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Online teaching - responding to and supporting change through staff development

Margaret Hicks
Betty Leask

University of South Australia
Institutions of higher education are faced with a rapidly changing teaching and learning environment and academic staff must make a complex set of decisions if they are to use technology effectively and efficiently to assist students to engage with course content and achieve course outcomes. Achieving an appropriate balance of technical and professional support which enables staff to use the new technologies for the benefit of students in a large institution is both complex and demanding. This paper describes some tools, strategies and processes whereby the University of South Australia is striving to provide a flexible and student-centred online learning environment supported by appropriate professional development of staff. UniSAnet provides academic staff and students with an additional, online dimension to the University's existing teaching and learning program. It is a co-ordinated online teaching and learning facility, which has the capacity to enhance the quality of learning experiences in both virtual and conventional classrooms. The paper describes the professional development program which supports UniSAnet with reference to a number of case-studies from a range of disciplines.


In recent years the use of technology in teaching has increased rapidly. Many educational institutions believe that the application of information and communication technologies will enable them to increase their market share in an environment that is becoming increasingly competitive (Farrell, 1999, p5). There is also an increasing demand by students to have their educational experience available via the Internet. Staff and students have been quick to see the advantages of access to resources and teaching materials in general and the interactive and communicative advantages of this medium. Given the current rapid pace of change and the body of literature giving advice and warnings about the use of information technology in the teaching and learning environment of higher education institutions, it is important that when academic staff make choices about what and how they will teach online, they make them on the basis of sound educational principles.

This paper describes some tools, strategies and processes whereby the University of South Australia is striving to provide a flexible and student-centred online learning environment which is supportive of both student and staff needs. At the end of this paper, three examples illustrate how these strategies have been applied.

Staff development and online teaching

The application of information and communication technologies has considerable potential to enhance the quality of learning experiences in both virtual and conventional classrooms. The internet can be used to access information, to communicate with teachers and interact and collaborate with other learners and it has the potential to make learning more accessible and more meaningful to a diverse population of students (Hicks, Reid and George, 1999).

It is easy, however, to find examples of communication and information technologies being used in courses in ways that do not enhance teaching and learning. For example, the 'dumping' of large amounts of text onto a web-site which students must first access and then print before they can use it, adds little of value to the learning experience. In an online environment, as in a face-to-face or a distance teaching and learning environment, the focus needs to be on effectively and efficiently using the tools available to assist learners to achieve desired outcomes. This means focusing on the learners and on educational issues related to the use of the available resources and tools. The primary aim of staff development becomes focusing staff attention on the implications that the rapidly changing context, within which tertiary education takes place, has for the way in which they conceptualise, plan and deliver their courses.

The move towards more corporate styles of management in universities as a response to the rapidly changing economic and political situation, has resulted in the reconceptualisation of staff development in some institutions. Effort which was placed on highly individualistic models of staff development where staff select various activities to pursue their individual needs and directions have been redirected to models where staff development activities and strategies focus on entire institutions (Johnston, 1997; Bradley, 1997). This reconceptualised model of staff development is practised at the University of South Australia. The University has articulated a teaching and learning framework which has at its centre two organising concepts - student centred learning and the seven qualities of a University graduate. These are realised through an enabling concept flexible delivery. Each year five to six strategic goals are identified which frame the professional development practice of staff in this institution. In the current academic year one of these goals is developing processes and resources for online teaching and learning. It is within this context that staff and professional development activities have been designed to support the online teaching and learning environment at the University of South Australia.


The University of South Australia is South Australia's largest university with 27,000 students and 2,000 staff spread over six campuses. The University has the state's largest intake of international students and a strong commitment to internationalisation, which is clearly embedded in its policy, in its mission statement and in its goals, in its administrative systems and in a range of published guidelines, which interpret and support policy (Leask, 1999). The university has a strong background in distance and flexible delivery and has moved into the online delivery of its courses using a planned, strategic approach, which is sustainable within the infrastructure that currently exists but is also flexible enough to adapt to the emerging technical environment. UniSAnet is the University of South Australia's online environment. It has been designed to assist staff to make informed choices about online teaching and to manage all aspects of the online delivery of their courses. It is supported by professional development and student support strategies, which are seen as integral to the success of this university-wide initiative. It represents one university's response to the challenge of incorporating information technology into course design and delivery without compromising the quality of its courses.

