Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Reflective teaching practice on the web

Susan Hall and Robert Fox
Office of Teaching and Learning
Curtin University of Technology
The Teaching Learning Group's Reflective Teaching in Higher Education Program is a series of 12 sessions for new and continuing academic staff at Curtin University. The program is offered on Friday afternoons from 2 pm - 4 pm each semester. The Reflective Teaching Practice sessions provide lecturers with input on specific aspects of teaching, reflection on and planning for teaching as well as opportunities to network with colleagues across the university. They are conducted through a variety of learning formats in which lecturers can acquire: teaching methods and approaches; varied perspectives from which to critically reflect on their teaching; and, familiarity with the University Teaching and Learning Strategic Plan.

A Reflective Teaching Practice web site has been established to supplement and support the weekly sessions. This site aims to encourage staff to take part in ongoing discussions on issues relating to teaching and learning.

This demonstration session will explore the web site and will provide participants an opportunity to join in web-based discussions, either during the session, if are able to gain connectivity or after the session.


Introduction

This paper is a reflection-on-practice of an academic staff developer and a distance educator (the authors). In keeping with the nature of reflective practice, this paper is written in the first person with the intention of offering some useful insights for colleagues interested in establishing web sites to enhance teaching, for fellow academic staff developers who are considering using distance strategies to enhance their activities and for distance/open learning experts who may be called upon to guide them. It is an account of our process for integrating distance education strategies into our program for academic staff development.

The Teaching Learning Group at Curtin University of Technology, where we work, has pursued vigorously the development of open and flexible learning programs for students (Latchem 1995; Herrmann, Fox & Boyd, 1996; Fox & Herrmann, in press) and in staff development we have pursued open learning more along the lines of that espoused by Illich (1971). However, in the area of higher education there has been limited development or research into the use of open and distance learning strategies in staff development.

In this paper we begin by describing the Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education program as it has been run in seminar mode and tell of our reasons for introducing the web site. We then illustrate how various forms of web discussions take place and conclude with our reflections on the web site, its drawbacks and its potential for facilitating academic staff development.

The Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education Program

The program Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education is a series of 12 sessions for new and continuing academic staff at Curtin. Since 1994 it has been offered every semester as both a professional development program and (with the addition of specified written assignments and readings) a unit which can be claimed as credit within Curtin's postgraduate courses in Higher Education. At this point in time, most participants undertake the program solely for the purpose of their professional development.

Each session in the program is devoted to one topic which serves as the focus of reflection on practice. The topics, which are chosen as "hot issues" in university teaching, are reviewed and updated each semester. It is made clear in the advertising that participants can attend any number of the sessions according to their interest and time available. This open choice is also carried through in the credentialling of the program in that participants get a certificate of participation when they have eventually attended 75% of the total number of sessions. Furthermore, those who have received a certificate of participation and want to claim credit for the program as a unit within a postgraduate course, can complete the assessment component at their own time and pace before we pass their marks on to the School in which they are enrolled.

Another feature of the program is the emphasis on collegial input and, as Schoen (1987) would put it, on reflection-on-action. Because the participants are not a fixed group (some come regularly but the membership changes from week to week) this collegial emphasis is made explicit on the back of the agenda for each session.

A successful seminar program

The program has now been running for four years and its success is evidenced in responses elicited through weekly feedback sheets, end-of-semester review sheets and the prevalence of word-of-mouth recommendations. The average weekly attendance is 15 people with usually between 50 and 64 different people attending over a semester. Apart from the fact that we run an extensive advertising campaign and that our feedback indicates that the sessions are valued, we see another reason for continued attendances. That is, we see this program as one in a number of our programs which work synergistically towards the earlier mentioned goal of setting up a culture wherein teaching is regarded as a scholarly activity. And we are being met with the message that lecturers like building and belonging to such a culture. However, despite the fact that the program has been a success for those who could attend in person there are still other needs to be met.

Considering absent presence

There have been many staff who were teaching at the time of the session/s and who called or emailed to register their interest and expressed that they hoped their teaching schedule would allow them to attend in the following semester. (A way of saying 'keep the fire burning until I get there'). Others who can't make it to the sessions ask for the presenters' handouts. This causes us concern on two counts; not only does it result in extra 'after session work' for the secretary and the facilitator in organising mail-outs but we doubt that many of the handouts will hold their integrity without the accompanying explanation and discussion which took place in the presentations. Nonetheless, we 'hear' the need and take it as a sign that something needs to done to enable more access.

