David Dye, Professor of Metallurgy, Department of Materials

We became aware of the College’s decision to move to remote learning at 7pm on Fri 13th March, just days before the series of MEng research project seminars scheduled for the following Wed – Fri.   These involve our 4th year MEng students presenting their projects to staff and interested department members at open-invite seminars.  By later that evening we’d figured out how to run them by videoconference and chosen to set this up in Microsoft Teams.  On one level this wasn’t that big a deal because most students and staff are used to using FaceTime or conducting research collaboration meetings over Skype / Zoom / Bluejeans or project catch-ups with partners in industry over Webex.  But to commit at such short notice to transitioning 55 staff and 70 students to do this assessment via six virtual seminars felt bold at the time.

 We decided that Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) would facilitate the presentation sessions, so on the Monday, from a cafe in Ealing, I trained them in how to do this using MS Teams.  They then ran pre-seminar virtual drop-in workshops with the students to enable them to practise exchanging control, sharing Powerpoint screens etc.   Between Wed and Fri, the GTAs then ran the presentation sessions, separating the “tech support” from the “chair” roles.  Each student gave an approx. 10 min talk on their research results-in-progress with time for a lively Q&A after.  The presentations were really very professional; as good or better than when we do similar meetings with global teams at Rolls-Royce, with less overall technological hitches during the seminar. The research quality and enthusiasm of the students were both really impressive.  Students were very happy that it all worked for them; that they were able to present their ideas and be heard.  This was especially remarkable as some had just flown back to China and were in quarantine, whilst others were in rural locations in the UK.

 As contingency for potentially unreliable video links to students around the world, student presentations were uploaded in advance to Blackboard.  This would enable GTAs running the session to source these PowerPoints and facilitate an audio-only student presentation, if needed, with a student calling out ’slide 10 please’ etc. In practice we didn’t need it, the internet is now that good, but still, its good practice to avoid *needing* real time video links, if at all possible.

 The presentations are worth 10% of the project (about 1% of the degree). This summative assessment was conducted as in the face to face format; the panel of staff marking filled in their own score sheets during the students’ talks, as normal, and then met afterwards to reconcile marks and feedback which was then provided to individual students via Blackboard.  

 The additional benefit of having trained 12 PhD GTAs, 55 staff and our MEng cohort on video conferencing with MS Teams, more-or-less overnight, was that we convinced ourselves as a staff group that we could successfully meet the challenge of teaching and meeting remotely using web conferencing.  We have since trained the first year with end-of-term tutorials.  Beyond providing a successful presentation experience for our 4th year students, this activity really helped us to make the transition to remote learning, before term ended, and therefore made us much more confident about the coming term.

On Wednesday, I presented the research I've completed for my Masters project on thermoresponsive gels, a type of smart material that can be used in a range of applications, including drug delivery, tissue engineering and 3D printing. We completed the presentation remotely in the format of a webinar, which ran incredibly smoothly and was great fun. I think it's really positive for students to have experienced presenting in this way before leaving university, so thank you to the staff and GTAs that made this possible!"

Amy Tall

4th year student

I can say that it was really impressive how the students adapted to the situation. Being able to convey enthusiasm for a subject online is an impressive skill that all the students in our session all mastered. Giving a talk in front of a crowd, it is obvious that one needs to project their voice but being able to talk into a screen and keep the viewer entertained is very different, but certainly an important skill now"

Julian Jones

Professor of Biomaterials