Thursday, September 16, 2021

Being there - that feeling we can't achieve online

Photo by Aranxa Esteve on Unsplash

No matter how many amazing new platforms and tools for online events we create, none of them really match the feeling of physically being there. The online event can actually be more flexible, more interactive, more inclusive and offer higher quality video and audio than sitting at the back of a hot and stuffy lecture theatre but it can't match that feeling of presence. It's the same with TV coverage of concerts and sporting events. You can sit at home and watch it all in super high-definition quality with surround sound, close-ups, slow motion replays, commentary and analysis but the sad truth is that you weren't really there. There are no credibility points for saying that you saw it on TV. I've been to many memorable events where I couldn't see or hear the action very well, was packed in a sweaty and noisy crowd, had great difficulty getting there and getting away afterwards (endless queues, pushing, noise, waiting) but I can always boast that I was there and that's what impresses people later on. That feeling of being part of something, an exclusive community, cannot be underestimated. That's why people will still pay extortionate amounts of money to attend events that are broadcast live. Feelings are worth more than quality. Even if there are billions of photos and films from all angles of, say, the Taj Mahal, I would still take at least a hundred more just to show that I have also been there.

If we think of academic conferences and events there are digital solutions for almost all the usual activities. You can mingle and network using platforms like SpatialChat, Wonder or Gather, use Zoom for plenary sessions and group discussions, create exciting virtual world conference or exhibition centres with Virbela or Virtway, go on virtual city tours, sightseeing with Google Streetview, have immersive virtual reality meetings in Spatial and so on. The list of platforms is impressive and is growing weekly so logically there should be no reason to return to on-site events. In addition, the environmental arguments against returning to large on-site conferences are overwhelming. 

But no matter how much we can achieve online we will still want to meet at a physical location. The need to be there is all about intangible factors: emotion, atmosphere, sense of belonging, sense of space. We can achieve a lot online but maybe we have to accept that some elements will always be missing.


Saturday, September 11, 2021

Down the rabbit hole - in search of the unexpected

Photo by Victor Larracuente on Unsplash

Remember the days when everyone talked about surfing the net? You used to just search for something and then follow links that could take you almost anywhere - you just clicked where your fancy might take you. It was all so new and I loved just exploring what was out there. I used to enjoy playing with a tool called Stumbleupon that sadly disappeared in 2018. It was a non-search engine and the principle was simple: click and off you go to a completely random web page. Most results were useless, some downright bizarre and now and again you would stumble upon something really interesting. That was the fascination - the promise of serendipity, meeting the unexpected. A similar desire makes us scroll endlessly on today's social media - the best post ever is just a bit further down the feed. The difference is that in social media that feed is determined by algorithms and artificial intelligence rather than luck.

But in the past week I have discovered a couple of interesting sites that retain a sense of serendipity. Firstly there is a site called The Forest. It's just an almost empty screen with a link to press, Go for a walk, and off you go. Each time you click on the link you find a new page. Keep pressing until you discover something interesting. I hope that the search is indeed random but there is very little background information on the site except the simple mission statement.

What used to be a wild trip through stormy waters has now become a journey on a cruise ship where everything is planned and there's no longer place for craziness.
This site is our attempt try bring some of that unpredictability back.
The next rabbit hole can be just one click away so click that button, go for a walk and enjoy getting lost on the web.

My first trips down this rabbit hole led me to something interesting after only a few attempts and it was a site that also fits in with this retro theme. I discovered the Plain Text Project, a site promoting the benefits of plain text on the web. No fancy graphics, no pop-ups, no photos, no design, just plain text.

The Plain Text Project is here to help you figure out if working in plain text and living a plain text life is right for you. In this space, I share ideas, tips, and techniques. I explain how to meld plain text into your life. I try to share my love of working in plain text with you.

Another rabbit hole site that caught my eye this week was the product of the pandemic lockdown. WindowSwap was designed by a couple in Singapore during the lockdown to relieve the boredom of looking out of the same window day after day. People all over the world now send in videos taken from their windows showing a sample of everyday life. When you feel like a new view on your screen just click and you go to a random view. Keep clicking till you find one that interests you. Some are from exotic locations but most are very ordinary: someone's garden, the street outside, a patio, a lawn, trees. Some have lots of people or cars passing by, whilst in others absolutely nothing happens. I love it.

WindowSwap is a place on the internet where people from around the world share the view from their windows to help someone else relax, focus, meditate and travel without moving.
It’s here to fill that deep void in our wanderlust hearts by allowing us to look through someone else's window, somewhere in the world.

The joy of unexpected distractions. 

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Online versus campus - comparing apples and pears

Photo by Melanie Dijkstra on Unsplash

My last post reflected on why we should stop trying to prove that online teaching is more or less effective than campus teaching. A more detailed discussion on this theme is provided in an excellent review of recent comparative studies by Tony BatesResearch showing that virtual learning is less effective than classroom teaching – right? He lists 14 recent studies comparing student performance in online and in-person courses, some of which were carried out during the pandemic period. Most show that students' test results were lower in online courses and especially so for students from less academically prepared students. However the differences were not substantial, often 5-10% lower in online courses and most importantly there is little attention paid to the sort of online teaching that was offered. 

Most studies describe online courses that mirror the campus version with a predominance of recorded lectures and asynchronous discussion forum interaction. However, there are so many more variables to consider in both delivery modes: expectations management, scaffolding, community building, group work, social interaction, teacher presence, course structure, clear objectives, feedback methods, assessment, use of media, accessibility etc. Poor course design and lack of timely feedback and support can damage both online and in-person learning. It's not about a face-off between one delivery mode and another to see which is best.

