Tales from the Digital Classroom: Teaching and Learning in Uncertain Times

Virtual conference providing an opportunity to share stories and experience of remote learning to reflect, inspire and harness uncertainty

About this Event

We look forward to welcoming you to our online teaching and learning conference on Thursday 2 July delivered on Blackboard Collaborate.

The conference aims to:

  • Share practice in use of online tools and techniques
  • Share stories and experiences of online teaching in order to: reflect, inspire, learn together, encourage experimentation, harness uncertainly and learn from mistakes

Session outline:

  • Introduction to the conference, 9.30am – 9.40am, Sarah Davies (BILT Director).
  • Morning keynote, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’, 9.40am – 10.40am, Prof. Simon Usherwood (Univeristy of Surrey).
  • Break, 10.40am – 11am.
  • Parallel sessions, ‘Tales from the Digital Classroom’ (12 x 15 minute sessions across two Collaborate rooms), 11am – 12.30pm, various contributors.
  • Lunch, 12.30pm – 1.30pm.*
  • Afternoon keynote, ‘It’s not about technology; it’s about paradigms’, 1.30pm – 2.30pm, Prof. Tansy Jessop (University of Bristol).
  • Break, 1.30pm – 1.40pm.
  • Parallel sessions, 2.40pm – 3.40pm:
  • Workshop: ‘Games and playfulness in online teaching’, Suzi Wells and Chrysanthi Tseloudi. 
  • Session with the BILT Student Fellows (details TBC).
  • Closing remarks, 3.40pm – 4pm, Sarah Davies (BILT Director).

View the complete conference schedule with abstracts and bios here.

*An asynchronous session will be available during this time, in which we ask conference delegates to share their experience of online teaching. Details will be included in conference joining instructions.


Addressing disparities and the shadow pandemic

As universities continue to be affected by the Covid-19 situation, colleagues are asked to redesign the curriculum for online and blended learning, as well as continue other academic duties remotely. Much of the conversation focuses on this stressful experience for staff, the time pressure to transform our curriculum, and how these changes dramatically impact the student experience. In this frayed situation, we can already see how the pandemic is causing greater societal disparities, such as a gender divide in academic publication rates (Fazackery 2020; Flaherty 2020), and disparities for BAME* staff and students (Singh 2020). 

*Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicities 

The Shadow Pandemic 

A recent article from Inside Higher Ed describes a ‘Shadow Pandemic’, how Covid-19 has exacerbated xenophobia, racism and discrimination (Venkat Mani 2020). While the piece concerns the particular social context in the USA, it is worth reading as it pushes us to be active in how we respond to this Shadow Pandemic, rather than complacently relying on top level leadership.  

To address this issue, here are some inclusive teaching principles to consider in your practice drawn from an AdvanceHE presentation by Jess Moody

  • No one should be left behind – identify our most vulnerable groups 
  • Do no more harm – don’t compound existing structural inequalities in the crisis 
  • Be transparent and flexible 
  • Make sure you understand the impact of your decisions 

Further resources are listed below. 

BAME support 

When reworking your curriculum, you can support BAME inclusion and success by following guidance available on the grp-BME Success Sharepoint site. The site includes a helpful inclusion guide that features practical examples to support BAME students in all aspects of their student experience. Recommended steps that staff can take include: 

  • Read up to date materials regarding under-represented groups in Higher Education 
  • Appreciate BAME Students may have different experiences and needs 
  • Establish ways for students to interact with other students from different backgrounds 
  • Extend beyond European culture or history to include a wider view of the world 

There’s also information on the BAME Success Programme and nominated Success Advocates for each faculty who are available to support you. 

We have also produced a blog post summarising top guidance from AdvancedHE on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). The piece was written by one of the Success Advocates, Samya Sarfaraz, who notes that the eight themes of EDI is a useful framework for all disciplines. It helps us see where our practice is strongest and where more work still needs to be done. 

It’s worth noting that not everyone agrees with the use of the acronym BAME. One of our University of Bristol academics, Dr Foluke Ifejola Adebisi, writes this useful prompt on how we might consider other terminology “The Only Accurate Part of ‘BAME’ is the ‘and’…”. In the writing of this blog, I’ve chosen to include the term BAME as it is the term currently employed throughout our university systems and guidance. When engaging with contemporary issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement, BAME becomes a less appropriate term that can obfuscate appropriate responses to and understandings of lived Black experiences.  

