Featured image: Kristy films a message to welcome her students to UNE.

As a hands-on subject, physical education may not appear compatible with online learning. But it’s a challenge UNE education lecturer Dr Kristy O’Neill met head-on during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Kristy’s passion and tenacity for finding innovative ways to engage her health and physical education units for primary teaching students, particularly her large online cohort, has earnt her a 2022 Vice-Chancellor Citation for an outstanding contribution to student learning.

“When I commenced at UNE in 2019, most of the Moodle sites I inherited were designed for the very small cohort of on-campus students, even though 95% of my students are online,” Kristy says. 

“There wasn’t much opportunity for students to interact with the lecturer or each other.”

Kristy went about implementing changes that would personalise her units and enable the content to be more accessible for the many students working around home, family and work commitments.

“One of the things I did was split my lectures into mini podcasts, around 15-25 minutes each, so that students could listen in bite-sized chunks, rather than having to sit down to catch up on a long lecture late at night.

“Considering students who might be living on properties with low internet bandwidth, I supplement those podcasts with detailed topic notes that can be downloaded as a PDF. This makes the topic notes more e-book and print-friendly as opposed to some of the more traditional topic notes that Moodle allows you to do.

“The other thing I do is module welcome videos. I usually do little mini videos of 1.5 to 3 minutes in length around the campus or Armidale – because most students haven’t been to Armidale and won’t get a chance to visit.

“They can see me as a person, which helps give them a strong sense of belonging to the unit and the university.”

Kristy says since implementing these seemingly simple changes, she has noticed increased student engagement.

“I’ve noticed a lot more students are coming forward to ask for help or to let me know when they need clarification with their learning. Some have said it has made online learning much more personable and accessible; they feel like they already know me.”

Although the biggest challenge was teaching physical education at the height of the pandemic.

“I had a small group of on-campus students for my first physical education unit in trimester 1, 2020, but we went into lockdown three weeks into the trimester, which was quite daunting. All my equipment was inaccessible at Sport UNE, as gyms were closed, and we don’t have residential schools where students can catch up later.”

So Kristy had to think on her feet.

“I had to come up with not so much a Plan B as a Plan D curriculum to consider how students could still engage in practicals at home and still have a meaningful experience to develop their understanding of Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS), which are a really important part of the primary physical education curriculum, as they are basically the building blocks of human movement affecting student’s lives and learning in many ways.”

She designed a series of at-home guided exploratory activities using modified equipment, in conjunction with a reflective portfolio assessment. This enabled students to engage with FMS in a way that challenged them to put themselves in the shoes of a primary school student and think about the teaching points they needed to reinforce.

“There were students really getting into practical learning at home,” Kristy says. “They were leaping outside in the backyard with the dog, or in very pandemic-style, kicking a toilet roll down the hallway in lieu of a soccer ball.

“Students who weren’t able to engage in the practicals themselves for various reasons were able to teach their own children at home during the lockdown period, their partner or housemates and reflect on that experience instead.”

As for aspects that were not possible to replicate at home – such as team sports – she supplemented with existing video material and reflective activities.

Kristy was able to share her innovations at UNE’s Learning and Teaching Symposium in July.

“I think there’s always potential to improve because technology doesn’t stay the same, teaching and learning doesn’t stay the same. I believe we should be continually looking to do things better or adapt.

“Having opportunity to share ideas like this and learn from other people at the symposium is a great opportunity for academics at UNE to be exposed to new things that maybe we have not thought of doing in our discipline. Hopefully, I’ve given other people some new ideas they might use in their own units.”

Kristy’s Digital-first innovations have been directly reflected in 2019-2021 EDPE Business Intelligence data indicating enhanced engagement (via OL increased pass rates, decreased fail rates, increased post-Census retention) and stronger results compared to UNE means in most cases. Notably, EDPE346 post-Census attrition (2019-2021) more than halved despite the pandemic and 100% EDPE343 engagement (Pass rates) was maintained (2020-21).