Lecturers awarded for going the distance

At the inaugural Exy Awards run by the Extra Mural Students' Society (from left): Hayley Brandon (vice-president of EXMSS); Steve Duffin (School of Humanities); Jean Jacoby (Digital Innovation - Sciences); Dr Polly Yeung (School of Social Work); Dr Karen Jillings (School of Humanities); Christine Harris (team leader - Distance Library Service); Hannah Mooney (School of Social Work) and Dr John Battersby (Centre for Defence and Security Studies).

Distance learning can be challenging for student and lecturer because of – well – distance. But distance students have heaped praise on their favourite lecturers in the inaugural Exy Awards run by the Massey Extra Mural Students’ Society (EXMSS), describing them as passionate, fun, engaging and supportive.

Awards convener and EXMSS vice-president Hayley Brandon, a Bachelor of Arts student majoring in Classical Studies, says the awards are a way for students to “give back the love” and to reassure lecturers that “they are not shouting out into the wilderness”.

“There truly are some spectacular staff out there and I am honoured to be able to tell some of them this.”

She presented plaques for eight awards and spoke at a ceremony held on the Manawatū campus on Wednesday. Ms Brandon, a Martinborough-based mother of three children aged 17, 11 and nine, and who works part-time as an executive assistant at Parliamentary Services, says being a distance learner enables many to pursue study and gain qualifications alongside jobs, parenting and family commitments. But it can be tricky. However, the commitment, passion and understanding of lecturers helps bridge any gaps and face issues that arise.

A sense of humour is vital too. Philosophy lecturer Steve Duffin earned accolades for his comedic video series involving stunts, music and ventriloquism for a paper on critical thinking.

Teaching material for all distance programmes is shared on Massey’s Virtual Learning Environment, called Stream, for the 14,000 or so students enrolled in undergraduate and post-graduate study, and can include some online lectures. These are the next best thing to face-to-face lectures as students can connect and communicate with academics and other students, says Ms Brandon, who is studying for reasons of personal interest, describing herself as “a myths geek since the age of eight”.

Distance students can also join the Massey University Extramural Community page, Ms Brandon says, “if they want to keep up with news, just have a giggle at distance student-appropriate memes or get answers to knotty questions, from referencing to ‘what do I do with my new baby as I am still feeding?’” 

Award winners:

Best Written Material - Associate Professor Gina Salapata (Classical Studies)

Best Online Lectures- Dr Polly Yeung (Social Work)

Most Engaged Lecturer/Tutor- Steve Duffin (Philosophy)

Most Supportive in Hard Times - Dr Karen Jillings (History)

Superstar Lecturer/Tutor- Dr Ella Kahu (Psychology)

Best Postgrad Course Supervisor/Leader- Dr John Battersby (Security Studies)

Best Professional Staff Member - Jean Jacoby (Digital Innovation – Sciences)

Best Student Support Service - Distance Library Service

Honourable Mentions- Hannah Mooney (Social Work) and Dr David Rafferty (Classical Studies)

Distance students on a ‘wagon train’

The lecturers also appreciate the endorsements from students they never meet. “This award means a lot because it’s done by nomination and vote of the students themselves,” Mr Duffin says. “It’s nice to be recognised by our peers but there is something special about recognition from students and to know that our efforts are appreciated.”

The online course he teaches, Tu Arohae: Critical Thinking, has been designed especially with distance students learning in mind. “The format is designed to help distance learners keep on track.  Lots of small assignments and interactive engagement.

“For me, distance learning isn’t done between 9am and 5pm, five days a week. When I’m at home in the evenings and weekends, I normally have Stream running so that I can respond to student enquiries quickly. If a distance student works during the week then the only time that they may have to ask questions is during the evening or weekends. I strive to be available at all times.”

“I explain to students that running a large distance study group is a bit like being the leader of a wagon train. My aim is to get everyone safely to our final destination. Along the way there will be all sorts of hazards. These might be sick children, health issues, work commitments, death of loved ones. My challenge and responsibility is to do all I can to lead them safely through,” he says. “If a student is having difficulties, whatever they may be my response is: ‘How can I help?’”

