What are teaching awards? And why do we want one?

A colleague was awarded an Office of Learning and Teaching award the other day. We went to Brisbane for the ceremony. She is officially one of the best university educators in Australia. It is a big deal and she deserves all the kudos she can get, because she really does do a great job.

As I was sitting in the audience listening to what all of the recipients had achieved, I could not help but compare their achievements with my own and that of my colleagues. Engagement? Check. Innovation? Check.  Authenticity? Check. Plus we do all of that in a distance environment (which, for many of the Go8 is incomprehensible). So why are we not more recognised, or even more valued, as educators?

The answer is quite simple.

Our applications are not up to scratch. We spend so much time teaching our students, that we do not record what it is that we are doing. It is as if the time taken to complete an award application is time away from teaching. Which it is. There is an assumption that an award application is extra work. And in an sector where workloads are already huge, it is simply an extra onus with limited return.

Yet, I’m not sure that this is a helpful attitude. Should we not be looking at this from the perspective of what we can share with others? What we consider “normal” in distance education is innovative to those who still think MOOCs are the way of the future. We progressed through the teething problems of online learning a decade ago. We have moved on so far that we find it baffling to see that universities are showcasing video lectures as innovative. These other universities have been trapped in the old fashioned lecture/tutorial model. A flipped classroom? Wow, what a great idea! Anything that breaks them out of a traditional model is innovative – and wins them awards! I am sure they would be truly staggered to see a flipped classroom in a distance environment with authentic assessment and an engaged cohort. Our normal.

But completing the application is where our problems begin. Blowing one’s own trumpet is part of the challenge. The awards are individual, and academics tend to be a humble bunch. We do what we do because we believe in creating a future for our youth, not because we want an award. Step one, then, is convincing the academic that an award application is an effective use of their time.

Articulating what it is that we actually do is the next problem. And articulating it well is considerably more difficult again. An application needs to be pithy, succinct and really well worked. This is a process that takes time and professional advice.

So what are awards? And why do we want one?

An award gives us authority to share our practice with others. To get recognition for what we do well and to encourage other educators to learn from our own experiences. As educators, we want to teach. An award is us teaching other teachers. It is not trumpet blowing, it is a responsibility: a responsibility to the sector, to our students and to industry practitioners employing our students. If not us to show how innovative teaching should be done, then who?

Dr Celeste Lawson is Head of Program, Professional Communication, Central Queensland University, Australia.

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Post grad supervisor training

CQU is serious about improving its research outputs which, as an early career researcher, is very encouraging. One of the ways CQU can grow research outputs is to grow research higher degree students. And part of the means of doing this is by helping those students through the journey from candidate to graduate. Research supervision is a skill, and I am convinced that having a good supervisor helps the student. It is less isolating for a student, they stay motivated, and they are likelyto complete on time.
I spent part of last week at a research supervisor’s workshop. I wonder how many universties offer such a service? I suspect that some of the bigger universities would not – as I have heard some horror stories from colleagues relating to supervision. It is encouraging for me as a PhD supervisor to learn what to do and what is expectd from me.
My own personal belief about supervision has been vinidicated – supervisors are allowed to enjoy the process too! We can like our students, and if part of the role is pastoral care, then so be it, if it results in an on-time completion rather than attrition.

Kangaroos on campus

I was just walking through our beautiful leafy Rockhampton university campus completely lost in thought wondering at how much it would have cost my publisher to send me a written statement telling me I had earned zero dollars in royalties when I wandered through a mob of kangaroos escaping the forty degree heat under some shady trees. The movement of the first kangaroo hopping quickly away startled me and I realised I had walked into their territory. A second female brushed passed me as it jumped away, but the buck stood up and just eyed me, very dominant. I froze, not wanting to aggravate the others any more than I already had. Slowly, I moved back, gave them a wide berth and continued on my way to ponder the futility of managing the royalties of not-yet-profitable books.

Student Voice award 2014

I’ve just received a Student Voice Award for one of my courses – Organisational Communication. That means that my students really liked the course! Every term at my university, students provide feedback about their courses. The students rate the courses on a number of criteria. Awards are not that easy to get: you need to get an overall rating of 4.5 out of 5 or above; there needed to be more than a 50% response rate from the total cohort; and there needed to be more than 10 responses. My course was a pretty decent size – 70 students – and I’m delighted that the students rated it so highly. I’m particularly pleased because this is now the third year in a row that I have received a Student Voice award.

I’m obviously doing something right. I have a large Distance cohort (80% of my students study by Distance – that’s “online study”) and this can be a very challenging mode of study. A lot of students feel disconnected and isolated. I commit to these students. I communicate with them individually as well as a whole. Some of the feedback I have received from students is that I am the first person they have spoken to for their degree. This surprises me, and saddens me. I always speak to every single one of my students one-on-one. I can do this, of course, because my class numbers are rarely more than 150. It’s a big job (I ring them twice a term) but I see it as an investment of my time. Students appreciate the contact, and they can ask me questions rather than sending me an email or posting to the forums. That means that my forum discussions, when they occur, are useful and targeted.

