Feedback in the recent student survey named John Knox (Senior Lecturer in Linguistics) as a helpful “knowledge master” when it comes to online learning. Here is John on how he makes all-online learning and teaching work for his students, in and beyond the current crisis. (As told to Kylie Coaldrake & Karina Luzia.)

John Knox, Linguistics

How did your approach to learning and teaching change in Session 1, 2020?

My approach to teaching and learning didn’t change at all. The big change to my practice was introducing synchronous teaching online.

In teaching, I have always talked to the students who are listening to the recording as well as talking to the students in the room, so have effectively been teaching to students in two different media. This meant that switching to synchronous teaching on Zoom was not a big shift, since (1) the asynchronous and synchronous online environments share several features, and (2) the teaching approach was already being delivered synchronously. This also meant that the handouts that I teach from, and with which students engage with while listening to me and while doing tasks together, did not require a complete overhaul for synchronous online teaching.

Like most of my colleagues in our programs, I come from a language-teaching background, so lectures are more like classes, involving teacher-centred lecturing and group work depending on the needs of the students and the demands of the content at any given time. This hasn’t changed.

In our postgraduate programs in applied linguistics, we have been teaching online since the early 2000s, and by distance since 1994. Our asynchronous materials and processes are well developed and accessible to on-campus and online students, just as our lecture recordings are accessible to on-campus and online students, so we were in a good position to switch to online delivery.

We have always had a large cohort of distance and international students, and are still one of, if not the largest and most prestigious applied linguistics program internationally.

Our programs have always stressed flexibility – our students are adults with adult problems, often with work commitments, often living in countries all over the world, those in Australia are often international students.

Many of our students (whether located in Australia or elsewhere) are living, studying, and often teaching in a foreign environment, so understanding and flexibility have always been important for us. Our students and academic staff have always had fantastic support from dedicated professional staff from the very beginning of the programs, when the Department built up an office of highly capable professional staff which later moved to the Faculty level.

What did you do to support your students during the COVID-19 situation? 

I try to stress to my students to contact me with whatever problems they are facing. For students dealing with the university online, their whole experience of the institution is mediated through a computer screen, so they don’t have that experience of seeing one group of people in one building for one set of problems, and another group in another building for other problems. It all just comes through email or a website, and it can be daunting trying to work out who they should contact about what. The institution understandably makes assumptions that all the administrative / procedural material sent to students has been read. The students understandably are overwhelmed and don’t read everything – it can be very difficult for them to tell what is a vital piece of information and what is something that can be ignored. I try to let them know that they can approach me, and then if it’s something I can’t deal with I can put them in touch with the right person (almost always one of the professional staff familiar with our programs).

I think most academic staff across the University do this – certainly in our programs. This year, the University has been very good with flexibility around deadlines and extensions. Most of my students haven’t needed this but a small number have definitely needed much longer extensions than would normally be the case because of the pandemic.

Reassuring students that they will be supported by the University has been important.

I encourage my students to work hard, but to maintain outside interests so they can ‘switch off’ their studies and come back refreshed. I play drums in a band with Linguistics academics from various universities (and other musos). Like our teaching, this extracurricular collaboration is currently conducted online. I’ve found playing music to be important for my own wellbeing over the years, and especially during COVID. I think it’s important for all of us to have a focus outside our teaching / learning / research interests.

What do you think made the difference? Any tips? 

I hesitate to answer this kind of question because I don’t believe I’m doing anything special, and I have more to learn from colleagues than they have to learn from me. You also need to look at the situation of individual staff – I am fortunate to have a continuing position, whereas contract and casual staff face great challenges in trying to provide support for insecure students while they themselves are in an insecure situation.

But something I think is important is to design teaching/learning experiences with the medium in mind.

A lecture designed for a large group of students situated in the same room is unlikely to translate well if simply converted to an audio or video file.

Our asynchronous online materials and activities are consistent with our face-to-face materials and activities, but they are necessarily different.

This is one reason why I haven’t done sychronous online teaching before, and also haven’t done a lot of video work in my own materials for online students. Video material is highly valuable but it needs to be designed carefully, and doing a professional job requires a lot of time in planning and design, in addition to the recording, editing, and production. Finding the time to do that is challenging, and I know there are colleagues in the university who are a long way ahead of me in using self-made videos in their teaching.

Anything you would do differently next time? 

Not immediately. For our teaching model (classes with no labs or pracs), the switch to Zoom was much less problematic than it was for colleagues in other disciplines. In first semester 2020, we all switched, and the high degree of certainty was a positive. The change to teaching synchronous-online and f2f simultaneously in semester 2 has led to less certainty and led in my case to a very odd kind of mixed-mode, so I actually think, for us, it was better the first time around than the second. But this depends on the teacher, the learners, and the content.

Over time, I would like to think carefully about how to design teaching-learning experiences better for the medium of Zoom (or other video-conferencing platforms).

I suspect it works much better for groups of about 8-15 rather than 30-50+ if you want to do tasks (which we do). But all that has to be balanced against available resources. And I think the development needs to be incremental – we are moving from what we are familiar with to ways of teaching and learning that we are unfamiliar with, so sudden and drastic change in what we do is unlikely to serve anyone well.

Any resources you found helpful? 

The only change was converting from f2f to Zoom for synchronous delivery.

On Zoom, the lack of non-verbal feedback from students is challenging – you can’t ‘read the room’, and you miss all those subtle clues about how well an explanation is working, whether the groups are coming to the end of a task or whether they are powering on and you should let it run for a while. And it’s harder for students to ‘grab’ you to ask a question while you’re circulating, so I think that’s a disadvantage from the learner’s perspective. I have observed my own university-age children learning on Zoom at other Australian unis and it can work well from the learner’s perspective too, though not always. But on balance, I think Zoom is a good resource for synchronous teaching – the possibilities have developed a lot (e.g. availability of bandwidth and video cameras in devices) since we first went online about 15-20 years ago. It will be interesting to see where we are in another 10 years, and more importantly, what new ways of interacting emerge in synchronous platforms, especially between teachers and learners.

Any other comments? 

I’m very fortunate to have fantastic students and great academic and professional colleagues, and to teach in a program that’s been a world leader for almost three decades (and the world leader for a large part of that time).

Posted by L&T Development

The Learning and Teaching Staff Development team works with staff across the University to ensure they are supported to facilitate quality learning for students. This includes offering professional development, contributing to curriculum and assessment design, recognising and rewarding good practice, supporting peer review of teaching, and leading scholarly reflection. Email with questions or requests.

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