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.

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).

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”

Online Group Projects to Build Community: Platform Options

As the fall semester bears down on us and many schools are finally admitting that yes, there will be a substantial amount of online courses (either fully, blended, hybrid, hyflex, etc), I imagine many faculty are experiencing some amount of panic about having to once again suddenly move their courses online. In particular, faculty are concerned about building community in their classes. Online courses can feel very isolating; without physical interaction before and after class, students may not feel connected to either you as the instructor, or their fellow students. One way to combat this and build community is to use team-based learning, where you have set groups working throughout a term on one or a series of projects. This can give students a small group of people that they can come to know well, even if they only work asynchronously with those students. Whether you are interested in adopting a team-based learning model, or just want to use the occasional group project, it’s a good idea to look at what options we have to do this online. On general approaches, I will direct you to this article by Stephanie Smith Budhai in Faculty Focus; here, let’s stick to recommendations on platforms for group or team learning.

First, a caveat: you don’t have to always dictate what platform your students use to collaborate. If all you care about is the end-project or outcomes, then let them use whatever platform they feel comfortable with. Give them options, certainly, but don’t dictate–let them communicate in whatever way is going to make it easy for them to work together, whether that’s on a social media platform, texting, WhatsApp, or something else. The main reason to ask students to use a particular platform is if you want to be able to check in on their work in progress and to see how things are developing. Each of the below options would allow you to do that (although students may need to grant you access!). Just be sure to explain why you’ve chosen this platform, take some time to train students in how to use it, and be clear on how and why you’ll be dropping in to check on their progress.

Let’s talk about several platforms you can use for group collaboration or team-based learning.

Continue reading “Online Group Projects to Build Community: Platform Options”

Some evidence on online conferences

Retro niche reference

Last month, I helped run the 4th EuroTLC, which we’d switched from Amsterdam to a sofa near you. Fewer canals, but also none of that rolling-your-R nonsense.

Any way, as well as that various posts that have sprung from that, I thought it’d also be useful to share some of the conference feedback that we received. A big thank you to ECPR for letting us use this publicly.

As you might have guessed from this post’s existence, the impression on participants was very positive indeed. It’d be good to pull up some big problems, as talking points, but they really didn’t occur.

From our survey of nearly 70 delegates (of c.250 signed up), there was almost no-one who rated the organisation, communication, technology as unsatisfactory.

Technology is maybe a good place to start on this, since it’s the obvious new challenge as compared to what has come before. A few people reported tech issues, although these were mostly about their local connectivity, which sometimes ended up kicking you out of Zoom sessions. The phrasing of the comments seems pretty understanding, but equally it’s clear that this will become more problematic for those not in a position to get more stable internet connections, which will matter if we want people to get interacting online in such events. Equally clearly, there’s no much we can do about these problems, except keep it in mind when we plan: do we need everything to be synchronous?

Organisationally, we had tried to put a lot of thought into how we could make this event work for participants. That meant breaking up sessions with lots of breaks, and keeping any one part to a maximum of an hour (well-received), plus mixing up formats so that it wasn’t always the same thing, all day long.

As mentioned, the feedback was very positive about all this, although once again I’d note that some of the participants grounded this by saying it was their first such experience of an online conference: that worked in our favour (Zoom burn-out was mentioned more than once during the event), but as we move to do more of this, then expectations might well shift.

One things we’d explored was trying to get materials shared online, both beforehand and during the event. While ratings were very positive for the organisers (both on the academic programme and the more practical aspects handled by ECPR’s very efficient office), there were some comments from people about not knowing where to look for those resources. This rather falls into “what else could we have done?”, since we’d mentioned it multiple times across all our pre-event comms and during the sessions. Maybe the relative novelty of the model is part of this, but as every event organiser knows, there’s never enough comms to be done.

