Reflecting on remote learning: A Q&A with Natalia Zarina & John Murphy
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented some interesting challenges for learning and teaching at the University of Adelaide, with the introduction of remote learning. At the start of semester 1, Professions course, Professional Practices was moved to a fully online delivery. To provide some context, this course is an undergraduate course that has around 500 students from very diverse backgrounds. As a core topic for many Professions programs, the aim of the course is to help prepare students for future employment.
Featuring in this year’s Festival of Learning and Teaching, Natalia Zarina, the Course Coordinator for the Professional Practices course, and John Murphy, a lecturer for the course and Learning Designer, presented a Pecha Kucha titled Exploring remote learning potential in Professional Practices course.
As a follow up to their presentation, we caught up with Natalia and John to further delve into their experiences of teaching this course in a remote delivery, what they learned from doing so and how this learning will influence their teaching in the future.
Here’s what they had to say:
What were your biggest challenges in moving the Professional Practice 2 course into remote delivery?
I would say the biggest challenge was to keep the same level of engagement and interaction that we usually maintain in a face-to-face classroom. As the course is all about communication, students should interact a lot with their peers and tutors – there is no other way to teach communication except for practising it in a safe class environment.
The biggest challenge for me as a teacher in this course, was not so much the change of mode and tools, but ensuring that the new learning environment and student experience was inclusive of the diverse cohort in my classes. The class was clearly diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, language background, age, life experience, employment history and subject specialisation. The group included local students from Adelaide schools (both fee-paying and public), international students (from Europe and Asia), some of whom had English as an additional language. A few appeared to have just the minimum requirement of 6.0 in IELTS in written and spoken English. There were also students with disabilities and a number who had been affected by the travel ban, but who had arrived through a third country.
In what ways did the material in the course lend itself to being delivered remotely?
We were lucky to have most of the key concept videos pre-recorded and available on the course page on MyUni for students to watch before their tutorial sessions. I was updating course materials weekly and tried to structure the slides so that they were easy to use in remote learning. Most activities in the course are interactive, and we have always used group discussions in class – we did the same on zoom using breakout rooms. Students would usually be asked to report to the whole class when they came back to the main session – this worked well as they had an aim for their group discussion (not only to talk about a scenario or discuss questions, but also to decide on who was going to report and what key points to cover).
I also got a chance to record the course final lecture where I invited former Professional Practices students to share their career building experiences – this would have been much harder to organise for a face-to-face lecture on a fixed day. This received some positive feedback from students who were inspired by this interview to start their own career planning, so this lecture has become a new learning tool for the course.
As Natalia explains above, we used Zoom for tutorials which supported a range of active learning and teaching strategies It also enabled the recording of interviews with a panel of recent graduates in a Students as Partners component. We re-designed lecture slides to support engagement, comprehension and recall using evidence-based principles to optimise for cognitive load. We shared these principles with students who used them in their own digital content creation.
As a Learning Designer (LEI, DASE) I was part of a team which supported the transition of all courses to remote learning as part of the Covid-19 response. My role involved collaborative design for teaching, learning and assessment and good practice in use of MyUni and related technologies. Materials were one aspect of this transition to remote delivery.
What was some of the feedback that you received from students about the remote delivery of the course?
Some students really liked the remote delivery: students from early morning and late afternoon tutorials where the majority of student were working (part-time and full-time) felt they were using their time more efficiently as they didn’t have to commute. Many students said they were surprised that our zoom sessions were as productive and interactive as they would expect them to be in a face-to-face setting. These two comments would illustrate it best:
It was a joy to attend PROF 1000 tutorials this semester! Even though the classes were digital, I felt that the level of interaction and energy was on par with a physical classroom. I am glad to hear that you will be looking at those platforms, they are truly quite useful.
It has been a strange semester with online learning however it still felt surprisingly effective and fruitful, we all learned a lot. Thank you very much for all your help this semester, I've really enjoyed the workshop classes.
My students sent feedback on the course without specifically referring to the change in delivery mode:
I just wanted to say thank you for your assistance this semester, this course was highly enjoyable!
