By Naomi Dinnen
As we find our way to a ‘new normal’ this is a good time to upgrade remote learning resources to support students who do not need to be on campus all the time, or even any of the time. I did my HSC, my BA and a large part of my Masters remotely. I say ‘remotely’ because when I studied for the HSC the internet didn’t exist. Things have come a long way, however, there is still room for improvement. It surprises me that so many universities are still not fully across online delivery and don’t have the resources to offer basic services such as access to library books and, crucially, a way for students to return books for free.
Heading into the second year of my PhD I had much to look forward to: teaching a course on Popular Music in Culture and Context at ANU for the first time, attending concerts and conferences about music, and planning overseas travel to talk to experts about research I’ve been thinking about for a decade. When COVID-19 struck I was one of the first to put my hand up to teach online, however, not being a digital native meant there were many challenges in getting the technology to work and engaging students remotely. Fewer students turned up to the Zoom lectures and tutorials than I had experienced in face-to-face teaching, and their participation was somewhat less enthusiastic than it had been.
My first semester as a lecturer was peppered with such joyous moments as being drowned out by the noise of jackhammering from a neighbouring building site, internet dropouts and my cat vomiting live on camera. Along with these common working-from-home problems, I also found that issues that could be solved by popping into a colleague’s office to ask a quick question now required scheduling Zoom meetings or sending emails and waiting for replies. My research has also been impacted as the recording of the event I ran at the end of 2019 is stuck on someone else’s computer, unable to be retrieved because of the shutdown.
As a PhD student I am used to working alone and theoretically should not have found this new way of working too disruptive. However, my attention span has been affected by the 24/7 news cycle, an increasing number of online distractions, and non-productive ‘busy work’. A constant stream of Zoom events has been a great way to keep in touch, but the networking that comes from attending academic conferences and the ability to make personal connections for professional collaboration has disappeared.
Gradually we are all having to adapt to this disrupted way of working. ANU is now offering short research skills training sessions online and some are fully subscribed months in advance. These sessions have proved a lifeline for those of us unable to get to campus, and who are feeling isolated from our learning communities. I would strongly caution against replacing these real-time chunks of learning for post-grads with pre-recorded videos that typically lack the personalised approach of a live session. I can find everything I need on YouTube for free but it is the direct engagement with my peers and academic subject-matter experts that makes me want to take up skills development programs and keep university learning relevant.
Under the Australian Government’s Flexible Learning Framework in around 2005, I was an early adopter of online learning, and an E-Learning Champion leading projects to develop ways of training and assessing using non-traditional tools. A key focus of the Framework was developing training resources, professional development tools and support networks to help teachers and trainers deliver effectively and efficiently. A key takeaway from my time with the Framework (and VET in general) is that more than anything else remote teaching must be student-centred. In this globally competitive environment where everything is moving online, Australian university academics need to be supported and trained to develop new skills and new tools so they can deliver quality online teaching.
Early career researchers and academics must also be given opportunities to be trained in remote teaching, even when they’re not actually teaching, to build their own capacity and that of the university sector workforce long term. For the casual sessional teacher there is a pervading feeling of doom and gloom about the sector, with many of us depressed and anxious about our career prospects. Some of my very talented younger peers are seriously considering the value of continuing with post-graduate qualifications when it is unlikely they will find employment in their field. The nature of the precarious work for casual sessional academic and anxieties over job uncertainty have been amplified by the pandemic and the grim picture that is being communicated by our institutions. Pivoting to online delivery has enabled learning to continue in these unprecedented times, and also shown how a blended model of delivery – if well-supported – is the way forward.
Naomi Dinnen started a BA at UTS in Journalism and Sound Studies, completing at Deakin in Politics/Policy. I was a music journalist for more than a decade, then Dance Music Manager at PolyGram Records and Dance Music A&R/ Label Manager at EMI Music. From 2004 to 2018 I was Executive Officer for Vocational Education & Training industry associations, established an annual Skills Conference and published opinion pieces about education. I have a Masters in Professional Education and Training (Deakin University) and an Advanced Certificate in Jewish Studies (Florence Melton Institute). In 2018 my chapter ‘You Don’t See Me But You Will: Jewish Thought and U2’ was published in U2 and the Religious Impulse (Bloomsbury), and in 2019 I ran an Australian edition of the international U2 Conference. I am currently a full time PhD student at ANU researching the connection between U2 and the Hebrew Bible.