Technology… you’ve gotta have a Plan B!

Posted by: Spiros Soulis, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, Design and Social Context College, RMIT University.

Our teaching is being revolutionised, new and innovative teaching spaces are beginning to emerge across campuses all over the country.  Here at RMIT teachers/lecturers  are about to move into the new Swanston Academic Building that is boasting:  Anywhere, Anytime at RMIT – Student Computing is set to transform any lecture theatre, classroom, student portal or even a café at RMIT into a virtual learning space (RMIT News May 2012). More and more of our teaching is now being conducted in these new teaching spaces incorporating computers, wireless technology and interactive smart boards (see last fortnight’s post by Jason Downs).

This is an exciting time but are we becoming so reliant on technology that we are becoming complacent in preparing for when things go wrong? Are we expecting that it will work anywhere and anytime? My experience has seen it crash and burn on many occasions leaving me adrift without a paddle.

I recently attended a Professional Development session on using learning spaces for effective student learning.  One of the academics present stated that when the technology failed (in this case the internet) they just ended the class! “Goodbye and see you next time!”  Surely as teachers/lecturers we need to be prepared to be able to deal with whatever situation is thrown at us within the classroom (bar nuclear fallout of course).

So I’ve thought of a few things teachers/lecturers could do to prepare in order to soldier on.

I think there are some items that any teacher/lecturer just can’t afford to leave home without. You can’t go wrong with having a couple of whiteboard markers in your bag and some A3 paper and Blu-Tack (wonderful stuff!). Whiteboard markers can be used as permanent markers on the A3 paper in the absence of a whiteboard, to write a few questions, pose a few issues, put up a quote for discussion, or brainstorm some ideas on the upcoming assessment task. Copies of a PowerPoint presentation with notes along the side always help in those moments.  That “if the technology fails again” handout with copies for everyone is also always a winner.  This shows students you have planned ahead, covered all your bases, in short, that you’re PREPARED.

We need to be teaching sound planning and preparation to our students, adapting to unforeseen circumstances and responding to changes in what is required from us. If students are presenting or teaching themselves and the technology doesn’t work, it shouldn’t be: “Goodbye and see you next time!”  When this happens to me and I am overcome by a cold sweat as my lesson plan begins to fly out the window, I put the question to the students: What would you do in such a situation? How would you respond? How would you keep your audience engaged and still try to deliver your objectives?  You then whip out the A3 paper, use your markers, and then put them up using your Blu-Tack. Then sit and watch their response to the challenge.

As lecturer ‘crankycat’ commented on the ProfHacker blog:

You just roll with it. Either the mic will work or it won’t. Either the mouse is charged, or it isn’t – the show goes on. The best armature against getting tripped up is good familiarity with the system, with a back-up, and with your material.

And- I’ll admit it– it’s kind of FUN when you get to improvise on the fly.

For more, read the entire ProfHacker post at:

And share your alternatives to saying: “Goodbye and see you next time!” in the comments.

The missing element to group work: Peer assessment

Posted by: Rebekha Naim, L&T Group & School of Media and Communication, Design and Social Context College, RMIT.

I highly recommend the practice of students grading each other’s work. Peer assessment seems to transform learners. The process triggers critical thinking, it deepens their knowledge of the subject and improves their core skills (ACSF, 2008: 1).

I tried a peer assessment activity in my Teamwork space a few weeks ago with great results. Students had been working in small teams to complete an exercise on lighting for a short film. I incorporated this activity into their team assessment. Students conducted the pre-production activities during class and away from class using Facebook, email and a wiki page in myRMIT Studies (Blackboard).

The student teams observed each other beyond what I could as their teacher, as members of the teams were in the best position to assess process skills like communication. Also, as the students knew that they would be grading each other later, there was a greater sense of accountability at work in comparison to similar tasks I have run in past years.

My students had to be explicit about skills like critical thinking and giving and receiving feedback from peers so I prepared them for this. Also, any changes to my assessment practices at RMIT University had to be guided by our assessment policy and the AQF.  The process had to be designed in a way that was clear, relating to students’ needs and linking to course and graduate outcomes. 

Students graded each other using an assessment rubric tool. The Media and Communication TAFE School where I teach uses these to grade competency units, so I had the students model the same practice. The rubric was developed at the start of the semester so they were familiar with the content and understood the different performance levels. In line with industry practice, they conducted the assessment face to face and gave each other feedback. They were honest with each other and the feedback given was insightful and critical. They seemed to be mindful of each other’s feelings and I encouraged each student in the group to give meaningful comments. They seemed to really want to help each other to perform better next time, which was also a pivotal course outcome.

