As colleges and universities across the UK braced themselves for the suspension of face to face teaching due to the Covid-19 pandemic, at Inverness College UHI we knew we were in a better position than most to adapt to this ‘new’ normal. After all, it is just what we do. Our staff have been delivering higher education courses to students across the University of the Highlands and Islands partnership through a blended approach to teaching for over 20 years, connecting learners across a vast geographical area though a combination of video conferencing, remote learning technologies and face to face teaching. This innovative approach to learning and teaching is engrained in our culture and a key part of what makes our tertiary partnership of 13 colleges and research institutions so unique.
As programme leader for the BA (Hons) Childhood Practice and Graduate Apprenticeship in Early Learning and Childcare, my ‘old’ normal is the ‘new’ normal for so many educators as both courses are, and have always been, offered fully online. I am also responsible for delivering a Master’s module on the Theory and Practice of eLearning – my doctoral research and more recent projects focus on the experience of online learning and the nature of online authentic practice. I have also written and presented numerous papers on the subject of online learning and teaching across the world.
Over the past 15 years, I have often found myself in discussion with colleagues who believe they need to develop a new skillset to deliver learning and teaching remotely. However, from my experience, the technology is not the master that determines our success but rather it is the human connection within the online space and how we interact with our learners that matters. Often what is actually required is a change of mindset: the online context is just a different classroom space. Yes, of course, we do need to have an understanding of technology and the tools available, but our focus should be on creating a space that fosters connections and enables positive learning experiences.
I have coined the phrases ‘humanising the machine’ and ‘becoming more human’. Ultimately the key for delivering successfully online lies in an educator’s ability to build relationships and make connections: skills that lie at the heart of the learning and teaching process regardless of the context. It is human connections rather than the technology that promotes potential transformative learning experiences; the technology merely offers the platform in which these experiences take place.
More recently I have been considering the concept of ‘love-led practice’: where educators value their learners as fellow human beings, with their own unique characteristics, their own challenges and their own lives. Each learner comes with their own lived biographies. Our role as online educators is to acknowledge this and recognise the ways in which this affects the overall learning process for our students. It is therefore important that educators present a human online persona that aligns with who they are. This fosters an environment which is based on trust, creates a space that is warm, caring, and compassionate, and where learners feel safe to engage, learn and interact. Whether face-to-face or online, the experience of learning may cause discomfort for our students, it may push them out of their comfort zone. As an online educator you need support students to embrace the discomfort in an online space where they feel safe and secure to experience new things.
How you do this in a practical sense is down to you as an individual, but, there are simple things you can do like using your students’ names during your interactions online, getting to know them and regularly checking in – although you are not big brother, your role is not to ‘police’ the online space. Show your own personality – my cat and dogs regularly make an appearance – make your sessions fun, show humour, create a social environment for students, share content that resonates, ensure you stay connected, and above all, communicate how you feel and what you think. The online space is not a place to hide but rather to be present, open and recognise that as humans we are far from perfect. Being vulnerable makes us human and helps to break down the barriers students often face when they enter the online space. As an online educator, you should also never underestimate the impact the written word can have on learners.
In a world where people feel less connected to their friends, families and colleagues, becoming more human online is even more important as we navigate through this crisis.
Dr Alice Mongiello
Programme leader for the BA (Hons) Childhood Practice and Graduate Apprenticeship in Early Learning and Childcare
Inverness College UHI
University of the Highlands and Islands