Dog, meet tail

Another reason to be a cat person

Conscious that many of our readers are in even more commercialised HE sectors than my own here in the UK, I hesitate to complain again about commercialisation. At the same time, we seem to be locked into a bit of a vicious circle here about how to teach.

2020 was characterised by endless discussion about how to make remote teaching models work effectively, for the obvious reason.

This year has instead been about the need to move back to in-person instruction as much as possible.

To be very clear, these are not two sides of the same coin.

The former was about optimisation under a particular constraint, while the latter is about pursuing a particular model whatever.

If you like, this is the backlash that we might have expected when the world embraced the potential of remote and online options: a desire to ‘return to normal’ and to throw out all the innovation that has taken place in the past one and a half years.

This was encapsulated in an interview by the head of the UK’s Office for Students – a government body that has some regulatory powers – this last weekend, where in-person was placed firmly as the path to ‘quality teaching’.

The logic behind this isn’t entirely clear from the interview, but it appears to be grounded as much in path dependency and student satisfaction as it is in any objective evaluation of pedagogic value.

‘Student satisfaction’ here is a very slippery concept, based as it is on highly problematic measures such as the UK’s National Student Survey (knock yourself out with the growing literature on this) rather than any systematic data collection on effectiveness of learning. Is it more important that students achieve their full potential as individual learners or that they like what they do/get what they want?, as much of the commercialisation debate goes.

Simple commercial logics will undoubtedly mean more students back in campuses – in the UK, universities make a lot more revenue that way than through tuition fees – but the risk only grows that the need to focus on providing a learning environment that is optimal for learning becomes secondary to other requirements.

Yes, universities need to stay financially viable – as Chad keeps on reminding us – and students who like what they’re offered are probably going to be more engaged, but all of that becomes rather redundant if our pedagogy isn’t up to scratch. And a (small-c) conservative attitude towards ‘what works’ isn’t conducive to finding pedagogic solutions for our learners’ needs: you don’t pick your solution before you start.

Something to consider as we have our next institutional-subsidising coffee on campus.

Keep fit, online

I’m deep into our annual UACES conference today, which means lots of sitting in front of a screen, with periodic dashes to make a cup of tea.

Since I recognise this isn’t going to suffice for three days straight, I’m happy to share a video from the organisers from someone who’s got some better ideas about keeping it together.

There’s more content coming in later days, but it’s a great resource even if you’re not WFH’ing.

Designing to constraints

Seamless integration

It’s summertime, so in between the flood warnings (seriously), it’s time to be doing some Big Thinking about teaching.

As part of my new role at the Open University, I’m contributing to a new Masters in IR, including the development of a simulation exercise.

I’ll be writing a lot more about this simulation in the next couple of years, mainly because the constraints are very different from those I’ve worked to before, with a big pile of knock-on consequences.

As a completely new programme, we’ve got relatively more space to manoeuvre than would be usually the case, but still the constraints loom rather large. As such, I’m dwelling on my third step of my usual approach to such situations.

For those unfamiliar with the OU, it’s the UK’s largest university (nearly the enrolment of the University of California system) working almost entirely on a distance-learning model. We have a lot of adult learners and a very flexible approach to working up to qualifications: you take a module at a time.

The new Masters will be entirely remote, with a taught module that runs for 36 weeks, followed by a dissertation. For most of that 36 weeks, we provide a collection of teaching materials – written and audio/visual – through our website, with structured activities for students, building up to interim and final pieces of assessment.

My role, as part of the central teaching staff, is to create those materials, which have to be able to stand being used by students for several years before a refresh, with activities supervised and moderated by a large team of associates, who handle the bulk of the direct interactions with students.

The upshot here is that I’ve been trying to work up a negotiation simulation that fits a number of requirements that are usually not that conducive to such things:

  • Student numbers will be variable across iterations;
  • I can’t assume all students will be doing this via our website (we have a significant number of students with various accessibility challenges, so they might only be able to learn via a printed version of our materials);
  • As such, synchronous interaction is not an option;
  • Even asynchronous interaction will be a problem for some;
  • And I can’t assume any prior knowledge of negotiation.