Maintaining integrity through adversary 

In March 2020, the Bristol Medical School became the first in the UK to adopt a new BAME charter to address racial harassment. In May 2020, the University of Bristol achieved Silver and Bronze Athena SWAN awards in recognition of its progress on gender equality. Many of our staff are leaders in equality and diversity, yet this progress is put at risk because of the pressures caused by the pandemic. 

It’s difficult to be asked to consider the complexities of social inequalities when we are under pressure. However, it is important that this time of stress does not further negatively impact the most vulnerable or disenfranchised in our institutions. Before, during and after the pandemic, we should have pride in our ability to ensure equitability for all.  

If you haven’t already, our Digital Design course includes a session on designing inclusively. You can take the course asynchronously in August – sign up here. Staff who would like a refresher on the session are welcome to take the course again.  

 Dr Aisling (Ash) Tierney – a.tierney@bristol.ac.uk  


Teaching Stories

The Civic University Online

A few months ago, I wrote a blogpost on urban spaces and the concept of the civic university. This topic is now reconsidered in the context a pandemic-affected world and has led me to ask some questions: what do civic teaching and learning activities look like in digital-only contexts? How can we engage our online practice with our city in meaningful ways?

‘How can students collect data and research without leaving the house?’

Data collection allows students to practice primary research (e.g. photographs, observations, air quality monitors, etc.). In digital-only settings, primary data collection could include online polls, questionnaires and crowdsourcing data from the public.  If you’re planning this, you’ll need to get ethical approval – you can find guidance, links and online ethics tools on this website.

The benefits of using primary data collection include improved confidence in handling primary data and conducting research, and transferable skills development through the process of data collection design and methodologies for data analysis.

If these options don’t fit your teaching context, use of secondary data is a great alternative while still allowing your students to respond to locally-relevant questions for the City of Bristol. A host of third-party data can be included as raw materials for teaching activities.

A good starting point to find this information is the Open Data Bristol website that is populated with data collected predominantly by Bristol City Council. Topics covered include transport, planning, housing, population, geography, democracy, energy, economy and education. This data can be compared against national datasets, such as the Centre for Cities that has a visual “cities data tool” alongside downloadable raw data.If you’re considering the use of historical information, you can find visualised historic maps of the city from 1746 via Know Your Place. This site is populated with crowd-sourced data, and your students can also contribute to the site directly.

Cities Data Tool website layout

If you’re considering the use of historical information, you can find visualised historic maps of the city from 1746 via Know Your Place. This site is populated with crowd-sourced data, and your students can also contribute to the site directly.

Know Your Place website layout

How can we communicate and reach out to communities during this period?

In 2019, the University of Bristol was one of 31 institutions to sign the The Civic University Agreement. One of its leading ambitions is to understand the local population and ask them what they want. Outward-facing engagement can take many different forms, such as festivals, public talks, exhibitions, research papers, blogs, videos, school educational events and resource development with many disciplines already engaging outreach activities as part of their degree programmes. Ideally, these projects employ two-way communication and co-collaboration – co-creating with the community, rather than at the community.

How can we embed this ethos into our teaching practice when we are constrained to the digital world? At this pandemic juncture, how do we adjust our teaching and learning approaches to be responsive to the current crisis, while also preparing students for a post-pandemic world?

We also need to consider equitability. How confident are we that the communities we engage with all have equal access to digital devices and reliable internet? If we only communicate digitally, does this exclude parts of the community? How can we circumvent these issues? These are questions that can be contextually situated within your degree programme, to fit your disciplinary boundaries and existing methods, and serve as critical prompts for your students to grapple with.

It’s worth noting that one of the recommendations made in the civic university agreement is to remove the suggestions that local research is inferior to international research. We can ask ourselves, is this something that implicitly or explicitly emerges in our teaching? Do we teach our students to value our civic ethos?

How does this relate to the curriculum framework? 

