Gone Viral: Transitioning to Online Delivery

01/09/20

Michelle Harvey is the Course Coordinator of 'Career Development for Professionals' at the University of South Australia. She is also the Owner of FutureProof Careers, offering a holistic, future-focused approach tailored for the individual. She provides one-on-one counselling and coaching, workshop presentations and career path planning. 


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2020 has been a roller coaster year for everyone, not least those in the education system, educators and students alike. My role as Course Coordinator for a large first year course ‘Career Development for Professionals’ at the University of South Australia has been no different. As COVID-19 began its spread and the world started to respond in unprecedented ways, a degree of uncertainty surfaced.

Early February saw the emails begin. Travel restrictions raised concern about international student arrivals and the issues of self-isolation. Mid-March saw graduation ceremonies and university public events cancelled, and business travel grounded. On Tuesday 17 March, we were instructed to transition all face-to-face teaching to online delivery. All students were to be contacted by the end of the week to advise details on accessing online content from the beginning of the following week – that left 3 days to figure out the detail on delivering 2 hour tutorials online, and some 600-odd students to contact.

Those few days are a bit of a blur now, but I won’t forget:

  • the sense of urgency in the air
  • the tsunami of emails, the allaying of concerns that were rising amongst both students and staff, and the challenge of answering never-before pondered questions
  • the obstacles encountered in setting up Zoom sessions, arranging Zoom training for my team and collating resources to provide further guidance
  • the mad scramble for suddenly highly sought-after equipment such as headsets and cameras to ensure my team was appropriately geared up to deliver tutorials from home
  • the international students who had to serve quarantine in an intermediate country on their way to Australia
  • the massive learning curve we all experienced, alongside our students, in navigating a new platform and the inevitable hiccups along the way.

A variety of ways to transition to online were put forward across the University. Some courses with longer face-to-face sessions recorded a ‘lecture’ to be watched before students attended a shorter duration Zoom session. Other courses uploaded additional content to be accessed asynchronously, combined with 1 or 1.5 hours of synchronous discussion via Zoom. The key objective was to ensure equivalent content and opportunity for online discussion so that students retained a sense of both the facilitator presence and that of their peers. For Career Development for Professionals, our Zoom sessions mirrored our on-campus schedule of weekly 2 hour tutorials - the only difference was that the tutorial would be via Zoom instead of face-to-face. Same time, same tutor, same content, different location.

Zoom can be a great platform, but it offers challenges not present in face-to-face delivery. New routines needed to be established, technical glitches needed to be overcome, compromises needed to be found. It was a stark reminder of the value of non-verbal communication such as body language. Eye contact and body language lose their significance in an online setting, replaced by a chat function and icons – so much to monitor! Only one person can speak at a time and, with less non-verbal cues to assist, transitioning between speakers is less fluid than in person.

Despite such challenges, we started smoothly but, only one week in, our first Zoom-bombing incident rocked the boat...on April Fool’s Day, no less. In quick succession, students received inappropriate private messages via the Chat function, an obscene drawing appeared on the screen and the intruder voiced unwelcome comments. The horrified tutor promptly ended the session. We had no idea such a thing could occur, let alone any ideas on how to prevent it. Some students were so worried they did not want to return to the virtual tutorials. Tutors were concerned it could happen to them. A flurry of changes to Zoom settings and new protocols were implemented to strike a better balance between ease of access and security. We added passwords and started each session by taking the role. We required students to log in using their UniSA credentials. We muted participants’ microphones and turned off participants’ access to whiteboard, annotation and private chat. We monitored the participants list for those logged in without a UniSA username, instructing them to log back in correctly. For the few instances where a participant did not comply with this instruction, we ejected them from the session. In my mind, Hamish Blake had a lot to answer for!

Glitches continued to arise from time to time. Students were stuck in waiting rooms or trapped in breakout rooms. Tutors forgot to share their screen or didn’t realise their screen did not display when using breakout rooms. Both students and tutors rose to each obstacle, identifying workarounds to suit. For example, some students took photos of the main screen before entering a breakout room, then shared the image with their peers, and some tutors copied discussion questions into the chat so they would still be visible within the breakout rooms.

Notwithstanding the dramas, we received positive feedback from students about the transition to online, attendance remained relatively strong for the remainder of the semester and results were consistent with previous semesters. For some students, the online platform offered an opportunity for greater participation - the chat function providing an alternative option for those reluctant to speak up in class. Tutors and students alike developed or enhanced their digital communication skills. And we all remained COVID-free.

Looking back, it is clear that our success in rapidly transitioning to fully online teaching was aided by the fact that our course does not include exams as part of assessment and by our newly implemented flipped classroom teaching and learning arrangements. For 2020 onwards, we moved from weekly 2-hour lectures and 1-hour tutorials to no lectures and weekly 2-hour tutorials. Our flipped classroom approach relies on extensive online resources to support at-home learning prior to tutorial attendance, ideal in supporting students in fully online teaching. In recognition of the general upheavals experienced, the due date for the first assignment was extended for a week but, aside from that, no substantial changes to content or structure were required.

Changes I would make to how we transitioned relate to efficiencies of implementation, but this insight was only gained through living the experience. Should the need arise for such measures in the future, we are well positioned to take it in our stride.

Reflecting on this strange time, the attributes most heavily called upon during the transition to online included:

  • adaptability,
  • resilience, and
  • embracing uncertainty.

The importance of these attributes is emphasised in the coursework we deliver to our students in Career Development for Professionals as they hold particular salience in the world of work, yet it is times such as these which offer the opportunity to put theory into practise.

One of my tutors wrote to me:

Thank you for allowing me to be a part of something that I never thought I would achieve and that’s online tutoring. Since the inception of going online with zoom I am now showing my work colleagues how to use the package.

What a wonderful example of the benefits that can come from moving outside one’s comfort zone.

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