Fay Hadley is an Associate Professor in the School of Education. Her students commended her for “clear content in iLearn, great lectures” and for having been “so supportive during this time”. Here Fay explains how she brought her internal and external students to learn together during COVID and the importance of an authentic presence when teaching online. As told to Kylie Coaldrake and Karina Luzia.
Moving to all-online, I changed how I teach internal and external students
The master’s unit that I was teaching (ECHE8200), has a diverse group of about 60 students who come from a range of perspectives. Some are doing the Master of Teaching so they come in with another cognate degree. Some are already teachers in early childhood and primary schools. Then we have an Open University Australia (OUA) cohort who usually only ever get online support with no f2f classes. Internal students would usually have three on-campus seminar sessions during semester. The external students usually just have one online Zoom, and the OUA students technically don’t have to participate in any f2f sessions because they are fully online.
When we all went online, I thought it was crazy to try to treat them all differently, so I had to rethink the way I delivered the unit so that everybody was treated as one cohort.
I went to every Zoom information session that I could in that two-week lockdown (about using break out rooms, recording to the cloud, sharing screens, teaching online etc) because I had only ever used Zoom at a very basic level. I will never go back to using Zoom the way I used to – it’s got so much capacity I just had no idea. I also read a lot about what makes a good online environment.
I switched to fortnightly Zoom sessions – and it wasn’t me just talking like a lecture – they were like tutorials. There were break out rooms where we would watch something together and the students would go off and do a task and then I would pop into the rooms and chat to them.
Interestingly, it was the external and OUA students who loved it the most. They said that they have never felt more engaged. I didn’t make attendance compulsory because I changed the time from what was originally timetabled. Instead of a Friday seminar from 9-4, which I thought wouldn’t work online, it became evening 7-8.30. I gave them the option to attend, to drop into the ones they could, and not worry about the ones they couldn’t. I would have at least half attend each week. I recorded them and I put them up on iLearn afterwards so at least they got the general gist of the discussions and the tasks that were given.
I opened modules slowly
Though I had all the lectures prerecorded and all the content and tasks ready, I decided to only open modules in iLearn a couple of weeks in advance. I think it helped in that students didn’t get too overwhelmed with content.
It also allowed me to really jump on real life current contemporary hot off the press kind of stuff – I was pulling out current articles, current blogs, current talks that were illustrating the kinds of positions that I wanted them to understand in that module anyway.
I gave them the lectures and readings, but then I added a provocation, an article, a blog, or a TED talk that resonated with the topic we were doing. That would become the focus for the reflection that week and I asked them to respond to questions about that. Finding those interactive resources made it less static and they certainly seemed much more engaged.
I’m more flexible about on-campus attendance
In future, for the on-campus students, I want to move away from having the three seminar days and think about having it more methodically across the semester and the reason I have never done that before is because Education students have to come to some on campus. But master’s students don’t want to come to classes every week. In S2, we combined f2f and Zoom, and I’m thinking we could easily continue that model and set it up so if students want to be on-campus they can come but, if they don’t, then we also have the Zoom link and they can Zoom in. I’m thinking about how best to deliver the internal cohort differently. But I liked that they became one cohort, whereas I’ve always felt like they were two very distinct cohorts and then OUA was like my third cohort – but I felt that because of COVID, they became a united cohort.
I’m going to continue to use breakout rooms
I asked students to send informal feedback at the end of semester about what they liked or didn’t like. They all said they liked the way I used Zoom – they loved those tute breakout rooms. One external student said, “I feel like I am back in a tutorial at uni even though I am in Melbourne”. I have a student in Dubai studying through OUA – she said, “you’ve got me excited again about my masters, I’ve been doing it since 2015, I’ve been dragging it, I’ve got 2 kids, now I just want to jump back in and really get this degree finished”. A couple of them talked about moving on to Master of Research. It was quite interesting as I have never really had that level of excitement about study – it was nice to hear that.
I’m reducing the length of lectures
I will keep the online lecture but reduce the length and then ramp up a bit more of that front-end bit. So not just the blog, which they have to do for the assessment, but something else so it’s not always the forum blog in iLearn. For example, I could send them off to Google Docs so they all collaborate. Or I might use a Padlet. It’s not like all of the content will go – they get a 20-minute lecture, then they do something, then dive back into another 15-20 minutes – but no more than 15-20 minutes. They still have their required readings but now they also have a provocation to respond to in a forum.
I’ve been dabbling with using Zoom for recording my lectures this semester and I’m quite liking the Zoom capability – you can do a bit more in it than with Echo360.
I really want to rethink the internal/external cohort division and how we make all 60 students feel like they are one cohort, even though they study in different ways.
My biggest learning is that even though the external students are signing up for external study they like that weekly or fortnightly engagement – and they like to know that they haven’t been forgotten until the compulsory on-campus day in Week 7!
I‘m getting to know students so much better
When I was reaching out to the students who hadn’t engaged and checking if they were OK, or the ones that were saying “I don’t know if I’m going to stay in the unit”, or “I’m a bit overwhelmed with so much else going on “, I just offered them all a one-on-one Zoom session. I had quite a few one-on-one Zoom consultations over the session and it worked really well.
I really feel that as a result of COVID I got to know those students so much better than I’ve ever got to know them in the past. It is so wonderful with Zoom; their name is there – it’s just so good.
