Can virtual teaching help to train accident investigators?

By Rebecca Charles - April 10, 2018

I had the opportunity to teach on one of our Masterships in January. Masterships are a new Cranfield qualification - a Master’s-level degree apprenticeship, which blends on-the-job learning with academic teaching. The module I was teaching on was delivered entirely remotely, via a live video feed through the Networked Learning group. This is essentially a TV studio that is able to live stream content in real time to students all over the country. In this particular case, some students were located in the same room with one another, and others were at home, or at different places of work. They are able to see the studio and the speaker, and also the slides that are being delivered. In addition, the students can interact by sending instant messages, and also voting. They can be split into virtual syndicate groups to enable them to carry out group tasks and interact with each other through voice, messaging and by writing directly on the slides like a virtual whiteboard.

I had never done anything like this before; I have only ever taught face-to-face, so I was sceptical, and very nervous. I find feedback so important in teaching, and the visual feedback you get when the students are in the room is invaluable. So, not being able to see the students worried me. I also use group exercises a lot in my sessions and was apprehensive about how these would work in a virtual environment. I was assured by the team that these would still work, and that there was still a good level of interaction available with the students. I prepared my slides, my exercises, and reading material, and headed down to the studio for my session.

When I arrived there was a countdown timer counting down the time the students had remaining of their lunch break. The technology was explained to me, the cameras were focused on me, I was given my microphone, and assured by Toby (the Networked Learning Director) that he wouldn’t leave my side! The countdown neared zero and we were ready to go.

After initial introductions and housekeeping, I started to get into the content of the lecture. Initially, it was strange, as I was reading the slides ahead of me rather than looking into the camera, and I couldn’t see any students. However, after a while, some instant messages started to come in from students, asking questions about the content. It was great! Very interactive. There were also a few slides where I posed questions to the students and they were able to feedback using voting buttons. Then, based on their responses, we could ask individual students to feed back to the rest of the group. It felt like a really good discussion was opening up. After a while, I started to settle into it and got a feel for what the technology could do, ably assisted by Toby and the rest of the team.

For the second half of the lecture, I presented the students with case studies that I wanted them to read and discuss in groups. They were separated into eight groups and given around ten minutes per case study to discuss in their groups what they believed the issues to be. During the discussion time, we were able to "jump in" to the different groups, listen to their discussions and interact with them directly. This was in effect like walking around the classroom, and worked superbly; better than I had expected! Getting feedback from each of the groups at the end was also very easy and worked very well. The discussion felt very natural, and most of the students contributed.

I accepted the opportunity to teach on this course as I was curious about the technology, how it would work, and how the students would interact with it. I honestly used to think that virtual teaching could not replace face-to-face teaching, especially with the type of teaching we do in the Safety and Accident Investigation Centre, which is predominantly hands-on, with simulations playing a large part. While the virtual classroom cannot (as yet!) provide accident investigators with the practical element of our teaching, I think this technology could make it easier and more cost-effective for students and practitioners to acquire the skills they need, and in turn allow us to be more flexible and inclusive in our approach to teaching.