Faculty of English
Supporting hybrid teaching for seminar groups
- Group size: Mixed
- Teaching type: Undergraduate and Postgraduate
- Division: Humanities
- Subject: English
- Tools: Canvas, MS Teams, Logitech Tap Room System
In July 2020, the Director of Taught Graduate Studies, Patrick Hayes, approached the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) with some questions about the feasibility of setting up a solution to support hybrid teaching for seminar groups. This would supplement pre-recorded lectures, and deliver on the university’s stated commitment to offer in-person teaching where possible for Michaelmas term 2020.
Following a series of discussions which involved members of CTL, Patrick Hayes, Rebecca Beasley (Director of Studies, Faculty of English), Andy Davies and Jack Farrow (Humanities IT), a decision was made to purchase suitable equipment for four rooms within the English Faculty. These rooms are:
- a large lecture theatre (social distancing capacity around 25)
- a converted study space (a large room with social distancing capacity of 14 + lecturer)
- two smaller rooms (social distancing capacity 8 + lecturer).
In addition, a paid graduate assistant was nominated for each class involving hybrid learning, and trained on how to use the equipment. Their role was to troubleshoot any technical difficulties that arose (and organise technical support where necessary), as well as keep an eye on the ‘chat’ function on MS Teams and make sure remote students could hear properly and participate.
The smaller rooms were equipped with fairly standard kit, comprising a large monitor on a stand, webcam, boundary mic/speakerphone, which enabled remote participants to join the discussion with the teacher and students in the room. In order to reduce complexity for tutors, a dedicated laptop was purchased for each room to manage the link to MS Teams.
A ‘Teams Rooms’ account was set up for each room. These are project accounts with a specific licence type, which required Humanities IT to liaise with the IT Services Nexus 365 team. Once set up, this enabled the English Faculty office to schedule all meetings for the rooms, and invite all participants, obviating the need for tutors to log into MS Teams individually. Instead, they simply accessed Teams through the dedicated laptop with the specific room account (instructions were provided). Presenters were able to use Teams with all necessary features enabled, including recording (where necessary) and screen sharing.
Large lecture theatre
Due to its size, the lecture theatre was more challenging and required a slightly more elaborate conferencing system. In the end, a decision was made to purchase the Logitech ‘Tap’ system. This comprises a touchscreen console, dedicated room PC, camera with remote control movement, speaker and multiple microphone pods (these can be connected together in a series).
The Logitech system was configured to manage the camera, speaker and microphones in the room. This enabled remote participants to join the discussion with the teacher and students in the room. In addition, a lectern PC was used to manage screen sharing and recording of the sessions.
As with the smaller rooms, the ‘Teams room’ account also applied here to make the set-up as easy as possible to use for tutors.
One of the tutors who used the lecture theatre was Lorna Hutson, Merton Professor of English Literature. Lorna is a convenor for the MSt ‘A Course’ Literature, Contexts and Approaches (1550-1700), taught over Michaelmas term. This was a relatively large class with 17 students. In terms of technical assistance, training had been offered to all tutors, and graduate student assistants had been given instruction on how to use the room equipment. Lorna noted that the graduate assistants were also helpful in ensuring the participation of the remote students. Overall, the specifications of the room equipment ensured high-quality audio and video and did not present a real barrier to engagement. In fact, Lorna noted that students attended all the weekly sessions (in person or remotely); normally there would be some sickness absence, but all students were present throughout the term.
Perhaps one of the consequences of working within the constraints of the hybrid setting was that some of the pedagogical techniques – such as group work during class – were more difficult to maintain. However, with an emphasis on preparing for the seminars by engaging with prior reading (provided in the accompanying Canvas course), students were able to come to the sessions prepared and able to participate equally, whether in person or remotely.
In his role as Director of Taught Studies, Patrick’s advice to colleagues was that if more than half of the students would be attending remotely, then it was recommended to move the session fully online. This could be as a Teams meeting with any other required activities or readings directed in Canvas. But there was also scope for convenors to make their own adjustments as necessary, depending on the practicalities of the situation at hand.
Patrick emphasised that while the audibility and remote interaction enabled by the technological solution described above was by no means perfect (and a long way short of a TV-studio environment), it met the needs of a difficult situation. The approach taken was driven by three main considerations: (1) to demonstrate to MSt. students that the Faculty places high importance on meeting their teaching needs, especially the need to sustain a discursive style of seminar teaching at graduate level; (2) to involve students who were forced to self-isolate in the ongoing teaching of the course, not least to avoid repetition and/or division of classes; (3) to provide an environment through which the more informal connections between students, upon which study in Humanities subjects thrives, could continue to be made (in however qualified a manner).
Patrick also noted the importance of the graduate assistants, particularly for the large lecture theatre. They were valuable not only in ensuring that the tech worked, and for troubleshooting problems, but also in ensuring that remote participants were engaged. Patrick anticipates that this practice will continue when supporting hybrid teaching within the faculty.
- Contributed by: With many thanks to Patrick Hayes, Lorna Hutson, Andy Davies, Jack Farrow and Andy Davice.
 See https://www.onedirect.co.uk/logitech/logitech-tap-room-solution-for-microsoft-teams-large for a bundled room kit similar to the one purchased.