Interview Part 4 – Strengths and pitfalls of online courses

By MARK PEARSON

This is the fourth and final edited transcript of my interview with Griffith University doctoral candidate David Costin, who recently interviewed me as part of his research into engaging with the online environment in higher education.  Over the past three installments we have discussed my design of an online / on campus course in media law (Part 1), how principles of ‘mindful journalism’ have influenced the course design (Part 2) and some suggested strategies to embed online learning (Part 3). This week we explore the strengths and pitfalls of online courses.


Q (David Costin):        What are the gaps and barriers that you see that hinder you as being an effective online operator? You’ve mentioned one about rules, about the boundaries of …. of the uni itself, but what other gaps are you seeing, or barriers?

A (Mark Pearson):         Time is a barrier, the time element, because the ideal, the face-to-face environment commits you to so many hours in the classroom, the students know you will be there, certain consultation hours, they know they can come to see you. The online environment is meant to be amenable to the learner, but it doesn’t necessarily sit with the teachers’ availability. So you know, whatever the learning problem, whether it’s just a technical thing with the quiz not working or whatever, the online student might encounter that at 3:00 a.m. because it suits their schedule, but to maintain one’s own sanity and life balance, one can’t be available 24/7 to online students. And sometimes they’ll get frustrated that they’ve had to wait to get a response. That doesn’t happen very often, but nevertheless, the ideal would be for them to get immediate responses to such problems, but that’s – until we get teaching bots – that’s some way away.

Q:        Yeah, yeah.

A:         So that springs to mind as one constraint. Another is, I mean I talked about institutional barriers to the design, but there’s also the industrial labour issue of teaching online. And (my School) … has been very good with this and I have online tutors that are compensated comparably with the on-campus versions. For academic staff, there is the workload issue and that’s looking reasonable at the moment for online development, but it’s, you know, the risk is trying to force fit online to traditional models and to under-allow for all of this development and nurturing and engagement that has to happen for online to work, to undervalue that in workload and in rewards within the system.

Q:        Okay, so you’re saying so therefore part of that is I suppose a lot of your work is developing that relationship with students, but that’s not really fixed into any particular workload or that you could put a monetary value on it or anything else like that.

A:         Well it is, it’s so many hours of workload per week that you would devote to that and the jury is out as to whether that’s enough to cater to that many online students, isn’t it? I mean teaching is somewhat of a calling and you suffer angst if you think your students are being underserviced, but the more hours you put into it, the lower your hourly rate becomes, you know, for whether you’re a casual worker on so much per hour, you’ve done your hours that were allocated, but there’s some student crying for help. You know, what do you do? Your calling tells you, you offer the help.

Q:        That’s right.

A:         You then become a volunteer and that’s nice for you and me at this stage of our careers, maybe we can afford to be volunteers a little bit, but the struggling young mum or dad that’s trying to feed the family on sessional …

Q:        Yeah, wages.

A:         … rates or whatever, it becomes a – I believe if it’s managed poorly and it’s undercompensated, it’s an exploitation of people in those situations.

Q:        Well it becomes an ethical type of practice I suppose.

A:         Mm.

Q:        You mentioned before, you’ve done a couple of courses within . about supporting – about the development of online. What are the support structures that you’ve found have really helped you in the development of your online course?

A:         Workload allowance for the development. So I mean academic workload is done on a formula that changes regularly within institutions. It’s a points-based formula at the moment, but it’s meant that I haven’t had to teach a full load of classroom teaching in the semesters that I’ve been developing or … revising the (online) courses. So the institution’s been willing to take a full professor out of the classroom to invest in the design and then the offering of such courses.

Q:        Okay.

A:         The other – not so much constraint but important impediment – in this area is the fact that a lot of work is done in the establishment of online courses, but there has to be, just as in vehicle maintenance, there has to be a schedule of service maintenance updating, freshening. And unless that is allowed for in the budgetary and workload approaches of the institution, what you get is what sadly has become the fate of online distance correspondence courses through the ages, is that you just get people who may or may not care about it anymore and the course is just getting rustier and rustier, the readings getting older and older, the technology is being further and further behind the state-of-the-art at the moment and this obviously is going to impact both enrolments but more important on the learning that’s happening in the course – rusty courses.

Q:        It’s a good term, I like that term, ‘rusty courses’. And I’ll go back to – and this is, of course, I suppose one other question I was going to ask, you mentioned at the start you believe there was more courses adapted to the online environment. In your opinion, what do you think, is it more, like this particular course is more gravity, more orientated towards online? Are there other courses you think are more orientated towards the online than others, in what you’ve experienced so far?

A:         The term ‘hybrid courses’ or ‘hybrid learning’ is bandied around.

Q:        Yeah.

A:         I haven’t seen a very strict definition of it. For some people it seems to mean some online components to a standard course. To others, it means a course that can be undertaken fully online or on campus. With this one, it is the latter and I’ve tried to make it so that it is as valuable a learning experience to the online student and also that opportunity is fully available to the on-campus students.

Q:        Flexibility, yeah, comes through all the time. And I suppose, you know, this kind of comes on to the last question in that in the course that you’re developing for the online, but you’ve taken your own thinking processes and you’ve I suppose looked at where you want the kids to be, the students to be, but what other things do you do that strengthens your own skills in that teaching and learning environment, the students’ environment?

A:         What do I do that strengthens my own skills?

