Managing and recovering from serious interruption to teaching

The internet has been full of amazing advice over the last few weeks on technical issues relating to moving online. I’ve nothing to add to that, but thought I might offer our perspective from managing the whole process overall. Below are some notes I have sketched out on how we have dealt and are continuing to deal with with events of the last few weeks. We are sharing these with other chemistry departments in UK/IE, and I am publishing here for more general interest. As well as sharing, I am keen to learn. What is missing, what isn’t clear… (what’s wrong…) from the compilation below.

Phase 1: Immediate Disruption – managing teaching alternatives

Aim: to continue the curriculum as much as possible, with clear communication to staff and students as to what options are available, and where resources are. This is done by time release (week by week) of prepopulated online class links and other details on the course homepage of the VLE.

  • Clear decision making process with authority delegated to key stakeholders. One person responsible in this phase for all staff and student communications with a back-up nominated and cc-ed from the outset; staff communications crucial at this stage;
  • Lectures: We mapped our existing timetable online and delivered a combination of:
    • Live lecture via webinar system (e.g. Blackboard Collaborate) – good for staff who have a full slide deck and little board work
    • Lecture recordings (full or in parts) released to students with live lecture discussion via webinar (a form of flipped lecturing) – good where existing recordings are available and staff comfortable with live classrooms
    • Lecture given live and live streamed, with questions via email (assuming building is open) – good for staff who are uncomfortable giving webinar type lecture
  • Tutorials were managed in a similar manner, and staff typically:
    • Go through tutorial answers with discussion in online webchat
    • Release tutorial answers and have discussion in online webchat on any difficulties
    • Release tutorial answers and have discussion by email or discussion board
  • Labs: We were at the end of our lab cycle so finished just short of the finish line. Clearly future contingency will need to consider laboratory alternatives (see Phase 4).
  • Coursework: all activities moved to online submission. Some events, such as presentations, changed to students submitting PowerPoint decks with outline of presentation, or were cancelled.

Phase 2: Preparing for Alternative Examinations

Aim: to introduce an alternative to in-person closed book exams, that matches similar assessment of learning outcomes, allows students to handwrite, can be completed anywhere in the world, being as low tech as possible, and allows students to perform in an equitable manner

  • We have opted to issue our exams as open book assessments.
  • Students will be given paper in advance, password protected, which they can download from a special VLE site for each paper. This reduces internet connection concerns on the day.
  • Students will be asked to agree to a revised Code of Conduct.
  • Students use the password released at the start time of the assessment. Password release by email, on VLE, and possibly by text.
  • Students take photos of their work, and generate a PDF, which can be concatenated (using Adobe Scan mobile app, a solution I am currently exploring – thanks to Ross Galloway for this tip) and uploaded via mobile to VLE, on a question by question basis (use grayscale to reduce size of file). We are exploring a parallel e-mail bin for each exam. Option with advance notice of students sending papers back by registered post.
  • Process will be issued using existing published timetable, assuming no clashes within (exactly) 24 hours of start times.
  • Answer files then distributed to markers in a batch zip file for anonymous marking.
  • Note: at Edinburgh, all non-honours exams were cancelled centrally, so course (module) marks for these are generated by known existing marks – lab and other course marks in our case.

 Phase 3: Get students’ focus back on studying chemistry

Aim: to “normalise” the new arrangements, online teaching, preparation for open book exams, and make sure isolated students’ welfare is closely monitored

  • Return to regular communication with central focus on two streams – one on academic matters and one on student support. At Edinburgh we split this activity across two people (Director of Teaching and Senior Personal Tutor).
  • In academic terms, communications around getting on with study, study advice for different assessment formats, making sure students are pushed back to thinking about tutorials, revisions, thesis writing etc. The tone is regular, even mundane (by design!), just to aim to get students to focus in the current chaos. In addition, we will be releasing a mock exam system so that students can interact with it, get a feel for it and check it out in their situation, for reassurance (on both sides) more than anything else. All academic guidance about new arrangements located on a single webpage, with all VLE course (modules) linking to it. This means students have information centrally as well as in email.
  • In student support terms, we are worried about isolation. We pushed strongly in all email correspondence and Twitter unambiguous messages that we want to stay in contact, and prompting students to contact DoT/SPT/PT for anything; the language here was personal and casual. This is then followed by regular webchats – twice weekly online Q+As where students can ask anything. These have been very popular, and have moved from lots (and lots) of queries about exam paper format to students (and staff) sharing pictures of their dogs. We don’t care, the intention is to just keep a conversation going. We’ve also created a “kudoboard” which will act as an online Yearbook (see: – students can just post anything they want there.
  • These approaches have been very well received by students. The key message is: you cannot communicate enough, but that communication needs to be well planned, and unambiguous. We have a policy of getting every major email second read, at least, with relevant stakeholders.

Phase 4: Mop up and prepare for future?

Aim: once immediate task is completed, what can we learn? And how do we prepare for a more serious (mid-semester) interruption.

  • We have garnered a huge swell of goodwill from staff who have seen many benefits of lecture recordings, online interaction, and dialogue, and the importance of dialogue in general. We plan to consider how to continue this, even in low tech ways, when teaching returns to normal.
  • The move to open book assessments will open a big opportunity for chemistry to really rethink assessment for 21st century. Lots of opportunities to pursue here.
  • The chemistry community (worldwide) is very underprepared for major interruptions to laboratory teaching, and I think there is scope for significant collaboration in generating datasets and banks of materials for alternatives to lab classes in the event of future interruptions.


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