“Hold on, what bloody camera is that!?” This is how our Zoom interview with Associate Professor Michael Volkov (Department of Marketing) began and it really just goes to show how in teaching, especially online, and in life, just about anything can happen!
As told to Kylie Coaldrake and Karina Luzia
Before you begin….
By special request – While reading this post, have in mind a vision of Chris Hemsworth and the voice of Morgan Freeman!
I teach students at the beginning and end of their learning journey
Q Could you tell us a little bit about your students over the past two years, or since you’ve been at MQ and the units that you’re teaching?
I’m really fortunate. I teach 2 units mainly and then I pop into other units from time to time. The first is MKTG1001 (Marketing Fundamentals), an essential unit in our generalist business degree, the Bachelor of Commerce. It’s also in other courses so usually I’d be looking at between 1200 – 1700 students per session. They’re at the very embryonic stage of their learning journey. Often my first week with them is their first week at Macquarie so they are anxious, excited, unsure, scared, happy, trying to find themselves, trying to work out who they are, what they are, and what they’re doing. It’s just such a beautiful thing to see them develop, even in the short time I have with them.
The other unit I usually teach is MKTG8080 (Strategic Marketing Management). So from a first-year unit to the postgraduate capstone unit for the Master of Marketing.
I get to see the students at the very beginning of their coursework journey and right at the very end – the top and tail, and that gives me just such an amazing perspective and love of growth of students. They all grow at different rates, and we know that, but just to be able to be part of that is amazing.
My fundamental role is teaching first year students how to Be At Uni
I see my role with the first-year undergraduate students as not just teaching them about the unit content but also about teaching them how to be at uni. It’s really these questions:
- How do you learn to manoeuvre?
- How do you map your journey?
- How do you learn what the expectations are?
- How do you interpret the rules of the game?
- How do you stop feeling isolated and alone?
- How do you find yourself and your people, and that sense of belonging?
It’s so much more than just book learning. It’s life learning at that level.
I always talk about the fact that students don’t come here as empty vessels waiting to be filled by us – they’re filled when they get here – they have experience, they have knowledge, they have life experience and lifelong learning because they’ve made it this far.
But I find that I have to be a bit more prescriptive and do a bit more boundary-setting with first year, first semester students, just to help them understand the process. It’s not so much the learning itself, but the process of learning and working out how to navigate around Macquarie to access the services. So I work very closely with the Writing Centre, the Library and the Business School library team to design workshop activities around things like learning skills, how to find things in the library, how to reference correctly, and how to analyse a piece of text.
My teaching is not solely focused on learning about Marketing. Sometimes, Marketing just happens to be the context, but the activity is about something else.
Postgrad students create their own journey
The Master of Marketing, of which MKTG8080 is the capstone, is the number one ranked Master of Marketing course in Australia and Oceania. It’s number 19 in the world out of all the hundreds of Master of Marketing courses in the QS World University rankings. We achieved that in the past two ranking cycles, so it wasn’t a one-off. We’ve been consistent.
A lot of the students are currently working in managerial areas within marketing, some students are working in managerial areas in other areas of business and want to move into marketing and they are using this degree to get their marketing qualifications.
I tend to be a lot more collaborative with them in their learning journey so that it becomes a create your own journey. I say “These are the unit learning outcomes, and they are set – this is what you’re expected to be able to demonstrate at the end of the unit – But how do you want to get there?”
MKTG8080 is very much about the application of marketing and strategic marketing management. We use a lot of fun assessment tasks in this unit including online simulations. One of the simulations is a six week-long game. It includes a lot of decisions they have to make, and they get to see their decisions and the impact in real time over that six-week period. So they do a lot of work outside of the traditional class time.
Often, I find that if teaching works, it works regardless of the type of student. It’s just what you do and the way you do it is different. I can push my postgraduate students a lot harder, a lot further and really test them out. But it doesn’t mean the way I do that is different – it’s just different outcomes really.
Ultimately for these capstone unit students this is about them getting ready to leave the safe protective space of the university.
Lectures are not dead…
… but the sage on the stage should be euthanised!
I don’t think of myself as a traditional teacher. I’ve been teaching wholly online/ blended/ hybrid /high flex, or whatever term you want to use, for a number of years.
Lectures are not dead but the stand-and-deliver, you know the sage on the stage, should be euthanised – I mean, give me a pen to shove in my eye! I believe that if we are going to have any learning experiences in any unit, lectures need to be active, they need to be activity-based, team-based learning, or combinations of those.
