Creating an engaging module: a weekly plan

This example describes the weekly schedule of activities developed for a group of second-year undergraduates with reflections on ensuring student engagement and maintaining a personal feel and connection with students in online teaching.

The online education approach adopted

Each week, students can typically expect the following activities:

  • Session 0: preparation activity, such as a set key reading, video or a small research task. Sometimes we ask students to do their research task together with a peer (online via Teams or Collaborate), thus encouraging further peer interaction outside the formal tutorials.
  • Sessions 1 and 2: 25-minute asynchronous sessions on Minerva. These are a combination of written web pages and video presentations by our team. Written web pages are broken down thematically, meaning students will move onto the next page for the next theme, rather than scroll down endlessly. They are carefully formatted to include white space, pictures and links to interesting readings or short video clips. Finally, the tone of writing is kept conversational and, where possible, some personal observations are included to emulate the personal atmosphere we would achieve in a lecture theatre.
  • Session 3: a self-directed study activity. These activities encourage portfolio development towards assignment preparation.
  • Session 4: tutorials are synchronous and take place on Collaborate Ultra. Sessions 1-3 include questions at the end of “taught content”. Students bring their answers to the tutorial. This means we encourage students to engage with all the material and we have a means of assessing whether this is successful. We encourage students to upload profile pictures within Collaborate Ultra, as this creates a more personal atmosphere, even when student cameras are off. We are also gently nudging students to put their cameras and microphones on within tutorials, but they appear most confident doing this in smaller groups, so we ensure that we use plenty of breakout groups within tutorials.

In addition, we interact with students via the assignment questions and office hours through Minerva discussion boards. Each tutorial group also has its own Minerva discussion board. We will schedule open Q&A assignment clinics via Collaborate Ultra for weeks 3, 6, 8 and 11.

The positive impact on students’ educational experience

This module was co-developed by Andrea Hollomotz and Lisa Buckner and it is team-taught. The above structure of sessions is kept up every week by all our teaching team. Students know exactly what to expect each week. We are producing new material, especially for this cohort. The module teaches social research methods, a topic that is essential for a sociology degree and teaches essential skills. We always need to work extra hard to make this engaging for students, when compared to other modules, and we do so with content that focuses on more populist sociological topics. Week 1 explained why now, at the time of Covid-19, is an excellent time to be asking social research questions. We presented statistics about Covid-19 deaths and explained how hard it is to make sense of these. We also cited journal articles which call for sociological research into Covid-19. Finally, Andrea presented her observations about how her husband’s status as NHS staff had changed overnight to that of a “hero”. Students were then asked to reflect on their own experiences and to come up with an idea for a social research question on Covid-19. These were posted to the tutorial discussion boards. Student’s answers displayed some excellent engagement, critical thinking and original ideas.

The impact on my teaching practice

Teaching online is very different. We struggle most with how best to “connect” with our students, which is why we have decided to include some personal content in written lecture material. For instance, Andrea described how awkward her family felt about “clap for carers”. This is the kind of stuff we would usually say informally to students. We feel it is important to bring that style into the online environment.

Writing lecture material in web format is harder and more time-consuming than preparing a power point presentation because the pitch needs to be right: We need to have good referencing styles (after all, we are setting an example), but if we would write this in the same format as a journal article, then what is the point in a student “being in a lecture”? They might as well go to the library and read research methods textbooks instead. It continues to be a massive learning curve. We are still working out what works and playing around with new styles and tools, such as the Wiki tool on Minerva. We are constantly encouraging student feedback and are refining how we deliver online teaching in response to this. For instance, some students with slower internet speed found it hard to watch embedded video lectures and we had to create a workaround.

By Andrea Hollomotz and Lisa Bruckner, Sociology & Social Policy

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