Reflections on the Opportunities and Challenges of Online Teaching in Social Work
The pandemic resulted in a complete and sudden switch to online teaching from April 2020. As social work educators, we authors, Anastasia and Chaitali, were aware that the pandemic heightened risks for vulnerable staff and students, and we wanted to approach the crisis humanely rather than business as usual (albeit online). We realized that we needed to make fundamental changes in the way we approached teaching by creating learning environments that facilitated participation but did not ignore the difficult conditions in which students daily lives were embedded. In this paper, we present our individual approaches. Anastasia outlines her reflections in creating conditions in the digital classroom that enabled learning alliances first followed by Chaitali's reflection on her role in offering student-centred teaching in an online environment and finally conclude together. What binds our reflections together is a focus on a feminist ethics of care, where caring social relations, sharing are important in the learning-teaching context (Branicki, 2020; Noddings, 1988).
The elephant in the digital room – Addressing student vulnerability by creating learning alliances
The pandemic increased vulnerability for all persons as material, psychological and physical resources became severely stretched (Sheek-Hussain et al. 2021). Many social work students at our university were in precarious situations even before the crisis. About 90% of students work for their livelihoods alongside their studies, often more than 20 hours a week. Many students experience multiple dimensions of discrimination based on race, gender and class. The pandemic exacerbated their situations as students had to coordinate work with studies as well as additional responsibilities such as child care. The pandemic had led to a situation where established support structures such as libraries, group work spaces, standard regulations and procedures no longer functioned as before. Students were thus dealing with fundamental changes in their educational contexts over which they had little control. This is consistent with Garbe et al's (2020) 'assessment that crises result in loss of control and higher need. I was concerned that these vulnerable students would drop out of their studies due to the deterioration in their situation (Müller, 2018). I wanted to focus on creating support structures for my students during these challenging times.
Allies in time of crisis - against the individualization of structural problems
Alliances and group affiliations can play a significant role in mobilizing resources and increasing coping abilities (Czollek & Perko, 2016). Offering opportunities for shared experiences, reflecting on presenting challenges, and adapting the study programme accordingly can stabilize. For me, a key goal was to counter the individualization of problems by turning the crisis into a learning opportunity through community alliances and the development of crisis management skills. I sought to create environments where students could share their concerns and challenges and see the commonalities of their situations that validated and normalized their experiences.
I did this by actively creating learning alliances for students in all of the five courses that I taught, namely: Introduction to social work, Supervision in placements, Social work methods in virtual and real space and Adultism. Each course has about 35-40 students on average. I started each course by presenting my ideas on how I hoped to organize the course and the teaching and sought students' views. I used both synchronous (beginning the online class with an "open question round" and incorporating group sessions that enabled students to interact with each other) as well as asynchronous (discussion forums and email exchange) methods. The use of multiple methods also helped address information overload and fatigue (Rump & Brandt, 2020).
After a few sessions, I formed small fixed groups that were to serve as learning alliances. There were about 4-6 students in each group. I hoped that these alliances would support social connectivity and create positive social environments. I created a short input with the title "Allies in times of crisis", based on the ideas of Czollek & Perko (2016) to show students various possibilities of creating alliances and how alliances can be used, particularly in times of crisis. I pointed out that these alliances were support structures that they could use flexibly for educational and personal support. In the subsequent semesters, I formed these in the first session itself. The alliances were created randomly with the help of break-out groups in Zoom. If students in the alliance did not feel comfortable, it was possible to switch to another group. I requested that the change be communicated to me and the other students involved. I monitored this process through interim evaluations from students. Student used these alliances in different ways, including to: exchange information, share teaching content when they could not attend a teaching session, and work on the asynchronous tasks together. Some groups worked closely together and also met outside in parks and online. Most groups continued until the end of the semester. Some groups broke up and formed new ones.
I integrated student feedback/suggestions throughout the course as I believed that student feedback in creating supportive learning environments was essential to enable dialogue and understand students’ needs; which I see as central to a feminist ethics of care. For example, in the feedback-evaluation of a course, few students reported that they did not feel comfortable talking about themselves in this online space and others reported that they did not want to engage with the constant messages of crisis, the lockdown/pandemic and wanted the online lectures to provide them relief from such talk. I also noticed that when I asked about personal/sensitive topics, it was tough for many students to speak in front of the whole group. I realized that assessing and responding to student needs required a delicate balancing act as ‘care’, is based in social relations (Noddings, 1988). Indeed without these social relationships, such questions can easily result in victimization or infantilization. Incorporating students’ views and perspectives in a continuous manner enabled us (the students and me) to navigate the changed situation creatively and flexibly, enabling new forms of organizations as well as achieving our learning goals (Shevalier & McKenzie, 2012).
My relationship with students at the heart of teaching
Online formats and pedagogical technologies in social work can break down barriers, enable access and result in academic outcomes that are as good as in-person teaching (Wretman & Macy, 2016). However, teaching online presents an incremental learning process that requires time, conscious effort and insight to create a useful experience for teachers and students (Schmidt et al. 2013). In the first semester of online teaching, I had had little time to prepare. Nevertheless, I met the students online and carried out my lectures and seminars. Like many others in the pandemic, I was not teaching in a university building but, in my home, which created its own set of challenges (for me in particular, this involved simultaneous balancing of work and parenting obligations, while my child tried to capture my attention under the table as I was delivering my lecture).
