A learning developer at the University of Leeds, a principal pandemic challenge has been to rework content tailored to be delivered in-person, following a collaborative and enquiry based approach to learning (Vygotsky, 1978), into an interactive, and not entirely ‘chalk and talk’ (Donnelly, 2014), digital format. OK – challenge accepted. Drawing upon four years of experience of working as an in-person learning developer, who, on occasion, taught online, I designed content that was effective enough from March – December 2020. Student feedback repeatedly noted how my sessions were marked by their levity and interactivity, compared to the vast majority of their modular content input. Fair enough. Then, as of January 2021, I was obliged to re-rework content to different platforms, which didn’t always offer appropriate functionality.
Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Blackboard Collaborate (Skype somehow missed a golden moment that it’d seemingly been prepared for since the mid-noughties) (Walsh, 2020) – the list of online teaching and meeting platforms is cumbersome. Forget Zoom fatigue (Toney, Light and Urbaczewski, 2021), by last June I was exhausted by the glut of well-intentioned recommendations via Teams messages, Yammer forums, and emails, of what shiny existing and/or sparkly new software platforms and applications I ought to incorporate into my teaching.
I must state that I’m really not a flag bearer for any one platform in particular; whatever best suits session content. For example, my PhD supervisor and I communicated most effectively, for years, over phone calls – go figure (Halse, 2011). Like the age old Android vs. Apple war, online platforms often offer very similar functions, but with slight differences. These slight differences, however, have the ability to leave even the most flexible and pro-active educator (self-aggrandizement alert) pulling their proverbial out in frustration. Example: why, oh why, does Microsoft Teams not have a draw-on-screen function? Probably because it’s better suited for meetings, not interactive teaching, but that’s for a separate article.
In our team at Leeds we had prior experience delivering roughly 5% of our content online via Blackboard Collaborate. However, owing to the global demographic of our students, it was deemed exclusionary to rework content for just one platform. Students in one region were technically better suited to Zoom, others Microsoft Teams, and so on. Like a Coen brothers satire, the rules disseminated from top-down at the University ostensibly made sense, but, after applying some of that magic C word in Higher Education (Brookfield, 1995), there was inconsistency abound. For example, we were instructed by digital education colleagues that Blackboard Collaborate wasn’t ideal for students in China owing to accessibility issues. This might be the case (Blackboard, 2020), however we’d been using it the prior eight months without significant issues. Moreover, in a manner of a digital wild west, a faculty I worked with insisted upon Collaborate for their international cohort of students, ranging from Hawaii to China, but, Microsoft Teams for a cohort based exclusively in the UK. When questioned on the logic of this decision, no sensible answer was given (it was, at best, rather befitting of Monty Python sketch). Backed up with alienating top-down instruction, along with inconsistent application from faculty colleagues, the demand to re-rework content has proven both frustrating and demotivating.
What confounded matters is that which preceded the Spring 2021 injunctions. In response to the question of what platform would be best suited to meet a particular need, the party line from digital pedagogy colleagues in Spring 2020 was: “Oh, you know, just use whatever you’re most comfortable with”. That didn’t sit well with me whatsoever. I was braced for a “now you must rework material to fit context XYZ” demand down the line. Unfortunately, my fears proved well founded. Since Spring 2021, colleagues and I have found ourselves in a position of constantly negotiating with academic staff, digital learning technologists and administrators, about what platform we may use to deliver sessions. The perennial issue of securing greater embedded, co-delivered content (Thies and Rosario, 2019) remains, but is now exacerbated by the need to negotiate the teaching platform. This has resulted in an expenditure of time and energy that would be better served in the creative pursuit of designing and delivering engaging content, in the most appropriate platform available, whatever that may be.
In sum, what I’d hoped for, and what I’m calling for in future, is greater flexibility to create and deliver content in a format that is most appropriate to meet content needs. Accessibility and inclusivity are critical. No argument whatsoever there. However, shoehorning content to meet particular platforms under inconsistently applied top-down commands is, to put it mildly, a hindrance. Instead, what is needed is a recognition that we, as Learning Developers, have skills and experience to design and deliver content following an ethos (ALDinHE, 2021) that requires a level of interactivity, which platforms made primarily for meetings, for example, necessarily cannot offer.
In Summer 2020, at a meeting with Leeds colleagues, I raised the idea of a flowchart type resource, whereby an educator could enter criteria of what they’d like to be able to technically do in an online session, and would then be guided through said chart to the most appropriate collaborative solution(s) on offer. Apart from agreeing nods and smiles, I’ve yet to come across such a resource either internally, or elsewhere. Call me crazy, but a year on, I still think it might have legs.
ALDinHE (2021) About ALDinHE. Available at: https://aldinhe.ac.uk/about-aldinhe/ (Accessed: 9 April 2021).
Blackboard (2020) Collaborate Ultra Capabilities in China. Available at: https://blackboard.secure.force.com/btbb_exportarticlepdf?id=kAA1O000000Kz0eWAC&pdf=true (Accessed: 10 April 2021).
Brookfield, S. D. (1995) Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Donnelly, K. (2014) ‘Chalk and talk might be the best way after all’, The Conversation, November 23. Available at: https://theconversation.com/chalk-and-talk-teaching-might-be-the-best-way-after-all-34478 (Accessed: 9 April 2021).
Halse, C. (2011) ‘Becoming a supervisor: the impact of doctoral supervision on supervisors' learning’, Studies in Higher Education, 35(5), pp.557-570. doi: 10.1080/03075079.2011.594593.
Thies, L. C. and Rosario, V. (2019) ‘Partners in a changing dance: embedding academic literacies in unit and course curricula’, Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 0(15). doi: 10.47408/jldhe.v0i15.538.
Toney, S., Light, J and Urbaczewski, A. (2021) ‘Keeping the Zoombies at Bay’, Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 48, p.10. doi: 10.17705/1CAIS.04806.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Walsh, C. S. (2020) ‘How Skype lost its crown to Zoom’, Wired, 12 May. Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/skype-coronavirus-pandemic (Accessed: 10 April 2021).
About the Author
Sunny Dhillon is a Learning Advisor at the University of Leeds Library.