UniSAnet ( is accessed via a standard browser interface, without the need for the installation by the user of specialist software, such as plug-ins (Reid, 1999b). The platform includes text-based materials, online discussions and interactive quizzes and provides a simple and consistent interface for all of the University's online offerings (Reid and Slay, 1999). It requires only a minimal level of technical expertise in both students and staff for effective utilisation of information and communication technologies in teaching and learning. It has been designed to allow academic staff to concentrate on the teaching and learning issues rather than on the technical issues (Reid 1999b). A series of wizards, which assist staff to design their online teaching program, have been designed to prompt staff to input information which makes their intentions and requirements clear to students. Because it operates within the Graduate Qualities, UniSAnet assists staff to make decisions about how they will structure their online teaching within the context of clearly stated educational outcomes. It is supported by professional development and student support strategies designed to improve student learning in an online learning environment, and by a requirement for ongoing evaluation of teaching and learning.

Staff development strategies

UniSAnet uses the experience of a minimalist online presence as the basis for the professional development of academic staff. All subjects and courses have a home-page with a Learning Resources section which staff can modify as required. As UniSAnet enables staff to author materials via web forms and wizards, they are not required to have more than a basic level of technical skills development - the ability to use a word processing program and access the Internet, for example. Most academic staff have these basic skills and can therefore use UniSAnet to author materials for online delivery. Some have higher level skills of course, and these staff are not restricted to what is available on UniSAnet, as there is the capacity to link from the common UniSAnet pages to more sophisticated learning resources which have used, for example, Frontpage as the authoring program. Thus staff with more developed skills can author more technically sophisticated materials if they wish to do so. This means that the professional development of staff that supports UniSAnet does not emphasise technical training. This is achieved through the provision of printed guides and resources to assist staff to access and update their subject and course home-pages, a 'help' telephone number and a small number of staff who are able to provide a very basic level of one-to-one technical assistance if required.


Built into the learning guides of UniSAnet are wizards to guide staff through a set of decisions about how they will structure the materials that they are putting online. UniSAnet wizards require academic staff to make a series of decisions about the extent and role of the online dimension of their teaching program (Reid 1999a). While there are more complex decisions that need to be taken when developing materials online, the wizards within the learning guides and quizzes sections of UniSAnet provide a basic structure based on distance education priniciples.

Subject development

At the subject and course level professional development strategies for online delivery focus on working with staff to develop courses that are: At subject and course level a model of staff development based on small group reflective practice is used. The model has been used successfully for the past two years. The approach involves six stages in which staff from a number of different areas of the University, bring together their particular expertise to address specific teaching and learning issues within a given subject (Hicks and George, 1998). The approach is student-centred and the group involved in the review of the subject always involves a subject specialist, a learning adviser who works predominantly with students and a professional/staff developer who has particular expertise in the area of curriculum design. These people work together with discipline-based academics and, within the shared framework of the Graduate Qualities, academics make informed decisions about the objectives of the subject, the assessment and the teaching and learning activities (Leask, Medlin and Feast,1999). This process has been shown to work effectively for subjects that are taught in the online mode as well as in more traditional modes, for the focus of the discussions is always on achieving alignment between the assessment, the teaching and learning arrangements (whether online, face-to-face or a combination of both) and the objectives of the subject/course.

