I thought I’d highlight the ways in which we’ve been working together in my department to support colleagues. We’ve primarily been using MS Teams and OneNote and whilst they’re not perfect, they’re pretty close to what we need right now.

Platform: MS Teams

We’re very lucky that MS Teams had been rolled out across the institution long before the issue of COVID-19 arose. We already had a departmental team, and there had been a number of semi-successful attempts to make it a hub for information. That idea has really taken flight now, and as departmental management we’re trying to limit the amount of attachments that are sent via email. We’ve set up channels for topics as well as private channels for subject areas and with time I’m hoping that more colleagues will treat the space as their ‘go-to’ for all things departmental.

Highlight: Social Chat

I’m not 100% sure whose idea this was but it’s worked better than I’d ever imagined. We have a recurring Teams meeting at the end of the traditional working day, a few times a week. It’s an opportunity for colleagues to have a casual chat, share any thoughts or concerns, and see some friendly faces before logging off for the day. When it started, the meeting would be initiated by one of the team leaders and the format was similar to a departmental meeting without an agenda. But now…most days a colleague will start the meeting just a few minutes before the scheduled start time (always makes me smile)! We don’t get everyone on there (which is fine) but there’s a strong core group eager to have some interesting discussions. There’s still a bit of ‘business talk’ (again, absolutely fine) but there’s also a lot of sharing good EdTech practice, as well as a bit of general chat (mostly about the weather and how we’re all missing sport).

And the latest trend (for which I take full responsibility, as indicated in the tweet below) is to use a holiday pic as a custom background and then get the others to guess where it’s from!

It’s just a bit of silliness but anything that helps us connect, right? I’m normally a very private person (strange, given how much I talk) but I’m quite enjoying sharing these (heavily curated) titbits of my life with my colleagues.

Platform: MS OneNote

The departmental Staff Notebook is another resource that we had set up before the lockdown. Hasn’t necessarily grown in the same way that the Team has but I think it’s found its purpose as a repository for ‘how to’ guides. Its strength is in the capability to host different types of sources (weblinks, files, images, my chicken scratch handwriting) on the same page.

Highlight: EdTech Tool Tips

Now this is what I’m really proud of! Soon after lockdown it became apparent that whilst all of us had received training on various EdTech tools, not all of us felt confident enough to use those tools with our students. Rather than force each person to go hunting around the internet for their own solutions, we decided to pool our resources and develop a collaborative database of information for the different EdTech tools being used. I asked around and realised that our collective skill set is actually quite substantial, but no one else knows about it…and so the Collaborative section of the Staff Notebook was born. It’s essentially a wiki but as I said earlier, OneNote has the benefit of supporting a variety of sources so we’ve got links, screenshots and videos with step-by-step instructions for the most used features of different tools, curated by the departmental ‘experts’.

It’s been well received by colleagues (I think/hope) and it’s great to see them experimenting with the different tools and providing their own tips and tricks. Now we just need more students to engage!

I know I sound like a Microsoft advert and like I said I know it’s not perfect…but for the most part we can do what we need to do and that’s the most important thing right now. I’ve switched on the comments for this post so if anyone reading this has any tips of their own, I’d be interested to read about it.

I’ll close with the new UK #1…partly because it’s absolutely lovely, and partly because Paloma Faith looking that glamorous whilst standing at her ironing board just makes me laugh.

The Internet is for everyone

Remember back in the day (i.e. last year) when everyone was sharing photos like this and feeling oh so smug?

[Photo by Hold my ARK from Pexels]
I never did like those signs. Especially since most of my wifi use is to speak to my mother! As I posted on Twitter last week:

Anyway now we’re treating the internet as a basic human right, and the naysayers of old are starting to realise what a powerful tool it can be. There’s no better example of this than the Zoom meeting I’ve just come out of. A little background…

My parents (who have become quite spiritual post-retirement) normally attend a weekly meditation class at their local meditation centre in Sri Lanka. I don’t have the same opportunity here (or more likely I’m just too lazy to seek one out) but whenever I visit them, I tag along. Whilst the classes attract practitioners from various backgrounds, it’s probably safe to say that a significant proportion are in their golden years and very much in the “kids these days with their phones and their internet…are you also on The Facebook?” camp.

In an effort to maintain some sense of normalcy and support his patrons’ mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19, the meditation centre’s chief incumbent monk has started using Zoom to run his meditation classes online. This week’s session had ~30 participants – mostly from Sri Lanka but also from Indonesia, Russia and the UK. It was great for me personally to be able to engage in some directed mindfulness meditation to manage my own wellbeing (highly recommended by pretty much everyone!), but it was also great to see people who normally wouldn’t engage with technology embracing it so readily.

And I’ve noticed that at work as well. Colleagues have been trying out different platforms and really getting into the spirit of using EdTech tools to collaborate with staff and students alike. For all the complaining we like to do about the difficulty in getting people to engage with advances in L&T, it’s been extremely encouraging to see everyone getting on board. I hope this mood continues beyond COVID-19.

Anyway I hope your ‘non-work’ day is going well. I’ll close with a shout-out to all those people who feel that the good weather is an excuse to ignore social distancing rules. Please please please do the next right thing and stay at home.

