A Conversation with Simon
Director, Learning and Innovation, College of Fine Arts (COFA)
The University of New South Wales
Simon is a full time academic at the College of Fine Arts, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. He has since co-operatively pioneered learning and teaching approaches for fully online art and design education, and has helped establish an internationally recognized quality online learning reputation for the Faculty.
How did you get started in online education?
By accident, actually, and I was quite resistant at first. I was a graphic designer and did some casual teaching at a University. Around 2001, someone asked me to teach an online class. I never thought it would work. When I tried it, I saw many benefits. Fate led me to become more interested in the area of online education. I got a full time job as an academic at the University of South Wales College of Fine Arts. I was hired to help establish an online unit here, and to help people understand how to develop and teach in the online space. Over the years I have done a lot of professional development here with educators helping them understand it and how it relates to their practice. I helped develop a full online art design degree program as well. We took what we learned from that process and found that it wasn’t disciplinary specific. We saw how we could learn a lot from each other, and put it in a format where we could help more people and connect more ideas.
Where should someone start the process of putting their courses online?
People should start by thinking about their course, and what they want to do. Going back to the “non-online” learning approach is a good idea when structuring their course. Here, we do that, then progressing, slowly introducing technology. We encourage people to weave technology in with their own expertise. Try not to see technology as a wall that you have to climb. Stagger it, and gradually implement it.
In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of online learning?
Learn about what type of activities and what levels of engagement align with what you are trying to achieve. For example, sometimes you don’t need people to engage with each other so much, rather it might just be about easy access to resources.
To answer your question, it depends on what you are trying to achieve and what students need to do in the most efficient way to get the best learning experience.
One question we are often asked is how long should my online lecture be? What are your thoughts?
What we try to do is break things up a bit. Your brain doesn’t work as efficiently when you are sitting in front of a computer for a 2-hour lecture! We try to stagger the learning design so it’s cyclic, in a way. Engaging in things for a shorter amount of time. We try to have the students engage with the knowledge and rationalize and discuss with their peers. Maybe have them apply that to an assignment, then go back and reflect on it. And then we get to the next phase, and the cycle repeats itself, but on a deeper level. They begin to understand the interaction and it’s a multi-cognitive process. Small bites are good! We also have to teach our students to think about time differently as well.
Enabling people to share information and build on each other’s knowledge, that’s been important for us here. Empowering students to contribute ideas back into the large class is important for us as well.
What percentage of a module would you consider using outside resources as opposed to your own?
That’s an interesting question. I would say maybe 50%. Again, it depends on what you are teaching and whether the connection to the outside world enriches what you are trying to do. I think its dangerous to go 100% with outside resources because you can inadvertently undermine your own authority or your institutions authority in that area because you are drawing from everyone else’s ideas and not contributing anything from your own institution. On the other hand, using other people’s resources is fantastic because you can get resources from experts in specific areas that you wouldn’t get otherwise. Whatever resource you are using, you should have a lot of things structured around it. I think its great to use external resources as long as it is considered how that knowledge will be applied.
Any specific Internet resource you can recommend outside of YouTube?
I would recommend Merlot (www.merlot.org). It is an open educational resource. What they do is collate a lot of open resources and they peer review them. It takes a lot of the uncertainty out of choosing. They have a large database and you can search for an area you are interested in. The peer review is good because it gives you opinions on whether or not it is worth using. OER Commons (www.oercommons.org) is another good one.
What do you feel is the best way to deliver an online lecture?
Again, it depends on what you are talking about. The person designing the course, or the teacher really needs to sit down and put effort into the planning stages to work out what they are trying to get across and what is relevant. I think that’s what people find most difficult.
Where do you see online education going say, five years from now?
I don’t see it decreasing, that’s for sure. But I think the real challenge will be formal vs. informal, and coming to grips with how we accredit, value and market the education that people are doing. That’s the challenge that people are facing now.
What do you see as a beginner’s biggest challenge?
Understanding that it is accessible to them, and it’s actually not that hard! A lot of people feel that it is out of their realm of experience, and it scares them because they don’t know how it relates to what they do. There is a fear that they aren’t’ good enough, or that they will be exposed as being technologically illiterate or something like that. The biggest challenge is understanding that it doesn’t have to be this huge, complex thing and that their teaching practices are still very valuable. When people don’t understand how to adjust their teaching, they feel that it’s just too hard. And something we see a lot in higher education is that if people are removed from the practice for a long time, they don’t keep up with how work is done in the industry, and they don’t understand how technology has changed practices within that industry, they are actually putting their students at a disadvantage. To understand that the teachers have a lot of value in what they do already, and it’s just about getting used to this new space so they can continue to contribute to their student’s education. What’s very interesting is that often the imagination is worse than the reality.