Dr Adrienne Forsyth, Associate Professor Sharon Croxford, Dr Brooke Devlin, Tim Stewart and Michael Coldrey know how to succeed in the intensely competitive online learning space.
Their subject, Introduction to Nutrition, was refreshed and repackaged in 2015 and offered through Open Universities Australia as part of the Bachelor of Food and Nutrition.
The result? A staggering 5000 enrolments over the past four years.
We asked Forsyth how her team have achieved best practice in online educational design, for a diverse range of learners.
Establish a learning philosophy. To encourage student engagement, the team adopted a learner-centred philosophy. “It focuses on understanding the needs of our students and developing activities that help them to achieve intended learning outcomes in practical and meaningful ways,” says Forsyth.
“In Introduction to Nutrition, students are in their first semester of study,” says Forsyth. “They may have been attracted to online learning because of its inherent flexibility, but they tend not to have a background in tertiary education. Getting the balance right between flexibility and support is key.”
Providing clarity, Forsyth notes, is another lynchpin of the team’s learning philosophy. “Student expectations are clear from the outset and are reinforced in multiple ways. Our assessment tasks have detailed instructions, clear marking criteria, and they are also supported by videos that further explain the tasks.”
The subject modules are self-paced and the team also provide guidelines on appropriate progress. “We provide a summary of weekly activities and indicate where students should be placed in terms of progress,” says Forsyth. “It helps students to catch up if they have fallen a week or two behind.”
Develop engaging activities. The team used best practice online learning design to create engaging activities that resonate with their students.
“The main assessment task in this subject requires students to record and assess their own dietary intake,” explains Forsyth. “We don’t give them scenarios or tell them about other people. This task is all about them.”
Not only is the activity learner-centred, but it’s also broken up into components. Students complete their data collection in the first four weeks, analyse the data, then respond to a series of questions. “Activities like this are designed to engage students with the rest of the content in the subject to support their overall learning,” says Forsyth.
Encourage interaction. The team ensured high levels of teacher presence with the opportunity for teacher-student and student-student interaction.
The subject offers asynchronous chat forums with engaging discussion prompts, and structured synchronous sessions that cover subject content.
“We also realised that students needed more interaction at the beginning of the subject,” adds Forsyth. “We run a session at the start of the semester to orient students to the subject and the online learning environment, review expectations for assessment and meet the teaching staff. It helps to develop student-teacher rapport and to encourage engagement later in the semester.”
The feedback? Students love the content and the clarity. “The content structure and assessments were clear, relevant and practically applicable,” remarked one student. “The Unit Coordinator regularly communicated with the group and queries were answered quickly. It was easy to stay on track.” “The learning modules are clear and the quizzes helped test my knowledge,” said another. “Overall, a great and interesting subject.”
“The design principles and teaching practices, strong teacher presence and engagement with learners have been adopted as standard practice in all subsequent subjects in the Bachelor of Food and Nutrition,” adds Forsyth.
Dr Adrienne Forsyth, Associate Professor Sharon Croxford, Dr Brooke Devlin, Timothy Stewart, Michael Coldrey received a College of Science, Health and Engineering Provost Teaching Award ‘for using best practice online educational design to extend access to an introductory nutrition subject for a diverse range of learners.’