In the words of the Dowager Countess…

What is a weekend?

There is daylight (a lot of it now), and there is darkness…everything else is a blur of Blackboard, Outlook, Teams and WhatsApp. When I decide to stop working and try and think of something else to do, the laptop sits on the dining table, judging me for not being productive enough. When I do try to get some work done, my eyes scream at me, begging to focus on something other than a computer screen (Er…how about a phone screen? Or a TV screen?).

Yesterday (Wednesday, if you believe the internet) I realised it had been a week since I had seen another human being in the flesh…I’ve been so ‘hyper-connected’ with everyone online that I hadn’t even noticed. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing! What I have noticed is that I’m missing choir. There is something magical about singing together – and it’s well documented – that really lifts me up. And it’s the one thing that you can’t really do in isolation – yes I know there are all these videos on YouTube and TikTok (btw what IS that?!) of choirs singing via Zoom but dodgy internet connections will always ruin the best laid plans.

So then I think, maybe I should open Audacity and create my own choir. Upload a few videos…like EVERYONE. ELSE. ON. THE. INTERNET. I used to, back in my student days…but I’m far less self-indulgent now (she says, on her blog that’s all about her). Actually scrap that – I’m far too lazy now.

And so you will only hear my voice on Panopto screencasts extolling the virtues of Excel as part of my ‘general coursework feedback’…for now at least. Who knows what will happen as time goes on (and I get more restless).

Since signing off with a song appears to be a ‘thing’ on this blog now, here’s one for today. It was the last song on this morning’s BBC Radio UK Singalong, courtesy the Asian Network, and it had me bouncing all over the house!

All eyes on me (or are they?)

No I haven’t lectured before but I’ve been performing on stage since I was 5 years old.

This is what I answered when asked if I had lectured before, during the interview for my lecturing post at TU (my first job). Looking back I’m quite surprised at how spot on my response was as an observation (especially for someone with so little experience!). It’s something I was reminded of this week, as I prepared for my first online lecture. And so…

Observation #2: Lecturing is a Performance Art

Those who know me know that I sing a fair bit. And I wasn’t fibbing when I said I started performing as a 5 year old (There’s a Hole in My Bucket, in case you were wondering). Performing on stage is a process:

    1. Prepare (your performance)
    2. Practise (until perfect)
    3. Connect (with your audience)
    4. Command (the stage)

The same could be said about lecturing…at least the way I do it. I relish the challenge of coming up with ways to hold my students’ attention for a full hour or two. I get a kick out of seeing their faces when a complex idea finally clicks. And I love walking around the room, waving my arms wildly as I share my passion for my subject (although that may have less to do with lecturing and more to do with me not knowing what to do with my arms!).

Now, stick me in front of a computer and ask me to do an online lecture, and what happens? Steps #1 and #2 of my performance process might still work, but how does one connect with an audience they can’t see? Are they paying attention? Do they understand what I’m saying? Are they still online? Oops I’ve lost my place. D’oh!

Then there’s commanding the stage…how can I do that when I’m chained to a chair, staring at a laptop? And it’s not just my limbs I have to worry about. There’s a reason you have a rehearsal, a dress rehearsal, and a performance – you need to look (and feel) the part. So what’s the rule on wearing make-up to give an online lecture at the dining table?

Sadly only Beyonce wakes up flawless.

Reflecting on my online lecturing experience, I realise now how much I depend on body language during my lectures (both mine and that of my students). Without it, I felt lost. I’m sure I’ll figure out a substitute with time but it was an interesting revelation nonetheless. It was also proof that whilst there’s definitely a place in this world for online learning, nothing beats the real thing.

I’ll leave you with another tune that’s been stuck in my head, a perfect accompaniment to this beautiful weather we’ve been having. In case anyone thought yesterday’s jazz was my usual fare, I’m sorry to disappoint (not really)!

 

Hi, can you hear me?

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard / used this phrase this week…and it’s only Wednesday! COVID-19 has plunged the entire world into the deep end of the remote working pool and we’re all desperately trying not to drown…

…which is why I’ve started this blog. All these random observations, anecdotes and tips on the dash to online lecturing that are currently swimming around in my head are serving no purpose other than to keep me from sleeping. They’re far better shared with the universe in the remote chance someone finds them useful. So here goes…

Observation #1: It feels like the first day of school

I’ve been lecturing for over 8 years now (OK, still a baby compared to some) and I’ve always felt quite confident about it. And I like to think of myself as an early adopter of L&T tech in my department. So online lecturing should be a breeze, yeah? HAHAHAHA no. I did my first online lecture yesterday and I haven’t felt that nervous since my first lecture ever. I’ll go into the specifics of the lecture itself in another post but I really wasn’t expecting to feel that way going into it. It was a reminder for me that no matter how proficient we think we are in something, there will always be experiences that take us out of our comfort zone and catch us off guard. Instead of shying away from these experiences we should embrace them in all their butterfly-inducing glory, and our lives will be that much richer for it.

In the spirit of sharing something cheerful in these difficult times, I’ll close with an earworm that’s been stuck in my head for days (apologies to my neighbours who’ve had to listen to my Nina Simone impression on repeat):

Until next time…