Dr Rhonda Powell from the School of Law shares how technology was used in her course to encourage student engagement and authentic learning.
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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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Pick an appropriate course for digitisation – not all courses suit a virtual delivery
- Have a kick-ass PhD student who works hard – you can’t have Maja, get your own
- Be passionate about the student experience, not avoiding in-class teaching
- Have an assessment protocol that encourages regular monitoring of student progress.
- Be flexible with your delivery – what works in class won’t necessarily work online
- 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.
- USE THE E-LEARNING TEAM!
At the University of Canterbury we use a Learning Management System (LMS) called Learn as our primary e-Learning tool. Learn is a modified version of the popular open-source software Moodle.
The types of courses in Learn generally fall into one of three broad categories, Face-to-Face, Blended and Distance. A course that relies almost exclusively on lectures and tutorials, that will use the Learn course only for administrative purposes, we define as Face-to-Face. This means it will typically only include passive information such as course and learning objectives, lecturer contact information, electronic copies of course materials, assessment information and student marks.
A course that fits more into the Blended category combines Face-to-Face and online elements in the teaching and learning. A blended course would include all of the aspects mentioned above plus additional resources to extend teaching and learning, online tasks prior or post face-to-face sessions, online discussion spaces and formative assessments.
The third course type is one set up for distance students. A distance course will include the elements from the previous two types, but with the likelihood of no face-to-face interactions. It will contain numerous resources such as video, audio and interactive learning elements that will work as alternative methods of teaching and learning. The development and promotion of an online community within the course is often apparent, in order to stimulate the kind of conversations that may otherwise happen in tutorials or informal face-to-face discussions.
In the following video, Rhonda Powell from the School of Law shares her story about the first steps of making a face-to-face legal course into a blended course. Rhonda outlines the rationale of this practice and reflects on the advantages and challenges of this approach.