Students value teacher presence in learning, so how can we best leverage technology to transition a blended program to a fully online one without losing teacher presence

This year, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences collaborated with the Postgraduate Learning Design (PGLD) team to transform the Master of Education (Learning and Leadership) (MEDLL) into an accelerated UTS Online course.

MEDLL is designed for professionals across various sectors looking to lead and support learning innovation in their practice or organisation. Students in this program develop a robust and flexible toolkit of research-informed skills and knowledge to enhance and innovate learning practice.

UTS Online is an accelerated model where students can join a carousel of subjects at any of the six study periods each year. One subject is completed over six weeks, compared to the twelve-week semester model where more than one subject is studied at a time. ‘Learning and its Trajectories’ was the first subject offered by the faculty in this new format. The PGLD team worked with the academic Dr Donna Rooney on the co-design and development of this first offering. A challenge for the team was designing in ways that built on Donna’s knowledge, personality, and experience in this fully online subject.

Studying online is not premised on the possibility of meeting face-to-face. But students still need to feel connected to us – and to each other. So, I make a conscious effort to: join in the conversations; push online conversations along; read their ideas and acknowledge their struggles and strengths; help them connect with other students, ideas and content; and create a sense of belonging. I try to use their name when I ‘speak’ to them, ask them questions, and read and respond when they answer them. I even made short video feedback (there are things you can say about students’ work you can’t always type) which generated some very grateful student emails.

Donna Rooney on teacher presence

Below are examples of how the PGLD team worked with Dr Rooney to promote teacher presence across this fully-online subject. 

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

The PGLD team promoted the use of video to help create teacher presence through a welcome video, videos for key weekly milestones, and new or difficult activities. Donna intentionally used variances in tone and formality to convey distinct messages or ‘voices’ to students. You might think of this as like the different kinds of teacher presence and knowledge that you gain from a casual chat before class, compared to during a lecture. The PGLD team also filmed Donna in different ‘outfits’ to help visually reinforce the difference. 

It’s not what you say, it’s when you say it

To promote teacher presence, Donna’s communication schedule involves a daily reply to student queries and posts. Weekly announcements highlighted important aspects of the subject that students should focus on. There are multiple ways for students to get in touch with Donna, including discussion forums and direct email. The PGLD team designed live and online Zoom session pages in the subject to provide students opportunities to ask questions. The sessions are scheduled around subject milestones, and provide another way for students to get some of that important ‘just in time’ information that might be key to understanding a concept or completing a task. 

Design with the students in mind

We don’t all learn best from reading written text on a page. It’s important to design an online subject with multiple opportunities to engage with a concept or example in different formats and modalities. 

The subject explores the concepts of learning ecologies and life-wide learning but these can be difficult to understand without some help. The PGLD team worked with Dr Rooney to develop resources that emulated how she would explain this idea in class – pairing sequenced diagrams with voiceover narration to create a self-paced explainer resource. Students can engage with the ideas both with and without the narration, and can navigate back and forth through the scenes as needed.

Example of audio-visual resource created for Learning and its trajectories

The data doesn’t lie

By the end of the orientation week, 43 enrolled students had generated: 

  • 5969 page views                
  • 70 posts on discussion boards 
  • Numerous student comments across comment boxes

And by the first day of Week 1, seven students had also finished their first assessment! 

This level of interaction and engagement was attributed to a mix of considered co-design and development, and the dedication of a passionate academic. As Donna notes: 

At the time of writing, I am four weeks into the new program. When I reflect on ‘where we are at now’ I see that I am sharing my humanness in small ways that go beyond content – just as I might do in a classroom. These are relatively small things but may account for a much smaller than anticipated drop-out rate, and some very encouraging student feedback. As I write this, I recognise that I also want to feel connected to them too. I am their teacher after all. If I am not ‘present’ then the Canvas site is just an electronic text-book, isn’t it!

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