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    COVID Diaries: An Old (Big) Dog Can Learn New Tricks

    20 May 2020

    Across the country, millions of people are working in different ways. In response to the current situation, teaching at Harper Adams University has moved online. 

    Principal Lecturer and Programme Manager of the Agriculture Courses Dr Russell Readman, shares his experience below of working remotely.

    Following lockdown, while teaching for final year and second year modules was virtually complete, teaching for first year modules and some second year modules was scheduled to continue after Easter to complete the teaching programmes for these modules. Fortunately, I had only three remaining lectures along with tutorials to deliver, but the module was Research Methods for Agriculture – or as the students know it, the Dreaded Stats! An important subject, particularly to underpin the research project in the final year, but not an easy subject to understand, and let’s be honest, not the most exciting subject in the world either!

    Despite having taught for almost 25 years, I had no experience of remote delivery, so it was a standing start and a very steep learning curve. I couldn’t plead mitigating circumstances and ask for an extension – welcome to the real world! The end of term four days after lockdown and the students formally away for Easter was my saving grace, giving me time to adapt and learn and get to grips with new technology. Fortunately, we have an excellent eLearning Team at Harper who are able to support lecturers getting their material online.

    My initial thought was that this will be easy – I know my stuff and will have the added benefit of no interruptions from students – famous last words. Sat at home, recording lectures as voice-over PowerPoint presentations delivered to a computer screen in my office rather than to a live audience proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated. For some reason, I was suddenly more self-conscious of my delivery if I made a mistake, where this would normally be corrected or clarified on the hoof in class, for some reason this did not seem acceptable for a recorded lecture and the slide would have to be re-recorded. That is apart from the knock on the door from a delivery driver and the dog barking! You also become aware of how much you rely on face to face feedback from students in the lecture room. To gauge their level of engagement and understanding, something until it is taken away, you do not appreciate. Anyway lectures were recorded & worked answers to the tutorials were completed and made available to students on the “Hub” – our Virtual Learning Environment, with students having listened to the lectures & worked through the tutorial exercise, having the opportunity to contact me to raise any questions.

    Having worked from home as a farm business consultant in the early stages of my career, I was used to working from home. I have always retained a dedicated office at home and have never struggled with the self-discipline required to effectively work from home - my children know not to enter the office when Dad is working! In “normal times” I try to block one day a week to work from home and have always found the uninterrupted time very productive. However, working from home long term during lockdown, tied to a keyboard and screen all day is hard work. As Course Manager for Agriculture, alongside teaching, my role involves a lot of direct interaction with students. You suddenly realise how much you miss that direct interaction with students, and how it breaks up the day. Understandably a lot of students had concerns, particularly final years with research projects being completed as we went into lockdown. With students having access to me via landline, mobile, e-mail & Teams it was challenging; in the early stages of lockdown, my office was best described as a call centre. Thankfully things are now calming down.

    The use of Microsoft Teams has proved invaluable for conducting remote meetings with students, both one to one meetings and larger group meetings. The Course Committee meeting where students have the opportunity to feedback and raise any concerns so that the Course Team may address them was conducted via Teams. External Examiner Meetings with students, an integral part of the QA system at Harper, were also conducted using Teams technology and worked very well. Larger group meetings using Teams take more managing. To save on broadband width, they are normally conducted with the camera off, and again you appreciate how valuable eye contact and face-to-face feedback in a group meeting is. 

    Today I will be swapping the office for a tractor. With the weather set fine, the Harper Farm have mown first-cut silage. Due to the Covid situation, the farm is short-staffed, so I will be hauling silage. In my younger days, I did a lot of practical work on farms, but the level of technology and size of the kit is very different today compared to then. I would like to say that I would be getting a break from the computer screen – but today’s tractors have those as well!

    Stay safe, keep calm and keep farming.
    Dr Russel Readman (AKA Big Dog)
    Course Manager, Agriculture

    Read the experience of online learning from one of Russell's student's perspective, Hannah Thompson here.



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