Australia has one of the best higher education sectors in the world – and rightly so considering the breadth of courses available and professional standards through which they are taught.
But in light of reduced public funding and greater pressure on faculties to attract and retain students, pedagogy changes have taken centre-stage as universities look to transform the student experience.
Ahead of Blended Learning 2015, we spoke to Therese Anderson, Course Coordinator – Master of Data Science & Innovation, University of Technology Sydney (UTS), to find out the institution is ensuring it provides a flexible and agile experience for students that addresses their learning outcomes over the short and long term.
As an institution, University of Technology Sydney has a long established mind-set around creating rich blended learning experiences, combining the best of online and face-to-face teaching.
Our exciting new campus buildings are testament to the university’s learning.futures strategy, which is characterised by practices intended to make use of these new on-campus spaces to accommodate collaborative learning and hands-on doing.
Our Deputy Vice Chancellor of Education and Students, Shirley Alexander, recently tweeted that the most important role of academics in the future will be design.
This message – coming from the top – sets a path for UTS to embrace the changing needs of students and educators alike, addressing where technology can play a more strategic role while never losing sight of the desire to connect students through shared learning experiences.
I’ve recently taken on the role of Course Coordinator for the Masters of Data Science and Innovation program, and I’m applying many of the blended learning principles to the learning design.
IML, our Academic Development Unit, has played a large part in encouraging educators to draw on technology for a meaningful purpose. We’ve focused a lot on the scholarship of learning and teaching, where learning outcomes actually come first.
Challenges & considerations
On a wider scale, UTS has developed a program to introduce learning technologists across the institution.
These technologists don’t design the learning, but have specialised roles to support and up-skill educators and entire faculties on connecting the appropriate technology to intended learning outcomes.
University precinct, courtesy of UTS
It’s not a technical handover process by any means, but an ‘awareness trigger’ that helps craft a strategic framework. One of the main challenges for any institution is to resist the immediate desire to focus almost exclusively on the technology so they can consider the longer term picture.
When I taught eLearning in the past, I found that much of my time was spent helping remind educators about the learning – or the ‘why.’
And it’s not that they forget, but when a faculty moves towards blended and eLearning environments, the tools become such a key driving force, demanding so much attention and resourcing that educators end up going down a path quite far removed from where they truly want to be.
When this does happen, what I’ll do is help them understand why and how they want to support their students’ learning outcomes. Many times, teachers and lecturers have come to me saying they want to create videos or screen casts. There’s nothing wrong with that, but developing them from scratch can be quite an extensive undertaking.
By considering the learning outcomes of the students, they mightn’t need to invest all that effort in high quality video production; the solution could simply be a matter of stitching together existing material, or ‘piece to camera’ segments.
Rather than teaching educators to become experts at video production, they become experts at finding fantastic resources like TED Talks, and then thinking about the way to build a narrative around such material.
It sounds deceptively simple to match the student needs with educator skill-sets.
The only way to align them is by establishing the learning context around the educators – what is it they really want to help their students achieve? What is the target of the learning?
Students working in a collaborative space, courtesy of UTS
That’s a lot more achievable than seeing everyone create crash-hot videos or set up sophisticated interactive websites all at once.
Not every course or class needs to have the same level of interactivity; sometimes it can become quite overwhelming if there is too much sophistication. This all goes back to the students and their learning outcomes.
Sustainability plays a vital role here, especially in relation to technology. Interactive websites are the perfect example – sure, having these refined dynamics will make it look fantastic, but how often do need to – or indeed can you – update the content?
The moment you start thinking about how to create something that can be sustained over time, you start ensuring the right principles and design foundations are being addressed.
No educator or learning designer can do everything, so it’s about prioritising and defining the real purpose. I like to think of this as curating the learning experience.
Curating the experience for students requires a different kind of technological assistance. For example, with videos and websites, a variety of factors need to be considered:
• What vehicle will you use to disseminate the information?
