Blog post – “You’re on mute!” New choreographies in virtual teaching and learning sessions

What does remote emergency teaching and learning look and feel like? After one frenetic week in March 2020, our connecting point became a series of ‘windows’ on a screen.

Were we looking out, or were we looking in? Unsure and undaunted, we began to learn (choreograph?) new steps and sequences which would become a pathway into a fully online world across the weeks ahead. This reflective blog seeks to share some tentative and well-intentioned steps in this new learning co-production. How do these experiences resonate with your own experiences and teaching and learning practices? Here, we begin with 'the first movement’ (online), then explore the structure, pace and dynamics of the dance and choreograph some new steps for the future.

The first movement. Online ice-breakers? Maybe!

The size of the group matters. ‘Zoom Gallery Practice’ seeks to facilitate a safe and supported online environment which is created with students through a focused discussion: what will enable fruitful learning for you in this online environment? What will you contribute to enabling the online space to be a productive learning environment for all?

As university educators, we understand that ice-breakers are learning tools if they are connected to key concepts in the course and there is an opportunity for reflection, discovery and review.

An ice-breaker that worked well was: ‘New habits in COVID?’ Students reflected on self but there was an opportunity to expand the conversation and ask: ‘How is this affecting others?’ This led to empathetic exploration relevant to the context of a social work course: ‘How is this affecting individuals, groups, communities?’ In a social work skills course, questions become deeper to explore: what kinds of ice-breakers could you use at the beginning of group formation (if at all), and how would the different stages of the groups influence the selection and use of ice-breakers?

Another learning activity linked to course learning outcomes last semester explored group work stage theory with each student group creating a ‘stadium wave’ online in the Zoom break-out rooms. Drawing on a Group Process Framework, students discussed their experiences to understand process dynamics for their future social work practice with groups. This was a fun activity and we benefitted from the natural effects of dopamine!

What is the structure and pace of this new dance?

Getting to grips with a fully online context of learning (and all student contact) involves questions such as: What are the benefits? What are the challenges? What previous experience do you have of online learning? Identify IT resources and supports. How will we as a learning group sustain ourselves and our learning over the course of the semester? The ‘virtual world’ we are in: What could possibly go wrong? What are social work ‘tools’ that we can use in this online environment?

Online time lags and mute and unmute functions can create anxiety and interrupt flow but I resist jumping in and filling in the gaps. Stillness is one of the five actions of dance. I am inspired by ‘dadirri’ meaning ‘the Deep Water Sounds’ from the Aboriginal peoples of the Daly River in the Northern Territory which attends to silence. I think of it as ‘space’, not to take control but wait, reflect and invite responses when students are ready. Trust the students. There are other things going on in COVID-19 times… one student was speaking in a low voice. I asked her to repeat what she was saying and commented that her voice was soft – she told the group that she was speaking softly so that she didn’t wake her cat who was asleep on her lap!

Engagement isn't always visible...

The units of the dance are minutes not hours, and we choreograph this into our understanding. Another movement in the dance composition is the assessment of learning and teaching. We adapt and improvise. COVID-19 offers rich material for learning. For the student group work assignment, I used this scenario which I linked to course content and learning outcomes:

“To slow the spread of COVID-19 in Australia, the Department of Health has placed limits on organised gatherings and visits to vulnerable groups. Your team has been asked by your organisation to deliver a workshop online. You want to explore complexity, bring new insights and inspire hope in troubled times. You decide the format and delivery of the presentation. Your organisation will provide technological support. The workshop will be 15-20 minutes. Please indicate what feedback will be most useful to your team.”

Questions arise about whether students are engaged in their learning in times of distraction and uncertainty. In this virtual world of ‘missing codes’ we may teach with underlying assumptions informed by both our own and others' perceptions of our students. Bring assumptions into conscious awareness. Challenge them. For example, don’t assume that if the Zoom camera is off, the student is not engaged! One student explained ‘I never have my camera on, but I am there and keeping up with my learning. I will submit my assignment tonight’ [two days before the due date.].

The visual can be a powerful cognitive-aesthetic element within the structure (frame) of the dance. There is room for interpretation. Learners have the opportunity to explore meanings in context and gain insights into how knowledge is produced. We can use Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) drawing on Abigail Housen’s research to foster critical dialogue through looking at images. Carefully selected online images that address subjects relevant to course content can develop students’ capacity to observe, question and communicate reasoning to others.

Now to the final phases of the dance.

What do ‘endings’ look like? You know that moment when everyone leaves the virtual session – a moment of disconnect and perhaps even a sense of aloneness? At the end of a series of Zooms, therefore it can be effective to ask each participant to tag someone and say ‘what I have appreciated is…’

In one of my sessions, a student tagged another and expressed ‘I have not met you before but I have appreciated hearing your voice – it is clear, strong and expressive…’ The student replied ‘no-one has said this about me before – thank you.’ An authentic moment in a virtual world.

We have learned (choreographed) some new steps and sequences but it feels more like a tap dance than Swan Lake! The catchcry “you’re on mute!” will resound for some time within choreographies of the future in higher education teaching and learning.

All members of the UQ Teaching Community are welcome to contribute a blog to be published on the ITaLI website and shared in our UQ Teaching Community Update newsletter. Contact to contribute or for more information.

Last updated:
7 September 2021