Sussing out the best e-technology for learning

Dr Yeung says; “It’s encouraging and comforting to know that the distance students are accessing the resources and also listening to the online lectures and podcasts.”

As well as recording her internal lectures and uploading them to Stream, she does some extra rapid-fire sessions as summaries for the distance students “as sometimes they may not have the luxury to listen the two hours of internal class lectures”.

She also has a twitter feed embedded in her second-year social policy stream sites to share social issues relating to social policy. “When doing the rapid-fire sessions or small recordings, I try not to read out power points but to have a conversational style as if I was talking to them in class or face-to-face. I also like to connect the social policy issues from TV shows and drama to make the content less daunting but more relevant to their daily lives.”

Distance teaching has enabled her to learn different styles of teaching too, she says. “It has also increased my critical awareness and thinking on the rationale of using different e-tools or technologies. 

“There are lots of different types of e-tools, apps and technologies in the market (you can have many tools in the system but master none well) but it is important to understand the ethos and pedagogy behind my course content, teaching style and students’ learning outcomes. Too many e-tools may confuse students and add extra stress in their already full-on learning but not using any e-tools may lessen the motivation and engagement with students, particularly the younger and more tech-savvy cohort.”

Distance students are individuals, not names on a list

Dr Kahu, who was unable to attend the awards in person, says “distance teaching is really my passion!”

“For my PhD, which I finished a few years ago, I looked specifically at the experiences of first year distance students and the challenges they face in the transition to university. So, my practice is based on the literature, my own research, and the ongoing feedback I get from students.”

She completed her own BA by distance while caring for her two young children, “so I have a lot of personal experience to draw on as well –though things have changed a lot in terms of technology in the 15 years since I finished that”.

Her aim is “to be a real person for the students, and to see them as individuals not just names on a list”.

The thing that makes the biggest difference, she adds, is “the fact that I genuinely love it – I love the course and its’ content and I love teaching it. And that enthusiasm is what the students can see”.

Associate Professor Gina Salapata says she takes extra effort to make the material “as comprehensive and clear as possible. I strive to make the topics well-structured and easy to follow and I intersperse the text with questions and activities to challenge the students, reinforce what has been learned and guide them to think for themselves both about the course material and beyond.” 

“I love the variety of backgrounds and experiences distance students bring to the courses,” she says. 

And “a huge unexpected surprise” was how Dr John Battersby described his award. “We are a university, students are the life-blood of the place and teaching should be absolutely front and centre of what we do, so huge thanks to EXMSS for doing this,” he says. “I’m not aware of what is extra or special in what I do, but because I’m familiar with shift-work, unexpected call outs, have kids and know that most of my students will probably be in similar circumstances – as well studying part time on top of all that – leeway, understanding and a willingness to assist them as much as possible is important.”

However, he doesn’t sugar-coat his feedback. “I was hard on my Intelligence Operations students this year. It was polite, but honest, and I was really impressed with the resulting improvement in marks as the course progressed.”

Students’ comments on some of the winners:

Steve DuffinHumble, kind and approachable.  Crazy but informative and manages to confuse and clarify in one go! Love his videos, so funny! 

Dr Karen Jillings: Always quick in her responses and more than willing to accommodate re extensions and any extra help that she can. She really seems to understand how hectic the life of an adult extramural student can be!

Dr Ella KahuElla creates a sense of community and belonging for distance students which counters the isolation sometimes experienced in extramural study. Regular online tutorials which feel inclusive. Newcomers welcomed by name as they join the tutorial and addressed by name in interactive tutorial conversations. Ella promptly replies to student comments in Stream forums, conveys the sense of being available and supportive of distance students, and offers genuinely helpful and practical tips for distance study success. Natural conversational lecture presentation style is engaging - able to deliver a Stream lecture without an autocue or sounding like the material is being read from a page. Content is relevant and well prepared and reminders of learning outcomes to focus on are highlighted.

Hannah MooneyShe is so relevant, and ‘down with the kids.’ She is funny and brings the best humour. 

Dr Polly YeungShe manages to get the best out the student and make the paper interesting to study.

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