As the old joke about getting directions in Ireland goes, you wouldn’t start from here.

But that’s been precisely why I’ve enjoyed my first months here: it’s not run-of-the-mill and I’m being forced to think about how to manage the situation, rather than simply reinvent the wheel.

For those of you not moving jobs, then remember that you too are working to constraints, but you might just have internalised them to a degree. None of us gets a completely free hand, or even something close to one.

The response here is to work with the constraints, not against them.

Whether it’s a oddly-shaped room, or a limit on your timetabled time with students, or making necessary adjustments for students with disabilities, or building in assessment obligations, or a departmental edict against X, Y or Z; then it’s the same thing. Whatever things might be blocked, then other things become possible.

The beauty of education is that it’s not uniform and that there’s no one correct way to do it: variety is a good thing, for so many reasons.

In my case, I’ve used those constraints to explore the options with the rest of the team. That meant presenting a number of basic models to them, with their benefits and disadvantages, all grounded in the question of what purpose this simulation is fulfilling within the programme.

Off the back of that discussion, I’m not working up an approach that combines at least two of those models, which we’ll discuss again in September. And as we settle on things, I’ll write more about how that might work and the further integration and delivery challenges that have to be addressed.

Writing for others

I had my first writing workshop last week. We were sharing bits of text as part of our work towards a new Masters programme in IR, mainly to make sure we were on the same page on how we go about communicating with our students.

To recap, our programmes are distance-learning only, so it’s a mixture of textbook-like text, online activities, audio and video elements, all bundled up on an online platform. The textbook-type elements are pretty central to all this, as the main location of content delivery, so having a style and structure that is accessible and appropriate is really important.

Obviously, I struggled.

As much as I write a lot of text, it’s for rather different contexts. Here I’m essentially writing to myself and an imagined community of colleagues: it’s very informal and variable in its structuring and content, not least because I can always write another piece next week to unpack anything that didn’t work out now.

Both journal articles and practitioner documents like briefings are pretty well-specified audiences too, so it’s relatively easy to slip into the conventions of those genres.

But here I’m trying to think about creating text that sits within a broader package of content, co-authored with half-a-dozen other people, all going out to a very diverse student body, who’ll be consuming it at distance.

Part of the challenge is finding a voice that works not only for yourself and the student, but also for the other authors. A striking outcome of the workshop was thus having to think about both the substantive content and the register you adopt.

Right now, it’s the latter that is going me pause for thought, since I’m towards the more relaxed end of the spectrum. Yes, I can communicate the content clearly enough and at a level that is felt appropriate, but the way I do that sits rather awkwardly with others’ texts.

Of course, some of this is down to preference. Some people don’t like ‘you’s and ‘I’s in their academic writing, others can’t stand slang (or oblique references to memes). My personal preference has always been to try to keep things as simple as possible and to draw people in with things that might not be the most obvious ways in.

That’s all legitimate, but still doesn’t get to an answer about how to draw that together with other approaches, so that students aren’t experiencing radical changes in voice and style. Which is why the programme leaders are now writing author guidelines about just such questions for us to discuss and agree.

And this is another example of where this method of teaching is perhaps more rigorous than in-person equivalents: all programmes taught by more than one person have this multiplicity within them, but it’s very rare that we explicitly sit down to discuss whether and how that works for students.

In-person teaching tends to leave the question at the point of the value of diversity, when we might usefully think more about the challenges it creates too.

Something that’d need more than the one workshop, I’m guessing.

Migration migraines

More orderly (source)

The great thing about being a historical institutionalist is that – for the vast majority of the time – one’s assumption that things aren’t going to change pays off.

How it was yesterday is how it is today is how it’ll be tomorrow. Simple.

Until it’s not.

And right now I’m in the middle of a big rupture which, even though I’ve known about it and planned for it for some months, is turning out to be more of a pain than I’d thought.