Here is the assessment rubric the students used. They filled it in as a team, one completed rubric for each student in the group. One performance level of each rubric criteria was circled and a general written comment provided.

The addition of a self-review process helped students to articulate any issues they had with the peer assessment and also supported the learning. Things students were not comfortable to say about their own performance or the performance of their peers in the Teamwork task were able to be addressed in the self-review. Also, if students disagreed with the peer assessment of their performance, they were able to voice this in their self-review.

If you have any insight into peer assessing or would like to know more, please contact me ( or share your thoughts with others through the comments. Looking forward to hearing if you have tried peer assessment!


Australian Core Skills Framework, 2008. Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Retrieved from May 22, 2012.

Australian Qualifications Framework, 2011. Council for the Ministerial Council for Tertiary Education and Employment. Retrieved from May 22, 2012.

RMIT University, Assessment Policy Retrieved from;ID=det2rlnje0ay May 22, 2012.

Education is a Contact Sport

Our next post is by guest contributor, Jason Downs, an academic from the Business College at RMIT University. Jason has kindly shared a post from his own blog ‘Education is a Contact Sport‘ which was published in March 2012.

Jason Downs

So, last night I ran my first tutorial in the prototype project space in room 108.08.22. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you about the ‘good and the bad’ of teaching in a new space and how (or if) I am going to change my teaching practises as a result of being in it.

But first, some background:

RMIT have invested about $250m in building a brand new, state-of-the-art facility to house the College of Business. I’m going on a tour of the building next week, so I’ll be able to report more then, but by all accounts it’s pretty cool. Certainly the outside looks futuristic… 

SAB (© Jason Downs)

One of the things I’m looking forward to is teaching in new spaces that have been designed to help students learn in a manner that will support collaboration, interaction and conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I like to hear the sound of my own voice as much as the next lecturer, and when I went through Uni I never felt I was an equal participant in the learning process; mostly I felt I was being lectured *at* or taught *to*. That model of education was pretty common back in the day and it mostly forms my experiential knowledge of Uni teaching practises (sad, I know). So deliberately trying something new and letting go of the ‘control’ of the class and taking more of a facilitation role than a didactic speaking role is going to be a new experience for me. Should be a whole bunch of fun.The building has a mix of spaces including those that are described by phrases like: lectorial space; project space; conversation space; discursive theatre; interactive tutorial space; small business space; virtual enterprise space; enterprise and entrepreneurship room; virtual advertising agency; treasury training room; interactive lecture spaces… Some of these spaces are configured for class sizes of about 30 students, others are configured for up to 300 students. In some the furniture is total removable; in others it’s fixed to the floors but designed to be used in such a way that small groups can be formed out of much larger populations of students.

Inside #Eight22 (© Jason Downs)

The Project Space that RMIT have built in our old building to give us a feel for what to expect (which I’m calling #Eight22 after it’s room number), consists of 5 ‘pods’ around each of which six students can comfortably sit. Each pod is triangular in shape which means that the students sit facing each other. This naturally encourages interaction between each student within each pod. The good about this: last night was the first time that the students had met each other and they were going to have to work in groups for one of their assignments. Getting to know each other was easy when they could all sit and face each other rather than all lined up in rows like in a ‘traditional’ tutorial space. A great start.

Each pod has its own large screen and a traditional whiteboard. The theory is that eventually, students will be able to use super flash, new, wireless software to project straight from their laptops to the screens. Each pod can control their own screen and hook up any student’s laptop (or tablet or whatever) and the facilitator can elect to share any screen with all the other pods, or just some, or any combination thereof. Imagine, 30 students all working on their digital devices trying to solve a problem individually, then coming together as a group to debate the best solution by projecting it to a screen and further refining their ideas, then once they have decided, being able to share their solution with the rest of the class. Awesome. Count me in.

While this might be what we can expect, the space is so brand new that the tech hasn’t been installed yet (I’m told it’s coming REALLY SOON). So last night all I could do was project my slides up onto each screen. The good about this: the students are close to the screens and so they can see the slides easily. The bad about this: it still encourages this idea of the teacher being in control of the ‘knowledge’ and projecting it *at* the students who sit there passively (even if they are closer) to ‘receive’ my slides. Not very progressive.

And then there is still the fact that the facilitator gets to elect which screens to share with the rest of the class. I’m still a bit fuzzy on whether the STUDENTS can elect to project their stuff to other students (either via the screens or directly over the wireless network) so the move from teacher centric to student centric might still take a bit of extra effort from the teacher. If I really want to transform my teaching praxis, habits will need to be broken; control will need to be given over. That will be interesting.