Students now have access to all of mankind’s knowledge and information. So the role of the teacher is more about putting that information together into something meaningful, making sense of it, constructing the knowledge in a way that benefits the students.
People much smarter than me have done a lot of research into activity-based teaching and learning and I haven’t seen any literature out there that says it doesn’t work. It’s a lot of work, but it never says it doesn’t work.
I see the learning management system (iLearn) as an online way to piece all the unit content together and give the students a threaded narrative path to help them make sense of the content, make it interesting and meaningful, and show how it relates to the learning objectives of the week, how that links to other weeks in the in the teaching period, and really helping them to try and answer the why – so that’s the online part of the blended aspect.
It’s not about reading the textbook out loud with the PowerPoint slide behind me. If students want to read, they’ll read, and don’t you dare quote this – we know they don’t read anything. So really, it’s about chunking up the information or the content into meaningful pieces.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m at home watching a movie, I can’t sit there for two hours doing nothing. Even as a 52-year-old now, I’ll watch a movie while I’m doing something on my computer while I’m doing something on my phone. Thank goodness there’s only one Wordle a day because otherwise that would just consume me. I’m an expert procrastinator. If they gave out PhD’s in it, I would have the Nobel Prize for that already.
So for my students, I chunk content into smaller bits and have activities within it, perhaps activities within videos but also between them where they watch something for five or seven minutes and then do an activity.
I want to thank Olga (Kozar) for putting that article up on TECHE about interactive Zoom (4-ideas-for-more-engaging-zoom-lessons) because that came around at a perfect time when I was sitting there wondering how I make it more enjoyable, more interactive, and allow students to receive some feedback on what they’ve been doing. With around 1700 students in that unit alone, I can’t provide personalised feedback to every single student. I don’t know if it’s a bad word to use, but I try and organise automated feedback.
How on earth do you make economics interesting?
I pity my colleagues in other departments of the Business School. I’m so fortunate I teach marketing. If I can’t make that fun and enjoyable then I’m not doing my job. I can include online copies of ads or movie clips and TV show clips in my work.
I must admit I know it’s getting dated now, but The Big Bang theory gave me a lot of stuff on psychological theories.
My discipline makes it easier for me than for other people – I mean it just does. How Prashan (Karunaratne) can make economics interesting I still don’t know because I just don’t think it’s humanly possible. Whereas at least with marketing I’ve got half a start. We’ve got some fun stuff. It’s like the tortoise and the hare and I’m starting halfway down the track.
We mix it up otherwise it would get drop dead boring
I set up my unit in iLearn so that it provides students with a step-by-step walkthrough of each aspect of each week.
But it’s not the same every week. We mix it up otherwise it would get drop dead boring. It might be “Read this chapter in the prescribed text and then once you’ve done that, do this multiple-choice test”. It’s just checking they understand keywords, key phrases, key concepts. I know it’s superficial – but, you know what? That’s actually fine. Not everything has to be deep learning. If they do it, I’ll give them some marks. Once they do that test it unlocks recordings, activities and other content for that week. They really have to read the chapter first. Then do the quiz. I don’t care if they get zero but they have to attempt the quiz or else they are locked out.
In theory, they could do the tests without reading the textbook. Why they would do that I don’t know, I think that’s silly but they can do that if they want.
I know some students like this structuring. Others tolerate it, others hate it with a passion. I get that, which is why I try to mix things up while keeping that process fairly similar. So instead of a textbook chapter, it might be a newspaper or magazine article to read. Or we might be talking about communication skills and I’ll give them the link to something topical or controversial (because university learning can be a bit dry). For example, watch the National Press Gallery speeches and think about different types of communication skills.
It’s low stakes marks for that test by the way – just 1 mark for each test. There’s 10 questions in a test each worth 0.1 of a mark, so one mark each week which adds up to 10% of the final grade. So low stakes but just checking learning and understanding.
Once they’ve done the test, they watch a recording which has more content and shows the application of the content and how it is linked to the reading. For example, we might have a reading on consumer behavior. I won’t repeat all the theories or concepts or models because they are in the textbook. I expect them to have done the reading because they had a multiple-choice test on it. This is taking them beyond the textbook.
After all that they are ready for the weekly workshop, whether it’s via Zoom or face to face on campus.
Believe it or not, that’s where myself and my teaching team do very little, which I love because I’m inherently lazy (I’m actually lazier than Homer Simpson and he’s made up).
People say “You’ll get bored sitting there. “ But they underestimate me so much – I’m waiting to develop my body shape as an indentation on my sofa. That would be heaven for me with the dog on my lap – bliss!