Moving jobs is hardly the most unusual of life events, but it has underlined to me the need to plan carefully in managing your digital footprint. After a decade of blogging not here on ALPS but also on my departmental pages (where I seem to have left a less-than ideal last post that I now can’t delete), there’s a question about how to (re)make a place for me to share my ideas.

And this is the central point: social media is about sharing and discussing, so you need to be able to make contributions and others need to find them and respond.

In the case of ALPS that’s been a long process of building up an audience over 10 years, to point that we have a pretty good profile within our community (if still far short of that of professional associations), mainly through word-of-mouth as we’ve passed through endless conferences and talks. And as long as Chad keeps on bringing in the support to pay for the hosting, we’ve got a long-term proposition.

Universities are long-term propositions too (pace Chad’s regular posts to the contrary), but unless you’ve got a very particular arrangement with your VC/Provost/whatever, your relationship with that university might turn out to be rather short. So are institutional blogs the best bet?

Continue reading “Migration migraines”

Testing 1 – 2 – 3: More reflections on hybrid teaching and learning

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans, Maastricht University

I was recently asked to test a new touch screen to check its potential contribution to teaching after the Summer. While we’re all hoping to return to on-campus teaching by then, I used the test to get some additional insights about equipment and hybrid teaching. After all, if there’s one thing we’ve learned these past few months, it’s that it’s difficult to predict the development of the pandemic.

The new screen is vast, as you can see from the pictures below (and especially so in that relatively small room). It offers all kinds of options, including a decent hand-writing functionality (including a ‘pen’) and opportunities to add additional apps and equipment. This includes, for instance, the use of airplay to connect your Macbook, but also adding dedicated cameras, mics, etc.

But did the screen have an added value?

I first gave a lecture using the screen. Here its added value was quite apparent to me. I was much less bounded by screen and camera than I would ‘normally’ have been by my (home) office set-up.  This is despite the latter coming with a fairly large screen, plus a height-adjustable desk. I could easily move around and use much more body language. And when students’ faces popped up on the screen for questions, I had the feeling that we were less detached from each other due to the life-size images. The only drawback was that the screen was hooked on to an ethernet cable, which meant that I could not wirelessly connect my Macbook. But I’ve been told that this is going to be solved soon.

So far, so good.

I also organised two hybrid tutorial sessions in one of our first-year undergrad courses, each with 3 students accompanying me in the room, while the rest were online.* Students were informed in advance that this would be a small pilot. I also informed them about some of the possible complications that we might run into, such as those discussed by Chad last June. You should know that in Maastricht we tend to work with student discussion leaders and notetakers. I specifically instructed the discussion leaders to maintain a connection between online and on-campus students. In addition, I arranged to have an online discussion leader with an on-campus notetaker in my first group, whereas in my second group the discussion leader was on-campus and the notetaker online. This would allow me to see if there is a set-up that works best.

So, how did it go?

I asked students to complete a short survey afterward (20 out of the 24 attending students completed the survey). As expected, they had different views on how the hybrid setting impacted the quality of the discussions as compared to our regular online meetings.

In your opinion, how did the hybrid setting impact the quality of the discussions?
 The quality was much worseThe quality was somewhat worseThe quality was about the sameThe quality was somewhat betterThe quality was much better
Online753
On-campus32

Out of six on-campus students, five completed the survey and all thought the experience was better. As one of the students put it, “it was so good to have a class with real people and not through a screen”. All five referred to enjoying the discussions with their fellow students in the actual room. They noticed that not everything went well – some sounds issues, in particular, but also at times a disconnect between on-campus and online students. Yet overall, the on-campus students felt that discussions went better and were more lively, also with the online students.

The online students were less impressed. Plus they all virtually gave the same feedback, whether in the group with the online or the on-campus discussion leader. First, quite a few commented on the sound quality. On-campus contributions to the discussions were not always audible. Second, the on-campus group wasn’t always fully visible to the online students, which was party due to the camera angle and partly due to the need to keep a distance. The size of the room also didn’t offer space for a different seating arrangement. And, thirdly, there was the reoccurring disconnect between on-campus and online students. One online student referred to sometimes feeling like a spectator, which, another student wrote, was partly due to “the participants in real-life not looking at the screen all the time”.

