Sunday, April 11, 2021

Great expectations and how to manage them

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Isn't amazing that some people always misunderstand your most carefully planned and explained activities? What seems crystal clear in your head seems unclear and messy to others. Often it boils down to assumptions and expectations that are not clearly defined. Each student and teacher enters a course with their own preconceptions and assumptions of what they can expect and what is expected of them. It is so easy to think of students as a collective instead of a diverse group of individuals thrown together by chance in your particular course. Their expectations have been formed by previous courses and teachers and it is natural that they expect your course to be similar to the course they took last term. Much has been written about the difficulties of getting students to turn on their cameras in meetings or of students dropping out when group work starts but often it is because they don't see the activity as meaningful. Why is the group work important and why do they need to turn on their cameras? Too often we simply assume that this is obvious. The start of each course is therefore a renegotiation of how we approach the challenges ahead of us. The more explicit this negotiation the greater the likelihood of success. 

This is one of the themes in an article in E-learn magazine by Tom LangstonEngaging Students: An Approach to Solving the Zoom Conundrum. He describes the importance of each class negotiating a code of conduct that isn't simply a case of the students agreeing to the teachers expectations but reaching a mutually acceptable framework. It's also about addressing students' expectations of each other.

When you start teaching a class, it can be easy to highlight who you are and what you might intend to cover over the course of the module. It might also be less often that you explicitly tell the students what you are expecting from them. Even if you do, do they explicitly agree to your “demands” on them? This is where a conversation can help shape what is to come throughout the entire teaching block. If you are explicit about your standards and why you approach things the way you do, there can be no recourse from the students about why they have not held up their part of the agreement. Or you to yours.

Managing expectations is just as relevant on campus as online, though the mismatches are more pronounced in online courses. Another dimension that adds to the expectation mismatch is the increasing diversity of students from traditional young campus students to older lifelong learners with work and families to deal with. Mix in cultural diversity and you have a myriad of expectations and potential for misunderstanding. In today's multi-layered university it is unwise to assume. There is no one magic formula but a constant dialogue and negotiation, offering students a variety of spaces for interaction and collaboration.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Teaching without video meetings

Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash

Synchronous meetings in Zoom/Teams/Google Meet have become the default teaching method over the past year but fatigue is setting in and many wonder if we really need to meet this way so often. Lecture sessions can be pre-recorded and discussions can often become more reflective in asynchronous forums or other discussion tools where everyone has time to consider their opinion and not simply react spontaneously as in a synchronous meeting. Could the frequency of video meetings be due to the feeling that that is what we are expected to do? Lots of meetings make everyone feel like they are working hard, but could learning take place just as well, if not better, without them?  

Some answers to these questions are discussed in an interesting article by Lucy Biederman in Inside Higher Ed, Goodbye, Zoom Fatigue. She teaches several classes very successfully without the use of video meetings and gives the following examples:

  • An advanced poetry seminar where students work together during the scheduled course times each week, communicating on Google chat as they do, to create a website that features a deep dive into one significant American poem each week. They collaborated to provide background, context, close readings, writing prompts based on the poem and more.
  • A business and professional writing course taught entirely on Slack, providing students experience with a new-to-them workplace application. Students communicated with me and one another on channels devoted to course topics and through direct messages.
  • An introductory creative writing course where students maintain individual blogs in which they explore course texts and their own writing processes throughout the semester. A page on the learning management system shares every students' blog address. Students create a community of writers by reading and commenting on each other's blogs.
In these examples the students are very active, learning together and interacting. These methods are also more inclusive in that they do not make high demands on bandwidth, devices or time constraints. The process is visible to all and the teacher is able to offer feedback at all stages. It also mirrors how virtual teamwork is conducted in professional life. This approach may not be valid for all subjects and levels but it raises questions around why we are so dependent on synchronous meetings even when many people feel that they are repetitive and uninspiring.

This does not mean that we should stop having video meetings but that we should always consider if they are essential and whether other methods would be more effective. Video lessons, like classroom time, can sometimes give us a sense of activity without really contributing to learning. We need to match each learning outcome to an appropriate method and space and be ready to challenge comfortable traditions.


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Drowning in content but what we need is community

CC0 Image created by Catherine Cordasco by @unitednations on Unsplash

Over the past year teachers all over the world have recorded and stored millions of videos, from short instructions to long lectures. Most of them can only be used once but are seldom deleted and as a result many institutions' servers are bursting with terabytes of video content. Storage is not as cheap as many think and as servers fill up we need to think of ways to free up space for more valuable content. Many institutions including my own compress and save seldom used content in archives but as production levels continue to mushroom we need to start asking why we need to produce all this. Why do teachers put so much time and effort into content production? 

One obvious solution is sharing such material as OER (open educational resources) and allowing others to reuse and adapt the material. Why record a lecture when there are hundreds of similar lectures already freely available? I'm sure you can be a good teacher without ever recording a lecture of your own and spending time focusing on facilitation, tutorials and feedback. But sadly OER has still not become mainstream despite greater awareness, according to a American recent survey reported by Campus technologyFaculty Awareness of OER Has Increased for 5 Years Straight, Yet Adoption Is Flat.

While OER awareness went up, for the first time in the past decade, adoption of OER as required course materials did not increase. Why? The researchers hypothesized that with last year's pandemic-induced shift from face-to-face to online instruction, faculty time was monopolized by pedagogical concerns. "[Flat OER adoption rates] may have been the result of the considerable amounts of time faculty had to put into converting their courses, leaving them no time to invest in the exploration and evaluation of new materials,"

Teachers feel bound by tradition to deliver content and the students expect the teacher to deliver content and it's very hard to escape from this mindset. Even if we know there is open content available we feel that we are not doing our job if we use other's material. If it's fine to recommend other people's books and articles it should be okay to recommend their recorded lectures.

This is reinforced in a recent article by David Kellermann in Times Higher EducationAcademics aren’t content creators, and it’s regressive to make them so. The pandemic has forced everyone to become video editors and generally not very good ones.

Suddenly academics became video editors – mostly bad ones – and our students turned to YouTube, because on YouTube you can get a better explanation of the same thing (for free I might add). Universities turned from communities of learning and collaboration into B-grade content providers. This is the death march of higher education. Universities are not content providers. Somewhere along this unplanned journey we lost our way.

The main point of this article is that instead of producing vast volumes of content that already exist the university should focus on creating communities, providing context rather than content. The campus itself creates a sense of belonging with spaces that facilitate meetings, discussions and networking as well as having a strong identity in its architecture and setting. The article quotes Eli Noam: the strength of the future physical university lies less in pure information and more in college as a community. 

Today's online spaces lack these advantages and tend to be a collection of closed silos. The lessons of the pandemic must include the need to develop more social, interactive and engaging digital spaces that can complement the campus spaces. The endless production of video content is a distraction from this crucial challenge.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Hybrid teaching - the new normal or yet another stress factor?

As universities prepare for a post-pandemic future, there is a lot of discussion about hybrid or even hyflex teaching where classes are held both on campus and online and students are able to choose how they wish to access the class. Hyflex even includes the option of being able to participate completely asynchronously but with exactly the same learning outcomes and examination requirements. It sounds great but doing this well will demand considerable effort and there are many pitfalls to beware of. Few classrooms are equipped for hybrid teaching for a start. Many institutions have already started converting classrooms for greater flexibility, generally involving the purchase of multiple screens, microphones, cameras and other hardware, much to the delight of the tech industry.

The idea of offering greater flexibility to students is fine but there are also dangers of taking a simplistic approach to a complex issue. Hybrid teaching is nothing new and many institutions have been doing it for years. It works relatively well for traditional large-scale lecturing since the students are largely passive regardless of location. The problems emerge when you add more interactivity. The classroom students then tend to dominate the discussion sessions and online students are often reduced to passive spectators since they are not as visible and it is hard to get the teacher's attention. Managing group work both in class and online is quite demanding on the teacher, especially if you want to have mixed campus and online groups. 

This all adds to the stress levels of already overstretched teachers after the past year's intensive pivot to online education, discussed in an article by teacher Amanda White in Times Higher EducationUpskill fatigue: will hybrid and hyflex tip academics over the edge? Despite her experience in online education, she admits that the past year has been very tiring and is worried that poorly implemented hybrid solutions will put even greater burdens on teachers. New teaching methods and skills will be required to ensure pedagogical quality and avoid falling into the trap of simply offering dual mode lecturing. Some institutions will be able to install expensive technology and provide essential support for their use but most will not, leaving teachers to rely on their multitasking skills, or lack of them.

While hybrid may seem like a panacea for the educational limbo we find ourselves in, implementing it poorly as a stopgap measure is likely to cause our educators more harm than good. Having educators without adequate training, learning design assistance, facilities and workload support is likely to pave the way for activities that do not engage the class, leaving online students cut adrift as observers.

Large lecture-based classes, often for first year students, are a tempting area for hybrid adaptation and Tony Bates warns against this in a new post, Teaching large lecture classes online in the fall? He advises universities to take the chance to change the model of teaching first year students and simply drop the large-scale lecture format except for a few exceptional occasions. Instead of lecturing, teachers need to help students find the information themselves and assess it.