Q:        Mm, what do you do? Obviously you reflect upon your teaching.

A:         Yes.

Q:        Which is one of those – knowing things that work.

A:         Yeah.

Q:        But do you depend on – do you go and talk to your other colleagues about other strategies you can utilise or do you go and experiment on a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and come back and incorporate those things?

A:         Well I’ve done both of those things. I write about some of these experiences and practises in the academic literature. I maintain a blog, which I’ve been doing for about five or six years now, with – it varies, but with like a monthly contribution, but there’s been two in the last two weeks, you know, it’s just according to time and what happens, called Journlaw, which has a mixture of things to do with commentary or snippets about media law, abstracts and excerpts from my writings or articles, just referring people to those things. And when I do those guest interviews, I’ll throw them on there, so there’s sort of a central place where students and others can go there. And I’ll do mini reports or live blogs of conferences with relevance to that area, so instead of just going to sleep as a delegate at a conference, I’ll keep myself awake by taking a couple of photos and writing a news story about the presentation and whacking it onto the blog, those sorts of things. So there’s that, there’s the academic output. I have done a few of the MOOCs as you mention. What else do I do? The academic’s life, I’ve noticed, the pressures and demands over many years has become more intense in recent years than it was in the earlier stages of my career. So I don’t do as many sort of learning and teaching grant applications, writing about learning and teaching in learning and teaching sorts of journals or got to many of the seminars for staff and that sort of thing, just because there’s only so many hours in the day and certain priorities, KPIs you’re rewarded for.

Q:        Yeah, so what you’re saying is you’re prioritising what you believe as part of the important strategies that will help you through the parts of your course.

A:         Yeah and I do some leisure reading about it. In other words, if I’m an airport bookshop and there’s a – I mean that thing with the formative quizzes and repeating the question just came from some random popular book on embedding learning that I found in an airport bookshop and I was interested in reading about, but it’s not something – I mean the thing I do read a lot about at the moment is Buddhist ethical principles and mindfulness and that kind of thing, so that is influencing me a lot at the moment.

Q:        But you’re adapting too.

A:         Yeah, whenever I do those things, I think is there a way that that has relevance to either my research or my writing. And I build some of the principles into the research. So we did a big ‘Reporting Islam’ project which is just finishing up now. I finished in December, but it’s about a $900,000 over three years that we’ve just done. It had many dimensions to it, but part of it was developing this app …. And so my colleague has continued with the project, is negotiating with future hosts for it and everything. But associated with this were a lot of training courses we developed for journalists, a handbook on Reporting Islam, a newsroom handbook that is there in PDF version as well as we printed a few copies for our expert panellists and so on. But I guess my point is, this thinking around the online stuff has also led to a very practical research project which has academic outputs but also newsroom and social application. [Calls up www.reportingislam.org ]. So you start to get, like I recorded this interview with (journalist Peter Greste) – I didn’t record it, I took a cameraman to report it and it talks about the importance of reporting upon Islam accurately, basic information about the religion and things that get commonly confused, some basic myths about some of the common things like the different types of headdress or whatever. And then so going from that, basic terminology and then putting it into practice with a checklist for journalists to identify, like a little quiz on how inclusive their newsroom is, basic reporting tips, protocols they should follow when reporting Islam and the voices of journalists who are respected from a range of media about pitfalls in misreporting of Islam. Then very importantly, driving home with students the effects of misreporting …

(Audio visual playing)

A:         … the impact on people in the community and what bad reporting or negative reporting, associating them all as terrorists and whatever can have. And so this is taken from another body of literature with permission with our actors’ voices talking about their focus group.

(Audio visual playing)

Q:        Okay.

A:         But we had actors and photo stock images to capture the person that’s said those things in those research projects. And I have recorded these interviews with different experts about the research.

(Audio visual playing)

Q:        Mm.

A:         So journalists and students can get that actual research base to the effects and then similar to what I’ve done in the media law thing, we’ve developed scenarios that actually have all of the components here for practice reporting on a Muslim issue. So the scenario is explained, there are tasks that they have to do within a two-hour class, you know, council papers about a proposed mosque, tips that they would follow in reporting some images that we’ve had taken that they choose from for it and a selection of quotes, including some of which are actually live acted.

(Audio visual playing)

A:         That kind of stuff and a similar one on a terror arrest, because that’s a commonly misreported scenario with an actual court case following it and so on. And then a list of resources and people, journalists can go to. So that was quite an achievement, but the reason I mention it is a lot of these same principles have gone into there. So there are the mindfulness principles, – what’s my intent with this story?, why am I going to cover in this?, what’s the language I’m going to be using?. All of that’s built in to some of the resources.

Q:        It’s also that lived experience, isn’t it?

A:         Mm.

Q:        You’re there, so from where I sit, you’ve got that lived experience of what you’re seeing. You’ve got your background as to that journalism component, plus the ethics coming in on top of that, plus the mindfulness.

A:         Mm.

Q:        So it comes together in a product, one way, that can be practically and which people can then access and I suppose that end point for where they want to be.

A:         That’s the idea of it. We won the Queensland Multicultural Award last year for media, communication.

Q:        Wow, well done indeed. Well thank you very much for your time.

A:         Alright, okay, absolute pleasure.

Q:        I’ve enjoyed it.

———–

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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Filed under blogging, Buddhism, defamation, Eightfold Path, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, mental health, mindful journalism, online education, reflective practice, social media, terrorism

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