Teaching through the pandemic: a personal blog
Professor Claire McGourlay is Director of External Relations for the School of Social Sciences and is a Principal Fellow of the HEA and a National Teaching Fellow. After the pandemic started, she began writing a blog about her Covid-19 teaching journey; Part 1 was published in July 2020, and Part 2 followed later in the summer. As we get to the end of another academic year, we talked to Claire about her experience writing the blog and her reflections on teaching throughout this time.
Could you tell us more about the motivation behind your blog My Covid-19 Learning and Teaching Journey? Why blogging as a response?
I’d never done a blog before – it was something I’d thought about, and I knew it probably wouldn’t be too difficult, but I didn’t know what technology to use and what might make a blog that looks good. When I saw what my colleague Becki Bennett had produced on creating online materials for blended learning using Adobe Spark, I was super-impressed. I was reluctant to try it as I thought it must be really complicated, but I was persuaded to give it a go, and it wasn’t at all. As I got into it, it became easier to construct something that looks nice.
I started this particular blog because when the pandemic hit, we were all pushed into learning so many new things quite quickly. I felt like I sat back from a few of the new tools and approaches at times, having to put them to one side while things were so complicated, while there was so much to take in. I thought about how overwhelmed I felt with everything coming at us and that if I felt that way as someone with my level of experience in HE, it must be incredibly tough for those early on in their careers – some of our colleagues will have just been starting out. I thought it might be nice to share my feelings of sometimes finding things too difficult, needing to sometimes park things until I feel more able to take them on, but that once you give it a go often, it’s not as difficult as you fear, and that you can get support with learning these new things. So I guess there were two reasons I did the blog – it suddenly became something I could see a way of doing quite easily and to try to help others. I figured that if one person read it and thought, “actually, I’m in that boat too, and maybe that’s an ok boat to be in”, it will have been worth it.
For you, what’s been the most impactful new bit of practice from this time?
Normally, in the summer we run a 2-week vacation scheme where students come into the Justice Hub and work with staff on cases; this year, we had to come up with a different way to involve students, and so we came up with the Virtual Vacation Scheme. I talk a bit about how we did this on the blog – the whole thing was incredible, and the students produced truly fantastic resources while working with staff to help the most vulnerable and marginalised during Covid-19. It’s been so successful that we’re going to run it the same way next year; doing it in this format means students who aren’t in Manchester over the summer can still take part (this year we had students taking part from the UK, Romania, China and more, all working in different time zones to complete their projects virtually). It’s been really popular with students and has had lots of interest from practitioners – some of whom are more able to get involved with this virtual format as it’s easier to fit in around professional responsibilities, like being in court – and we’ve won awards within the University and externally for the scheme.
In terms of new practice having an impact on my day-to-day role, I think it’s probably learning Adobe Spark! I find it so easy to use, and I really like the resources you can produce. All my seminar materials and resources are now in Spark.
You mention the isolation of lockdown and how personal and professional networks sustained you – did you make any new connections through the lockdown period?
I became Director of the Humanities New Academics Programme (HNAP), so I’ve been working with a great new team on that, and this has also given me the chance to meet loads of early-career professionals who have recently joined the University. I’ve also made lots of new connections through the Virtual Vacation Scheme, particularly with practitioners that I hadn’t met before.
One of the new things I started ‘going to’ was Connecting Legal Education, which was set up by three Law lecturers I know really well. They’re a brilliant group of people who set this forum up to help legal educators to connect with each other. One of the things they really wanted to do was give early career researchers a way to tell the world what they were doing and for people to be able to support them. I met so many new law teachers across the country, which has been fantastic, and new collaborations have come out of what is now a wider network.
Any other thoughts, thinking back over this now? Will there be a Part 3?
Just to keep thinking about the students – in all this, at the heart of our work has been making the student experience the best possible version it can be in really difficult circumstances. Ultimately, that’s what we’re doing it all for. Whether it’s my work on HNAP or learning how to use a new piece of software, it’s about how can we improve and make the student experience better. All roads lead back to there.
And yes – Part 3 is on the way!
Read Claire’s blog for a candid account of living and teaching through the pandemic (and for some top Bananarama wisdom).