Maybe a bit more of an issue was the difficulty of maintaining the flow of discussion beyond individual sessions. I’ve discussed this before, but I also noticed a couple of comments to this effect here too. I still have no good idea about how to address this, since any online space requires active decisions by individuals to move into them and stay in them, so the (semi-accidental) chat in the corridor outside the panel just doesn’t happen. As a case in point, having mentioned in that post that I’d seen a load of people that I’d like to have caught up, I’ve done nothing about it, because it’s not been in mind long enough to action by pinging off an email or text. Yes, I’m a bit lazy, but we also know that friction to action online is very high: each step we add, there’s a huge drop-out of people (which is why the bingo thing didn’t work).

Any way, that lack of networking opportunities did come out with much more ambivalent survey results (including the only occasion when more than two people chose ‘unsatisfactory’ (but still only 12%)).

It’s also worth noting that we didn’t charge for the event: EuroTLC has always been been either free or with minimal fees to keep it open. Several people noted that being free and online meant they could finally attend: previously, the cost of travel and accommodation had made that impossible. From our side, it also meant we could put together a lunchtime with people from three continents in a way that our resources wouldn’t have allowed beforehand, so online does come with some upsides for all involved.

Opinion was rather split on whether people would have paid to attend this event: those saying no pointed towards tightened budgets and precarious financial situations, while others felt the quality of what they got from it all was worth paying to access. Clearly, while online events are without the costs of dealing with physical spaces, they do still come with personnel costs that have to be covered somehow, so we’re not at the end of that particular discussion.

Also pertinent to note is that EuroTLC has been only every other year, so the suggestion from one person that we alternate online/real-world events is something to consider (although not necessarily an option for others). That said, there did seem to be interest in maintaining a more substantial online presence even with a real-world event, to allow those unwilling/unable to attend in person to still access things.

I’ll glide over the comment that we had too many women in the sessions that one respondent attended, on the basis that perhaps this might heighten awareness of the still-too-common phenomenon of manels and instead focus on the very positive comments across the board for all those who presented work during the two days: as one person wrote “everyone worked hard and did their utmost best”, a sentiment I fully endorse.

So what to take from all of this?

Firstly, just as online teaching isn’t just teaching online, the same is true for conferences. It’s important to think carefully about the objectives that you’re trying to achieve from the event and then work out the best way to hit them, which might not be the same as in face-to-face formats. I think we did a very good job on the sharing of ideas, but less well on the networking/soft community aspects, so this was definitely a learning experience.

Secondly, we have to careful about the assumptions we make. Here that includes access to stable internet, how much people have internalised all the messaging about specifics and why people do/n’t attend conferences. The barriers are all pretty obvious, but that doesn’t mean we’ve taken them fully into account, or that we can necessarily solve them; however, we can try.

And that’s a final point – nothing’s settled yet, so there’s good reason to keep trying new things. I leave this event wanting to try out a pile of other options with future events, because I want to see if they can provide improved opportunities for all involved. This was a good start, but together we can make it even better.

Teaching with practitioners

This guest post comes from Giulia Tercovich of Vesalius University.

The number of non-tenure-track teachers that are employed because of their significant expertise in their non-academic domain is growing.

On the one hand, these practitioners represent an opportunity for higher education institutions. They add exciting insights to the course, they add a human-element to policy-making, they represent an opportunity for students to think about their future careers and increase the institution’s visibility.

On the other hand, they often lack pedagogical training, they are not familiar with the academic environment and its administration, and the amount of information they can share depends on the rules imposed by their employer.

This post draws on my own experience as Coordinator for student learning and faculty support, and it benefited from several discussions with colleagues from my institution and the inputs received during the workshop recently hosted during the EuroTLC conference.

In my experience, when a practitioner (co-)teach an academic course, four actors are actively involved in the process: the students, the practitioner him/herself, the administration and the co-teacher or mentor. This complex relationship between these four actors is not always easy to navigate. Therefore, I would like to share with you the five lessons I have learned in the past years to make the co-teaching with a practitioner running more smoothly.

Continue reading “Teaching with practitioners”

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.