Reflections on online learning in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

As the autumn term draws to a close, students and staff reflect on their experience of online delivery and how they have adapted to a new way of teaching and learning.

Earlier this year, we made the decision to move our teaching online for the autumn term and for as long as is needed to protect the health and wellbeing of our staff and students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With staff having to rapidly get up to speed with online teaching and students coming to terms with a less than traditional university experience, it hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve pulled together as a community and managed to find some unexpected highlights along the way.

For students, one of the main challenges was knowing what exactly they had signed up to, but they soon found their stride:

“I was a bit apprehensive when I started regarding if I had made the right choice signing up, but Birkbeck have been really great. The virtual teaching has worked for me (and was the tipping point to make me apply), it provides a lot more flexibility. Also, having the pre-videos before the lecture I think really is so beneficial. They take me a while to go through but I can go through them at my own pace, and then because I have taken the time to understand the content, it helps me follow during the lectures.” – Student in the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics

And it seems the hard work of lecturers in planning engaging online learning material is paying off:

“The slides were very well organised and in order, the concepts were explained clearly, the seminar questions were very interesting and engaging.” – Student in the Department of Organizational Psychology

“The quality of the materials has been high, they are available weeks in advance, and the organisation, clarity and administration of the lecturer is first class.” – Student in the Department of Organizational Psychology

It certainly seems that online learning has given academics cause to think more deeply about the learner experience, as Dr Federica Rossi, Reader in Innovation Policy and Management explains:

“I found delivering the module online a very interesting experience. Since it was not possible to rely on direct interaction in order to clarify specific points or to communicate expectations, I had to think in much greater detail about all aspects of the students’ learning process and how to support them.

“The module was taught in Spring 2020, during the first lockdown period, and I can imagine that it was particularly hard for our students to stay focused and motivated – many of them would have had to manage working from home, looking after children, and studying at the same time. Therefore it was particularly rewarding to see that the students did well and their marks were in line with those of students who, in previous years, attended the module in class.”

And how are staff finding online teaching? Does it compare on any level with classes or lectures? Brian Gannon, Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, found unexpected benefits to taking his teaching online:

“I’ve been surprised at how effective the online delivery model has turned out to be. It actually helps to increase the level of engagement: students who would normally be too shy to ask questions or get involved seem to be quite happy to interact remotely. This has helped recreate some of the intimacy of the classroom and has been very valuable to everyone.”

Dr Muthu De Silva, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, also found new ways to get students talking through online platforms:

“I have thoroughly enjoyed online teaching…It does require a lot of preparation but once this investment is made, it becomes a very positive experience for both the staff and students. I found that break-out groups with clearly laid out group tasks increase student engagement. Additionally, inviting guest speakers, who could discuss the application of theories has also enriched student experience.”

This is seconded by student feedback from the module:

“I have really enjoyed the guest speakers and their insights/advice for being an entrepreneur. I also enjoyed the group discussion where we get split off into different groups as I feel it makes people feel more comfortable to speak virtually.” – Student in the Department of Management.

While we’re missing Bloomsbury and seeing our community face to face, it’s clear that we’ve come a long way since March.

Dr Geoff Walters, Executive Dean of the School of Business, Economics and Informatics, says: “As the autumn term draws near to an end, I want to take this opportunity to thank all colleagues that have worked hard to make this term’s teaching happen. I also want to thank all students that have engaged with their studies this year and have embraced online delivery, attending lectures and working on material pre- and postlive sessions. In the (almost) 200-year history of Birkbeck, there has never been a start to the term like this. I do hope that the Christmas period, whatever this may look like, will be as festive and restful as possible for everyone.”

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