When Ako Aotearoa approached Cath Fraser to put together a professional development workshop aimed at tertiary educators, she said “yes” without hesitation, knowing she had access to ample resources to devise a suitable programme.

Fraser, who works part-time at Bay of Plenty Polytechnic and part-time as a research consultant, drew from her own extensive teaching experience and that of others to form a comprehensive workbook on the subject of problem-based learning, or PBL.

The acronym has also stood proxy for project-based learning. Fraser says case-based or inquiry-based would also be relevant.

“The take-home message is basically: This is what I’ve got to teach – I can’t change what’s required of the qualifications, but what I can change is how I deliver that content,” says Fraser.

“It’s about enabling teachers to try something a little different to engage their students to work and discover solutions themselves, rather than standing up the front and feeding them the content.”

The workbook was supplemented by video clips. With four teachers at BOP Polytechnic to receive Ako Aotearoa’s Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, Fraser had easy access to examples of best practice. The teachers were filmed, sometimes for hours at a time, and then the footage was edited down into five-minute clips.

Fraser has run three sessions so far and has been pleased with the feedback.

Participants have enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the material presented and share their own experiences. One responded that they liked “hearing what others are planning to do”. Another said that the “discussions with colleagues, videos of exemplars, development of our own PBL example, supportive environment” were most beneficial. A third participant said they enjoyed “talking and looking at the presentations [and] being able to have peers talk over my presentation and critique”.

Fraser agrees one of the most valuable aspects of the PBL workshop forum is the opportunity for participants to share what has and hasn’t worked for them in the past. This type of collaboration is a key aspect of the programme.

Fraser is an advocate for parallel learning which encompasses a dual focus on both the curriculum and the soft skills required in teaching, such as communication, confidence and resilience.

Most participants are tertiary teachers – some are new to teaching while others have been doing it for a while and want to change what they’re doing.

Unlike primary and secondary teachers, tertiary teachers do not have to study teacher education. Often – and particularly in the ITP sector – staff are recruited for their industry or specialist subject knowledge rather than their ability to teach. Therefore professional development courses that focus on teaching strategies are important for tertiary teachers.

The feedback shows that many hope to embed what they’ve learned into their practice.

When asked what they hope to change as a result of the course, one participant responds that they intend to “spend more time on the feedback aspects of activity so it is clear to students why the class was run in this way”. Another responds that they hope to give more time to students to discuss and explore issues and report back. A third respondent says their aim is to place more focus on students solving problems, “rather than a prescriptive approach”.

Fraser views the course somewhat organically, as a work in progress. She says she absorbs the participant feedback and says each session presents different contexts for PBL that she tries to incorporate into future iterations of the workshop.

For example, feedback from a recent workshop said they would like to know more about how PBL applied to a flipped learning scenario. In a recent workshop a question emerged about using PBL in a blended learning environment, so Fraser is working on adding a case study of how distance education and the digital aspects of learning can be incorporated.

Professional development is clearly very important for tertiary educators as they grapple with teaching strategies in changing learning environments usually without any prior training. Fraser confirms that fortunately there are plenty of PD opportunities out there – many run by private training organisations. Organisations like Ako Aotearoa run a suite of PD courses that are typically well received.

Source: Education Review

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