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How this teacher is tying knots around learning online

Andrew demonstrating the Blake's Hitch tree climbing system
Wintec Arboriculture tutor Andrew Harrison in one of his instructional videos demonstrating a Blake's Hitch tree climbing system for his students to recreate at home.

Andrew Harrison is holding a laptop, pointing it at a tree and a series of ladders propped around his garden. His neighbours may think he has gone mad, talking to himself in the back yard, but what they can’t see is the class of fully engaged arboriculture students watching his every move.

Harrison teaches arboriculture at Wintec and like hundreds of other teachers across New Zealand, he had to change his teaching style – and fast, when the country went on Alert Level 4 lockdown in March.

While he’s the first to admit that using video to teach is not new, it’s not the usual way learners get to grips with the practical aspects of arboriculture.

He says most of the students are responding well to the combo of Zoom group sessions and the how-to videos he is posting on YouTube, however some have limited technology at home, and there’s an assumption that everyone below the age of 30 is a technology expert.

“I have observed over a few years of teaching that contrary to popular belief, not all young people have an interest in technology. They use it (most of them). But like most of us use motor vehicles, not all of us are car enthusiasts.

“So when we say you must use this technology or that, some are reluctant as they would rather be playing football, riding their bike or,” he says with a smile, “Climbing trees.”

“Our job is making our online teaching interface as welcoming as possible.”

On screen, his students can ask questions and learn at a distance, as Harrison demonstrates the difference between various ladders and the correct way to carry one. He lets them know he once broke a window in a very expensive house and laughs at some good-natured quips about using a rubber ladder.

“The catch-ups we have online are great for morale, especially for the students or teachers that are alone (or not getting along with their bubble companions). It’s great to have a chat and joke around a bit too.”

The class video sessions are supported with some nifty “how to” guides Harrison has filmed and posted to YouTube. In one of them, students can practice a knot set-up  or more precisely, a Blake's Hitch tree climbing system safely at home and in another, they’re learning by viewing  the correct way to climb a tree. When they eventually return to campus, they can practice together.

Harrison hasn’t got any plans to go into documentary style production yet, but he has learnt some lessons along the way.

“Editing is very time consuming. Creating a 10-minute video with different angles and quality sound can take several hours. I work into the evening sometimes just to finish a project as I enjoy it. I’m not sure that everyone notices the difference though, so I try not to be too fussy. Having a quality computer and good-sized monitor is very important. If there is an editing problem or technique I need to learn, I have found it on YouTube.”

Even arboriculture is subject to fake news and Harrison has a warning about poor quality videos not demonstrating best practice.

“For example, the tree climbing content already on YouTube is variable in quality, there is a lot of bad practice being promoted, so we need to caution the students not to believe everything they see."

Andrew Harrison taking a virtual class in his garden
Andrew Harrison taking a virtual class in his garden.

During Alert Level 3, his students will continue to learn online for at least a few more weeks.

“We are focusing on completing as much theory as we can but putting some practical demos in for added interest. Hopefully the foundational teaching will be all but completed when we can get back to normal and then catch up with the hands-on practicals. Like climbing trees,” he adds.

“The skills they are learning now will be valuable in the future and can complement what we have done in the past, however, the only way to learn to climb a tree or prune a tree will be to actually practice doing the real thing.”

Colleague and horticulture tutor Jonathan (Jono) Summers has been using the centre’s Facebook page to engage students and he’s pleasantly surprised at the success of the daily plant quiz and the engagement it’s getting.

“Every day we’re sharing an image of a plant, flower or tree and asking for its botanical name,” says Jono.

“While this is yet another way for our students to learn online, I’m really enjoying hearing from some of our former students who are getting quite competitive, it’s great!”

Horticulture, arboriculture, landscape and construction are part of Wintec’s Centre for Applied Science and Primary Industries and are taught from Wintec’s campus located in the award-winning and picturesque Hamilton Gardens.

Both teachers agree that going back to campus, when it’s safe to do so is going to make life a lot easier but they will be taking a few leaves out of their lockdown learning book to ensure students are getting the best of both worlds.

The lockdown has meant tertiary educators like Wintec have greater responsibility for thousands of learners across the country who have signed up to get a qualification or accelerate a career. For many, learning during lockdown has its challenges, and family commitments, financial strain, living spaces and IT restraints have come into play. Student feedback has been important in shaping the type of information and guidance students need and Wintec recently launched a Learning during Lockdown Frequently Asked Questions page to support students where new information is added regularly, directed by student feedback as it comes to hand.

Find out more about studying arboriculture, horticulture and Landscape Design and Construction at Wintec.

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