About the Unit
Arts L&T: Congratulations on receiving this recognition! Please tell us about the unit.
Lea Beness: I actually helped create this course with my partner, Tom Hillard. It’s based on our first year internal unit, which I have been teaching for a while. We created it back in 2005, and I think it was one of the first OUA units that was offered in the Faculty of Arts and probably in the University as well. I actually taught it the first time around, then we’ve had various tutors, including Mark.
Mark Hebblewhite: I do the week-to-week handling of students. Lea and Tom have put all the infrastructure into place and the lectures. So I guess I’m on the front lines of getting feedback on the course, as the tutor.
Arts L&T: Do you approach your teaching with a particular philosophy or is there something that you bring to it that is uniquely ‘you’, based on your experiences?
Mark Hebblewhite: In terms of the OUA, I’m very conscious that teaching online is very different to teaching in a classroom where you’re face-to-face with students. My overarching philosophy—and I think one that Lea would probably agree with—is that there needs to be a level of flexibility offered to our online students just because studying online and studying distance can be very difficult and very isolating. I try and accommodate the individual needs of our students and make sure they’re looked after. It can be very difficult when you don’t have that face-to-face experience.
Lea Beness: I love face-to-face teaching, and personal engagement is so important. Showing your enthusiasm is really crucial for inspiring students to learn. In the online space, that’s more difficult. When we created this unit, Tom and I actually recorded lectures. They were basically 50-minute lectures, and we did them in two days. It was a very intense collaborative experience. I hoped it conveyed our enthusiasm for the unit and made the lectures conversational. Personal engagement with students is so important. And I agree with Mark that you have to tailor your teaching to your students and you have to be flexible.
Learning and Teaching Online
Arts L&T: What are the kinds of challenges that online students typically face?
Mark Hebblewhite: Online students feel isolated. Things that could get sorted quickly for face-to-face students can sometimes blow up to become bigger issues [for online students]. Where I think Lea and Tom have done an excellent job is that when they say something is in the library, it’s in the library. Making sure that when they’ve got link to a resource, the link works. When those basics are done correctly, or done thoroughly, it takes a lot of hassle and stress away from those students who are not only working via distance, but often trying to study around full time work.
Arts L&T: What are some practical examples that can improve online students’ experience of their unit?
Lea Beness: In terms of personal engagement, Tom and I very consciously recorded those lectures and made the OUA students the audience. It’s specifically dedicated to them and that makes the students feel valued.
Mark Hebblewhite: I find that the most positive comments come back about the lectures. The students treat them not as a chore, but as something they look forward to. These people doing OUA, they all work full-time jobs. They’re listening to these lectures on the bus, or at night. I think it’s a testament to the way Tom and Lea have put them together. That enthusiasm flows on to the discussions.
Lea Beness: I think empathy is really important. I think we have a strong sense of duty of care over our students.
Mark Hebblewhite: I really do want to stress again the need for flexibility and approaching online education with a spirit of generosity. I’m very conscious about a lot of the problems – the time problems and other circumstances of the students who have chosen to study via OUA, that aren’t problems for students on campus.
Arts L&T: Discussion forums are often a source of anxiety for both instructors and students. What has been your approach in terms of encouraging and managing online discussion?
Mark Hebblewhite: This is an interesting one. I find that no two groups are alike. I try and judge each group as they come through to see what they’re like. On the whole, my preference is for the students to learn from each other and to work off each other’s enthusiasm.
Lea Beness: One of the ways we try and encourage people to contribute to the forums is to say, look, these questions and discussing these questions is going to help you in the exam. And sometimes they’ll be motivated by that thought. But it doesn’t always work.
Assessment and Feedback
Arts L&T: Tell us about your approach to assessment in this unit.
Lea Beness: The assessment is based on an examination of the ancient sources. We try and get them to build up various skills as they go, but it’s scaffolded. We try and build up certain skills through the assessments and the focus is on the ancient sources, not just on literary evidence. We focus on the coin and papyri evidence.
Mark Hebblewhite: By doing that, Lea and Tom have quite cunningly constructed a way for the student to get confident about handing ancient sources, before they move on to the essays at the end of the course.
Arts L&T: Do you have a particular approach to marking and providing feedback?
Mark Hebblewhite: With that first assignment, I’m a little more forgiving, because I do recognise that a lot of them are coming into the discipline with no experience. I try and ensure that when I mark that first assignment, I give them the blueprint to succeed for their future assignments. They get the basics right, and if they don’t, I show them where they’ve gone wrong. By the time the second and third essays come around, I’ve told them up front that I’m going to mark more stringently. If they have a problem, I encourage them to come to me. Then I’ll work with students on draft essays for their second and third attempt, and I’ll comment [on the drafts]. If they succeed, we succeed. I absolutely love seeing students in their first essay, scraping a pass, and in their third essay they’re getting a distinction. I love to see that change throughout the unit. I tell them to read their essays out loud to themselves before they submit them. That’s the perfect way to find stupid mistakes that you’d otherwise miss, especially when you’re rushing for a deadline.
Arts L&T: In terms of other tools to promote student engagement and a sense of community, are you using the iLearn Twitter feed block on your unit home page?
Lea Beness: Yes, that’s a fairly recent addition, and I’ll be interested to hear what Mark thinks about that because that’s probably only been put in this year.
Mark Hebblewhite: I think it’s too early to tell. We need a bit more time to see.
Lea Beness: I’ve had Twitter feed in my units for a couple of years now and I thought is it a good idea to also have it for the OUA students who are very much apart from what’s happening. And I thought in the end that it’s probably better that they [OUA students] do see what’s going in.
Arts L&T: How important is ongoing professional development for teachers who are teaching in an online space like OUA? And what have you found useful in terms of professional development in learning and teaching?
Mark Hebblewhite: I sort of teach through instinct, to be honest. I try and learn from where I’ve made mistakes in the past. I listen to what works for other people. I haven’t done a great deal of professional development. In my case, I work a full-time job and I’m trying to write a book and I have children and all that stuff. So I haven’t really had time for that formal professional development. I teach with the attitude that you can always improve and you can always learn. And that being a teacher is a lifelong vocation, and with any lifelong vocation, you learn as you go. Where I think I could do with some improvement is with the technical side of things as well. I guess always looking to ensure that you’re connecting with the students because it [online teaching] a very challenging way to teach.
Lea Beness: In terms of development, I think listening to your peers teaching is really valuable. I’ve learned so much from Tom, personally, as a teacher. And other colleagues. I sit it on other classes a lot. I think you learn a lot that way – what works and what doesn’t work. The same thing’s not going to work for everyone so I think observing your peers is really important.
Arts L&T: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with the Arts Learning and Teaching Team today. And congratulations on your success with AHIX110.