As a result of working with staff in this way a number of resources have been developed to assist staff in planning and reflecting on their teaching. The resources include grids which prompt staff to construct the teaching and learning environment so as to achieve alignment between the teaching and learning arrangements in the subject, the assessment tasks and the graduate qualities they are striving to develop in students (outcomes). When presenting such a tool to staff, print based, face-to-face and online teaching arrangements are presented side by side and to represent the whole teaching and learning environment. Staff are prompted to make decisions about the best medium of delivery based on the learning objectives of the particular subject, the graduate quality profile and the needs of the students. Workshops, discussion groups and resources reinforce the message that the online medium is not the best medium for all teaching situations, that 'teaching online' does not mean that the whole subject has to be taught online, and that it is important to consider a range of factors before making the decision to teach even a portion of a subject online. (See Appendices 1 and 2 for examples of grids and online teaching planners that are used in professional development workshops).

Divisional Workshops

A series of small-group workshops for academic staff, supported by web-based resources (, provides opportunities for staff to consider and debate the issues associated with conceptualising, delivering and evaluating the online delivery of the subjects and courses they teach within a teaching and learning framework which has been designed to assist the institution to achieve its own strategic goals. Workshops and resources have been progressively developed on a range of pedagogical issues in online delivery including, preparing a subject for online delivery planning online teaching, using quizzes and threaded discussions to enhance student learning, assessment online and evaluating online teaching. The workshops assist academic staff to engage with the issues and make decisions about the extent and type of online delivery that is appropriate to their students and their particular teaching context.


When working with staff in groups or individually, resources have been developed. These resources have been put online so that they are available to the wider University community and can be accessed from Examples of these types of resources have been given in the appendices. Currently these resources are being reviewed and rewritten in the form of 'Teaching Guides' which will be short practical information guides for lecturers to use relating to pedogogical and technical topics involved in online learning and teaching and the use of UniSAnet.


The following examples illustrate how these professional development strategies have been applied in different contexts to achieve different outcomes. The first example describes working with an individual lecturer to put a section of a subject online, the second discusses the use of a workshop approach to assist a whole course to go online and the third describes how online delivery is used in a large first year core subject to actively engage the students.

Introducing an interactive online component to a first year Occupational Therapy subject

Early this year a lecturer in a first year core Occupational Therapy subject approached the professional development staff for advice about how to incorporate an online interactive component into his subject. The subject was taught by more than one lecturer and had different sections that were taught quite independently of each other. This lecturer was responsible for the section on Human Development which had been taught by a two hour lecture each week, with follow up exercises in a workbook and a single assignment at the end of this section of work. The graduate profile of this subject emphasised the development of information literacy skills yet the lecturer was concerned that neither the current teaching and learning arrangements, nor the assessment really developed these skills nor provided the kind of interactive and group based collaborative environment that he wanted to encourage. The contact time for the subject was fixed (2 hours as a single group once a week) - so the lecturer started to explore ways in which he could support the objectives of this subject and develop information literacy and group work skills using the online environment.

The first task in this exploration was to clearly identify the objectives of this section of the subject. Apart from the content knowledge that students had to gain the lecturer was also clear that the students needed to be introduced to some introductory information skills and to group work. A mapping task was then undertaken where against the period of time (for each week) the objectives and assessment tasks were identified. It was decided to use UniSAnet to put his component of the subject online and to create an online teaching environment. The workbook and the associated activities were rewritten as a learning guide and by using an online environment two features were able to be added to enrich these students' experiences. The first was the ability to link students directly to the web to view and critique resources. Students were asked to locate and view some sites and to post the URLs onto the discussion list. The second was the introduction of an online discussion but in small groups. While one full class discussion was set up - twenty-one small group discussions (3-4 students) were also established. In these smaller groups - students shared online their learning experiences around a range of set tasks and topics.

Using the processes identified above decisions were made about how to use the best learning medium to achieve the objectives of the subject and to ensure that the graduate quality profile was being met. In this case an online environment was chosen to 'complement' the current arrangements.

Using a workshop approach to support a whole course going online

While there has been a lot of individual development in the use of UniSAnet at a subject level - there has been less involvement at a whole course level. Making the decision to put a whole course online is usually driven by the nature of the students and courses at the University of South Australia which are available online are courses which are generally being delivered offshore or for external students. There is certainly a lot of interest in this area and professional development staff are increasingly being approached to work with teaching staff in these areas.

