Thoughts on teaching and practice: A chat with Peter Keegan

Are you interested in finding out what drives Peter Keegan, Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching for the Faculty of Arts at Macquarie University? Do you want to know what he thinks about teaching and practice at university and his views on convening a blended learning unit? If so, join us for a chat with Peter. 

“Peter Keegan” by Peter Keegan Licensed for use by
“Peter Keegan” by Peter Keegan Licensed for Educational use

What is it about teaching that you are most passionate about?

I really like sharing the knowledge that I have developed over time. More than that, I find it wonderfully satisfying to strike up a conversation with students around what we know about the world, particularly in my area of Ancient History; but, more broadly, to raise awareness that knowledge is not fixed or static, nor set in stone. What we understand about the world (past or present) is something that is constantly changing and students can be part of the process of developing our knowledge base.

What are the biggest challenges facing unit convenors around blended learning?

Blended learning is a concept which most of our staff are already doing to a certain extent, but I’m not sure that we all associate the concept with the practice. And for many convenors, a new concept in learning and teaching often implies a new set of skills and new systems to master, and that can, very naturally, present a challenge – especially when there is already so much demanded of us in higher education. But if we regard blended learning as simply rearranging the building blocks of the units we have created, and that we are actually in control, as opposed to being asked to fulfil a template from on-high, I think everyone contributing to our learning and teaching enterprise will see it not so much as a challenge, but rather as a possibility – a way of building into what we do the alignment of learning experiences that supports students in successfully achieving the intended program and unit learning outcomes. And because there are many opportunities now that units are being offered in a number of different delivery modes, I think that blended learning need not be not as unsettling a concept as it once was.

How has teaching changed at Macquarie in the last few years?

You walk into any teaching space now and the blackboard or whiteboard has become the Panaboard (electronic whiteboard). In lecture spaces now, students have their own devices. Often students are experiencing a live lecture as well as watching the chat on the device that is being generated from the lecture. The big change is the technology which is becoming more and more seamless in the delivery of content.

Another big change is in the upskilling of staff to keep up with the already developed skills of students.

[Interviewer: Any change in the students?] Students are much more switched-on to being provided with all the building blocks for what they need to do in terms of assessment. Whereas before, the transition from Year 12 to first year university was a magical mystery tour, now I think that students’ expectations are built on the bedrock of their experience at senior secondary, and that that experience will continue in a more enhanced fashion.

Changes in secondary education have included moving towards standards-based assessment, something that students are now aware of and expect as part and parcel of how they learn. I think that our tertiary sector is catching up and we are beginning to deliver this authentically, but – at least from our students’ perspective – there still exists a pedagogical and practical disconnect between secondary and tertiary experiences of learning and teaching.

“Exotic Ingredients” by Dirk Huan 2011 CC BY 2.0
“Exotic Ingredients” by Dirk Huan 2011 CC BY 2.0

What are the ingredients to a successful blended learning unit?

Developing a blended learning unit needs to follow an integrated approach, thought through from a design point of view. This approach provides us with the opportunity to frame our pedagogical and practical intentions explicitly, so that our students are aware of what’s required, that our delivery of content, learning and teaching activity, and assessment are constructively aligned, and so that all we and our students do leads logically and coherently to the achievement of our program and unit learning outcomes.

One of the things which is perhaps not thought through enough is starting from basics, building on what’s already been constructed.  

What’s vital to the process is strategic preparation of resources that are to be delivered in a blended mode. This can be as simple as a pre-recorded lecture or compressed video or audio content. It doesn’t have to be a visual resource, of course; podcasts can be just as effective.

What lessons have you learnt from your students and how has this changed how and what you teach?

Tapping into students’ natural enthusiasm for the subject. Most often they enrol in a particular program or unit because they want to. I still don’t think that there are many students that are profession-driven or have a clear idea of what they would like to do when they leave university. And so the choices many of our students make are geared towards what they are truly interested in.

I come from a secondary education background, and I’m very used to working directly and consistently with students. When I came to university, the relationship was configured differently: the academic was very much the master or mistress of authority, standing and delivering a lecture and students consumed information passively. Even in tutorials, there was not nearly as much interaction as I had become used to at a secondary school level. One of the things I really enjoy now is allowing students to be a part of the education process, as opposed to me being the sole arbiter of knowledge. I now either pre-record, or have deleted lectures from the units I convene. If pre-recorded, lectures need not be audited, but are included as supplementary to the students’ learning experience, to provide useful background information framing a particular concept, topic or area of study. The crux of the blended experience is the face-to-face (or asynchronous, if delivered online) encounter with the building blocks of knowledge. Students and I work together with a carefully curated list of prescribed readings each week: we share our insights, and the seminar or tutorial is usually skills-based, centred around analysing documentary or material sources or unpacking textual evidence. In other words, together students and academic try to make sense of the content in a practical (dare I say, applied) fashion, working with information that would otherwise be delivered by a textbook or via a lecture format. I think that this is I’ve learnt most from students, that they are much more willing to engage in the process (of learning) when they are allowed to be part of the process.