I was annoyed and frustrated with the situation and felt that the university management had let me down, in that I was expected to simply carry on with seemingly little consideration of the difficulties that this entailed. I soon realized that my students were in the same position, as I saw them in their bedrooms trying to juggle different commitments, and viewed their family members in the background. It became clear that while students were glad that they were not losing a study semester, it was equally challenging for them to deal with multiple online courses; all offered by novices who were offering something online for the first time. Both staff and students were struggling. Being in the same boat as the students helped me develop a shared empathy for my students. While I like to believe that I am an empathetic and professional teacher, this crisis served as a critical moment for me to rethink the relationships I have with my students. I considered how I could engage with students in ways that were connected, dynamic, ethical and inclusive of the self (O'Leary et al, 2013). This changed my attitude towards students in terms of trust, expectations and engagement.
This became visible in the ways that I stopped demanding that students fulfil my expectations but switched to treating them as adults, as equals and entering into more non-hierarchical relationships with them. I also shared my moods and difficulties and asked students for their patience when and if my methods did not work, helping to create a dynamic relational exchange between us. I believe this eventually led me to engage in a truly student-centred manner that was non-judgemental, ethical and caring as Noddings (1988) and O'Leary et al (2013) have outlined . I believe students also responded to me differently as they let me into their world, shared their doubts and concerns and felt comfortable in dialogues about their self. Direct and indirect evaluations were also highly positive and constructive. My 'Aha' moment was the realization of how important my relationships and empathic connection with students were to the learning process.
Learning as a journey together
Teaching online also provided me with the impetus to rethink teaching methods and issues of control. I had usually provided inputs in front of the students, then enabled application of these concepts in smaller group work, where I moved from group to group offering support. I was in control of the content: what was to be taught, how it was to be taught and what was to be learned. The online medium, however, threw me into a situation of unease. For example, when I tried to enter a break-out room where students were doing group work; I felt like I was intruding and interrupting their space as my sudden presence stopped the ongoing conversations which was not the case in earlier face-to-face interactions. This frustrated me and in trying to figure out different strategies, I began to reconsider my role as an educator. Was I not there to enable students to consider ideas and discuss these with them? Where was the student-centeredness in my methods?
About two weeks into the teaching semester, I changed my approach. I created short voice-recorded presentations of content (15-20 mins). I made the content of my weekly course available a week beforehand and requested students to listen to this before the online session – sometimes giving them time during the online session to see the videos when they had not managed to watch the presentations beforehand. I used the online classes to discuss key ideas and facilitate discussions, clarified doubts, and created room for peer learning in smaller groups. I also posed different questions that enabled students to bring their ideas into the discussion. For example, instead of only sticking to my content and agenda, I asked about the different methods that they used and tried to help them see the implicit concepts that they had anchored their ideas/practices in. I realized my role as a facilitator and that good facilitation requires letting go of the need to control, and engaging in reciprocity (McGill, 2016). Student-centred learning requires supporting students to take control of their own learning, trusting them, allowing them to work at their own pace, discovering and co-creating knowledge.
I could build on the experiences of the previous semester as well as student feedback to create teaching that was consistent and constructively aligned (Schmidt et al. 2013). Overall, students responded well to having access to the material beforehand and appreciated the flexibility of learning at their own pace. By the end of the third semester, I had developed enough confidence to incorporate more inputs and ideas from students, created more room for research based learning and weaved student research into the content, rather than sticking to my teaching agenda. This enabled students to share their experiences, their resources and knowledge. I realized that students also needed time to adapt to my change in method – initially students seemed nervous and sceptical but learned to trust me and adapt. I interpreted student inputs, their questions and their engagement in terms of what they were willing to share with me as a sign of this trust.. Student feedback, formal and informal suggests that the process enabled students to own their learning.
Calling for a social transformation as our (Anastasia and Chaitali) conclusion
We realized that the crisis had exposed the existential challenges that many students faced even before the pandemic. Our conclusion is that we must be mindful of the challenges students face and work with them to build alliances, activate resources, and strengthen resilience. This is possible through communication, responsivity, working out solutions and building structures that promote learning and solidarity. A feminist ethics of care frame the foundation of such work and engagement. We are convinced that we need to open ourselves to relationships from which we can engage with our students and negotiate processes with them. This requires rethinking control in learning-teaching and trusting students. It is only from such a relational base that participatory practices, such as feedback and knowledge co-creation, can be employed sincerely. Feedback is in itself a relational exchange in that the kind of feedback and the ways in which one gives and receives feedback is dependent on the relationships between the one obtaining and the one providing the feedback. Similarly, co-creation of knowledge requires a relationship that is based on sharing and partnerships. Our examples have highlighted some of the ways in which we have approached relationships, student-centred learning and the creation of support and peer alliances.
We believe that feminist ethics of care emphasizes caring relationship as central to learning and development of ethical beings (Noddings, 1988). Such a feminist ethics of care in univeristies can be transformative as it challenges the disciplining, objectification and control of students by those 'teaching' them (Tuitt at el. 2018). Perhaps this is what education in a post-structural and decolonial world could look like. The pandemic forced us to think about and assume responsibility for care in a crisis situation and we have explored some strategies such as building alliances, co-creation and incorporating student voices via feedback throughout the learning-teaching process. We hope that this crisis serves as a springboard to multiply these efforts to transform our educational system that takes everyone along a new direction rather than return to the business-as-usual model that we had before the pandemic (Branicki,2020).
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