It was early 2020, and Dr Esmé Shirlow, from the ANU College of Law, had the first part of her year planned out. She was teaching two week-long masters intensive courses, and had lined them up back-to-back so as to then turn her focus to writing a book that was nearing completion. Then Covid-19 struck.
Having never taught online before, Esmé’s challenges were complex. Her courses, both involving around 40 students, had always been heavily discussion-based, with a mixture of activities designed to break up the long stretches of class time inherent with intensive courses. Chief among her concerns was a fear of exhausting her students, who were now facing the prospect of spending five consecutive days in front of a computer from 9-5.
“I had to come up with ways to deliver quality teaching in a less monotonous format, because I couldn’t have them sitting in front of Zoom all day,” she recalls.
The necessity for a quick online transition resulted in Esmé experimenting with her teaching as she went. A structure she found favourable involved mornings spent delivering pre-recorded lectures of around one-hour in length, interspersed with 90-minute blocks dedicated to discussion, application of the lecture content to problems, and critique and discussion of lecture themes. Afternoons involved further discussions and a web-based Wattle chat, where students presented a final written response on the day’s materials to a forum.
“The structure seemed to work well because it broke up the day quite nicely, but it still felt really immersive for them, and like they were having a 9-5 class,” she said.
“By the end of the class, it felt like they felt like they knew me, and they knew each other, and it was a nice atmosphere within the Zoom classroom.”
Esmé is grateful for the affordances of Zoom, and the ability of the breakout rooms to allow students to become familiar with each other and brainstorm in small groups. Of equal importance was the effort she put into connecting with her students outside of class time on a more personal level.
“I deliberately reached out to students at various times throughout the week, to pick up on something they had written in an online forum or in a Zoom call, and to thank them for their contribution,” she said.
“That added to the workload, but it helped students to feel like their contributions were acknowledged.”
“This was particularly important after the second day – that is when there is often a dip in an intensive course, and you just feel exhausted, and I think that [the personal interaction] helped keep up the momentum for the final days of the course.”
While the delivery of Esmé’s courses changed dramatically in response to the online transition, the assessment regime remained largely untouched, with analytical reflection exercises, a take-home assignment, and contribution to Wattle forums constituting the assessment regime. For Esmé, the overall workload was immense, but largely rewarding.
In the face of challenging times, she is grateful for the attitude of her students, who displayed flexibility and an appreciation of the work she put into moving her courses online. Another bonus was an increase in accessibility, with the online transition resulting in her courses having an international reach, something that wasn’t possible in its previous iterations.
“It’s not an experience in terms of the quick conversion that I would want to repeat, particularly when trying to finalise a book in the same week. That ended up being a lot, and looking back, I don’t know how I paddled through,” she said.
“But I can see a whole lot of silver linings, and I think the students and their attitudes made it seem all worthwhile.”
Dr Esmé Shirlow is a Senior Lecturer in the ANU College of Law.
Kristie Broadhead is the Team Leader of Promoting Excellence team in the Education Communities and Environments (ECE) – one of the three teams within the ANU Centre for Learning & Teaching (CLT).