Making online events more effective

Remember to maintain unblinking eye-contact

If you’ve got to this point without thinking about this question, then you’re either someone who’s had no need to be online in the past year, or just a very unreflective person.

In either case, I envy you.

As we roll around to a full 12 months of All This, I find myself spending as much time wondering how an online event could be working better as I do engaging with the nominal point of said event.

This isn’t about the – scarcely believable that we still have it happen – “you’re on mute” or the – only slightly less credible – “can you see my slides?”, fun though those things are, but about the structure of events in the broader sense.

Moving online has given us a great opportunity to reimagine how we do an important part of our work as academics. Personally, I’ve loved being able to join groups that would have been essentially impossible to talk with if we’d had to be in the same place, as well as the possibility of levelling-up access to debate, rather than just having to go with the tedious “it’s more a monologue than a question” from the usual suspect in the audience.

But it might not be the most controversial position to hold that this could all be working better.

In particular, the notion of “let’s just move it online” seems too often to mean “let’s just do exactly what we’d have done in-person, online”, rather than “let’s try making the most of the opportunities that moving online offers.”

To take the most obvious example, we still find ourselves sitting through lots of transmission, rather than getting to use the space for debate and dialogue. Even as we’ve all spent ages moving our lectures into pre-recordings, just to avoid doing that to our students.

As ever, I think this comes back to the same kinds of issues that we talk about so often on this site: are we being clear about what an event is for, and are we structuring it so that we have the best chance of hitting that objective?

I’m not going to offer a solution to this one, for the simple reason that I don’t think there is a single solution, just a need for constant reflection and discussion among organisers to check if this is doing what it needs to do.

That must necessarily be an occasion-specific process, even if it does work from a standard set of principles. As with our teaching, it’s possible (likely, even) that there are multiple ways to hit our goals, and that variety is part of our response (since there’s a limit to how much engagement you’re going to get from someone who’s sitting through many hours of video calls every day).

But maybe the first step is something like the one I’m making: constructive critique.

When I’m sat in something that’s not working so well, I try to think if I am clear (as a participant) about what the objectives of the session are, and then I try to think if I could have devised something that might work better.

Importantly, that’s not always possible, so we have to consider whether it’s a matter of the least-worst option.

I also try to think about what elements work and why: most obviously, I try to think about the extent to which individuals’ personalities and actions cover a lot of the ground, as opposed to more structural elements, because the latter are going to be much more transferable.

And I try to do that while still paying attention to what’s happening in the event. Hopefully with my mic muted.

Changing the debate on remote learning

Talking about L&T on Twitter is often a rather niche pursuit; one for the specialists and enthused.

But from time to time, it’s possible to get a wider set of views, as happened to me last week.

I’d posted a pretty rhetorical question about the image of online teaching, off the back of Alex’s comment:

For reasons best-known to himself, a well-known radio presenter retweeted me, resulting in a large number of responses, which you can read by clicking on the tweet above.

The responses covered a lot of ground, and highlighted some of the different dimensions we might want to engage with.

To reiterate my starting point, there remains a strong tendency to see distance/remote/online learning as inferior to face-to-face modes, something that is not, and cannot be, ever as good as ‘the real thing’.

To take that one step further, I wonder if part of why we often see Oxbridge held up as a gold standard of education is because it’s so intensely face-to-face, with one-to-one or one-to-two instruction, in person. That face-time must be good, no?

Pulling back out to face-to-face in general, part of comes down to the perceived disintermediation: it’s you and the instructor, there, just doing your thing. The other modes involve various kinds of technology to engage or facilitate communication: a computer screen, a workbook, etc.

Certainly, that additional layer does require close attention, but it does not necessarily preclude effective and efficient learning. Just as you’ve all seen a disaster in the classroom at some point, no method is inevitably fool-proof or ‘better’.

Likewise, the capacity for responsiveness and on-the-fly adjustment is something that comes up repeatedly in critiques of distance learning: the workbook can’t ‘see’ that you’ve not understood concept X.

But again, that is to take a workbook as the sole element of how that learning operates, when typically you are engaging in multiple streams of content and activity, precisely to ensure that content is tackled from multiple directions, maximising the chances of successful learning.

Again, as someone who tried and failed to do some trigonometry with my son this weekend, in-person instruction doesn’t always stick either [for me, more than for him, to be clear].

Ultimately, the standards of ‘good’ teaching remain the same as always: clarity of learning objectives; alignment of objectives, content and assessment; and engagement with students’ needs.

None of that is platform-dependent or only possible in person. Instead, it’s about us, as instructors, working to produce effective learning environments for our students, whatever the circumstances we find them to be.

And if this all sounds a bit self-serving, then you’d be right, since I’m moving in May this year to the Open University, one of the world’s leading distance-learning institutions, so you’ll be getting a lot more of this kind of thing from me, and less of the empty-room exercises. Although I mention it, maybe that could work…

Rebuilding community

Gagging to see you?

The common injunction for this time of year – “I hope you had a good break” – feels even more hollow than usual.

