As universities in the UK and Ireland grapple with the realities of teaching during a pandemic, Australian lecturer Sara Kyne shares her experiences of welcoming first-year chemistry students

A photo of a student with a face mask studying on a laptop and mobile phone in a park

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Learning in the time of Covid – how an Australian university is teaching its chemistry students online

The Australian summer of 2020 was characterised by the worst wildfire season the country has ever recorded – and Covid-19 spreading across the world. Since then, universities around the world have made it either to the end of their academic year (northern hemisphere) or through at least one semester (southern hemisphere). Much of what we’ve learned has already been collated in a special issue of the Journal of Chemical Education, Insights gained while teaching chemistry in the time of Covid-19. This is my reflection on how we adapted at Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia.

Australian universities start the academic year in early March, and at our research-intensive university we have more than 85,000 students enrolled across multiple national and international campuses. As the first-year chemistry undergraduate coordinator, I am responsible for a cohort of more than 1300 students, the majority of whom were about to begin their first semester when Covid-19 reached our shores. The university made the snap decision to move all teaching online – with only two weeks’ notice.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown, our blended learning model consisted each week of:

  • Interactive eBook (workbook) delivered on virtual learning environment (VLE)
  • Online preparation quiz (low stakes)
  • Active learning workshops (face-to-face)
  • Problem-solving tutorial (face-to-face)
  • Online pre-laboratory quiz (low stakes)
  • Laboratory (face-to-face)

With the decision to move online, we needed to make significant changes to our delivery, while leveraging the carefully curated parts of our blended learning model. All our online activities could be used, but in addition we needed to create a mixture of synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (delayed time) activities. We converted workshops to pre-recorded interactive lecture videos (asynchronous), but conducted tutorials in real-time (synchronous). For our laboratories, we recorded the experimental procedure in a video (asynchronous) and ran a real-time teaching assistant led session (synchronous). These sessions had a set structure including introduction to the experiment, question and answer on experiment, techniques and concepts, a student-led group discussion, followed by feedback on previous laboratory experiments and time for one-on-one feedback if wanted.

While we encouraged students to attend the synchronous sessions, these were not compulsory and therefore we produced a recorded equivalent that students could refer to in their own time. At the end of each week we produced ‘round-up’ videos to answer student questions and summarise the weekly content.

Laboratory assessment due dates were extended from one to two weeks after the class. This allowed students that could not attend synchronous laboratory session time to review the recordings, ask questions and receive responses, for example on the VLE discussion forum.

Tips for lecturers during Covid

From our experiences at Monash University, here are a few suggestions I’d like to share with those of you in the northern hemisphere who are starting the academic year. We all know that the transition between secondary school and university is challenging, but this is heightened by our current situation – and we’re all learning how to deal with it.

  • Remember first year students with no previous experience of higher education do not know what ‘normal’ is.
  • Stress and anxiety are already prevalent across student cohorts, and the Covid-19 pandemic adds to this.
  • Be empathetic and reassuring with your students.
  • Communicate with students frequently and in a variety of formats, such as weekly announcements, bulleted ‘to-do lists’, discussion forums.
  • Many students will be feeling isolated. Provide them with ways to informally interact with their peers, for example with message boards, discussion forums and video (ie after synchronous classes).
  • Offer flexibility if and where you can as part of your delivery.

Supporting students

Understandably, the students needed considerable support, over and above the extensive support provided during their transition from secondary school to tertiary education. We also had the added challenge of supporting students to transition to learn remotely and online.

We updated and supplemented all our existing induction materials to specifically address the online model the students were starting. For example, a new welcome video took students through what we knew at the time about their online experience for the semester. We also remodelled our introductory quiz. Together with the video it helped familiarise students with the module.

Fortuitously, as part of our module development, we had prepared a week-long bridging course to be completed online prior to the start of the semester. This helped students familiarise themselves with the module, set the scene and revise chemistry basics before the start of semester.

As our students were unable to attend our laboratories in person, we produced a 360° laboratory induction tour. This allowed students to explore the 360° panorama of the laboratory, move through the space and view annotations of instruments and equipment. They then completed a related health and safety quiz.

Supporting staff

It was not just students that needed additional support with the transition to 100% online teaching. Our staff (myself included) needed to upskill rapidly. Academics delivering the teaching materials needed training and support on how to record, edit, produce and upload their lecture videos. This involved discussions around structure, best practice, and how to be creative to maintain interactivity in the videos. We trained and supported academics and graduate teaching assistants to deliver online Zoom sessions for both tutorials and laboratories. This support included a user guide, two one-hour training sessions on how to use the platform, including shared whiteboards and breakout rooms, and a discussion on how to foster peer collaboration. We also provided our teaching assistants with a structure for the sessions to help improve consistency. We held additional one-on-one sessions with academics and teaching associates.

What will our post-pandemic blended learning model look like? At the moment, we don’t know, but hopefully through our own experiences, and that of the chemistry education community across the globe, we can take this unexpected situation, and use it as a driver to make positive change to student’s learning experiences in the future.