Remote Teaching Case Studies: Jon Hesk, School of Classics

Thursday 4 June 2020

Dr. Jon Hesk from the School of Classics has kindly agreed to do the next interview in our series of remote teaching case studies. Jon talks about his experiments with technology over the past year or so and also during those first few hectic months when the pandemic began to take hold here in the U.K. He talks about the importance of trusting your instincts when teaching (especially when you’ve been doing it for over 22 years as he has!) and how keeping things simple and using technology judiciously helps to achieve good outcomes for everyone. Jon is a big advocate of using Panopto for large Subhonours modules and describes the many uses it has both for his students and for teachers. As we were migrating online, he decided to use Moodle discussion forums for students to post blog-style discussions on set texts. This was a big hit with his students and he thinks that it gave him a more accurate picture of student engagement and levels of understanding too. Finally, he describes some of the opportunity costs of using technology when teaching, especially when teaching new modules.

Tell us about your role at the University of St Andrews.

I’m Reader in Ancient Greek and Classical Studies in the School of Classics.  I teach at all levels of undergraduate study, primarily on the single and joint honours Classical Studies, Greek and Classics degree programmes.  I also teach taught and research postgraduates on our MLitt, MPhil and PhD programmes.  I’m research active, do a fair bit of impact and outreach work and I’m currently director of our School’s research centre called The Centre for the Public Understanding of Greek and Roman Drama.

How much had you integrated the use of technology into your teaching before the Covid-19 outbreak?

Well, I had experimented last year and again last semester – I think quite successfully – with Panopto in my lecturing for a big first year module (CL1004 – Myth and Community in Ancient Greek literature and Culture).  And I’ve more or less decided to keep using that. I know there are concerns about Panopto but I think it can be really useful for all sorts of reasons: I’ve found it’s great for those hectic times early in the first semester when students sometimes miss the first couple of lectures and need to catch up; it’s great for review and revision too; it gives students who are not native English speakers an extra source of support; and it helps students who are ill or have a disability and find it difficult to attend lectures in person.

I also make a lot of use of the Library’s ‘online reading lists’ facility, and, like most of us in Classics, I use MMS to post links and additional resources, to archive handouts, powerpoints, and so on.

What were your first thoughts when you heard that St Andrews teaching was switching online?

Well if I’m honest, my very first thought was that the University should stop any kind of teaching and suspend studies for all students.  I thought that the pandemic would overwhelm the NHS, public services and our ability to deliver food and other essentials.  At first, I thought that our brilliant young people would be needed to train up and backfill some key jobs. Then I realized that while it would be an international, national and tragic catastrophe of historic proportions, it wasn’t quite going to be the zombie apocalypse I’d imagined!   And of course, many of our students would remain in St Andrews – some of them effectively stranded, others staying put to protect their loved ones – or else would go home but still really want to study for their degrees, and, in some cases, graduate this summer.  So, once it sank in that for all sorts of reasons, we needed to carry on, I was fine with it.  The only things that worried me about online teaching were that it would be very tiring and time-consuming, and that it wouldn’t be as fulfilling for me or the students as ‘normal’ St Andrews teaching.  But I wasn’t too worried about my ability to do the teaching or maintain standards and intended outcomes.  It has been tiring and time-consuming, and I don’t enjoy the 100% remote experience as much as physical-presence teaching, but it’s been more fulfilling and interesting than I feared.

How did you manage the process of moving your lectures and tutorials online?

Well, I didn’t have any lectures to move online.  All my teaching after the Spring break was either second level Classical Studies tutorials (one per week – 10 students), my Greek honours module seminars (two x 1 hr per week – 15 students) or one-to-one MLitt essay supervision (2 students) or one-to-one Hons dissertation supervision (1 student) or PhD supervision (jointly and one student).

One thing I said to myself immediately: ‘I’ve been teaching here for 22 years and so I should trust my instincts’. Also: I wasn’t going to spend hours and hours reading online teaching tips on social media etc. and I wasn’t going to have anything to do with tools or platforms that required me to watch hours of instruction videos or pages of .pdfs to get them right.  If I could set something up in 30 minutes and it was reasonably intuitive and pain free, then that was a good sign that the students would be able to handle it too. Luckily Teams for ‘live’ teaching and Moodle for more ‘asynchronous’ new elements fitted those criteria. Another reason for keeping things fairly basic and simple was that all of my teaching after Spring break was brand new to me, and on texts and scholarship which I didn’t have much recent or in-depth familiarity with.  So, creating lots of extra online content or learning how to use certain new tools was an opportunity cost: the more time I spent on making extra videos or handouts, the less time I would have for the sort of preparatory reading and thinking that would ensure that my ‘live’ teaching was really well-informed. In the case of my 2000-level teaching, that meant I was able to ‘see the wood from the trees’ with the students’ pre-seminar written contributions, and thus better steer the live discussion towards clearing up misunderstandings, underlining key points, and so on. In the case of my new Honours module, it meant that I was able to set the most appropriate and interesting online secondary reading. Another reason for keeping the ‘move online’ to a low ‘extra time’ cost was that I also had my MLitts and dissertation students’ draft work to feed back on, and some urgent ‘research impact’ work to do.

