Missing you already

Never did sort out the right way to manage this space…

This week is the last time I’m likely to be in a classroom with students until next autumn.

We’re now working on the nationwide return of students back for the Christmas break, with mass-testing for Covid, followed by next week’s classes being all online. And I’m not down to teach next semester in any case, bar some supervision of assorted dissertations and theses.

All of which makes me a bit sad.

As much as it’s been very hard to make teaching under social-distancing (and with masks) work, there is still something much more immediate and engaged about being in the same room, being able to work together with a flexibility that eludes us so often online.

Which makes this a good point to consider how we can make the most of those occasions, as we have them.

Central in this, for me, is recognising that the classroom is only one part of the educational experience that we offer and that students encounter (and those two aren’t quite the same). Put differently, we can’t treat the class as the be-all and end-all.

That implies that we should be concentrating on using class time as a moment for doing things we can’t do better (or at all) elsewhere, rather than becoming the place where it all needs to come together.

A case in point is background reading.

Talking at an event last week, my fellow panellist Heidi Maurer recalled working in an institution where each class required students to read a list of articles that ran to four pages*. Not only is that an unreasonable load, it’s also an unhelpful one in that it obscures the core for what a session might concentrate upon. But it’s typical of a pedagogic worldview that treats the class as the prism through which all things must pass.

Which echoes the view of my other panellist Alexandra Mihai (whose blog you should certainly be reading) that learning happens in lots of places and not always in your presence.

Seen like this, we should be centring in on the value-added that a class can bring, and stripping out the elements that can be done elsewhere.

Most obviously, that means moving transmission out of class, be that through pre-recording lectures or creating structured repositories of materials.

Secondly, it means putting students front and centre in the class, with activities that draw them into utilising their knowledge and skills to engage with you and with each other.

And finally, it means making the most of the chance to build a community of learning, in which everyone helps everyone else to make sense of things.

There’s a good reason that the time you learn your students’ names is in class: it’s the time when you get to engage more fully with them, and they with you.

But also remember all the other points of contact you have with them and think about that can allow a more rounded and considered learning experience.

* A kind reader emails to check on this and I see I’ve not expressed this very well: imagine being given a bibliography that is four pages read and being told to read every source on that list. That, rather than “read these four pages”.

Study Buddies and Study Huddles

Today we have a guest post from Helen Brown Coverdale, a lecturer in political theory at University College London. She can be contacted at h [dot] coverdale [at] ucl [dot] ac [dot] uk.

The biggest challenge of moving my contemporary political philosophy courses online for the pandemic has been peer learning. How do I create opportunities for students to interact, especially when they are in different time zones?

For the last three years, I have paired postgraduate students with complementary skill sets at the start of the course. As part of this buddy system, I divide required readings into three categories: everyone, Team Red, and Team Blue. Within each pair, one student is part of Team Red and the other is part of Team Blue. I let the students in each pair decide who joins which team. Students exchange notes on readings with their study buddies. The practice is intended to be supportive, not onerous. I tell students that the notes they share need to identify a reading’s key thesis, the arguments it makes, and a strength or weakness, all in no more than half a page.

Because Red and Blue texts differ, study buddies are exposed to different perspectives on the same topic, but the volume of texts becomes more manageable—allowing students to engage in more close reading and less skimming. While students may lose some breadth, they gain a deeper understanding of what they have read by teaching their peers about it, and I have found that generally they do better academically.

However, there are always a few students for whom the study buddy arrangement is not as effective. To address this, and the inability to serendipitously form study groups during the pandemic, I have paired up the pairs. Two pairs of study buddies equal one study huddle.

I use huddles for breakout discussions, peer marking exercises, and engaging with asynchronous lecture content. Red and blue teams are perfect for in-class debates.

The feedback I have received from students about this system has been very positive: they feel supported. The huddles give them a more resilient method of getting through a course or module. With two members of each team in each huddle, there is always someone to discuss readings with or get notes from if one person gets sick. It’s also harder to be the one apathetic person in a group of four, especially since students learn about the wrongs of free riding early in the term.

Debrief yourself

“Of course I didn’t play online beer pong with the class: that would be ridiculous…” (image from Beer Boars)

I seem to remember being quite snarky back in the summer about my semester dates.

