The research reported in this abstract focuses on the analysis of the design of a first year information technology course. The aim of the course design was to cater for student diversity, stemming from the increasing number of non-traditional first year students (Shillington et al., 2012). This was to be achieved by replacing face-to-face lectures with pre-recorded material and the lecturer attending all lab sessions. The aim was to facilitate the development of relationships between students and academics, seen as crucial to the advancement of self-belief, belonging and identity (Zepke, 2013). The research questions asked how the course design compared to a more traditional lecture-based approach, how factors like age, access to resources or lab attendance related to outcomes, and how students responded to the course design.
The research was undertaken as one action research cycle. Previous cycles had looked at the design and evaluation of related first courses. The action research was complemented by using a teaching professional from an unrelated subject area as a ‘critical friend’. Unlike developmental or peer review the critical friend relationship sits outside of classroom observation, and facilitates critical reflection with less fear of judgment (Hardiman & Dewing, 2014). The data sources used comprised of access logs and lab attendance records, an internal mid semester survey, an external end of course survey, student focus groups, records of reflections compiled by both the lecturer teaching the course and the critical friend.
The analysis of the data showed that students were accepting of the course design. The pre-recorded material provided student with the flexibility desired. Weaker students could repeatedly watch, stronger students could go faster by focusing on textual instead of audio or video material. Students appreciated the presence of the lecturer in the labs, allowing them to seek guidance when required. The lecturer reported on many more meaningful interactions with students than in previous lecture-focused course designs and particularly valued the opportunity to approach students directly. The pass rate and grades achieved in the course compared favourably to other courses. The critical friend discussions helped the lecturer to identify assumptions held about learners and their learning when considering further developments.
The results of this research indicate that replacing face-to-face lectures with pre-recorded material while at the same time increasing the direct contact between lecturer and students is beneficial. It seems that the more independent learners enjoyed the flexibility. Students who needed more guidance and attended the labs received more direct lecturer attention than in a more traditional course design.
Addressing 'Navigating uncertainty and complexity'
The complexity of teaching first year courses at university has risen due to the number of non-traditional first year students (Shillington et al., 2012), increasing the variability in students’ knowledge and ability to study. The needs of different student cohorts have to be taken into consideration (Doorn and Doorn, 2014). Understandings of the complexity of the teaching environment can be enhanced with the input of a teaching professional or ‘critical friend’ from outside the discipline or institution.