These papers looked at many different variables, such as type of student, differences between subject areas, even how far from the campus students lived, but none of them looked at the most important variable: the method of teaching. How were the online courses designed? What teaching method was used in the classroom? Are we comparing online video lectures with the same on-campus lectures or are we comparing asynchronous online courses with synchronous classroom lectures? 

The cited studies are all serious research and will no doubt be cited by many especially when assessing the results of the emergency online teaching during the pandemic. However, Bates advises caution on reading too much into the findings since the studies omit so many important factors in the quality of online education. 

The studies clearly suggest that if you just move traditional classroom teaching online, many students, especially the most disadvantaged, will do less well than if they were in class. The results overall are not disastrous, though. Performance or retention is about 5%-10% poorer in most cases, although somewhat higher for some disadvantaged students.

During the past year the choice has been between online education or no teaching at all and the results should be seen in that light. Given that the online teaching on offer was not always fully designed for online delivery and that both teachers and students were unprepared for the challenges of such a transition, there results were actually rather impressive. We also have to remember that online education opens the door to higher education to millions of people who are unable to move to a campus city. For them there is no choice. We must make sure that the online education we offer is fit for purpose and designed professionally. 

But read Tony Bates' article for more insight.

 

Friday, August 20, 2021

Instruction or inquiry-based learning - it's not a choice

Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

Why do we keep believing in simple solutions to complex problems or that there is one best way to do something? This is sadly true in education where we should really know better by now. What is the best method/platform/tool for learning? Is online better or worse than classroom? Is group work better than self study? The answer is nearly always "it depends" but the comparisons and competition go on anyway. 

One of these debates is about the value of collaborative learning compared to the more traditional individual approach. Genuine collaboration, where a group works together to solve a problem by sharing knowledge, peer reviewing and discussing issues, is a powerful learning experience. But at the same time there are many pitfalls with many groups failing to reach the required level of mutual trust and respect to collaborate effectively. Groups who lack the critical level of knowledge and experience will often fumble, argue and fail or arrive at completely false conclusions. Learning to collaborate effectively is a lengthy process and needs to be guided and scaffolded by examples and feedback. Far too much group work in education can be seen as ineffective "busy work" that may look creative and engaging but does not really foster learning. 

There's an interesting critique of collaborative learning in a post by Zach GroshellDo We Learn Best Collaboratively or Individually? He examines in particular a study from 2017, Can collaborative learning improve the effectiveness of worked examples in learning mathematics?, comparing students' performance in maths using traditional worked examples with individual study to collaborative problem-solving. Here the traditional approach was found to be more effective though collaborative work was sometimes effective for low complexity problems. 

Once again it's not a competition between two approaches; it's about when and how to use them. Collaboration requires experience and knowledge and is probably not going to work in an introductory course unless very clearly guided. Once the students have learned the basics and know how and where to search for more information as well as how to critically assess the quality of the search results, then collaborative learning can work very well. However they also need to be guided through the skills of team building and group dynamics so that they can establish the trust and common purpose that is necessary to collaborate.

Providing students with examples is effective, withholding examples from students when they could benefit from them is bizarre and irresponsible, and if teachers want students to have a shot at making sense of the examples they’re provided, it’s probably best that they study them individually, away from the attentional competition and extraneous noise that is the group dynamic.

Another problem with criticism of collaborative or inquiry-based learning is the idea that the students are simply left to their own devices and the teacher takes a more or less passive role (guide on the side). Collaborative work is described several times as unguided and this is surprising since most research into collaborative learning emphasizes the need for careful management, scaffolding and feedback from the teacher. Collaboration is a skill to be learned, not a spontaneous activity and this means careful guidance.

There's a good summary of the advantages and the pitfalls of inquiry-based learning in a couple of posts by Kath MurdochInquiry learning: Pitfalls and perspectives part 1 and part 2. She recognizes the arguments in favour of a traditional approach but also demonstrates the strengths of inquiry when it is well-supported and scaffolded by the teacher. 

When understood well, inquiry learning actually demands careful design of authentic learning experiences, attention to existing schema, deft questioning, ongoing assessment, the cultivation of curiosity and the ability to plan and teach through concepts. The teacher’s role is critical.
The key once again is that learning is a complex process with so many variables and there is never only one "best" method no matter how much we wish for one. Teaching involves being able to choose the right mix of methods and tools for each learning situation, often offering alternative paths. Traditional instruction might work very well in certain situations and with some students, but will certainly not work for everyone, neither will any other method. This is well expressed in an article by Alan Reid (University of South Australia) in The Conversation, Teachers use many teaching approaches to impart knowledge. Pitting one against another harms education.

There’s a variety of useful teaching models — and this includes explicit instruction — which have been designed for different purposes. It is the educator’s task to select the most appropriate given the context.

Creating simplistic binaries in a field as complex and nuanced as education impoverishes the debate.

We need more discussion about the art of designing courses using a broad template of methods and tools and less needless comparisons between A and B.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Whose normal do we go back to?

Photo by Smartworks Coworking on Unsplash

In comparisons between online and in-person communication we tend to assume that the in-person meeting is always best and that the online version is a limited substitute. After a year and a half of restrictions and lockdowns there is an understandable desire to get back to normal again and as a result that notion of normal gets idealised. Classroom interaction and in-person meetings are presented in glowing terms whilst online versions are often questioned. However, if you look back honestly you remember how so many in-person meetings and classes were extremely uninspiring and ineffective.

