Balls

Riiiight…

Writing as someone who’s spent three weeks trying to find the right seating pattern for his students, I’m not sure that I’m on top of the current situation.

Certainly, I am spending a very much larger proportion of my working week on teaching-related activity, despite having the same modules I taught in previous years and despite having spent the summer swotting-up on How Tos and webinars.

I don’t need to rehearse the arguments again about this, but instead I’m going to share some practices that have made it all a bit more manageable, in the hope they’re of use to you too.

To recap some important context, we’re running a hybrid model here, with pre-recorded lectures and in-person seminars. We’re also to provide fully online content for those unable to attend on campus. And since I wasn’t too confident about a number of things, I’d only prepared the first 3 weeks of semester prior to its start, so I could make running changes.

Well, we’re into our third week now, so it’s been time to generate more content.

And that’s been where keeping track really comes in.

In a typical week, I’m giving students: a pre-recorded lecture (or several, if I’m breaking it down); notes on what we’ll cover in class; an online activity for those, um, online only; guidance on tasks towards the next assessment; preparation for the following week; plus I’ll be sticking some more procedural items into the news feed and recording some video feedback for the online-only students.

You’ll not be too surprised to find out I have a spreadsheet for all of this. Plus many calendar reminders to release/check content.

This has really come into its own when thinking about the connections between weeks, helping me to build linkages in content (hyperlinks as much as verbal cues in lectures), so students can see the joins. It’s also (so far) helped me avoid forgetting to do something.

I’m also been much more assiduous about getting feedback.

Next week, I’ll be running my usual ABC exercises, but every class I’ve been asking about specific elements of what we’re doing, to see if it’s working for the students. As I told my class yesterday, it doesn’t matter that I think I’m doing all good stuff if it’s not clicking for them.

I’m also trying to get feedback outside of class, when I talk with students in office hours, plus the whole Department is sharing comments (constructively) that we pick up from students about other modules too. I’d like to say this is our normal practice (and it is), but I’m more conscious that we’re pushing for student input rather more.

And finally, I’m talking with people about my teaching as much as possible.

You can feel a modicum of pity for my daughter, who found herself caught in a rather long conversation this weekend about how we might run an activity on the theme of ‘power’ in my negotiation class. Just as I can be proud that it produced some good ideas that I’m working on now.

We spent a lot of time as a community talking about all these things during the summer, but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) stop there. Our collective experiences are all the richer for actually putting our plans into action.

It’s a lot of stuff to keep in the air, but that’s exactly why we need to keep on trying.

Musical chairs

This week’s photo is my seminar classroom for the semester, for one of my modules. It’s a 300-seater lecture theatre, with about 20 of the 40 students taking the module. Those white straps close off seats, so everyone’s spaced out.

The question to you is: have I seated them correctly?

I ask because last week I let people sit where they would: that resulted in a scattering across the whole space. The result was some difficulty with them speaking to each other in small groups, plus some other difficulty in me being able to hear them speaking to me (I get a lapel mic: they don’t).

So, reflexive pedagogist that I am, this time I asked them to sit in that one section of the room.

Pretty clever, no? They’re closer to each other (while still being appropriately distanced), plus we have the option to talk as a single group more easily. Couple that to using group documents on Teams and surely we have a winner.

Right?

No, actually; we don’t.

While students liked being closer for discussion, they still found it hard to talk for two reasons. One (which I’m unable to change) is the ranked format of the room – it’s just really difficult to turn and interact.

The second problem I can deal with, namely the noise from the other groups. Students reported that they couldn’t really raise their voices much because they were aware that the group right to them might do the same and then they’d all be shouting. Quite apart from being epidemiologically bad, it’s also unnecessary in this room.

So here’s the plan for next week. I will be splitting the students up as they arrive, into one of four groups. Each group will have a block of the seating (maybe sitting near the front in block 1, nearer the back in block 2, etc), sitting as close as the strapping allows.

This way, they’ll have the proximity to each other, but without so much of the noise of the others.

Maybe this will work, although we’ll have to see what it does for general group conversation (which has hardly been free-flowing so far).

While this is my problem, I’d also emphasise that this has been about sharing that problem with students and getting their input: this plan is one I’ve talked about with them directly, since they know better than I do whether it’s a goer or not. I think that might be the bigger lesson in all this and is likely to be my big takeaway from this semester.

And what would you like me to do with this?

