Excellence in Student Experience awarded to Director LTC and ADLTs

The Director, Learning and Teaching Centre (LTC), and Associate Deans, Learning and Teaching (ADLTs) have been awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Staff Award for Excellence in Student Experience for their leadership in transitioning teaching to online delivery mode for Semester 1, 2020.

Professor Meg Stuart of the LTC, Professor Bill Ashraf of the Faculty of Education and Arts, Dr Richard Colledge of the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, Dr Bhavani Sridharan of the Faculty of Law and Business, and Associate Professor Anthony Whitty of the Faculty of Health Sciences acted rapidly in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure consistency of the student experience.

At this challenging time, the group worked with numerous staff across ACU to collaboratively plan, develop and implement key interventions to support and enable high-quality learning and teaching.

“We were engaged in an operations group that was considerably bigger [than just us],” says Meg. “It included the National Heads of School, the Directors of student-facing areas, and some of the support areas as well like the Library, the Office of Student Success, and Student Administration.

“Our primary aim was to support our staff the best we could, because the better the staff are supported, the better the student experience that flows from that.”

A compelling transformation

When the reality of COVID-19 set in during the first weeks of Semester 1, ACU had to act swiftly to ensure students could continue to learn remotely. Mid-semester break was brought forward to 23 March, and more than 600 teaching units were moved to a fully online format by the following Monday.

Over just nine days, the LTC together with the faculties designed and delivered professional development training for all academic staff, so transforming the delivery of ACU’s curriculum.

“We identified what content needed to be face-to-face no matter what and shifted that to later in the semester, what knowledge-based content could be delivered online now and how would we do that, and any particular changes to assessment that needed to occur,” says Anthony.

“Heads of Discipline, National Course Coordinators and Heads of School led the work within some faculties to ensure students could learn remotely and, in essence, ACU could continue to function.

“And Meg put together a template so we could make necessary changes to assessments, resolve any accreditation and TEQSA issues, and allow the process to be much more expediated and efficient.”

The student-centred design of this training was key in helping staff modify their work practices.

“It was delivered in a way that modelled for the academic staff how they themselves would be able to teach online,” Meg says. “It used the same software and features staff would be able to use, and it showcased those and talked deliberately about how they could be used in learning and teaching.”

According to Bill, it helped that blended learning already existed at ACU and there was a lot of good practice in online teaching.

“I think the confidence of staff was bolstered by the fact that we could say, ‘There are really good examples of this, and there’s an excellent set of training.’ Necessity really focused their minds.”

Bhavani admires how all teaching staff came on board so rapidly and willingly: “They picked up their game, they learnt more, and they delivered whatever was needed to succeed in this process.”

Encountering the unknown

Reshaping ACU’s learning and teaching approach amid a global pandemic, characterised by rapidly changing regulations and variations between states, demanded collaboration, communication and proactive support by all staff – both within faculties and across ACU’s broader academic audience.

“One of the key things that was done really well was communication,” says Anthony of the consultative meetings that occurred at that time, with the benefit of clear direction from the top.

The ADLTs, working with Heads of School and colleagues, provided support and guidance to faculty staff on the agreed approaches to delivering fully online learning and teaching. They also worked closely with the LTC and the recovery team to co-design and implement a faculty-based communication strategy, ensuring students and staff were fully informed.

Staff and students were also advised that things wouldn’t be perfect, and guidance would change.

“We told staff we’re going to control what we can control, and that most likely what we’re implementing today is going to change in 2 weeks’ time,” Anthony says.

“We said we’ll keep informing you, but this is constantly going to change. So please tell your students regularly that we’re doing our best to find solutions, but this is not just an ACU issue, this is a world issue, so we’re going to do as much as we can to support the student learning.”

Richard says this increased communication, and its continuation, is a benefit of what has happened.

“Getting Semester 2 sorted out, the ongoing relationships among ourselves, the way we’ve worked with staff – it has continued into this semester. And that is a permanent gain.”

Learning new habits

The high-pressure shift to online teaching and learning had its challenges.

It was critically important to access certain data, for example, such as identifying who had a lecturer-in-charge role and so required specific communications, which students lived in northern NSW but studied at Banyo, and which units were being studied by students with particular disabilities.

This information wasn’t easy to extract from current systems, but faculty staff and Student Administration moved quickly to provide this data – often at short notice.

The team also had to address problems they hadn’t had the chance to anticipate.

“We had some Zoom bombing in the first week,” says Meg. “Some students found it amusing, some found it quite offensive. It was because we didn’t have time to put the necessary security in place.”

At the faculty level, the ADLTs triaged issues on behalf of staff and, at times, provided tailored advice and support to individuals, such as providing counsel for specific student concerns. Strong local leadership, collaboration and support among academics and teams across ACU also helped staff out.

Surveys show that the student response to the move online has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The single common theme has been the level of appreciation for the efforts of the university and the individual staff to keep students engaged in and progressing with their units,” says Meg.

“We’ve also now seen the SELT data for the first half of the year, and every measure – quality of teaching, quality of assessment, unit organisation, communication – all of those things are up compared to the first half of 2019. I think students may prefer online learning.”

Anthony says staff responded similarly well to teaching online and remotely from home.

“It’s taught the whole of the university that change is here and it’s OK, and that we don’t need to be fearful of it – we need to embrace it and work together rather than resist it,” he says.

“It’s a blessing in disguise,” adds Bhavani. “This experience gave us a chance to reflect, find out some areas where we needed to improve, and make corrections for continuous improvement.”

Staff

Professor Meg Stuart

Professor Meg Stuart

Associate Professor Anthony Whitty

Associate Professor Anthony Whitty

Dr Bhavani Sridharan

Dr Bhavani Sridharan

Professor William Ashraf

Professor William Ashraf

Dr Richard Colledge

Dr Richard Colledge


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