Spotlight on practice: Just have a go! Navigating expectations and ‘ticking off’ student participation in online learning – Andrew Burke
Dr Andrew Burke is a lecturer in the Macquarie Law School and is known for his research on the use of body worn cameras by police and how that affects criminal procedure, and the teaching of criminal procedure. His students know him as an understanding teacher who “is a wonderful educator, both in person and online, and is so realistic about the pressures and balance of both real life and uni, which is so refreshing.”
Here, Andrew explains why it was important to set and keep high expectations for his students’s learning and how he faced the challenges of assessing participation in the online environment.
As told to Kylie Coaldrake and Karina Luzia.
Did your approach to learning and teaching change in the move to all-online learning?
Yes and no – and in important ways. Yes, in terms of being more understanding and accommodating for students having disruptions and so on. For example, I didn’t worry about Special Consideration for attendance in zoom tutorials, I just asked the students to let me know what’s going on with them.
In my 3rd year unit, we have an on-call system for the class participation mark (which is 20%) so there are only 6 or 7 students on call for any particular tutorial. If a student couldn’t make that, then I, or their tutor, just rescheduled a 15-minute Zoom which they did in pairs. This was for a client interview exercise where the tutor played the client. Students were presented with a factual hypothetical and had to know the law well enough to ask the correct questions of the client in the time available.
I did quite a few of these outside of scheduled teaching hours so that was certainly a change. Previously, I would have advised them to submit special consideration if they missed their on-call. Some students were saying “I can only afford a certain amount of data each fortnight when I get paid and then it runs out and then I’ve got no more data”. What are you going to do? You can’t say I’m going to give you a fail because you ran out of data – so it was just a different situation. So, more accommodating in that sense.
But what I didn’t change was my expectations for the unit – both in terms of what we were going to teach and how much they were going to learn – I didn’t want to change that.
I also didn’t change the assessment structure either. I changed one assessment task as it was something requiring students to attend court and we couldn’t do that, so we had to substitute that for a different question. But I still expected as much of them. I was just more flexible in how they could show me that they were meeting those expectations. I didn’t want some kind of tyranny of soft expectations where students might get the idea that just because we were online meant that it was OK to learn less.
I wanted them to learn just as much and to expect just as much of them – they are smart, and they are motivated, and they want to learn. I just was more flexible in how I went about that.
Had you taught online before or was this a learning experience for you as well?
I had never used Zoom before. I found some instructional information and videos and watched a few of them. I was in lockdown with my wife who really knows how to use Zoom, so I got her to teach me. That was a bit of luck! There wasn’t really a lot of time otherwise. I tried to read articles from other academics on how they were doing it and people on Twitter about issues they were having and what they were doing about it.
I convene large units with 500-600 students and several tutors. We were all a bit nervous about the move to online and not having used the Zoom software before, so we just practiced. We scheduled times and got on Zoom together and took it in turns to host and try things like sharing the screen and doing break out groups. So during the 2-week teaching pause, we practiced. We have a pretty established teaching team as we have run the unit 3 times now and I’ve convened it with the same people. We all get on well – the other co-convenor and I would take everyone out for lunch at the end of the semester –it’s a good group. They were nervous, especially some who were less confident with technology and even though they weren’t getting paid for it obviously, they really wanted the practice and to do a good job. So, when we got to the actual tutes, everything we did there we had already done. And that helped everybody to feel comfortable.
It was actually quite fun to go on Zoom and catch up about what was going on because we were all in lockdown and it was nice to talk to people.
How did you support your students in the move online?
Our approach was to be very understanding about students missing class, allowing them to catch up in other ways, and trying to be as flexible as possible about that.
The other thing we did was to make use of the breakout room function as a way of finding out about any particular issues. In face-to-face teaching I make use of small group discussions during the tutorial hour just to change pace and break it up a bit. And I know that some less-confident students find it easier to just discuss their ideas with a couple of friends first before talking to the whole group – so it caters for different personalities. So, when we went on to Zoom, I used the breakout room function that same way and it was quite effective. We put them into groups of 3 to discuss a problem question – the difference being that they can’t pick their friends, they are just randomly allocated.