This is one of our classrooms right now.

It probably looks quite familiar, with its social distancing and its capture by Big Sticker (note all the notices on the wall, over to the left).

We’ve been given lots of guidance about working in such environments, including this video.

You’ll note that the video is entitled ‘Teaching in a Covid-secure environment’, but that there’s no actual teaching.

So perhaps we can think here about what the teaching element of all of this might look like.

[For those in a rush, the furniture can’t move and the instructor should be staying within their box at the front]

Option 1: lecture. The rooms are set up in a lecture format and this is the obvious route to take. Except we’re not supposed to lecture in person anymore (that all goes into asynchronous chunks on our VLE).

In practice, it’s hard not to revert to doing this. Partly that’s because of the layout, and partly because everyone’s wearing a mask. As a teacher I might have a mic to amplify my voice, but the students don’t get that, so standard voice interaction across the whole room becomes much harder.

So, option 2: small-group work. Students can be encouraged to talk with those nearby and then to feedback to the whole. Either that might involve talking on behalf of the group, or putting materials on a shared resource (e.g. Teams or Google Doc): all those whiteboards are out of action, remember.

This is the obvious way to get around the spacing, but then you’ll need to think about whether you need to mix up people between sessions, so it’s not always talking to the same mate each week. There’s also more difficulty in moving around the room to support groups that need help

Option 3 would be online, in-class. This is a bit like the Twitter game I’ve run in the past: everyone interacts online only, despite being in the same room. I’ll only note that I created that game to show how much harder it was to interact online.

But a softer version of this, with co-creation of online materials, supplemented by in-person conversation, could work, basically shifted the emphasis of option 2 to the online side. It’s certainly something I’ll be used a fair bit in this semester.

The main issue is that is does raise a question of why bother with the class bit if we’re all working online, but that’s something else.

Option 4 is student-led spaces. Here I mean asking students to come up with ways to organise themselves. In effect it’s a bit like a student presentation session, but with the bonus of them shaping the room’s interactions. That draws on their understanding of what’s working, and also helps them to see the limitations we’re operating under.

Presentations themselves are a bit tricky, unless your institution’s alright with individuals coming up to the front of the room to speak.

And beyond that I’ll confess I’m a bit at a loss.

Fish-bowling would be a struggle; any activity that involves physical materials (paper, lego, blindfolds, etc.) is out; Moving around the room is also a no-no.

So you have options, but less than you used to.

Suggestions would be very welcome.

Never forget

The jacket was this pattern. I wore it nowhere near as stylishly.

I was going to write about why you should never try to run a simultaneous in-class/online session, but if you’ve not already learnt that from this and this, then really it’s going to have to be personal experience that teaches you. Enjoy.

Instead, since it’s Induction Week here, I’d share my memories of my first days at University, because it’s easy to forget what it’s like.

The first morning in our halls of residence I strode into the canteen, dressed my smartest clothes: certainly there was a jacket, possibly even a tie involved.

Five minutes later I was back in my room, changing into the jeans and t-shirt that everyone was wearing.

And then…

Well, I remember nothing else from my first week. I assume I had various induction sessions, and that I got to know a bit about others on my course, and I’d be very surprised if I didn’t end up in the student union at some point.

But still, the overriding thing that I took from starting university was that it wasn’t like I’d thought it would be. Not so much because I had some family-/friend-based telling of it all, or because I’d watched movies set in universities, but because I’d not really thought about it too much.

All of this came back to me again yesterday, as I introduced myself to our first-years and then took some of them around campus.

The only advice I could offer them was to talk with others, because it’s a lot to take in. Now, much more than my first year, we pile up huge amounts of policy, procedure and learning contracts, even before we get to the world of infection control.

Put it like this, my happiest moment was being asked to point out where the loos can be found on campus: super mundane, but obviously important to everyone.

So just remember how it felt when you started out, think about all that your students are dealing with right now, and try to keep the lines of communication open permanently: we never stop learning about being at university.

As I found out when I pointed the student to the wrong place for a wee.

Some reflections on hybrid vs online lectures

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht).

We have just entered the third week of the new academic year here. With regards to the Covid-19 challenges, our faculty has decided that we should offer students one on-campus meeting per week. This particularly concerns our new BA and MA students, who want to help adapt to this new environment. Obviously, this comes with huge challenges as to how to organise teaching, including students who have simply not been able to come to Maastricht.

