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?