The current pandemic has impacted on the social work community in multiple and extraordinary ways. Social work training and education has not been immune from the changes and adaptations our colleagues are required to make in order to contain the pandemic and support the most vulnerable people in our societies. As universities across the world are gradually shutting down campus operations in order to enforce social isolation strategies, there is an urgent expectation for students and educators to use e-learning platforms extensively.
Although IFSW’s Interim Educations Commission believe that direct and face-to-face modes of social work teaching and learning are irreplaceable, we appreciate the need for educators to utilise all possible technological and pedagogical resources at their disposal in order to ensure continuation of teaching and learning during this period. While engaging with online pedagogies we need to be mindful of the fact that, due to persistent and structural inequalities, some students do have better access to technology than others. It is of the utmost importance that social work educators work with Universities in order to ensure that no student is left out during this challenging period. E-learning should be used as a tool for inclusion and support not as a mechanism for exacerbating social inequalities.
Likewise, some educators may be more familiar with e-learning pedagogies than others. Expecting educators to quickly switch from direct to online education can be a very challenging and distressing change. Sharing experience and facilitating ways of peer support is therefore really important. IFSW’s Interim Education Commission will be introducing opportunities for educators to share ideas and resources.
To this effect, our Commission would like to share with Social Work Educators some useful ideas and suggestions on how to design and deliver the on-line teaching during the period of social distancing. These suggestions are particularly relevant to academics who are not very familiar with online or blended teaching. We would like to thank Professor Holly Ordway for allowing us to share this information.
- Focus on the essentials: what is the primary nature of your course? if it’s a discussion course, focus on discussion. If it’s a writing course, on feedback and revision. If it’s a lecture course, on providing lectures.
- Be as old-school as you can. No bells & whistles. Email and discussion boards are all you really need. You can always add other things later. All those Blackboard / Moodle / etc. features that look great if you can figure them out? If you can’t, stay away. Use the forums.
- Don’t try to do synchronous activities (like live video chats) unless you’ve done them before. Even then, try not to. Go asynchronous. Your students may be in the same time zone as you, but trying to figure out tech with time pressure & at home with other people around: much harder.
- Keep it simple with lectures. Do AUDIO not video by default. Video can be hard to get on a weak connection. Also, it’s harder to do well.
- A short lecture is great for the educator as it forces us to focus! We don’t have a captive audience in class! They can turn it off if it’s rambling and not useful. DO NOT lecture extemporaneously. Much harder than it looks. Write your text & read it. (Or at least have notes.)
- Be patient. Students are unsettled by new things. (Aren’t we all?!?) They’re worried about being able to do their work. They WILL ask questions about things that seem obvious. Answer them patiently. Your calm and patient responses will shape their experiences.
- Use this as an exercise in empathy. How does it make YOU feel to have to teach in a new format, with anxiety about other things in your life? Well, that’s what ALL our students feel like when they start classes – just because we’re used to how classes run, doesn’t mean they are.
- Be honest with students about any difficulties you have with technology, etc. If you can’t upload docs or get the videos working, admit it! The “we’re all in this together” spirit helps make for a better classroom (and students appreciate a prof who’s recognizably human.)
- Simplify your assignments. Cull the smaller ones; don’t try to replicate all in-class activities. Focus on the most important pieces. Less is more.
- Clarify directions. Then clarify them some more. All the things you’re used to explaining in class after you give the assignment? You have to spell it out. Make sure you tell students that they should ASK QUESTIONS and above all make sure you MEAN IT and welcome those questions.
- Figure out how you’ll measure participation, and make sure that it’s clear, moderate in amount, & easily measurable by you, like X number of substantial posts per week. Not: “x number of posts, y number of replies, z number of responses to others’ responses…” (You’ll thank me.)
- Pro Tip: You know how there are a few students who are great at participation & extra-responsible? Designate them as Discussion Leaders and give them a chance to exercise leadership in the classroom. Rotate new students in after a couple of weeks if desired.
- Embrace the positive aspects of online. You can require ALL your students to participate, including the shy introverted ones who never raise their hand in class. And ALL the students can have a voice, not just the ones who process quickly enough to respond on the spot.
- Other positives: You can ask students to “go deep”: discuss an idea at length over a whole week. You can make forums for group work and, because you can see their posts, you can ensure that everyone participates. Students can post rough drafts or outlines & get feedback.
- Pro Tip: Be accommodating. Remember that some students may have difficult/distracting home environments; they may not have access to tech at home & have to use the library — and have to travel to get there; they may suddenly have small siblings at home to care for.
- Remember the three Ps: Panic Produces Plagiarism. Being asked to work online, some otherwise honest students may freak out and act unwisely. Now’s the time to raise your essay-prompt game! This is actually good for YOU too. Makes essays more interesting to read.
- Write new prompts that require discussion of ideas from class, or apply the ideas. Try new forms, like dialogues or creative options like stories. And make sure that you recognize this is harder & reassure students: the work will be rougher and it’s OK! (And BE OK with it.)
- If you haven’t done timed online tests before, Do. NOT. Start. Now. (It can be done, but it’s MUCH more complicated than it seems. BTDT.) If you rely on in-class tests, consider if you can make essay questions, or do tutorials so you have a (scheduled) Q&A with each student.
- Make your discussion topics directly relate to the assignments (write better assignments as needed)
- If the discussion topics are clearly related to the assignments, & assignments require critical thinking, then students will have a natural reason to engage (other than “I have to participate for my grade”). This boosts motivation & engagement.
- Have realistic expectations. It’s OK for this all to be a bit of a mess. Teaching online effectively is a skill like any other teaching skill: you get better at it with time and practice (I’ve had a lot of that!) Don’t expect marvels of yourself or the class.
- Students need CONSISTENT responses but NOT instant ones. Set a time daily for logging in & responding to emails/messages. Finish and leave the rest to the next day. This makes a healthy boundary for you & students relax as they learn your response time.
- Patience, kindness, a can-do spirit, humility, and a sense of humour are all really helpful. Even if you go back to teaching residential courses after this, you’ll have learned a lot about teaching from this experience
(more info about Holly Ordway: http://www.hollyordway.com)
Professor Vasilios Ioakimidis
Chair, Interim Education Commission