I myself am currently in the process of designing a new course and updating an old one. So far, I have given lectures in two different set-ups: once completely online and once in a hybrid setting with on-campus and online students.

I have experience with Zoom lectures and decided for a similar approach for my online lecture on interdisciplinarity for our new BA students. This included a short video introducing topic and initial questions for discussion. This worked well. Many students seemed to have prepared the questions, which resulted in some good ideas and suggestions (including some funny memes about academic research and writing):

The only real problem was that I was only co-hosting the session, which complicated things a bit as far as technicalities (breakout groups, integrating Wooclap) were concerned and which, hence, created a bit of fuss. Something to avoid in the future. Yet, with all students being at the other side of the screen, it was easy to engage with all of them in a  similar way.

My hybrid experience was vastly different, though. Engaging with students was just one of the problems.

Going hybrid

My hybrid lecture was part of our Research Master. The lecture took place in ‘Tent 1’ – the faculty has set up tents to allow for more on-campus activities. The acoustics were awful. And the A/C, despite making lots of noise, was unable to keep the temperature below boiling point…

This was a lecture that I have just inherited from a colleague, which meant I had to adapt it. This, together with the fact that some students would be online and some on-campus, made me opt for a plainer set-up. Following Chad’s experience with breakout rooms I decided not to use audience response tools. As the group was quite small, I thought it would also work to simply ask questions as we went along.

Unfortunately, response was slow and only came from on-campus students. The only comment raised online concerned an echo on the portable mic that I had been asked to use. The latter was not the only challenge resulting from the hybrid setting. As ‘Tent 1’ comes with an in-built laptop camera, I had to stay in front of that laptop. I couldn’t walk around – something that usually helps me to stimulate interaction – and using the (real-world) whiteboard was near impossible, as it meant having to juggle with the laptop camera.

But the most problematic thing of all was me overlooking the online students. When you have real people in front of you, this is whom you engage with. At first, I thought this might be due to the online students not having turned their camera on. I asked them to do so after the break, but, again, my attention drifted towards the on-campus students very quickly.

Lessons learned

I can imagine Simon being anxious towards teaching this semester. At any rate, my hybrid teaching experience was similar to Chad’s: quite terrible.

I will meet most of the Research Master students again from the end of October. At least one of them is unlikely to make it to Maastricht. Hence, given that this will be one of my own courses, I have decided to:

  • Do all lectures in Zoom – i.e. no hybrid lectures.
    • No one benefits from a hybrid setting. It creates extra fuzz, also for the experienced online lecturer.
    • Ask lecturers for short videos to introduce themselves and the topic so as to already raise a couple of questions for discussion.
  • Do all tutorials in a hybrid setting.
    • This should work because of the small group size and tutorials being student-driven and centred around discussion of literature.
    • Create additional online individual and collaborative assignments in Canvas and Wooclap to aid preparation and discussion.

But in any other setting I would certainly suggest not to go hybrid. This may mean having to split up students in on-campus and online groups. Yet, if resources allow you to do so, all students will benefit; either from your best on-campus teaching or from your best online teaching.

Nail-biting

Because we don’t actually a stock
image of someone looking anxious

I have to admit to being rather anxious about this semester.

It’s not a feeling I usually have, even when taking on a new course or being given some additional duties in short order.

Indeed, I not sure I’ve felt like this since I started out, and even then I at least knew what the thing looked like, because I’d been sitting in those same classes only a short time beforehand.

But this? This is different.

All summer I’ve been working up my courses, attending seminars, talking with colleagues, creating content and triple-checking VLEs. And now I’m starting to get students to log into things, let me know about where they’ll be.

And still I worry.

I worry because this semester is going to be unlike any other I’ve had; even this spring won’t really be a patch on it. Now I’m going to be purposely and deliberately running online and in-class elements in parallel, trying to hit the same learning objectives but with different means and with students potentially moving back and forth between modes.

I’m not going to spell out why that’s worrisome, since your imagination is just as good as mine, but to hear colleagues elsewhere talk about outages, social distancing restrictions or short-order closures of campuses, there’s more than enough for lurid visions of How It Can All Go Wrong.

My own personal – and relatively minor – experience this week was finding that I am going to have to run a Masters-level version of my negotiation course alongside its usual undergraduate one, which means I’m having to rework a bunch of online spaces so that students can work together.

