I’m now well into the fourth year of my PhD which also happens to coincide with my fourth year of teaching undergraduate science students. With the spread of COVID-19 and social isolation measures now in place, face-to-face teaching for many primary, secondary and tertiary institutions around the world has now moved fully online with teachers having to very quickly adapt to the changing conditions.

For universities, most elements of courses have already been on-line for years – lectures are recorded and then made available online and students can complete/submit assessments on-line. However, science courses are different in that they require a compulsory face-to-face practical component. It is critical that students attend to ensure that they learn essential skills they can implement in their future careers.

It has been a whole new experience for me in the past few days trying to very quickly learn how to best use Microsoft Teams to teach my students. For the particular molecular biology course I am demonstrating in, students would previously attend a weekly four-hour face-to-face wet lab practical in addition to face-to-face lectures throughout the week. Since the second half of this term, all face-to-face teaching has ceased. Lectures get recorded and posted onto Moodle, and students now attend a weekly two-hour online/virtual lab from home because they can no longer access the teaching labs to complete the required wet lab component. In the lead-up to my first on-line lab, I have been worried about how my face-to-face teaching would translate virtually. Last Thursday was the very first trial of this new online lab structure… and we had absolutely no idea how things would go. We were all sort of going in blind because this had just never been done before for this course.

For the upcoming practical series, the students are to analyse microarray data from two different breast cancer cell lines treated with a statin drug. They look at which genes are upregulated and/or downregulated in the drug-treated cells versus untreated cells and then perform gene enrichment analyses to determine the biological or functional pathways that involve these upregulated/downregulated genes. Luckily, this was the “dry” component of the practical which can more easily be performed remotely. However, the “wet lab” component involved students picking a gene of interest from the microarray data and validating whether it was indeed upregulated/downregulated in the breast cancer cells when treated with the drug. This would have involved extracting RNA from the cells, performing reverse transcription to generate complementary DNA (cDNA) and then setting up a quantitative PCR (qPCR) to measure relative gene expression levels of that gene of interest. Doing this is now, unfortunately, not possible.

With the new two-hour on-line lab structure, the first hour of the online practical class gave students time to watch a pre-recorded introductory talk given by the course coordinator, read the protocols for the “wet lab” component and look at expected results generated from previous cohorts. During the second hour, students had the opportunity to join a live Teams group call with their demonstrator, or just post questions to their demonstrator via dedicated chat rooms.

Opting for the former option (to avoid the awkwardness of waiting for questions from my students and to maximise the use of our one-hour slot), I made a Powerpoint presentation detailing the overview/background of the practical series, went over the assessment for this practical series and also the “wet lab” protocol step-by-step. I shared my screen with all my students in the video call so they could see my presentation and surprisingly, there was great participation and engagement (although I shouldn’t really be surprised by this – I really do have a great bunch of students this term!). They were asking good questions, making fun of my late-night presentation typos, and constantly used the live chat to answer my questions and interact with me.

With the COVID-19 situation, I think we are extremely fortunate that we are living in a time that teaching/learning on-line is now an option for educators and students alike. I truly am thankful that I can still help my students remotely from home and see them through to the end of this course. I think now more than ever in these unprecedented times, any student at any stage of their education needs to know that, yes, there is somebody out there who cares about their learning, whether it be face-to-face or online.

I have been told many times by various course coordinators that demonstrators/tutors are often the closest academic contact undergraduate students will have for a particular subject simply because students interact with them on a more regular basis than lecturers. There is a respect and trust that forms in the relationship between demonstrators/tutors and their students which can lead to greater enthusiasm, engagement and improved learning/teaching experiences for everyone. Now more than ever before, I believe this to be absolutely true.

from Merlin Crossley’s blog, The Crossley Lab (in CMM every Friday)

Professor Crossley is DVC E at UNSW


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