Ripples/Waves

Like a coronavirus, but more manageable

Let’s start by saying that so far I’ve not been too concerned about coronavirus: my classes this semester were already flipped and my immediate colleagues seemed to be managing the digital transition pretty well, given everything.

But now, I’m less sanguine.

This is mainly because I’ve fallen into my own trap of anxiety-management. This states that usually it’s too early to worry about stuff, and then it’s usually too late.

Of course, right now turns out to be exactly when I need to worry about a number of coming issues.

Stupid reasoning, with its rationalising.

My worries come in three distinct packages, so it’s not even a single thing.

Worry one, the smallest one, is assessment. My institution is keeping its end-of-semester assessment, although asking everyone to replace exams under controlled conditions with something else. That’s fair enough, although obviously more involved than the pass-fail model others are using, or even the general scrubbing of anything.

It’s only a small concern because I was using an open-book exam with our software pilot, so it should be that I can continue to use it, but maybe with a 24 hour window, rather than 2 hours, so students now spread around the world (and maybe with shonky internet) have plenty of time to complete it.

But it’s still a concern: remember that these grades are going to hang around the students’ transcripts for a long time and memories will fade of the scale of the impact, so I need to think about ensuring I continue to provide fair and transparent assessment.

Worry two is much bigger, if also much less defined: recruitment.

Coronavirus is likely to result in medium-term disruption to international movement and extended national restrictions. Universities are obvious sites of concern for those worried about bringing together people from around the world for extended periods.

All of that suggests that the global market for students is going to be hard-hit, which is a problem if your institution relies on overseas fees to prop up business models.

Even with domestic students, things are going to be tough. Here in the UK, there is talk of capping numbers, to stop some institutions making up international shortfalls by going to town in accepting a lot more locals. That might seem to fit with the progressive marketisation of the sector here, but apparently it’s not the kind of clear-out of universities that was being looked for.

In any case, finances for universities in any country are going to be hit, which means more tough times after a decade of, um tough times caused by the financial crisis.

If that’s all a bit too big, then maybe worry three is more manageable, if also the one I’m least clear about how I can resolve it: my teaching next semester.

I’ll be running two classes in the autumn/fall: one on European integration and one on negotiation. The former I can see reasonably easily how I could run it in a virtual form, but the latter is going to be a massive pain in the arse.

Even the one habitual online exercise I currently have doesn’t really work any more, since it requires people to make use of existing travel options to move around; and that’s quite aside from the game objective, namely to meet up in a group ASAP – not really the look to be going for in these social distancing times.

But more profoundly, all of the key things I would want students to know about seem to require face-to-face, in-person interaction. I can’t simply just move my exercises online.

And this is going to be the big meta-challenge for teaching later this year: we can’t simply repeat the current crash-to-digital option.

Instead, we are going to have to create genuinely effective digital learning environments, which is rather different from stick-it-on-Zoom. And that’s not even getting into a situation where we might be allowed back into the classrooms half-way through semester. This all needs ground-up work and effort, the kind that needs maybe half-a-year to do.

Oh.

And there you have it, why I’m worried. These are things we have to get to work on now if we are going to pull through what will certainly be one of the less pleasant professional summers of our lives.

Because while these might be my worries, they are probably also your worries, and the worries of those around you.

Which is why we are going to have to help and support each other a lot in the coming months. Here at ALPS blog, we’re always ready to share thoughts and ideas and to give space for those who want to do the same, but each of you might also think about how you can do that with colleagues, near and far.

They say a crisis should never go to waste, but right now I’m going more with that line from Jurassic Park: “Life always finds a way”. Let’s make that way a bit easier for each other.

Yet more tips on moving teaching online

Chad and Amanda have already given their ideas on the crash move to online, so here’s my version too, in graphic form.

You can download a PDF version here.

As the others have said, you need to triage your teaching: what absolutely must happen and what’s just nice to have?

If you’re struggling, then ask colleagues, both within your institution and beyond: there are lots of great people on Twitter (start with the @ALPSblog follow list).

What’s the point of student engagement anyway?

So, we’re doing a thing in our Department.

FFS Google, with your heteronormativity…

Despite doing lots of L&T innovation, we’re making a point of going to our university-organised training sessions, to scope and refresh our practice. Just because we think we’re doing good things, doesn’t mean we aren’t potentially missing stuff.

So last week I went with my colleague to a workshop on student engagement.

It was really good to spend time devoted to this, because it’s one of those topics that floats in the background, but often fails to get enough attention in of itself.

Much of the session was ‘how to get and keep students engaged in a classroom’ [spoiler: keep things active and reinforce positive behaviour], but for me the best bit was considering the question of what ‘engagement’ might actually be.

This might seem odd, since it’s almost axiomatically good to have student engagement, so why even bother going there?

