Nathan Hart is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. His students state that he deserves “high praise… he has set the standard for online learning” and “he should be the model for all other unit convenors”: “I feel motivated and in the loop when I check in to BIOL2230’, and “Nathan Hart answers all student questions in a quick and comprehensive manner”.
Here, Nathan details his intensive approach to student communication and how he adapted his prac-based units in Session 1 to take full advantage of iLearn (and his kitchen table!) As told to Kylie Coaldrake and Karina Luzia .
Your communication approach is clearly well regarded by the students in your unit. What do you think made a difference?
I have always made a point over the years, not just in the transition to online, to always get back to students quickly, and to try to be as comprehensive and clear in my answers as possible.
Where possible, I tried to reply within 12 hours – so if someone emails late one night, I make sure I reply to that 1st thing in the morning, and if not then by lunchtime. From a convenor’s point of view, it takes up a massive amount of time. I did add the emails up – I taught 450 students in S1 and I processed over 2000 emails. If each one of those emails takes conservatively 2 minutes to deal with, that’s a massive workload, just on communications, and then there are the hundreds of iLearn forum posts.
You can post information on iLearn and a lot of students read it but out of 450 students you might get 400 who read it and 50 don’t, so they then email you or post about it and if you don’t reply, they feel like they haven’t been given the information they need. Communication is very important but very time- intensive. I don’t mind doing it though, I like interacting with students.
I always make it a priority, especially on forums, to reply quickly and comprehensively so that everybody gets the benefit of that.
It’s interesting that in Session 1, my LEU (Learner Evaluation of Unit) comments went from the sublime to the ridiculous – some saying ‘best lecturer they’ve ever had in several years of university’ – and others said ‘that was terrible, I taught myself in this unit’. With a cohort of 450 people, you are going to get all these different responses. I pay attention to the negative and try to see where I can improve but I also take on board where people have appreciated stuff and keep on doing the same.
How did your approach to teaching change in the move to all-online learning?
I really used iLearn far more than I have in previous years in every way. I updated it frequently when things were changing, and included an ‘Updated on’ date in the title so people knew when that information became current. I listed when things were likely to change, such as how assessments were going to be run, so there were no nasty surprises and people had good warning.
The unit had 12 lab classes per week and when run on campus, we could easily do a group assignment and get it all marked within the practical class. But trying to coordinate all of that online through zoom became a bit of a nightmare, so we decided to have a different assignment. Although we tried to give people as much warning as possible, managing that change was one of the harder things to do.
I learnt a lot about the functionality of iLearn this year, such as the different ways that you can use it to structure learning. When you just use it as a basic tool, you don’t realise how powerful it can be for guiding learning.
For example, this was the first time I used the iLearn lesson structure. It allows you to set up a lesson where students go through to learn the information in a modular fashion, perhaps watch a bit of video, and then you can introduce some formative questions at the end, followed by a summative quiz. I think that worked well and it’s something I would like to use more. This was a consequence of having to modify activities for which there was no real way of duplicating the face to face experience.
We certainly had to improvise this year during the lockdown. My wife even volunteered to be the subject in a video I made for the students about blood pressure and heart rate . These sorts of videos were kind of fun to do and I hope students appreciated the effort. The iLearn lesson structure enhanced those sorts of activities by linking other information with that video content – students watch the video and then integrate that with the lesson and the quiz. I think it worked well and I will keep doing some of that in the future.
I really tried to use the iLearn Insights this year- it is amazing how many emails I got from students saying ‘thanks so much for reminding me about that assessment.’
Even though it seems like quite an impersonal system, the students don’t see that and they appreciate the reminders. I think completion of activities was helped by using iLearn Insights so that is something else that I will continue to use, especially as there seems to be more functionality being built into it all the time. I would certainly advise other people to use it.
A couple of other things we did included allowing extra time for problems with exams and assessments. I took the view that I would be lenient where I could with assessments, as I am sure many other people did. Where students were struggling with technical issues with assignments, we would schedule a separate one-on-one zoom session. I would have done that for anybody. Hopefully that kind of targeted help does really send the message – because as you know, students talk! – that the convenor cares about their learning experience, even if he can’t do everything and speak to everyone.
Anything you would do differently next time?
One thing I wish I had more time for in S1 was Zoom Q&A and check-in sessions which everybody could jump on. My experience in talking to other convenors is that these are sometimes not that well attended. I still would have liked to have done more of that, even if it just helped 10% of the students; just once or twice a week being able to jump on zoom and ask questions about that lecture or anything else about the course or assessments. A bit like having consultation hours. It was purely a constraint of time. There are only so many hours in the day and obviously building the new content, replying to forums and doing all the other things you are supposed to do took up all the time that otherwise I would have spent on that.
In an ideal world, more zoom, where you just make yourself available for an hour and people could come and ask questions.
What would be your number 1 tip for other teaching staff?
For me it would be to ask your colleagues for advice. Of course, we have our learning designers in the Faculty, but the depth of knowledge across the department in our own colleagues about what sort of assessments they set, and the pitfalls or the benefits of particular assessments, was for me, the most useful thing when suddenly faced with the need to change assessments and lessons.
I’m a typical academic who likes to think they can solve every problem on their own sitting in their office and tend to forget the fact that just down the corridor, there is probably someone who has a got a solution or suggestion that could help.
My suggestion would be to reach out to your colleagues and find out how they are doing things because that sort of combined knowledge can be really useful for providing ideas that you can then run with.
Were there any other resources you used in addition to iLearn Insights?
We really kept things very low-tech and tried to exploit the functionality in iLearn as much as possible. We have wonderful tech staff who helped to make videos and other resources for units.
But because we were stuck at home and I had a video camera at home, I brought all the electrophysiology equipment back from work and got some crickets from the pet shop and I filmed a neuropharmacology experiment on crickets at home on my kitchen table. We tried to keep it as cheap as possible because we were also trying to save the casual teaching budget at the same time.
I investigated the Journal of Visualised Experience (JOVE); however, there wasn’t a lot of relevant content there. We also looked at Labster which could potentially be good for something like my unit but it’s very expensive to get a license, so we didn’t end up going down that route. We considered the online lecture databases that we can access through the library – I didn’t use them in the end but given a bit more time I might have delved into that.
The other thing specific to my unit was the fact that my recommended textbook ended up as an e-book through Leganto. It just popped up in my iLearn page one day. I don’t know which magical fairy did that but it was amazing to see that in place. It meant that students didn’t have to buy the book as they could just get the e-book online.
Did you do anything differently in Session 2?
I became interim Head of Department in Session 2, so at the moment I’m not teaching and I’m not sure if I will be teaching in Session 1 next year. Normally in Biology we try to concentrate our teaching in one semester rather than across two – so Session 2 is supposed to be my time to concentrate on research – but that hasn’t happened. There are a lot of lessons from Session 1 that I will take into future teaching because the model that we will be running next year is probably going to be a mix of face to face and online, so most of the stuff that we had to work so hard to get up and running in Session 1 will be useful going forward as well.
If you don’t get a chance to teach again, will you miss it?
I really do like teaching. Of course, the face-to-face work in the labs with the students is the best bit of it. I will miss it, although I will probably be guest lecturing even if I’m not convening an entire course.
Teaching is great fun and I think it’s a particularly important thing for researchers to do. It would be a sad day if we lost the direct interface between the research and the teaching, at all levels, 1000 level and up. For me, it is incredibly valuable.
Nathan Hart is an Associate Professor and interim Head of Department in the Department of Biological Sciences. As well as teaching Neurophysiology, his research focusses on the neural basis of behaviour in a range of animals. View his Research Profile