Going Digital – A brutally honest account, by Ekant Veer

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Let me start by saying UC needs a more effective digital presence – even if all our key first year papers went digital next year we’ll still be playing catch-up to make institutions around the world.  I am definitely on the side of a more effective digital presence that complements and supplements our in-class presence (not replaces it – I still want a job, after all!).  HOWEVER, Going Digital isn’t just a matter of flicking a switch and making students watch Echo recordings – for me, it requires a fundamental shift in your understanding of how digital students engage with materials and how best to support them.  This is my brutally honest account of the going digital process with Marketing Principles (MKTG100) – we still haven’t launched the digital course – so I’m going to focus more on the early stages of digitisation in this post – maybe I’ll be back in a few months’ time to tell you it all turned to crap and we should run for the hills – let’s see!

Full of Fervour
I’ve been wanting to do more digital offerings for some time now.  I see the benefit of it not just as a means of reaching new students but also as a way of supporting our on-campus learning experience.  I decided I wanted to be the change I wanted to see in the world and digitise one of my papers.  Not just provide online slides, but create an entire virtual delivery – something crazy, just to show that it can be done.  I wanted all student engagement, course content, assessment and feedback to be online.  I wanted to create a sleek, professional delivery that can be completed from someone in the library or someone in Uzbekistan.  As long as you have reliable internet access, you should be able to complete the course (which may actually put our library based students at a slight disadvantage over our friends in central Asia).  I was going to do this and, with the generous support of the College of Business & Law’s Teaching and Learning fund and some seeding money from my HoD, I had financial resources to kickstart the project.  I also had the support of UC’s E-Learning team (trust me, use them! They’re amazing!).

Ahh, hell…I actually have to do this!
The fervour wears off pretty quickly when you realise the size of the task ahead of you.  With the support of my amazing PhD student, Maja Golf-Papez, we came up with some best-practice models from digital courses around the world.  The sorts of courses that suit a digital delivery tend to be elementary in nature as the focus is on content understanding, rather than critical thinking.  This is not always true, but a good starting point.  My 100 level Principles of Marketing class (MKTG100) was a perfect candidate.  I have taught the paper for a number of years, so know the material well; the content evolves, but the basics keep relatively stable, meaning I don’t need to update the material every week; and it doesn’t require any pre-requisite courses, which may deter students from taking part.  Essentially, we have a course that someone can pick up and not worry about course clashes, but still learn something valuable from.

But actually turning a very successful and fun course into something digital hurt a little.  Was I still going to be able to offer the same learning environment and student experience? Will students still understand the material? Will there still be the same level of engagement that you need to really get to grips with some of the conceptual application?  Not only am I starting to be deterred by how difficult it’ll be to digitally create a course, but also whether it’ll be an effective delivery that is up to my and my College’s high standards.  Shit…

Eating the Elephant
With a task this big, it has to be done one bite at a time.  And it’s always easier when you have help.  Maja and I identified 3 main areas we need to work on to make this a kick-ass digital delivery:

  1. Content – the material needs to be good – this was on me, as the lecturer.  I can’t suck at this or create content that doesn’t interest students or is meaningless in practice.
  2. Assessment – we need to find a way that we can assess students in a manner that does not require their physical presence (it wouldn’t be a digital course, otherwise!), and isn’t open to abuse from plagiarism.
  3. Student experience and engagement – we need to make sure students don’t feel like they’ve been forgotten about.  How do we make sure they still feel part of UC and part of the course, as much as our in-class students do.

With regards to the content I could have created cool videos of myself doing energetic lectures, but not only does that eat up a lot of my own time, but it also dates very quickly.  Students can tell when  you’re out of touch and out of date – so, a simpler and more updateable method was to use powerpoint slides with a voice-over.  Maja’s early research did show that this does impact student experience; however, so we are creating some short, 30 second or so intro videos for each week to make students realise that I am human and I do exist.  Humanising the digital environment will provide a far greater level of connection than simply throwing up some readings and slides.

The assessment needed to change.  We need to still have a large invigilated exam – this is unavoidable and will mean that students either come to UC at the end of the semester or find an invigilated space nearer to them (at their expense).  But during the semester we had to still provide assessment so that students can gauge their own progress.  We could create essay style exams every week to avoid plagiarism issues, but that would cost significantly more in tutor marking  than we currently use.  MCQs can be automatically assessed on Learn, but are open to abuse.  We’ve found a solution that works for us, but I suggest you talk to the E-Learning team to find one that suits you and your course.  Ours has ended up becoming a mixture of 6 MCQ quizzes worth 5% each and 2 short answer questions worth 10% each that are presented throughout the semester.  The relatively low grade value associated with each quiz means the temptation to plagiarism is lowered and by spreading the assessment throughout the year they can keep up with the work and stay motivated to carry on.  Assessment is completed at the student’s leisure – if they want to work ahead and complete  quiz 3 weeks in advance of the in-class cohort, they can.  Everything except the short answers are marked automatically, so they can get instant feedback (and the MCQs are from a large bank of questions, so the likelihood of two students getting the same questions in minimised).

We all feel the same…
I wish I could say that I have this under control.  That this is easy and anyone can do it.  But the pressure to do well coupled with the fact that I haven’t done this before is stressful.  But I also know that if no one tries this on a big UG class we’re never going to progress as a learning institution.  I appreciate many don’t like the idea of digitisation, but I equally don’t like the hassle of sleeping – it gets in the way and distracts me from things I want to do, but I also know I need to do it to stay fresh and useful.  Get in touch with the E-E-Learning team and get the help you need if you have a passion for this – again, I have no idea how this will work and whether the students will appreciate this, but that’s all going to be measured and monitored throughout the S2 delivery.  If, in the first year, I can avoid shit hitting the fan, I think we can build upon the course to offer it again in the future.