None of this really came as a surprise to me. Yet, unfortunately, I was also unable to prevent these issues from occurring. Clearly the fancy screen with lots of trimmings also did not matter here. But, more importantly, this again raises questions about the viability of hybrid teaching. In my opinion, it is probably better to have separate on-campus and online groups – even though, as Arjan and I wrote before, this too comes with its own challenges. But these can be solved. The potential disconnect between on-campus and online students in a hybrid setting to me is more problematic, as it may result in unequal learning opportunities.

* A huge thank you goes to the students who attended the sessions: Jill Bartholmy, Emma Begas, Jeanne Brunhes, Adam Ceccato, Noah Chebib, Carl Colonius, Boti Czagány, Jos de Heij, Lilian Giebler, Vincent Halder, Xavier Heck, Sanne Hocks, Julia Hufnagel, Leila Kahnt, Anna La Placa, Carolina Lean Santiago, Liam Lodder, Arianne Michopoulou, Mayanne Pagé, Simone Palladino, Emili Stefanova, Mae Thibaut, Tessa Urban and Victoria Wenninger.

Going digital

“This should improve our module evaluations by 0.4…”

Source

The big question of how we forward (not back) in our teaching practice is one that continues to bother me, partly because it’s going to be a major personal challenge for me in the coming years, but also because the variety of discourses about this vary rather more than I’d expect.

As a case in point, I noticed that my VC/President wrote a long blog about this question just the other week. In it, he writes about the possibilities that digital technologies open up and how we need to be receptive and pro-active in making the most of these.

And that’s all fine.

However, what strikes me about the piece is that there’s no mention at any point about pedagogy. Instead it posits a system driven by what the tech can do.

Having gotten to spend some time with him, I know that he does have a genuine and deep interest in teaching in itself, rather than simply as a side-show from research or a money-generating activity (unlike some VCs I’ve encountered), but it’s a bit disappointing to see a senior leader get caught up in the tech.

Tech matters. This past 12 months have demonstrated that all too clearly, but tech is (and can only ever be) a function of pedagogy. More precisely, the fundamentals of good pedagogic practice – clear learning objectives; alignment of content and assessment; responsive design – are just that, fundamentals.

Consider last spring, when you were scrambling around for a means to continue your classes. You probably had an institutional VLE or platform intended specifically for that purpose, plus access to some other tools, either supported by your institution or not.

In the first instance, I’m guessing you took the path of least resistance in setting up ad hoc ways to get content to students and/or having interactions with them.

But then you started to look around at the world of possibilities, just like my VC is suggesting. But in making your new choices, the key driver was likely to have been “what works best for my and my students’ needs” than it was “what amazing thing is possible here”.

In twenty-something years of teaching, I’ve gone from acetates to Zoom, blackboards to Google Docs. But I can think of very few technologies that have fundamentally changed how I teach and only one that changes what I’m trying to achieve with my teaching.

The one change in objectives was the arrival of the digital world and the cornucopia of data that made available. The result was a need to shift from prioritising the acquisition of techniques to find data to stressing ways of managing all-too-much data. And even then, I still find myself telling students how to track down hard-to-find sources.

But otherwise, the bulk of my learning objectives are the same: building substantive knowledge of a topic; acquiring and using skills that make the student into a critical learner; situating all of this within a wider body of understanding.

In short, tech is a means, not an end.

Again, I’ve tried lots of different technological options: some have been great, others alright, a few rubbish. But I could only judge that against the yardstick of my pedagogy and the learning of my students. Great that they can make a whizzy Prezi, but does it actually help them to learn? And I say that as someone who’d love experience more engaging presentations.

So, in the time-honoured cliché of science-fiction, we have to stop wondering what what we can do and start thinking about whether we should do it.

If not, then we risk falling into another cycle of expensive tech acquisition that doesn’t work for our needs, just like we did most of the other times our institutions bought some tech.