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to you for your feedback. I could meet you for a semester and learn many things.
I understand my delayed submission will no doubt impact my mark. I have no excuse, as I am fairly certain everyone's life is a mess at the moment, not just mine.
In what ways did moving the course into a remote delivery build the digital capabilities of both staff and students?
Some of the tutors were not familiar with Zoom tool before this semester, so we all did some training provided by the LEI team – these sessions were really helpful, and I know some staff did them a few times. We were sharing techniques we used successfully in our sessions and I tried to add those into our weekly tutor guides for further reference. Students were amazingly fast working out how the tool worked and also tried to help each other with some tech issues. We strongly encouraged them to use zoom for their group assignment meetings – this was reinforced with the idea that this is what contemporary workplace is like these days and that’s what they will be expected to do when they enter the workforce – and many of them did, so we replicated the real workplace in our remote sessions too.
It was the first time I had taught using Zoom and used all of its features to support active learning and engagement. I had previously used other virtual classroom platforms. Students developed digital capabilities in this environment to deliver pair presentations on Zoom. They used evidence-based design principles (above) to optimise slide design for engagement. They also used tools such as Mentimeter to elicit feedback from the class (via URL only so that no student data was captured). The group assignment required students to meet on Zoom with an agenda and minutes. This simulated the current ‘new normal’ in many workplaces and built transferable digital skills.
What has been your biggest learning from teaching throughout the pandemic (personal or professional)?
Well, as well as some of the students I was happy that our sessions were as productive and interactive as in a face-to-face setting. Actually, I found that through recreating the breakout rooms I made students communicate a lot with all their classmates, and not just their table groups (in a face-to-face classroom it is a bit harder to move them around😊). It also made me think about things we take for granted (like having a good laptop with a web camera and a microphone or being in a separate room with no external distractions) and about some alternative ways of interaction in the online session with those who don’t possess these things. I guess it’s all about deeper understanding of each and every student’s personal situation and empathy.
In the Welsh language, there is only one word for teaching and learning ‘dysgu’. It is a process that we go through together. When we teach, we learn. When we learn, we also teach. For me this was proven to be truer than ever. Together we faced similar challenges of a Covid-19 world in lockdown and were able to share strategies to promote well-being and support each other in our ‘dysgu’ journey through Semester 1,2020
Going forward, will your experiences of the impacts of COVID-19 change the way that you teach?
I’m sure they will. I’ve always been a big fan of student-centred learning approach and I think COVID-19 experiences will give me a chance to implement it more through our class discussions everyone will have their own COVID story to share. Another positive impact this pandemic switch to remote learning had on my teaching is that I’m using more audio and video materials than I used to, and I have almost made my peace with hearing my own voice in the recordings. And I would like to keep the practice of running short surveys and polls in my sessions as it is an effective way of getting timely feedback from students on their engagement and understanding of the course materials and assessments.
I will continue to reflect critically on my approach to teaching. My key takeaway from Semester 1 is that it is challenging but possible to help students develop the communication skills such as active listening and empathy in a virtual environment.
International studies (Times Higher Ed, 2020) during Covid-19 have shown that students feel they have fewer opportunities to ask questions in a virtual classroom. Addressing this will require a refined skill-set. I will reflect on my expectations of students and how I can best ensure equity and inclusion by developing my own communication skills and applying good practice in teaching and learning supported by technologies.
About Natalia Zarina
Natalia has held senior roles in the corporate sector in Australia and internationally and has managed her own business. She co-ordinates and teaches in Professional Practices II in the Business School, Faculty of the Professions. She is passionate about education and encouraging students to think about their future careers early in their degrees.
About John Murphy
John is a Learning Designer in Learning Enhancement and Innovation (LEI). He also teaches in Professional Practices II. He has a background in eLearning Management in the University sector in Australia where he has also taught Digital media, Sociology of Education and Academic English (EAL). He is multi-lingual and has worked as eLearning consultant for the international network of Universities.