When an instructor prepares a lecture, at least in first year, they are often doing work that the students could be doing: searching for information, raising issues, making a strong case or argument, coming to conclusions. These are skills that students increasingly need to develop themselves.
He also suggests that many first year classes could be smaller allowing for more collaborative group work and a teacher role more focused on facilitation and tutoring. If that is not possible then a more interactive and collaborative approach can be applied by a better use of prerecorded shorter lectures and a focus on asynchronous collaboration in the learning management system. In all cases we need to redesign our courses and review what technology we need. 
Without substantial re-design, moving large lectures online will increase the workload and stress on instructors, and/or will lead to poorer results for students. So now is the time for administrators and Deans to start asking whether we should be moving the large lecture classes online, or instead, finding better ways to deal with first year courses.
So should campus teaching become hybrid by default and if so, how do we deal with practical workshops, lab sessions and so on? I think we need to look carefully at which spaces to use for different types of activity. Sometimes we will have to insist on students coming to campus for essential hands-on training in fields like medicine, engineering, visual arts, music etc. Flexibility is fine but in some cases it can be dangerous and students need to be aware that although they can study online for some of the course there will be obligatory on-site training. At the same time we will definitely move to more hybrid solutions but they will demand course redesign and professional development for teachers if they are going to succeed.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when - the future of international conferences

Photo by Andrei Stratu on Unsplash

The future of international conferences is uncertain now that we have realised that you can have very productive meetings without the financial costs of travelling and accommodation as well as the environmental damage of hundreds of delegates flying in from all over the world. On-site conferences are always exclusive events due to costs, travel restrictions, linguistic barriers and accessibility issues. Only delegates from wealthy organisations can attend and those are the voices heard. Of course a digital event is not the same thing but that is hardly the point. We cannot go on meeting like this, for the sake of our planet's future.

These issues are raised in a new article by Holly J. Niner and Sophia N. Wassermann in the journal Frontiers in Marine ScienceBetter for Whom? Leveling the Injustices of International Conferences by Moving Online. They describe how the 6th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC6) was re-arranged as a digital conference and the effects this had on participation and delegate experience. Not surprisingly they increased the global impact of the event considerably; attendance increased by 74% compared to the previous on-site event with a significantly wider range of countries represented. Many of the delegates would not have been able to participate if the event had been on-site. They raise the value of benefits such as flexibility, convenience, the availability of recorded sessions and other on-line resources, lower cost and networking opportunities. The majority found the digital experience better than expected and were appreciative of being able to be part of such an event. However, many looked forward to attending in person for the next conference but admitted that a hybrid format would be able to offer an attractive alternative for those unable to attend in person.

Attending a digital conference also raises the issue of workplace culture. If you are in the office you are expected to perform your regular tasks and it is hard to simply refuse on the grounds that you are attending a conference just now. Many who attend on-site conferences enjoy the opportunity to escape the pressures of the workplace for a couple of days and add an automatic reply on the work e-mail account. It's not so easy if you're physically in the office.

Several survey respondents indicated that they struggled to “set aside” time to engage with the conference, owing to competing work demands that they were unable to step away from when attending a conference at home, instead of a location-based conference. Conversely, others enjoyed the flexibility of being able to dip in and out of the conference and to fit attendance around their commitments, many of which could prevent or challenge in-person attendance.
A move to online conferences will of course threaten many businesses, especially hotels, conference centres travel agencies and airlines. My own university has saved around €4 million over the past year in reduced travel and hotel costs. Organising an online event still involves a lot of planning and organisation as well as costs for platform, studios and production but the reduced costs mean that attendance fees can be reduced significantly and thus widen participation.

The big question is whether or not a return to the on-site format is at all desirable and the authors focus on a factor they call the privilege of preferring an in-person option. It's great to meet in person, if you can afford it. But so many people do not have that option.
This year has highlighted that online conferences can be valuable, inclusive and an opportunity to address many of the moral dilemmas posed by traditional conference models, particularly for the marine conservation community and others working in the fields of environmental or sustainability science and management. If organizations neglect the lessons learned from the pandemic and fail to embrace the opportunities of remote conference attendance, they knowingly exclude people. On an individual level, those of us able to attend a conference no matter where it is held should be cognizant of the fact that the option to prefer an in-person conference is predicated on the ability to attend one.

After the pandemic we have three options ahead of us: to rush back to the traditional formats and continue as before, to make some adjustments to the traditional format such as making some sessions available online in a hybrid model or to radically change how we meet and exchange ideas with a focus on developing collaborative and accessible online spaces. 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Hooked on lecturing?

Photo by Alexandre Pellaes on Unsplash

Even if we know that lecturing is not a very effective way of teaching, it is so hard to stop doing it. I find myself often in the absurd position of lecturing about why we need to move away from lecturing and every time I fall into the trap I promise to be better next time. My excuse is that people ask me to lecture so that's what I do. The problem is that I do enjoy it and I think I do it quite well and that makes it even harder to kick the habit. Sometimes I think I have made the session open to discussion and tried to stimulate interaction, but afterwards I realise in shame that it was 90% monologue, again. Of course I also run workshops and use lots of tools and methods to increase interaction but I keep falling back into traditional formats. How to escape from an irresistible force?

When educators get together in conferences and seminars we tend to give lectures on research work or methodology with pretty traditional questions-and-answers sessions. I once attended a conference on innovative pedagogy that consisted of many long and rather dull lectures from experts in the field. There are exceptions, but we seem to have great difficulty escaping the gravitational pull of tradition. It's what people expect teachers to do, especially at university, and it's so easy to oblige. A well-structured and lively lecture can be inspiring but the majority fall short. We try to throw in a few polls or buzz group discussions but in the end it's still a lecture.

Do you have this problem or have you managed to do a lecture detox? When you get an invitation to give a lecture at a big conference what do you say? 


Saturday, February 27, 2021

Avoiding Zoom fatigue and finding new ways to collaborate online

Photo by Surface on Unsplash

Many of us spend several hours a day in online meetings and the term Zoom fatigue has become a popular topic of discussion. Our extreme dependence on video meeting platforms is of course due to the exceptional times we live in and when we are able to meet face-to-face again the number of online meetings will no doubt decrease, though still much more frequent than before the pandemic. But what is missing in these online sessions? We can certainly see each other, smile, laugh, gesticulate and interact but what makes it all so tiring and rather repetitive?

A new study by Jeremy N. Bailenson of Stanford University, Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue, has investigated the factors behind Zoom fatigue and offers some remedies (see also a summary of the report in an article in New Atlas, Stanford study into “Zoom Fatigue” explains why video chats are so tiring. Bailenson highlights four main issues:

  • Eye-gaze at a close distance. We see a gallery of faces, many complete strangers, looking at us all the time. This would never happen in a physical meeting and can be rather disconcerting. Are they really looking at me and what are they thinking? Do I look all right or do they notice that my hair is a bit untidy or there's a pile of junk on the desk behind me?
  • Cognitive load. We often exaggerate our non-verbal signals to make them clear, like nodding very deliberately or looking straight into the camera. It's impossible to turn and smile at a colleague or exchange a knowing glance when a common issue is mentioned. We also have chat messages and other communication tools to deal with.
  • All-day mirror. We spend a lot of time looking at ourselves and being very aware of our appearance. This is a distraction and something we never have to deal with in physical meetings. One remedy for this is to cancel the self-view option in the platform. 
  • Reduced mobility. In physical meetings we sometimes stand up or stretch our legs for a few minutes but in online meetings we generally sit still for long periods, gazing at faces or slideshows. We also tend to sit very close to the computer camera and this adds to the strain. Maybe if we sometimes switched to audio-only we could all move around while we discuss and thus take a break from the gallery gaze.

But with Zoom, all people get the front-on views of all other people nonstop. This is similar to being in a crowded subway car while being forced to stare at the person you are standing very close to, instead of looking down or at your phone. On top of this, it is as if everyone in the subway car rotated their bodies such that their faces were oriented toward your eyes. And then, instead of being scattered around your peripheral vision, somehow all those people somehow were crowded into your fovea where stimuli are particularly arousing (Reeves et al., 1999). For many Zoom users, this happens for hours consecutively.

We also need to realise that we all need some recovery time before entering the next meeting. Although you can feel super-efficient by stacking online meetings one after the other, you will be much more efficient if you schedule at least 10 minutes between those meetings to simulate the time you would spend walking from one physical meeting to the next. Get up, go outside for a few minutes and mentally tune in to the next task.

So what's the alternative to the talking heads format? Maybe we need to stop gazing at each other and do things together. A post by David WhiteSpatial collaboration: how to escape the webcam, introduces the concept of spatial collaboration, where we focus not on our faces on the screen but on interacting in a shared space such as a whiteboard, collaborative documents like Google Drive or a storyboard like Padlet, Mural or Miro. We can all write or draw on these spaces and the focus is more on the activity and collaboration than our faces. One simple but effective method is how to create a discussion with the help of a simple drawing of a table and names around it.

My suggestion was to draw a very simple diagram of a table (just a square) and place each of the participants’ names around it for each group. We then shared this simple ‘map’ into the non-space of the platform and asked the groups to go clockwise around the table. This was an easy way to establish the order the discussion should go in, but I also noticed that there was suddenly a greater sense of togetherness and place. You could imagine who you were sat next to or opposite, and while this didn’t change the functionality of the technology it did change the psychology of it. It didn’t take much to help people imagine themselves into a shared location.
This spatial collaboration does not have to be noisy to be effective. You can have very rewarding silent collaboration (see my earlier post on this), at least for a few minutes, thus providing variation and reducing fatigue.  

Of course it's great to see each other, but maybe not as much as we do now. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Keynotes on demand


I have been invited to speak at many online conferences and webinars over the past year and although I always try to adapt my content to the audience, I often feel I'm just playing variations on a theme. I can imagine how it feels for the major speakers in the field and how many invitations they get each week to speak on much the same theme each time. In the past this meant extensive travel to international conferences, but today you can tour the world from the comfort of your own home.

One of the experts in demand just now is Tony Bates and he has announced an innovative approach to keynoting. He has an impressive track record in digital learning and despite "retiring" a few years ago he has maintained an impressive level of production with a very valuable blog, reports, lectures and one of the best books on online education, Teaching in a Digital Age (available as an open access book, practising what he preaches). Being in such demand it becomes hard to say no even if such appearances sometimes demand very uncomfortable working hours. You have to draw the line somewhere, but how to do that without disappointing?

