Academics around the world have experimented with technology as the COVID-driven need to teach remotely accelerates the shift to digitally supported education. Part of the challenge has been to match their approaches to individual teaching styles and to the needs of students in their disciplines. Some experiments worked brilliantly first time, while others failed or required a series of refinements.
The trick is to share swiftly and efficiently what’s worked. How do we do that?
In scientific research, carefully controlled experiments are conducted and the results are peer-reviewed before being published. But tips and tricks are shared informally at conferences. It’s time to share teaching tips more broadly.
So how do we do this?
A UNSW professor, Peter Heslin, together with colleagues in our Scientia Education Academy, has created a simple strategy for quickly sharing useful tips via two-minute videos – Teaching News You Can Use (TNYCU).
To build up a repository of videos, he held an Exemplary Teaching Practice competition. It attracted well over 100 entries across six categories, such as inspiring students, building student communities, and leveraging student diversity. A panel evaluated the entries in terms of their usefulness, breadth of applicability, and clarity.
The panel selected winners and two runners-up in each category. The winners were shown at the end of the week-long UNSW Education Festival. All finalists and submissions that received an honourable mention will soon feature in an online TNYCU repository.
Many of the tips are simple. Some spread existing knowledge – novelty and originality were not criteria!
We need to identify and spread useful tips, not just add new ideas when many of us are already overwhelmed by all the options. As Heslin said:
“There’s little new under the sun. We just need fresh ways to see, frame and productively deploy the relevant options before us.”
What were some of the best tips?
The tips I liked best were so simple. One video showed us how we can build connections by positioning ourselves in front of the slides. Why? “No one was ever inspired by a slide. People inspire other people.”
It’s obvious I guess, but this nugget inspired me to reconsider how I might adapt my own online slide presentation format so that, at least at times, I won’t be hiding in the corner!
Another academic explained how and why she gave recorded audio feedback to students on their work rather than written comments. Again, that may not be new, but it was new to me – I’ve never done it. Recently, though, I’ve heard from students that this feedback makes them feel individually seen, heard and valued in a world of educational massification.
Then there was a video about how to set up a system whereby students discover how much they can learn from each other. This helps build a learning community.
Another of my favourites underscored the merit of having students conduct a quick “sanity check” to see if their conclusions are in the realms of what’s reasonable.
The videos showed how the different platforms could be used in different disciplinary contexts to convey information, promote productive and focused interactions, and generally support stimulating and enjoyable student communities.
Putting the focus back on good teaching
Which brings me to my main point. These videos don’t just spread good ideas. They also help build an academic community that recognises good teaching practice.
The two-minute videos may help foster identity and pride in striving to be an excellent, student-focused university teacher. Imagine having a colleague you’ve never met approach you in the coffee line on campus to say they loved your video and plan to try out your strategy.
The status associated with being a great university teacher, the pride our academics rightly derive from their work, the recognition via inclusion in an online repository, and the future connections and comments will all help strengthen the academic community.
The videos will also provide evidence of achievement and good teaching practice in future promotion, award or job applications.
Our education festival was held in person and online. I found it very easy to mingle at the event by talking with people who had featured in their videos. Many people are a little shy at conferences, but short videos act as easy ice-breakers and prompt interactions between teachers.
In research conferences, one gets a mixture of long talks, shorter talks and sometimes rapid-fire, poster presentations. A few years back the University of Queensland introduced three-minute thesis presentations, an idea that has gone global.
Activities like these spread knowledge and help build discipline-specific research communities. The TNYCU repository will provide peer-reviewed, curated tips on how to tackle particular teaching challenges. It will grow year by year.
Helping to manage information overload
Learning to thrive in the digital age takes time. Information mounts up faster than anyone can absorb it. New ways are needed to sift through all the data to identify the most relevant, useful options.
When I began my career as an academic, I walked into a lecture theatre, found a piece of chalk and a blackboard, and got to work teaching in the way I’d been taught. I hammed things up a bit and engaged the class as best I could, but it was impromptu theatre that required little preparation. I also directed students to specific chapters in one main textbook in case they (or I) missed any key points. It was relatively easy.
Nowadays there are almost too many mechanisms for engaging students, building learning communities and providing digital support that helps students gain essential knowledge and skills. This is a profound change. We need to work together to efficiently identify which digital platforms and strategies might work best for each of us.
The two-minute video repository may turn out to be one great new way of sharing what’s possible, initiating explorations and celebrating the achievements of academics who are flourishing as teachers. And they are fun to watch.
The Teaching News You Can Use website is under development. Dozens more videos will be added over coming weeks and months.
Merlin Crossley receives research funding from the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council. He is on the Board of The Conversation and the Australian Science Media Centre. He is an Honorary Associate of the Australian Museum.
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