When it comes to teaching and learning, I have always been a creature of change. I have significant problems just leaving things as they are as I can’t help but wonder what it would look like done a different way. With this in mind, you might be tempted to believe that the recent COVID-19 crisis and the sudden shift to online learning would be something that I might even enjoy. You would be wrong! However, from the utter chaos that has been 2020, some hard-won lessons have been learned about several traditional teaching modes at the University of Sydney.
Like many institutions in the last few decades, the University of Sydney uses a large number of active learning opportunities (through in-class worksheets) in our lectures. As such, before COVID-19, we had become somewhat used to a high level of active participation during lecture timeslots. I, for one, miss this terribly. However, this has also provided a golden opportunity to ask why we teach what we do. Is that content essential? Does that slide actually add anything? Do I cover this learning outcome adequately? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve turned into a highly precise surgeon/butcher of late, and I’ve had little mercy.
Before the COVID-19 crisis spread outside of China, institutions with high numbers of international student were already trying to assist students stuck overseas by the Australian travel bans. During this time, I was tasked with supporting the transition of all of our first-year tutorials online. My response was pretty much to buy every iPad in Sydney and to quickly teach everyone who stood still for more than 20 seconds how to use Zoom. The online transition of the tutorials also provided a great time to rethink the questions being used. Rethinking the tutorial tasks became even more critical when we discovered that our exams would now all be open-book and online, as it meant that our questions required higher-order language (e.g. explain, discuss, justify). Beautifully, this need to better prepare students for these higher-order questions gave me an excellent excuse to start jettisoning old algorithmic tutorial questions for those that required students to think and hold arguments. The horror!
Anyone who has heard me speak knows that I firmly believe that the only point of labs is to develop skills (both technical and transferable). Nothing quite drives that home, like trying to create online quizzes using technique simulations in an attempt to ‘teach’ practical skills. I have never been surer that you can’t replace these vital activities because there is just no suitable replacement. The laboratories indeed are the differentiating aspect of our wonderful field, and this entire crisis has driven that even further home for me.
Overall, it’s easy to get stuck into the spiral of mourning this year. But I would advocate using this chance to finally break away from some nasty habits that have settled in over the years. I’m not saying we change everything tomorrow, but I’ll be damned if this pandemic hasn’t placed a whole new list of targets for future me to gleefully attack in the future. Viva la revolución!