Lecturing in Lockdown

As well as writing for this blog, I have several other roles, all of which relate to communicating mathematics in some form. Part-time, I’m a freelance maths communicator, delivering talks and workshops as part of events and science festivals, and making videos for YouTube, appearing on TV and radio to explain bits of maths, and writing books, puzzles and online content to engage people with mathematical ideas. The rest of the time, I’m a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, where I have been teaching some pure mathematics modules to undergraduates.

The effect of the coronavirus pandemic, and the resulting lockdown that’s been imposed to varying degrees by governments around the world, has been huge for many people. Those who can’t do their jobs from home have had major disruption to their lives, and those that can have had to adapt quickly and drastically to a new way of working – hours of video calls, learning how to use new software and hardware, and making do with cramped home ‘offices’ improvised on the dining table.

As someone who spent a fair amount of time before the pandemic working from home, that aspect of my work hasn’t changed much (except for the addition of a newly-working-from-home spouse, who uses the other end of the dining table and borrows my webcam sometimes). I was already familiar with video calling, as many of my colleagues live in other parts of the country, so we’d often catch up and plan events using video chats. I also already had, and was familiar with, plenty of the equipment needed to work online – having already made plenty of videos for YouTube.

One aspect of my freelance work that’s changed dramatically is the number of public speaking gigs – obviously, these have dropped to zero, but a few have had enough time to plan a switch to online, which means I’ve been preparing to deliver interactive video versions of what would have been an in-person hands-on workshop. This has involved a lot of rethinking of the way I’d deliver such a session, and educating myself about online learning.

This has also fed into my university teaching – in the lead-up to lockdown, when it was becoming gradually more apparent that the pandemic was a serious concern, and might require some kind of distancing action, I saw increasingly many articles and blog posts shared about how online teaching is different to in-person teaching, which I soaked up with interest.

Many universities in the UK switched to online teaching with relatively short notice – made worse by the fact that we’d just finished a period of strike action, which meant many hadn’t been in work for the previous few weeks, and there was a frantic scramble to go in to offices to collect materials before the university buildings officially closed. With a few weeks of teaching still to deliver, we had to hastily work out a plan and teach the remaining module content – without even knowing yet exactly how it was going to be examined or assessed, if at all.

Since this part of the teaching was clearly assembled without much prep time, it was not necessarily at the high standard we’d all have liked it to be. Many of our students were in a period of upheaval – moving back home, from their carefully crafted study environment at uni to a home life with potential distractions, different access to technology (I’ve had to post printed notes for the last few lectures to around a fifth of my second-year students, as they can’t access a printer) – and the same stresses and worries we’re all going through about the pandemic, their loved ones, and the future.

There will be some serious moderation occurring with this year’s exam results – UK school students have been told their GCSE and A-level grades will be determined based on their predicted grades. For many, this is based in part on the results of their mock exams (which I’m sure many of them would have prepared for better if they’d had an inkling this might be the case!). Some universities, including ours, are exempting first-year students from having to take any exams this year, allowing them to pass into the second year automatically.

For higher years, we’ll be comparing the results from the same modules last year, the students’ performance in previous years, and their performance in other modules this year, in what is likely to be a long and difficult exam board meeting, in order to determine fair grades – taking into account all the disruption they’ve faced to their learning and environment, and making sure the work they’ve put in is reflected in their results.

Beyond this year, the path is still muddy. The university isn’t able to commit to a decision yet on whether teaching in September is going to be business as usual (unlikely), entirely delivered online (a possibility) or a blend of both, with small group classes combined with online content. In the meantime, our only option is to prepare as though it’ll be entirely online delivery; discussions are ongoing about how extra hours will be allocated for this extra prep time, especially since the industrial action this year focused on too-high workloads as one of the main issues.

University management teams are often seen to make assumptions about the way teaching works, some of which are true of only some subjects (teaching maths is very different to teaching history, or chemistry, or art!) and some of which aren’t true at all.

An example of this is a push for increasing student numbers (to increase the amount of income from tuition fees) without adding additional teaching staff hours – if you can explain something to 30 students in a room, surely you can explain it to 100 students in the same way? Aside from this not making sense (when you factor in the time needed for marking, office hours and other associated admin, which definitely does increase with numbers!) it also fails to take into account that teaching a larger group needs different preparation, and different skills – and that if your goal is educationally sound, high-quality teaching, it takes more work to adapt this to larger groups.

A lot of this applies even more strongly to online teaching: not being able to see students’ faces makes a huge difference to the way I explain things: my usual approach is to see whether people look like they understand, and tailor my explanation and examples to the responses I get in the room. The sea of grey rectangles I face in an online classroom, only some of whom only occasionally make comments in the text chat, doesn’t give me this luxury.

Marking is also harder if you’re not being handed in physical copies of students’ work – staring at scans and PDFs on a screen for hours on end, and not being able to scribble a quick note in the margin, makes the whole process much more laborious and mentally draining – and I’m sure my students would prefer me not to be exhausted and cross-eyed when determining their grades.

Organisations like the Open University in the UK have offered distance learning courses for many years, which of late have made increasing use of online formats – but when they develop content, they spend years putting the materials together, and while they might cover the same topics as an in-person teaching course, they will need to be delivered in a different way.

Since the content we’re teaching was developed, planned and honed in face-to-face formats, it’s built for that environment and moving it to online versions is not as simple as just saying the same thing to a webcam instead of a room. For mathematics, students need to have time to work on problems and be able to ask questions, and they can learn a lot by talking to other students on the same table; all of these processes are stilted and awkward, or in some cases impossible, in an online video format.

The challenge of teaching online from September will be a big one, and the hours needed to develop the content and adapt it to the new format will be taken away from other crucial work. This will mainly be research, but in my case, one of my responsibilities in the department is the development of outreach activities, which has been completely sideswiped by the amount of time I’ve had to put into adapting my teaching and marking.

If universities want to be seen to be taking this problem seriously, they will need to build in structures to allow their staff to produce good-quality online and remote teaching content. It’s difficult since already tight budgets are likely to be reduced by lower student numbers – the big funding source represented by tuition fees from international students will sharply decrease – and staff are not working at peak efficiency, also trying to juggle caring responsibilities and high-stress levels. 

The effects of this pandemic are wide-ranging and devastating for many, and the state of education is only one of many things on a long list of priorities – but for those of us who go to work because we want to share our love of the subject and support the next generation of mathematical minds, we’ve all got our work cut out, and our fingers crossed that this is something we’ll be able to do.

Katie Steckles

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is a mathematician based in Manchester, who gives talks and workshops on different areas of maths. She finished her PhD in 2011, and since then has talked about maths in schools, at science festivals, on BBC radio, at music festivals, as part of theatre shows and on the internet. Katie writes blog posts and editorials for The Aperiodical, a semi-regular maths news site.

1 comment

  1. yes, the lockdown also got the education system off on the wrong foot. There are online learning courses like Coursera or Udacity, but they are intended for hosts of students who want to learn a new subject and not for students whose learning progress the teacher wants to follow closely. Such teaching and learning depends on feedback and the teacher may ask a question or task that the students cannot escape because everything is face to face. But if students and teacher are spatially and visually separated, this reinforces the natural tendency of many students to be passive – and this can have fatal consequences for learning success.

    Now perhaps the only thing missing is the right software or technology to make online learning as effective as teaching and learning in the lecture hall. Maybe this can be achieved with the means of virtual reality by placing video recordings of students and teachers in a virtual room and letting everyone see and hear everyone else in this virtual room.

    I think something like that will surely come one day. If not soon, then at the latest with the next pandemic and the next lockdown.

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