Some of them said they really enjoyed being randomly allocated to groups because they made contact with people they had never met before and that made them feel a bit more connected.
Then I went around to as many groups as I could, popping in, and as well as discussing the subject material, I always made a point of saying ‘how are you going’, ‘is everything alright’, ‘is there anything I can do particularly to help, are there any issues you are having with the unit because of what’s going on that I don’t know about and if I knew about I could do something about’. Most of the time obviously they said “No, don’t worry, everything is OK” – but sometimes they would say “Yes, there is this thing” and that was useful for me because I wouldn’t have known otherwise and it allowed me to adjust things.
Or if they had an issue, I could say well since there are other people here now, let’s make a time for a consultation and we can talk then – or I would refer them to Campus Wellbeing or to other services as appropriate. Honestly, I found that most of my students were bored but OK in lockdown. They were either still living at home or they had gone back home to their families where things were more or less OK.
But there was a small percentage of them who were supporting themselves financially and lost their work because they were working in retail and hospitality, and that all went, of course. So those guys really struggled – they couldn’t pay the bills, they weren’t certain if they were going to be able stay living in their house because they couldn’t pay the rent.
I couldn’t solve all their problems, but I could at least talk to them about it and refer them to people who might be able to. And I could be flexible about how they could deliver all the things the unit required of them. Again, still expecting them to learn but being more flexible about how they did it.
So you used Zoom for dual tutorial and consult/office hours?
Yes, a bit – it wasn’t a one-on-one, so I didn’t want to ask them confidential things, but I gave them the opportunity to raise things. In a f2f tute, people do that naturally because they can grab you on the way out, but I was conscious that there were not those informal mechanisms to talk to me that you have on campus. I wanted to create that space where they could raise something. So, in that regard yes, I combined zoom a bit with a consultation hour function. But if it was taking up time I would say come for a consultation, let’s make another time.
What’s your current thinking around video on or video off?
Well, look, they can have their video off if they want – that’s OK. I tried to educate myself in terms of what people were saying about issues with privacy and intrusion, people wanting to have their video off. My very first reaction to be honest was probably like other peoples’: turn your video on because it’s really hard teaching to a black screen! And then people started talking about privacy and I thought OK maybe there is an issue there, so I tried to educate myself about it. It’s obvious when you think about it – some people’s homes may make them uncomfortable or maybe they are unsafe…I tried to educate myself on that too. It was a learning curve.
I do prefer students to have their video on because it’s easier talking to faces than to black screens. In my zoom tutes at the moment, if there are 30 students there may be 6 or 7 who consistently participate really well and there might be 20 who are a black screen that you don’t hear much from. We have a participation mark, so they are essentially giving away those marks! I would really like to know why they do this because there might be something I could change but it is hard because you don’t get anything from them to know. Obviously there might be a range of reasons why they choose to do that, maybe some just wanting to look like they are there when they are actually playing video games, and for others it could be that they don’t have a backdrop that they are comfortable with or something else in their house they are not happy about. I wish I could have some data on that so I could try to adjust.
In breakout groups, a lot more people do turn their video on but I don’t think you can have a hard and fast rule because people could say ‘well, my internet is bad so if I just use the audio it doesn’t drop out’, or the video freezes because they don’t have enough bandwidth or they’re working off the mobile phone tower or something like that – so you still have to have a bit of flexibility and understanding in terms of people’s technical challenges. And you just don’t know – maybe they are making it up, but they could also be telling the truth, so you don’t want to make anyone feel bad.
How did you assess participation with those sorts of issues, it must have been a bit of a challenge?
