Imperial College London

Longer microphone leads and faked camera presence - Sci Comm teaching innovation


Studying during the pandemic

We take a look back at some of CLCC's teaching innovations of the Autumn Term, starting with the Science Communication Unit's MSc Programmes.

It goes without saying that our habits of teaching and learning in 2020 were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. By September, each of our CLCC teaching areas and fields - Evening Classes, Horizons Teaching and the Sci Comm MSc courses - had had to undergo some major changes in their mode of delivery.

In the first of a series of articles into how that looked and worked, I asked two colleagues from the Science Communication Unit to tell us more about what they did differently in the 2020-21 Autumn Term. Dr Felicity Mellor is Course Leader MSc Science Communication and Gareth Mitchell is Lecturer in Broadcast Communication (Radio).  

What did teaching look like in Autumn 2019 and how did it compare with Autumn 2020? 

Felicity Mellor: The autumn term usually sees the department crowded with 40 to 50 enthusiastic master’s students squeezed into our main classroom. This autumn we moved our three academic modules online. With carefully choreographed small groups, we were able to keep the practical media production modules on campus, so students were still able to do some filming and use our radio studio. We also arranged for all the students to meet us briefly in Hyde Park during induction week. I think even that brief contact helped them settle in.  

Gareth Mitchell: the MSc Science Communication students have a  series of practical sessions which I run, principally interviewing one another in both audio and video and in both the studio and location setting. The main and obvious difference this year was that these exercises had to be done in a socially distanced manner - which involved, for instance, using longer cables on the microphones to enable them to interview at a distance and other practical things. Whilst the pedagogical outcomes and structure of exercises remained broadly the same, we had to allow more time for exercises to happen given the complications of teaching in this way.

What has been the greatest challenge? 

Gareth Mitchell: Keeping the students sufficiently spaced [when on-campus] and designing the exercises so that they could perform meaningful interviews whilst not coming into too close a proximity. Also choreographing the exercise so that around 32 students each week could leave and enter the department in groups without one group brushing up against another. That was a big challenge: really urging the students to stick to that schedule and choreography, which was not intuitive but essential to keep things as safe as possible. 

Felicity Mellor: I think for the students, the hardest part of online learning has been missing out on the casual conversations they have, especially with each other coming into and out of classes. What we might usually ignore as trivial, is actually very important for students being able to check their progress with each other and reassure themselves, as well as helping with group dynamics and building a sense of belonging.

For me personally, the hardest part was producing some pre-recorded videos of my lecture slides after I decided to reserve the live sessions purely for the more conversational parts of the teaching. I hate recording myself so it was torture and took a very long time, but it certainly helped with the live sessions having filleted out all the more ‘lecture-y’ material. 

Have there been any surprises? 

Gareth Mitchell: One very pleasant surprise was how open the students were. I can’t recall a single complaint from any of the students. It can’t have been very easy for them starting a new course. It wasn’t necessarily the sort of welcome to the College I would have wanted to give them: telling them when they had to arrive and asking them to leave and not hang around! A very pleasant surprise was just how well the students adapted and indeed how grateful they were for the experience. 

Felicity Mellor: There are some things that are easier online. Most obviously, everyone has their names written next to them. I hadn’t realised quite how much stress trying to match names to faces normally causes me. I’ve also been able to do activities with students using digital resources that would be difficult to set up in the normal classroom. However, we are all finding that everything is much slower online. We had anticipated this after our experiences in the summer term, yet it is still surprising how long everything takes – and this is despite it being quicker to ping people in and out of break-out rooms on Zoom than it is in the classroom. 

Can you give examples of tools or innovations which have worked well? 

Felicity Mellor: I decided to play some music at the start of each session to help bridge the awful silent Zoom-void when everyone is joining. I chose songs and music that relates to the topic of that day’s session and it has certainly helped get me in the mood. I think the students have enjoyed it too! In one session about media ethics, when we were to discuss issues around faked media content, I faked my presence on camera whilst the music was playing. When the second (real) version of me moved into shot, it made a nice point about how easy it is to create fakes these days. However, gimmicks like this aside, the core of teaching is all about getting students to think for themselves and to talk about their ideas in a focussed and structured way. Remote learning doesn’t change that at all. Despite all the time it has taken to rethink delivery for this term, in many ways, I’m doing just the same as normal. 

Gareth Mitchell: for the Science Media Production MSc, we’ve had ten students on campus every week this term, studying practical radio. A big part of their learning has been making weekly radio programmes from our studio here in the department and that has called for a fair bit of innovation due to social distancing.

We are very strictly limiting the number of students who can sit together in the studio and they have to wear face coverings when presenting. One thing we’ve learned is that different face coverings affect the voice in different ways, so we've found face coverings that give the protection but also do not interfere with the voice too much.

On occasion students want additional voices when we can't get enough people into the studio. So we've erected another microphone position outside the studio on a long microphone lead, so that a third student can contribute whilst social distancing. It’s a bit weird as they can’t see their fellow presenters but the students have adapted brilliantly and on the radio it sounds like they are all sitting there together - but I can assure you they're not!  

Another innovation to limit the number of students on campus at any one time, those who want to contribute remotely are able to via FaceTime or Zoom. It's taken a bit of re-engineering to get my laptop playing through the studio equipment to include a live guest or a student. As a tutor I’ve been learning on my own feet, about different ways that we can hack the studio to make it do things it wasn't really designed for so that we can still get the radio programmes going whilst maintaining social distancing and a safe environment.

We’ve also had a few really nice guests outside the course by having that capacity. It’s been a learning experience, it's involved various weird connectors and cables and a few fails along the way but we've made it work and we're really proud of what we've managed this term.


    What would you like to celebrate from this term?

    Felicity Mellor: The most gratifying aspect of the term has been the effort the students have put in. They all come to sessions fully prepared with lots to say. So much so we run late every session! It has been great to see the current situation converted into well-focused concentration. 

    Gareth Mitchell: I would like to celebrate, very enthusiastically, that we did get the students on campus, all of them came. It’s incredible that all of the students had some experience with our equipment in our studio sessions and those exercises went off safely. 

    I certainly celebrate the tenacity, understanding, tolerance and forbearance of the students, their good humour, their willingness to work in teams and their ability to be really forgiving of some difficult circumstances to encounter. If not too premature, I’d like to celebrate the prospect that this may be the only time that we have to conduct classes in this way!

    Thank you to Felicity and Gareth for their time and insight.

    In following features, we will discuss innovation in the three Horizons Fields of Study: Languages, Change Makers and Humanities and Social Sciences.




    Cleo Bowen

    Cleo Bowen
    Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication