A stitch in time

One of the recurringly useful ideas that I discuss with students is the notion of concept stretching.

Ironically, I find uses for it all over the place, even as I think I’m being true to the definitional core of its meaning.

I was reminded of this when I found myself offering up an agenda of ‘leaning in’ at a Learning & Teaching event last week.

As you’ll recall, the phrase ‘lean in’ comes from Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book of the same name – exhorting women to do this to overcome the barriers they face – an idea that has come under increased critique, not least because it got stretched out to a bunch of stuff that it was never originally intended for.

And sure enough, I wasn’t talking about women or structural inequalities in the workplace, but rather about how to get your teaching ready for the autumn.

I mention all of this because it’s important to think about how we communicate our practice to others, not just in teaching but more generally. In the deathless subtitle of Luntz’s book ‘Words that work‘, it’s not what you say, but what people hear.

One of the challenges that I’ve skirted around in previous posts has been the question of institutional pressures. How much of what you’re going to be doing this autumn is your choice and how much is stuff being imposed on you?

Of course, this tension is always present – you always to work around the timetable, or the rooming, or the student numbers, or the university regulations on X, Y and Z. But this case is one where you’re going to feel a much bigger potential effect, not least because it’s all so novel and uncertain.

I’m happy to say that my department has found live in the re-organising world relatively simple. We drew up strategic plans some months ahead of the university, shared them around, made sure those making decisions above us knew about it all, our local L&T leads producing detailed materials and operationalisations very early on, precisely so that no one is on our back.

I’m going to guess that most of you are in a similar situation, if only because you’re the kind of person that reads L&T blogs and so are relatively motivated.

But imagine – if you can – a colleague who doesn’t really place their teaching in a position of any priority. Given that they will have to provide a different package of teaching in a few months, because the university requires it, then one of two things is going to be happening. Either they’ll do a bare minimum – probably to the detriment of their students’ learning opportunities – or someone else will make some changes for them – probably again to students’ detriment. In both cases, that colleague has lost the opportunity to make something positive of the moment, and probably reinforces higher levels of the administration to become more interventionist across the board.

Generally, my impression is that colleagues prefer to sort out their work in their own ways, whether that’s teaching or research (or even running meetings), rather than wanting others to do it for them.

And that’s why it’s important that you lean in on this: the more you do – and, critically, the more you show you do – the less others will be on your back about this.

The flipside of all the uncertainty of these times is that management has got a lot on its plate right now, so the threshold for them to feel confident that you’ve got things is relatively low. But that is only a passing situation.

As semester comes closer, the more there will be a desire to present a full package to students, regulators, journalists and all the rest. And once semester starts, the price of failures of practice will increase significantly and continuously: what good, reputationally-speaking, is a institution built to learning that can’t learn itself?

So, the short version of this is the same thing we tell our students – a bit of work now will save you a lot of work down the line.

Maybe that message will carry more weight if we demonstrate it in our own practice.

Redesigning methods teaching: parallel workshops for interdisciplinary learning

This guest post comes from Dr Viviane Gravey and Dr Heather Johnson, both of Queen’s University Belfast

Research methods are crucial, particularly in Graduate learning, but methods modules are often the most unpopular with students and staff alike.

This makes methods modules prime candidates for either offloading onto temporary staff, or confining to designated ‘methods heavy’ positions for often isolated staff. This shunting of methods teaching onto precarious staff communicates unspoken but negative messages to students about the importance of this training, while consistently lower-than-average student evaluations (regardless of actual teaching excellence) negatively impact the profiles of vulnerable colleagues. 

At a time where we see silly op-eds calling for a Deliveroo approach to higher education (students deciding what they want to learn at MA level, and taught by temporary providers hired ‘on demand’), methods module would be first on the chopping block. Yet these unloved offerings provide, or at least should provide, the building blocks for that much-loved rite of passage: independent research and the MA dissertation. Beyond the dissertation, a deep engagement with methods is needed to better understand where we position ourselves in our respective fields, and so provide critical insights into both the mainstream and its critics.

Redesigning how we teach methods is far from a new topic on ALPS, with examples from using games to make students’ introduction to methods less frightening, to a series of posts on flipping the methods classroom.

This post draws on our own experiences, alongside reflections from EUROTLC discussions on curriculum design. Usual caveats apply: this is not a silver bullet. It depends on our local conditions and is still very much a work in progress. But at a time where the pandemic is forcing a rethink in how, what, and even where we teach, our stranded, workshop-based module can offer a useful starting point.