So his innovative solution, described in a post, Five free keynotes on online learning for streaming into virtual conferences, is to record five different keynote speeches and offer them to any conference organisers under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA). They can be accessed from Commonwealth of Learning’s online institutional repository for learning resources and publications, OAsis, and can even be downloaded. This means conferences can include a major speaker as keynote without any live links, though he can make himself available for a personal Q&A session afterwards, either synchronously or if the time is inconvenient, asynchronously.

Here are direct links to the lectures:
Could this become more common in the future? Of course there are advantages of appearing live but since the purpose of a keynote is for inspiration it is feasible to use recorded lectures and focus the live sessions on discussion and interaction. An on-site conference has high profile keynote speakers as a major incentive to attend with the attraction of possibly meeting that person in a mingle session later on. In an online conference that advantage is largely lost so maybe we'll see more virtual keynotes that act as catalysts for more active discussion instead.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

You are being watched - the rise of educational surveillance


The use of artificial intelligence in education seems increasingly to be more about surveillance and control than fostering learning. During the past year there has been considerable concern about the ethics of remote proctoring where students were subject to constant surveillance by webcam, microphone and analysis of keystrokes and mouse clicks during online exams, see for example an article in Inside E-learning, Learning or surveillance? What students say about edtech and covid-19. Any unexpected activity in the student's behaviour (eg "abnormal eye movement") or movement in the room is detected and may lead to disqualification. Not only are such methods highly intrusive it is unclear what happens to all the data collected by the responsible companies. There must be better ways of assessing a student's ability than this.

If remote proctoring raises concerns then the next example sends shivers down the spine. An article on the site Rest of the worldChina is home to a growing market for dubious “emotion recognition” technology, describes how classrooms are equipped with face recognition technology and each student's facial reactions are constantly monitored. 
Every second, the surveillance cameras installed in each classroom at Niulanshan First Secondary School in Beijing snap a photo. The images are then fed into the Classroom Care System, an “emotion recognition” program developed by Hanwang Technology. It identifies each student’s face and analyzes their behavior: a student rifling through their desk might be labeled “distracted,” while another looking at the board would be labeled “focused.” Other behavioral categories include answering questions, interacting with other students, writing, and sleeping. Teachers and parents receive a weekly report through a mobile app, which can be unsparing: In one, a student who had answered just a single question in his English class was called out for low participation — despite the app recording him as “focused” 94% of the time.

Imagine then coupling this with analysis of every mouse click and keystroke and we have total control, or rather the illusion of control since the conclusions made by AI may be based on in-built biases (like the student called for low participation in the example above). The idea that algorithms can accurately assess a student's emotions by analysing facial expression is ridiculous. We all know how hard it is to read another person's face. But once you get AI making decisions it becomes almost impossible to question them since we tend to see computers as impartial and infallible. No matter how questionable such technologies may be there's big money to be made. The article claims that the emotional recognition market may be worth more than $33 billion by 2023. Money talks. For further serious concerns about facial recognition, see an article in Mashable9 scary revelations from 40 years of facial recognition research.

There are, of course, positive applications of AI in education but the key question in all cases is who owns the data, on what terms and do the students have the right to be forgotten? We all need to be very cautious about letting these technologies into the classroom.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Turn down the volume - Silence as a vital element in online teaching


How silent are your online classes and meetings? Probably not at all. We fill our synchronous meetings with talk and noise and feel awkward when no one wants to speak. But silence can help communication and stimulate reflection and has an important role to play both in the physical and digital classroom. In classroom teaching we often ask the students to work silently for a while but somehow in online sessions we feel the need to fill every moment with activity. After all the hectic online meetings and classes of the past year it's time to think more about how we can refine our online meeting skills and learn to embrace the power of silence. I've written about this theme several times in the past but it's always worth revisiting.

The simplest use of silence is to ask the class to switch off their microphones and cameras and spend a few minutes writing ideas on paper before starting a discussion. In this way all participants must try to formulate their ideas and everyone has something to say in the following discussion. For example, after such a silence they can be put into pairs in breakout groups where each person reads or explains what they have written in silence. Then they can form larger groups for a more structured task. In this way, everyone has contributed to the activity, not just those who raise their hands and are not afraid of speaking.

The concept of silent meetings has been around for some time in the business world, as explained in an article in The startup by David GascaThe Silent Meeting Manifesto v1: Making meeting suck a little less. This was designed for on-site meetings but can apply equally well to online meetings and even in education. The idea is to start a meeting by letting the participants read a short document (3-4 pages) outlining the topic for the main discussion and spending the first half of the meeting silently reading and commenting on the document using a collaborative tool such as Google Drive or Office 365 etc. Everyone can comment and reply to comments and there is often a very high level of activity even if the room is silent except for the pitter-patter of keyboards. The moderator or teacher monitors these comments and identifies the main points to be discussed when the "noisy" part of the meeting commences. In this way everyone has actively contributed to the discussion instead of only the most vocal members. The moderator's job is not easy especially if there are lots of comments and discussion in the document so you have to follow the comments very closely and try to narrow down the points of discussion. This could of course be achieved before the meeting as part of a flipped classroom approach but as we all know it is very rare that everyone gets involved in this way and there will always be participants who turn up without having had time to prepare. This way everyone is on the same page from the start.