My institution started relatively late, so I got to watch lots of practical examples of how plans were and weren’t working, so I got to avoid those problems when I got back near to a classroom.

And made some entirely different errors instead.

Any way, the flipside of this is that it’s only now I’m thinking properly about how to capture the learning on our new teaching practice, to use for the new year, whereas you’re probably all over it already.

But just in case you’re not, let’s work together on it for a bit.

It’s one of the safer assumptions to make right now that we’ve all been on a pedagogic journey of rich discovery, even if that does amount to a reasonable level of confidence about the keyboard shortcut to unmute yourself.

Likewise, it’s also safe to assume that you’ve internalised a lot of that into what you do without great reflection, because you’re running at a hundred miles an hour and structured reflection hasn’t been a priority.

But now, at the end of semester, is just the moment to step back and draw all of that out of yourself, for three reasons.

Firstly, it’s good for your practice.

The incremental changes you’ve been making, week on week, are probably more substantial that you realise. In my case, I’ve gone back and forth on synchronous online elements and their relationship to everything else, mainly because certain opportunities presented themselves that I’d not foreseen.

You (and I) need to now step back and consider the arc of that journey, to inform our plans for next semester and more generally: I feel like I might never do another in-person lecture again as part of my standard delivery, regardless of whether there’s a raging pandemic, for example.

Even in the more modest perspective of next semester, if you can mainstream your learning, then you’re more likely to create a package that works better first time, which will be to your (and your students’) advantage, not least when it comes to making materials.

Secondly, it’s good for your pedagogic community.

I’m going sitting down (remotely) with my colleagues to do this reflection and debrief, rather than on my own. That’s partly because we like to natter, but mainly it’s because we’re all aware that we’ve done things in very different ways.

Already this semester I’ve seen some great ideas from others in my department and elsewhere and I want to be able to understand that better; to get the underlying logics behind the materials and activities. If nothing else, I’d welcome some tips on how to come across as less grumpy to students.

Collective discussion is also better from drawing reflection out of yourself: other people tend to ask questions that force you to articulate things (a bit like writing a blog, actually). Plus there’s the bonus that you might have something useful to share with someone else, whether you realise it or not.

And finally, it’s good for your well-being.

This has been both the busiest and most isolating semester of my personal experience: yesterday I bumped into a member of department who I’ve not seen in person since the spring, and I’m not in a big department.

Lockdowns and WFH-ing might be sound epidemiologic practice, but they’re terrible for our social practice. And it turns out that being an academic involves rather more working with, and being around, others than stereotypes might suggest. Sure, we all (apparently) love to be on our own, noses buried in a book, but really our’s is a business of exchange, of sharing ideas and building on them.

Just this thing I’m suggesting you do now.

So pull up a chair, fix yourself some coffee/a beer, and get talking with your colleagues. You’ll thank yourself and each other for it.

Preventing Zoombies

As the end of the semester approaches, I’m noticing fewer students signing into my synchronous online classes. I’m also noticing that some students sign in, don’t turn on webcams, and do not respond when asked verbally or in text chat to answer questions. These students log into Zoom and then completely ignore whatever might be happening in class.

How to increase student “presence” in a course? The usual solution — whether face-to-face or online — is to make attendance obligatory and penalize students when they are absent. Early in my teaching career I abandoned this type of policy because I got tired of deciphering students’ claims about “excused” absences. I have no interest in learning about students’ medical or other problems, and I don’t want sick students attending class only to avoid exceeding an allowed number of absences. I believe that legal adults get to set their own priorities and suffer the consequences of their decisions. And students who don’t regularly attend and participate in my classes invariably do poorly grade-wise anyway. That’s their choice.

But that was the pre-Covid era. Given the difficulty students had with the transition to online instruction last spring, there is a chance that the student with mediocre academic performance in the physical classroom is doing terribly as an online student, simply because their time management skills, motivation, and willingness to exert effort weren’t great to begin with.

So I’m starting to experiment with a few techniques that I’m hoping will increase student participation in my synchronous online courses next semester. I believe they will operate as positive reinforcement rather than as a punitive attendance policy.

Continue reading “Preventing Zoombies”

Using Wooclap in on- and offline teaching

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht).

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has forced us all to rethink our teaching, but not all innovation has to start from scratch. For instance, when you feel uncomfortable with recording a video for your lecture, you can also simply use the narrated slides option in your presentation software.

