Teaching in the COVID era

As someone who has been working online for the last 10 years (at least), moving my teaching online wasn’t a big deal. Also, I had been working with the 2019-2020 cohorts of students for 6-7 weeks already when the first lockdown happened in March 2020, so I knew them quite well and the online interaction was an oasis of human interaction in the madness and fear of those early days of the pandemic.

The autumn of 2020 was probably the most difficult one for me. 250+ students were added to one of my modules – Introduction to Digital Media. I was teaching fully online and the rules kept on changing from one day to another. I was trying to place students in groups, while for the majority of them it was only a matter of trying out this module and moving to another one. And sometimes coming back after 2-3 weeks. And somehow we all survived. What I learnt last autumn was that I needed the audience to be able to lecture. Dry runs did not work for me. And even if my students rarely asked a question, I found ways of conversing with them. They preferred anonymity, so I gave them anonymous surveys and discussed the answers in class. The things I found out this way…

This year, the 300+ module is split in two groups – the one where people keep on coming and going- has about 200. The second one has around 100 students, including many Erasmus and international students. And I am blessed to have two colleagues helping with the tutorials- at the beginning of the semester I was also doing 6 1h tutorials every week. One of the things I attempt to teach these students is starting their own blog/portfolio. Some hit the ground running, some others need a lot of handholding, which is easy in a lab, but gets a bit complicated in an online environment.

Their first blog post/ assignment was due at the end of October. I did my best to read and mark each and every assignment, so that the most common mistakes would be eliminated before the second assignment was due. To be more efficient, I used a spreadsheet. There is a tool in the learning management system that allows me to upload the spreadsheet and allow each student to only see their own detailed feedback. It took about 6 days of working from 9am to 9pm to get through all of the posts. The first batch, for the 200+ group was uploaded midweek – I had 2 errors, but they were easy to identify and remove. Feedback caused a flurry of emails, but all was good. The second batch – about 100 assignments – took longer than expected (there was some firefighting on other issues in the meantime), and on Thursday evening when I tried to upload my spreadsheet I got a strange error. It was close to midnight, so I decided to call it a day.

On Friday morning, I got up at 5 am and attempted the procedure again. Same error. I looked at my spreadsheet, and the Korean-like name of a student’s blog jumped at me. I deleted it from the list, and tried again.

That error was gone, but instead I got a list of students who allegedly were not known to the system. Actually, all of them minus two. The two students were late transfers, and I remember having looked for their student numbers in another system and having typed them in. So that content was somehow different. I eliminated them from the list. I tried formatting the Student Number field as Text. Then as General. Then as Number. Nothing worked. Same stupid error.

9 am was getting close. I had a lecture at 10, and if I couldn’t get the feedback out by 10, it was going to be completely useless, as the students had to submit the second assignment by 5pm on that day. I tried to remember how I did it in the old times, with a spreadsheet and a form, copying the content of each form to an email. It was doable for 25 students, but now I had 100. Couldn’t find that functionality anymore. I decided to try Google Sheets- maybe it was there, so uploaded the spreadsheet to the Google Drive. No luck – form was creating a new empty form. 8:55. I decided to try something stupid – to download the Google Sheet as CSV. Guess what? It worked! This time it worked! I have absolutely no explanation for this. Google “healed” my ailing spreadsheet. No idea how. Magic! I emailed the students, and I couldn’t refrain from thinking of Google with gratitude.

Maybe I should have lit a candle to Saint Efrem the New – who allegedly oversees IT in Romania. And I’m afraid I haven’t learnt anything from all this other than to continue trying out all ideas, no matter how stupid they appear to be. So now I’m going to the market to enjoy my well deserved weekend. I don’t want to think about how I would feel if this hadn’t worked out!

November 13 2021 11:46 am | Limerick

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