I can tell when I’ve attended a good conference. At the end of the day, my head aches, my writing hand hurts and my notebook is full of urgent scribbles, maps and reminders to chase up. Held online this year, the 2020 UTS Learning & Teaching Forum was just such an event, racking up a total of six mindmaps, eight pages of notes and too many Teams conversations to count!

Students first, always

Professor Shirley Alexander’s keynote on ‘Current state and future direction’ set the tone for the day, putting student experience and insights right at the heart of things. Shirley kicked off with a frank and thorough review of 2020 student survey feedback from internal and external sources, reflecting pains and gains from the challenges of remote learning and teaching.

There’s been so much analysis of online learning experiences already this year, and Shirley’s summary brought together new and familiar themes. Students like the flexibility of online, but want equity in access to technology and the right spaces for learning; they crave clarity in structure and expectations; they want to feel they’re being ‘taught’ (not just self-directed), listened to, and that they belong, which means being seen, cared about and socially connected too.

The mindmap below shares a few more highlights from Shirley’s keynote, including a look ahead to priorities for 2021 and beyond.

Mind map of themes from keynote. Main themes are student insights, UTS learners and 'where to from here'.

The student-focused approach continued into a panel session where seven students were invited to share their experiences and challenges during 2020. Jim, Renz, Ahmed, Tracy, Avril, Wendy and Rylie spoke from their varied perspectives as first-, second- and third-year students, undergraduate and postgraduate, domestic and international.

The students answered questions about their online learning experiences, different forms of assessment and in particular the sense of ‘belonging’ in such a challenging year. They highlighted the crucial role of teaching staff and personal relationships, and the themes clearly resonated with staff, with some lively Teams discussions running behind the scenes!

Connecting across places and spaces

Like so many learning opportunities and group events this year, the 2020 Forum took place online, with participants joining from homes and offices not just in Sydney, but interstate too. With several hundred participants to accommodate, choosing a Zoom Meeting format instead of ‘broadcast’-style webinar was a brave choice, but designed intentionally to ensure participants could interact in breakout sessions.

Much like a face-to-face conference, concurrent sessions offered opportunities to drop in and hear from peers across UTS faculties on a range of themed topics. With 3 x 10-minute presentations and a shared Q&A in each session, the pace was punchy and kept presenters to the point, combined with firm time-keeping from session facilitators.

Following each fast and furious session, discussions could then continue via Teams chats, which were peppered with great discussions, links and resources throughout the day.

Learning journeys across 6 themes

The Forum invited UTS staff to share practice which covered six main themes: building belonging; developing blended design; enhancing active and collaborative learning online; changing assessments/working effectively with feedback; teamwork; and work integrated learning.

This simplified summary map of presentation topics in each theme shows how diverse the content was, and how these themes integrated into current practices:

Mind map summary of six session themes. Themes are work integrated learning, belonging, teamwork, online learning, blended design, assessments.

In every one of the nine individual presentations I attended, I saw practical, evidence-based and student-focussed practices, all seeking to reflect and learn from the particular challenges of 2020. It was clear that over the last year, both academic and professional staff have been on quite a learning journey, just as the students have.

Honesty, resilience and practical optimism

Even after this most disruptive year, the Learning and Teaching Forum stands out as a reminder of what we’re taking forward into 2021. There was important honesty about successes and failures in the classroom, incredible resilience, and a practical optimism about further improvements and learning in the future.

The students from the panel session also attended sessions throughout the Forum, and were invited to share their reflections at the end of the day. They were struck by how much had been going on ‘behind the scenes’ to support students and learning during the last year, suggesting that perhaps we should continue to make efforts to bring students into the design and processes that drive improvements in learning and teaching.

Finally, whilst we may not have been together in one physical space for the Forum, there were some great opportunities for interaction and connection.

You can expect to be hearing more from many of our Forum presenters and their practical learnings over the coming months. Stay tuned!

  • Perhaps something like this can feature on UTS insider for the students to share with them a bit 🙂

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