For the last part of my academic career I had the privilege of working in New Zealand’s foremost tertiary-level distance provider. The institution began to experiment with online delivery beginning in the late 1990s. I’d like to share my story about how I survived this experience, that is, being thrown in the deep end of a situation that demanded quick mastery of new pedagogy, new terminology and mindset, and new technology. Those teaching online for the first time may find these insights helpful.
At my university two-thirds of the students in Chinese study at a distance. The distance mode of delivery required the writing of study guides that were printed out and mailed to the students. The remaining students, mostly school leavers, were/are taught face-to-face internally using the same study material. When the university transitioned to online teaching the internal students had access to the course online sites. At that point, the environment comprised what is referred to as a “dual mode of teaching” with a “blended form of learning.”
In about the year 2000 the university purchased the license for Moodle (Stream) that became the learning management system for all staff and students teaching and learning online. We were all working off the same page, as it were. As the situation evolved I came to view the online delivery as a seamless development of the provision of distance teaching. The following points sum up how I tackled my offering in dual mode of the foundation course on pre-modern China.
- Creating the course material
Uppermost in my mind was how to teach via this process termed “online.” At the outset, there was much talk that, although we had access to various types of new technology, online pedagogy had a lot of catching up to do. As I set about preparing my course offering in pre-modern China I adhered to two pieces of advice: chunk the material down into manageable bits and explain, explain, explain. In hindsight, the advice was very helpful.
To familiarize myself with China’s long and complex span of history and culture, let alone teach it, I wrote from scratch a study guide for the distance cohort that simultaneously served as the lecture notes for the internal face-to-face class. Four topics were devised as the basic framework: Introductory topic and topics on dynastic history, philosophy and religion, and the arts. I then broke these down into smaller, more digestible bits. All the while I reminded myself to consider whether the material was logically presented, engaging and promoted learning, curiosity and critical thinking. As a piece of prose it needed to be free of typos and errors. It was drilled into me that job security and programme viability largely depended on student numbers and successful teaching and that course material played a big role in this. Staff were monitored for their rates of course completion and retention and course evaluations.
Throughout the process I reminded myself that if I got it right the first time I could avoid problems later on. I tried to put myself in the students’ shoes and to insert all the relevant information that I imagined they might need.
- Course online site
With the course material in hand, I went about uploading the material on Moodle and constructing the online site, keeping in mind the short attention span of today’s students. The platform enabled me to create links that opened up into windows. I created at least a dozen or so of these and inserted headings that advised students of the content of each section. The end result was a workable number of manageable chunks and a design that allowed students to navigate the online site, toggle between windows and easily find material.
In constructing the online site I felt it was important to clearly signpost to the student how to proceed, what lies ahead and how to go about their learning. In strategic places I inserted bullet points introducing the section that came next. I included summary points and questions at the end of sections to help reinforce learning. These turned out to be useful aids for the “autonomous learner.”
Visual aids helped to break up the monotony of the text. I imported images, humour, video clips and links, podcast lecture suggestions, and got creative with bullet points in various shapes, colour formatting and banners. Anything to keep the student engaged!
The appendices contained the digitized readings with material from the textbook and various articles. I made sure to clarify which readings were required, which were optional and which could be useful for assignments. I also ensured that the use of the readings conformed to copyright.
- Assignments, exam
Due to the nature of the learning environment, I assumed that a broad array of assignment topics and exam questions was preferable. Students naturally have their own learning style and interests and a reasonable choice allowed them to select topics and questions that aligned with these interests.
- Administrative guide
At my university it was/is mandatory for all distance/online courses to include an administrative section. This particular document is indispensable! Mine included an introduction to the course content, teacher bio and contact information, assessment details, assignment topics, a calendar and other items. I used the calendar to indicate how many weeks students should devote to particular topics and to indicate the due dates for assignments, the date of the exam and the dates of the two or four-day contact course. The latter are now probably cancelled. The template for the admin guide was supplied by the university.
- Digital tools
Moodle comes equipped with, or is compatible with, various digital tools. Wiki can be used for quizzes. In the film paper, we used ppt to introduce film theory. For the tutorials in the Chinese language online courses, we used Adobe Connect, a virtual classroom that I found clunky to use. Skype was handy for oral language exams. These older technologies have since been replaced by Zoom, which is undoubtedly easier to use. The students used a separate set of tools to submit oral language assignments online that were marked and commented on online. The Moodle discussion forum was good for posting questions and to get the students to interact, although I found this worked better in the language courses. There was also a tool for downloading and printing out the study material. It seems that many students still prefer the printed form. Finally, the students used a tool to message the academic staff member with questions. At this point, I was reminded more than anything else how I was expected to be available 24/7!
- University support
Online teaching is a separate industry with a specific pedagogy, theory and terminology. I personally feel that if universities require academic staff to teach online they need to provide adequate support. Fortunately, the university had a pre-existing distance materials production unit that was re-tooled to help staff with the transition to online teaching. The unit included a printery and a cohort of trained staff who provided advice with the creation of course material. The distance lending service in the library was also re-tooled. Once the university committed itself to the online mode, it hired a raft of technicians and other expertise to provide support for the staff and students. More significant, it sponsored university-wide guest lectures on aspects of online teaching and learning, blended learning, attrition and retention, the role of the autonomous learner, digital tools, software and others. I always found something of use in these lectures although I was overwhelmed and routinely dumbfounded by what we were expected to do. I couldn’t help think that my academic training hadn’t prepared me for the level of skill required for this type of endeavour. However, I did survive and the thing that kept me going were the students. They always seemed to appreciate my efforts and, surprisingly, seemed to thrive. My final advice: don’t despair and be prepared to be flexible. There are many advantages to the online delivery and it is quite likely here to stay. Good luck!