So in summary: I liked it. The promise of what can be done in that space is great, and I love that there is plenty of space to get the students up and moving around. They can easily position themselves in front of any whiteboard, any screen, any pod, any student. My aim is to reduce the amount of time that I spend talking at the students and increase the amount of time I spend talking with them. I’ll have to re-think the way I create my slides (or even if I am going to use them at all) and start to think about teaching as a series of triggers to facilitate discussion based on theory, application, critical analysis and shared experience of the learning process. I know I should have been doing this already, but this space really lends itself to doing that sort of thing. I’m glad I’ve been given the opportunity to teach in it.

What do the students think? Well, it’s still early days, but one of my favourite questions from a student when he walked in was: “Where’s the front of the room?” My answer: “Wherever you sit”.

He smiled.

Running repairs

Posted by: Jon Hurford, L&T Group, Design and Social Context College, RMIT.

Image: RMIT’s Graduate of the Year, Dean Benstead and his air-powered motorcycle at the 2011 Sydney Motorcycle and Scooter Show. Courtesy of RMIT News.

With less than a month of teaching remaining in the semester, now might be a good time to conduct some running repairs to your course. In this post I’ll put forward that reflection, in a couple of forms, is the first step to these repairs. With some form of summative assessment probably on the horizon, you might also encourage your students to take part in a similar exercise.

It’s only natural that by this time of the semester you’ve probably had a guest-speaker cancel, a room-booking gone awry or a dip in student attendance. Some of your students may have had health problems; you yourself may have had to take leave.

Remind students of your office hours or contact details and publish a quick review of what’s been covered. These reassurances (the breadcrumbs back to successful completion) will  go a long way to relieve the anxiety of those who are feeling like they have lost touch with your course. Look at this post from earlier in the year on the teaching tomtom to jog your thoughts on assessment, reflection and the student perspective.

A course survey might also be looming, so it’s important that your reflective course-correction isn’t seen by students as anything that smacks of a lack of confidence or simply as pre-polling; survey fatigue can be a drag, both for students and on your scores. So what else can you do, and importantly, how can you get your students participating in this work?

First you probably need to cover the basics by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Have you covered the learning outcomes and made them clear to students?
  • Has the course content and assessment allowed exploration and demonstration of the learning outcomes?
  • Are there program capabilities targeted in your course that could provide the industry or disciplinary context to what’s being studied? Do students understand the bigger picture of what this course is trying to achieve?

A quick review might reveal a learning outcome, a tricky skill or concept, or a program capability that you realise has been skimmed over (or that you simply haven’t treated in the depth that you would have liked). It’s not too late to fill in those gaps!

And if that checklist seems complete you might be ready to look at the really big picture:

It will be up to you to determine what level (and therefore which schema) you think is most valuable to share with your students. A first year course in TAFE differs from a capstone course in a Masters; the latter probably lends itself more to the six graduate attributes. For first year students it probably wouldn’t hurt to quickly traverse the path from an assessment item that has already been completed, through to a program capability. This way you’re showing students the throughline, or the path, of their current and future studies.

Similarly, wouldn’t it be valuable for students who may have been at RMIT for just three months to be picturing themselves as graduates of their program? This is the expectancy-value theory of motivation as used by Biggs and Tang (2007) in practice: “…a commonsense theory of why students do or do not want to learn…which says that if anyone is to engage in an activity, he or she needs both to value the outcome and to expect success in achieving it.”

Whichever level you choose to look at, it’s important to get a sense of whether the students also feel these aspects of the course have been covered, in short, to validate your own perceptions. Work out the best way to get this feedback in a quick and genuine way. It might be as simple as issuing sticky notes and having students write down what they feel has been covered and what they’re still unsure of. For more ideas on different feedback approaches see the following RMIT tip-sheets:

Providing feedback to students
Motivating students and stimulating interest

Once you’ve got this feedback you need to set up a space to get the students working on it. If you’re not already using a blog or the tools on Blackboard, this could be your opportunity to start.

Using whichever schema you feel is appropriate (the criteria for the final assessment, learning outcomes, program capabilities, graduate attributes) set up a space for your students to do the work and determine what work needs doing. It could be as simple as a topic set up on Blackboard where students can discuss their understanding of the criteria for the final assessment.

You could even create a handle or a hashtag on Twitter for your course. This will create a chronologically-organised microblog that could form a quick course review linking to longer articles on the web. Or it could simply point students back to great conversations that you’ve observed, or participated in, on the discussion board.

Hashtags like #flipclass, #blackboard and #teqsa, are all shortcuts into posts, communities and current articles that have been recently mentioned on the teaching tomtom. But if you’re not willing to take that step, Blackboard announcements could be used to achieve a similar outcome.

So my tip is to make use of the thinking that has been embedded into your course and your institution; make use of the schema at hand, whether it’s at course, program or graduate attribute level.