Forward, Not Back

A brief response* to Simon’s last post about not slipping back into old habits:

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran this article (paywalled) about how the pandemic might have permanently altered campuses. People interviewed for the article believed that the use of a hybrid delivery format that includes online, asynchronous components will persist, because even full-time, traditionally-aged students like the convenience and flexibility.

Another reason to continue the practice: hybrid design enables students to get out of a passive environment and into more active experiences. For example, last fall my previously 100% face-to-face course on economic development went on Zoom. I do not teach by lecturing in fifty-minute increments three times per week; students in my classes experience a lot of interaction with peers. However, many of these activities can’t be easily replicated in an online environment given the usual tools I have at my disposal. So as a substitute I created a series of assignments in which students documented evidence of economic inequality in the local community with photos and presented their findings in online asynchronous discussions. The assignments met my intended objectives and the students were really engaged, so I’m going to use them again in Fall 2021, when (most likely) the course will once again be delivered face-to-face on campus. But the assignments can’t be completed effectively in fifty-minute time blocks. My proposed solution? Just cut the students loose — not hold class on certain days. My hope is that the institutional hype about maximizing student learning matches reality, and my plan isn’t quashed by higher ups.

If you’re interested in modifying any of your course in a similar fashion, The Aga Khan University has produced an excellent step-by-step guide on the development, design, and implementation of online courses. The guide also applies to hybrid courses.

*The title of this post is also a very obscure reference to the phrase uttered by Muammar Qaddafi during the now decade-old Arab Spring — إلى الأمام — immortalized in Zenga Zenga.

How to not slip back

A new cycle…

I’ve touched before on the opportunity that Covid has presented to embed new, improved practice in our teaching, but I didn’t really get into practical ways to do that.

So let’s have a crack now, yes?

For this, I think we have to side-step the question of whether your institution will give you a free hand in this. The range of options from ‘you’ll do as we say’ to ‘go wild’ is huge, even if no one is being told to ‘go wild’ by anyone. Fortunately, that shouldn’t matter too much.

The first step is to review and evaluate what you’ve been doing during lockdown. That means taking as impartial-as-possible a look at each of the elements of your practice and the overall package.

The whole matters as much as the parts because you often get synergistic effects at work. In a good scenario, your forum-based chat might have been a raging success (in stark contrast to pretty much everyone else), but that might have been as much because you made a lot of it in your direct work with students as because you structured it well. If you’re going to be doing some rearrangement of elements, then it’s really important to have a sense of what relates to what in all this.

This step needs input from multiple directions: your own reflection; that of colleagues; and that of students. If you’ve been relying on particular services, it’s also good to find out if the same level of support will exist in future (given everything, hopefully that’s less of an issue, but new-generation EdTech might be arriving that changes things for you). If it helps, treat it like a piece of research and triangulate as much as possible, and apply some thought to how much you weight each piece of evidence.

At the end of this step you should have a clearer idea of what works, how it works and in what context it works. Remember that those are three different aspects.

Step two is building a repository of elements and ideas for whatever new environment you will be facing.

This doesn’t have to be a literal collection of materials, although such things are useful. Instead, it’s a more conceptual process, of thinking, discussing and optimising new collections of pedagogic elements.

Broadly, you’ve got three choices here. The first is that you’re driven by institutional constraints: if you’ve got a major requirement coming out of management then there’s not much point in resisting (unless it’s very silly and not fully decided upon, in which case you should push back hard (maybe even using some of that evidence you’ve been gathering)).

Alternatively, you can be driven by the nature of the subject matter: some topics lend themselves better to some pedagogies than others, so check out what others are doing.

Finally, you can be driven by a desire to try out (or optimise) some specific pedagogic element. I’ve done this with flipping, because I really wanted to see how I could make it work. Lucky break there, given that we all had to flip last year.

However, in all three choices, you’re still trying to think about building a learning environment that works as well as possible for your students. So ultimately, while your starting point might vary, you should still be coming to a rounded and balanced provisional solution. And again, if you’re resisting institutional pressure, then having a credible and thought-through plan is only going to help.

