Max Harwood is a sessional academic, convening and teaching in the Department of Anthropology. His students have stated that “a dedicated tutor/professor is key in making the online experience positive”, and according to them, Max is It – “There was nothing he could’ve done better. I cannot explain how helpful he has been and how well he adapted the subject [for online learning].”
Here Max shares his approach to making the learning experience equitable for all students; his thoughts about the importance of communication – and of having a comfortable chair when teaching online.
As told to Karina Luzia and Kylie Coaldrake.
How did your approach to teaching change in the move to all-online learning?
I guess my approach changed mostly in how I thought about using technology for learning and teaching, which is probably a bit of a boring answer.
I have an informal background in IT, especially in understanding the relationship between software and hardware – so when the announcement about the full shift to online came in March, I immediately saw the problem we’d be facing: not everyone is going to have a really good iPhone or laptop to be able to engage, and that’s fundamentally going to disrupt aspects that we often take for granted in teaching and learning, by which I mean, the ability to attend classes or fully engage in learning. Then everyone started talking about using zoom and I was like – yikes, it’s going to be a nightmare having to have everybody learn zoom on the fly.
And then I thought – I’m not going to use zoom at all.
Instead I’m going to try to create a system where attendance is through text-based contributions over the week so that students can all have a chance to do their thing.
Interesting that you chose not to use Zoom! How did you make that work?
To be honest, my personal experience brought me to this: in my family, and my partner’s family, I’m the IT guy. I’m constantly fixing people’s IT and tech problems. So I just understand the nightmare that is people using their devices while not knowing at all what’s under the hood and how it all works. So in terms of teaching, I wanted to find out how we ensure all the students who are coming to class online are able to have an equitable experience, with whatever device they have, without needing to know how it all works or without having to do anything complicated.
As a teacher, this is all about duty of care, but it’s also me being me. I was expecting all-online teaching on zoom to be a nightmare, with weeks wasted just getting into the groove, when we could just do something radical yet simple just for now and then reassess. I ran it by the students and we deliberated as a teaching team. I was co-convening the unit and so I developed this system to just have discussion forums with exercises based around those forums.
These forums were all on iLearn, set up the same way you have any general discussion forums.
Use of discussion forums was an intuitive move – we considered what the students already knew how to do.
It was a question of how do I reconstruct or modify this course in light of COVID, in a way that doesn’t introduce any new elements? No new software, no additional things. How do we deliver the exact same level of teaching but through existing systems? That’s why I was reticent to use zoom. My colleague ran zoom tutorials from Day 1 and had a good experience, and as a result of that good experience, we will use it in future. But when everything was happening on the fly, I didn’t want to introduce any new pieces of technology or new systems at a time that was already incredibly disruptive. I teach across the board – 3rd year and 2nd year this semester, and last semester I taught 1st year as well. I noticed that, no matter where students are in their program, it was no indication of their ability to cope with what happened – I had just as many first year students out-of-their-mind with confusion, as I had third years.
In Session 3 last year, I co-convened the unit Drugs Across Cultures which is routinely taught online. In that unit we had forums. We didn’t have zoom – no one really knew what zoom was at that point. So, when COVID hit, my brain went back a step and I was in the zone. I borrowed a lot of the frameworks from that unit as they were tried and tested.
We then held a markers and convenors meeting at the end of session, and the feedback said that the way we did the session worked.
What (else) do you think made a difference for your teaching and for your students’ learning?
Communication. I know that sounds glib – but I am famous for my Russian novel-esque messages to students, where I try to think about every possible question and respond to all these. Some academics can be really terrible with their emails – well, maybe not terrible but not as attentive!
I found that the most positive feedback I get as a teacher, irrespective of COVID, is “Oh man, you answer your emails super quickly.”
I aim to respond to students within 24 hours. When COVID happened I just amped that up and was basically posting updates every other day in the lead-up then throughout the session, just continuing to remind students that they can email me at any time, or post something on the forum at any time. I think that they really felt that I was there, whereas I know, in other units there was a real sense of students just being left in the abyss.
