Conversations on online learning

Episode 16. Cinzia Pusceddu & Jessica O’Loughlin

January 08, 2023 Digital Support Partnership Season 2 Episode 16
Conversations on online learning
Episode 16. Cinzia Pusceddu & Jessica O’Loughlin
Show Notes Transcript

In our first episode of season 2, Cinzia Pusceddu & Jessica O’Loughlin of the University of Edinburgh discuss inclusive online learning, reflecting on emergency provision, and consider what we might learn moving forward, from both student and teacher perspectives.

Stuart Taylor  0:16  
Hello, I'm Stuart Taylor and welcome to Conversations on online learning, a podcast in which we discuss online learning and how to support it. And each episode, we'll ask our featured guests to relate their own particular area of expertise and experiences related to online learning. And we'll discuss how this has informed their understanding of what that is. We'll also ask our guests to share any advice for Teaching and Learning Support staff who want to enhance and develop their own online learning support. Our guests today are Cinzia Pusceddu, and Jessica O'Loughlin of the University of Edinburgh. Welcome both of us, as you yourselves, if you could tell our lovely audience who you are and what you do and how you came to do that.

Jessica O'Loughlin  1:02  
Yeah, so that's no problem. So as Stuart said, I'm Jessica O'Loughlin, and I'm just in my third year undergraduate at University of Edinburgh, for me been involved with this conversation all started with kind of contributing to the universities teaching matters blog. And then from there, I was invited to different talks. And that's where I met up with Cinzia. And yeah, from there, I've been invited to come along to here. So, and I'm sure I'll be talking about just really my experiences of online learning for the last two years. But it's also an area of interest that I kind of read up about, and kind of quite interested in the underlying underlying pedagogy as well.

Cinzia Pusceddu  1:42  
Thanks, Jessica. My name is Cinzia Pusceddu and I am the academic liaison manager at the University of Edinburgh in the faculty School of Engineering. And my job is to support and advise and guide the staff in terms of the use of technology, so for teaching, particularly the ones that are related to the school, but I also relate to with the university as large as a member of other groups. So I am involved also in projects that are at university level. And when I met Jessica, it was it was very nice. I was very impressed by her competency in talking about a disappearance of online learning during the pandemic. But particularly, I was impressed by her kindness. So she was one of the few people that I've heard talking about, you know, how difficult it could have been, it was not just for the students, but also for the staff. And they thought that it was remarkable.

Stuart Taylor  2:59  
That's wonderful. Yeah. And I'd really like to know more about about your thoughts on that I'm especially kindness and I think we could definitely do with more of that in the world these days. So um, yeah, I don't know, if you want to elaborate more, Jessica, on what that event was, and how you how you came to that. And as well as like any other kind of effect, soon stemmed from your own experiences of online learning, and what that's all about.

Jessica O'Loughlin  3:24  
Yes, kind of back to like, kind of acknowledging the kind of it's been a difficult time for everyone is, especially at the beginning, when we were all just trying to get used to it. And yeah, it was really quite taken aback when, especially when a lot of my labs when the lockdown first happened, we're kind of all cancelled and put online, but the members of staff who just in very short notice just made can also complete online programme almost, to help us complete them. And as you know, it was quite nice to have and it was a you know, I realised for them, they were also going through the same kind of struggles as I was at the time. And, yeah, I just appreciated it, and especially kind of, even in my own work, I was trying to like working in student halls in Edinburgh, went back in September 2020, when we were kind of when I was coming back into my second year, and I myself kind of was busy struggling to organise in person, things sometimes unable to announce in my relatively small role, and it kind of, you know, made me realise that when I see seeing it being done to a much larger scale, by kind of lectures and things like that, I can realise, wow, it must be really difficult to organise all that I imagine there's a lot of sleepless nights worrying about oh, what are the ones comes up positive and things like that. So, yeah, I just, you know, I appreciated the work that was done and under very difficult and changing circumstances, making it especially challenging.

Stuart Taylor  4:46  
That's great. And, uh, yeah, I can imagine that challenge and just right in the thick of it, as well and one completely incredible perspective to get as well and to see things happening and imagine things are first straightening and things are, you know, difficult in so many ways, but especially Stan holes and that kind of supporting role as well and pastoral element to that. I don't know if you want to maybe elaborate on your, your own learning.