I’m sharing this with you because I think it’s important to acknowledge this.

When I give talks – as I am this week at Southampton – I do focus on why we shouldn’t worry too much, because we’ve got the tools already to hand to deal with it all. But that doesn’t mean we won’t worry in the first place.

So I’m not completely alright and you might not be completely alright, but that’s alright [sic] because we can help each other. Never have I been more thankful for the community of L&T specialists and enthusiasts as I have this year.

Together, we’ll get through all this (and then we can write blogs/journal articles about it all).

Tweeting for better living

Obviously, it’s a bad move to go for the clickbaiting title when you’re going to write about a discussion that decried clickbait, but how else would I be getting you to read this?

It’s a dilemma, isn’t it: how to make an impression when you feel you have no weigh to impress with?

This was part of the discussion we had yesterday as part of the on-going UACES virtual conference, when I got some of the leading lights of the #TradeTwitter community – Anna Jezewska, David Henig and Dmitry Grozoubinski to come and talk about how Twitter figured in their work.

Guided by the equally talented Katy Hayward, the panellists covered a lot of ground about the hows and whys of the platform, which I’ve tried to capture in some live-tweeting here:

The big take-home for me was that engaging in social media can be a big boost to your work, but it takes time and effort.

Certainly, my own experience was that it took a long time to find how I could use Twitter to good effect in improving my understanding and then in being a means to share what I could contribute, but it’s been a central part of my work for many years now.

Like anything else we do in our professional practice, we don’t arrive fully-formed: we need to grow and develop what we do, and to accept that we’ll make missteps on the way.

As the panel have all shown, building up a reputation for informed and impartial insights on the things they know about (laced with the occasional GIF or two) pays off over time. Unless you’re already a household name, then that’s not going to drop in your lap (and maybe not even then), so you need to work at it.

If you’re stuck on how that might look, then the four of them make a great set of contrasts, so why not give them a follow?

Survey and competition on learning and teaching of international students

The ECPR standing group on Teaching and Learning Politics is collecting data about teaching practices that enhance learning for international students. We particularly seek responses from teaching staff members from the UK. Completing the survey takes between 10 and 15 minutes.

You can also describe your teaching model (part B of the survey) – the best 10 models will be each awarded a €400 prize.

The survey remains open until 18 September 2020 and you can ask for an extension if you want to send your model.

Find out more and fill in the survey here: https://bit.ly/3c4lll2

Back up, back up

Somewhere in these crates is a pile of acetates.

Since I’m older than I like to think about, I remember when data projectors were a new thing. When I started out , we would either use acetates, or write directly on to whiteboards/blackboards (and yes, I’ve certainly been in meetings/arguments about why we MUST KEEP BLACKBOARDS).

Even when I finally switched over to PowerPoint, I kept all my acetates up-to-date for a couple of years after, mostly because the technology wasn’t reliable: kit not working, laptops updating, the kind of thing you’ve probably not had trouble you of late.

But I mention it because we’re going through a similar thing now with the move to on-line/mixed models.

As the big Zoom outage last month showed us – as have various anecdotes from colleagues in recent days – we should always have a back-up plan for tech failures, especially if we’re using that tech across various locations.

Obviously acetates (let alone blackboards) aren’t the solution, but you need to be ready for any one bit of your plans not working as planned.

(and if it’s any help, listen to this on why we might take some different lessons from Murphy’s Law).

PS – you can ask me about how to cope with most of your office being in boxes for a year some other time.

Flip-flops

But don’t let this image haunt you at all

Let’s assume that your teaching plans are intact for present and that you’ve not had to work through more changes just yet.

Let’s also assume that you’re the kind of person who can imagine having to change things around in the near future, because situations can change.

I’m certainly one of those people, which is fortunate for this blog, since otherwise I’d never have anything to write about.

So let’s just unpack how we might cope with a student body that’s moving between delivery modes; from in-class to online and (theoretically) the other way round.

The obvious cause of this is another Covid outbreak, locally or nationally, with institution-wide effects, but we shouldn’t ignore the smaller switches too, especially if our institution allows individuals move at will (grounded in changing circumstances/health).

Put more bluntly, we might find that some students chose to study online some weeks rather than come into class. It’d be like those weeks around assessment deadlines, when your classroom suddenly gets a lot less crowded, except students’ll nominally be continuing to do the same workload.

Continue reading “Flip-flops”