By Dr Patricia Bonello, Lecturer - Faculty for Social Wellbeing
The start of this academic year, amongst all the other firsts, sees the launch of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing’s first blended study unit, SWP5146 – Advanced Research Methods for Social Work and Social Policy. The compatibility of this form of teaching with the current situation is indisputable. The journey towards the launch of the study-unit, considerably more complicated!
It started approximately two years ago within the Department of Social Policy and Social Work where staff meetings regularly included discussions about how to make courses more accessible and attractive to potential students. Remote learning, even then, was inevitably part of this discussion. This was especially so when looking into postgrad options, offered to people who might have family and other responsibilities, creating logistic and other obstacles for them to further their studies. As a person entering the academic field after years in practice, I was even more sensitive to the plight of brilliant practitioners unable to gain further qualifications because of these challenges. In addition, having completed my Master degree through distance learning and experienced the wonder of being part of an Australian learning community online, I was a total convert to distance learning.
Challenge number 1, as a novice academic, nearing retirement, with limited technological savvy, what could I do to make distance learning a real possibility? The first step would be taking the initiative myself, which I did by completing the course on “Designing, delivering and evaluating online study-units” in early 2019. The knowledge gained through this fuelled my enthusiasm. Further discussions at Department level pointed to the option of delivering the research study-unit for Master students, which I was responsible for, as a blended study-unit. This would also facilitate the Department in offering Master courses which would be undertaken mainly by research, minimising the need to commute to and from campus.
Armed with knowledge (even if novice) and passion, I set out to meet the second challenge, preparing the material for a blended course. This looks simple when written in one sentence like this. The reality is far from this. As we had been warned in the course, each session took much longer to prepare than a face-to-face lecture and required creativity, engagement and patience. The challenges inherent in this process were two-fold, creating the material in an engaging format and coping with the technological challenges of doing so. Throughout the journey, the support of the University’s IT Department was invaluable to cope with the latter and for this I am extremely grateful.
In parallel with this process was yet another challenge, gaining approval of the blended study unit by Academic Programmes Quality and Resources Unit. Given the nature of the study-unit, this was additionally challenging because some of the requirements included technological and “online learning” jargon. It was only thanks to the course which I had attended and the support of the personnel from the Faculty and APQRU that the Department was able to complete this process successfully.
Once the study-unit was approved, I plodded on with the preparations, doing as much as I could while coping with my other academic responsibilities. I was constantly aware that, in the course, we were told that it would be ideal if we prepare all the study-unit before it starts, something which I am still aspiring to and hope to be able to complete – another challenge. This would allow me the time to monitor and moderate the students’ activity online, once the study-unit starts.
March 2020 – Enter centre stage: COVID-19, with all the resulting challenges. Online learning took on a new dimension, becoming the order of the day, rather than the exception. Everybody went online – belying the challenge of preparing a blended learning or online study-unit. However, over the past months, the major differences between transferring lectures from face-to-face to online and delivering an online course through distance or blended learning became more apparent to me. In the latter case, “online versus face-to-face” was suddenly replaced by “synchronous versus asynchronous”, with the additional requirement of having to engage students who I would not meet physically. The possibility and availability of online engagement of different types made this task exciting but demanding, contributing to yet another challenge.
What was, pre-COVID-19, the online component of my study-unit, became asynchronous material, while my face-to-face component was translated into synchronous sessions. These sessions, which, when I was undertaking the course seemed a source of amazement, had now become familiar and run of the mill. Zoom had changed from meaning something associated with a camera to the place where most of my human contact was taking place. Within my blended study-unit, I can say that this familiarity made them the easiest component to organise.
The asynchronous material required that I provide all that I would deliver in class online in an engaging manner and with the necessary clarity to allow students to follow it easily. My perfectionist nature has made this process even more challenging. Having come to the final part of my preparations, I think I can safely say that I have done everything I can to achieve this, although the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I have discovered, with the support of the IT Department, the many possibilities available through VLE and the richness that they provide.
Asynchronous uploading of material to the University’s Virtual Learning Environment needs to be complemented by tutor availability online, which I have also factored into my study-unit. These are the online spaces where I look forward to meeting the students and getting to know them, while being able to support them in any difficulties they may have.
Something which is very encouraging is the fact that the social work Master courses in our Department have attracted a healthy number of applicants. I would like to hope that having a course which is delivered completely online has contributed to this interest and will also facilitate the upgrading of social workers’ qualifications. As I near the end of my career, I also hope that this blended study-unit will be the start of more courses and study-units being delivered online, making tertiary education more accessible to more people.