In the first blog post of this series, we shared lessons learned based on our experience of developing and teaching new subjects for the OPM-mode of the Master of Education (Learning and Leadership) course. In responding to the key challenges identified, we proposed three lessons drawn from our experiences in curriculum design and teaching. This second blog in the series reflects on the lesson: Those subjects aren’t going to teach themselves. 

The challenges 

When designing the course, we wanted to continue with the high level of customisation made available in the previous version of the course. We also wanted to draw on our knowledge about supporting students’ learning in face-to-face delivery in designing and teaching the online subjects. Some questions we asked ourselves were: 

  • How do we provide high support for personalised learning without simply creating a barrage of discussion boards and comment boxes? 
  • How do we encourage balanced participation and an appropriate level of teacher interaction, so that scaffolding isn’t simply a response to those who comment most? 
  • How do we detect the difference between the ‘quiet but keen listener’ and the ‘struggling and at-risk’ student, without all the cues we might rely on in a face-to-face class? 
  • How can you be available, without cultivating dependency and expectations of infinite capacity to respond? 

The solutions

Adult learning is our area of collective expertise. And because students are working through activities and content so quickly, we know that the need for regular and high-value online teacher presence is even greater. This is particularly important for students who come from non-traditional backgrounds. For example, the MEDLL cohort includes mature-age students who are either looking to return to the workforce or are professionally successful, but may not be academically prepared or confident. Many of the things we take for granted when interacting with students in face-to-face contexts vanish, including our capacity to personally connect and provide targeted feedback and support. 

Through our experiences last year we have learned the importance of building explicitness into the design of our subjects including about the purpose of interactive features. Some are key points where students can expect feedback from their teacher, while others are more about students’ exchanging ideas as peers. While popular online tools, such as Microsoft Whiteboard, Padlet and Miro Boards, provide opportunities for collaboration and interaction, a variety of high-tech and low-tech is key. As too, is another form of teacher presence, and here it is the less obvious ‘teacher talk’ that accompanies interactive assets. 

Crucially, no obvious substitute exists for the personal presence of teachers. What we learned was that it took a number of inter-related measures to ensure some forms of teacher presence. One of these included 3 or 4 ‘live and online’ Zoom sessions which enabled teachers and students to ‘check in’ with each other in powerful ways. These sessions provided opportunities for students to get to know each other, and to share ideas and their professional experiences, so they play a key role in promoting a sense of belonging. They’re also structured to enable students to test their thinking and for teachers to check for understanding.  

While online student feedback on assessment can be text-based, we’ve found that incorporating audio/visual feedback promotes personalisation, connection, and enhanced learning. It’s about letting our students know that we care about their individual learning journeys and success. 

Student feedback

To date, student feedback is confirmation that we’ve achieved an optimal mix of type and intensity of teacher presence.

The support – both in terms of content – the Canvas online learning was amazing at keeping you engaged through activities, media (videos or animated images), content. It was well structured. I loved the reading lists being ready to go saving you time; and in terms of the subject facilitators – helpful, and willing to hear feedback and adjust. Also empathic to adult learners and their other commitments which may preclude them doing everything they planned.  

It can also be something as simple as an old-fashioned phone call that can make a huge impact – as per this example, when a teacher called after noting a student’s frustration on a discussion board. 

I keep on thinking back to that conversation I had with you much earlier this year and how encouraging you were when the course, and especially my peers, intimidated me. Since then, I have continued to surprise myself and have been delighted with my results so far. More importantly, I feel empowered by having stuck with something challenging and persevering to improve. 

Thank you for your kindness in reaching out to me that day and for all your support… I have come to view it as a tipping point of sorts and am so grateful you decided to pick up the phone and reassure me that day! 

Next week, we’ll publish the third and final blog post in this series: It takes a team.

Thanks to the following people for their contributions: Dr. Annie Agnew, Leticia Bairo, Professor Nick Hopwood, Dr. Lauren Knussen, Veronica Lauria, Dr. Amanda Lizier, A/Professor Jacqui McManus, Dr. Jonathon Mascorella, Dr. Soli Le-Masurier, Amanda Nairn, Mitchell Osmond, A/Professor Ann Reich, Caecilia Roth Darko, Dr. Donna Rooney, Megan Spindler-Smith

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