The other thing I do is I review my assessment every year. All of my assessment is authentic, and prepares students to be work-ready. There are no essays or exams in my courses! This can be a very challenging approach in a tertiary environment (and open to criticism from traditionalists), so I ensure I map the assessment to the course and program learning outcomes and to AQF requirements. I can justify why my students do what they do – and I explain that to the students as well as to our accrediting committees. I have had feedback from students about this too, that it is appreciated by students that thought and effort has been put into not only the course content, but the course assessment.

It’s nice to get recognition from the students. And reminds me, again, why I do what I do.

What is the role of a post-grad supervisor?

I participated in a seminar today designed for beginning PhD students to explain the Confirmation of Candidature process. I willingly gave my time because sometimes students don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t want to ask their supervisors for fear of appearing silly. But another fact emerged – some supervisors didn’t know the process and instead of finding out, the student went to a seminar. Or, the process had changed and the supervisor wasn’t up to speed. There is a line here, a line within the role of a supervisor in an academic setting. What does a post graduate supervisor do? Do they guide the student academically, and leave all of the administration well enough alone? Or should a supervisor have some knowledge of the administration requirements of the candidature? Is it simply a cop out to tell the student to go and find out what’s involved admin-wise? There is a lot of help available for students – as it should be – but how much of that is because we (post graduate supervisors) have become lazy in our supervision? I think we, as supervisors, have a responsibility to be able to explain the entire PhD process to the student. Within that will be elements where we need advice of the nitty gritty, to be sure. But a question like “What’s in a confirmation document?” is something that the supervisor needs to know.

So at this seminar today, two issues emerged for me. One, the PhD student gets a lot of benefit participating in seminars to reinforce what they already know, or to learn what they were too shy/embarrassed to ask their supervisors. And, two, some supervisors would probably get just as much benefit (but are not required to attend).

Propaganda in war

It seems that Australia has been drawn into the Middle East conflict thanks to some very schmick marketing by the Islamic State group. Young men (always young, and always men) have joined the cause from Australia. The recent video we have seen of the young fellow from Sydney beating his chest and making all sorts of threats against the rest of the world illustrates to me how successful this marketing campaign has been. Islamic State offers young men a place to be tough and violent. They get a gun and they get brotherhood. One can imagine the appeal (although being neither young, nor male, my perspective may be somewhat skewed). The videos that are produced are very professional. They are set to music, and they show young men making a difference against the big bad rest of the world. Of course it’s appealing. And that is the point. It’s like any war propaganda – it’s designed to inspire young men to give their lives and to make the families respect their sacrifice. So when the young men die, and they do, it is because they have given their lives for the greater good.

My interest in this conflict is from the propaganda perspective. Hitler was an evil man, but he was a master orator. He could whip people into frenzies just through his public speaking. Thankfully it does not appear the Islamic State has anyone with Hitler’s charisma (or they wouldn’t need our young Sydney friend) but the rationale holds true. Get people to believe in something and they will die for it. The 21st century of war propaganda includes You Tube and Twitter, and not the stump speeches and pamphlet drops of old. The message, however, is the same. Join us.

To those of us not wearing blinkers, the propaganda is easy to see. But to the naive or disillusioned, a professional social media campaign provides just the credibility they are looking for. An opportunity to escape this world and rebel against the system. The news media then fuels the fire, reporting on the events, creating more ammunition to be used in the next round of propaganda. Such is the immediacy of journalism in 2014.

I am reminded of the Kony 2012 social media campaign. A flash in the pan to be sure, but a big flash at the time. Millions were drawn into the debate about Joseph Kony. And then it was over. What the Kony campaign had was a very professional video and a knowledge of marketing. The Islamic State campaign is being maintained longer and harder than the Kony campaign – but one wonders if it could exists without the propaganda. Just like the Kony campaign, once the publicity dies the campaign dies too.

Privacy debate for online publications

There is a University of Sydney lecturer causing all sorts of kaffuffle in the media at the moment because he emailed a whole bunch of racist rants to his colleagues. An online news organisation got hold of the emails and published them. The lecturer has been stood down and is now taking legal action against the news organisation for breaching his privacy. This is a really interesting case. My mind immediately goes to the defamation space, but of course there is no defamation here because truth is a defence, and no one is disputing that the emails existed and were actually sent by this chap. The news organisation said they published the emails because it was in the public interest – another defamation bell ringing here for me – but the privacy legislation in Australia does not create a loophole for public interest, regardless of how influential this bloke is. The news organisaiton is also defending its sources and not revealing how the emails were received. So now I’m starting to think about the shield laws for journalists as well. There are so many things going on. There is a court hearing coming up to decide whether the emails need to be withdrawn from the site. I think that’s actually a moot point – the issue has been so well covered by mainstream media that the lecturer’s appalling terminologies for the people of Australia are already widely reported. Removing the emails now will not make any difference to his reputation. It will be interesting to see if the sources are required to be revealed. It is an important case for journalism and I will be watching with interest.