Jessica O'Loughlin  5:15  
Yeah. So I think overall with having to learn online, it's kind of forced me to become like more independent in my learning and more proactive having to, because it's very difficult to find to motivate yourself when you can by yourself and your room and not around your peers and colleagues. So you know, you just have to, you know, break things down into doable tasks. And yet, just get through it, essentially, and keep on top of deadlines and things like that. And it's especially find in general over the last two years, just more and more kind of courses and workshops and other learning experiences are becoming a kind of going online. And certainly, for me, who usually lives in a very rural area of Scotland, it's very nice to be able to have that available online, and just able to participate in these things much easier. And yeah, and the skills kind of that I've kind of developed through having to go into online learning for the university has really helped me to do that.

Stuart Taylor  6:14  
That's super advice. And that really kind of highlights the, the way that this has developed. And even though I think the method has been fully busted, we still still see it getting trotted out of this idea of the digital natives, especially with their students so that they can just come to something and but the way you're speaking with it as well, it's like it's a total shock to the system, especially when it came in the context of emergency pivots. But talking about how you've developed through that, and can now see the benefits and the fruits of of that in spite of the difficulties to that as well. And I wonder, Cinzia, if you if that speaks to the experiences of staff?

Cinzia Pusceddu  6:56  
Yes, definitely. I'm in total agreement with with Jessica, I think that for staff as well, it has been quite a traumatic experience in a way, you know, because they didn't want to disappoint the students. So they did have to take care of the students as well. But at the same time, it resulted in, in an incredible effort for for, for them or for all of us and just the academic staff, but also the people who support online learning or distance learning in general. And we had to do all that very quickly, because there was not much time. Yes, when we went into lockdown, it was just, I think, a couple of months till the end of the semester. So it was not much teaching left. But also over summer, when you know, usually relax a little bit and we had to do an incredible amount of work in order to be prepared for the start of semester. And and, you know, we didn't know what was going to happen are we going to be back on campus are we going to stay online, you have to have a planet, A and B and C. So that was that was really, really a lot of work. But like Jessica say there's also silver lining, you know, and then there is also realising that people are more resilient, that they think they can, you know, collaborate together put together a lot of effort and take pride and and, you know, pleasure in, in realising how much they can accomplish together. And outcome, how much they can accomplish that is to use it for for the students. So yes, it's it's been a unique experience about it as I had to some advantages, like everything is negative, it could be a little bit positive, if you look carefully. Well, I

Stuart Taylor  9:01  
think that's a great time to look carefully and then wonder if maybe, particularly Jessica, with your unique kind of student experience, if you want to speak to anything specific we've talked about. We've had ideas of resilience and kindness and pleasure and joy and be really great to experience that. At the same time. Recognising kind of panic and fear and frustration on the other side is as well. And I'm wondering, Jessica, if you if you have any experiences that that highlight some of these in terms of like your own studies, your own kind of like well being over the past couple of years.

Jessica O'Loughlin  9:38  
I suppose for me, one of the benefits I found personally from moving online was kind of more use of formative assessments, even short ones to kind of help gauge progress on your learning. Because especially like one thing that you don't get so much when you're online is that you know sometimes when you're in the lab short haul, you can, you know, chat to people afterwards, you can just bounce off each other of questions much more easily. And kind of quickly misconceptions in the bud. Which Yeah, more difficult when you're just kind of by yourself. So being able, you know, with the staff, making different types of assessments and even like formative and then some which are graded, but you know, with a relatively small proportion of the mark, that, so yeah, just been able to I personally find those really helpful. And yeah, just been able to keep track of my progress. Yeah, and just make sure you understand things initially before you go too far ahead. And then yeah, some of the challenges, like I mentioned, just before kind of not being able to bounce off each other. But as well, that kind of friends who I would talk to and discuss things online, especially in my second year, and everything was online, more or less. Those kind of friend groups were largely those I'd already made in first year. And of course, with my work with people who were just starting their first year, they find it very difficult to kind of actually meet other people in the way that you normally would, hadn't been in person. So I think, definitely, if you're starting off in a place of education or place of work online, kind of it is more difficult to develop kind of one to one relationships with people. And then yeah, that can impact your kind of who you get to work with. Or you just maybe sometimes you might not find anyone, if you just don't know anyone, which is a lot of a lot of first us who started in year two at the end of 2020. Find that quite difficult.

