Lockdown learning

"I've been working from the attic - but I've probably attended more talks and lectures than I would have done before!"

What has lockdown learning been like for students at the Faculty of Education?

PhD student Kristi Nourie was supposed to be heading to Kansas for fieldwork when lockdown happened. Instead, she has spent the past few months working in her attic. But as she explains in this interview, there have been positive sides to the experience – as more talks and lectures have become available online and the Faculty has devised new ways to support students during teaching sessions on Zoom.

Before coming to the Faculty, I taught secondary English in the US for 19 years

At the end of my third year of teaching, I had what turned out to be a career-changing opportunity to develop a new course for incoming students who were reading several years below grade level. This reignited my interest in literacy and I enrolled on a graduate programme while continuing to work full time. In 2008 I completed my MEd in Literacy Studies and over the next few years worked with two brilliant maths teachers to create a successful literacy and numeracy programme for struggling students. In 2014, I was appointed to serve as my state’s PK-12 Literacy Policy Analyst for the National Council of Teachers of English and that led me to Cambridge, initially to study for an MPhil in Educational Leadership and School improvement. As well as working with world-class academics, I valued being part of a close-knit cohort. It made the academic and social transition to Cambridge hugely enjoyable, which led me to start a PhD here in 2018.

My PhD focuses on the use of electronic textbooks

Electronic textbooks are full-length, interactive textbooks that can be accessed online. They include purpose-built tools that give teachers and students opportunities to extend the collaborative learning environment outside the classroom and alongside the relevant text. But this is relatively new technology that implies some pretty significant changes to teaching and learning if it is to become more than just a digital version of the paper textbook. I’m looking at how secondary science teachers and students use the tools in electronic textbooks to support student engagement with a text, and how each group influences the other’s use of those tools.

I was due to be carrying out research in Kansas when the COVID-19 outbreak began

In January, I secured a study arrangement a school in Kansas and began remote data collection from my home in the UK. I planned to visit the school in late April to conduct interviews with teachers and students. In early March, a teacher from the school contacted me to say that they did not anticipate returning after spring break. Five days before the UK lockdown, Kansas became the first US state to end in-person classes for the remainder of the school year. I was incredibly fortunate that the school I was working with has spent the past decade integrating technology into its teaching and learning and was in a position to transition to online classes. That change meant I had to redesign my study using different methods that could still provide the information I needed to answer my research questions. I was able to work with the participating teachers and administrators to get everything to the right people and to complete my data collection.

Since lockdown, I’ve been working in my attic!

There’s no door but it’s a quiet and private place to work – and because I don’t normally go up there it’s a bit easier to physically separate my work and home lives. After checking emails and setting a few goals for the day, I break the rest into 90-minute chunks with breaks in between. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I review data from my study in the mornings and spend the afternoons making notes in my fieldwork diary or sending and responding to messages related to the study. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I usually spend the mornings reading and the afternoons writing. I always end my working day promptly at 5pm as I have a daily video call with my 10-year-old niece in the US. It’s a great way to make sure I actually stop working and make the mental transition from work back to home.

I have probably attended more talks and lectures in lockdown than I would have done before

As a second-year student I wouldn’t normally have received much teaching this year anyway. Because I work in private settings and live about an hour from the Faculty, I would usually skip talks and lectures that sounded interesting but were short. With those now available online, I can attend a one-hour session and then get straight back to work without feeling like I have to spend the weekend making up for lost time.

We’ve been using breakout rooms on Zoom, which has really enhanced our online lectures

Teaching assistants (like me) have been able to support small group discussions by joining one group for a few minutes before moving to another, much as would happen if we were doing it in person. The chat function has been important, too, because it allows us to feed small group progress and questions back to the lecturer, and to help participants clarify their question and ensure they feel it has been answered. There were some early logistical problems with larger groups, but the Faculty’s IT team and the lecturer were incredibly quick to respond. The only challenge we have now is video delays when people talk over one another, but people are learning that’s part of the environment and are good about yielding to others.

I’m looking forward to hearing the chatter of the Faculty when it reopens

There’s always a buzz of people talking no matter where I am in the building. Sometimes it’s just quick greetings, other times it’s spontaneous chats or planned meetings, but it’s the surest sign of life at the Faculty.

My advice for new students would be figure out the schedule that works for YOU and stick to it.

Not everyone is productive during the same hours, so figure out when you like to read, when you’re able to write, and when you need a social boost or mental break to keep going. Second, find a buddy – or better yet, a critical friendship group. You will probably need someone to keep you accountable who will provide feedback on your work before it gets to your supervisor. Third, ask your supervisor(s) and research group chair(s) how they have facilitated working and learning remotely so far, and what they are planning to implement. It’s through these groups that you will meet critical friends who will help you grow throughout your studies, so it’s important to know!