And when you want to stimulate student engagement and interaction during an online talk, existing audience response tools such as GoSoapBox, Kahoot!, Mentimeter and Wooclap are ready for online use.

I’m a frequent user of Wooclap myself, but also have experience using GoSoapBox and have trialed some other options too. My choice for Wooclap is partly one based on its user-friendliness – though the additional perks that come with Maastricht University’s subscription are welcome too. I’ve been using Wooclap offline for quite some time already, and I’ve continued using it when we went online.

Continue reading “Using Wooclap in on- and offline teaching”

Changing Mid Stream

Some readers of this blog work at universities that have now shifted to online instruction after starting the semester with face-to-face classes — a repeat of what happened in March. You’re now faced with a very awkward transition. But as Simon, Amanda, and I wrote over the spring and summer, don’t try to wedge a square peg into a round hole. What works in the physical classroom often doesn’t function nearly as well online. And now is your opportunity to experiment.

Here is one simple suggestion: replace one day of synchronously-held class each week with a week-long asynchronous online discussion. Here is one rubric for designing and grading these discussions. Here is another. Drop from the syllabus upcoming assignments that are worth an equivalent amount toward the course grade. Inform students about your reasoning for doing this — whether it’s to reinforce their understanding of previously-studied concepts, to maintain a sense of community in the class, to lessen student stress at the end of the semester, or something else.

There are many other relatively simple adjustments that can be made that will simplify your life when teaching a course that has suddenly gone online.

What works?

This question is one that has been a central concern of this blog, even since we foolishly listened to Victor and Chad back in Albuquerque all those years ago. All of us, and all our contributors have written tens of thousands of words on how to make effective learning environments for our students, and you the reader have consumed hundreds of thousands of impressions.

And now we have a new contribution to that debate.

Last week, the UK government issued new guidance to universities in England [sic] about how to handle the current lockdown arrangements.

Reading this letter, and the accompanying guidance note, we might note a number of things.

Firstly and probably most importantly, the government doesn’t really know what works either: there’s some implicit language to suggest that face-to-face settings are intrinsically superior to remote arrangements, but it does allow that the latter might be got up to scratch.

Secondly, the government doesn’t really want to make the decision for universities about what to do, even as it tries to make some decisions. Yes, having large groups of people brought together is a bad thing for infection control, but not as bad as sending them all home again, so maybe keep up the face-to-face content to give them a reason to remain (even if that also increases the chances of further infections).

Thirdly, none of this is connected with the other restrictions on social distancing that are in effect too: as many colleagues are finding, running a seminar discussion with students spread out across an entire lecture theatre isn’t the most productive of experiences, for anyone involved.

To some extent, this all reads as if we were in the 1960s, with a student population almost entirely on-site and in far smaller numbers in class, rather than the massified model that we actually run in the almost-complete entirety of the sector (and even Oxbridge isn’t quite the chat-over-some-crumpets-in-the-tutor’s-office model it used to be).

But that’s neither really here nor there.

As much as it would be easy to mock this advice – and I’ve seen a lot of mocking (done a bit too) – that doesn’t really address the fundamental need to continue to work to manage and make the most of this current situation.

The difficulty comes from the various needs of government, institutions and individual educators: we all have different things that we need or value and it’s at points like this that the frictions between these become more evident.

Even if we can find specific adaptations to our work – and I’m deep into coping with a big shift of students from classes to online – that doesn’t necessarily create generic solutions. If I can’t find a model that works for both my classes this semester, why should a university – let alone a government – be able to.

And so we need to remember what we do all agree on: providing the best possible learning environment within the constraints we all operate under.

That requires us to keep on talking with each other, not only to explain what we’re doing, but also to understand what others are doing too. Flexibility to local circumstances is going to be essential to making this all work for any length of time.

And maybe we’ll get to something that functions as we’d all like before the situation changes all over again. Which would need to be soon, with the news that there might be the introduction of mass testing across the sector quite soon.

Probing Student Anxieties

I ran a quick anonymous survey in my undergraduate courses last week, as a way to find out what’s on students’ minds and how it might be affecting their academic performance. The survey’s four questions and an analysis of the responses are below. Results might be skewed because only 70% of the 54 students on my course rosters connected to class on Zoom when I administered the survey. In my experience, absenteeism correlates strongly with lousy academic performance, but this semester it could in part be a maladaptive response to greater than usual levels of stress and anxiety. I just don’t know.

