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Hello, Hybrid – some tips for teaching

The author, Dr David Rundle, is a Lecturer in Latin and Manuscript Studies at the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent. In this article, he shares some of his wisdom about hybird teaching and hopes to spark discussion about how medievalists and early modernists can further improve the experience of online education.

It has become part of the ‘new normal’: a seminar with some people attending in person while others join online. Like it or not — and some lecturers really do not like it — it is a hybrid mode of teaching we must make work, and that involves learning by all of us. There are some discussions and advice available, but they certainly do not intend to be the final word. This is an area where we can profitably learn from each other, and so it would be helpful to have a constructive pooling together of thoughts and suggestions from across our community of medievalists and early modernists. The tips below do not provide any secret knowledge but are given in the hope they will spark discussion.

I start from the premise that this form of hybrid is here to stay. This post is published at a moment in time when there is uncertainty about whether there will be another lockdown in the UK. We are not out of the pandemic but even when we eventually are, there will be reasons for hybrid teaching to remain: if a student is keen to join a session but for health reasons cannot be present in person, it would be unjust not to make the effort to include them, with all the provisos that online is not the same as human interaction through physical presence.

I also need to provide a disclaimer at the outset: I have been lucky. My experience of hybrid has been with groups of between ten and twenty, with final year students or those on the MEMS MA — all people who want to learn and want to make hybrid succeed. We have found that it has worked relatively well. Yes, there have been niggles with microphones not working or people’s home internet crashing and, yes, it does require those of us teaching to work harder, but generally it has been possible for students to engage and they have done so effectively. It would be different with larger groups and, perhaps, with those earlier in their university career. It would certainly have been more difficult if the IT experts at my institution had not been so responsive. So, the perspective each of you reading can bring — as an experienced teacher, as a new one, or as a student — will improve this discussion.

Enough prolegomena. Here are the main six points I have learnt in recent months:

  • Accept that hybrid teaching takes a little more time than having everyone in the room together. This is an insight with which we are familiar from teaching fully online: the scrambling for the mute button, the time taken to set up and monitor break-out rooms — each action can create a certain lag. What matters now is that the slower pace of the online-only continues to affect the hybrid, with the result that we must adjust our expectations of what we can achieve in each seminar.

  • Make the technical arrangements as simple as possible. Do not complicate the process for yourself, as I did in the early days of the pandemic. I wanted to use my preferred platform, Zoom, in rooms at my institution which are set up for Teams. I would switch on the computer, find the Zoom website, try to remember my password ... and realise that this was taking precious minutes in the tight confine of a 1- or 2-hr session. Better, I learnt, to accept the decrease in quality and concentrate on using the more straightforward option to maximise the time available.

  • Small changes make the session more inclusive of those at home. The most obvious element here is the one we all now know by heart: launch any Powerpoint or display via the Share Screen function in the online platform. It also helps if you are providing terms that need spelling to type them into chat rather than write them on a board in the room. That said, when I am teaching palaeography and want to write out a letter-form, I find the whiteboard (in Zoom as well as Teams) is overly sensitive: better then to turn to the physical board, if there is one in sight of those who are online. The implication is that different techniques will work depending on what you are teaching.

  • Develop some simple techniques to ensure that those online receive as much attention as those in the room. One rule I have set myself is to ask those online first whether they have questions before turning to those in the room.

  • Encourage those at home to keep their mic and (if they are willing) camera on. This is, of course, the opposite to good practice when attending a lecture, but with relatively few people and the desire for an interactive session, different norms apply. The time taken to switch on a mic when someone is asked a question is the element which probably accentuates the most the difference in pace from online to in-person. I am learning that, if someone does have their mic switched off, I need to give them warning that I will be asking them to come in on the conversation after the next speaker.

  • Make those in the room allies in the process. Some institutions suggest that you need more than one person in the room to help with hybrid teaching. That may be helpful in very large teaching sessions, but in smaller seminars, there is another solution. Encourage those in the room to flag up to you if they can see someone online wanting to speak who is being missed. Early in a term, it can help to nominate someone from the group to monitor the screen (in some circles called a chat mod); in my experience, over time, the students do it naturally – and I find they enjoy teaching an oldster like me how best to use the technology.

So, that is my small contribution to start off the discussion. I am, though, sure that you will have had experiences from which you can draw advice to improve on this – and I am equally sure that MEMSLib wants to hear from you.

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