In such cases a series of workshops are presented. The first usually involves a demonstration of the capabilities of UniSAnet with examples of what other staff are doing in relation to developing online learning resources. This is usually followed up with a workshop to discuss the pedagogical implications of learning and teaching online. Having covered these two areas the next step is for the staff to begin to think about how they will use the online environment into their teaching - whether it will supplement or complement the current teaching environment or whether it will comprehensively replace the current teaching and learning arrangements. The online planner (Appendix 1) is a useful document to help guide these discussions and decisions as is the subject planning grid document (Appendix 2) which can be modified as a course planning rather than a subject planning document. From then on a combination of workshops may be offered - some will be quite course/subject specific in relation to the detailed planning of the curriculum and emulate the type of work done in the other two examples. Other workshops will include more general topics such as:

Using online delivery to engage students actively in the subject

Early in 1999 a series of subject development meetings involving academic staff teaching in a first year Accounting subject with an annual enrolment of 1500 students, a learning adviser and a professional development lecturer took place as part of the reflective practice model of staff development described earlier in this paper. In these meetings much discussion took place on strategies that could be used to more effectively engage students with the subject matter of accounting, increase the amount of time they spent 'on task' and encourage a deep approach to learning (Gibbs, 1992; Ramsden, 1992). A range of strategies were developed and implemented (Leask, et al,1999). They included attaching several resources to the UniSAnet subject home-page - resources that would encourage students to actively engage with the subject on a regular basis, outside of their normal tutorial and lecture commitments. Answers to the previous week's tutorial and workshop were made available on the site, but for one week only. If students did not check the answers each week they could not access them. Frequently asked questions, particularly from email, were posted on the web site and students were referred to them in tutorials, lectures, in person and via email. In addition the answers to the previous semester's exam were posted to the web site the week after each question was distributed in lectures.

In order to make this happen the lecturer involved attended and actively participated in several workshops on pedagogical issues associated with online delivery. He also attended a short and very basic technical training session in the use of UniSAnet tools. He then assumed complete control of the structure and content of the subject web-site. He is not a technical wizard or a trained teacher, but he is committed to improving learning outcomes for his students and to developing the skills he perceives he needs in order to do this. UniSAnet and the professional development program and resources that support it have both increased the range of teaching tools available to him and developed the skills and understandings he needed to use the changed teaching and learning environment more effectively.

The fairly simple strategies implemented by this lecturer have proved to be very effective. Students report that because the tutorial answers are only available for one week following the tutorial, they visit the web-site and download the answers each week. Often, having down loaded the answers, and because the tutorial is still relatively fresh in their minds, they report that they then go back over the tutorial questions they found difficult. This means that students are looking at a topic three weeks in a row - firstly in the lecture, the following week in workshops and tutorials and then in the third week when they review the answers from the web site. And of course, while they are visiting the web-site to download the answers they are also easily able to access other materials and resources (such as quizzes and frequently asked questions pages) which the lecturer places there regularly.

The outcomes for students studying this subject improved dramatically in the first semester of implementation. While the web-site was not the only change to be introduced, and cannot therefore take the entire credit for the improvements, it is clear from student evaluations that for many, the way in which the online tools have been used in this subject has led to a deeper engagement with the subject matter and has contributed in some way to improved learning outcomes.


The use of information and communication technologies to deliver higher education courses is a complex task requiring academic staff to develop new skills and think in new ways about the teaching and learning environment. It is vitally important that academics, and those who support them in their teaching, uphold the principles of good educational practice when planning the use of information and communication technologies in their teaching. For the effective use of information and communication technologies in education requires careful consideration of the needs of students, a focus on desired student outcomes, careful structuring of learning experiences and the selection of technologies that are appropriate to the task.

At the University of South Australia attempts have been made to embrace the opportunities that technology provides. The paper has described UniSAnet, the university's online teaching and learning environment and the examples illustrate the professional development and student support strategies that have been developed to facilitate student learning in an online context.


Bradley, D. (1997). Staff developer as strategist. Keynote paper presented at the AHED forum, Glenelg, South Australia, 7 July 1997.