Apart from communicating well with your students, I think it is also important to be really knowledgeable about the technology that you are using and maximise its utility to your advantage in order to best replicate the face-to-face contact.
What would be your number 1 tip for teaching online?
Communication is the main one – trying to replicate the physical presence of the teacher/student dynamic as best you can – and for me, that’s through heightened communication, emailing back and forth, messaging, being really clear on instructions, checking in all the time, asking Do we understand where we are at, Do we understand where this is going in terms of the unit, and how we are delivering it.
Any resources you found helpful during this time?
In terms of resources, I recommend everybody get a good chair with a back – I’ve never had back problems before and now I’m seeing a physio once a month and it’s a nightmare.
There’s also only one desk in my apartment so I sat at the dining table for 3 months on a bench – fortunately now I have a very nice ergonomic chair.
Any other comments you would like to make about your experience of teaching in S1?
It was extremely unsatisfying as a teacher and (I assume) as a student. I’m surprised about the feedback – I assumed the whole semester would be a write-off! The students were enjoying themselves, but for me, it was ultimately extremely dissatisfying. I’m glad that we were still able to work and at least do something with the semester. I worry that this has created a precedent for further removal of face-to-face teaching. We coped with it and it worked really well in a way – but now there might be more incentives to have me zooming with 60 students, instead of 20 in person. I worry about what some of the negative consequences might be.
Having a good tutor can be the best experience of an entire unit even if you have a lecturer that’s not very good. If the tutor is decent, the way they run the class can be great.
One of the reasons I pursued a job in teaching, post-PhD, not just for having something to do with my life while I figured it out, but because my fondest memories as an undergraduate student were in tutorials. That’s where I not only had the biggest breakthroughs intellectually, it’s where I got my inspiration.
My parents are both teachers, so I guess it’s in the DNA. I just enjoy being in tutorials – I think it’s really rewarding to see students having breakthroughs. Sure, I see students on their phones not paying attention – but then I also see students that are having the best time – I love it.
With zoom, that would go in a sense; it would reduce the intimacy, it would change the dynamics. But then again people always say this about technology – everyone thought that televisions were going to corrode the social fabric and that’s been fine so you can’t get in the way of progress, I guess.
You’re a casual academic. How long have you been working at Macquarie?
I prefer the term ‘permanent casual’, as we call ourselves at the Macquarie Casual Collective – I have been working as a full-time casual academic since Session 1 2019, prior to this I was living in Canada, Turkey and Israel for my PhD. I taught one semester when I came back during my thesis in 2017. I finished my PhD at the end of 2018 and moved back to Australia with my partner from Canada and have been full time ever since but on a casual basis.
In the lead up to session 2 this year there was a lot uncertainty in that area. We all lost our jobs for a few days and then we got them back – one day we were going to be teaching, and then we weren’t. Initially it was going to be entirely online, with no zoom tutorials and the lectures being done by continuing staff members. In that scenario, casual staff might get paid a few demonstrator hours a week as a tutor to run the forums.
The forums are not as much work as the teaching, and as much as I like getting paid, it’s not commensurate with how much we get paid for the classes we teach. In terms of being a teacher, there is a big difference in the amount of labour, and the amount of effort, so I was actually not in favour of it because I wanted to get paid properly but I understood – I wouldn’t pay me a tutorial rate either for the amount of work that I do in this dissatisfying text-based forum. But in the end, they pivoted and said actually we are going to have zoom tutorials and then a few days later the plan was to be teaching on campus sort of and so we all got our jobs back.
So, over the space of a week everybody collectively lost their minds and people were ready to go to the mattresses but by the end of the week it was all back to normal. Such is the nature of being a casual.
Dr Max Harwood is a sessional convenor, lecturer and tutor in the Department of Anthropology. View his Researcher Profile