Online and in-person meetings provide different frameworks and affordances, but the success of these meetings is dependent on the planning and communication skills of the teachers/managers and participants. Being there in person is no guarantee of good communication. This is the gist of an excellent article by Elizabeth Stokoe and colleagues, Is communicating in person the “gold standard”? You’re asking the wrong question.  

Communicating in person can also be highly unsatisfactory. We have all been in a terrible meeting, poor medical consultation, or a dire first date. Numerous books, articles and courses are dedicated to how to chair, participate in, and lead, an effective in-person meeting. Why? A meeting can ‘stink’ not because technology makes it hard for us to communicate, but because people are not trained in how to lead or participate in one — or are just poor communicators. Being co-present does not equate to or guarantee quality, inclusion, equality, satisfaction, productivity, interaction, engagement, or connection.

One of the most common complaints about online meetings is that we cannot see each other's body language but the article questions whether this is such a crucial factor. The body language argument has become a communication myth that has spread over the years thanks to misinterpretation and wishful thinking. Body language is a factor but not as major as we assume. In most physical meetings we all sit behind desks and can only see each other from the waist up, very similar to the view we get in online meetings. Of course we can make eye contact with each other in a way that is almost impossible in online meetings, but on the other hand online meetings compensate by using chat messages, emojis etc. Hybrid meetings are especially problematic since we are mixing the two modes and the risk of missing essential communication is high. There are differences between the modes but we are very resourceful in making the most of what is available. We have been using voice communication and radio for over a century and still do, despite the complete lack of body language.

It's not about the mode of communication but the skills of those using it. The key takeaway is this:

Good communication depends not on the modality or technology but on the communication skills of the people using it. We noted earlier that being in person is no guarantee of a high-quality interaction. Communication succeeds when everyone knows why they are talking and where there is parity of opportunity to participate.
Another issue is the language used to describe in-person meetings and work. An article by Joshua Kim in Inside Higher EdStop Using the Language of “Normal” for Face-to-Face Academic Work, questions the use of the word normal. What we consider normal work or education does not suit everyone and never has. Many people accepted it because there was no choice, but now that we have seen that many tasks can be performed as well if not better online then there are strong arguments against forcing a return to the office or campus. The rituals of office life need to be questioned and a more flexible approach is needed. Less commuting benefits the environment and the opportunity for more home working can increase productivity and efficiency. Physical presence does not always guarantee focused activity. Normality is in the eye of the beholder.
What needs to change is the language around work.

Let us all try to remember that what feels “normal” to many (especially many leaders) is particularly challenging for some.

Let us not devalue the lived experience of our colleagues who are more productive and happier when working from home.

And in recognition that “normal” means different things for different people, let us strive to listen to what many of our colleagues are telling us about where and how they wish to work.

Instead of going back to normal we need to move forward to something different. The climate, environment and society depends on it.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Webinar recordings - what's missing?

Photo by Samantha Borges on Unsplash
The past couple of years have seen an explosion in the number of webinars aimed at educators. Many of these are recorded and many recordings get many more views than the original live session. However, watching a recording is a very different experience to participating live. Live webinars feature interactive elements like chat, polls and external tools and those are generally missing from the recordings. What's left is the content minus a lot of the discussion. Here are a few thoughts on what's missing and suggestions on how to make recordings more valuable.

Chat.
In many webinars the chat contains valuable comments, links and information that offer added value. It's a space to share ideas and experience and sometimes the chat is more interesting than the speaker. I used to use Adobe Connect and there the chat is included in the recording, raising the value considerably, often including lots of valuable links to related articles and projects. Some people focused on the chat during the live session and watched the recording to hear what the speakers said. However in Zoom the chat is not included in the recording and as a result an important element of the webinar communication is lost. I can understand that including the chat in the recording requires the approval of all participants and that this was not fully respected before. You can, of course, download a text file of the chat but that needs to be edited and converted so that the links become active and unnecessary comments removed. I would like to see the return of the chat window in the recording, maybe with the option to anonymise the names of those commenting.

Context
Participants' anonymity in recordings is important but it can backfire. In Zoom recordings the names of those who appear are hidden and so it's not always clear who is speaking. You see the face and hear the voice but who is it? Another issue is that the speakers refer to comments in the chat that viewers of the recording cannot see or the results of a poll that are invisible in the recording. That's why it's important to read out the comment first before answering it. It's very frustrating to hear comments like "Thanks for that insightful comment Anna" and not tell us what the comment was. Many presenters are unaware that the results of a poll are not shown in the recording so please avoid saying, "as you can see from the poll results ..." Awareness of what is recorded and what it will look like is essential.

Video
It's important to be aware of what is being recorded. Whoever initiates the recording must make sure that they stay in speaker view so that the speaker is in focus. It's easy to forget this and by accident you show the full gallery of participants in the recording with the risk that one of them does something distracting, forgetting that they are in full view. At the same time it can also be effective to switch briefly to gallery view at some point to show viewers of the recording that there were many people present in the session. That requires the consent of the participants of course but it gives a sense of community to the recording, that you are part of an event. Otherwise the recording can be focused on one face for lengthy periods and there is no sense that anyone else was present.

Editing
Many of us tend to just upload an unedited recording and share the link. Watching a recording means that you often have to press the forward wind button to skip the small talk and transitions. An edited version of maybe 25 minutes with the key points would be the best option and get more attention than a long and 60 minutes, warts and all. Watch a recording and you'll be surprised how much time is spent on pleasantries, introductions and transitions. Important for the flow of the live event but irrelevant in the recording. An edited version should also include captioning. All that takes time of course, something that most teachers lack, but the value of the recording is increased significantly.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Digital resilience - navigating a myriad of tools and platforms

Photo by Matt Walsh on Unsplash
Digital resilience for me is the ability to adapt in a digital world: being able to use a variety of devices, tools and platforms and being able to carry out standard checks and routines when something doesn't work as expected. Vendors always claim their products to be intuitive and user-friendly but that only applies when you've learned how to use them. That resilience has been tested to the limit during the pandemic as we all work from home and are completely dependent on all our digital devices, tools and spaces.

Most organisations offer staff a limited but structured range of digital tools and platforms for everyday use. Those are maintained, regularly tested and updated and there is support, backup and security for all. Even within the organisation the range can be wide enough to cause confusion, but as soon as you start working with external partners the complexities increase. Most days I move relatively nimbly between the university's platforms to all sorts of external ones. Meetings are mostly in Zoom but also in Teams or Google Meet or even Skype. I have contacts spread over e-mail, Zoom chat, Whatsapp, Messenger, Twitter, Facebook groups, Slack as well as various discussion forums. I share documents in Microsoft 365, Box and Google Drive. The list goes on. Navigating all these takes time and energy and maybe our overflowing toolboxes are an energy drain rather than an advantage. 

The more tools we use the more inefficient we get and this is the gist of an article in TechRepublic, Remote working technology is creating a productivity nightmare. It describes results from a survey produced by Cornell University and QatalogWorkgeist Report ‘21, that investigated over 1,000 employees' attitudes to the plethora of digital tools used during the home working period of the last year. The price of this digital diversity has been high with 43% of those surveyed saying that they spend too much time switching between tools and using up to an hour every day checking for and answering messages on different platforms.

As a result, employees are wasting up to five hours every week switching between different digital tools, cycling through tabs and digging through messaging channels. It's also fuelling workplace slip-ups, with 48% of respondents admitting to making mistakes as a result of being unable to keep track of what's going on across different channels.

The report claims that productivity tools are killing productivity with information and communication distributed over a growing number of platforms, tools and apps. Information often gets lost in e-mail conversations or in Slack groups that are simply invisible to everyone else. Restricted communication is of course essential but these spaces can sometimes hide important enclosed documents that are not stored anywhere else.

People are losing time scouring messaging channels, navigating project management boards, and digging through cloud storage systems. They spend about of their typical workday doing this; it’s time that could be better spent doing focussed work like designing a new product or getting user feedback.

Some people take a dislike to their organisation's recommended tool and decide to use an alternative. This tool may well suit their purpose but using it means that the information shared there is invisible to the rest of the organisation. Important information risks being stored in silos that only a few people know about. According to Tariq Rauf, CEO and founder of Qatalog, in the TechRepublic article:
There's been an explosion in the number of apps we rely on to do our jobs, but the result isn't greater productivity – it's total chaos. ... No matter their individual merits, each tool is adding to a noisy digital environment that is, quite literally, driving workers to distraction. The more time that we waste on this mess, the less we have for deep thought and meaningful engagement with our colleagues.
The report offers recommendations to organisations on how to streamline their use of digital tools and find smarter solutions that facilitate transparency and ease of use. However, the problem for many of us remain - no matter how well-planned your internal communication channels are, whenever you step outside and work with external partners your collection of tools starts growing again. While we wait for the ultimate solution (Godot 2.0?) we will need to become even more resilient.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Busyness and the quest for approval

Is the cult of busyness in danger of dying out at last in the wake of the pandemic? Being extremely busy has been a status symbol for many years and social media have been full of busy people proudly telling everyone else how busy they are. It's a lifestyle that is reflected and spurred by popular culture presenting role models who effortlessly combine extremely demanding careers with family, ambitious building and renovation projects, vibrant social life, hobbies and work for charity. Holidays are as filled with activity as working days and just hanging around doing nothing special is not an option. This stress is not always due to pressure from employers, much of it is self-imposed in an attempt to prove your worth and gain approval. Social media have flourished as a channel for this.

The potential demise of this frenzied lifestyle is discussed in an article by Shayla Love in Vice magazineThe cult of busyness. Busyness is full of paradoxes.Those who are most proud of their busyness are those who could easily afford to take it easy but seek status by being constantly booked up and stressed. Those who are poorer don't see their lack of time as a status symbol - for them it's the only way to make ends meet in a gig economy where one job is never enough.

Busyness is a powerful social signal, though a somewhat counterintuitive one. At the turn of the 20th century, economists predicted that the ultimate symbol of wealth and success would be leisure—showing others that you were so successful that you could abstain from work. Instead, the opposite occurred. It’s not free time, but busyness, that gestures to a person’s relevance.

The education sector is particularly afflicted with busyness. In higher education the pressure to design and run courses as well as conducting research, writing articles and applying for funding means that many are putting in far more working hours than they will ever be paid for. Sadly many posts in social media glorify this kind of lifestyle and create a culture of guilt among those who can't match the extreme productivity of those who post that over the weekend they have graded so many exam papers, applied for research funding, written a new book chapter and had a fun day out with the family. Stress creates stress and becomes a hamster wheel that we can't escape from.

The past year has forced many to reconsider their busyness. When you work from home and there are no events or meetings to rush to there is suddenly more time available. You realise how much of your working days were spent in transit to meetings or classes. The article describes the process of deceleration where the number of busy activities is drastically reduced and there is more time to focus on what's left. Many people realise that they don't want to go back to commuting to the office, drinking coffee on the go or eating lunch in front of a screen. 

I can't see us completely abandoning busyness, but a slower lifestyle has at least gained approval and there are more status updates in social media showing more relaxing activities like walks in the country, gardening or other hobbies. Even when we return to our offices I suspect there will be new routines and many of us will not want to go there every day. Pressures will remain but if we can at least think twice before we post updates boasting of how many tasks we have completed today that will be an improvement. Think what effect your update will have on others and tag down a bit. Share your good moments but not your stress.

Will these changes stick? Or will we go right back to worshipping busyness at the cost of everything else? Bellezza isn’t as optimistic about deceleration replacing busyness as the leading social status signal, but she acknowledged that when she started studying busyness, there wasn’t any discussion about deceleration at all. She’s glad it’s entered the conversation, and tries to practice deceleration in her own life.

A final thought. This phenomenon is of course available to people in well-paid stable jobs that allow the freedom to choose how they work. Most people don't have the option. We need to remember that before we generalise about the future of work. But that's another topic.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

MOOCs in study circles for teacher professional development

A return to an old theme this week of how we can use MOOCs to complement on-site training. Even if many MOOCs offer opportunities for forum discussions, many people would benefit from face-to-face discussions around the course material, especially in their own language. There are many examples around the world where groups of people decide to form a support community to help each other through a MOOC (MOOC meet-ups, learning hubs etc). This community can meet weekly either online or better still face-to-face. The community offers a safe space for asking question and discussing course topics and can be the difference between completing the course and dropping out in confusion.

The idea of self-organising study groups is firmly anchored in the Nordic tradition of study circles developed in the 19th century by pioneers like the Danish pastor N. F. S. Grundtvig. The principle here is also collaborative learning, a kind of community of interest. None of the group is necessarily an expert or teacher so the group decides together how to structure the course and one course can inspire a new one. Generally one of the circle acts as a facilitator but the study form is collaborative investigation and discussion. This form of study has spread internationally and can today be applied to studying a MOOC. The general principles and generic examples of the MOOC can be adapted by the study circle to local and specific cases thereby adding relevance and practical application.

One area where MOOCs can make an impact is in professional development. There are, for example, plenty of courses aimed at teachers and the study circle approach can work very well. To encourage this the European Commission’s Teacher Academy initiative on the School Education Gateway has published  a guide entitled Using Massive Open Online Courses in Schools. How to set up school-based learning communities to improve teacher learning on MOOCs. This is a step-by-step guide to organising a study group at a school or college to study a MOOC as professional development. Studying individually is challenging for many: finding time and maintaining motivation as well as the challenges of adapting to the course technology and learning in a foreign language. The moral support of colleagues adds a dimension that is not available in many MOOCs and the group can discuss how to apply the lessons learned in their own practice.

The study groups therefore offered a framework to support colleagues with low levels of digital and self-regulated learning competence to help them benefit from a MOOC, while at the same time contextualising and localising what was learned on the MOOC and facilitating a transfer to practice. Feedback from study group participants and the eight pilot teachers suggests that the study groups successfully addressed all of these areas. 
Here's a short film that gives a clear overview of the project and its outcomes.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Reading print is different to reading on screen

Photo by Olena Sergienko on Unsplash
I read a lot, both on paper and in digital formats, but the way I read the two formats is different. I find it hard to read lengthy texts on a screen, no matter how sharp the resolution. Maybe it's because I'm getting old and stuck in my ways, but I just can't concentrate on a digital text in the same way as a printed one. Digital texts come complete with built-in distractions (alerts from social media, e-mails, other web sites) that are always more interesting than what I'm reading and somehow I find myself programmed to distraction when I'm on a digital device. My digital reading tends to be fragmented and unfocused - skimming through articles to get the gist, checking references, following links to new content. I can also reveal that the same is true for writing. Writing online is a very messy process for me with repeated diversions to chats, e-mails, social media etc. and this post would certainly have been written much quicker on paper.

This cannot be written off as a generational issue according to an article by Naomi S. Baron in The ConversationWhy we remember more by reading – especially print – than from audio or video. Students have similar problems in reading digital texts and the article suggests that this is because we automatically adopt an entertainment mindset when approaching digital material. Research indicates that students remember more details from printed material because it demands more focused attention in a way that the digital equivalent does not. Reading a book is a spatial experience and we often remember details connected to where on the page or on which page a particular detail is mentioned. 

Interestingly, there is also evidence that many people have difficulty remembering details from audio and video material, so popular today in education in the context of the flipped classroom approach. Somehow our mind wanders when listening to or watching a recording and we all recognise the feeling of listening to news on the radio but not remembering what you have just heard. We also tend to do other things when we listen or watch (like running, making food, checking our mobile) in our futile attempts to be efficient multitaskers. Somehow, reading printed material is one activity that still demands full concentration.

The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.

Reading, listening and viewing in an educational context are skills that need to be developed. We need to become more aware of our concentration levels and our vulnerability to distraction and employ strategies to focus. This can mean taking notes or drawing a mind map. Or simply shutting down all our distractions.

Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn’t assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.

Paper is not inherently "better" than digital but its limitations are also an advantage in terms of not offering any potential distractions. In a world of distractions the ability to focus is a vital skill to learn.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Conferences - from exclusive to inclusive events

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Technology is often used simply to enable us to continue doing what we have always done but in a digital space. The same seems to be true for online conferences. New platforms and tools are being launched almost weekly and there is a bewildering diversity for organisers to choose between. The corporate market for online conferences is booming and will no doubt replace many of the on-site conferences after the pandemic has faded (though that could be further in the future than most would like to imagine). Digital media have the potential to help us rethink the conference into inclusive and accessible spaces for networking and sharing and there have indeed been many innovative examples in recent months, offering more spaces for discussion and networking as well as offering both synchronous and asynchronous activities. However, it is extremely hard to break from tradition and academic conferences are vital rites of passage for young researchers by having a conference paper accepted. 

This week I enjoyed reading a couple of articles by Catherine Oliver of the London School of Economics. Her article in The Post-pandemic UniversityPost-Pandemic Conferences: Academic networks and changing conference spaces, describes how online conferences have the potential to become more inclusive but that there is a risk that we will return to the the old hierarchies and privileges. Changing traditions involves so much more than simply creating the potential for change, there has to be an awareness that things need to change. The academic conference model is tried, tested and comfortable. After the pandemic most people will want to return to their comfort zones.

The doors of the academic conference create a boundary that not only produces insiders and outsiders, but also the outsiders within. The doors of the academic conference have opened during Covid-19, but a return to in-person conferences threatens to slam them shut.
There are new opportunities to open up conferences but technology does not automatically bring change. It enables change but the will to change has to be there.  
Conferences are an important space for the making (and breaking) of academic communities. The doors to the academic conference are, in theory, more open than ever. But, with the UK government’s intention to get life “back to normal” by the 21st June 2021, the doors might be about to slam on accessible conferences. Conference hierarchies have not been flattened by the pandemic, but new spaces and opportunities are beginning to emerge. While conferences produce insiders and outsiders, they also allow for radical connections to be made; encounters that are more difficult to replicate at virtual conferences. Online networking comes with a host of new relations and rules. But, as we move to post-pandemic hybrid conferences, we must maintain the momentum to radically reimagine not only our academic spaces, but our academic communities.
Another article by Catherine Oliver, on the LSE's site, Online conferences: opening opportunities or reproducing inequality?, looks at those who are often marginalised in traditional conferences, precarious academics such as doctoral students looking for their first foothold on the academic ladder and researchers without the resources to travel. Many have benefited from this year's online conferences, being able to participate and contribute at very low cost and without the need for travel and lengthy visa applications. Many conferences have seen significant increases in attendance by going online and reducing or even waiving attendance fees. It is important not to forget them in our rush "back to normal".
The same care and attention owed to ‘in-person’ events needs to be paid to the organisation of online academic conferences if they are to be fertile spaces for doing academia differently. As we face uncertain futures, now is not the time to abandon precarious academics but to radically reimagine our knowledge production and communication spaces with accessibility, transparency, and openness at the centre.

There will certainly be a sigh of relief when on-site conferences return and many will flock back to the sense of community and shared experience that they offer. But we must remember that such events are always exclusive and many voices are never heard there. We need to learn from the past year and create more innovative and inclusive online conferences with a much lower threshold for involvement. The traditional conferences may hopefully also widen their scope and allow a variety of forms of participation.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Saying something stupid - giving students time to think

Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

How often do you wish you could delete something you said or at least get a chance to reformulate it? I do almost every day. In conversations and meetings we often make spontaneous comments that were not well formulated or even thought through. In discussion forums I sometimes edit something I wrote in haste, or I write a new statement showing that I have revised my idea. However, in spoken communication or indeed on Twitter it's hard to edit or retract. Once it's out there a remark can fly off into circulation - as many indiscreet celebrities and politicians can confirm. As a result, many people are reluctant to speak in meetings (physical or digital) in fear of saying something that may come back to haunt them in the future. Fear of revealing your vulnerability, that you don't really understand the topic yet and are fumbling for clarity.

Learning is all about changing your mind. New information and arguments mean that we are constantly reforming and refining our opinions. Curiously the media tend to attack politicians who change their mind about an issue seeing it as a sign of weakness instead of realising that we are constantly changing our opinion as new facts and ideas are assimilated. Of course we have very fixed basic principles of what is right and wrong but the rest is flexible. Changing your opinion is a sign that you are learning and can listen to other arguments.

So how can we work with this in teaching? I think it's important to give students time to refine their ideas before they go into a class discussion. If you ask a question in class you are often met with silence. They all have answers but they're not ready to share them yet. If you want a good discussion you need to let them formulate and refine their ideas first in a secure setting. In an online class for example, this can be done by asking everyone to take a pen and paper, turn off cameras and microphones and spend, say, five minutes to write down responses to a question you ask. Then put them in pairs where each partner explains their answer uninterrupted for a couple of minutes and then they briefly discuss these answers. When the class is back together again they can all share their answers anonymously using a polling tool like Mentimeter or AnswerGarden. The ideas have now been refined through pair discussion but it's good to let them appear without names. Then the variety of responses can be the basis of larger group discussions where the group can formulate a new answer that is more mature. Finally we can start a class discussion where the fear of saying something "stupid" has been reduced significantly. This process can also be prepared asynchronously before the online meeting and then letting them discuss in pairs or small groups so that they all have something to contribute to the class discussion.

The main point is to build a foundation for discussion rather than plunging straight in. If we allow for a period of silence before expecting any answers there is a greater chance that more people will contribute. We can't always use the method I explained above but when you ask a question in a meeting or class tell people to think about it for even a couple of minutes before inviting answers. More thoughtful answers are worth a couple of minutes of awkward silence.

PS

Soon after publishing this post I came across a very relevant article by Nikole D. Patson on the same theme: Collaborative Note-taking as an Alternative to Recording Online Sessions.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The power of grades - student resistance to collaborative learning


The concept of the flipped classroom, where lecture input is recorded and classroom meetings focus on discussion and problem-solving, has become extremely popular, not least during the pandemic as a way of making online classes more participatory. However, like all attempts to diverge from traditional practices, there is often opposition, especially from the students who may see new methods as a threat. The key issue seems to be the perceived withdrawal of the teacher from the centre stage as the students are given the freedom to take control of their learning and learn through collaboration. This can be seen as an unwelcome imposition by many students and leads to insecurity since traditional roles and models have been disturbed.

This sense of threat is clearly described in an article in the journal Teaching in Higher EducationWhat does it mean to do teaching? A qualitative study of resistance to Flipped Learning in a higher education context (sadly not open access). It describes the implementation of a flipped learning approach in a teacher training programme at Macquarie University in Australia. The main benefit of flipped learning is that by switching the delivery of content to recorded lectures and demonstrations this will enable teachers to devote contact time to providing timely feedback, guiding, challenging and encouraging. The problem is that students have high expectations of the teacher as performer and see the flipped model as an abdication of responsibility. The stand-up lecture is seen as the definition of teaching - that's what teachers do. When that is withdrawn, the students feel cheated.

As indicated in the title of this paper, the Flipped Learning trial was met with resistance – in fact vociferous resistance. As I analysed data from the study and also reflected on my engagement with students during the delivery of the flipped course, a ubiquitous refrain emerged. Students drew persistent attention to an absence. In absenting from the traditional stand and deliver tutorial presence, I had denied my student’s access to the sage on the stage. My student’s indicated fear of missing out on critical information, discomfort of engaging in core content in asynchronous environments and resentment of what they understood as my absence in the tutorial (i.e. I was no longer sage on the stage but a guide to the side).

The students saw the method as at best interesting, but most commonly useless, time-consuming and confusing. The traditional lecture-based approach is seen as a way of guaranteeing that the necessary course material has been "covered" and that the students know what they have to learn for the exam.

The need to get the best exam grades to enhance future job prospects is the hard currency of higher education and pedagogic innovation sometimes clashes with these very pragmatic needs. This clash is demonstrated in another interesting article: Mediating Students’ Fixation with Grades in an Inquiry-Based Undergraduate Biology Course. Here students on a year one course in biology at Borealis University were studied as they worked through a redesigned course based on inquiry-based learning. Instead of the traditional lecture-based format, the students were expected to collaborate to investigate the main topics and reflect on the process.

... the curriculum required students to work cooperatively in groups to design and execute experiments that are authentically novel, gather and analyze data, and present their findings orally and in writing. Evaluative criteria included rubrics for transferred skills, and summative assessments for acquisition and application. Scientific concepts of uncertainty, peer review, and self-reflection were explicit parts of the design.
This approach has been shown to lead to deeper learning as well as learning vital skills of search skills, source criticism, collaboration and self-reflection, but the results show a serious mismatch between the teachers' well planned approach and the students' perception of teaching. As in the first example, the students were vociferous in their criticism of the course methods and were especially critical that the experiment seriously threatened their chances of getting the top grades they need to progress in their career path. The teacher expected them to work things out for themselves and that was seen as an abdication of responsibility - the teacher is expected to go through the syllabus and make it clear to students exactly what they need to know to get a top grade.

Instructors who did not give explicit directions or answer questions directly were perceived as obstructionist. One student framed her professor’s response to her repeated requests for directions as adversarial, saying, “[The instructor] said, ‘You’re not gonna have a step by step. You need to figure it out.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not paying tuition to figure it out myself.’”

The article concludes that the extrinsic motivation of grades has a negative effect on the intrinsic motivation needed for an inquiry-based approach to succeed. The inquiry-based approach was designed to enhance student autonomy but the effect was the opposite - students felt cast adrift and powerless whereas in the traditional setting they felt more autonomous because it was clear what they had to do to achieve desired results. It's hard to be creative in a world governed by grades.

The key takeaway here is that any changes in course design have to be clearly communicated to the students and they need to know why the changes have been made and how it will benefit them. In this case the student expectations were completely at odds with the teachers' methodology. Maybe if you want to implement more collaborative methods you should introduce them in stages though the first year, slowly working towards collaborative learning rather than throwing the students in at the deep end. This means that all teachers in a programme have agreed on this progress and that each course is part of a progression towards greater autonomy and active learning.

References

Wilson, K. (2020) What does it mean to do teaching? A qualitative study of resistance to Flipped Learning in a higher education context, Teaching in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2020.1822312

DeFeo, D.J., Tran, T.C. & Gerken, S. Mediating Students’ Fixation with Grades in an Inquiry-Based Undergraduate Biology Course. Sci & Educ 30, 81–102 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-020-00161-3


Sunday, May 2, 2021

Mind your language - the problems of English as default

Photo by Nothing Ahead from Pexels

English is the default language of international communication but at the same time this puts native speakers in an extremely privileged position. Most international conferences feature keynotes by native English speakers and these voices tend to be prominent in most workshops and seminar sessions. Those whose command of English is less than perfect tend to sit quietly and listen. It would be interesting to see a study of whether active participation is directly linked to confidence in English. Even those whose English is extremely proficient may have trouble understanding the native speakers who often use idioms  or jokes and cultural references that only native speakers will be familiar with. I have often listened to speeches and wondered if anyone else in the hall understood the highly culturally specific reference made by the speaker. It's not enough to simply be proficient at English, you need to learn an entire culture.

This is illustrated by the opening of an article in KQEDTower Of Babble: Nonnative Speakers Navigate The World Of 'Good' And 'Bad' English.