We tend to do very little talking in the workshop because everything is team-based learning – it’s active. The students work with the same group week in week out so that they develop a bond with each other.
A sea of faces on Zoom – doesn’t that make it a face-to-face experience?
I don’t know if I’m being semantic or not – but Zoom IS face to face. I can see you; you can see me – it’s a sea of faces!
I often say to my students “It’s not compulsory to turn your camera on – but it does help with your learning and with my learning because I learn in the class as well.”
I do admit that one of the fun things I like doing is if too many students have their camera off, is to spend about 10 minutes of the workshop doing this [turns camera off] and I remove my photo from the background so that it’s just the black screen of death.
But it’s about creating a safe space and sometimes even despite my best efforts at humor, students still don’t turn their camera on. I say to them “for my own pleasure and enjoyment, I just like seeing you. I like seeing your nonverbal communication and seeing when you understand things. If I’ve got a blank screen, I don’t know and that means I tend to ask a lot more questions when I might not need to and it wastes time. So really from that perspective, it’s about your learning because if I have to do other things that don’t assist your learning, it’s a waste of time and your time is valuable, you are important people, you’ve got other things you could be doing. I’m actually surprised you’ve turned up to spend time with me because you’ve got significant others, you’ve got a TV, you’ve got Nintendo Switch, you’ve got a book, you’ve got a dog or a cat. You’ve got friends. In fact, why are you spending time with me?
One of the reasons I do give is that I don’t like teaching to a black wall – it’s a long way down the list of reasons, but I still say it.
But I’ve been doing this a long time and I know there are a multitude of absolutely valid reasons why some people can’t turn their camera on. It might be because of where they are situated, it might be their household. I had a lovely postgrad student last year and the online class occurred while she was catching the train home. For that reason, she couldn’t turn her camera on, so she’d be sitting there with her headphones on, typing on chat. Occasionally she would turn the camera around and show us the carriage. She wouldn’t talk at all because there was lots of noise on the train so she would use the chat function on Zoom to engage with the class and with her group.
It’s important to be brave in your teaching
The past few years have been so tough and we’re all so tired. I mean, I don’t know about you. I’m so tired. But I love to hear about what other people have been doing in their teaching. That’s why I love the Teaching & Leadership Community of practice – there’s so much wonderful stuff going on out there.
I think it’s really important to be brave in your teaching. Trial and error does have a place in teaching. If you don’t try, how do you progress? How do you improve? How do you know if something works or doesn’t work?
But you have to be prepared for it to fail and you have to be OK with that. And let’s face it, sometimes I’m not, sometimes it really hurts. Like I really thought that would work – Oh ouch!
We share ideas across our department through a regular newsletter. It started out as a weekly newsletter but that seemed too much for people so now it’s monthly. We reference things from the Teaching & Leadership Community of Practice, the TECHE blog, from our own MQBS teaching learning online site, plus things on Twitter and other places such as Campus Morning Mail (where I read the Ed Tech section because it saves me trying to find and figure stuff out).
We set aside time each week for our own teaching development
Part of my role isn’t just to my undergraduate and postgrad students, I also try and help teach my colleagues. Earlier this session I worked with the L&T Staff Development team to run an Active Learning workshop in the Department of Marketing. Sometimes people think they practice active learning and they’re really not or they are, but they don’t know why they’re doing it. Or they aren’t aware of all the tools you have at your disposal, such as pair and share, one-minute papers – things like that are just quick and easy and really good for students to do.
I’m planning to arrange workshops for staff and invite some high-quality experts. I’d like to run a workshop on teaching philosophy. I’m also thinking about H5P – what it is, how to use it, things like that.
It is important to be able to explain your teaching philosophy. You need to have one if you are going to apply for a job, if you’re going for promotion, if you’re going to try and be a better teacher – you need to know what your philosophy is because that drives the things that you do and the things that you think.
One of the great things in the Department of Marketing is that we’ve been able to set aside time every Friday when no classes are scheduled. Now, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a tute or a workshop on at the time, but the majority of our staff should be able to attend, including sessional staff. And when I say staff, I mean everyone – academic, professional, continuing, sessional. We try and pay our sessional staff to attend as part of their development as they do most of our teaching. More often than not we can get money for this from the faculty as it’s seen as important and valuable. We invite our HDR students, particularly those interested in teaching or who are sessional teaching staff already. MRes, masters and first year PhD students in our department are not able to teach until they’ve passed what I call ‘confirmation’. But they can attend workshops or the Beginning to Teach program. There’s nothing stopping them, and we actually look favorably on people who do that, surprise, surprise! We invite as many people as we can because it makes us all better and I don’t want to make it sound like a competition or anything, but if it is, I want to win!
