With an extensive teaching career to his name, Xin Hou, from the Research School of Biology, is well accustomed to change; one of his big adjustments involved a move to ANU from China, just over a decade ago. Nonetheless, the challenges and changes presented by the turmoil of 2020 presented him with a new curveball, one that he and his team seemingly handled with aplomb amidst an ocean of uncertainty and lessons learned.
Teaching into a Biology laboratory, chief among the challenges for Xin and his team was the necessity to somehow replicate the hands-on lab environment. This challenge was one that invited trial and error, and involved the input of all academics who were teaching into the national teaching award-winning program.
“We put a lot of effort into video-taping what students used to do in the lab, but we then asked a demonstrator to do a practical, which we taped. We then showed the students, and discussed it together,” he recalls.
The logistics of transferring a hands-on laboratory of 80 students into a Zoom room presented more food for thought for the team. The eventual structure involved breakout rooms of around 12-16 students, with a demonstrator being present in each of the rooms, and course convenors moving between them. While some technical issues were experienced, it was the additional requirement for impeccable organisation that proved to be one of the more eye-opening factors.
“It’s a challenge to organise different meeting rooms with different demonstrators, while also wanting to communicate behind the screen,” Xin said.
“We used to [pre-Covid] have a 15-minute pre-teaching meeting, but in 2020, it turned into a one-hour meeting to talk about how we will handle technical issues and the different breakout rooms.”
“We got better as we went along, but in the beginning, those technical and organisational issues were huge.”
When Xin was first presented with the Covid-related challenges of 2020, he was also in the midst of tweaking his teaching style. With a particular interest in interactive and student-centred learning, he had been a keen attendee at numerous workshops hosted by the Centre for Learning and Teaching (then CHELT) and the iLeap Team in 2019, and was enjoying adjusting his practices to encompass the lessons learned during his professional development.
“I appreciate the environment at ANU, because we all do research into a relevant field, so it is convenient for us to use our research for case studies in teaching. For assessments, we can use a real world research story and ask students to resolve problems and present their strategies in a writing assignment,” he said.
“I have also found that it is quite challenging to organise teaching in an interactive way. Firstly, I need to have sufficient knowledge to handle the topics and organise teaching in an interactive way. On many occasions, the discussions in my lecture would go a different way than I expected.”
While 2020 presented Xin with some unique challenges, he was able to reflect on, and synthesise his experiences while writing his application for Fellowship of Advance Higher Education (FHEA). These reflections have also afforded him the opportunity to focus in on why he enjoys teaching so much.
“I enjoy the interactions with students, and I enjoy observing their learning and how they do their own self-reflection,” he said.
“I spend a fair bit of time talking to students – I remember one Sunday, spending the whole day responding to 70 emails from students. I also enjoy the moment where I can observe that students have achieved their learning outcomes, and my teaching has benefited their career prospects.”
Kristie Broadhead is the Team Leader of Promoting Excellence team in the Education Communities and Environments (ECE) – one of the three teams within the ANU Centre for Learning & Teaching (CLT).