Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Orientation: Ready, set... Go!

Officially, today is the first day of semester for students studying on campus here in Hamilton. Ori2016 got underway last week and today the serious study is set to begin, with queues at the new payforparking machines before 9am this morning. This year, the university (Student Learning) has made a conscious effort to ensure the students participate in an academic orientation that sets them up for success in student life, as well as a social time.

However, for students and staff involved in our distance programme in initial teacher education, the work began some weeks ago, and the orientation has involved a combination of work online and on campus. This is a good time to reflect on how we orientate students in a blended programme and what the essential elements of effective orientation might be, particularly for mature students, returning to study, who are often new to studying online.

It seems to me that orientation is about setting students up for success and some of the ways we do this are by modelling organisation and encouraging students to dip their toes in and explore. For this reason, we strive to have our online papers in the Mixed Media Programme (MMP) ready and up online a week before the students arrive on campus for their block face-to-face time. Putting a class online doesn't mean it has to be all front-loaded and fully nailed down independently of student input, but rather that the essential elements of the course are ready, in keeping with the calendar description and paper outline, learning intentions and basic readings to start things off, plus an orderly structure with some dates to hang the course on. Having the class online before the students come on campus enables them to explore and come armed with questions and thoughts. While not all first year students will manage to get into the online class and look around, many do, and most of the third years take the opportunity to reconnect and make an early start on gaining familiarity with the learning challenges ahead. The work of our colleague, Merilyn Taylor, is designed to improve the transition experience of the first year students studying online, as Merilyn discussed at WCELFest16  by giving the students a taste of basic online tasks and academic community, boosting confidence to participate actively.

When we meet the students on campus, as part of the block course component in MMP, our sessions are designed to fulfil a range of orientation functions, fundamentally centred around establishing starting points that are respectful, relational, responsive and real:

Firstly, we want to show the students that we are real people, rather than faceless robots at the other end of a computer network. We enjoy meeting, talking, listening, sharing and spending time with students face-to-face, from the Powhiri to the social gatherings, the classes and the chats in the corridor.

Secondly, we want to establish conditions that are conducive to powerful learning. For me, this means balancing the tension between challenge and reassurance. I want the students to feel curious and intrigued by the coursework and learning challenges ahead, so that they are ready to jump in and put in their top efforts, taking the work seriously and rising to high expectations. However, I am also mindful that adult learners can be anxious, despite the wealth of relevant experience they bring to all things. So, I'm intent on promoting confidence too. In a nutshell, I guess I want to stir them up while putting them at ease, which is a balancing act designed to banish complacency without creating undue stress. My mission is to cultivate flow so that students are urged to throw themselves into their learning, without feeling daunted by the prospect.

Thirdly, we use our on campus sessions to demystify the assessment procedures in class. Where possible, our assignments take the form of rich tasks requiring higher order thinking. For example, the third year class is entirely built upon developing student leadership, critique, discernment of alternative perspectives, and productive argumentation. This is a tough ask, weaving learning with assessment, and it requires that students have a chance to rehearse the skills involved, as well as to see models and to receive formative feedback on initial efforts. Our in-class activities are designed as a dry-run for each assignment, not because we are 'teaching to the test' or because passing the assignment is all that matters, but rather because we crafted the assignment around the learning intentions and need to support the students' learning in these directions.

Finally, in relation to assessment, we try to get an assignment underway very promptly in the course. First year students present an oral assignment worth 20% on the third day of their course. By week 2, third year students are leading online discussion and facilitating group work. Early assessment builds momentum in the courses and enables early success and timely feedback.

When we farewell the students from campus, and they return home to work online and in base schools, our parting orientation contribution is a follow up vodcast (Panopto) in which we verbally recap the key learning intentions and instructions and remind students about how to refocus when they return to home base. We aim to panopto on a weekly basis this semester, in order to present the human face of online teaching by reaching out to students, giving feedback about assignments and discussion, and talking through upcoming tasks.

In all of this, we are striving to orientate the students to their learning and to the relationships that will underpin their academic and professional development.

How do you orientate students in your courses?

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