How to teach comfortably in an online world: the core principles of learning

Heidi Maurer and Silviu Piros remind us that there is no silver bullet to meet the challenge of online teaching. Keep it simple, use the tools you are comfortable with, and create meaningful social connections with (and among) students

Force majeureA new digital reality in higher education 

The coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented need for adaptation and flexibility in higher education. In spring 2020, university teaching in Europe had to be rapidly moved online and was delivered in emergency mode. Once term endedmany of us spent our summer delving into online pedagogy and blended learning, trying to develop distinct and valuable online learning experience for our students.

With colour-coded campuses and potential closings at a week’s notice, we look at what can be achieved through digital learning, and acknowledge its limits – since each new method introduced to solve one problem can create a new one.   

ECPR was one of the academic associations which actively promoted academic exchange during the pandemic. In June, our Standing Group on Teaching and Learning Politics experienced a successful 4th European Teaching and Learning Conference (EuroTLC), and our panels at the ECPR Virtual General Conference in August were equally fruitful.  

This is not to say that incremental change in teaching delivery had not been happening already over the past decadeOn the contrary, community-driven bottom-up networks of passionate (or simply curious) educators gathered regularly to discuss or exchange best practices. The constant growth in membership of the Standing Group and attendance at its events reflect the increasing attention on teaching and learning in both theory and practice, and the aspiration to foster a culture of innovation and resilience capable of dealing with uncertainty and change.  

Lessons learned 

Yet, no one expected the degree of transformation in teaching prompted by national lockdowns, and discussions at the Standing Group’s events in 2020 inevitably focused on this. A key theme emerging was that a change in the mode of learning from face-to-face to online does not change three core principles, the respecting of which will add value to any learning experience.

Keep it simple and purposeful

With so many changes around us, we would all wish for a silver bullet for effective teaching that would work whatever the context or situation. But teaching needs to consider the background of students, the lecturer, the institution, the course objective, etc. And what works for you, does not necessarily work for me.

That said, an established tip for face-to-face teaching resurfaced repeatedly in our discussions: do not overload yourself and students with gimmicks, endless activities and fancy tools, but ensure instead that everything you do in your teaching has a purpose (constructive alignment) and enough allocated time. If we want our students to learn how to think academically, we need to give them the time to think and reflect instead of jumping from one activity hoop to the next.

Listen and learn, but – most importantly – adapt to what you feel comfortable with

Any discussion about education has the potential to become difficult, if not downright contentious. Despite the openness to constructive criticism and peer feedback that characterises academic research exchanges, attitudes tend to shift when it comes to teaching practices. As academics we are expected to know what to teach, but are quite often not trained or effectively supported in how to do so in the best manner (if you feel this way, our biennial ECPR Summer School on Teaching and Learning Politics might be of interest).

If you've asked yourself how to improve your teaching, you have already taken the most important first step

In our efforts to get better at teaching we often ignore the most effective starting point of any learning process: the willingness to learn and the uncomfortable ‘I don’t know’. If you've asked yourself how to improve your teaching, you have already taken the most important first step. From this point on, it is a matter of seeking inspiration, listening carefully to colleagues’ experiences, and adapting techniques and innovatory practices to your own needs and circumstances. It is not about blaming and shaming, but about showing the reflective and critical skill that so many of us hold dear in our academic interactions.

However, it is also indispensable to remind ourselves that we need to feel comfortable with the learning tools we use. We should pay attention to improving the application of those we have, rather than make things too difficult by insisting on using tools that are not appropriate – to us or to a particular class.

Learning is a social interaction, allow yourself and your students to remember that

Learning is a social activity, with ups and downs. As academics we must not underestimate the role-modelling effect we have on our students, which is diminished in the current online learning environments. When learning pedagogists emphasise that we should help our students ‘learn how to learn’, they might have different skills in mind.  But we can also interpret it as allowing our students to see the human side of us as researchers, where doubt and not-knowing is a central driver for academic innovation and thus a necessary ingredient.

As academics we must not underestimate the role-modelling effect we have on our students

Creating meaningful social connections with and between our students online is more difficult, and needs to be more consciously integrated into our teaching, but it is not impossible. As researchers we benefit greatly from positive and constructive feedback so we should aim to replicate this experience for our students because it will undoubtedly help them learn better – offline or online.

All these challenges expose how inextricably linked teaching and research are and how much they need to reinforce each other. Each new developing practice needs to profit from academic inquiry that puts its effectiveness to the test, but there is no need to reinvent the wheel time and again. Whatever the changed environment, stick to the core principles of learning and you are on solid ground.

Heidi Maurer and Silviu Piros are, respectively, the outgoing and incoming Convenors of the ECPR Standing Group on Teaching and Learning Politics

Contributing Authors

photograph of Heidi Maurer Heidi Maurer Marie Curie Research Fellow, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol More by this author
photograph of Silviu Piros Silviu Piros Doctoral Researcher, Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel More by this author

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