The third step is implementation. As you close in on running your new class, you need to keep up the evaluating and reviewing as the realities start to hit home. In practice, this means being ready to adapt and regroup as you go.

Hopefully, that’s easier because you’ve got your evidence, your repository and your reflections to help guide you. Importantly, it’ll help in making a call on whether something is just a passing problem or something more structural (which is, admittedly, not always particularly clear).

Of course, all of this is stuff that I’d argue you should be doing in any year, because it’s a key part of maintaining and developing our pedagogic practice. The difference now is that you have probably been exposed to a lot more pedagogic practices than one year ago: so try to internalise these and see them as part of what you can do.

Some things didn’t work, but really very few (because you picked up on problems as you went). Some things worked as stop-gaps, because things were very hectic and pressured (but you’ll have picked up on that from your students, so you’ll not try to repeat the exercise at ‘leisure’). And some things worked in ways that you didn’t really anticipate.

All of that is valuable, whether or not there’s a global pandemic. So make something better out of it all.

Hello again

“Are you ready for our next panellist, people!?”

At the risk of being too Eeyore-ish about it all, the announcements this week about aiming to end all Covid restrictions in England by the middle of June feels ambitious. Experience so far in this pandemic should at least make us cautious about any kind of planning for a ‘return to normality’.

So we have instead to plan for a lack of normality and even – and perhaps more pertinently – the desirability of a new normality, where we can take some constructive points out of our rushed shift to lockdown living/working for the future.

I’ll come back to the classroom aspects of this another time, but today I’ve been thinking about conferences.

Much like last year, we’re seeing all the key events announce that they are going fully online, at least through to the September round. But it’ll invite us to consider what might happen thereafter.

Narrowly, we have a situation where it might be a couple of years before global vaccine uptake (not to mention travel restrictions) is enough that colleagues from across the world can meet up without significant limitations, so we have a considerable period to cover in any case.

But the benefits of online events are also becoming clearer. The ability to bring together people who might not be able to meet in person; the removal of significant costs in time and money for travel and accommodation; the capacity to create more lasting records of our discussions. The coffee being almost always better.

All these things matter and shouldn’t be lost in any rush to get back to the good old days.

And what was good about them in any case?

Yes, I miss getting to see colleagues in person, and to discovering a bit of a new city, but it’s also easy to end up idealising what was often a less-than-perfect experience. You have your bad conference story and I have mine, so we can spare the blushes of those involved, other than to say that an escape to a heavy metal bar shouldn’t be the highpoint of an international conference.

Especially if you don’t really like heavy metal.

Any way, back to the main thought, namely the need to use this moment to consider how we can bring together the best bits of all these things into something new and improved.

Various colleagues do now tell me about different ways of running online events that work much better than the original stick-it-on-Zoom approaches, with more thought about scheduling and technology to make the most of these things. But it’s still the lack of in-person interaction that chafes.

And that’s a major problem, especially for those newer to the profession. I’m lucky/old; two and a half decades of conferences and workshops has left me with a big network of colleagues who can chat away with online, drawing on that prior interaction. For someone who hasn’t had that, their way into creating and sustaining a community is much tighter.

Put it this way, even though our work has been almost entirely conducted online for a decade, the ALPS Blog only happened because we got to spend four nights in Albuquerque. (Good conference BTW).

Maybe we have to find other ways to allow colleagues to get out of their institutions and make connections that don’t require them to travel hundreds of miles and to spend piles of money.

The half-thought is that we could something more intermediate: local gatherings.

Most of work/live near another HE institution, so why not have periodic meetings for people in our area? Maybe to talk work, but mainly just to make connections and put faces to names. You could connect it to big conferences, so there’s a reason and a focus to talk, maybe even chuck in a speaker/roundtable, but mainly it’d be the coffee break/sampling of local delicacies bit of a conference, the stuff that you remember.

It’s not a problem-free idea: some won’t be close to anyone; others will find it hard to justify to bosses/partners that a social is ‘work’; you’re not going to meet that person from another continent who’d be just right for your new project. But it’s a start and something might come from it.