Learning design in lockdown

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Since the advent of Covid-19 restrictions and the closure of RMIT campuses in March, the VE Design Team has had to quickly refocus and adapt what we do in response to the major changes in the learning and teaching environment at the university. Reflecting with the Senior Learning Designers (LDs) on the team, it has been a hectic period of challenges but also opportunities to expand our roles and practices.

Broadening tasks and responsibilities

Our team had previously been project and product development based, working predominantly with product owners and subject matter experts (SMEs). Interacting with teachers and students were limited and we rarely had to provide support after completion. Projects ended with handover notes to the product owners and some basic training to give an overview of the final product and how to navigate, use, and make updates.

With the introduction of physical distancing measures and the need to rapidly move courses online, our usual planning of support extended to the delivery of it. As the lead of the Plumbing Rectification project, Rebecca Summits’ role suddenly encompassed “… quickly creating and populating (Canvas) shells to meet the 14 elements and to get at least the first three weeks’ worth of content up so that the teachers had a head start.” Due to teachers’ different tech literacy, Rebecca also “…created a questionnaire, sent it off to teachers and got them to fill it out based on what they would think that they need training on and I divided it into two sections. I divided it into Collaborate Ultra and Canvas and basically listed all of the questions and that the multimedia team had been getting through the VEDT email from the general teaching public.” From this questionnaire, a spreadsheet of help topics was created and sent back to teachers to identify which could be organised into group sessions and which required one-on-one support.

When addressing some of their biggest concerns, gaps in finding direct support to point teachers to came to light, especially with everyone having to work remotely. In response to this, fellow LDs and multimedia designers (MMs) were pulled in to help run training sessions and answer on-the-spot queries to help teachers get their content and learning materials online as soon as possible.

While professional development (PD) support has long been associated with technology and tools assistance, a learning design arm emerged that looked at practical solutions to learning design concepts potentially limited by the available technology. For example, when a teacher was struggling to create a shareable Reading List with students, Andrew Newhouse helped investigate to identify the main issue and proposed a workable alternative, which was to create a Canvas page that listed all the essential library and external readings with easily accessible links. For Andrew, being able to give PD support “…helps us (LDs) to understand and inform our design better… understanding how some of those things (we propose) work in the real world as opposed to in theory.”

For Rebecca and Andrew, being more directly involved in the delivery and support for teachers during this time has also meant delving much deeper into the systems and processes involved in getting courses online at RMIT. This included learning how Canvas and the Student Administration Management System (SAMS), the program and course configuration tool, talk to each other to take courses live and into the hands of students.

Challenges and opportunities

For Gordon Napier, the biggest takeaway from working with teachers to transition to flexible delivery was “the vast difference between some of the teachers’ knowledge and familiarity with Canvas. There were some members of the team who were fine with it and could do it without difficulty. And there were others who felt that this task was huge with a steep learning curve.”

In coordination with teacher teams meeting with their program managers, the reality did sink in and all teachers jumped on board toward flexible delivery of their courses. The extreme time pressure to get their courses and students across the Semester 1 finish line meant content was hurriedly being uploaded to Canvas with varying degrees of consideration for how it was being presented (e.g., including guiding text to explain what the materials were, what they were for, etc.).

Gordon was part of an initiative to evaluate courses across several critical learning and teaching dimensions to examine what was currently being made available to students and to determine which areas teachers could benefit from greater support in. This involved approaching an assortment of courses from a student perspective without having any prior knowledge of the topics being covered. One of the biggest issues was accessibility and contextualisation of content. From an LD perspective, a possible reason for this shortfall could be that teachers unconsciously underestimate the amount of guidance they provide in face-to-face classes, thereby neglecting how much instruction they put into their online courses. A shift in mindset is needed when teaching in-class versus an online environment.

It’s not just about changing teachers’ perspectives, but how we can help them change their way of thinking. Rather than just building beautiful Canvas courses for teachers to use, our roles have taken a greater step towards empowering teachers to build in Canvas themselves. Teachers often already have the skills as, for example, editing in Canvas is akin to editing a Word doc, that MMs can foster with their technical support. As LDs, we can give teachers a greater understanding of how Canvas can be used to foster the student journey. For example, how they can break their content up into digestible chunks (i.e., modules by topic or week) that can be revealed as the course progresses. The key is to get teachers comfortable with the technology and tools, see the value in them, and enjoy using them.

While course evaluation yielded great insights, Sinead Murphy gained some with a more personal experience of “… getting more involved with the teacher and the course and understanding the cohort of students a bit better.” Working closely with a teacher as part of a Future Social Service Institute (FSSI) project, she was invited to sit in on a Collaborate Ultra session and witness how the teacher was engaging with students. “I could listen to the students and I could hear how they were engaging with the content, and the teacher was using the whiteboard and Collaborate Ultra and the students were putting up ideas on the whiteboard. And from a learning design perspective, it just sort of brought it all alive for me.”

This gave her a bigger picture understanding of the impact our work and advice we give to teachers in terms of materials and methods. The session also opened her eyes to some of the struggles that students were having with the course. These she could feed into her suggestions for further improvements to the program to help students overcome these hurdles. Having normally been quite separate to students and the classroom, this was a great experience of finding out whether what she suggested was working or not.

The new normal

With a background in teaching and program coordination, Joshua Davies feels that “the big shift is going to be learning at your own pace… VE has always been, ‘come to my class when I [teacher] want to do this thing and I won’t give you enough information so you have to come to my class.’ Right? Teachers have been doing that for a long time…. But it just doesn’t work now so it’s got to be ‘learn at your own pace’.” This means flexible delivery where teachers “… give the students all the information in these varieties of different ways. It’s video and it’s text, and it’s links to library sources, podcasts, or whatever it is. And it’s demonstrations and it’s practice at home. And I’ll [teacher] give you [students] ‘send me a video of you doing it and I’ll give you feedback on what you’re doing’…  and you can do that whenever you want. You don’t have to do it at the time that says.”

In this initial transition, teachers have voiced how they’ve liked being able to break content up, have greater flexibility in their delivery, and work with smaller groups of students in more targeted ways without compromising overall course time. This has also benefited students with work and other responsibilities that might have interfered with attending real-time lectures, labs, and tutorials.

According to Andrew, “Education has kind of been one of those things that technology hasn’t disrupted much. People can get content wherever they want. It’s about being able to craft and guide a journey rather than give people content…. many teachers can get into that ‘give people content’ frame. They also do some great practical and face-to-face delivery but in terms of crafting a journey and being able to guide that, they’ve been relying on that face-to-face to do that rather than be clear with the written word or spoken word in a digital way.”

Covid-19 has highlighted this point and given universities a substantial push towards different ways of teaching and learning. The one-size-fits-all model that universities have been using no longer works for the changing student demographic or for industries looking to hire forward thinkers. Flexible learning might be able to shake that up and shift how educators perceive their roles and modify their practices.