The University of Bristol’s curriculum framework includes six dimensions, one of which is global and civic engagement. We can see how this can take shape from both teachers’ and student’s perspectives: 

Ideas for what teachers can do Ideas for what students can do 
Make links to community projects and identifies opportunities for student involvement Work with stakeholders, identifies needs and contributes to novel solutions 
Partner with civic organisations for social good and mutual benefit, expanding and applying knowledge Participate in engagement opportunities such as careers fairs and internships 
Develop ‘live briefs’ with external clients for student participation Commit to actions and behaviours which align with values 
Teach about disciplinary conundrums and breakthroughs in relation to global challenges Sign up to relevant Bristol Futures units  
Work with employers, SMEs and voluntary organisations to shape aspects of the curriculum Conduct research related to grand challenges  
Create research projects which use the city as a lab for innovation Volunteer and feed external learning into curriculum outcomes 
Global and Civic Engagement for teachers and students

Civic curriculum thematics and activities that resonate with the city of Bristol provide our students with opportunities to apply their knowledge to real world problems. This civic platform enables students to explore their local environment and communities in engaged ways, offering opportunities for them to make a difference.  

Dr Aisling (Ash) Tierney – a.tierney@bristol.ac.uk  

News, Student Voice

Out of the ordinary: Tips to create authentic online teaching and learning

 “The value of authentic activity is not constrained to learning in real-life locations and practice, but that the benefits of authentic activity can be realized through careful design of Web-based learning environments.” – Lombardi  

Well, I can safely say this is not how I thought I’d be spending my year but the quest for authentic learning continues. As we all struggle to get our learning and teaching online, I’ve created a handy guide on how to do authentic learning and teaching via the magical medium of the internet. It bears noting that although many of us would rather return to life, as usual, this is a time of considerable opportunity to change the way we teach and learn. The traditional format of lectures and seminars has been broken down and if ever there were a time to try something new, it is now. 

Real-world relevance is critical for authentic learning, but it is important not to fall into the trap of making everything about coronavirus. Now is an excellent time for using studying as a form of escapism. However, it is also an excellent time to be teaching about adaptability and how to manage a crisis. 

Using stakeholders has become tricky and nearly impossible. With many organisations furloughing their staff, now is not the best time for partnerships but to give an authentic experience, stakeholders can be imaginary. This can be anything from an imaginary business giving them a task, or more broadly how would they tackle an issue and who would it affect. For the unit Managing and Evaluating Development, students usually partner with NGOs, but now are being asked to create their own business plan to start up their own organisation. This allows students to create their own value and assess what is important to them and wider society. 

Working collaboratively is something that is now more crucial than ever. Social distancing can be lonely and feeling disconnected from your peers can be very isolating. Giving students an incentive to have regular communication with their classmates, be that via video call, normal call or even email, is an excellent way to not only improve their collaboration skills but also to maintain a sense of community. Also; as online communication is increasingly looking like the future of work, collaborating via online platforms is a crucial way of improving these skills. 

It is also crucial that while the contact hours have been limited that students are given the opportunity to feedback and that lecturers can monitor their progress to ensure that students are sustaining their levels of investigation. The Social Innovation Programme run by Bristol Hub has been doing this using a Gantt Chart and tools such as Trello. This is a way of including teaching soft skills and letting students visualise their progress, along with making sure that students are continuing with their work even if they are away from campus. 

Although lockdown has it’s challenges, it provides students and staff alike with a lot of time. This time can be useful for reflection: what is going well, how do students feel their course has been affected, what could be improved. Coming out of the Easter holidays, students may find it helpful to consider what they have already learnt and how this can be applied to the final term of the year. By allowing opportunities for continuous reflection, students are placed in a position to make more informed choices about their learning, along with communicating the value more effectively. In other words, authentic learning gold. 

Given the unusual circumstances of the entire year, students may feel inclined to stick to the reading list like glue as it’s no secret that many students are driven by their academic results. However, now is not the time for conventional teaching, and by encouraging students to look at multiple sources and perspectives outside of normal reading can help to rekindle students love of their subject, in a time where they are probably not thinking about how History of Art has changed their life. By encouraging them to find sources and perspectives which students have found themselves and are therefore likely to be genuinely interested in, it can also help to cultivate a good online discussion- students (and staff) may be nervous in online group discussions so having something that they have found can be a useful starting point. 

