Reflecting on a Year of COVID-19: Online Teaching, Educational Experiments and Life-Altering Experiences

ErasmusX
8 min readJun 15, 2021
Story written by Andria Naudé Fourie (Research Fellow, Erasmus School of Law; Visiting Scholar, Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity, Erasmus University Rotterdam)

Like so many people, I spent a significant chunk of the (northern hemisphere’s) summer and autumn of 2020 recovering from COVID-19 and its long-lingering effects. Like academics everywhere, I was also preparing to shift my teaching entirely online. Months of frantic preparation were followed by intense periods of teaching that left me as exhausted as I’ve never quite experienced before. Yet, thinking back on this crazy rollercoaster-of-a-year, which produced its fair share of hits, misses and (embarrassing) bloopers, I recognize that it has been profoundly rewarding. I also believe there is value to be had in sharing our experiences (the good, the bad and the embarrassing), as I will do here, as long as we account for our contextual and personal differences.

My experiences, for instance, have been shaped predominantly by teaching international law and global governance at the master/graduate-level, which involves smaller groups of students that, generally speaking, makes online teaching easier. I’ve taught variations of this course in two different master-programmes: the first, as part of the Erasmus School of Law’s LL.M. on International and European Union Law, to students coming mostly from The Netherlands and across Europe; the second, as part of the University of Pretoria and University of the Western Cape’s LL.M. on Trade and Investment Law in Africa, to students coming from across Africa. Like many (most?) academics, moreover, I’m fairly comfortable with using information technology but I’m also — to use the technical term — a ‘noob’ in many respects. I am risk-aware and averse (probably, overly so); I always — always — think (sometimes, over-think) before I leap; and I have never viewed myself as an educational innovator, much as I admire innovators like Farshida Zafar and her colleagues at ErasmusX.

Daring to dare

Being thrown — head-first — into online-teaching has made me significantly more daring, and all for the better. I distinctly recall reviewing the existing syllabus, only to realize: there was no way I could simply ‘replicate this course’, and all its moving parts, ‘online’; but, knowing what to change and how to change it, would require a fundamental re-think.

Now, when academics re-think stuff, we typically don’t just throw things out that fail to ‘spark joy’ — or, at least, not straightaway. Like Hermione Granger, we predictably ‘rush to the library’ and revisit our trusted sources, circling back to fundamental principles. In my case, this basically meant re-reading Bloom’sTaxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing, as revised by Anderson et al. I’ll get back to Bloom in a moment. More unexpectedly, perhaps, was the realization that a fundamental re-think also presented valuable opportunities. Opportunities, for instance, to redesign aspects of the curriculum that were, to be frank, already ripe-and-ready for changes, whereas online-teaching presented concrete possibilities for making such changes with relative ease.

To give a specific example, one of the pertinent challenges in international law and global governance is to keep track of the exponential growth and influence of non-state actors, global normative schemes and non-judicial dispute settlement mechanisms, and to make sense of it all. Knowing where and how to retrieve this information online and, subsequently, to analyse it, are crucial skills to develop. Skills, however, that I’ve found in the past to be surprisingly challenging to transfer/to teach to supposedly Internet-savvy Millennials and Gen Zs. It does not work to simply direct students to the websites of, say, the World Bank (a Byzantine experience, to say the least), the Gates Foundation, Oxfam, ISO or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s Complaints Mechanism. You need to know what to look for, where and, especially, to interpret what you do not find. The virtual classroom, with its screen-sharing, breakout-rooms, online polls, etc. made it significantly easier for students to develop these skills.

Experimenting with assessment

But the most valuable opportunity presented by the disruptions of the past year, has been the opportunity to experiment. Especially, experimenting with assessment. Bloom’s Taxonomy addresses learning (objectives), teaching (instructional design) and assessment, but I have often felt that assessment gets the least attention of the trifecta in practice — especially when it comes to being ‘innovative’. Typically, assessment-design is something we get to once everything else is done; and, we tend to fall back to re-using the same assessment forms, even as our learning objectives and teaching designs are changing. For students, assignments and exams are too often mere sources of stress — and not of learning, too. For lecturers, grading and giving feedback are too often mere drags on our time and energy — and not valuable feedback-loops to strengthening learning and teaching.

In re-thinking assessment, I therefore wanted to achieve three things: (1) building-in more assessment moments throughout the course; (2) introducing new assessment forms, while looking critically at existing ones; and (3) placing greater emphasis on developing and assessing ‘meta-cognitive knowledge’ (i.e., thinking about thinking and learning-processes, generally and within oneself).

Before I get into specific examples, perhaps a quick reality-check is in order: I do not wish to create the impression that anything I describe here falls in the ‘dazzlingly brilliant/transformative’-category. It’s actually pretty mundane and incremental stuff that, especially in hindsight, seems to be common sense things that I could have (should have?) done long before our COVID-19-year-of-disruption. Yet, their impact — especially their cumulative impact — could not have been more profound.

