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.

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.


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.

How to run a webinar?

analog Zoom

Pretty much every time I’m talking about L&T these days, I find myself saying that we shouldn’t be beating ourselves up about being perfect, but we should be thinking about ways to improve.

It’s for that reason I’m going to reflect a bit on my webinar for the PSA, part of their Teaching Politics Online series (do sign up: lots of excellent speakers still to come).

And also because I wasn’t totally satisfied with how I did.

Part of the issue was that rather than the just-about-manage-a-conversation registration of 20 people, we instead got nearly 70 joining in (and a bunch more who’d registered). Fortunately, I’d been able to think about that beforehand, but not to a reassuringly tidy conclusion.

At the back of my mind was the message that we’ve all been writing about on this blog for years – what’s your objective?

The point

Yes, I’d been asked to talk about the impact of the online-shift on us as teachers, but what was the message I was trying to communicate?

Oddly – and I use that word sarcastically – thinking about it in those terms was a big help, getting me to fix more on the core points and working through to possible ways to reinforce them.

Here I got to something of a dilemma. On the one hand, 70+ people is too much to do much that’s interactive. On the other, who wants to listen to a talking head for 45 minutes (plus Q&A)?

So, a compromise.

As well as some (nominal) slides, I put together a couple of short quizzes and activities (you can see them all here).

These each only took a few minutes, and provided some input from the audience and some focus for my headline messages.

For instance, seeing that institutional uncertainty was a big barrier/problem meant I spent more time on that than on more nebulous concerns about personal motivation.

Plus the meme-making activity is quite enjoyable.

And the point is?

On the plus side, I think these did give something more to the session, and helped to keep some people more engaged, but that was at a cost of keeping it tight and focused: it turns out academics are just as good at staying focused as everyone else, so various people raced ahead on the activities, or lingered in making memes. And some people didn’t really do any of them.

As much as comments I’ve had have been very positive, I’m not sure I’d do it like that again, mainly because I’m coming back to my evolving thinking about online instruction.

In particular, I’m not sure about how much of a role synchronous formats can/should play. I feel I could have provided a much more concentrated pre-recorded lecture, asked for engagement with some brief activities and then followed up with another pre-record and/or a live Q&A.

That said, I know how hard it is to get and keep peoples’ attention: I’d guess I’ve have gotten much less engagement with the activities in that format than I did when I had them right there.

So it’s a trade-off, and we come back to the question of what we’re trying to achieve.

If I take this across to my teaching, does it matter more that I work with those who are present, or with creating content that is more passive, but is there for everyone, whenever they access it?

The ideal answer is that you maximise both tracks, creating compelling learning moments that students want to take part in, but also providing a more rigorous safety net for those that can’t/won’t.

Get to the point

I’m drifting from the original purpose of this post, but it’s useful to return to the question of how could I have improved on my webinar.

A couple of people said it had been a useful place to think about their situation in the round, to reflect on how they might draw on what they already knew. That’s good, because part of my core objective was to try and make All This look more manageable, because it’s actually primarily just another example of working around the constraints we’ve always faced with our teaching.

And maybe that’s a good point to try to end on: each of us has a different path of learning.

Just as creating varied learning environments can be useful in creating more points of access for students, so too might we have to learn how to create that variety in remote settings. No one way of doings is going to work for all learners and all subjects, so exploring the possibilities is essential.

And hopefully the reflecting on that exploration can open our eyes to how we might make the most of what we do.

Some L&T events to help you

As someone noted to me recently, we’re finally moving from removing things from our diaries, to adding them in.

That’s particularly true for activities to help you rework your teaching practice for the new state of affairs.

From this Thursday, the PSA will be running a series of seminars – open to all for free – on various aspects of this shift, starting off with me. I will be excellent, but not so excellent as the other presenters in the series, who I heartily recommend to you.

In June, the EuroTLC will be having its fourth outing, this time as a fully-virtual operation, running over two days. That includes plenary discussions, workshops, presentations and more, with lots of content on making online teaching work better.

Registration is again free and you should sign up soon, so you can access the various pre-event materials.

Nothing so permanent as ‘temporary’

Among the most minor of effects of this pandemic is the delay of the (second) move of our Department to a new building on campus.

As part of a more general reorganisation, we were due to be spending a year in temporary digs, with a very big pile of packing crates holding most of our stuff until we could get into our final stop.

I mention this not because I’m complaining – I have a very good view from my office on the days that I am in it – but to illustrate the basic notion that temporary arrangements have a way of becoming rather more permanent, just like that thing you’ve been meaning to do in your home, but haven’t quite gotten around to.

That crack (and some yukky textured skimming too)…

[This reminds me to look up at our dining room ceiling, at the huge crack that stretches across it, just as it has done for the past 11 years. meh]

Any way, this all comes back to our shared situation, where a bunch of stuff has been thrown up in short order, without much thought to its durability.

I’ve already written about why we need to revisit our online practices for the autumn/fall, so I won’t go over that again. But I will ask you to consider the personal dimension of this.

For myself, as much as this lockdown has been very manageable, I do now notice the longer-term effects.

Sure, I know not to try and sit on the sofa for a day of typing, so I don’t get really bad backache, but the dining table and (hard) chair still don’t make such a conducive space for getting into writing/working.

Likewise, I think it’s been really good that the family has a routine to the day, but it’s not one that sits all that well with when I might produce work: it’s often at the points I’m just about get into the thing I’m procrastinating about (and I’m procrastinating a lot) that it’s time for a cuppa, or lunch, or a walk.

Yeah, I need to do stuff, but so does everyone else in the house.

But mostly, it’s the gnawing sense that I’m missing out on the soft aspects of being in my office – the interactions, the cues, the sense of a space as being for ‘work’.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad problem, but it’s one that is certainly there, and I get the feeling that most of us have it in some form.

Certainly if I had crappy internet, or had to share a working room with another family member, or if our finances were badly affected by the lockdown, or a family member were stricken, then I’d be finding it a whole lot harder.

Sadly, lots of us (and lots of our students) are in just those kinds of situations.

Making something work for a few weeks is one thing, but if this how things are going to be for the foreseeable future, then that’s a whole new ballgame.

Dealing with that is going to be an ever more important part of this process, which is why I’m heartened to see growing amounts of support from employers, study associations, colleagues, friends and family out there.

But we also need to talk about such things, to help make it easier for others to do the same. You might be coping, but coping isn’t the same as thriving, and there’s not a lot of thriving going on right now.

Yes, we’ll need robust processes and practices to make the coming year work, but an essential part of that is our own emotional and professional resilience: however we teach, or facilitate learning, we still need to be in the room, both literally and metaphorically.

Maybe the trick is to pretend that would just be a temporary thing; and that way we can make it stick for good.