Stuart Taylor  11:36  
Yeah. And that's so important to think about, that this is the keep reminding ourselves that this isn't this is in a lot of cases, not online learning by choice, or online learning, in which the rest of the world isn't falling apart, and you could have opportunities to make connections outside. And then there are specific places it all kind of came together. I think that that is so important to maybe talk to and I think it's something that, that I feel that staff that I've spoken to want to get better at, like how, how do you support community building in situations like this. And, but I want to, like come back to that, as well as the, the fact that, you know, really well thought out assessment strategies work, no matter the delivery. So that's really interesting, as well, but Gen Z, I wonder if you had any thoughts about those ideas of community building online, or the ways in which tasks might be adapted between physical and online spaces at all,

Cinzia Pusceddu  12:45  
I was actually part of a working group that was precisely caught on to that community, you know, community building and student engagement. Because it was clear that, you know, you you need, you need to hold on to your skills in a way, when you are in an online environment, in order to create a sense of community between the students, there is often the assumption that you just create a, for instance, a discussion board, and students will meet you there, you know, you just create space for them, and they will meet you there, you know, they will start the chat in discussing asking questions, etc. And this is more often than not, is not the case, you know, like, like, everything else, you know, once you build something, you need to take care of it, you know, there's just like, a plan to, you know, you put a seed and then you need to order it a little bit and take care of it. It's not, yeah, eventually we'll go about it, I need to care. And it's the same in an online environment when you want it to create a sense of community. So I was also teaching in one of the courses that has been put together and very quickly from the Digital Education Department, you know, the support all academic staffs, staffer for, you know, in the provision of online teaching, and it was called the Edinburgh model online. And, and he had a lot of strategies, one of which was a for instance of community building, a lot of strategies that were more an indication that they were an indication of how to create a sense of community with students, for instance, sharing pictures, you know, from an online environment, asking students to create to submit a picture of themselves so the plays are working and you know, their work environment to monitor the Discussion Board, you know, just to chip in in there and saying, how's everybody doing? You know, how are you feeling? You know, I'm here, you're not so that the academic has to be there and make the presence of felt. So the students know, that is not just a place an empty space, you know, is a place that that is cared for. And, and all that was was very, very interesting and very rewarding, because because it was a pleasure to discuss this with academic staff, you know, I have I have a background of teaching to students are directed to undergrad students, but now more in opposition of karma, like teaching the teachers, which is more challenging in a way, but but it's also as also some interesting aspect. And it was very nice to see how people will reflect on that, you know, how to create a sense of community, what are the things you can do? So, yes, it's, there are obviously lots of strategies, you know, I don't want to say here, list all of them. But, but the main thing is that you need to be present, you know, the academic has to be involved as to work for it, rather than just the expecting that you put together people and they will form a community by default.

Stuart Taylor  16:22  
That's great. And I think that that speaks to something that I've observed as well with, we're now sort of in a stage where there's a lot of content that's been generated to think online and kind of understandably, I suppose there was a big focus from academic staff to make sure that the course content was in a way that could be accessed online. And often that involves a lot of creativity, a lot of effort to a lot of errors to produce an in perhaps a Dr. Jessica would agree that that the spaces as you see for building community, were perhaps I wouldn't, I wouldn't say too much neglected as presumed to work without any effort, or that would just happen by magic. Like your, your metaphor, there has to be word like a plan is very important to know that there's an opportunity for staff who are thinking about enhancing what they've got to go back and think about how do I structure community building? How is there anything Jessica, you would like to see? If you were starting a course and you'd maybe don't know everyone from before? What would you like to see happen in those early weeks?

