Transitioning a large first year human physiology subject to fully online delivery due to COVID19: Supporting student learning in the online environment

Amy Larsen, Deanna Horvath, Stuart James


There is no going back, in a post-COVID University the new norm will inevitably be greater reliance on online and remote learning. The student experience will no longer be structured around a bricks and mortar campus that only those in proximity can access, but allow students more choice and flexibility in when and where they learn. The National Guidelines for Online Learning tell us that effective online learning requires a whole-of-institution approach, curriculum that is designed specifically for online, meaningful learning analytics and teacher presence. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic universities were not afforded the time to implement this best practice approach.

As coordinators of one of the largest subjects (Human Biosciences A (HBA)) at La Trobe University (LTU) delivered to ~1600 students from 14 different degrees in their first semester of University study, our team faced a significant challenge to pivot from a blended to fully online delivery due to COVID-19 in five working days. We were particularly concerned about the support for students and staff in the transition to the new learning environment, in addition to the curriculum changes required. Students had completed three weeks of the subject activities prior to this shift, which included 2-hour face-to-face workshops per week structured for peer learning, and interactive seminars with clicker audience response. While we were unable to implement all of the recommended National Guidelines, we examined the subject structure, determined we needed to establish and maintain online teacher presence, implement solutions for asynchronous delivery of learning content, as well as provide high quality online synchronous options to replace previously face-to-face weekly workshops and fortnightly seminars.

Asynchronous: What happens when you are absent is just as important as when you are present

Remote and online learning can leave students feeling isolated; thus, we established an online teacher presence through extensive communications throughout the transition, including a video from the coordinators detailing what to expect at the recommencement of their studies. This outlined the key changes to the workshop structure and assessments, as well as set clear expectations for students for the rest of the semester. The learning resources in HBA were created using H5P which enables the addition of interactive activities with immediate feedback on learning materials, providing students the opportunity to undergo active learning asynchronously. Forums remained another useful asynchronous learning tool where students had an open space to ask questions which generated discussion between students and academic staff regarding subject content.

Synchronous: Generate peer interaction and connectedness with an online learning community

The biggest challenge we faced with synchronous learning was replacing the approximate 50 weekly face-to-face workshops with virtual classrooms via Zoom. Students were provided with numerous support resources to assist their familiarisation with Zoom, gain access to their sessions, and to set clear expectations of how online workshops would be delivered. In terms of delivery, online workshops involved combining two classes into one session, allowing us to pair academic staff with varying degrees of experience. This also prevented a class from halting completely in the event of a staff member disconnecting due to varied reliability of home internet connections. The main room was used for general discussion, breakout rooms provided students the opportunity to undertake collaborative problem-solving tasks in small groups, and Zoom polling allowed students to test their knowledge in real time with instant feedback and discussion from teachers during a class.

Delivering seminars fully online came with fewer challenges than workshops. Effective communication around online seminar scheduling and access, the use of live chat, polls, and recording sessions for students who could not attend live were all key factors in ensuring students had an enriching learning experience. Interestingly, we found that the nature of online seminars allowed for a much higher degree of interactivity between teachers and students compared to their face-to-face counterpart.

The Student Perception

Students were surveyed after undertaking three weeks of online workshops for feedback on both their experience of the online workshops (see Table 1), as well as how well they perceived their transition to online (see Table 2).  Overall, students perceived the experience of online workshops as positive.

Positive72.2%
Neither Positive nor Negative12.7%
Negative15.1%
Table 1: Student Experience in the ‘new’ online workshops 

Even though the students found the experience of online workshops positive, just over half of the students found the transition easy while the rest were undecided or found it difficult.

Easy55.6%
Neither Easy nor Difficult 11.9%
Difficult32.5%
Table 2: Student Transition to online workshops

Student Feedback

Some qualitative student feedback on the transition to online highlight the importance of the LMS for the organisation of learning resources and communication of important information – “Lectures link clearly with enquiries set out on LMS, they are well prepared before delivery flow well and easy to follow along. Having two facilitators is excellent – one to talk and one to answer questions, and they back each other up. Thanks, it been a smooth crossover” and “In all honesty I would like to commend HBA on its smooth and efficient transition to online learning…HBA by far had the best process and communication when we became online. They were very clear and concise with information and made the steps as simple as possible. I think the support system that they have set up is exemplary as everything is well laid out via the LMS”

Student feedback also identified that workshops, including Zoom breakout rooms and polling created an engaging and supportive learning environment with their facilitators and they were able to receive immediate feedback on subject content and identify gaps in their knowledge – “That despite being moved onto online study, it is still just as easy to communicate and get involved with your facilitators and fellow group members. I really love the way the quizzes have been set up to show the most common option answered by students and immediate feedback is given to address where any gaps in knowledge are evident” and “We get feedback and clarification from our quizzes immediately. We are encouraged and easily able to ask questions using the chat format”.

Student Satisfaction

Overall student satisfaction for the subject improved (2020; 4.13/5) when compared to pre-COVID delivery (2019; 4.04/5). Thus, it can be inferred that delivering the subject in a fully online mode did not affect the quality of student experience.

So, what have we learnt from this experience?

  • The importance of clear, frequent communication and setting student expectations early.
  • LMS organisation and support for navigating the online learning environment is key.
  • Teacher presence in both asynchronous and synchronous activities is vital.
  • Students were overall satisfied with the online learning experience.

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Amy Larsen is a Lecturer in the Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology department at La Trobe University, and for the past eight years has acted as the Subject Coordinator of the Core First Year Physiology Unit HBS1HBA. She has expertise in teaching large, diverse first year cohorts in both face-to-face and fully online modalities.

Deanna Horvath is an experienced online educator with a focus on technology enhanced learning and equity in higher education. Deanna is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology at La Trobe University and coordinates the universities largest online course.

Stuart James has over eight years of teaching experience with three of those years in fully online teaching. He is passionate about innovative learning and teaching solutions to enhance student engagement & success. Stuart is currently an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology at La Trobe University.

All collaborators listed equally contributed to writing the blog post, and will be participating in the discussion on the day of the conference. 

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