But with even a moments’ thought (and we gave noticeably more than that), it’s really difficult to pin down what it might involve.

Sure, part of it is ‘are they paying attention’, but it’s also about their attitude towards learning, their emotions. We want them to be participating, but also to be actually really into it.

Which is odd.

Because once you start to unpack engagement, you have to also start unpacking the paths of that engagement. And those paths don’t have to run through your classroom or your activities.

I’m sure you, like I do, examples of students who really never turned up, or contributed, but totally aced their exams. Or students who were passionate about the subject, but never could formalise that into performances in assessment.

Yes, we offer students a framework for learning to help them make the most of their potential and their motivation, but it’s a framework that has a pretty reductive palate of outcomes, based around formal assessment. You might be able to write them a glowing reference, but it’s not quite the same (nor does it carry the same weight) as an A in their assessment.

Education systems are simultaneously liberating and constraining.

I can easily say that I learnt much more from the non-assessed aspects of my time in education than from the stuff I revised and sat exam for. Things about myself, and about people, and about the work (about teaching even) that just weren’t on the syllabus (and never will be).

And that’s fine.

The most rewarding experiences I have had as an instructor/teacher/facilitator have come from seeing individuals discover themselves and their world, from taking their steps into their futures, almost totally disconnected from how they did in tests.

Perhaps that’s why I love active learning; for its potential to open up new paths for individuals to act, without prejudice about what’s right or wrong.

That’s not an abrogation of responsibility, but rather a reconfiguration of our role relative to our students. We have many ways to become ourselves, so surely we have to respect that diversity and to acknowledge that what works, works.

None of this is to say that I don’t love it when I see an entire class of super-focused students, lasered-in on the task. But it’s also to recognise that this is rare and that the value of education lies as least as much in what students construct as in what we build for them.

So next time you through in the line about the centrality of student engagement, maybe consider what that actually means.

Brain meet meme

So we did the meme thing in class.

As I discussed last week, I wanted to check whether it did really bring anything to the discussion, given my doubts.

And it did. Just not what I thought it would.

I’d asked students in the lecture to drop memes into the collaborative document, on the theme of “the EU as it was, the EU as it is.” (not the most meme-y title, but whatever).

From what we got, I can tell you a number of things.

Firstly, most students clearly just googled “EU meme” to see what they could find, rather than making their own memes. Perhaps that’s a refinement to consider, using something like this.

Secondly, most of my students aren’t that well disposed to the EU.

Thirdly, the EU isn’t the subject of much meme-making.

And fourthly, most of those memes are about the EU banning memes.

[sic]

We talked about this last point the most, mainly because there was a long struggle on their part to consider the most logical reason for why, despite the EU banning memes, we were a) able to find lots of memes, and b) I was allowed to run a session in class about memes.

If you’ve not worked it out, I’ll leave it to you to go and check (hint: look for news sources that talk about what happened, rather than what might happen).

Any way, it became a good opportunity to talk about being a rigorous researcher and sense-checking what you find. That’s not a point just about the EU, but about everything you study.

The jury is still out on using memes like this, but it was good to have this discussion. My concern is whether we might have it again.

Memes or graphics?

My first-year introduction to the EU class continues to test my creativity.

Last week’s lecture didn’t see a pick-up in attendance – but also didn’t drop further – so I’m working through my plans to entice students in by the quality of what happens in the classroom.

As I discussed before, I’m trying to make more of the flipped format by getting students to create collaborative work on the go, as I discussed in my post.

The first attempt went alright, but pointed up some issues:

Firstly, it’s important to be very clear about what you want students to do. I under-specified a bit with my first title, and got more of a range of responses than I’d thought I would, but also a fair few that missed what I was looking for. So that’s on me, to think more carefully about how a title might be read by students.

Secondly, Google Docs might be simple to set up, but they’re not great for graphic content: Students ended up uploading photos and JPGs into the document which is OK, but not super easy. My hunt for a better option continues.

Thirdly, I’d asked for a graphic representation of the factors important in explaining European integration. I got some of those, but I also got a bunch of memes (all very negatively EU, but that’s another post) too.

I did ask at the end whether they’d rather meme than create graphics: they said yes.

I’m torn on this one, since memes might well be more engaging (see my former colleague Jack’s work on this), but I’m not sure I can see how it’ll allow them to pull together the various elements that I would like them to cover.

But let’s see. Maybe I try it one week and see if it produces useful outputs. If you’ve experience of this, I’d love to hear it.

Red flag

The first week of any course/module matters. It’s your first and best chance to make a good impression on your students, to engage them with what is to come.

So you might imagine that I was a bit concerned to find that less than half my students turned up for the lecture last week.

And you’d be right.