When you are in the classroom and you have only seen them three times you can’t remember their name but you want to remember their name – so that’s what I really liked about being able to teach online is that you actually get to know who they are.
In my leadership position I also look after professional experience. There were 1000 students who should have been on prac who weren’t – there was a lot of stress out there, so I was just trying as much as possible to reduce their stress. I don’t know what it was about COVID but it created a new sort of intimacy – people felt comfortable enough to tell you their struggles because everybody was struggling, whereas they usually feel that they are the only one going through that. It was interesting that they were so open about the things that they shared.
Zoom consultations really work
Initially, when I offered all the Zoom consultations, I was worried as to how many people would take me up on it. But they don’t all take you up on it and they are really mindful too – they don’t try and monopolise your time. You can be more flexible with scheduling – for those that were still at work I would do the Zoom consultation in the evening.
Previously, I had to try and find a time they were on campus and when I wasn’t in a meeting. Now, it’s easy to just fit it in around everything. I wouldn’t go back to a f2f – I mean I would offer it – I would say I’m on campus we could do it here or we could do it as a Zoom at these times.
I let students choose
My daughter is in her first year of uni, and I have friends with children at uni, and the things they were telling me also helped me rethink what I expected in Zoom. They were telling me about how anxious their children were when everything went to online because they felt like they were on display – you know – you are in your home, you can see things around you, you can’t look away. Usually in the classroom if you are one of 30 you can kind of hide, you don’t have to answer a question, you are less likely to be pulled up. So that made me think too, so I didn’t push cameras. I know some academics expect to see the camera on in the breakout room – I just didn’t do that – I let them choose. I said “Turn your camera on if you want, if you can’t or you’ve got low wifi, it’s fine! I’d love to see your face but if that doesn’t work for you don’t worry”. In the small breakout rooms where I only had 5 or 6, maybe 1 student would have their camera off. In the full class zoom, maybe half had them off.
I think we’ve still got some learning to do around the sensitivities of students being comfortable in this space, around wellbeing and anxiety. Just because I feel really comfortable in this space doesn’t mean everybody else feels comfortable.
I use the blog to engage students and recognise their contributions
Students in this unit do a weekly blog. There are 10 modules, and they submit at least 5 blog posts for assessment, so I already felt that the weekly engagement was pretty high. This year I tried to really ramp up that task to ensure they stayed engaged.
So each week I checked the weekly blog. I would skim through them and make a bit of a summary which I would then post. I would say things like “I really liked to see that you were discussing this” or “I really liked the way that X posted this point and it sems to have encouraged a lot of discussion and there’s many of you that have been debating this issue – keep going”. I would always name a couple of students in my description and the whole thing was kind of a reminder to the students who hadn’t yet posted. So they were aware that I was watching and reading. That got really good feedback from the students. They said it made them keep doing the posts because they could see I was engaged, reading their stuff and was responding. I didn’t read 60 blogs every week, but I read whatever was there by a certain point in time during the week.
Some students were posting resources they had found themselves, something they have not done much before. They would say “Have you seen this article, or this TEDS talk or this information”. That I found really nice and useful too – that they were sharing additional resources they were finding above and beyond what I had been putting up. I was copying these resources into my own documents and thinking about how I can use them next year in my teaching – so that was all really helpful.
An authentic online teaching presence
I think the most important thing when teaching online is having that online presence. And we know that and the research and literature tells us that, but also doing it authentically, not just popping in and doing a random ‘Hi, yep, I can see you’re fine.
That’s what I meant when I said I was summarizing what they had done with their posts and making sure I had a couple of student’s names in there, pulling out a quote where I liked what they wrote or something. Offering online one-on-one Zoom sessions for any struggling students and using iLearn insight emails to identify who I thought was disengaging are all ways of displaying your presence online. I think the other thing about any online teaching, and not just during a crisis, is being really timely in responding. If you have discussion forums and you know there is an assessment coming up, don’t not look at your iLearn site for 4 or 5 days because the questions will be going crazy.
Students also said that they really appreciated my timely feedback. Mind you, I didn’t do it 24/7 – I wasn’t checking my iLearn site at 10pm at night! Instead, I set clear expectations from the beginning: if you post something, then every second day, I will go in, check and respond. So, there might be up to 2 days without a reply from me. When students post a question about an assessment, or they are a bit confused about things, I know from experience that it can spiral out of control really quickly; students get really cranky, or they start answering each other’s questions but incorrectly, and then everybody goes off on the wrong tangent. If you are going to have those discussion forums and you are asking students to ask questions, then you’ve got to be willing and able to get in there in a reasonable time to respond – because otherwise, it can create chaos!
I think all of us in session 1, whether academic or professional staff, I think we all worked extremely hard – we were all working above and beyond, I don’t know anybody that wasn’t. I was glad that S1 finished and we got a bit of a break because it was exhausting flipping our teaching so quickly!
Fay Hadley is an Associate Professor in the School of Education and is the Director for Initial Teacher Education. She specialises in leadership in early childhood education, working with families and professional experience and teaches in both the undergraduate and postgraduate Early Childhood Teaching courses. Prior to academia her roles included early childhood teacher, director, and project manager for larger early childhood organisations. View her Research Profile