I have tried this in some classes asking the students to write ideas and reflections on a shared document during an online lesson and it is always a fascinating experience. No cameras or microphones but lots of writing and you see the discussion in real time as the page gets quickly covered in comments in different colours. As a teacher this gives you time to identify themes for discussion later on or misunderstandings that require explanation. Most importantly you can see that everyone is contributing, in contrast to a regular speech-based discussion. A similar approach to silent meetings in education is described in an article in the Chronicle of Higher EducationTo Spark Discussion in a Zoom Class, Try a ‘Silent Meeting’. An added value of the method is that the collaborative document becomes a useful resource for the students and teacher after the class is over and the discussions and comments on the document can continue for days afterwards.

The students’ notes in the silent-meeting documents offer a transcript we could return to for guidance and inspiration as we prepared for exams, developed paper ideas, and guided future discussions. Threads in the margins of the main discussion often invited further exploration, as students noted areas of the course material that they found interesting and wanted to explore further. This record from the silent meetings was at once a set of discussion notes for students and a built-in survey for me as I sought to understand what excited students about the course.

Of course this method is not always appropriate but there are surely many other ways of using silence in online meetings. It's really about creating balance in our meetings, reducing stress and giving people space to think. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Radio as an educational lifeline for those without internet access

Living in a developed country like Sweden it is so easy to take internet access and ownership of digital devices for granted, but in many parts of the world the majority of the population has neither. In times of crisis when schools and colleges are forced to close there must be other channels for education that are accessible to as many pupils and students as possible. Broadcast media are an often forgotten channel for education in edtech discussions but are still thriving all over the world. For example, in the UK the BBC has recently increased its educational broadcasting to support schools during the lockdown (Guardian: BBC to expand educational shows in response to UK Covid lockdown). Many open universities around the world broadcast educational programmes on state or private television and radio channels, both as part of their regular courses but also as a service to lifelong learning since the programmes are freely accessible to everyone with a radio or television.

The value of radio for education is shown in an article on Rest of world, Why radio stations may be the real “e-learning” revolution. It describes how radio is used to provide teaching when schools are closed due to the pandemic. In sub-Saharan Africa over 85% of households lack internet access and many have no reliable electricity supply so even if there are many initiatives offering online education it is simply inaccessible for the majority. On the other hand most people have some kind of battery radio and can therefore benefit from school broadcasting.

In both urban and rural areas, battery-operated radios broadcast information to entire households. As cheap as $5, a radio is less energy-intensive than a television and can be shared more easily than a smartphone. The infrastructure was already there. All that educators needed was to adapt content.

Teachers have been busy broadcasting on existing channels or creating new radio channels and some are also offering educational content to mobile phones via sms. The response has been impressive and in Sierra Leone 58% of pupils listened five days a week.

Mary Phiri, a 36-year-old farmer in Joel Village in eastern Zambia, has five children in grades two to 12. Her work keeps her so busy that making sure her kids continued their schooling during the pandemic had to be a family-wide effort. Her older children would also tune in to assist their younger sibling with her schoolwork. With radio lessons, her children, normally shy at school, could ask their parents or siblings the difficult questions that might have gone unasked in the classroom.
Even in developed countries we should not underestimate the power of broadcast media in both formal education and lifelong learning. The future of education will involve a blend of both digital and traditional methods and we need to ensure that noone is excluded. Radio still has a lot to contribute!

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Learning together - the importance of ice-breakers in online learning

Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

Developing social connections and a sense of community in education has never been more important as most of us head into yet another term of online teaching. I've written before about the importance of the spaces in between the lectures, workshops and discussions; the spaces for developing relationships and a sense of common purpose that is normally achieved in the corridors, cafes and parks of the physical campus. This can be done online but it requires effort and attention.

I was inspired this week by a blog post by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Self-affirming Icebreakers, where she examines the value of simple ice-breaking activities to help students connect with each other and build that community feeling. It is not enough just to ask students to introduce themselves with the usual CV details, we need to reveal something personal and meaningful. The teacher's role here is crucial and she recommends sharing something personal to create a sense of shared vulnerability and inviting students to do likewise. This could take the form of sharing a photo of an object that has meaning for you and explaining why. Or recording a short introduction video taken at a location that you love (favourite cafe/park/view). She views this as a kind of collective effervescence, where a common thought or emotion forms a common bond. But it is essential that the teacher takes the first step in this to show that revealing a certain degree of vulnerability is acceptable.

