Institute Fellows 2020/21: Dr Maria Canal
Kicking off our Institute Fellows series is Dr Maria Canal (SFHEA). Maria is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences and Programme Director for Neuroscience. She was appointed as one of our inaugural Institute of Teaching and Learning Fellows in March 2020. Despite proposing her project before the onset of the pandemic, Maria proved to have chosen an incredibly topical subject as she focused her Fellowship project on the development of remote alternatives to laboratory practical classes.
When I applied in January 2020 for one of the Inaugural Institute of Teaching and Learning Fellowships to develop an online virtual science lab practical, little did I know that soon academia – and our lives – were going to undergo a radical change due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With my Fellowship now nearing its end, I can only look back in amazement at what a rollercoaster ride this last year has been.
What I have come to realise is that the lessons that we have learned and the processes that we have developed during this past year have the potential for a long-lasting impact on flexible learning and the future of higher education as a whole.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, many higher education institutions were already starting to look into remote, online practical teaching because of its numerous benefits, both for students – virtual labs are flexible, accessible, personalised, interactive, provide risk-free environments and allow mistakes to be made – and institutions – virtual practicals improve teaching efficiency, address course capacity limitations, free up teaching labs, are cost-effective and are environmentally friendly. Practical classes are a key component in many disciplines, but adapting them to remote teaching and learning presents various challenges. There are different ways in which laboratory practical classes can be replaced by remote alternatives. For example, students can use specific software to simulate lab experiments, they can be asked to run simple experiments at home, they can be provided with remote access to lab equipment, they can be asked to watch life or pre-recorded experiments, or they can be provided with freely available data sets.
When my Fellowship was awarded in March 2020, I was asked to fast-track my project: developing online lab practicals had now become a priority for all science subjects. Weeks of frantic work ensued, where the first stage of my project (reviewing current science education resources and technology available for virtual labs) was compressed into three weeks instead of the originally-planned 3 months. Fortunately, the Institute of Teaching and Learning provided me with a lot of support, including a student partner, Jessica Carroll, and signposting me to an e-learning technologist, Ryan Metcalfe. The three of us worked enthusiastically over the next few months, spurred on by the knowledge that we were creating something different and exciting. By June, our first practical prototype was finished.
The next step was to obtain ethics approval so that we could test the practical prototype with a group of volunteering students over the summer. With the help of a new student partner, Flavia Zhou, by the end of September we had collected lots of useful data and feedback on the practical’s functionality. The key lesson we learned from this feedback is that student-staff and student-student interactions are a critical aspect in any online course. Opportunities for interactions should be carefully planned and strongly encouraged in any type of online course, be it practical-based or not. This helps students check their understanding over time and collaborate and interact with their peers, thus fostering a sense of community. This is crucial, especially given the feelings of isolation and lack of motivation that many of our students are experiencing at the moment.
We then updated the new practical for delivery to second year undergraduate Neuroscience and Cognitive Neuroscience & Psychology students in March 2021. The online practical was positively received by students and the group activities and opportunities for interaction between staff and students that we introduced were welcomed and valued. Although students did not perform experiments at the bench, the laboratory simulations allowed students to collect data, analyse it, draw significant conclusions, and present their results, which is the essence of scientific research. Therefore, online virtual practicals can provide a powerful form of active learning.
Although there are now only a few weeks left of my Fellowship, there is still work to do. I have already shared online teaching resources and I am developing additional ones, to help anyone wanting to develop their own online courses. I am also producing a demo video of the online practical, which I will be presenting at the Advance HE Teaching and Learning conference this summer.
Even though the future looked uncertain when we went into the first lockdown last March, I think that the Covid-19 pandemic has unwittingly provided us with a unique opportunity: that of capitalising on the lessons learned and the online resources developed over the past year so that we can transform the future of educational delivery.
If you’d like to know more, please see the workshop recording and the Practical Teaching Resources that Maria has developed on the FBMH webpages or feel free to get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org