Yes, 0900 on a Friday is a shitty timeslot, especially if you’re the kind of student whose weekend starts on Thursday evening (as I seem to recall mine did), but that’s hardly enough to explain it.

Looking at the VLE, a lot of students still haven’t visited the module pages, so it also can’t be that they saw we were flipping and decided lectures were dispensable (see last week’s post on this).

Oddly, my seminar tutor tells me turnout was not bad through the rest of the day for the seminars.

My concern is that having started off on a not-turning-up foot, that will only continue and get worse, even with all the great stuff that’s going on in those sessions.

This isn’t so much narcissism as it is anxiety that if most students miss the sessions where we explain how the online assessment tool works, then we’ll have a bit of a car crash in a month’s time when they have to use, um, the online assessment tool.

Nil desperandum.

Usually, my hope is that this is where one of you comes up with a good idea, but in the meantime, I’ve got a couple of strategies to try out.

Firstly, I’n going to be making more of the lectures to demonstrate to those present their value, in the hope of them spreading the word. Part of that will be thinking about how only those that attend can get easy access to the graphics we’re building together (see last week’s post again).

Secondly, I’ll be upping my work in messaging to everyone on the module why the lecture is useful to them, via emails and the VLE. I’ll also be talking with my seminar tutor about how we can make a stronger link of substantive content between lecture and seminar.

I travel hopefully, but also realistically: to have missed out on being able to hook people in week 1 is a big challenge, but let’s see what we can do with it all.

Trying to make more of our time together

For reasons now lost in the minutes of a senior suite meeting, it’s the first week of our second semester here. On the plus side, the weekend’s storm didn’t do any damage; on the minus, it’s been nearly two months since our students last sat in class.

Bold

Second semester means it’s also time for my first-year UG module on European integration. You might recall that last year I flipped it all around.

One of the big issues with that format was that very few students ended up coming to class. A large part of that seemed to be that they felt they were getting enough information from the video lecture, not least as I was using the lecture slot to deal with Q&A [not much Q, a lot of ex-temporising A].

With that in mind, I’m going to try a slightly different approach this time round.

I’ll still be leaving space for Q&A in the lecture, but most of the session will be filled with getting the students to draw assorted visual representations of elements of the European Union.

Thus, one week I might ask them to produce a diagram of the EU, or the factors that need to be considered when analysing it.

Since I’ve got 120 bodies in the class, my idea is to have a Google Doc they can access and then upload their picture (either by drawing directly on it, or by adding a photo of something they’ve done by hand). That way, I’ll get their work real-time and can display it back to them for discussion and further refinement.

At the end of the lecture, I plan to go away and produce something to summarise their contributions: maybe with a little commentary too.

Doing this will, I hope, generate more interest than simply waiting for someone to ask a question, and produce material that cuts across the rest of the provision, so they see value in contributing.

The danger is, of course, that if I’m summarising afterwards, then students might not see so much point in attending the lecture session itself, since they’ll still get access to it all. But I’ll cross that bridge as and when we get to it.

In the meantime, it’s off to the QR code generator…

Stress and active learning

One for the EU specialists…

This weekend I caught up with an old friend. He works for a software company, overseeing the sales team.

Recently, he’s been doing some work with occupational psychologists, to get a better handle on the team’s stress levels. He told me about all this over a cuppa, including the SCARF model, which I’d not heard of.

SCARF is a diagnostic framework for identifying sources of stress, where individuals encounter challenges to their Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness (being part of the group) and Fairness.

There’s a useful summary (and diagram) here.

Listening to my friend, telling me how this works for his team (status is the big thing, apparently), I was struck by how this works in the educational context.

For example, one of the reasons why assessment is so stressful is that it hits most of these areas: students might feel success brings status with teaching staff, it’s relatively uncertain, it’s out of their control, and it’s not necessarily a fair way to judge achievement. The gain of a shared experience with other students pales next to all this.

Clearly, there are general lessons about student welfare to be picked up from this model, but it’s also useful to consider how it relates to active learning.

In traditional, transmission-centred approaches, life might appear to be relatively stress-free: most of the time you sit then, soaking up material, with the occasional bouts of panic at assessment time.

By contrast, active learning might be more challenging.

The biggest issue is likely to be the increased requirement for autonomy: active learning requires participation and the production of contributions on a rolling basis. This front-loads requirements on students, at a point where they might feel they know relatively little (raising issues of status (you want to look good in front of friends) and relatedness (you don’t want to get marginalised in the group if you fail)).

Similarly, the relative absence of the instructor means students have to self-regulate more than usual, so fairness might become more of a factor than in a situation where fairness gets imposed from above.

And it’s also worth highlighting that the model points to active learning being more stressful for teaching staff too, with lower status, higher uncertainty and a big hit to autonomy: no longer is everyone doing just what you want of them.