Context and problem

Following an administrative merger in 2016 we are a bigger school, with a growing number of MA students across 11 programs in Politics/International Relations, Anthropology, and History. Many students have backgrounds in other disciplines, and a growing proportion come from overseas. Some programmes are interdisciplinary, some more discipline-specific, with significant variation in student numbers from 6 up to 80+.    

Teaching different methods modules for each pathway is impractical, and while the merger offers opportunities for interdisciplinarity, combining methods teaching raises three dilemmas. First, should we aim for depth and specialization, or breadth and variety? Second, could we agree core teaching across the disciplinary boundaries?  Finally, how might we achieve student-led learning that encourages exploration and recognizes diverse backgrounds?

An innovative stranded, workshop-based module

Core or optional, breadth or depth? Instead of choosing we opted for both, via two simple design choices (a) ditching the one week/one topic model in favour of parallel workshops and (b) designing ‘strands’ to organise these workshops. Instead of covering 10 to 12 topics in as many weeks, we offer a wide range of parallel workshops, limited only by staff and room availability (and our collective imagination). Last year we offered 40 workshops, delivered in 8 weeks, taught by a team of over 25 colleagues according to their expertise, for close to 200 students. This also served to engage staff at all levels and in all areas of the School, centralizing rather than isolating methods teaching in the curriculum.

Workshops are organized across 6 strands (see examples in Figure 1) – from epistemology to case studies, whereby colleagues walk students through their own research design in a recent project.  These strands are populated according to the demands of our different MA programs, and also reflect the best practices of RCUK graduate training by exposing students to philosophy of science, and to both quantitative and qualitative methods.  They seek to enable flexibility for students according to their prior experience, with workshops that build upon one another in complexity and with different entry points.  A good example is the quantitative methods strand, which offers both basic training for primarily qualitative-focused researchers, alongside both beginner and advanced workshops for students who wish to specialize.

Figure 1

Students can, in effect, design their own path through the module: guided by their own interests and goals, they must take at least 9 workshops, including at least one from each strand.  Each individual program has designated compulsory workshops that students must include in their schedule in order to meet any specialization requirements. Thus, students have the opportunity to specialize, for example, by comparing different approaches to research interviews (5 workshops), or to explore new methods or move beyond their disciplinary boundaries.

Students are assessed on an applied methods portfolio of two items such as a short essay on epistemology, a data analysis exercise, or a practice interview or observation – and a research design proposal, bringing together content from the entire module (literature review, research questions, methods choices, ethical considerations). This proposal can be linked to the MA dissertation, and students are encouraged to treat it as preparation for their own independent research, working with their dissertation supervisors where possible.

Where next?

Reflecting on the first two years of this module, the welcome increase in student choice came at three costs – which we working to offset.

First, we need to ensure we do not ask students to run before they can walk: some students have no background in either methods or epistemological debates, and the kind of writing required in research design is often different than in a traditional essay.  As general training in writing skills is offered elsewhere in the university, this is difficult to address.  Nevertheless, we can both develop more ‘nuts and bolts’ workshops, and also sign-post students early on to outside support.

Second, the workshop model plays havoc with student timetables and our room-booking. Students can have different teaching loads week on week, and our commitment to (relatively) small class sizes means that we often need to add duplicate sessions to accommodate workshop popularity. This lack of certainty does not impact our student population equally – students working alongside their studies, those with caring responsibilities, or those living far from campus, will see their choices limited in practice. Providing more sessions online via asynchronous means will solve some, although not all, of these difficulties. We can also commit to publishing the timetable of workshops before term begins to facilitate student planning. 

Third, while the teaching load is shared, such a large and complex module comes with a commensurate administrative load for the course convenor. While some of that burden can be front-loaded in preparing the online learning environment (e.g. online workshop registration), the administrative load will remain large and often invisible.

Methods in a time of coronavirus

How teaching will happen in September remains uncertain. Nevertheless, we can focus on a number of ‘no regrets’ options.

First, we can ‘flip’ lectures, with pre-recorded, asynchronous introductions to different methods, and focusing any in-person class time on application. This would also allow students to discover a wider range of methods, and provide long term resources for their dissertation.

Second, it will be important to provide some dedicated training towards online research methods and ways to adapt traditional methods to social distancing. 

