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.


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.


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).

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.