Connected Conversations | Tom Benjamin

For researcher and lecturer, Dr Tom Benjamin the move to online learning has barely changed his routine. Forging ahead with research and online learning courses with just a computer and an internet connection, has seen Tom easily adapt to the recent changes to University life. Discover more in our latest edition of Connected Conversations.

Tom Benjamin

Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hi, I’m Tom! My wife, Margaret and I moved to Unley Park a year ago from Coffs Harbour, NSW. We miss our ocean views but the chance for us to participate in important research more than compensates. For many years I’ve been involved with the forensic side of mental health, reviewing research and clinical claims. In my prior careers in hospitals and education, I developed a new approach to music-learning. It’s an ‘instant play’ method as an alternative to the play-by-ear curriculum. My Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) draw over 10,000 students from 150 nations. At the University I’m an Adjunct Lecturer attached to the Critical and Ethical Mental Health (CEMH) research group within the Robinson Research Institute. The CEMH team carries out critical appraisal, meta-research, teaching, and advocacy in order to promote safer, more effective and more ethical research and practice in mental health. It also contributes to the international Restoring Invisible and Abandoned Trials (RIAT) initiative. I’m a registered psychologist but now mainly do research work. I am grateful for the opportunity to also offer courses through MyUni so have spent the time preparing a course with a mental health focus, combining techniques I’ve used for some years in rehabilitation and clinical settings. I have coined a motto – ‘when in doubt, breathe out’ – for an online mental health course. It is intended for use during a panic attack but can apply at any time. Music-making serves as a good exemplar for psychology and mental health concepts because public performance is so many people’s worst fear.

How have you adapted to teaching online/working remotely?

Ironically, I’ve been doing this for decades. Back in the 1990s I pioneered some of our first digital delivery while in the Medical Faculty at the University of New South Wales and subsequently in the year 2000 developed Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) for the Education sector. I have been able to attract a huge number of international MOOC enrolments literally from a coffee table and laptop from home, which is far greater than in my former lecturing roles. I am anticipating a larger international reach than ever before. My research only requires an internet connection and statistical software, so that part of my routine has not really changed. These days our home computers are more than adequate for number-crunching!

What measures or changes have you implemented with social distancing restrictions, that you think others could benefit from?

We’ve stayed in except for a few shopping forays. Home delivery has been reliable. All our team meetings have been via Zoom. Life hasn’t changed much as we were doing a lot of this, over the hot summer. The main distraction is world events rather than travel or shopping. Some people just don’t get it. One person coughed then said to me, “it’s OK, my hands are sanitised”.

How have the current changes at University impacted your daily routine?

Oddly enough I’m probably doing more research than ever. The main impact has been unavailability of hard-copy books, as those are mainly historical, but we’ve been able to get a lot from the library access to digital versions.

What innovation have you seen that’s really impressive?

I had just joined St Paul’s Creative Centre to liaise with the music sector for my multimedia implementation. St Paul’s promptly complied with lock-down but kept in touch through social media. I linked up with Musicians Without Borders who serve war-torn areas and were looking for a low budget activity people could pursue in isolation. I offered a pilot version of my music-learning programmes which I hope to put online soon. I’m amazed the bandwidth hasn’t crashed with all this activity!

What do you hope will be one of the enduring changes to University life in the future?

Online learning will be entrenched which will help legitimise the multimedia formats I am creating. The fact that even celebrities had to make do at home with webcams and no make-up will make my home-grown multimedia not look so amateurish! I deliberately kept my courses low-tech to match what schoolteachers would have at home to encourage them to do-it-themselves.

Have you learnt any new skills during this time that you will be adding to you CV or LinkedIn profile?

My music-learning approach requires occasional practice and I bettered even the one finger chords I had patented with some new no-finger chords. I also added singing exercises and extended the resource as a full play-by-ear alternative curriculum matched up with the entire K-12 Australian Music Curriculum. So… hopefully this will catch on with schools and community groups as my approach includes pop music and you can’t get much easier than no-finger chords!

Quick fire questions!

Getting dressed for work or staying in pj’s?

My colleagues were never sartorial, so my warm gear is pretty much what I wear outside. I wear jeans more and always comb my hair for Zoom meetings.

Needing colleagues to bounce ideas off of or loving the quiet to get into the zone?

The data can drive me nuts! We’ve obtained data from overseas under official agreements so it is hard to work out the classification schemes the authors used to define variables, then I have no-one I can ask, ‘how did they get these figures?’

Uber Eats or home cooked meals?

We try to make most evening meals gourmet since so much is now available from supermarkets. I recall driving across town to get rendang and we loved Melbourne visits for Greek food. Now we just reach in the pantry and freezer and it is amazing quality.

Baking your own sourdough or eating what’s left in the freezer?

Leftovers thrown away would be a scandal, so we rotate to use everything up!

Scheduled vs unscheduled?

Not much is scheduled except TV and even then, we can record. We try to keep usual day-job hours.

Reading or binge-watching Netflix?

Finished available books so mostly evening Netflix.

Good weather or bad weather makes it easier working from home?

Weather only affects clothes drying. We drink coffee outside rain or shine, but not wind.

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