In Covid times we teach online

I have been busy of late teaching a unit ARPA352/552, Public Archaeology and Cultural Heritage management, here at UNE. It has been quite a long break for me from teaching, having finalised my last unit/topic at Flinders in late 2019 (a third year Environmental Archaeology unit, which I hope to teach again one day!), and I’m very much enjoying coming back into it. But my gosh has the world changed in that short time. We now have the ability to easily meet with groups of students via Zoom and Teams (yes, I realise we’ve had these capabilities for many years, but pre-zoom web meetings relied up on either a bespoke University web app, or Skype, or Google Hangouts, and were not integrated with University auth. mechanisms, so clunky at times). Also importantly, the digital infrastructure underlying the teaching, and the great teams that design and run it, have only improved.

I’m not new to online teaching, and developed taught a reasonably popular online unit at Flinders for years — Introduction to Professional Archaeology. At the time, (2013) this was a novelty unit in a teaching program very much centred on face to face teaching and some online teaching, where the learning CMS was used to share the same content that was previously mailed out in hard copy to students. This can be effective, and I think students liked the familiar format (and tried and true approach) . But, in teaching a new unit it is good to take time to be a little creative and innovative, to reflect on your teaching practice and student needs.

To that end, Professional Archaeology was designed for a group of students studying asynchronously in a postgraduate archaeology course. The unit did not include lectures, which were replaced by sequences of activities each week replicating (in a way) the older ‘study guides’ that once characterised online teaching. These comprised a mix of text-book style topic notes, typically 3000-5000 words, quizzes and questions (tied to assessment), preparatory activities for the major assignment, and a series of readings, short videos (usually professionally produced vids on YouTube) and forum exercises/questions. At one point, students were even referred to some earlier posts here, about the value of professional blogging (ha, you say!). The main issue with this was managing feedback (the activities sometimes required hours of marking each week), keeping on top of communications (esp. forums), and organising class meetings. But these are manageable when, each year, you only need to review a module before making it live for students. I find that you can invest more time with students this way — the content delivers itself (once prepared).

Teaching ARPA352/552 is enjoyable and provides the opportunity to redesign a unit following the general approach above. We have a range of lectures to draw on and typically have 1-2 hours of these to watch per week. These add a lot to student experience, and supplement the range of other activities (topic summaries, forums, zoom meetings, Web videos and lots of readings). That said, I have no sense yet of how students are feeling about the unit, beyond the occasional comment, so I plan to run a class survey soon and will modify the unit design accordingly.

Teaching plans for the coming year include writing a couple of new units: HINQ302: Researching the Past in the Digital Age, and HINQ301: Indigenous Heritage Management. Both will adopt different approaches. HINQ301 will use the ‘online semi-asynchronous’ approach outlined above, and HINQ302 will include weekly online workshops/practicals focused on various digital research methods, with some semi-asynchronous content. More on those soon.

As an aside, I noted in the news this week that ANU has started to emphasise the value of an on-campus culture in their marketing. I think this is a clever move, as people seek out an antidote to the constraints of lockdown life in larger cities. Armidale and New England, here on Anaiwan Country, with its marvellous climate, provides the same sort of respite potential—a well connected and serviced regional community, with great resources and lots of space! Why would you not want to escape to the milder highlands during a hot east coast summer! Perhaps I should run my intensives at this time: ‘beat the heat, study cultural heritage at UNE Armidale this summer…’