Good homework for an academic developer

Today Meredith Seaman gives us her reflections on a course development project, specifically the learning design map activity used in Global Learning by Design Express projects.

I recently worked with colleagues as the academic developer on a project to support online development of a new unit. The project was underpinned by a model which I have found supports a refreshing and energised space for course design and reflection worth sharing.

The project

The project brief, broadly, was to design a unit – Disaster Resilient Landscapes. The design needed to take into account that future students would be from a range of disciplines and potentially based in different countries while studying the fully online course. The project was part of an RMIT initiative called Global Learning by Design Express (GLbDx) running in the Design and Social Context College. The projects are collaborations designed to enhance aspects of online learning at the unit level over approximately 6 weeks. The projects involve collaboration between academics, education developers from our digital learning team, and academic developers (which in this case was me). The projects also support collaborations with the Study and Learning Centre and the Library here at RMIT.

As is common to all GLbDx projects, the lead academic and colleagues were supported to develop a detailed design of the new course at an early stage. This takes the form of a week-by-week map and looks something like this:

More on the GLbD Express and Course Maps model.

I was introduced to this particular project at the point where a big complex chart, mapping out every aspect of a 12-week course, had been mostly completed. The resulting map was – quite usefully I think – making apparent some challenges.

The ‘map’ of the 12-week program of study being developed covered:

  • who the likely students were
  • at what stage different learning outcomes would be developed and assessed throughout the course
  • how these learning outcomes aligned with various week by week teacher and student activities
  • and – unsurprising but pivotal – the alignment of assessment tasks and all other aspects of the course week by week.

The map in front of us greatly assisted discussion around the specific needs of the course and cohort.  The range of capabilities we could offer as a project team with diverse experiences and knowledge informed our exploration of many aspects of the course.

It brought our attention to issues such as:

  • Could students get through all the course content in the proposed time frame?
  • Could all the material be covered?
  • Were the assessments manageable for students in the allocated timeframes?
  • What was the best way to convey complex diverse perspectives and resources in a field of contested definitions? e.g. “what is resilience?”

My homework

One key aspect to be considered for this unit was its interdisciplinary aspects. The course would be online for postgraduate students coming from a range of diverse disciplines working on complex real-world problems. As in the real world, the work would be in interdisciplinary teams. The team developing the course was also interdisciplinary.

I was asked what I knew, and what I could find, out about getting interdisciplinary teams to work effectively. An interesting conversation ensued about our knowledge and experiences of good and bad team-work and some principles for good practice. I happily agreed to do more homework on the interdisciplinary ‘problem’ and to provide additional thoughts and resources on what principles and activities could set these teams up effectively and consider ways to scaffold what was likely to be quite intense interdisciplinary group projects.

There are resources very close to home:

  • The Belonging Project, also based here at RMIT, has shared a toolkit for interdisciplinary education and a summary of their approaches. They respond to the industry need for ‘broader knowledge and skills, particularly in those areas where traditional disciplinary boundaries have changed and continue to do so’.
  • The Centre for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE) have also developed a guide to designing courses for interdisciplinary teaching which could be relevant.
  • I’ve also found some frameworks and practical suggestions in the literature, including that students could work in their discipline groups first to create ‘bluffer’s guides’ for students new to certain disciplines, to strengthen their knowledge before working with others (Woods, 2007).

Where next?

We are finding the mapping process a very useful brainstorming and planning technique. More to go on this project, and I look forward to unpacking these resources and others with the teaching team and further supporting the project to see the results. The project is prompting great questions and providing opportunities for us to work through them in more depth with committed and engaged academics.

The GLbDX projects and the approach to course design have in my experience had a really promising ability to prompt rich discussion and brainstorming… with the side benefit of really enjoyable homework being set for academic developers.

Reference

Woods, C. 2007. ‘Researching and developing interdisciplinary teaching: towards a conceptual framework for classroom communication Higher Education. Volume 54, Issue 6, pp 853-866.

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