Sunday, March 18, 2012

Progress with On-line Tertiary Teaching for Research-Led Education

After looking at the Postgraduate Certificates in Tertiary Teaching available in Australia and on-line internationally, in November 2011 I commenced study for a "Graduate Certificate in Higher Education" at the Australian National University. Due to my interest in on-line teaching I obtained agreement from my ANU supervisor to take two of the four courses required on-line by distance education. The first course at ANU's alliance partner, the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), November 2011 to February 2012, was "Assessment, Evaluation and Learning " (EDU5713). I recommend this USQ course to those interested in tertiary teaching.

USQ use the same Moodle Learning Management System, which I have used to run postgraduate courses at the ANU and Australian Computer Society. The USQ on-line course is structured as standard university unit, run over a semester, with the same holidays as the on-campus courses. The course typically covers one topic a week, with a chapter in a supplied e-book to read each week, extra readings and on-line weekly forums for discussion. The assessment was by mid semester and end of semester written assignments, submitted online.

Good points of the USQ Course

USQ is set up for distance education and this shows in the excellent on-line support for student queries. Using a central system I can ask a question and this is routed to the relevant area. The system tracks progress with the query and records the details, so I do not need to keep asking the same question of different staff and wondering what is happening.

The enrollment process was relatively simple and quick. There were only two pieces of paper involved in the whole course, with everything else, from start to finish, being online.

The course is provided using Moodle in a similar format to the one I use for my ICT Sustainability course for ANU and ACS students. The assessment tasks and an eBook of notes is provided at the beginning of semester, along with contact details for the tutor. The tutors have both academic and practical experience in education, are enthusiastic and helpful, but at times seem a little overworked (a situation any educator can relate to).

The course topics are revealed on Moodle week by week, with tasks, forums, extra readings and help with the assessment. This process helps prompt busy part time students to keep working, while avoiding overloading them with detail.

The assessment tasks are realistic and relevant to those teaching at university. I have already been able to use work from my assignments in my own teaching (and prepared a conference paper from the assignment material).

Areas for Improvement

The USQ course notes are excellent. These have a brief summary of terms and concepts and introduction to the literature, along with exercises and suggested readings. But with my first course the notes cut out half way through and just a collection of web links where provided for the remaining weeks. The notes cutting out made me feel a bit lost.

While the text of the course notes are well formatted, some of the diagrams are unreadable, as they were provided as low resolution bitmap images. However, in many cases the diagrams were derived from published works and references were included, so I could find a readable original.

The course provides extensive suggested readings and these are offered in electronic form with links to the university library. However, about three times as many readings as it is feasible for a student to read are provided. Many of the electronic documents provided by the university are difficult to read. I got into the habit of not using the links provided to the university library and instead looking for papers online and books in other university libraries.

Some documents provided are scanned in from paper, with the pages skewed and marked with highlighter pen, making them hard to read. The university also uses an eBook service which provides digitally created documents, but these appear to have then been converted into bitmap images to prevent piracy. The quality of the documents on my screen were so poor that I could not comfortably read the materials. Instead I located the books in local Canberra university libraries (with excellent service provided by the libraries of ANU, University of Canberra, ADFA and Australian Catholic University). In most cases I read the paper copies of the books, but in some cases eBook versions superior to those provided with the course were available from other libraries.

The course notes include questions for students to discuss in on-line forums. However, there was little participation by the students. The lack of student discussion may be because there are no marks awarded for it.

It was difficult to find where to post forum contributions to, as the forum names did not always not match the topics in the notes.

While the USQ tutors help when asked, there is no regular individual feed-back to students as part of the course format. Communication with the tutor was by email, without the use of the Dialogue tool built into Moodle. As a result, course messages could get lost in amongst other email. USQ provide a Google Gmail account for each student, which may not meet Australian privacy standards.

There was an additional $15 fee at the end of the course for a paper copy of the results. No electronic certified copies are offered and the paper transcript lacks effective non-copying features.

Overall, these are relatively mild criticisms, with the USQ course far superior to the formal postgraduate tertiary education I have previously undertaken, both online and face-to-face. For comparison, see:
  1. Reflections of an Online Student, Parts 1 to 6, August 2010
  2. Learning University Teaching, June 2011

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