This problem with access is exacerbated by the fact that Curtin has four campuses other than the main one at Bentley, in Perth. Whereas some lecturers from the other two city-based campuses travel over to the Bentley campus for sessions, people from the two country campuses at Kalgoorlie (600 km away) and Northam (100 km away) have to participate through videoconference. This has created another dimension to the program and brings its own particular set of problems which have been elucidated elsewhere (Hall, 1997).

Introducing a web site discussion page

We decided we needed to set up a tailored text-based electronic discussion forum that would provide a time-of-convenience and place-of-convenience opportunity for absent colleagues, 'present' participants and workshop facilitators for sharing opinions, solutions and relevant references. In this way we wanted to monitor and expand our 'community of scholars' by providing a common space for reflecting on and debating various teaching and learning practices.

The reflective teaching web site (http://www.curtin.edu.au/learn/unit/RefPrac/) was introduced to the participants who attended Session Eight, Identifying and Using a Variety of Educational Media, within the Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education Program.

In considering a Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) facility we made a number of assumptions. Firstly, that CMC would provide a form of asynchronous communication, not requiring simultaneous presence, but allow for extended or virtual presence (Evans & Green, 1996). We saw the CMC facility as providing a supplement to the workshop activities held each week and not a replacement. CMC was therefore seen as 'adding value' to the weekly workshop activities. We saw the primary use for online interactions to:

  1. provide an advance organiser - an opportunity for workshop facilitators to describe the proposed structure and content of their sessions, allowing prospective participants to comment on and make follow up suggestions for changes to the session by sending their views back to the site for consideration. An example from the web site is given below.

  2. provide an opportunity for facilitators to post markers to key resources within the topic of their workshop, for example, the inclusion of links to related web-sites via universal resource locators (URLs) can be embedded in the text, creating an active hypertext link.

  3. provide participants with a facility to discuss issues related to the topic before and after the workshop and thereby allowing discussion beyond the time frame of the two hour session. For example:

  4. provide those lecturers unable to attend the session with a sense of the session and to enable them to join in the debates surrounding the session topic. Also this provides an opportunity for absent colleagues to react to and answer queries raised in the workshop. For example:

In considering what form the CMC site should take, we compared the use of listerv and web-based newsgroup environments. Based on our previous experiences, we considered that listervs tended to be more successful in active user/student participation, but that they can be considered intrusive, for whenever a user opens their email, updated listserv information would register. In an environment where most lectures are flooded with email messages, providing a RTF listserv was not seen as an appropriate technology application. Apart from swamping lecturer emails, our own experiences suggested that the RTF messages would be ignored or deleted before being read. In the web-based environment the user needs to enter the specific site to read and comment on the contents. In this sense we view a web-based site as non-intrusive. We were also concerned as to who would subscribe to the RTF listserv. In addition, messages in the listserv environment are delivered on a time-based method: messages arrive in order of chronology sent, rather than as in a web-based newsgroup environment, as ordered in terms of topics.

A collection of threaded messages

The presentation puts web-based messages on the same topic together and indicates responses, allowing readers to follow discussions topic by topic. For example:

Example of threaded messages

We also wished to provide users with a guide to help find the topics they were interested in and to give them an opportunity to review all messages on the topic, 'at-a-glance' before they entered into the discussion. We therefore set up the Discussion Room in a way that all topics could be viewed at the same time, allowing colleagues to view then select their choice. The Discussion Room layout is illustrated below:

Discussion Room topics list

We also ensured that an email facility was available, allowing colleagues to choose between sending a public message to the Discussion Room or a private message to one of the discussants.

Moderating the Discussion Room

Messages within the Discussion Room are moderated and can be selected and deleted or removed and archived for future recall. This facility allows colleagues to have their messages removed or archived, if on further reflection, they decide they would rather not have their message available. An illustration of the Administration Board is given below.

