NAS tutor and long-time educator Nick Reed reflects on weekend of ground-breaking developments in the way we are learning during lockdown.

Well, that was different! I’ve just helped teach the first virtual NAS course. We’ve been doing online learning for a decade but what made this course different was that it involved direct teaching in real time.

Following a conversation during one of the NAS Chesil Beach Protected Wreck survey days, NAS Education Manager Peta Knott and I contacted Charlotte Bolton, the National Seasearch Coordinator, to see if she would be willing to run a course for the NAS about marine life recording on wrecks. Charlotte’s response was incredibly positive and, before we knew it, we had two courses planned, one in the south at Swanage and one in the north-east in the Farne Islands.

Nick, Peta and Charlotte at Swanage Pier after the planning meeting – in days when we could go out!

Then came Covid-19! Planning phone calls changed from discussing content to the logistics of running a course during lockdown. The benefit of having two very assertive ladies on the organising team is that cancelling was not an option! The Swanage course became the national course and was translated into an online delivery method using NAS’s “GoToMeeting” account.

Over the weekend of 2nd -3rd May we ran the Seasearch Observer course for 17 participants from all over the country and the world - we even had one person logging in from Poland! And none of us had to leave our homes!

Seasearch is a marine recording programme run in conjunction between the Marine Conservation Society and the local wildlife trusts. It makes use of volunteer divers to record all aspects of the marine habitat, using a standard format. This provides a consistent approach, which helps quality assure the data collected. One of the reasons we decided to run the course is that the ethos and structure of the Seasearch programme very closely mirrors what the NAS and our education programme tries to achieve. With the threat to the marine environment increasing and resources decreasing it seems logical to develop a more collaborative and integrated approach.

Although we ran the standard Observer course, we had modified it to have more of a wreck focus and to highlight how we could use the techniques to enhance an archaeological survey.

I’ve been involved in education for much of my working life, but this is the first time I’ve been involved in a “virtual” teaching session. Surprisingly, it was really enjoyable. After an initial feeling of apprehension, I soon dropped into my normal teaching mode, even to the extent of waving my arms about to emphasise a point. It was odd not being able to walk about – very difficult when you’re attached to a headset and microphone, connected to your computer!

The hardest thing was not being able to judge how you were doing by looking at peoples’ expressions and body language. With sound muted and webcams turned off during the presentations, there were times when it felt like you were talking to yourself (it took me back to my time teaching unresponsive year 10s science on a Friday afternoon!)

What made things successful was having Peta coordinating the technology. As she was familiar with the system she looked after switching webcams on and off, muting microphones and sharing screens. She also looked after coordinating the questions that people asked in the online chat box. The “your screen’s working and we can hear you” at the start of each session was reassuring. Perhaps we need a NAS Maritime Archaeology Course on “Being a virtual host”.

Initial feedback from the participants has been really positive. People seemed to enjoy it and found the day useful. Apart from the fact that questions etc were largely typed, the discussions were as lively and engaged as a normal in-person course.

So, is this the new normal? I certainly hope not. For me, the beauty of being an NAS member is getting involved practically and being enthused by the interaction with like-minded individuals. Over the last few years, I’ve met fellow members who have become good friends. It’s often the informal interaction during breaks, or after fieldwork has finished, that generates the most interesting discussions and ideas. Even though I think the course was successful, it was this aspect of a course that I missed and it’s an aspect I wouldn’t want to lose.

Is this part of the new normal? I certainly hope so. For many people in academia and business, the virtual world of teleconferences and webinars etc has become commonplace. However, for many of us, it’s a whole new world and it offers many exciting opportunities.

The beauty of the Seasearch course was that we delivered it to people all over the country (and indeed internationally). If a course is run at a specific location it takes at least a whole day, with all the implications of travel and time commitments that that entails. By modifying the course timetable for online delivery, we were able to split it into two shortish days, allowing people to do other things during the day. The online delivery of courses is very similar to the CovED Talks and IJNA webinars. By removing the need to be at a specific location we can provide short but focussed pieces of work that can fit around people’s normal working lives.

One of the issues of running an international organisation such as NAS is coordinating members. Making greater use of the remote working technology would facilitate this. Instead of meeting once a month at a location, regional groups could have virtual meetings and presentations. Planning of projects could be carried out more collaboratively and disseminated more widely. Special interest groups (e.g. ordnance or wooden ship structure) could develop whereby members use teleconferencing to discuss ideas and share knowledge.

Ignoring the technology aspect of the weekend, I would hope that the collaboration between organisations and sharing of ideas, skills and techniques, is part of this “new normal”. Problems are rarely one dimensional. By working together and taking an integrated look at the issues facing us, we can often achieve more than working in our individual silos.

I think everyone came away from the weekend having learnt a lot, even the tutors. The challenge now is to see how we can carry our newly found knowledge and techniques forward. After all, “Discovery is only the beginning”.