It was a cold wet day in March. That was the last time either of us delivered a lecture in person, or met with a student face to face. At the time, when we were informed that we would be transitioning to online delivery, most of us hoped it would be a temporary measure, which would last a month or two at most. Such is the optimism of naivety. Now, nearly 3 months later, and well into mandated lockdown, and with no clear end in sight, it seems increasingly likely that, at the very least, social distancing will be with us for some time. Consequently, the prospects of lectures and seminars along traditional models seems more and more remote.
In the context of university education many commentators have identified the challenges, and possible benefits, that this is likely to bring to the sector. Certainly, it seems ever more plausible that, come September, rather than greeting students in person to welcome them to the beginning of a new academic year, we will all, to one extent or another, be introducing ourselves and our topics in the virtual world.
Whilst some observers have questioned the preparedness of UK Universities to rise to this challenge, many others have been more enthusiastic about the process, and have highlighted the pre-existing and ever growing use of technology in the delivery of educational materials as evidence that we can indeed adapt to present circumstances. Certainly, the ease with which UK Universities can implement and extend online provision is undoubtedly a matter for each individual institution. We remain confident, however, that colleagues across disciplines and institutions will exceed even the most optimistic predictions and ensure the provision of online learning materials that seek to make the best of the online resources available.
The provision of such learning materials, nevertheless, may not be enough to ensure a rewarding student experience. Indeed, in the time before Covid-19, even the most technologically minded academics were keen to sound some notes of caution about online provision. Though some only ever saw online platforms as a place of storage of vital information, many embraced the opportunities for communication and interaction offered by the new virtual resources. However, even fans of the technology admitted that it had to be adapted to supplement traditional face-to-face delivery, but would not replace it.
Such caution was well-founded in the belief that technology can only be useful if students remain actively involved in their learning rather than simply passive recipients of pre-recorded lecture and seminar materials. Yet, given the suddenness and extent of the lockdown, it was difficult to see how online provision could be adapted quickly to function alone and replace the tried and tested methods of imparting information, didactic analysis, and problem-solving in lecture halls and seminar rooms. With responsibility for both undergraduate and postgraduate taught modules this was a cause for genuine concern.
Going Live with an Experimental Methodology
As luck would have it, De Montfort University has invested well in a range of online teaching tools, and, in keeping with the pedagogical literature, we decided to offer what we assumed would be purely functional live Q&A sessions (imaginatively named “virtual drop ins”), using BlackBoard Collaborate Ultra (BBCU) to accompany the lecture and seminar materials already available. This we hoped, would go some way to bridging the gap between remote learning and genuinely interactive online engagement. What happened next was a surprise and a delight…the students loved it, and, at their suggestion, RadioDMU was born.
In practice, the format is very simple. A “session” is created for a particular day and time, and then advertised to students who need only follow a link to join the group chat. While the programme contains the facility for full webcam engagement, we decided, from the beginning, to run these as audio sessions where students could call or text in questions which we would then discuss. The facility to type in questions in the chat bar, as the dialogue was taking place, meant that we could also easily address follow up points. Students were also encouraged to email in any more detailed questions in advance, which we could then work through “on air”.
From the very beginning, levels of engagement were fantastic across each of the modules we teach, and the sessions have been universally well received by all the students who have been logging in. We have received feedback that the sessions have been particularly good for encouraging engagement from some students who are ordinarily shy and reluctant to speak in a traditional classroom environment. The emails notifying all students that sessions were taking place was often supplemented by student encouragement to their friends and colleagues to take part, thus further promoting their utility.
Now, several weeks after our first “broadcast”, and long after the normal teaching term would ordinarily have ended, we are still delivering 3 sessions per week, and have managed to maintain a connection with hundreds of students to date. Sometimes we are joined by 50 listeners, other times by 15, but this ongoing flexibility, which incidentally affords individuals the chance to dip in and out, depending on their weekly circumstances, is another well received aspect of the sessions. Though sessions were at first timed to take place at the usual hours lectures would have occurred within term, they soon “drifted” to more convenient times, as requested by the students.
An Unanticipated Consequence
Very pleasingly, in addition to the academic benefits, this form of interaction has been a revelation in terms of maintaining social contact within the groups. Many have commented that the broadcasts have injected a sense of normality and structure into their week, and have helped them maintain a sense of connectedness with their peers, and the institution. Unsurprisingly, the students have an amazing array of skills and interests such as photography, music, drama, community volunteering, all of which they have been increasingly willing to share. This has been coupled with weekly TV and Film recommendations, recipe exchange, and all manner of mutual support and encouragement through the crisis. As a consequence, we have been able to maintain a much more informal and holistic engagement with the students, sharing many of their concerns as events unfold in the world around us all.
The Debate Continues
There can be no doubt that both the immediate and long-term impact of the pandemic on UK Universities is likely to be pronounced, and we do not offer this example as any kind of panacea. The worthy debate as to how best we can all collectively design and deliver substantive teaching will rightly continue, and we do not suggest informal engagement could or should replace this process. Nevertheless, when we reflect on the unexpected development of RadioDMU, it is perhaps the ongoing sense of mutual support and encouragement which is most pleasing. Indeed, the entire experience has brought a particular lesson back into sharp focus. Simply put, the university experience when it is at its best is about more than academic attainment.
The development of critical thinking and engagement with the wider world is certainly a part of the university experience, but so too is a reinforcement of the essential element of humanity that enables the individual to take their place in the world. We as lecturers in our desire to transmit knowledge may at times be guilty of prioritising the former, particularly in a changing era with ever growing numbers of students which can obscure the individual. This experience has caused us to remember what we perhaps should never have allowed ourselves to forget: which is that students are frequently looking to us for guidance and encouragement in more ways than simply relate to the content of a degree. While none of us are currently in a position to know when normality will return, in any event, RadioDMU is here to stay.
 Roblyer, M. D., & Ekhaml, L. (2000). How interactive are your distance courses? A rubric for assessing interaction in distance learning. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 3(2).
 Dow, M. (2008). Implications of social presence for online learning: A case study of MLS students. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 49(4), 238-239.
This blog post was written by Russell Orr and Paul Omar, Leicester De Montfort Law School