Picture this: A group of nonnative English speakers is in a room. There are people from Germany, Singapore, South Korea, Nigeria and France. They're having a great time speaking to each other in English, and communication is smooth. And then an American walks into the room. The American speaks quickly, using esoteric jargon ("let's take a holistic approach") and sports idioms ("you hit it out of the park!"). And the conversation trickles to a halt.

I've had similar experiences when I was learning Swedish many years ago. We non-native speakers could have very good discussions because we had all learned the same vocabulary and grammar, but when a Swede entered the conversation we suddenly got tongue-tied. They used expressions we didn't recognise and spoke so quickly. No-one wanted to reveal their limitations. 

The article gives several examples of how non-native speakers can be excluded or marginalised and the main point is that native speakers should learn to adapt their language to the audience they are speaking to. This doesn't mean simplifying, but being able to recognise idioms and references that the audience cannot be expected to grasp. English speakers who have never tried to learn another language are often insensitive to this and often speak as they would to their colleagues at home not realising how they are failing to connect with the audience.

The tests that non-native English speakers need to pass to gain access to international work are also unfairly discriminatory according to the article. They test a very particular form of English and people who have an excellent command of the language for the work they do can fail tests like the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) because they haven't grasped the finer points of written academic English or indeed the differences between American and British English.

The test also requires making a clear choice between British and American spelling and vocabulary. That "can trip up people whose English comes from various sources" — say, a third from British textbooks and two-thirds from American movies.

Indeed, the differences between American and British English are becoming increasingly blurred especially in the UK where American media and culture are so prevalent. I'm sure you'll find a mix of the two in my writing. Is this worth testing today? What matters if whether the candidate has the level of English to do their job. According to Lithuanian journalist Daiva Repečkaitė:

"As the pandemic rages," she said, "I worry that there might be countless refugee doctors and nurses who just haven't read enough Shakespeare or haven't practiced enough multiple-choice, fill-in exercises to pass these tests in English-speaking countries." Especially at a time when the burden of COVID-19 weighs heavily on the world, Repečkaitė says, we all suffer when skilled professionals like doctors are prevented from helping people.

Linguistic integration is a two-way process and native speakers need to learn to adapt their language in international contexts. Avoid unnecessary idioms, references and jokes, speak a little more slowly and clearly and your message will be clear. Otherwise the audience may still give polite applause but they will not have understood your message. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Escaping from the exam hall

Traditions are so hard to break and one of the most entrenched is the proctored written examination. Writing for hours in a silent hall with only your memory to help you has been a rite of passage for generations of students all over the world; my own student years were dominated by these stressful events. The exam halls have been empty for over a year now but the problem of how to examine large groups of students online has lead to much stress and debate. Many have questioned the value of high-stakes summative examination; what valuable career skills are we actually testing in the exam hall? The problem is finding an alternative that will work with large student cohorts and can minimise the risk of cheating.

Interest is growing in more authentic assessment methods such as projects, case studies and portfolios, but these all involve major shifts in course design and teaching practice. Teachers who have always used proctored exams need training and time to reorganise their courses around alternative assessment methods and students will also need to be convinced of the benefits. In a recent article, a teacher here in Sweden described how he carries out one-to-one interviews with all students as an examination method, even with classes of over 200 (read article in Swedish). Each interview takes 15-20 minutes and if that seems like a lot he claimed that correcting written papers took roughly the same time per student. An interview is more personal and makes cheating extremely difficult and an experienced teacher gets a good picture of the student's ability in that time. 

This however is an exceptional option and most teachers have chosen solutions that try to emulate the exam hall. A common makeshift solution is where all students log into Zoom and are then monitored via their webcams and microphones. There are plenty of digital examination tools that will lock down the student's computer for the duration of the exam but the most controversial solution has been to use the remote proctoring solutions offered by companies like Proctorio, ProctorU and ExamSoft. These solutions involve remote monitoring of students, AI analysis of facial expressions, keystrokes, mouse clicks and registration of any suspicious activities in the student's room (someone entering the room). The integrity and privacy issues of this kind of surveillance and the question of what the companies do with all that data has been well covered in the past year.

However, it is tempting for a university to opt into remote proctoring since it fits in so well with traditional examination. Remote proctoring allows teachers to continue using their summative examinations and the alternatives all seem to demand extra work and retraining, something most already over-worked teachers will object to. A good example of an institution that was brave enough to avoid remote proctoring and help teachers make the transition to authentic examination is described in  an article by a group from the University of Michigan–DearbornWhat Happens When You Close the Door on Remote Proctoring? Moving Toward Authentic Assessments with a People-Centered Approach. Despite pressure to implement remote proctoring they decided to focus on changing their approach to assessment and examination by supporting teachers in their transition. The article explains their rationale for this move and describes the support process that included weekly practical workshops to work through new methods. To lessen the teachers' workload they hired a numbered of specially trained graders to help with the more time-consuming assessment of the new examination methods. The initiative is not complete and they have not completed a transition to authentic assessment but the new approach is gaining acceptance. In conclusion they offer the following advice.

In our experience, leaders such as educational developers, instructional designers, academic technologists, department chairs, and deans will need to be prepared to extensively support faculty during the transition. Many instructors have been using proctored exams for their entire careers and see them as essential to the teaching and learning process. Even as teaching and learning professionals may be eager to see instructors drop high-stakes exams all together, it is important to recognize that changing a long-held teaching practice can feel destabilizing and will likely bring some unforeseen challenges and resistance from instructors (Smith, 2020). Monetary resources saved from the refusal of remote proctoring services can be redirected to invest in ongoing faculty development on assessment and other teaching-related topics. We believe our investment in people, rather than remote proctoring services, will be more robust to the inevitable changes in learning formats and technology that are to come.