In the 3rd year units, we already had the on-call system that we used in the f2f tutes – and that actually works really well on Zoom. You have your 6 or 7 people who you are assessing that week and they almost always turn their videos on and Zoom works quite well for a conversation with that many people so that was fine. Everybody else could choose to watch the recording or they could be there with their video off just listening. They could still participate if they wished. So that took the pressure off them – they still had to at least watch the recording, or they would have done poorly in the assessments.
For my 1st year unit, I only had 4 tutes per week and I was running them all myself.
I made a point of getting to know all the students and I would make a note when people would say things, write down their name and then tick every time they say something.
I was transparent about how I assessed participation. You can make notes surreptitiously on Zoom, nobody knows that you have a notepad so that is easier than in the physical classroom where I always feel very self-conscious when someone says something, and you go ‘tick’. But on Zoom, I made a point of holding my notebook to the camera up and saying this is what I am doing.
I also did a group presentation task where I put them into break-out groups with 1 week to prepare and the following week to deliver, just 5 minutes between the 3 of them. That structural opportunity gave them a chance to get their participation mark up. To be honest, I was more lenient with participation marks than I am in a normal classroom.
I really like class participation marks for lots of reasons but I do get that the big weakness is the subjectivity where different people assess them differently and it’s very difficult to appeal because there is no one else here to verify it. I am always at pains to be very clear about what I am looking for and what I am assessing because that’s only fair – they must be given a clear idea of what you want from them. Different staff are looking for different things.
For me, especially in a first-year unit, I just want enthusiasm and participation and to have a go.
Other staff, particularly in later year units might want them to be correct – if they get something wrong that’s bad. I really don’t care if they get something wrong, I will just point it out, and that’s a learning opportunity – I just want them to have a go.
Did you change anything for Session 2?
Yes absolutely! My units in S1 had an external cohort (who normally have 2 days of on-campus sessions) and initially we weren’t sure the best way to deal with the external students.
We went for an asynchronous discussion forum format for external students and I thought that would be easier but actually, it was lots more work.
Running 2 different systems, zoom tutes for internal students and a discussion forum for external students, just added complexity and workload and it wasn’t ideal. At the time we were struggling with how to get all the external students to agree on a time to come to a zoom tute and so the discussion forum seemed easier. I don’t think it was easier and some students got to the end of the session and had done nothing in the forums and then went back through and added in posts for all the different weeks all at once so I don’t think it was such a good way to learn.
So, in S2, for my JD law unit, I have an external cohort of 80 and I’ve got about 20 coming to the on-campus session that I am teaching and about 60 online. We have gone for a different model: the external students are broken into 2 groups of 30 with 2 tutors. They have 4 hours of Zoom at the same time as each of the 2 on campus session dates (because I think 4 hours is about all you can do) and then 2 lots of 2-hour zooms at the end of week 9 and the end of week 12 to do the rest of the content. I think that is far better than what I did last semester and it’s also administratively simpler because it is just the internal tutes rolled out again rather than having to work out how we are going to do a discussion forum and how we are going to moderate it and read it and respond to everything. So that’s the main thing I changed. When it’s trial and error, you are going to make a mistake.
Some convenors went for 6 hours of Zoom to replace the on-campus session days, but they said it was exhausting – they were shattered at the end of the 2 days.
Any other tips?
Not sure that there is any magic to it beyond just really caring about the students. I think you can expect just as much – everything you can do in the classroom you can do in Zoom and I think the students respond better when they know that something is expected of them. If they think they don’t have to show up, well of course you are not going to get a great discussion going.
You set expectations and they will rise to meet them.
I’m happy I kept my participation marks. Some of my colleagues dumped them when we went into lockdown and then no one came to the tutorials, so they were running a zoom tute for 2 or 3 people and that’s not fun.
I also wish we could get everyone back on campus, but I can completely understand why some students still need to be on zoom, I get it. It’s much better than nothing and I still want to have the same expectations, but it is definitely more fun in the classroom!
Andrew Burke is a Lecturer in Macquarie Law School. As well as teaching criminal law and procedure, his research interests include environmental crime and the impacts of new technology on criminal procedure. View Andrew’s Research Profile.