So part of my role is capability development for staff.
I’m an extremist!
Not only do I have the top and tail in my teaching, the service roles I have allow me to see different types of students too. I was chair of the University Medal Committee and at the same time a member of the University Discipline Committee – so it’s like the good, and the bad. No wonder I’m crazy because I seem to do things from one extreme to the other – I’m an extremist in the true sense of the word!
Get the small building blocks right and success will follow
I believe that if unit teaching is successful, however you want to measure it, then course teaching will be successful, the students will be successful, and the staff will be successful.
If you start at the smallest building block of what we do, which is the unit, and if you do that well, it all works. The other concept we try to adopt in the department is the idea that students don’t come here to study the unit Marketing Fundamentals. They come here to study a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Marketing Management or Marketing Consumer Insights.
The students trust that whatever little hurdles we are putting in front of them are the right ones that will allow them to get there, to give them the knowledge and skills and understanding to do whatever it is they choose to do afterwards. Whether that’s to get a job or whether it’s just learning for learning’s sake. They are trusting us that we’ve got that bit right.
Our role is to build the skills they need to be successful throughout. I see MKTG1001 as a launching pad for students to study the next unit or units in their course. This makes it a very different type of teaching to capacity development for my colleagues or teaching the postgrad capstone unit.
All this is what keeps my hair this colour, and why I’m tired, and I have bags under my eyes!
Teaching and a life emergency coinciding…
I started at Macquarie in October 2019 – my first semester of teaching was Session 1 2020 and I got through three weeks.
It was really crazy the way I found out about the lockdown. I was in the middle of a lecture to a full Macquarie Theatre and a student put up her hand up and said “Do we have class next week?” I said ‘Well yes – what do you mean?”
She read something out to the class and then all the students started checking their mobile phones. I was trying to be professional, saying to myself “Michael don’t check your own mobile phone, you know the students will tell you what it is”.
I mean it was an emergency. When it comes to teaching and learning it was an emergency shift online that affected all of our work. Clearly some people coped better than others, but then, everyone has done so well (staff and students) if you consider what a huge atomic shock this was.
I spent lockdown in a box with my family and credit to my youngest daughter for her resilience because I’m still alive – she didn’t kill me. I normally split my time between Melbourne and Sydney as my family live in Melbourne.
With that emergency move online, I asked my head of department if I could build the online units offsite (from Melbourne). He said “Of course, that’s the whole point!” And then I got stuck in the Melbourne lockdown.
I managed to come up towards the end of 2020 because the borders opened. But then they slammed shut again on both sides (NSW & Vic) and I didn’t make it back to Macquarie campus until the beginning of 2021 when I was teaching on campus.
I flew back to Melbourne in March 2021 because it was our 30th wedding anniversary. I was only meant to be there for a couple of weeks just for the mid semester recess. However, I had been getting unwell for about 8 months prior and I ended up in the emergency room requiring a significant operation. Then I had a long recovery. I had to decide whether to return to Sydney before Christmas or wait till the start of session one. The university made that easy by saying work from home if you can. So I just stayed in Melbourne. I spent eleven months off campus (during 2021) and when I finally came back to Sydney at the start of 2022, it was very exciting.
Niceness is underrated
Q From everything we’ve talked about today what do you see as being most relevant for other teaching staff to think about in relation to their own teaching, and do you have any advice to pass on?
I apologise if it sounds naff or trite, but my advice would be to just be kind, be patient, be respectful. And not just to our students. But also to our colleagues and most importantly to yourself. I think our expectations of everyone are just a little bit too high and I’m not saying dumb things down or anything but just be reasonable, be understanding, go easy, be nice. Niceness is underrated – there are so many people who need support for a multitude of reasons, some of which are obvious, a lot of them are invisible and we would never know.
With my own teaching, some students like it, some students love it, some students are indifferent. Some students absolutely hate the way I do things- you’re never going to please everyone all of the time. But just be nice about it!
By the time you read this, Associate Professor Michael Volkov will have returned to his family in Melbourne and to a new role at La Trobe University. We think you’ll agree that it’s Macquarie’s great loss and LaTrobe’s great gain. Signing off with a last remark from Michael –
Is that a secret in wall camera? That’s hilarious. I’ve always suspected that they had spy cameras sitting around the place. And it’s a great angle too….
Banner Image: Vector by Hub Design on Shutterstock
Question mark image: Flat illustration vector created by freepik – www.freepik.com
Marking image: Checklist photo created by d3images – www.freepik.com
All other images provided by Michael Volkov