Thursday, June 30, 2011

Learning University Teaching: Reflection

Last week I attended day four of an introductory course on university teaching. This was the last day of the course and it was time to reflect on what I learned and suggestions on how to improve the course:

Background to the Course

The course is a non-assessed introduction to university teaching intended for academics just starting their career. It is four days, one day per week, for four weeks, plus some on-line activities using the Moodle Learning Management System. The course is offered to staff by the university's academic education center.

One issue this raises is that all teachers at a university do not start out as "early career academics". Some are "late career professionals", who find they have a taste for teaching. Universities in Canberra, for example, have current and former public servants assisting with teaching. There are also staff of organizations which support the public service. These staff need an introduction to teaching for professionals who have a depth of experience in the workforce, but limited understanding of the academic environment and limited time to acquire it.

Recommendation for Improvements in the Course

The introductory course covers educational theory, but could better use the techniques discussed, to put theory into practice. This would be more efficient, and more credible, demonstrating how the educational theories work:

1. Offer a blended course, with optional face-to-face components: Research presented indicates that having oral presentations is not the most efficient teaching technique. Therefore it would be appropriate to reduce the use of live oral presentations and increase the use of student activities in this course. An appropriate format would be two hours per week optional face-to-face contact (down from five hours mandatory), with the rest of the course on-line.

Also the course covers Equal Opportunity Policy, emphasizing an inclusive approach in both education and employment. One way to do this is to provide flexibility for attendance at courses. Currently the course requires attendance at all four daytime events. These are only offered once per teaching period, at only one location in one city, and only in Australia. Offering the course at multiple times and locations would be prohibitively resource intensive. However, on-line participation could be offered as an alternative to attendance in person.

2. Convert the course materials to an accessible on-line format via the learning management system: Disability Policy is covered in the course. The policy "... incorporates the inclusion of people with disabilities in employment and education to enable them to perform at their best in University life ...". Implementing this policy in the course would be aided by checking that content of paper handouts and screen displays used were large enough for comfortable reading. Also providing the material in alternate formats via the Learning Management System would be useful.

A simple way to provide course materials is with an e-Book, available via the course web site at the beginning of the course. This can contain summaries of what is to be covered, links to readings and the work sheets for activities to be undertaken. The number of readings should be feasible to be read in the time allocated for the course and the class exercises should reference the readings to prompt the students to read them.

4. Add assessment to the course: The course emphasized that students value assessment and the assessment can be used for aiding learning, not just as a test at the end. It would therefore be appropriate to design assessment activities into the course, rather than as an optional extra at the end. At least weekly assessment should be mandatory, along with at least weekly feedback from the tutor to each individual student. The optional credit for "reflection" should be eliminated and replaced with mandatory assessable items.

5. Construct a showcase active learning classroom: It is suggested that the university commission the design and construction of an Active Learning Classroom (ALC) for teaching education techniques. This would be similar to the INSPIRE Centre for ICT Pedagogy, Practice and Research under construction now at the University of Canberra. It would be equipped with computer systems and screens for one large class and for breakout groups. Space for this might be found in the City West Precinct. A design similar to the University of Canberra Teaching and Learning Centre could be used.

5. Design an on-line learning environment: A web site for the course, which conforms to the same standards as other courses, should be developed. This should be tested before the course commences and the design not changed during the course. The web site should be integrated with the face-to-face content.

6. Put assessment first: The course referred to research indicating that assessment is important to students and should be integrated in course design, but this topic is left to last in the course. It is suggested that the topic of assessment be discussed alongside that of preparing course descriptions, early in the course.

My Background

Like many staff I came to university as a Visiting Fellow and ended up doing teaching as an adjunct. We teach material developed in our day-to-day work.

While having provided conventional lectures and examination based teaching for years, I was never comfortable with this mode, as I teach about on-line communication. In 2005 and 2007 I made some ad-hoc attempts at blended learning ("Workshop on the Use of Technology for Museums of the Pacific Islands Region" and "Electronic Document Management, Module 2 of Systems Approach to the Management of Government Information"). Later I was commissioned by the Australian Computer Society to design an e-learning course as part of the ACS Computer Professional Education Program, which is part of a globally accredited postgraduate program.

ACS provided training in techniques for mentored and collaborative e-learning, based on those used at the Open University. I then adapted the same course content for university. The course has worked well, winning an industry award and with one of the students now running it in Canada. My ambition is now to design more such courses, explore the theory behind them and teach others how to do this.

Goals for the Course

My reasons for enrolling in this course were:

  1. Cost: The course is free for current staff,
  2. Get in before it is compulsory: While there is no requirement for university staff to have training in teaching, this is likely to become more strongly encouraged.
  3. Validate vocational training: While I have undertaken a considerable number of vocational short courses, it was useful to check I was up to date with the latest thinking on educational theory for higher education.
  4. Help university implement e-learning: While I have been successful at implementing e-learning, my academic colleagues are skeptical of my approach, perhaps due to my not being able to explain it using the correct academic terms to describe it,
  5. Ease into postgraduate studies: To see if it would be worth undertaking the certificate in teaching.

Results

  1. Completed course: I was able to attend all four days and so was awarded an attendance certificate.
  2. Validated vocational training: I was able to verify that my previous vocational training is consistent with university thinking on educational theory.
  3. Ready to help advance university teaching practice: I was able to see that the university was striving to implement blended and e-learning.
  4. Applying for the certificate in teaching: I have applied to study the certificate in teaching.

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