• How are you going to cognitively help them absorb it?
• Are you going to craft it as a story, or keep all the videos separate and let them choose?
I come from a design background, and for me the term curation draws on the human element of blended learning. There’s the technical component, and the curriculum (which is the intellectual content), but it’s the academics who can stitch it all together and tell the story that needs to be told. Then students can engage with the learning and have their needs met in different ways.
Trying to develop an experience of co-learning immediately takes you into a curatorial role, because you are focusing more on how your audience (in this case, the learners) will experience what you are presenting to them, and that experience is one shaped by participation.
At UTS, we try to focus on the totality of the experience, not merely setting up a singular activity. So in the progression of a full semester program, for instance, we need to constantly consider how we’ll keep students engaged over time (within a session and across the semester), as well as how to motivate them to the point where they’ll actively set out to learn or study in between classes.
This often leads to an effort to enhance the blend between information, education, entertainment and learning – concepts such as infotainment and edutainment pick up on this idea.
Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, courtesy of UTS
Working with existing resources
Always doing more with less – that’s the lingo we’re all familiar with! Most institutions don’t have the luxury of a big budget; resources need to be valued and respected.
It’s a constant issue for the blended learning environment in particular. For example, the other week I had to think about what equipment we could purchase to make it easier for my team to be able to record material at home instead of the office.
The idea here is to enable our educators who are pressed for time to work smarter. The risk of getting them to develop technical skills so they can produce content on campus – as well as off campus – is the perception that it will add to their workload, thus pushing them away from supporting a blended learning environment.
So, I’m trying to think of ways to help them become more efficient and remain engaged with the strategy. The immediate drawback is obviously the up-front cost of devices and technical platforms to produce the content, but on the plus-side, you can re-use and re-purpose a lot of what is created if you design it that way from the start.
Again: considering sustainability and longer term aspirations can help you develop blended learning programs efficiently and effectively.
What I tend to steer away from are the high production value options out there – I’ll only use them sparingly at best, considering our resource constraints. There are low-cost tools that can support educators in providing a blended learning environment.
For example, almost everyone has a smart phone on their person, and there are affordable microphones that can be purchased for educators to become efficient podcasters.
Such techniques don’t cost much to learn, only a bit of time to become familiar with basic functions. I also learned a long time ago, if you buy the latest tech, chances are they will be obsolete in three months – plus or minus.
I have also come across situations where so much energy goes into the tool that shaping the content is an afterthought. After all, the real energy SHOULD be going into designing the learning experience.
Because I’m currently designing this new program on data science and innovation, the big challenge is to take all of these principles around blended learning and apply them in a very specific and intricate context.
Data science is a very progressive subject and part of a trans-disciplinary program, where we have students coming from various industries. They have different kinds of learning styles and professional backgrounds, so it becomes harder to know my audience.
Students with mobile devices on campus, courtesy of UTS
With the first semester behind us, we’re preparing for the second cohort. We’re moving beyond ‘flipped classes’ to enable peer learning, where students in this program can be co-designers of the learning experience.
These students are big data technologists and I know it won’t be long until I’m not the expert in the room anymore.
My goal is to become curator of the program and develop a sustainable education design, as well as enable a learning experience that becomes very responsive in a high-tech, data driven context.
This environment needs to deliver an outcome for an audience that is very familiar with professional delivery.
Some of our star students are already helping co-construct learning by taking on certain challenges without being asked, which is fantastic, but it means those principles of sharing and participatory design are coming through.
You have to learn to let go, because when you’re a curator, you’re not a controller. Being uncomfortable in uncertainty isn’t easy and it means allowing things to go differently from what you initially anticipated.
When you can start embracing that mind-set, you start thinking about the experience you want to design. The technology will fall into place from there.
These insights by Theresa Anderson are part of an eBook on how four universities are enhancing the blended learning environment to improve student learning outcomes.