Farrell, G.M. (Ed) (1999). The Development of Virtual Education: A global perspective. The Commonwealth of Learning: Canada.

Gibbs, G. (1992). Improving the Quality of Student Learning. Oxford Centre for Staff Development: Oxford.

Hicks, M and George, R. (1998). A strategic perspective on approaches to student learning support at the University of South Australia. Conference paper, 1998 HERDSA Annual International Conference Transformation in Higher Education Auckland New Zealand, 7-10 July 1998,

Hicks, M., I. Reid, and R. George (1999). Enhancing online teaching: Designing responsive learning environments. Paper presented at HERDSA Conference, Cornerstones, What do we value in higher education? Melbourne, July 1999.

Johnston, S. (1997) Educational development units: Aiming for a balanced approach to supporting teaching. Higher Education Research and Development, 16(13), 331-342.

Leask, B. (1999). Bridging the Gap - Internationalising University Curricula. Paper presented at National Liaison Committee Annual Conference, Bridging the Gap Sydney July 1999.

Leask, B., J. Medlin, V. Feast (1999). Improving outcomes for graduates through multi-faceted reflective practice in staff development. Paper presented at HERDSA conference, Melbourne, July 1999.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. Routledge: New York.

Reid, I. (1999a). Beyond models: Developing a university strategy for online instruction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 3(1).

Reid, I. (1999b). Online strategy in Higher Education. Paper presented at AusWeb99, Fifth Australian World Wide Web Conference, Southern Cross University.

Reid, I. and Slay, J. (1999). The virtual university: Strategic implementation and academic staff development. Paper presented at ICDE Conference, Vienna, July 1999.

Appendix 1

Online Delivery Planner

  1. What is the Graduate Quality profile of this subject?
1. Body of Knowledge2. Lifelong Learning3. Effective problem solving4. Work alone and in teams5. Ethical action6. Communicate effectively7. International perspective

  1. Which of these Graduate Qualities do I want to develop through my on-line teaching and to what extent?
1. Body of Knowledge2. Lifelong Learning3. Effective problem solving4. Work alone and in teams5. Ethical action6. Communicate effectively7. International perspective

  1. What level of commitment do I have to on-line delivery?

    Methodologies/resourcesSupplementaryComplementaryComprehensive replacement
    • subject information
    • study guide
    • additional learning resources
    • strategies for self-management
    • assessment activities
    • communications
    • support links

  2. What existing resources do I want to put up on the web?

    Option S/C/R To achieve GQ? GQ point weighting?
    Subject Information Booklet

    Study Guide

    Additional learning resources

    Strategies for self-management

    Assessment activities


    Student support

  3. What new resources will I need to create?

  4. What teaching and learning options do I want to use on-line and to what extent?

    Option S/C/R To achieve GQ? GQ point weighting?
    Exercises and activities


    Student support

  5. What communication options do I want to use on-line and to what extent?

    Option S/C/R To achieve GQ? GQ point weighting?

    Discussion lists

    Threaded discussions


    Group work


  6. What assessment options do I want to use on-line and to what extent?

    Option S/C/R To achieve GQ? GQ point weighting?

    Assignment submission

  7. What support will I need in order to deliver my subject effectively on-line?

    What?          Who?
    What?          Who?
    What?          Who?

  8. Who do I need to see to help me to achieve this on-line delivery plan?

Appendix 2

Subject Planning Matrix

Subject code and name:Subject objectives:
Graduate Qualities profile:

Graduate Quality1. Body of Knowledge2. Lifelong Learning3. Effective problem solving4. Work alone and in teams5. Ethical action6. Communicate effectively7. International perspective

Face-to-facePrint ResourcesOnline learning processes needed to supportAssessment
Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5

Week 6

Week 7

Week 8

Contact details: Margaret Hicks, University of South Australia
Phone (08) 8302 2314 Fax (08) 8302 2363 Email

Please cite as: Hicks, M. and Leask, B. (2001). Online teaching - responding to and supporting change through staff development. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 326-335. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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