“Engravings at the Roman forum” by Trevor Huxham 2013 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
“Engravings at the Roman forum” by Trevor Huxham 2013 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What is your most effective teaching strategy or educational technology that you use to engage your students online?  

Start with a primary source of information, and allow students to experience it for the first time, in the same way that I experienced it for the first time. To ensure students are aware, that whatever information they glean from the source is not wrong, but is possibly building on the knowledge we have about the source.

My area of speciality is epigraphy – words, images, numbers and other markings engraved formally or informally on durable surfaces. I ask students, based on their knowledge of marking practices in the modern world – and almost everyone has his or her own personal “wall” on Facebook, their own Twitter or Instagram feed, their own method of inscribing themselves in public space – as well as on their knowledge about Rome at this or that particular period of time, and their understanding of the particular public space where this or that inscription is located, what can we say about this? Students comment that after completing this activity, that they better understand this source, because they have contextualised it in relation to their own experience and their knowledge of the ancient world – and that is the building-block for making history come alive. In the past, this type of activity was doable, but would have required a lot of pastiche. However now using technology, you can access a high-resolution image of the source from almost any collection in the world, you can use Google Earth to contextualise it, you can upload the data to fixed monitors in campus teaching spaces and to every student’s device, and you can process the information in real-time.

What will convenors have to adapt to, in how they design, and deliver, their blended learning units, in the next few years?

If the lecture is maintained, it will need to offer more than the static production and passive consumption of information, whatever the duration. How much does a student need delivered in that way to learn, as opposed to engaging with a carefully scaffolded series of readings in connection with a much shorter presentation? Can we align our expertise to open sources of information, supplementing our knowledge and understanding, rather than being the sole source of information?

Another is using space wherever we meet or engage with students to improve the learning experience. Do we set it up in a rigid manner, ‘you sit here’, everyone is facing one direction; or does the space support movement, does it support group work? Will the space need to be changed week-by-week? In other words, rather than just appearing in the space and then working with what you’ve got, thinking through the implications and applications of our teaching spaces maximises the potential for authentic learning. For example, if you book or are assigned a certain room, investigate what that space is like. Ask yourself, how am I going to use this room to best advantage the student experience? The easiest way is to sit in the space yourself as a student. I often do that, to get a sense of what the students are experiencing here.

How have your interactions with, and feedback from, your students impacted on you as a professional, and individual?

The positive responses that students give me are the most rewarding part of learning and teaching in this profession. When students acknowledge what I am doing has some worth, I find that affirming – and especially so when I can support students as they progress through their learning journey. I do recall the response from a particular student who. in the course of unpacking a knotty historical issue many years ago during a late evening tutorial, referred to me as Professor, even though I had only just embarked on a fixed-term Level A appointment. And I thought, well that’s something to aspire to, isn’t it? I am now supervising that young man in his doctoral research, and he very kindly greets me these days in formal fashion: “Associate Professor Keegan, it’s good to see you again”. Now that’s feedback!

How have your peers contributed to improving your teaching?

What I love to do is audit what my colleagues are doing – to experience their learning and teaching practice from a student’s perspective, to see how to do things differently, how to engage students more effectively. Otherwise, we only have our own experiences to work with, and unless we acquire some sense of how other people do the work, I don’t think we can grow either as individuals or professionals. And auditing, actually being present in the space, has been one of the most powerful experiences for me. My peers have a tremendous reservoir of learning and teaching expertise, a wonderfully practical and tested portfolio of approaches that has afforded me any number of opportunities to understand, ‘I can do this in this way’.

If you could give one piece of advice to a convenor to help them improve the learning experience for their students, what would it be?

Sit in the student’s seat. Get a sense of what they are experiencing, from their point of view. [Interviewer: Both physically and psychologically?]. Just as I would contextualise my sources, it’s important to contextualise what you do. It’s not just simply what you say, or how you say it, or the way you unpack and apply knowledge, understanding and skills: it’s everything that goes with that. And that’s because our students experience learning in very different ways. It may be visual, it may be auditory, it may be kinesthetic, it may be a combination of modes, and oftentimes they overlap.

Try to draw out a response from the student, rather than simply delivering, with a view to imparting wisdom. Getting that sense of connection with your students, and trying to promote it in a way that is interactive, conversational, natural.