During semester one 2020 to 2021, I introduced a third-year research-led module and adapted an existing second-year module that ran co-currently. For the purposes of this reflective piece I am concentrating on my third-year module. Adapting to the pandemic and developing an innovative strategy through the lens of being a disabled staff member, I created a pedagogy that worked digitally and promoted a flexible strategy towards learning (Ahearne, 2021a). Student welfare was a top priority given the unprecedented context we are in (Ahearne, 2021b). I provided all materials at the start of the semester which is considered to be best practice as an accommodation for specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia; however this method helps all students with the transition to higher education (Jacobs, Parke, Ziegler, Headleand, & De Angeli, 2020).
My courses are designed as a package whereby the sessions do not need to be accessed chronologically; this provides students with the ability to work in a non-linear way according to their own schedule. I used this approach for all of my modules but for the purpose of this article I will be concentrating on my award-winning third-year module Crime, Justice, and the Sex Industry. On this module the students engage with week one covering the socio-historical construction of sex work, then week two concentrating on the laws underpinning the sex industry. After this point the other weeks can be accessed in chronological order or as the student wishes. This is important as it gives the student a sense of the module as a whole, and gives the students control over the pace and speed at which they work through the materials. In this way the students can tailor the course content to best meet their needs and interests. This also means that students attend each class with a variety of knowledge to add to the debate.
Mihai (2020) asserts that to organize one’s course as a series of micro-learning units they must be meaningfully connected but also make sense as stand-alone lessons. This is demonstrated in my visual navigation grid below which features on the home page of my Canvas course and where I explain to students the links between each week. For example, if they wish to interrogate the issue of migrant sex work (relating to week 6) then they also need to consider stigma and violence (week 5), the contested spaces of sex work (week 8), the law and policy (week 2), and the global sex workers’ rights movement (week 11).
Students should have a sense of achievement and see their progress when completing each unit. It is also important to keep the segments brief so that students are less likely to tune out or lose their concentration (Diaz Redondo, Caerio Rodriguez, Lopez Escobar, & Fernández Vilas, 2021). I adopted the Kaiseki approach to microlearning (Mihai, 2020). The lectures were provided as short audio ‘chunks’ or segments (Major & Calandrino, 2018) that guided students through a variety of tasks such as readings and visual materials. This would be useful across a variety of programmes. Adaptability is a key feature of successful digital pedagogy during a pandemic (Brown & McCall, 2021). Online material delivered in this way provides several advantages to pre-recorded hour-long lectures.
Firstly, it acknowledges that some learners may have digital inequalities and does not assume that students have equal access to Wi-Fi, computer access, and home working provisions.
Secondly, it promotes active learning. Students are engaged, enthused, and challenged.
Thirdly, it develops student confidence. They attend seminars with a wealth of preparation leading to a high level of debate and engagement in class time (Forgrave, 2002).
Fourth, it honours principles of diversity and inclusion by acknowledging that students may have caring responsibilities and health-based reasons for engaging with materials in shorter frames of time. As a recently diagnosed dyslexic (Ahearne, 2021a) I recognize the importance of learning materials that can be accessed by students with multiple learning styles and disabilities (Jacobs et al., 2020) including a range of specific learning needs.
Flipped classroom seminars
This flipped classroom meant that seminars provided quality time to interrogate the debates which focused on policy, law, feminist perspectives, policing, and sex workers’ rights. Students repeatedly commented on how accessible this module was. The engagement figures on our virtual learning environment demonstrate the hundreds of hours that students have spent in independent study. There were 103 students registered on my module and I facilitated five seminar groups with around twenty students per group. In the Zoom classroom students were invited to contribute by using audio, video, or by using the chat box. In ice-breaker activities students were invited to share an emoji or image, and to share additional media sources and journal articles they had located. This reassured students that they could engage in a way that best met their needs, and gave anxious students the confidence to contribute. Students with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia often fear that they are not ‘academic’ enough and it is important that we account for this in our teaching by removing barriers to engaging (Jacobs et al., 2020).
I provided a plethora of weekly readings with instructions that students should choose two to three readings to bring to the seminar. I also provided an extensive reading list and the majority of materials were made digitally accessible. Students have told me that they now ‘love reading’ and have never wanted to read so much. I also provided blog posts, media clips, and a variety of visual materials such as short films and talks (Deed et al., 2014). This gave students reassurance that they had enough material to access digitally during physical library closures and studying off-campus, and also the control to choose the readings they wanted. Indeed, in the student evaluations it was mentioned many times how many sources they had access to.
The positive impact is that students have felt supported to learn through the COVID-19 crisis (Shamsuddin & Kaur, 2020). I have developed a practice where students feel reassured and empowered to meet the learning outcomes and develop a genuine passion for the subject. Diep, Zhu, Struyven, and Blieck (2017) argue that modes of blended learning rely on the teacher taking on more roles, and needing to engage the students regularly through the creation of a learning hub. Learning from this, I published weekly announcements on Canvas to signpost students through the module and ensure that they felt connected as a community (Burge, Gibson, & Gibson, 2012).
I also facilitated a Zoom research seminar on the topic of sex workers in prison and advertised a session for International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers that was facilitated by the English Collective of Prostitutes (2020). This allowed students to feel they were part of a wider learning community outside of the university and connected students with accounts of lived-experience which is integral for this area of study. Learners commented on how ‘real’ and ‘exciting’ it was. This also ‘brought to life’ the teaching of policy documents and legal frameworks.
Visual navigation grid from homepage of Canvas.
Source: All images belong to the author.
As a recently diagnosed dyslexic (Ahearne, 2021a) I am aware of the power of visual aids and navigation tools for learning (Gangwer, 2009). Students could access the weekly content through ‘Modules’ in the menu or by clicking on ‘Pages’ which lead to the homepage and grid. The grid is a cognitive shortcut for how the course can be understood, and is a useful device for reminding students of the many connecting threads between each self-contained unit. Each button on the grid was hyperlinked and pulled through to the corresponding week. This is best practice for using Canvas and is useful for marketing purposes.
The presentation of the course content in this professional visual manner also reassured students that my pedagogical considerations were thoughtfully prepared and were well judged for times of such uncertainty (Brown & McCall, 2021). This increased student confidence in having access to all of the resources and being well prepared for their assessment.
Student satisfaction and attainment
Scores for both modules via the student evaluations had scores above 4.0 with many questions scoring 4.8.
This was the first year that the module ran and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. As such I was nominated for, and won, a Faculty Learning and Teaching Student Experience Award and a Learning and Teaching Fellowship. In terms of staff workload it eased my burden by working in this front-loaded way, as the material was pre-loaded and students were attending class prepared and enthusiastic.
Whilst the pandemic was unprecedented and teachers had to rapidly shift to digital modes of delivery, this case study demonstrates the benefits and strengths of microlearning as a permanent pedagogical approach. Facilitating lectures through shorter ‘chunks’ that guide learners through a series of tasks results in a vibrant and inclusive flipped-classroom experience during seminar time. Organizing one’s course as a series of self-contained units helps students to manage their time and gives them reassurance of how the module ‘looks’ as a whole. This is evidenced by high levels of engagement and learner satisfaction demonstrable through student evaluations.