The survey:

Five years from now, what outcome do you want to have achieved in your life? Nearly all the students who responded wrote that financial stability from a career was an important objective. Less than one-quarter listed happiness or enjoyment. Seven students wrote that travel was a goal. Only one specifically referenced being healthy.

What can you do in this course to make achieving your desired outcome more likely? About 40% of respondents commented in some fashion about practicing the application of conceptual knowledge. 30% mentioned getting a good or passing grade for the course. Only five students said anything related to understanding different cultures or perspectives. There were six comments about improving writing, time management, or note-taking skills.

What are you worried about? Here there were about a dozen comments each about employability after college, long term economic effects of the pandemic, and the election/condition of the country. Four students said they were concerned about not having a satisfying career or a fulfilling life. Two said that they were worried about the environment and the future of the planet.

What are some small, practical actions that you can take to respond to your worries and help you achieve your desired outcome? This is where I was surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Few students listed any simple behavioral changes that might help them better manage stress. There were twenty comments about working harder, spending more time on coursework, or leveraging internships to create future employment or graduate study opportunities. Slightly more than 25% of respondents said they could focus more on the present or not try to control what can’t be controlled. Only two students discussed seeking emotional support from family or peers. No students mentioned getting sufficient sleep, eating healthily, or exercising.

Made(upia) to measure

Like any university, we’ve got some odd spaces that we use for teaching.

By odd here, I mean simply anything other than a rectangular room with some desks arranged somehow. Usually that’s intentional, because we need computer stations or lab desks or a big machine to do physics-y stuff so visiting schoolkids think STEM is cool.

But sometimes it’s just odd.

A case in point is the room I’ve been stuck a couple of times this semester, as part of someone’s project to see just how much of the campus I can visit with my students.

The room is flat, with individual desks in the middle (currently in a socially-distanced grid), plus a series of booths up each side, each with space for a couple of students.

I have no idea why it’s set up like that, but the key point is that it prompted me to make specific use of that space.

True, I also needed to make a new exercise because I couldn’t use any of my previous ones because of Covid, but it’s also good to refresh more fully from time to time.

The game scenario concerns power in a political system and you’re very welcome to use/modify the document for your own needs.

Here I will only note that I’ve made particular use of those booths and of social distancing requirements. Interestingly, on the latter point, while I thought that giving control to the government to manage movement around the space, their feedback was that it was actually rather anxiety-inducing, for fear of annoying people who might feel they had to wait too long to move.

However, the wider point here is that we can benefit from the constraints we operate under. Feedback on this exercise was very positive and we had a great debrief afterwards on the power dynamics and how it related to negotiation theory, so we hit our learning objectives big time.

I even got to use this as a basis of some work for the online students to consider what might be an optimal strategy to pursue: not quite the same as actually playing the scenario, but still a way into the key issues (and, incidentally, a starting point for a very constructive discussion with one student about what works for online students in this module).

The take home: they’re not constraints, they’re opportunities. Which is lucky, given that we’re all on the verge of getting some more opportunities dumped on us shortly.

Where do we go from here?

I’m already thinking about life after the pandemic, so here are some predictions about higher education, mostly based on pre-existing trends that were simply accelerated by Covid-19.

Personalized, portable technologies for teaching and learning will eclipse standardized physical materials and infrastructure. Probably we all had the pre-pandemic experience of entering a classroom with a detailed, technology-intensive lesson plan only to discover that the computer at the teacher’s podium didn’t work the way we needed it to. After that we carried laptops with us, which were more reliable and configured to meet our specific needs. Now, some faculty find that the video cameras that were installed to live stream classes don’t adequately capture what’s scribbled on wall-mounted whiteboards, so they are using writing tablets and other touchscreen devices instead. Expect the whiteboards, the computer stations, and the ceiling projectors to eventually disappear from many classrooms. Ethernet connections and wifi will remain.

As faculty dependence on classroom equipment decreases, so does the need for the classroom itself. One becomes increasingly able to teach from anywhere, lessening the disruptive effects of hurricanes, fires, and plagues. No more snow days.

Continue reading “Where do we go from here?”