On-line teaching

Uni starts today! I’m teaching three courses (or subjects) on community engagement or community capacity building. (Welcome! – if any of my students read this.)  As I have said before, it is somewhat ironic – I generally don’t actually meet the students even though we are exploring community engagement (assuming that community capacity building relies on community engagement).

When I started, I was somewhat skeptical about how well it would work, but it does seem to be going OK. Feedback (which I obtain every semester) is generally positive. For some students, being able to study online is important in their decision to choose the course (they might have a professional placement during the semester, are doing an extra course, or are not based in Newcastle). Studying online does, however, create challenges for some students (including students who chose the course because it was online). In particular some of them miss the personal contact with teaching staff and other students they receive through face to face teaching.

Because the courses are about community engagement. I think it is important that we model what we are teaching (that we walk the talk). I try to ensure there are ample opportunities for students to feel engaged and to realise that we are accessible.

Some of the ways that we (the tutors for the undergraduate course and I) try to engage students include:

  1. When students introduce themselves (in an online forum) we try to respond individually to each student. It takes quite a while, but I think it is important to acknowledge each of them as an individual and to show that we really do read what they write.
  2. I try to respond to questions quickly. I encourage students to post questions in an online forum for the course so that all students can see the questions and response. As I receive an email whenever something is posted in the forum I can often respond within an hour or two, although sometimes if is closer to 24 hours or occasionally even longer if I am away or particularly busy. I ask them to email me if they haven’t heard within a day or two just in case I missed their question. (It really is hard to keep up with all the emails I receive and sometimes I miss some, or read it and mean to get back to it but don’t.)
  3. For the major assessment tasks I tried to create tasks that allow students to look at topics that interest them (e.g., critique an example of community engagement – the example can be anything that want). The community capacity course was not originally designed by me so the first major assessment is not quite as flexible.
  4. We use discussion forums or blogs as part of the minor assessments to encourage students to share ideas and resources. Some of them help prepare for major assessments too.
  5. We try to provide good feedback for major assessment tasks. This can be quite challenging when there are 60 or more papers to mark for one course, but again I believe it is important. I must admit we give more feedback for the first major assessment than the final one as my impression is that feedback from the first one can influence how they tackle future assessments, whereas they are unlikely to have any more papers marked by me after their final assessment so feedback is less important.
  6. As well as giving individual feedback on assessments we usually also give more general feedback to all students so they can learn from each others’ experience.
  7. I try to send an email about once a week to students to remind them about what is coming up, tell them about a useful resource, encourage them to ask lots of questions and/or just to check how they are going.
  8. I try to keep the tone of emails and contact fairly informal and to give the impression that I am pretty approachable. We use Blackboard for the online teaching and unfortunately all my emails are sent out as being from Dr Graeme Stuart. I very rarely use the title and would much prefer to just be Graeme, but I can’t change it in Blackboard.

The undergraduate course is an elective undertaken by students from a range of disciplines. As it is an elective, I have designed it (and the postgrad courses to a lesser extent) so that they are fairly easy to pass (if students do the work). In the undergrad course they can receive 10% for participation in the online discussion and a further 10% for an online quiz which, if they do all the required readings, is pretty straightforward (most students receive at least 8 out of 10 for it.) This means that if they struggle with the major assessments, they generally pass (although I am quite prepared to fail students who are not up to an appropriate standard). The reason I make it easy to pass is that this might be the only course of this type they do. They might be from a discipline that has quite different conventions and expectations (e.g., science or radiography) and so they might do really well in their discipline but struggle with the elective. I think it is up to the discipline to fail poor students rather than an elective.

I actually started this blog with students in mind. I hope it will be a good way to share my experiences and learnings, to let them know about useful resources, and to personalise the learning experience a little bit.

I hope that students (and others) will find the blog useful and will add comments, make suggestions about content or resources. If you are studying, good luck!

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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