Finally, we can draw on external sources to broaden workshop options and resources. There is a wealth of methods teaching resources online – for example podcast series such as the UK National Centre for Research Methods podcast, or the Give Methods a Chance series.

In these trying times, it is time for universities to collaborate – where better than on methods teaching?

Link your chunks: some principles to help this autumn

Pretty things

As well as the technical side of things, EuroTLC was a great opportunity to think more about the pedagogic way forward in what I’m going to call our Leap Online.

Like you, recent months have been a mass of institutional briefings and meetings, plus many, many webinars about good online practice. And how what we’re going to be doing it not actually fully online, because we hope we’ll be getting most of our students back into classes come the autumn.

This hope is tempered by, well, evidence that COVID-19 isn’t going to be disappearing from our lives any time soon, so plans have to be made with some flexibility and resilience.

For us, that’s meant a ‘hybrid model’, with much content online and scope to become fully online as and when we need to. That’s reasonable enough given the circumstances, even if it means having to accept students moving between modes (in class or online) within semesters, with all the issues that creates for ensuring equity of learning opportunities for all.

At its heart, this perfectly captures a medium-term dilemma.

Short-term, we can – and have – make huge changes to our practice, because conditions require us to and because everyone involved is understanding and accommodating of that. I don’t think anyone thought this past semester was very pretty, pedagogically, but we got through it.

Long-term, we can also make big changes, becauses we can work through proper planning and consultation and trialling and all the other things we do to make effective learning spaces happen. Indeed, it’s probably our usual way of doing things.

The problem is the bit in between. We have now a situation that imposes major new constraints on us, while also being of indeterminate duration. If wherever we happen to work gets a vaccine, or an effective test and trace system, then we could return to something very close to the past (or February, as it’s also known); without those things, we might be looking at years.

Continue reading “Link your chunks: some principles to help this autumn”

Conferencing online

Only the one person struggling to wave with both hands then…

Lots and lots to talk about off the back of EuroTLC last week, so I’m going to chunk it up over the coming weeks. But the starting point has to be some reflecting on whether and how you can have a conference online.

As a top line, I think our event went well. The feedback has been positive; we’ve reached a wider audience than with the physical events beforehand; we had no major technology issues; and I’ve come away with as much to think about (and act on) as before.

But it’s still a different thing to what it was.

Naturally, being good pedagogues, we had thought about that a lot beforehand, and tried a number of things to make it work as well as it could.

Continue reading “Conferencing online”

Settling in for EuroTLC 2020

It’s nearly time for the 2020 edition of the European Teaching & Learning Conference. We were going to be in Amsterdam, enjoying all the nice weather we’ve been having, but now we’re doing it at mine.

We’re going to need cushions. Lots of cushions.

And yours.

A fully-virtual conference is new ground for me (and for most of us), so as one of the organisers I’ve wanted to try and make the most of the opportunity to try out some different things to keep people engaged.

During the two days, we’ll be having lots of different types of sessions, with plenty of loo breaks, and nothing more than an hour. We’re flipping stuff and setting challenges, and generally asking all our participants to think about interaction as a key objective.

From the teaser videos we’ve received, it’s already clear that this has really been taken to heart and I think the record-breaking registration figures bear out how much of an impact this has.

Continue reading “Settling in for EuroTLC 2020”

That’s a wrap: Reflections on the process of teaching and learning video production

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht University), offering some practical insights from his use of video in L&T.

During these strange months in cyber-space, I personally was keen on using videos to support my students’ learning; something I already considered doing pre-Corona, but never actually came round to trying. Now I had to redesign several lectures that were ideal for introducing video.

Overall, I was very satisfied and this experience makes me want to use more videos in the future to contribute to (but not replace) my lectures, also when on-campus teaching resumes. There are a couple of challenges, of course. Here are a few things that I’ve learned:

Continue reading “That’s a wrap: Reflections on the process of teaching and learning video production”

How deep is your hole?

Tidier than most

One of the more unnerving aspects of All This – professionally speaking – is the coupling of highly localised concerns – how will I teach my class? – with very general ones – will the HE sector survive?

Much as we grumble about the former, and spend hours in webinars and talking with colleagues about tips and options, the latter tends to get less attention. Mainly because it raises all kinds of unpleasant visions and because it’s beyond our control.

However, it’s still useful to reflect a bit on how the big stuff might trickle down to our pedagogic practice.

The main part of this is the impact on student numbers.