Just ‘more work’?

On the one hand, building-in additional assessment moments creates more work. Was there also untapped potential to streamline my grading and feedback-processes? Most definitely. I used to think, for instance, that I was unable to read, review, grade or comment on anything unless I had it printed out and had a pen in my hand. It took a while to re-route those neural pathways, to be sure, but I have eventually managed to shift all these activities to digital format (even as I still have pen and paper on hand). For me, the game-changer was the two giant monitors I installed in my home-office (2020/2021’s Christmas-Valentine’s Day-Birthday-and-Mother’s Day-gift). I also bit the bullet and figured out — with the kind assistance of Google and those beautiful souls who make instructional (and free) YouTube videos — how to use the existing gradebook, rubrics and speedgrading functionalities in Canvas. I was happy about the time these things had saved — but even better was their alleviating effect on my cognitive load and overall lockdown-gloom.

On the other hand, additional assessment moments do not necessarily have to mean ‘more work’. We do not, for example, have to ‘grade everything’ for it to be meaningful. For an assessment moment to have value, I would argue, it is important to ensure the assignment is sufficiently integrated into the instructional design so that students understand why they are doing it and what they are supposed to get out of it — even if the assignment does not ‘count towards the final grade’. Also of importance is whether the assessment moment facilitates (self-) reflection and creates opportunities for providing students with (informal or formal) feedback.

‘Feedback’, as a student wrote to me in one of those emails you end up saving in a special folder, ‘is a gift’. It is, to be sure, also a gift we give ourselves. Giving feedback opens up additional opportunities for strengthening our teaching — including, where feedback reveals weaknesses, the opportunity to making crucial adjustments on-the-go.

A wild and wicked simulation

I conclude with an example that speaks to all three abovementioned objectives and demonstrates how, in my experience, experimenting with learning, teaching and assessment often involves a wild combination of careful foresight and planning, happenstance, adaptability and unintended consequences (in this instance, thankfully, mostly positive ones).

Towards the end of the course, we usually include a module on business, human rights and sustainable development that provides students with the opportunity to apply accumulated knowledge and develop skills pertinent to law, such as formulating and communicating legal advice and participating in moot-courts. In the online-version, the module’s foundation was to be formed by a wickedly complex case study that students had to work with — individually and in groups. (Creating this case study also involved some interesting — and wicked — experimentation, but that’s a story for another day.) Once familiarized with the case study, students would engage with practitioners working in the field of company-community mediation — notably, the International Finance Corporation’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman and civil society organizations like SOMO and AccountabilityCounsel. Obviously, the online format made interaction with these practitioners (based respectively in Washington D.C., The Netherlands and San Francisco (CA)) much easier to realize. Thereafter, students would participate in multiple rounds of an online company-community mediation. Finally, based on the case study analysis and subsequent mediation rounds, students had to write two arbitration-submissions: one, arguing for the community and the other, arguing for the company.

‘Are you sure you can pull all of this off?’, as more than one colleague asked me, having kindly provided their input (and by all of this, I understood they really meant: this harebrained scheme). I was not sure at all, of course; especially not of the online mediation. This uncertainty prompted me to be honest with the students — to tell them upfront that this was an experiment and that the outcomes were not guaranteed. Interestingly, as our engagement with the practitioners soon affirmed, successful outcomes were never a guarantee in practice either. Being aware of its experimental status, the students and I also agreed that this was ‘our game’. What prohibited us, therefore, to adjust its rules as we went along in order to meet our learning objectives? As co-owners of our experiment, the students proceeded by, firstly, making significant improvements to the instructions for the mediation-simulation that I had previously wracked my brains over; and, secondly, by running four fascinating mediations in which my role had been happily reduced to being the proverbial fly-on-the-breakout-rooms’-walls (frantically taking notes, on real pen and paper). We concluded this extraordinary exercise with a plenary session in which we reflected on substance, process and personal development — the teacher’s development very much included.

Educational innovation or mere survival?

Do these experiences qualify as ‘innovation’ or was it simply a matter of survival? Perhaps, to paraphrase Plato, they do share a parental-relationship. A more pertinent question for me is: What do we do with these experiences as we move back to the physical classroom (or, as I strongly suspect will happen, as we truly commit to realizing blended education at the tertiary level)? I’ll probably be thinking about this question over the (northern hemisphere’s) summer and autumn of 2021, but one thing I have already promised myself is that I would never again underestimate the value of experimental learning, teaching and assessment. And, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt (by way of Brené Brown) — I would never stop daring greatly as a teacher and a researcher. Without this, and the experimentation it facilitates, there can be no innovation.

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