Tough times create resilient people, but it wasn’t until COVID-19 hit that staff at The Australian National University Crawford School of Public Policy discovered how they would rise to the occasion. One professor brought a whiteboard home and propped it up in his study to teach economics. Another professor with small children and no spare room resorted to recording lectures in his bathroom. The show must go on, so they kept it running.
As the Teaching and Learning Manager at Crawford School, Alison Cumming Thom is no stranger to these stories. In fact, she played a key role in guiding these lecturers to deliver classes virtually.
“Equity doesn’t mean giving people the same thing, it means getting them to the same point,” she says, “so we need different mechanisms.”
As the prospect of a lockdown loomed in March 2020, Cumming Thom met with every single programme convenor virtually. That’s close to 30 people over three days. With this information, she worked out a set of principles to guide training and established a baseline for new, improved practices in a time of change.
Achieving a sweet spot of certainty
Instead of leaping into a hybrid model of teaching, Crawford School established two different study cohorts in 2021. One was fully online, and the other provided students with a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. This was dubbed the Crawford Combined Model. The aim? To enable good outcomes for students regardless of their mode of study.
Both modes share a common core: students would watch pre-recorded or live online lectures and read curated study materials, then gather for interactive sessions — either in person or virtually. This approach instilled a sense of certainty among faculty and students, which was crucial to keep learning on track under unusual circumstances.
“There’s a level of agency when people engage with lecture material [first] — they are then better prepared when they come into interactive sessions,” Cumming Thom observes.
Arriving at this point required careful care and coordination, which in turn, empowered staff to go above and beyond for their students.
“The key is knowing your cohort, then wrapping the services around them in a way that makes it easy,” Cumming Thom muses. “An institution must have a clear idea of what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. For us, it’s recognising what the student experience should be, and what our commitment is to that.”
To this end, Cumming Thom helped develop a Remote Teaching Design Framework, using a ‘backwards design’ model based on carefully thought-out learning outcomes. This framework helps shape practice and is filled with tips for lecturers to deliver a Crawford-quality online learning experience.
Crawford’s commitment to excellence in teaching is also realised in an active staff learning community where teachers connect with each other to learn new skills and approaches. Their practice is both supported and shared more broadly through the Crawford Playbook website, which is ‘full of ideas, action cards, case studies and examples of ways to enhance teaching and learning’. This site facilitates interaction, collaboration, professional networks, and an informal community, which are the pillars of effective teaching and learning frameworks.
Creating ripples of progress at Crawford School
Now going into her 25th year at Crawford School, Cumming Thom’s finger is still very much on the pulse; she listens, engages, and guides with wonder and humour. In late 2020, her contributions to student learning were recognised at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific (CAP) Awards for Excellence in Education.
“She deserves much praise for the tailor-made, knowledgeable and unwavering support she has provided to her colleagues over the years, and particularly in this challenging year,” Associate Dean for Student Experience Associate Professor Roald Maliangkay says.
As a result of the teaching and learning frameworks launched during the pandemic, student satisfaction is at an all-time high at Crawford School. Even the faculty — 20% of who were teaching for the first time last semester — stand in awe at the calibre, passion, and willpower of their students. This mutual respect creates an enriching environment conducive to research and learning, whether it’s on campus or online.
“I have the best job in the world because the School has a real commitment to teaching and learning,” Cumming Thom attests.
Crawford School had all the ingredients for success and Cumming Thom’s role is to identify, combine and enable them. Whether through running faculty workshops, ironing out teaching plans, or coordinating a tutor for students over 7,000 kilometres away in China, her candid, realist approach sparks hope and inspires action in the well-reputed public policy school.
Cumming Thom’s professional satisfaction may come from improved classroom experiences, but it gives her personal joy to bring the Crawford School community together on a human level. She likes to tell the story of how a potluck dinner turned into a gathering of over 90 people at her home, with shoes lined up the driveway and the dinner table alive with chatter.
“Students would get together to cook in groups after arguing over politics, environment and economics all week, and it would be fantastic,” she laughs.
Finding the light in the dark, allowing similarities to trump differences — that is what pulls this academic community together in times of uncertainty.