Despite this, I think that active learning’s benefits outweigh these costs.

Firstly, precisely because students are brought actively into the process from the start, they have much more time to prepare themselves for any summative assessment, both in terms of having to consider materials and of practising producing ideas. The stress is spread out, rather than concentrated at the back end.

But equally, if stress is managed properly, it also comes with raised engagement. If we are making our active learning spaces safe (as we always should be), then we are offering students both the opportunity and the tools to manage stress better, which not only points them to thinking more about the matter in hand, but also how to deal with other sources of stress in their life.

We’re helping our students to learn about the world and how to engage with it. That means skills matter at least as much as substantive knowledge. And handling stress is one of those skills. Yes, active learning is more stressful for all involved, but the benefits that flow from that are ones that might serve us all well.

Left-field lessons

The other week, I sat in on a session run by another part of the university for people to show their teaching practice.

One of the people presenting kick-started their slot by asking everyone to write down their definition of ‘education’ on a post-it, which they then used to elaborate on some key themes.

Of course, one person wrote down something that bore little relation to what everyone else had done.

Oops.

The presenter choose not to get into whether education really is a system of indoctrination, and the person who wrote it down didn’t press them on it, but it did raise an more general question.

How do you cope with stuff coming in from left field?

I’m guessing you’ve had this too: running a session, then someone either saying something so far from the mark that you worry they’ve totally misconstrued things, or offering up a very radical take.

In both cases, you really need to explore what’s happening, either to offer a corrective or to embrace the new breadth that opens up.

This has really been brought home to me this semester by the new course I’ve been teaching, which involves the use of a lot of critical theory to understand European integration.

It’s a course I inherited from a colleague, who was kind enough to let me use her materials, which I largely retained, because I wanted to challenge myself.

That’s been a really positive experience, both because I’ve had to reconsider the ways of talking about the material and because I’ve had to learn about using some new methods, so I can teach about using those new methods.

Fortunately, the use of critical approaches does necessarily invite challenging of ideas and approaches, so the space was very conducive to working with the broad range of ideas present, but it’s something we have to work on, whatever we’re doing.

Personally, I see such moments as opportunities to get students to articulate their thinking and to connect that to what else is happening in the room, which ultimately serves everyone’s learning: if nothing else, if one person is struggling to make sense of a point, then others will most likely be too.

But back to that teaching session.

You’d all recognise that panicked expression as the presenter read out the helpful/unhelpful contribution, and the rapid adjustment of language to note that almost everyone in the room has identified some key themes.

In that case, going off into the outlier wouldn’t have worked in hitting the learning objectives, but often it will, because it is a moment either to bring the confused into the fold, or to bring new ideas to the group.

Both of those are Good Things to do, so do make the most of them.

And think about who you invite to your teaching sessions.

Petty Officer Usherwood?

It’s nearly Christmas, if anyone’s short of ideas

Yesterday I had about a third of my students turn up for class. Possibly that was related to the deadline for an essay due for me later that day – certainly the number who turned up was about the same as the number who’d already submitted the work.

Since I’ve known that this was going to be an awkward timing since the start of semester, back in early October, I’d left some of the session open, so I could be flexible about what to do, including not asking for any specific prep beyond the general reading.

In the event, I spent a block of the class talking about assessment. Unsurprisingly, since they’d already submitted, none of the students who turned up wanted to talk about the essay, but they did want to talk about the exam, which’ll be after the Christmas break.

So we discussed how that would work (we’re doing a seen-paper format, so they get it a week beforehand) and what I was looking for.

So what’s the problem?

Well, the people who turned up yesterday are the ones who most likely didn’t need the discussion, either because they’d have worked out the salient points already, or because they’d have asked. Indeed, the student who asked about the exam some weeks ago was there.

The issue is for those who didn’t turn up, the ones still working on their essay a couple of hours ahead of the deadline, the ones will the poor attendance throughout the semester.

This is a classic of the Matthew Principle: those that have, get more. And it’s not really helped by me being a bit petty-minded.

I could have waited until next week’s final class to discuss the exam – and probably someone who wasn’t there yesterday will ask about it – but I have also spent two months trying to reinforce the message that the rational choice for a student who’s finding it hard going is to come to class, because that’s the best place to get the essentials together, and to get questions answered.

Partly, this is about incentives. For my other class, on negotiation, I have great attendance, mainly because the classwork is very active and because the assessment is about what you’ve done in class. In this case, the work is more mixed and it’s not directly linked.

Maybe I need to be thinking about whether I can change that, in a way that works for the subject matter.

But maybe I also need to think more about how much this is a case of taking horses to water: where do me responsibilities lie and where do they end?

Maybe one for class discussion next week.