Project reinvention: moving online

Change Makers’ student Dhanya Mahadevan shares some insights about learning online with us this year.

This post is re-blogged from the Imperial College Learning and Teaching Blog, introduced by Andrea Rialas and written by Change Makers student Dhanya Mahadevan.

The ‘Change Makers’ Imperial Horizons programme offers a range of module options that challenge students to learn and work in diverse and often new ways in their approach to global issues and the wider world. Being one of the College’s most interactive learning experiences,  moving online while retaining the social elements of the classroom has been an interesting challenge.

Below, Dhanya Mahadevan and Dr Elizabeth Hauke tell us about how the Change Makers modules have been reinvented. Dhanya Mahadevan is an intercalating medical student studying Medical Sciences with Global Health and is a student in the Change Makers third and fourth year module: Lessons From History. Dr Elizabeth Hauke is a Principle Teaching Fellow and the Change Makers Field Lead.

Headshot of Dhanya Mahadevan, Change Makers student

Dhanya Mahadevan, Change Makers student:

Change Makers modules within the Imperial Horizons and I-Explore programmes offer us the chance to study a highly interactive module parallel to our degree. Alongside opportunities to develop skills and knowledge that might not the focus of our core degrees, these modules also offer us the opportunity to meet and work alongside students from other disciplines, getting to know people that we otherwise might not meet.

This past year, with its unprecedented circumstances, caused education institutions across the nation to rethink their methods of delivering education to adapt to the pandemic safety regulations without compromising on the quality of teaching. The Change Makers transition to online learning has retained many interactive, practical and skill-based activities, and has been a positive experience. But what has happened to all the, perhaps more social, elements that go alongside a new learning experience – how have we built new relationships and looked after each other online when we’ve never met in real life?

Headshot of Dr Elizabeth Hauke, Change Makers Field Leader

Dr Elizabeth Hauke, Change Makers Field Leader:

This year has seen a complete reinvention of the Change Makers modules. We have gone back to the drawing board and designed our learning experiences from scratch – specifically to support students through this difficult period. We have retained our core values – helping students recognise and exploit their own knowledge and experience, facilitating students to work together in meaningful teams and to become confident and independent in their research and learning.

We have created a virtual classroom within which to collaborate with our students, we have produced an interactive online handbook, and we have implemented a rolling 24 hour class, with video briefings, documented discussions and multiple opportunities for live engagement to support students irrespective of their time zone, connectivity or accessibility limitations.

And we have been really pleased with how well our design has been working. We’ve gathered lots of feedback from students, we’ve learned a lot and tweaked a lot and feel really proud of the work that went into transforming our learning encounters with students.

However, we have also been aware that this is only half the story. We’ve worried and thought a lot about how our students might feel without all the informal social elements of the classroom. Greeting each other upon arrival in the classroom, waving at a friend in another team across the room, chatting about deadlines, grocery shopping or Netflix – these seemingly minor moments are critical to how we build relationships and successfully work together. And feedback from students has shown that they know what they are missing out on, and it is important.

For that reason, we’ve tried to dedicate as much effort to supporting communication and facilitating the social elements of relationship building alongside the intellectual aspects of learning in our modules. We’ve set up hundreds of Zoom rooms so that students can meet up in pairs and have in depth conversations while completing their work, we’ve switched up sessions to facilitate more in depth discussion and negotiation within teams and we’ve encouraged students to reflect on their experiences and recognise that valuable learning can occur alongside these interactions – even if it might feel a little different to studying more intensely alone.

Headshot of Dhanya Mahadevan, Change Makers student

Dhanya Mahadevan, Change Makers student:

This year I am studying the Lessons from History module which allows us to explore, in depth, various disaster events throughout history, from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to the LA Riots. The module follows regular structured cycles of three weeks and all assignments are completed in groups via Zoom. Each cycle requires initial research from which we create a structured knowledge base of everything we learn. During our second session we are given a mini quiz on the topic encouraging us to research enough so we could talk about the same topic in detail if we met our course leader at a dinner party in five years’ time! As opposed to being a stressful test, these became exciting opportunities to see how much information we had retained from our research.

We have to create a question on our topic by the third week for which we write a 250-word response. The freedom of choosing an angle has allowed us to work to our strengths, identifying aspects of the topic most interesting to us. However, writing a short essay between 5-7 people can be a challenge to coordinate – but we have worked really well as a team to come up with a great strategy. Each person plans a rough answer (e.g. in bullet point format) prior to the session. We then select the most relevant points from each member and collectively work on the essay’s flow and readability.

To change up the pace and give us more opportunities to bond as a team each cycle has been adapted slightly. For example, before Christmas we could choose any disaster event to study. We had to prepare materials and a quiz for another team, and we were given the opportunity to present our findings via any creative method. For example, my group presented our research on the War on Drugs through a ‘virtual dinner party’ with members from different countries discussing their situation and stance. With less structure and more flexibility for how we worked in this cycle, we had deeper discussions and as a result, we really got to know each other a lot more. So, whilst the pressures of deadlines in our main degrees were mounting leading up to Christmas, our Change Makers module became a relaxed, enjoyable environment I looked forward to.

The support we have been provided with at times when we’ve been feeling unwell, when the stress of our degree has been affecting our performance or when the mental health burden of external factors often associated with lockdown has been overwhelming, have been excellent and our teacher has remained an approachable and reliable point of contact. The openness of our communication really reduces the fear and stress ahead of deadlines, and often increases our chances of meeting them.

From prioritising our mental health in a trying time globally, broadening our awareness of important issues throughout history and challenging our teamwork, the Change Makers module has proven to be a rewarding experience. Having to study at home full time makes teamwork something to look forward to, and the challenges that inevitably arise from disruptive internet connections and the coinciding of other deadlines have bonded us as a group even more, facing them together with patience and communication.

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