I see a correlation with collective effervescence and successful ice breakers in online courses. Designing an ice breaker that elicits shared vulnerability amongst a class is a powerful way to highlight the interconnectedness between all humans.

By sharing something personal we can begin to relate to each other as people rather than as students and teachers in an educational setting. This helps build a group solidarity that is essential for collaborative learning and shifts the focus towards helping each other to achieve the learning objectives rather than competing to get the best grades. But such ice-breaking activities are not only useful at the start of the course, they need to be a regular feature. to compensate for the isolation of lockdown learning we need to offer more opportunities, both synchronous and asynchronous, to interact and build the community outside the confines of the curriculum.

Human connection is essential for community to develop – in a seated course or in an online course. But connection does not come through enabling a webcam, assigning a discussion, or rolling out a group project. Connection is established through relational trust and empathy. And when you take the first step to share and be vulnerable with your students, they are more likely to be willing to lean in and do the same. And, for the record, yes, community can be fostered asynchronously.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

2020 - the year education went online

Photo by Yasmina H on Unsplash

Everyone seems to be writing reviews of this crazy year so here's my attempt. At the end I include some really good articles for deeper insights.

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 caused a sudden and unplanned shift to online education in almost every country in the world. Universities, colleges and schools were forced to close and all activities switched to online mode almost overnight, with very little time for planning or redesigning courses that were designed for traditional classroom delivery. The fact that this sudden transition was managed surprisingly well in most countries was a tribute to teachers’ adaptability, creativity and dedication. However, it would be wise to differentiate between what is now termed as emergency remote teaching and well-designed online education and when the crisis is over we need to spend time redesigning our courses to the required standards of quality online education.

Institutions that managed the digital transformation well have a number of common factors. Firstly they had experience in online course delivery and a strategic approach to digitalisation with a good digital infrastructure including a learning management system, media platform and anti-plagiarism tool. Teachers were already trained in designing and running online and blended courses, often with the support of educational technologists, media specialists and course designers. Furthermore, they used a mix of synchronous and asynchronous interaction forms to ensure student engagement.

At the same time the crisis revealed many problem areas, though some were societal rather than educational issues. Many students were marginalised due to poor internet access or not being able to afford a digital device, whilst others did not have a suitable study environment in their homes. Since they had enrolled on a campus-based programme, many students lacked the necessary study skills to learn effectively online and became isolated from colleagues. Even when students have been satisfied with the online teaching they received, they found the lack of social interaction extremely demotivating. Teaching online is not just about delivering course material and tests, it is vital to create a community of trust and opportunities for social interaction and informal discussion. Building relationships is an essential part of learning. Future course design teams must take these factors into consideration and build in more support structures.

However, there have been many positive effects of the crisis. Firstly, it has placed an unprecedented focus on online education and forced all institutions to rethink their operations. This involves offering teachers training programmes and workshops to share good practice and develop a coherent approach to online education. Institutions have discovered the need to employ educational technologists who combine technical and pedagogical skills and can help teachers manage the transition in a structured manner. Teachers have also begun to create a culture of sharing by forming, for example, social media communities where they can ask questions, discuss, share good ideas and resources with teachers from other institutions around the country. There has also been a wave of guidelines, resources, online courses, webinars and digital conferences offering support to teachers and students on how to teach and study effectively online.

What lessons can we learn from this experience and what conclusions can we make?
  • Online and distance learning requires careful planning and new skills. Institutions need to implement strategies for digital development and provide necessary competence development for teachers.
  • Courses must be reviewed and redesigned to fully integrate digital elements. This demands teamwork between different competences: teachers, educational technologists, media production, librarians. Digital platforms and tools are integrated into campus teaching.
  • New forms of assessment and examination are needed in the digital space. There will be increased focus on formative assessment, oral examination, project and problem-based learning.
  • Greater flexibility of how students access their courses with greater integration between online and on-site as well as more blended learning solutions. The digital campus will become an established concept with a variety of platforms to facilitate networking, socialisation and collaboration as well as teaching and learning.
  • Online conferences will continue to thrive, largely replacing expensive and unsustainable international on-site conferences.
  • Virtual mobility programmes will become the most widespread internationalisation strategy as physical mobility becomes more restricted due to sustainability concerns and travel restrictions in the wake of covid-19.
Further reading
A global outlook to the interruption of education due to COVID-19 Pandemic: Navigating in a time of uncertainty and crisis. Asian Journal of distance education, Vol 15 Issue 1, 2020.

Bates, T. (2020) A review of online learning in 2020. Blog post.

Downes, S. (2020) Lessons from the pandemic. Blog post.

Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020) The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning, Educause Review.

Martin, F., Polly, D., Ritzhaupt, A. (2020) Bichronous Online Learning: Blending Asynchronous and Synchronous Online Learning, Educause Review.

UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank (2020). What have we learnt? Overview of findings from a survey of ministries of education on national responses to COVID-19.Paris, New York, Washington D.C.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Learning is a bumpy road

Failure is an integral part of learning. New information, ideas, models and theories take time to sink in and there are many bumps on the way to understanding and mastering. But somehow we feel that everyone else has understood while we are still confused. In today's world where image and competition are so important and your Facebook or LinkedIn feeds are crammed with everyone else's success stories, it's easy to get depressed about your own imagined shortcomings. I think many of us recognise the imposter syndrome, the fear of some day being revealed to be incompetent or a fake. The common dream of turning up to work and realising you forgot to put on your trousers comes to mind.

However, the truth seems to be that most people feel anxious about their struggles to grasp new knowledge and if we could only drop the mask of self-confidence that we feel obliged to wear, we could learn so much more. We advertise our successes and hide our failures; very understandable but we could gain a lot by being more open, at least in trusted circles. This theme is discussed in an article on Opensource.com, Why failure should be normalized and how to do it

All of your heroes have failures under their belts—from minor mistakes to major disasters. Nobody knows how to do everything automatically, and the process of learning is usually a messy one. So why is the perception that everyone but you knows what they’re doing so common? Why do we externalize our successes but internalize our failures?

A learning community can thrive on being able to admit failure and confusion and helping each other to find solutions. This demands a sense of trust and a spirit of collaboration and teamwork, something that takes time and careful facilitation to develop. If a class of students see themselves as a team and work together to make sure everyone learns from the course, then this spirit is achievable. But sadly the education system is based on competition between individuals and therefore this team spirit can be hard to achieve even if both teachers and students agree on the advantages. Finding ways to assess and grade both individual effort and the overall teamwork could help shift the focus away from simple competition.

Sometimes we can learn more from discussing failures than listening to best practice but first we need to create a context where it's acceptable to admit your shortcomings. I've seen several interesting failure conferences that invite speakers to describe less successful projects and then get feedback from colleagues on how to improve. I find this idea more attractive than best practice conferences that often have the opposite effect. Listening to impressive descriptions of successful projects often make me feel so inadequate rather than inspiring me. I remember a keynote from an extreme adventurer (triathlons are for kids etc.) that was meant to inspire us to greater efforts but left me feeling exhausted and completely useless. The problem with academic conferences is that they are primarily celebrations of success and a conference paper about a failed research study or project might not look so good on your CV.

So the challenge is to create a climate of trust, sharing and mutual support in a class, project or department where asking for help is expected and welcomed. We're are after all human and perfection is unattainable. The article concludes: 

Most importantly, we need to normalize that it’s okay not to know everything, that it’s okay to still be learning, and to ask for help. Setting an example for new or more junior engineers is important. In our industry, we deal with extremely complex systems that can interact with one another in strange or unexpected ways. In many cases, it is simply not possible for one person to know everything. Being open about our learning processes and our mistakes can lead to tighter bonding.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Who's afraid of group work?

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Many webinars and online conferences today try to increase engagement by sending participants into small breakout groups, giving everyone the chance to contribute to the discussion. Evaluations show that most participants appreciate the opportunity to talk with colleagues and exchange ideas rather than simply listening to guest speakers. However, every time I set up a group activity I notice that some participants simply leave the meeting. Many colleagues have noticed this behaviour and it seems that for some people the prospect of group discussion is not appealing. Working in groups is an important skill and a vital part of the student experience, but is it always essential in webinars and conferences where participants are attending voluntarily and are not being assessed in any way?  

I have read comments that group work can be stressful when you are suddenly thrown into a group with total strangers and expected to have a meaningful discussion in only 20 minutes. Sometimes there are group members who dominate the session giving no room for other contributions. Other times there is an awkward silence when no-one really has a strong opinion about the question posed by the organisers. A few have commented that they attended the webinar to learn about a subject they knew very little about and therefore wanted to listen to the experts rather than discussing with other people who also knew very little about the subject. Some group members do not have a microphone or camera and cannot contribute at all or others have a very poor internet connection resulting in poor audio, echo or other strange noises. And some people just don't like group work and prefer to reflect alone.

What can we learn from this then? Here are some ideas but I'm sure there are more.

  • Zoom's new function that allows participants to choose which group they join or even to change group can help. At the same time, it can lead to confusion as people move from one group to another and thus disturbing potentially good discussions.
  • Offering an opt-out option before group work. Those who do not wish to join a group can stay in the main room and simply mute and switch off cameras and use the time for quiet reflection. Make it clear that this option is just as valid as joining a group. What they do with that time is up to them but maybe they will still be there when the groups return. 
  • Don't overdo the collaborative elements in a conference or webinar. Many people really enjoy just listening to an expert and have no need to discuss all the time. There is always a risk that group work is included without any real purpose other than just to make the session look interactive. Too many polls, breakout sessions, word clouds etc can get very tiresome.
  • Group work takes time to be useful. Explain why you're doing it, "sell" the benefits and give them at least 20 minutes to discuss, preferably longer. Less time is generally pointless. Remember that six strangers who land together in a room need a few minutes for introductions and ice-breaking before starting the discussion.