The Honours seminars were where I had the most autonomy with my decision-making.  We were told that we had to maintain ‘live’ teaching in the class hours with Teams the preferred platform but also to record that seminar teaching to accommodate students in different time zones.  I wasn’t that happy about this because I knew it would be hard to get everyone contributing in the hour in the way that I usually can with ‘normal’ seminars.  So I decided I would require the students to post some notes in answer to each seminar’s questions onto a Moodle forum: they’d each do a couple of blog posts, in effect.

I promised I would reply to each individual blog answer either before the seminar or within 72 hrs of it, and once we started this system, I found that in the live seminar itself I would draw on their posts as a means of structuring the discussion and taking us through chunks of set text or critical questions.  Sometimes I would ask a student to speak to or summarize what they’d posted, especially when I got sick of the sound of my own voice or where I thought someone’s blog could move us forward.

Did the process of moving online make you think differently about your teaching and the best way to deliver it under these circumstances? Did you make any changes?

Yes:  initially my seminar questions were often too ‘closed’. That was fine for a normal seminar, but once you’re asking 15 students to post on the same question, they can start to find it hard to say new things once 5 or 6 people have posted.  So you’d move from asking ‘What does this bit of the comedy say about gender relations?’, to ‘Discuss points of political, cultural and stylistic interest in this passage.’  That still meant someone talked about the gender dimension, but you’d get much more from the students that would be of use to them as well.

I also moved to more discussion and evaluation of items of scholarship than I’d normally do, as well.  I think that was partly because they’d flagged that anyway at the midway point but also because it forced them to think about different approaches to the set texts and it allowed each student to draw out something different from the set reading.  I also found myself moving from three main questions per seminar to two or telling them to just submit one or two answers and try to think about the third one.  That was for mine and their sake because with two seminars a week, they’d each be posting six blog posts a week otherwise!

I’d also consider using blogs more in my normal teaching because it gave me a better and more accurate picture of student engagement and levels of understanding. Some students don’t like to say much in seminars (online or normal) but they produced amazingly helpful, intelligent and thoughtful responses on the blogs.

You are a Reader in the School of Classics. Have you discovered any aspects of the new technology to be especially practically useful for the teaching of your subject in particular?

Well, I haven’t been teaching any Subhonours Greek or Latin this semester and that is where one tends to have to do more work detailed work on building students’ facility with decoding the grammar and syntax of a sentence or a passage. Or of looking at (say) a bit of Greek poetry or prose and analyzing its use of style, rhetorical devices and imagery. One way of doing this either interactively or by example in a lecture format is to use technology like smart boards or an online equivalent, or you can use various highlighting tools with a Powerpoint slide of a text.  We’re doing these promotional videos for our offer holders and prospective candidates at the moment and in those, I’ve noticed that some of my younger colleagues (which is now nearly all of them) seem to be using that sort of thing more than I would.  It’s probably time for me to get into that more.  With bigger groups of 15-30 it helps to keep everyone focused too. If you just rely on students to keep their place in a paper-based set text and listen to what you’re talking about, it can be hard to keep everyone on the same page (literally), whereas throwing successive bits of the same text on a screen and using different colours to highlight words and so on, probably helps students to keep up and follow everything.

I find Panopto useful. I think I might just record everything I do from now on.  We tend to think it’s good for students to learn note-taking and so on.  But if their tapping away on laptops or scribbling in notebooks all the time, I’m not sure they’re really listening and understanding things in the  moment.  Why not just record a tutorial or seminar so that they can review things and yet  direct their attention to the instructor and each other more when in the session?

For our big second year module, my colleague Sophie set up an Outlook share document for each tutorial and for each tutorial group. This allowed the students to type responses and ideas into the document before the live tutorial on Teams. This was an even simpler version of my blog idea. Because it only went live a couple of days before the tutorial, the students were quite often on at the same time and that replicated in-seminar chat in pairs or groups.  I could also draw on the document in the tutorial.  The only down side was that keen students tend to dominate things a bit and it’s hard to make students join in.  (For both modules I was teaching, I did issue some engagement alerts over this issue and it seemed to work).

What one piece of advice would you give someone based on your own experience?

With any form of teaching and learning (including online, or ‘dual delivery’) always start with what outcomes you want from a session and the module as a whole: that could be in terms of student understanding and skills or it could be about levels and spread of engagement and participation.  There is no point in using a piece of kit if it doesn’t get you those outcomes, and good learning and participation don’t have to take place in the live class hours. In fact, I think that in a well-designed module, the live hours are just the support and audit mechanism for where the real learning and skills acquisition takes place: in private study, through assessment, marking and feedback, and at exam time.

Given what you know now, what would you say to someone apprehensive about switching to online teaching?

You can actually keep things pretty aligned with what you were doing before so long as you realize that a lot of your students’ learning was already ‘asynchronous’, whether in private study in the library, or at home, or when talking with classmates. You might need to find ways of allowing students to help each other with that learning in lieu of live seminar discussion.

What are your favourite online resources for teaching Classics?

I quite like Panopto, MMS and Moodle because they’re so easy to use for PC users.  But there are also two Greek text databases called TLG and Perseus which contain grammar and dictionary tools.  They can lead students not to use and develop their grammar and vocabulary knowledge. But if used in the right way, they can give ex-beginners a real helping hand.  They can also save a lecturer time otherwise spent getting texts copied or cleared and don’t cost students any money.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

No! I’ve gone one enough, I think!

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