Delivering online

Professor Birgit Loch on transforming Learning and Teaching in the College of Science, Health and Engineering in the face of Australia’s COVID-19 crisis

By Dr Giselle Roberts

Professor Birgit Loch looks exhausted. It’s Thursday afternoon and she has just arrived at her parents’ home in Hervey Bay, Queensland. She’s relieved she made it in time. Queensland announced its border closure on Sunday and within hours, Loch was on the road on a three-day, 1900-kilometre trip north to be with her family. “It was all rather surreal,” she says. “There were abandoned road works, deserted country towns, closed shops, and signs declaring ‘travel restrictions because of COVID-19.’ When I got to the border, it was filled with campervans and grey nomads who had just made it back to Queensland in time.”

The trip posed its own challenges. But, as she drove north, the Deputy Provost (Learning and Teaching) was also managing the College’s move to online teaching. Stopping frequently to attend meetings and troubleshoot with School Directors of Learning and Teaching, Loch perfected her Zoom backdrop somewhere along the way, placing her phone on an angle “so that no one could see I was chairing committees from my car.” In Hervey Bay, she has established more comfortable headquarters in her parents’ garage, with an impressive temporary setup that befits the ed-tech expert. The weather is warm, but Loch is as productive and enthusiastic as ever. “It shows I can work anywhere,” she remarks, smiling.

Anyone else would have buckled under the pressure, but Loch faces each day with a determination to celebrate every success. The biggest achievement of all – the online delivery of all College courses and subjects – “would have seemed ludicrous a month ago.” “Things have moved fast,” Loch says. “In early February, La Trobe established an Academic Cell Unit to develop strategies for students in China who were affected by travel restrictions. Within weeks, we were dealing with a much larger cohort of international students. Then Australia found itself in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. Suddenly the discussion moved from how to deliver online support to students in affected countries, to moving our entire teaching portfolio online. We went from eighty impacted students to over 24,000 impacted students and staff in a matter of weeks.”

By March, it was clear. Campus closures were imminent, and the scramble to prepare for online teaching had begun. Training sessions on Zoom and teaching with tablets were booked out, as upskilling took on unprecedented urgency. On March 16, La Trobe announced a week’s pause in face-to-face classes, with online teaching slated for the remainder of semester. The work ahead, Loch admits, was almost incomprehensible. Of the College’s 200 courses and 1000 subjects, no more than 10% were online. “Under normal conditions, we might spend 300 hours getting one subject ready for online delivery,” she explains. “And now staff had 35 working hours to come up with a workable solution for their subject, for delivery in the next week.”

Far from a disaster, Loch says that it was more like a tech reset button had been pressed. Lecturers previously wary of Surface Pros or lightboards were ready and willing to learn. The College’s extensive tech resources were soon exhausted, with Loch “raiding Officeworks for last-minute supplies” and rifling through her office to loan a ten-year-old tablet to an eager lecturer.

“Digital literacy is skyrocketing at the moment and our staff have made this incredible, voluntary leap,” she says, proudly. “They are sharing really great ideas with their colleagues. They have joined the College’s virtual Communities of Practice and Brown Bag lunches. They’re logging into our Learning and Teaching blog to access our range of how-to videos and they’re sharing clips of their own online teaching setups. I get a real buzz out of this. It’s awesome to see people get excited about the possibilities.”

Loch describes her Directors of Learning and Teaching as “the glue that has held everything together.” “They have been the true leaders in this space, the go-to people in the schools who have liaised with course and subject coordinators to make online delivery happen,” she says. “Meanwhile, our teaching-focussed academics are meeting to develop support strategies. It’s inspiring.”

And while staff have willingly thrown themselves into technology, the transition has not been without its glitches. Online meeting platforms have been overloaded and real time lectures have suffered as a result. Loch considers it a lesson learned, conceding that teaching in real time is also incompatible with time differences, slow internet and changed conditions at home.

“Students need flexibility now more than ever,” she says. “Families are making huge adjustments as they all learn to live and work from home. They are sharing space, and computers, and devices. Some students will need to study at a time that suits other members of their household, not at a time that suits the University. We also need our classes to be interactive and that requires some further thinking.”

Asynchronous teaching is next on the list, followed by the more problematic issue of what to do with exams. Being nimble, Loch reiterates, remains key to navigating this crisis. “La Trobe is not shifting online because of a change in mission or vision,” she explains. “This is a response to an emergency, and that makes a huge difference. Initial feedback indicates that students appreciate that we are trying our very best to get them through the semester, to allow them to progress in their studies.”

“I hope lecturers will take the best of what we have learned in this crisis to further transform our teaching efforts in the post-COVID world,” she adds. “It will put us in a much better position when we get back. But right now, we need to focus on supporting each other and supporting our students. We’ll get through this together.”

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