“My mindset has completely changed about online teaching”

Applied Finance Centre’s Dr Shane Magee has transformed his thinking about online teaching – with a little help from the Faculty Partnership Program – and the result was a Dean’s award for curriculum innovation.

How did your involvement with the Faculty Partnership Program begin?

“We changed our Master of Applied Finance degree program, introducing four new Gateway units, to comply with new AQF rules and Macquarie requirements for postgrad degrees. We teach in Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore and Beijing, and we needed these four units to be delivered at the same time in all of those different teaching centres. So we opted to go down the path of online teaching. It sounded easy – we thought we’d just create the online units ourselves, but…I don’t know what I was thinking!  That’s how the FPP process started, through initial conversations with Learning and Teaching Centre Educational Developer Deidre Seeto, who said “have you thought about an FPP? You might need it!”

“So we’ve had 2 FPP projects, one in Session 2 2014 and one in Session 1 2015, and we’ve also had some Teaching Delivery Grants, plus we’ve been through the DDI process.”

 What were some of the things you were perhaps a little naïve about initially, in terms of developing fully online units?

“We were thinking about things in the old-school way – I’ll produce lecture notes, put them up online, and students will go ahead and do their own thing. We had no concept of how to engage students online, and how to keep them engaged throughout the whole term. My mindset has changed completely on that; it’s all about how you engage students online, and how you keep them interested for the whole duration.”

“We had an idea of the content, we knew what our learning outcomes were and what our topics would be. But sitting back with the help of LTC staff, and designing the units top-down, from scratch –  thinking about the objectives for the unit, what did we want students to get out of it – and designing  around that, that was the most valuable thing for me.”

What’s the biggest challenge for developing fully online units?

“Our students are based all over Australia and overseas, and there is no face-to-face contact at all.  How do you keep them feeling they are part of a learning community? Having participation requirements in the unit, like discussion forums, was a good idea. Getting students to give each other feedback, so they are communicating with each other rather than feeling isolated. We try to embed that throughout the units.”

“We made the decision up front that we want our students to move together through the unit. We don’t want some students to be in Week 8 while a few students have just started or are half-way through. The way we designed for that was through regular assessments. In the unit I convene, we have assessments every week. They are not big assessment tasks, but the students should know exactly what topics they should be working on when. And some of those assessment tasks require participation in forums, so they are all together and interacting. We get that when we teach face-to-face, and we wanted to have that in this environment as well. Those are just things you don’t think of, without the help of learning and teaching staff.”

What have your students said so far?

“The general feedback from students is that the units are well-designed and they feel part of a community. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback on the visual design of the units, the sequencing of the topics, how they flow and how they’re connected.  We’ve got introductory videos for each of the topics that link to previous topics and future topics, putting them all together.  Students like that.”

“Some students said they thought initially that they would be able to go through the units at their own time and at their own pace. But we haven’t designed them in that way, and students have said in the end they actually appreciated that, because it kept them on task. The other thing that students really like, and it’s just a simple thing, is that every week most of the convenors send out announcements to students letting them know what they need to be working on. And students like that structure. Some will still feel isolated, and we do as much as we can to be able to help.”

“With the feedback we gained from those students who had withdrawn before the census date, it was not really about the design of the units themselves, it was that students had underestimated that time they needed to commit to online study. Many of them are part-time students, with work issues and family commitments, and their intention is to come back to study eventually.”

“Applied Finance Centre FPP” by  ©2015
Shane and the team during the development process (©Macquarie University, 2015)

You also went through a DDI process with these projects. What was that like?

“The whole process was invaluable – focusing on what the student objectives are, focusing on the topics and then the activities in each topic. Convenors who are used doing face-to-face teaching tend to want to get in there straight away and build and create content. And it was interesting having the different approach from the LTC staff: before you build content, let’s design the unit. I think some of the academics were also thinking, how can I use my content so that it works with this technology? But the best approach came from LTC staff like Deidre, and Alex Thackray: give me an example of some content and we’ll help you work out the best ways, the best media to present that to students. That was a learning experience for many of us, and it was invaluable.”

Plus you won a Dean’s Excellence Award for curriculum innovation, for the development of these four gateway units.

“There’s no way I could have achieved that without the help of the LTC, along with the convenors involved in the development of the units. The great thing about the team approach is that we all had different ideas and we were feeding off each other. We’d do some sessions with the LTC, and some of us would put up what activities we wanted to pursue in the FPP, how we wanted students to work, and each one of us was able to see what everyone else was putting forward. And we could get feedback from each other as well as feedback from the LTC development team.”

“We had a whole range of LTC staff with different skills and ideas involved, like Deidre Seeto, Natalie Spence, Victoria Taylor, Alex Thackray, Michael Rampe, Rebecca Ritchie, Roneil Latchman, and others. When we have access to centralised resources, there is a cross-pollination of ideas. I would really like to see that connection across the Faculties continue in future.”