University of Canberra goes 2.0

This year, the University of Canberra is introducing an intensive Winter Term to give students 'greater flexibility and opportunity' to either fast-track their degrees or spread their study load across three teaching periods.

A local initiative, born out of a combination of a growing local tech-savvy community (sharing ideas via local Web 2.0 tools such as yammer) and an institution-wide support program that is bringing the higher education sector kicking and screaming out of the dark (unlit) ages, means the University of Canberra is going 2.0.

I have been dreaming about introducing blogging and other social media tools into the curriculum to fill a growing gap in students' online communication skills for some time. Now, with the support of the institution, this dream will become a reality in the new Winter Term.

While I have been using Facebook and blogs in my teaching for many years, the intensive Winter Term presents some challenges to teaching delivery which are difficult to overcome using traditional teaching methods. Halving a traditional semester should not mean simply cramming traditional teaching and assessment methods into a shorter period - it calls for a change in how we deliver the educational experience. Enter Web 2.0.

This winter, I am replacing my standard face-to-face teaching with a fully-online subject. Typically, my subjects focus on generic skills such as written communication in addition to subject-area content. This does not necessarily mean that my subjects will be designed specifically for distance education (although being fully-online provides this option), but it means that I can expand the generic skills component to include written comunication online.

Given the increasing presence of Web 2.0 capabilities in traditional career streams, the opportunity to incorporate Web 2.0 assessment items in my curricula has been a long time coming. Nonetheless, Web 2.0's social element enables a deeper level of sharing and learning which will help to overcome the shorter timeframe.

The traditional essay will be replaced with students writing blog posts on subject-area topics, and being required to comment on their colleagues' blog posts. Media sharing applications such as Digg, ScribeFire and  ShareThis will be used to facilitate the sharing process. While many of these applications will be 'old hat' to inhabitants of the blogosphere, I am constantly surprised at the number of 'digital natives' who have not had a 'digital education'.

While I believe the traditional essay is the cornerstone of best-practice in developing formal written comunication skills, it would be a mistake to think that blogging is an 'easier' form of writing. Indeed, the added technical skills and the exposure to a wider audience require as much care and attention as an academic essay. Moreover, blogs and social media sites are gradually being recognised in academic referencing systems, even though in Australia blogs are ineligible for an ISSN. There is some way to go.

In addition to students blogging and sharing media articles, we will be developing a series of multimedia materials ourselves. This means we can overcome the problems of  incorporating multimedia  materials in teaching online due to restrictive copyright laws (or at least the constant threat of breaches of copyright). The Creative Commons  licencing regime provides an appropriate mechanism to share such resources without losing the all-important academic acknowledgement.

But how will we know if we are successful? Student feedback is the easiest measure:
But student feedback alone is insufficient. What will prove the usefulness of 'Teaching 2.0' is the longer term effect in the latter years of the student experience. For example, our focus on written communication skills in first-year units has paid dividends in second- and third-year subjects with many colleagues reporting that they can now focus on the subject content and concepts, rather than re-hashing skills which should have been learnt in the formative stages of higher education. 

One element of feedback which is difficult to obtain until after students graduate is feedback from employers. Next year, I am hoping to add a work-integrated learning aspect to my 'Subjects 2.0' by enabling employers to participate in the feedback process. This is much more difficult to implement than it appears.

Although I am generally opposed to centrally-controlled policies, what would be useful is a government-led initiative to encourage greater community participation in University 2.0 initiatives - something that Web 2.0 technologies enable in an efficient manner. 

In the meantime, the University of Canberra has gone 2.0, proving that while the institutional wheels turn slowly, they do turn.