As a working assumption, there’s going to be a contraction of numbers next academic year: international students might not be allowed to travel, especially to countries with high Covid-19 infection rates; and students from all locations might decide that going to a place with lots of sweaty teenagers isn’t the best look for staying well. And that’s going to include returning students as well as new ones.

Which is all a bit of a kick in the teeth to any university (or country) that charged down the internationalisation path over the past decade or two.

With international students typically paying higher fees, and all student income subsidising the other stuff that universities do (um, research), not least because students pay lots of money beyond fees (accommodation, food, drink, ents, etc), the question becomes one of how big the budget gap is going to be.

(There’s a very good piece on Tortoise about this in the UK BTW. Recent data from the British Council suggest we still have a lot of uncertain overseas students).

Of course, that funding shortfall also means the sound of belts being tightened.

I’ll assume your institution has reviewed whether provision can be trimmed to keep costs down – not recruiting for smaller programmes, getting rid of the unpopular modules/courses – and maybe it’s also started acting on staff costs – recruitment freezes, non-renewals of short-term contracts, redundancies.

That increased precarity obviously does not help in the effort to concentrate on developing good pedagogic practice for a distanced classroom.

But uncertainty over student numbers is also an issue more directly, in planning what one might do with one’s classes at all.

Usually at this stage in the year, I’d have a good sense of how many people I’d be teaching in the autumn semester and I’d be planning accordingly. This year? Less so. And that’s for programmes that haven’t got that many non-domestic students on them, so our variability is probably less than for others.

And this is even before we consider whether a more local student body means we’ll be losing some of the diversity of experiences and insights that so often generates valuable debate in the class.

Or whether those students that do attend end up being even more likely to have to work to support themselves through university because their families haven’t got the means they once did, in turn reducing students’ study time and focus.

Or whether the increased use of online teaching elements reinforces differences of learning opportunities for those less able to afford suitable equipment or internet connections.

As ever, I haven’t got the answers to these things, but I can suggest that we do need to think about the knock-on effects on our teaching and learning practice.

Good luck, as they say, with that.

We’re going on a journey

One of the more enlightening exercises that I’ve undertaken as someone interested in pedagogy was an analysis of my language about learning.

via GIPHY

The facilitator suggested that people tend either to see things in terms of a ‘journey’ or of a ‘framework’.

Me; I’m a framework kind of person, possibly because I tend to mistrust things that smack of a teleological project ‘to’ some destination, but also because I like diving off down side paths [sic], using the tools that I’ve got to explore new areas.

Importantly, neither way is intrinsically better than the other, but it is important to recognise the multiple ways of looking at the world: your reference points and heuristics will vary from others’.

I’ve been reminded of this by our current anguishes over the shift to online (and possibly, partly, back again).

How much do we see this as a track to be followed, to reach some new equilibrium, and how much is it about re-deploying or growing our skills to fit particular situations?

Logically, it’s both, since each approach offers something different to the mix.

Thinking of this as a journey can help us to manage the stages of change, by suggesting what it is that we need to be working towards. Right now that’s probably the most difficult thing, since your institution probably still hasn’t made up its mind either about such things.

Laying plans for “what might be” can give us purchase on the slippy slope of moving our practice from what it used to be to what it needs to be in future.

But equally, abstracting ourselves from the process and working on our capacities, our skills and our resilience can underpin that transition. As I’ve (and others have) argued here before, much of teaching online is about good generic teaching practice: clear learning objectives, alignment and engagement.

If you can recognise that, then you can cope more easily with this novel situation.

Yes, however you look at it, this means change and development. The difference is whether you locate that change within yourself, or in your environment.

This leads me back to one of the key insights of the negotiating theory that teach [no, still haven’t worked that one out for this autumn’s classes], namely that there are things under your control and things that aren’t.

Negotiation is a way of trying to improve outcomes on those things not in your control, or at least protecting yourself against their effect. But that works more generally too.

There is an awful lot of stuff out there right now that we can’t control, so the best strategy is to work on what is up to us, so that we can be better prepared for what might come.

The more that we can engage with our situation, the better we can identify where we might get the biggest problems (and either avoid them or prepare for when they hit), or indeed the opportunities.

As a general rule of thumb, there is an advantage in being an early-mover: agenda-setting is less effort than it might appear and its benefits can be lasting. Put differently, if you don’t make choices or take action, then others might do it for you.

And that might be a less enjoyable journey.