Some hints re course coordination for new lecturers

HLSC2241 online teachingI’ve been asked to speak to new lecturers at the Uni about the role of a course coordinator. (Note: the University of Newcastle uses course to refer to individual subjects and program to refer to the collection of courses that make up a degree) and thought I’d share some thoughts here.

According to the Uni, the responsibilities of a course coordinator include:

Prior to the teaching period

  1. Course design
  2. Course outline
  3. Timetabling
  4. Staffing
  5. Management processes
  6. Resources
  7. Blackboard course site

During the teaching period

  1. Respond to students’ learning needs
  2. Manage the course Virtual Learning Environment (including Blackboard)
  3. Manage the teaching team
  4. Manage assessment processes
  5. Manage teaching and learning activities
  6. Manage course evaluation strategies

At completion of the teaching period

  1. Finalise course grades
  2. Complete course evaluation

Coordinating courses involves quite a lot of work, so I have tried being as efficient as possible, while also providing a positive experience for students. Nearly all my teaching is online, but many of the strategies I use could also apply to face-to-face teaching and blended teaching (combination of face-to-face and online).

Using a spreadsheet and mail merge

Each semester we need to prepare a Course Outline (which has all the important information about the course including assessment details) and create a Blackboard site (our online teaching environment for the course). These include lots of material that remains unchanged most times (e.g., the overall course structure, many of the readings), some material that gets updated every now and again (e.g., new items for the reading list), and some material that needs to be updated every time (e.g., assessment due dates).

I use an Excel spread sheet to help manage the material that changes each time and then use Mail Merge in Word, to generate information I can copy and paste into NUSTAR (which generates the course outline) and the Blackboard site.

The excel spread sheet is mainly for dates of modules and assessments. It means that I only need to change them in one place and then use the Mail Merge documents I generate to update the Course Outline and Blackboard site.


Example from the spread sheet

There are a few things worth noting about the spreadsheet:

  1. I include the year in the dates to make it easier to see if the date has been updated.
  2. I include when the semester break is because it moves around in Semester 1 and sometimes it means I want to change some of the due dates. By including it in the spreadsheet it makes it easier to monitor.
  3. I include the semester week number for the modules and assessment tasks to help with planning and to make it easier to update the dates.
  4. I include the day as well as the date as it makes it easier to update (e.g., I can quickly see I’m looking for the Monday of week 5).
  5. I put the semester week number in my calendar which makes it easier to keep track of dates and to update the spreadsheets.
  6. The field title needs to be one word.

If you want to look more closely at one of the spreadsheets, I have created a Google Sheet with an example.

I then create a Word document that has most of the information I need for the Course Outline tool in NUSTAR and some of the information I use in Blackboard. If you don’t know how to use Mail Merge, there are some instructions (from Microsoft) here. These instructions are about how to do letters, but the process is essentially the same. In Step 3, (Insert a merge field) you will need to use the last option “To insert data from your spreadsheet in an email message or a letter”.


Example of the data merge with material for the course outline

There are a few things worth noting about the Mail Merge document as well:

  1. When updating assessments, I edit this document before copying and pasting it into the Course Outline.
  2. Sometimes I find it better to use a manual line break (Shift Enter) rather than a new paragraph (Enter), particularly for material I need to copy into Blackboard. It seems to help with formatting.
  3. Clicking on the “Preview Results” in the Mailings Menu means you can see the date from the spreadsheet rather than the field name (which is shown in the screenshot above).
  4. I use Heading Styles to make it easier to navigate the document.

I’ve made a google doc available with the material I include for one of my courses in case you want to see what it looks like. (I don’t know if Mail Merge works in Google Docs – I actually use Word).

It took a while to set this all up, but I find it makes it much easier to manage my courses and saves time in the long run. It has also helped eliminate mistakes that can creep in when updating courses.

Using Blackboard

Because most of my teaching is online, I need to make good use of Blackboard. I have really appreciated some of the workshops (e.g., online teaching) and other support (e.g., help with using features of Blackboard, help with designing online courses) provided by the Centre for Teaching at our University as it has helped me improve my course significantly.

Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years.

Put some effort into designing your Blackboard site and explain the structure to your students. It is great if there is some consistency across a program as this makes it easier for students. I have an item in a Getting Start tab that outlines how the course site is structured.

Example of a Blackboard structure

Example of a Blackboard structure

Make it clear to students what is required information and what is optional. In some focus groups I ran with students about Blackboard sites, they said they were sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of information in Blackboard. In some of my courses where this could be an issue, I have a folder for each module in the Course Materials tab, each of which has two folders: Important material (which I expect students to look at) and Extra material (which includes optional material).

Screenshot of the Module 1 folder in Blackboard

Screenshot of the Module 1 folder in Blackboard

Using Echo personal capture. Echo allows us to create videos from our computers with:

  1. Audio
  2. What’s on the computer screen (a continual screen capture)
  3. A video recording (e.g. through a cam recorder).

Because my teaching is online and there aren’t formal lectures, I use Echo to make short videos (just with the screen capture and audio) to introduce a range of topics. I try to keep them under 15 minutes. I find I have to update them every couple of years if not every year, and having a written script means I don’t need to re-write everything.

I must admit my videos aren’t as polished as they could be, but students still find them useful.

Mark online and try to use the time saving features. I do all my marking online, and now that I’m used to it, it works well. There are a range of time saving features available in TurnItIn (where students have to submit major assignments in my courses). I use QuickMarks (for comments I frequently have to make), which means I can add comments to an assessment quickly and easily and means that I can create detailed comments, with links to further information, for some of the common mistakes.

I have started making voice comments for my overall comment about the assignment. It can be no longer than 3 minutes, but that’s quite a lot of time. It is much quicker than typing the same information and I can also use my tone of voice to soften a tough message. I hate listening back to them, as I can be pretty inarticulate at times, but I have received positive feedback about the detailed feedback we give on assignments.

I’ve also started using some online quizzes to encourage students do the required reading. The quizzes aren’t worth much, but it means that more students are actually keeping up with the reading. If the quizzes use closed ended questions (e.g., multiple choice), Blackboard marks them automatically, which saves quite a lot of time.

Use a course theme and menu style to make keep track of current courses. I use a different course theme and menu style for each course I teach (so I can quickly see which course I’m in) and only have the course themes and menu styles in the current courses. Before I started doing this, I occasionally went into an old course and started updating it before realising I was in the wrong course. In the following screen shot you can easily see the difference between the current and old course.


Comparison of the menu style for a current course and an old course

Supporting students

Because I mainly teach online, I don’t meet many of my students (which is slightly ironic when I teach courses on community engagement) and so I have to make an effort to keep in touch. As well as making announcements (which are also emailed to students) at least weekly I use GradeCentre in Blackboard to send emails to students for a variety of reasons. For example I might email students if:

  1. They failed an assignment to offer them more feedback or support if needed.
  2. They haven’t submitted an assignment on the due day (normally around 10-14 hours before it is due) to remind them an assignment is due and that they will lose marks if it is late and they don’t have an extension.
  3. They get full marks or have a big improvement in the online quizzes to congratulate them.
  4. They do more than the required number of Blackboard Discussion posts to thank them for their extra effort.
  5. They don’t do all the required Blackboard Discussion posts to remind them of the importance of the posts and that they can make the difference of a grade or even a pass or fail.

I’ve found this regular contact has increased the communication from students and they appear to be more willing to ask for assistance. While it does take a bit of time, I think it is worth it and I think it improves student experience.

I make teaching a priority. Students are paying a lot to attend Uni and I think we have a responsibility to provide them with a quality experience. At the same time, as academics we have many other responsibilities so we have to make sure we have time for research and service. The only way to do this is to be efficient as possible while also making student experience a priority.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. Blogging as an academic
  2. Teaching community engagement to students from 29 disciplines
  3. 7 principles guiding my work
  4. Why I blog
  5. Updating a course on community engagement
  6. My top posts for 2016

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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