My break consisted of, well, of exactly the same things as they have for the past 9 months: WFH, rare trips out to buy food or get some exercise, and a drip-drip of work (seriously, who negotiates major treaties up to Christmas Eve?).

As the kids observed, it hasn’t been particularly festive.

This matters partly because lots of people hoped that this was going to be a chance to get away from the burdens of this past year, but more because it means we enter the new year with a considerable overhang with which to contend.

Here in the UK, we’re going into our third cycle of lockdown, with huge uncertainty about either timelines or the detail of what is and isn’t possible/acceptable. Those of you living elsewhere might be escaping our particular version of “let’s role play policy-making on the hoof”, but doubtless you have your own difficulties to handle.

This is worth reflecting on, especially if you find yourself in an inter-semester gap. In our case, it’s assessment-only until February, so there’s a long period where even the vague rhythm of a ‘normal’ teaching week isn’t present.

If having family members regularly offering you cups of tea isn’t enough to sustain your community, then think about what you can do to address that.

And it does fall on you, because it falls on all of us: waiting for someone else to sort the shit out is not only likely to result in much delay, but also to lead to those someone elses getting annoyed that it’s somehow their job to do this.

So make a contribution to the common wealth: from each according to their means, etc., if you will.

That might be something big, like organising a stand-alone event, or something small, like dropping a colleague a line to check in with them. You might not think there’s anything to discuss, because you’ve all been sat on your backsides for months, but you’ll find plenty to chew over.

Build and maintain connections: I’m really happy I suggested regular coffee mornings with my department back in March, even (possibly, especially) when I can’t attend myself – it gives everyone a chance to keep the softer parts of our group operating.

Yes, it’s not like it used to be, but what are you going to do about that?

As with our evolving teaching practice, so too with our wider professional practice: the more we can lean into making the most of the changing situation we face, the more we can manage the pressures and strains that puts us under.

And the more we help each other, the more we can spread the load and share the burden.

Getting out and about

A fringe benefit of writing this blog is that I regularly get asked to do reviews of L&T work for others.

It might sound odd to put it like that, since I guess you also have a pile of journal article review requests and the like, and you probably don’t think it’s the best part of your job.

But L&T reviewing work tends to be somewhat different.

Most obviously, it’s more varied. This week, I’ve been reviewing an article, but also sitting as an external expert on a programme validation panel and inputting to a promotion application for someone on a teaching track.

But it’s also that there’s much more scope for me to learn from all this.

In all three cases, I’ve got something useful for my own practice. Clearly, I’m not going to talk about the article or the promotion here, since that would be inappropriate, but I can tell you about the programme validation.

This is a distance learning programme, building out from some existing practice, but also making systematic use of an approach that I didn’t really know about before, namely e-tivities.

In essence, this is a methodology for creating structured and engaging online activities : as with so much L&T it’s not particularly complex, but it is clearly-presented and digestible.

And that’s why I like doing this kind of thing: I get to discover more ways of making learning work, that I can pull pretty directly into my classes.

Whether those who ask for my comments feel the same way is more debatable, but maybe we’ll get those involved here to write it all up some time in the new year.

So next time you’re asked to do something like this, do consider it, because it might be as good for you as it is helpful for them.

And on that note, I’m off on annual leave until 2021, which doubtless contains its own unique pile of Things To Deal With. Have a great break, as and when you get to it.

Reset, refresh

Not even the biggest one we’ve got

As I look around our offices, it’s all rather odd: not only are there no students (who’ve been sent home early), but there are stacks of packing crates.

We’re being moved out to new offices in January, so in-between Zoom sessions, it’s the now-rather-familiar ritual of winnowing and packing.

As the Departmental Gardener, I also have to think a bit about how Estates will be able to get the plants across campus without too much damage.

You know, the big questions in life.

Moving matters, because it’s an opportunity to consider afresh the things we have and the things we do. I know that we’ve all had plenty of cause to shake up our working practice, but unlike Covid, an office move is something more managed and delineated.

New spaces enable new practices and call into questions Things We Just Do. As a Department that was moved out of its long-term residence about 18 months ago, we’ve had this experience already, which was good in making us look again at how and what we do as a group.

This move now is meant to be more long-term, so maybe we’ll lose all the crates that have sat in the corner all this time, especially if I use this week wisely to throw away a bunch of stuff that apparently I never actually use. Nothing like a move to make you get rid of your comfort blankets.

Of course, moving is also disruptive – which is why we’re doing it when there’s very little else on – but it’s precisely that disruption that brings opportunities.

Now I’m not going to suggest you lobby for a move, but I will ask you to consider how much of what you do is through habit rather than thoughtful choice.

That’s not simply about the stuff on your shelves – although those could do with some pruning, no doubt – but more the structures and content of the practices you undertake. Do all those meetings you go to work as well as they could? Do you have an inclusive and supportive community of colleagues? Does your working week work?

Just as we ask students to be reflective learners, so too must we be reflective instructors and facilitators, not just in the classroom or online, but also in the wider range of our professional activity.

And with that in mind, I’m off to decide what to do with a pile of 30 t-shirts.

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”.

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.

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.

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?”