Good luck and you’re not alone in this!

My key tips:

  1. Pick an appropriate course for digitisation – not all courses suit a virtual delivery
  2. Have a kick-ass PhD student who works hard – you can’t have Maja, get your own
  3. Be passionate about the student experience, not avoiding in-class teaching
  4. Have an assessment protocol that encourages regular monitoring of student progress.
  5. Be flexible with your delivery – what works in class won’t necessarily work online
  6. Be ready to pay – I’m talking to the HoDs and T&L committees out there – faculty need financial support to develop a course – not much, but enough to get the program going.

3 thoughts on “Going Digital – A brutally honest account, by Ekant Veer”

  1. Hi Ekant,
    Thanks for a really interesting post. I definitely recognise a lot of what you write, especially the bit about being careful not to do away with your own role!
    I am curious about the comment “The sorts of courses that suit a digital delivery tend to be elementary in nature as the focus is on content understanding, rather than critical thinking.” This is not my experience at all – I run five online postgrad courses in Language Education, both level 8 and level 9, and I find that the combination of synchronous meetings (recorded for those who can’t attend) and asynchronous forums that can be offered, with the opportunity for extensive and reflective writing and sharing of writing lends itself particularly well to the development of critical thinking in a class. I really like the way different forum settings in Learn can let the teacher vary the conditions of student activity. Sometimes, after the students have come some way into the course, I use the Q&A function, so students need to post before they can see other students’ posts. This forces each student to independently put their neck out. At other times, I rely on the strong first posters to lead the way. Then, by forcing interaction, I know that these stronger students will support the answers of the more hesitant students with additional material, often adding a layer of complexity to the original post. Active participation is worth 30-40% of the course grade, and midway, at the first hand-in assignment, I give them feedback on their active participation, challenging those who are not already doing so to comment in a more thoughtful way to build on the original post.
    What do you do on campus to help students develop critical thinking that you couldn’t do online in some way? What do others think?
    Una Cunningham

  2. Many thanks for your post Ekant. Hopefully it will stimulate further discussion.

    The College of Education has been delivering courses and programmes by distance for 20 years. During this time we have gradually moved from paper-based and VHS material to mainly digital.
    For about 10 years a third of the College’s students (undergraduate and postgraduate) have studied by distance (It is currently a bit more than one-third). All of our primary and early childhood teacher education courses are available on-campus and by distance (the graduate diploma early childhood programme is available by distance only). A number of our Master’s courses are available by distance only, via E teaching and learning. Many courses are now ‘blended’ with on-campus and distance students using the same digital material and activities.
    Many of Ekant’s comments ring-true, and as Una said, lecturers continue to play a vital role in the teaching-learning process. Courses are not designed just to deliver content, but require higher level thinking and processing skills by students, and often result in even greater interaction between students, and between students and staff, then equivalent on-campus courses. For this reason, high-quality distance/ e-delivery of courses is just as demanding, if not more demanding, of lecture a time and expertise than on-campus courses.
    I am not the person with the expertise, but many of the College of Education academic staff have knowledge and expertise which they would willingly share with lecturers in other colleges.
    As Ekant advised – the e-learning team are a great resource, and always ready to help.

  3. Kia ora Ekant
    I found your post about UC having more of a digital presence very interesting. As a former distance student from 2002-2004, there has been a major change from receiving a photocopy size box of books , videos and tapes (haha) every semester, to what is available to me now in 2017.
    Although digitising the courses takes away from an “in class presence” as such, for many of the Postgrad/Masters students (such as myself), being present from 9-4 is not always possible as people are working or living away from the main centres.
    As a student of Una’s I found it very useful to be able to log in to lectures after tea and work and be able to participate with other on-line learners. If you missed a lecture, then you could always watch in your own time. The use of an introduction video as part of the course was great in allowing a digital “mihimihi session” so we could get to “know” one another. The face to face contact through Adobe or Skype type lectures let us interact with the lecturer and each other through speaking and writing in the chat section. As time went on email and cell numbers were able to be swapped for additional student support. Each week we had clear tasks to do and could keep track as we went along. As you completed each week, another week opened up and you could work ahead if you wanted to. It was great to be able to read what others had taken from the various readings as we all worked in different contexts such as primary, secondary, Māori-medium and so on. An understanding of how your digital learners are engaging with the material is very important, as you will have to find ways of supporting them especially those new to the on-line learning environment. Perhaps a survey of their on-line/digital experiences could be a valuable method to ascertaining their prior knowledge? Part of being a highly successful teacher is to know the needs of your learners.
    It is great the university is looking at different ways of engaging students as primary and secondary schools have been looking at for a while. Many schools have 1-1 digital devices from Year 5-8 and some are looking at taking it to even lower levels. My own students from Year 1-4 already use i-pads and are quite techno savvy. It follows that looking at other ways of assessment will also be an issue that schools are having to deal with.
    The short 30 second intro videos sound like a good prelude to your other slides. These could contain further links to Youtube or relevant readings for further interaction. The lecture part is merely one of the ways you can engage with your students on Learn. I know I appreciated the fact that I could call into the university and visit my lecturer by making an appointment if necessary.
    For myself I found some very valuable learning occurred through interacting with other learners on the forums, through voicing my own thoughts and responding to others. There were certainly some very interesting discussions generated which promoted critical thinking about issues. Our lecturer also participated in these with questions and feedback for us. Maybe as mature Postgrad/Masters students with teaching experience already, we bring another dimension to our thinking which may not be as apparent in undergrad students.
    An issue that springs to mind especially working in a primary school is the need to still be culturally responsive to those children who prefer kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face interaction). Social skills such as sharing and managing emotions still need to be taught, along with etiquette in using digital media.
    Nga mihi

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