The final way in which you can help to make online teaching more authentic is by asking students what they want to be learning. What do they want the rest of the term to look like? Are students more interested in mimicking traditional seminar formats online, or would they rather have asynchronous teaching using videos and podcasts? By asking students how they want to learn, it allows them to reflect on their learning process and think about the subjects they are particularly curious about. It also shows an acceptance that this is not business as usual; not everything about online teaching will work for every student but it is crucial to find a format that allows everyone to engage, even if it’s not in a way in which they are used to. 

I hope that this has been helpful, or at the very least food for thought. I would love to hear from students and lecturers alike, how would you change online learning and teaching? What would work for you? What do you want from the final term of this year?

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

News, Student Voice

Teaching Beyond the Firewall

Bristol is fortunate enough to have a large population of international students, many of whom come from mainland China. Given the new form of online teaching, this presents some significant challenges in terms of the firewall. Platforms such as Skype, Zoom, Whatsapp and Google are all blocked meaning that online teaching can become extremely challenging. 

Asynchronous Teaching

The difference in time zone is a significant challenge and as many of the instant messaging services are blocked, sometimes this calls for a more staggered approach to teaching. Asynchronous teaching has many benefits; as your time is not spent giving lectures, it frees up some space for feedback on individual or group work. 


For asynchronous teaching discussions, there are two key ways that students can participate beyond both the firewall and the time zone. Mini-podcasts are an excellent way that students can practice speaking while constructing an argument and still engage with the reading material. Using their phones or online voice recorders they can use audacity to merge and edit a podcast that you can listen to and give feedback. Set a time limit to ensure that they give clear arguments (and so that lecturers have enough time). They should be able to email this to you via Outlook, which is not currently blocked in China. 

Videos are another way to teach in a way that allows students to speak and share their point of view. This can sometimes be harder to share due to the size of the file but can allow for more innovation. Some universities have used videos to gamify asynchronous teaching by creating mini competitions. Who can make the best argument using three props? Explain the reading using an animation or infographic. 

Don’t be afraid of voice notes! 

Many people already use voice notes in place of text. In a time of isolation, hearing a voice can make a big impact both on a students learning experience and their wellbeing. Having an endless influx of emails can be overwhelming, especially when there is such an influx of bad news. Hearing a familiar voice helps to connect to the material, as well as being a nice change of pace. 

Chinese social media

China has a range of social media that is free and downloadable in the UK. WeChat is by far the most popular and will allow you to talk to the vast majority of your Chinese students instantaneously. It also has video and call functions so it will also allow for meetings if students want one on one meetings. 

Understandably, not everyone is willing to download WeChat onto their phone but in terms of immediate communication, this is one of the easiest forms. 

Tencent Video- If you’re wanting to share video content, Tencent Video is the king of Chinese video streaming. It works in essentially the same way as YouTube but has the added benefit of fun interactive games. 

Ask your students

Although the information provided here will give a variety of options different people will want different things from their learning. Sending out a poll is a good way to decide what works for the majority of students and they may have ideas that work for teachers and students alike. In a time of crisis, it is important that students feel like they are being heard so offering avenues that they can reach out is a crucial way to make sure teaching is effective and students feel valued, even if they are 10,000 miles away.

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow


‘Daily Digital’ with PVC-Education, Tansy Jessop

From Thursday 19th March Professor Tansy Jessop, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education, will host a short “daily digital” on a range of themes relating to online learning and teaching. Tansy will be joined by a number of colleagues, including from BILT and the Digital Education Office, on this digital journey. Topics will include building pedagogic relationships, facilitating discussion, personal tutoring and supervision, co-creation with students, assessment and more.

What is the daily digital?

On some days the “daily digital” will be a short live event.  Live sessions will be recorded so you can catch up later if you can’t make them.

On other days there will be opportunities to engage asynchronously, for example to review a short video or reading and then join an ongoing online discussion.

How long will it take me?

Each “Daily Digital” should take you between 15 and 30 minutes.  

When does it start?

The programme starts with a live session on Thursday 19th March at 10am, and will last 7 working days.

How can I access it?

The “Daily Digital” will take place in Blackboard.  We invite you to enrol on the Blackboard space for full access to the programme.  (Content will be released over the 7 days)

Enrol on the Blackboard Daily Digital space

Alternatively use the following link to access the first live session, which will take place in Blackboard Collaborate.

Guest link to the webinar  

For the live sessions please ensure that you have headphones or sound enabled. Chrome is the recommended browser.