The Shift to Online Learning
Technology-based learning and digital teaching are increasingly part of every individual’s learning experience. This has become even more relevant over the past two years. Evolving from school level to university level, this mode of teaching and learning is even becoming relevant at the work level too.
This means that while educators have needed to adapt to the changes that technology brings to education, COVID-19 caused a Tsunami of change, with everyone needing to adjust even faster. The scope of the changes has also grown seeing that for digital technology and education to work, it must be used effectively and incorporated in the right way. If not, the whole exercise is futile.
We recently had an interesting conversation on the topic of digital teaching and learning with Anne-Mart Olsen from Nelson Mandela University. A group of staff members participated in our Digital Teaching eXpert Course (DTX), and we reflected on the course and the abovementioned issues surrounding Covid-19 and the shift to digital teaching.
The Need for Professional Development
Anne-Mart Olsen is the Academic Developer at Nelson Mandela University (NMU). Her focus is generally curriculum design and learning design. Her role also entails the induction of newly appointed academics at NMU. The juggle between work and being a homeschooling mom, was possibly the worst experience ever. In the same breath, it was through trying to homeschool a Grade One who is still learning to read, that helped Anne-Mart learn patience and develop her skills further in digital learning.
After completing the DTX course, Anne-Mart reflected with us on her experience. “It’s kind of hard to admit…but I realised that I had quite a big gap in my own digital teaching skills. I mean, I used to do adoption of technology but that was back in the day when web 2.0 was still the thing….”
“I realised that in my case, I had to help academics get online, I have to support students if they’re struggling, and I have my kids who I have to help.” In other words, the DTX course had a multi-purpose in Anne-Mart’s case. Anne-Mart received numerous queries that she did not know how to respond to, and had to research or figure out first before she could get back to the student or lecturer. With lockdown, they suddenly faced new challenges. “We were thrown into Zoom, we were thrown into Teams. We’ve always had Moodle, but Moodle was often used as a repository even by ourselves when we were creating our own Moodle sites. We were assisting academics to conceptualise their curriculum and, in a way, developing it with learning design, and we have a learning design team.”
Anne-Mart’s role is to bridge the two – to bring learning design and the curriculum together. Anne-Mart explains, “I reached the point where I realised there was such a big gap between what we say we want to do… and what is actually realistic or implementable. We needed to upskill. I had no idea what to expect, but I was hoping that I could develop myself quickly, both personally and professionally, while attending an online course. While I’ve done MOOCs before, MOOCS are, as you know quite vicious, if you drop in your drop out. This was different – I wanted an online experience. I needed to understand how to transition materials from face-to-face teaching to online teaching.”
Expectations of the Course
The need for NMU was to upskill lecturers to digital teaching and learning. Realising that they now offered fully online courses, but none of the lecturers actually ever attended a fully online course themselves. It was important for them to experience the course, but also to learn how to adjust what they do for online teaching – as it is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Contexts differ, learners differ. The course helped us understand how to tackle these scenarios. Anne-Mart explains, “I needed to understand the how – and the engaging experience was such a bonus as it really helped me learn. To be honest, I was not prepared for the intensity of the course, but it was really worth it. I had to learn how to bridge the gap between what best practice and what can be done in practice.”
The Course Experience and Outcomes
The DTX course was delivered to NMU over a period of five days. One of the outcomes highlighted by Anne-Mart was that the course blended theory and practical to a point where attendees could actually go and practically apply the theory. It meant that participants could take the theory and create a learning resource. Putting theory in practice creates a resource that the lecturer can carry on using throughout their future course planning or development.
Another realisation was that online learning should not just be about assessments. There should be some elements of “fun” too and with the right application of tools, this is possible. This raised many questions, such as do we need to assess everything we do, just because it was done in this manner in the past? It became an opportunity to evaluate course material and to convert content to be UDL compliant.
While this was a daunting concept, the way the course was structured also helped with this process. Participants gained confidence and now had a grasp of how to adjust content and presentations to suit the online learning environment. They realised that they have the capability if they just understand better what is needed and how to apply the technology – reflecting on what you have in place already and seeing how to adjust it. There was a shift from feeling overwhelmed, to feeling empowered. “The reflective practice aspect was phenomenal to bring in.”
The Impact on Teaching Practises
The sessions throughout the course helped participants to look at the technology at their disposal differently, “I looked at the online space that I’ve created, which is on Moodle. There are a few things I can add and tweak, but it’s not too bad. But it is not integrated with Teams in any way. So I recreated my platform.”
Another important change after the course was the use of other applications to increase interactive activities and engagement, rather than just uploading content onto Moodle. Reducing assessments and finding ways to get away from just using the online space for uploading content.
Anne-Mart mentions the barrier to asynchronous teaching before completing the course. Previously, they had tried to have more of a flipped approach, but they did not have the means to implement asynchronous methods in their classes. For the course, Anne-Mart developed her skills by tackling a presentation on teaching asynchronously. This helped Anne-Mart understand how to do so within a class context too. Realising that a lecturer does not always have to be “live” when teaching. After a few days of live-streaming classes, it is possible to step out and simply set aside consultation times and let students know when you are available.
Realising there are other pathways as well ways of delivering content we’ve learned that we can hand over some of the work and let our participants use their autonomy to deliver their class content. This has changed how we engage with academics going forward.
Academics on the course initially felt overwhelmed by the programme and in effect, the experience was a great equaliser of academic staff.
Biggest Lessons Learnt
Lessons learnt include chunking the information for students. In other words, bite-sized information is key, so that it is enough to digest, but not too much to process. We also learned that you have time to develop the course further as you go – not every course will be perfect.
Secondly, academics learned that experience is the best way to learn how to deliver course material online. The process also taught them to be kind to themselves as well as their students. Both lecturers and students alike may feel like a fish out of water initially, together you will learn to swim.
Thirdly, the collaboration through the course created a community of practice that can be continued after the course. It is so important for lecturers to speak to each other, share experiences, and build confidence in this manner.
A big outcome from all of this was that lecturers who participated felt they now “speak the same language”. “We’ve learned the theory and also learned how to apply it.” Going forward lecturers have been enabled to teach more comfortably through digital teaching platforms.