Example of Adminstration Board facility for the Discussion Room

Conclusion: Reflections on the web site

By way of concluding we reflect on our progress to date. Comments received indicate that the site has been welcomed by many of whom one is quoted (with permission) below.
Posted by Ian Howard on May 22, 1997 at 08:15:04:

Truly a marvellous idea, this discussion site. As one who seems to always be occupied on Friday afternoons (reflecting on Monday's lecture), and so can't attend the sessions, I look forward to participating and learning from others through the site. Having been involved in teaching for some 3.5 yrs now, it sure is time to reflect and take a look at where we're going. All the best and keep up the great work.

On a sobering note, when we called Ian to seek permission to use his comment, he added that although the web site was a great idea it takes a lot of courage to lay out your thoughts about your teaching in such a public forum. As he suggested, such exposure can actually work against you. Perhaps we should lead the way into this issue by opening up a discussion on the topic? Clearly the web site discussion also has its limitations for facilitating reflection on teaching practice but it does offer potential for the flexibility of the program.

Potential for enhancing the program

The Web site shows potential to complement the seminars very effectively. Notwithstanding Ian's cautionary comment, above, about the issue of the risk of exposure, it can provide access to those who can't attend the seminars or who prefer to converse through writing. And it may become the preferred mode for staff in country campuses.

Despite our apparent success at choosing topics of interest for the program, the fact that they were predetermined topics for reflection also has it drawbacks. The practice of allowing learners to choose and collaborate on topics of their own choosing was one of the central features of open learning as espoused by Illich (1971). It is also central to Schoen's (1987, ibid.) notion of engaging in reflection-on-action. Therefore, we are pleased to find that while the web site does make available the list of topics offered in the sessions, contributors have also raised other topics related to reflective teaching. Perhaps we are moving closer towards the ideal.

Finally, we should say that in academic staff development at Curtin we fully support Boyer's (ibid.) notion of teaching as a scholarly activity in which lecturers reflect on, conduct research into and publish about their teaching practice. However, we do not support the scholarship of teaching which is divorced from practice. Rather, following Schoen (1987) we consider the scholarship of teaching to incorporate both reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action. And while we realise that discussion groups, alone, do not constitute reflection-in-action (we have other programs where this is pursued more intently) we use them as catalysts and means of sustaining collegial dialogue.

Most importantly, we need to provide a variety of modes to meet the various circumstance and learning preferences of our academic staff.

References

Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities for professoriate. Princeton, New Jersey, USA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Technology.

Evans, T., & Green, B. (1995). Dancing at a Distance? Postgraduate Studies, 'Supervision', and Distance Education. In Proceedings of Graduate Studies in Education: Innovation in Postgraduate Research and Teaching, Symposium at the 25th Annual National Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education, Hobart.

Fox, R., & Herrmann, A. (in press). Designing study materials in new times: Changing distance education? In T. Evans, D. Holt, & D. Thompson (Eds.), Research in distance education, Vol. 4. Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Hall, S. H. (1996). Action research for institutional curriculum change. In Leong, S. & Kirkpatrick, D. (Eds.), Different Approaches: Theory and practice in higher education. Proceedings of the annual conference of the Higher Education and Research Development Society of Australasia (HERSDA).

Hall, S. H. (1997). Facilitating reflective practice in university teaching. Revised version of the paper published in Tait, A. (1997), The convergence of distance and conventional education. Proceedings of the Cambridge International Conference on Open and Distance Learning Cambridge, September, 1997.

Hall, S. H. (1997). Forms of reflective teaching practice in higher education. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p124-131. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/hall124.html

Herrmann, A., Fox, R. & Boyd, A. (1996). Teaching new skills: Academic staff development for a computer mediated communication system. In Open and Distance Learning as a Development Strategy. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Distance Education in Russia. Vol 2 (pp 367-371). Moscow: Association for International Education.

Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling society. London: Calder and Boyers.

Latchem, C. (1995). Open and flexible learning and Curtin University. A discussion paper on national and international trends in open and flexible learning presented to the University Academic Board. Perth, Western Australia: Curtin University.

Schoen, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. London: Jossey Bass.

Please cite as: Hall, S. and Fox, R. (1998). Reflective teaching practice on the web. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 125-132. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://cea.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/hall.html


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