Leading a virtual class in India from the UK
In the second of a series of three blogs based on a lecture I taught at the Center for Water and Sanitation (C-WAS) at CEPT University in Ahmedabad, India, exploring the legacies of sanitation and associated taboos and stigmas through the use of PhotoVoice, I reflect on my experiences of teaching this class online from home in the UK, instead of within the traditional classroom. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I, like many of us, have increasingly spent more time logging into webinars and lectures hosted through platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams: what used to be a less frequent opportunity to join a virtual meeting as a consultant working from home, has become very much part of the new ‘normal’. The wonderful pleasure I had of teaching Masters students and lecturers at C-WAS however took me onto a new journey, as I went from an attendee to speaker in an online meeting, and the associated adventures of navigating the Zoom platform this journey brings. It was a day of firsts: my first time leading a two-hour taught university lecture, something which I had dreamed of doing for a long time. And if this was not daring enough, I was relying completely on technology and hoping for good internet connectivity throughout my class – another new thing to think about! It was the first time I had taught in India as a fellow Indian, which has brought me a great feeling of pride as I was able to share the things I have learned over the past year through my work on the use of PhotoVoice in the WASH sector with students and academics on the other side of the world from the comfort of home. Drawing on these experiences, I want to use this blog to share some key lessons I learned as we try to break spatial barriers and learn from each other across countries and time zones through the power of technology.
Bring in other speakers creatively- and practice first!
I was very grateful for an email from my colleague at C-WAS on the day before the lecture, asking me to join a call with him so that he could teach me the ropes of Zoom as a presenter. I of course had never seen the presenter mode before, so it was fascinating to learn and see this from him a day ahead. My lecture had included some videos of some of the researchers who contributed to the PhotoVoice work I recently produced with the Sanitation Learning Hub. I had made the effort to arrange some calls with two of the researchers involved and to record them talking about their PhotoVoice projects. I had embedded segments of these videos into different parts of my PowerPoint presentation, so that the students could listen to other voices too. Before I tried the Zoom platform, I had assumed that if I just pressed play that the sound of the recording would work, but this was not the case. I was thankful that we had identified this issue a day before, and the need to select “Share computer sound” at the bottom of the presenter mode screen in Zoom when I joined, meaning that the videos would work. I like to add sounds and videos to make my presentations “speak” in order to make them more lively and to keep those listening to my talk engaged (more on this in the next blog!). Combining visual elements with sound are key to keeping a digital classroom as interactive and as ‘real’ as possible. Hearing directly from my colleague and former PhD supervisor Brian Reed, and Zara Ansari who used PhotoVoice in her Masters research through the videos I included, enabled me to ‘bring’ other speakers into my virtual classroom. Teaching virtually can be physically demanding, so practicing presenting these videos helped to ensure my class could run as smoothly as possible.
“Open your mics and raise your hands….”
Keep the students engaged with activities in different parts of the session – as you would in a physical classroom. I started my lecture on the first slide immediately with a short question to the class, about what sigma (∑) can look like if rotated different ways (to an ‘M’ or a ‘W’). On my slide I spoke directly to the students, asking them to “open your mics, raise your hands, and tell me…” what the sign was. This was a way of creating a dialogue between us from the outset, and to convey to the students that this was not to be a lecture in the traditional sense where I would talk for two hours, but was instead a virtual workshop where I wanted them to play a role using the technology we had at our fingertips. When I ran activities, I displayed large versions of the ‘raise hand’ and ‘microphone’ signs on my slides which we are all now familiar with as we sit through our calls, to prompt and make clear to the students that I wanted their input at that particular stage and that it was their turn to speak. I realised that this is a new element of teaching. Our mode of teaching has shifted to the screen, and as trainers and teachers, we need to come up with subtle ways to indicate to our students when we would like their feedback. I gave them activities where they needed to feedback to me. The activities included trying to analyse some photos without captions and to reflect on the process of this analysis, to discuss with me and the other lecturers what they had learned from the PhotoVoice case studies, and at the end, to share what they had learned. When they did give feedback, I did my best to look directly at the window in which the student speaking was displayed.
The eye contact as best as was possible on the screen was very important to me through the session. I always looked directly at the student who was talking and my intention was to try to have as maximum interaction as possible after a student had opened their mic. In a world where we spend more time at home and less time together, it was through this lecture that I began to really have a different appreciation of the importance of technology in lecturer-student interactions. These interactions matter. This is not only for academic learning and teaching, but for ensuring familiarity and regularity in our new roles as virtual teachers.
This mode of teaching is however, reliant on technology. During the lecture, as I played one of the videos I had embedded into my slides, my internet connection suddenly dropped and Zoom had told me the session has ended. Not an ideal situation for the teacher to leave the students in any way at all…. but my brilliant colleague at C-WAS very swiftly emailed me the link and I was rescued quickly and back with my students within minutes. Whilst many of us are used to the internet and rely on it to find information within seconds, the precarity of internet connection becomes clear in these times.
Let’s embrace online teaching!
Whilst technology is not always reliable, this experience has in fact taught me that in a socially distanced world, there are ways of learning and sharing with others who are geographically far. It is amusing in times when we cannot travel to tell your family and friends here in the UK that “last week, I was teaching in Ahmedabad!”, but I do so with a sense of pride, because it was a unique opportunity for interacting with others on the other side of the world in a way which facilitates learning in an accessible way. It was very inspiring and insightful to see how the students and lecturers at C-WAS were interpreting and analysing the findings from research on the global South that I had done from my desk in the UK. Without lockdown, this opportunity, which has been the highlight of the COVID-19 pandemic for me personally, simply might not have happened. Let’s continue these adventures for now, and embrace these opportunities for new ways of learning across continents. In the next and final blog of this series, I will reflect on my personal experiences of overcoming communication barriers as a teacher with Cerebral Palsy whilst lecturing virtually at C-WAS at CEPT University.
Thank you to Dr. Mona Iyer, Prof. Meera Mehta, Prof. Dinesh Mehta and Siddh Doshi for inviting me to give this lecture at C-WAS, CEPT University in Ahmedabad. Thank you to Prof. Barbara Evans for making the introductions to make this lecture possible. Thanks go to the Sanitation Learning Hub at the Institute of Development Studies for commissioning and making this research possible, and to all of the researchers and their participants who provided the material for this lecture, and a special thanks to Brian Reed and Zara Ansari for their valuable video contributions for the session.