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, 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.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The spaces in between - the intangibles of education

Even when a course is well designed with committed, inspiring teachers and plenty of support to students, there are some students who simply don't connect. While some are inspired, others lose interest and drop out. Some students simply can't find their motivation, maybe due to relationship problems, worries about family, finance or health. You can't please all the people all of the time but sometimes it's hard to work out what is missing. The keys to successful course completion are often connected with intangible factors such as mood, confidence, resilience, empathy, intuition, security and trust. These are very personal and hard to address but they have a greater influence over education than we might think. 

Tony Bates discusses this in a new post, The importance of ‘intangibles’ in teaching and learning. Sometimes a teacher gets a gut feeling that something is wrong or that a particular student is not fully engaged, even if there are few, if any, outward signs. The ability to recognise these feelings and react accordingly is crucially human; an element that cannot be replicated in the realm of artificial intelligence and analytics.

... I believe that we need to respect the ‘intangibles’ in teaching and learning. They draw on a uniquely human ability to recognise something that is not defined but recognised as important. Intangible knowledge indeed may turn out to be the singularity that separates humans from artificial intelligence. Thus the ability of teachers to recognise important ‘intangibles’ may be the main reason to keep them employed as such in a highly automated future.

These intangibles are part of the concept of social presence described in the community of inquiry model (Garrison 20112). Social presence covers factors that contribute to creating a sense of community in a course with trust, respect and open communication enabling collaboration. Without these elements, even the most carefully designed course and enthusiastic and competent teachers will have problems engaging the students. A further element in the community of inquiry model is that of emotional presence (see Cleveland-Innes & Campbell 2012) where a student's emotions towards a certain type of teaching, course design, teachers and fellow students play a major part in determining the student's ability to fully engage in the learning process.

These intangibles are also a major factor in the current discussions of hybrid and distance education in the wake of covid-19. Even when the online courses are well designed and the video meetings involve plenty of group work and student engagement, something is missing. This is even clearer in the hybrid teaching currently being employed at many institutions where some students are in the classroom with the teacher and others are connected via Zoom. The online students get the same content as their campus colleagues and are involved in group work, but once the meeting is over they are alone, whilst the campus students can continue discussing and interacting afterwards. This reveals the importance of the social spaces between lessons where students form their identity both as a student and as part of an institution. Without these meetings it is impossible to feel any sense of belonging to a community and developing loyalty. The online students who lack these opportunities will feel disconnected and more inclined to drop out. We lack a digital campus that offers students safe spaces to socialise and discuss across subject and faculty boundaries. 

Feelings of isolation and a lack of social interaction that can lead to health issues and drop-out are reported in a recent UK student survey, described in an article in Wonkhe, Anti-social learning – the costs of Covid restrictions on students. An interesting feature here is that the majority of students are satisfied with the quality of the online teaching but are suffering from the lack of social interaction between classes. The issue is not so much with online teaching but the spaces in between. Increased feelings of isolation and inadequacy lead to lower levels of motivation, lack of confidence and disengagement with the learning process. 

Meanwhile those happy with online teaching praise the individual support they get from academic staff or interaction with peers. Even where students do express being unhappy with online teaching, they often contextualise that as problematic because they have moved unnecessarily to the local area to experience it, rather than the online teaching itself being of poor quality. The findings remind us how important the social aspects of learning are – and how difficult they have been to experience for many students so far this term.

Many courses have extremely tight schedules where an enormous amount of content needs to be covered with a limited amount of time. Extra time for socialisation activities is hard to find but without it there will be the danger that many students will suffer as the pandemic crisis continues to unfold. How can we offer students more digital spaces for interaction and relaxation that in turn will increase their feeling of belonging and create a university identity? 


Cleveland-Innes, M., & Campbell, P. (2012). Emotional presence, learning, and the online learning environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(4), 269-292.

Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice (2nd ed.). London, UK: Routledge/Falmer.