At the risk of labouring the metaphor, in this home-stretch of first semester, what tips can you share with others about finishing the semester with confidence?


Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for Quality Learning in University. 3rd ed. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Postgraduate coursework programs: a fresh approach

Posted by: Kym Fraser, L&T Group, Design and Social Context College, RMIT.

Do you teach into a postgraduate coursework program? What makes your program attractive to prospective students? Why would prospective students choose your program over another University’s program?

The Postgraduate coursework market is a decidedly competitive market with a highly selective cohort. Prospective students carefully review what different universities have to offer. This cohort is an important component a university’s education profile, comprising approximately 25% of Australian higher education students, and we need to ensure that our programs are attractive to prospective students.

For the last year I have worked on an RMIT Learning and Teaching Investment Fund project called the Learning Segments Project which focused on reviewing the structure of RMIT coursework masters programs, specifically for students who are employed full time. I’ve interviewed students, and employers of our students, and reviewed the literature in relevant areas.

I wanted to share with you one challenging and exciting way of potentially making our postgraduate coursework programs attractive to prospective students.

The Parsons New School of Design in New York uses Charrettes to build authentic, work-based opportunities into their postgraduate programs. Charrettes seem to have originated in the architecture/design disciplines and are three- to five-day ‘courses’ “that bring together students to work with external partners. The topic of the Charrette varies from year to year and is broad enough to allow for multiple types of projects. Students need to delve deeply into the process and work collaboratively and quickly to finish their projects. In order to accommodate this, all other graduate classes are suspended so that students can maintain focus. Guests from outside communities and industries work with the faculty to develop a topic that is forward- looking, speculative, and open to multiple outcomes”.

Incorporating Charrettes into your program would help ensure that your program:

  • is relevant and up to date;
  • explicitly relates to current and/or future work of students;
  • introduces students to employers, possible future clients and industry experts; and
  • incorporates authentic, work related learning and assessment opportunities (Edwards, 2011; Higgs, 2011).

When might I run a Charrette?

Working with other programs to make your Charrette interdisciplinary would further emulate the workplaces in which our students already work. The timing for an interdisciplinary Charrette could be tricky during semesters 1 and 2, so you may need to consider running the Charrette in the summer or spring study period when fewer courses run.

What percentage of a course does a Charrette comprise?

Personally I would take into consideration that a 12 credit point course usually requires 120 hours of student engagement, which comprises attending classes, independent study, working online and completing assessment tasks (amongst other things). For a three day Charrette I would anticipate 20 hours of preparatory work, 24 hours of face-to-face engagement, and a follow up of 20 or more hours in completing the project report. In this scenario, the Charrette comprises approximately 50% of a course. A Charrette that you devise may take more or less time than this.

Who do I invite?

That will depend on your discipline area and the project that you design. After all, you are trying to invite stakeholders with whom your students may well work in the future (this may include specific interest groups, community members, experts in different fields) as well as potential employers and students from other disciplines.

What sort of project do I design?

Again, this will depend on your discipline. You are looking to engage, enthuse and educate students. The projects will probably be based on problems that are challenging and can be solved perhaps in different ways, in a short period of time. Charrettes provide our students with the opportunity to fulfill the AQF requirement that through their program they “…will apply knowledge and skills to demonstrate autonomy, expert judgement, adaptability and responsibility as a practitioner ….” (AQF, 2011: 57).

Where do I find out more about Charrettes and their design?

The USA based National Charrette Institute’s website contains explanations, toolkits and other resources for planning and running Charrettes ( The National Renewable Energy Laboratory “A handbook for planning and conducting Charrettes for high performance projects” is a detailed account of planning and conducting Charrettes in business organisations ( A Google search also provides a number of sites that may provide useful information.

A well run Charrette or series of Charrettes can potentially engage, challenge and enthuse current students, attract prospective students, and distinguish your postgraduate coursework program from others. Why not trial one?


Australian Qualifications Framework, 2011. Council for the Ministerial Council for Tertiary Education and Employment. Retrieved from April 16, 2012.

Edwards, D. (2011). Monitoring risk and return: Critical insights into graduate coursework engagement and outcomes.  AUSSE Research Briefing.

Higgs, J. (2011). Practice-Based Education: A Framework for Professional Education, Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Accessed 28th January, 2012.

Lindsey, G., Todd, J., Hayter, S. and Ellis, P. (2009). A handbook for planning and conducting charettes for high performance projects. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Department of Commerce 5285 Port Royal Road Springfield, VA. Retrieved from April 18, 2012.

National Charrette Institute. Retrieved from April 18, 2012.

The Parsons New School of Design. Retrieved from April 16, 2012.