On 19th January I attended a TALKSocSci session run by the Institute of Social Science titled Learning and teaching in the digital, post-Covid era: what’s the benefit of being in the same room? The session was hosted by Professor Liz Todd and the speakers were Dr Pam Woolner and Christian Lawson-Perfect.
The session comprised of presentations from Pam and Christian, followed by a series of questions from the audience that they responded to. Pam’s initial presentation focused on the impact of the physical learning environments on the learning process, highlighting that while the learning environment itself doesn’t have direct influence over the learning, it can have an indirect impact – as long as the learners’ basic needs are met in terms of physical comfort (temperature, air quality, etc.). Whether or not PiP learning is preferable over online learning can be dependent on what the room is like! Physical spaces provide access to information such as body language in interactions, as well as the opportunities for chance meetings, or hanging back after class to speak to the teacher when you might be too shy to speak in front of others or send an email.
Christian covered aspects of online learning including automation of feedback, analytics and the role of the instructor in online learning. When considering MOOCs such as those hosted on Kahn Academy, for example, there is usually no direct personalised feedback for learners – it is intentionally prepared. He also discussed aspects of accessibility, both in the sense of physical access to spaces/content and the work being done to make online content more accessible, e.g. through captioning. Content needs to be planned in advance, and interactions can become purely intentional. Non-synchronous activities such as discussion boards can help students who prefer to plan what they want to say rather than having to respond in the moment.
A common theme I have taken from both of these talks is the idea of intentional vs unintentional interactions – both in terms of learning experiences and social interactions. Intentional interactions include things like seminars and talks, as well as interactive learning activities such as quizzes with feedback. These types of planned interactions are fairly easy to replicate online. Unintentional interactions are usually a side-effect of being in the same room as your teacher, or other learners. There can be a social aspect to this – such as meeting new people, or a pedagogical side, such as when teachers bring the class back together to address a difficulty they have noticed is common to all. This is much easier to do in PiP teaching.
While social aspects of teaching and learning are difficult to replicate online, there are some guides available on the Flexible Learning 2020 site that can help with this. When it comes down to unintentional interactions, if we want these to happen the best thing we can do is try to create time and space for it. While it may feel a little counterintuitive to formally schedule informal chats, in reality, it’s one sure way of ensuring they can happen.