Jessica O'Loughlin  17:40  
laughs was it's quite a good question. I think one of the I think Cinzia, Cinzia mentioned it as well, kind of about, like, just moderation of like the online discussion boards, like, wherever they're used to going to frequently or not like, it's always nice as a student when you can get a prompt response. But I'm kind of Oslo where the other side of that it must be a lot of pressure on the teaching staff. And they get loads of questions, especially like around assessment times, when loads of questions come flooding in, and they've got their own work to do as well. And you know, it must be quite difficult to keep on top of that. So it's kind of a payoff there and takes a lot of effort on both parts. And kind of a one hour point that was going to mention about kind of student communities and things that quite often, like I kind of relied on, like I mentioned, like in when I went into my second year at the end of 2020. And all my friend groups that I used to help me Of course, work were really built upon those I'd already made it kind of in person in my first year when I started in 2019. And, you know, some like most courses will have like a big group chat, sort for everyone in you know, anywhere they can get to but the you know, the way they work is that a friend will add a friend who had a friend who had a friend, so you know, someone's maybe less well connected in the course maybe keeps to themselves more, they may not know people well enough to be added in, or if someone is doing the course as an elective and doesn't know loads of people in that dignity. They also kind of aren't part of that. So it's definitely kind of been able to make sure that there are open spaces to facilitate them. And I know certainly, like if I knew of people who weren't in the group chats, I would try to add them. But you know, those conversations just don't come up that naturally all the time. And some people don't even know we're not in them. So it's yeah, kind of more casual ways to facilitate that. Yeah, I thought I would just kind of mentioned because a lot of as I remember, it's like, I was at a meeting and some of the staff were sometimes a bit kind of dismayed that they put a lot of effort into the discussion boards, and then they're rarely used. And then, I think another point to remember that a lot of the times and I've used the discussion boards, it's been quite often after I've discussed something Have a group where we've all been discussing something and we've kind of realised, okay, we all don't understand this point of it, and then one of us will buy questions or discussion board. But you know, even though to the kind of teacher of a lecture, it may look like just one or two people participating, it's actually might be be representing a larger group. And so, yeah, even more than usual, lots of people will be looking at the response, so no pressure. But yeah, that's kind of one of the other things, but here on the hall, that is a challenge to build communities up online, especially in kind of the kind of formal education setting I have to kind of sympathise there. I

Stuart Taylor  20:36  
know, I think that that's a really great point that you raise there about how much behind the scenes work happens on both sides and on the staff. So as you say, that, even though one student might have a voice, there's a whole load of like collective, like peer effort that's gone behind any one response there. And that's okay. If academics aren't privy to those conversations, that's fine. But equally, there might be things that staff members can do to lower the barrier, I suppose for, or lower the stakes for those responses, and maybe not presume that that students would know how to speak in such spaces and give examples and try to, to make it. You mentioned part of the formative strategies that you mentioned there, maybe it's, you know, something that suggested to you, you have to post here, but also, he, here's literally what we mean by a post that there are no stupid questions that and it has very, very hard thing to build in and structure, especially if you don't know who's going to be looking at that if you don't know your peer. So again, going back to your earlier point, Jessica, like how effort to get people knowing each other. And today, you mentioned like sharing pictures and things beforehand, that all of that could potentially build momentum to improve what is already there. So I think I take that point, a lot of staff would be looking at, well, I put all this effort into making these activities, but only two students are doing them. So should scrap them. And it's like, well, maybe hold off a bit first. Do you know what it's actually? Do you have a good understanding of what's happened there? And I suppose that I'm leading myself down to the the idea of you're down to the area of student feedback and the way in which staff members approach or or ask for feedback? Or is there anything that either you'd like to speak to about the ways in which you found out over the past years and any recommendations for, for how staff you go about that? Students who go about understanding that?

Jessica O'Loughlin  22:54  
I don't know, I've I find that certainly, a lot of the times with staff were certainly in a class setting where we've been kind of, you know, most open about know, things could be better if this was good, or this could be improved, where quite often than in person setting, which doesn't help the online kind of you know, when there's that kind of this kind of the staff member leading the class would say, Oh, what do you guys think of this? And then just kind of opening the question to us there and you know, and again, and kind of small group settings, so that it's less than is less intimidating for if you're in like a class or online classes, like 100 people or 50. People even Yeah, we're definitely kind of like some smaller tutorial classes. Just when staff kind of open up the questions quite often up towards the end of the class, I find that as being kind of one of the times that kind of, we've got the most discussion and, and as well, it's been a good opportunity for staff to hear the student voice directly, but also the staff themselves. Oh, yeah. When we tried that, that didn't work. So this is why we do this. So Oh, we've been told to do this. And so you just learn from both sides really well, in that setting? That's one thing I found very helpful. I think one thing that helps as well is that, you know, I'm kind of what I just have to be friends with a couple of course, representatives. And it's been very helpful, kind of just practically like, say you like, oh, versus like, say overs? Would it be possible to email the lecture about this? Are you struggling with that? And then, you know, they've gotten back to you promptly. And they also get back to you with like, maybe the response from the lecture or you see kind of like, the change we made online, save the question about the coursework. Oh, there's just clarifying this. So just seeing kind of things that you've asked about kind of seen those been implemented in real time is quite nice. And one small thing I noticed kind of lecturers doing as well, kind of those this year in particular, is that they'll say like, say, they'll make changes to their lecture slides. It will add like a case study anywhere to one where there wasn't one previously, and they'll mention Oh, feedback from last year said you guys wanted a case study. It'll show this example of a process. So here's one night, and just kind of something small like that, to show that, you know, we are acting student feedback is just kind of it's kind of reassuring for students as well. Yeah,

Stuart Taylor  25:13  
that's super, that's great to hear. And, I guess moved into the areas of key issues that we'll be discussing all through assessment strategies, formative, you mentioned Jessica, and community building and engagement, like your presence and, and of feedback now, as well, I don't want to dictate the next key issue are those are there any other kind of issues for both of you that that you find are particularly important to the sector right now or do you personally right now in in areas of online learning,

Cinzia Pusceddu  25:49  
I have in mind that something that is is really close to my heart is not necessarily online teaching it could be teaching us in general you know, but is is grading is is getting marks, you know, there is a lot of research going on since the 60s, Freya was one of those who argues that you know, the relationship between the students and teacher has to be equal. So, the teacher has to be teacher, student and the student has to be student teacher, so that they is a relationship from and they they learn from each other in the learning process is not much that the teacher asked her to pass on to the knowledge into the students, which is an empty vessel. And, and more recently, the, the there has been up kind of like the emergency of of movement, so to speak, or or tendency we can say, that is called upgrading has been covered led by Jesse Stormer in the United States is the founder of hybrid pedagogy or digital critical pedagogy. And, and II argues in lies with, with the the critical pedagogy theories, that is quite unfair to grey the students, because it's kind of like assuming that we know more than they do. And we are kind of like, detecting What the What kind of like measuring the learning the learning that they are achieving, which is a poor way to do so, you know, there are different ways to learn different, you know, people have different different steps and rhythm of learning. So, is yes, grading is something that is, is karma, like, away from the teacher to say, I don't trust you, you know, I don't trust you. And I need to check what is it that you're doing. And also, I will be monitoring what you're doing with the proctoring or, you know, tools or like a tourney team that serves me to assess that what you're writing is absolutely yours. And nobody else you know, and, and I think that this is a poor way to start a relationship, but you know, if it was a friendship or a nine, you will start and you will start saying to a friend, listen, you know, I really needed to know that you are not a thief, you know, can you insure me the thief or, you know, I don't think there will be the basis for a friendship there, you know, and the same in the teacher and students relationship, it has to be based completely on trust. And I think that it should be implicit that we trust the students that they are doing the job. And obviously in order to do that, you have to create an environment that is that is conducive of good learning for the students. So you know, instead of grading probably the students are collaborating with each other doing reflective work, you know, and then, you know, the instructor can see if his own reflective work aligns with the students own reflective work on how the learning has been growing. So yes, so I could speak forever. So I better start but I would like also to to hear what Jessica So I would be very curious to hear your thoughts about that. But, yes, in general, I think I think that there should be ways to not abolish upgrading because it's a will be it will be too difficult, but at least to create a more possibility for students and teachers to be more on a collaborative relationship rather than, you know, an imbalance relationship of work, that the power is more on the teacher and the students is more passive.

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