Sunday, October 31, 2021

On-site, online or hybrid? It depends on what you want to achieve.

Photo by Alexandre Pellaes on Unsplash

As more and more conferences return to on-site mode, many feel the need to offer a hybrid mode where most of the event is also available to online participants. Is this just a symbolic gesture to show that we have learned something from the pandemic? How involved are the online participants and how do organisers charge for the online experience? How do we facilitate true interaction between the two groups of participants? Most importantly I think is the question of whether hybrid is the way forward of just an awkward and technically demanding add-on. 

Attending an online conference is very different from actually being there for many reasons. I have found that I sign up for more online conferences than I would ever attend physically but when I'm online I only attend the interesting parts and skip the rest. In some sessions I listen with one ear and continue with other work. I attend but I don't really engage. I am still at work and the conference becomes like background music with a few highlights when I fully concentrate on it. Maybe similar things happen with hybrid teaching. It would be interesting to study the distraction levels of campus and online students.

But maybe the answer is not to try and cater for everyone but focus on your target group. If the whole point of the event is for people to meet and discuss on-site then make that clear and restrict it to on-site delivery. However if an on-site event would automatically exclude important members of the target group then make the event fully online or even asynchronous. By trying to include everyone you risk excluding everyone and the event becomes a messy compromise.

I started thinking about these questions after reading an article by Mark Carrigan on the LSE blog, Is hybrid a desirable ‘new normal’ for academic events? The problems with hybrid are well known in terms of technical complexity and the risk of online participants being flies on the wall, passive observers. If you want an online audience then focus on that and don't try to do two things at the same time. Conferences can instead become processes with asynchronous online interaction over a whole week or several weeks. 

The equipment and expertise which are currently necessary to run a hybrid event mean it probably isn’t the right (or sustainable) choice for a relatively niche event that is unlikely to attract much of an online audience. In which case it might make more sense to have a physical event, with a collective output which can be distributed asynchronously. Digital artefacts like blogposts and podcasts have a tendency to circulate far beyond their original creators. The raw fact of access can be valuable, but the careful packaging of ideas and discussions can be a much more effective way of facilitating remote participation. It might be that only a small number of people would tune in synchronously to engage with an event, but a digital output from that event over time might assemble a significantly larger audience.

It's similar with hybrid teaching. Some sessions must be on campus and therefore we need to make that clear well in advance. Other sessions can be online only and even campus students will join the session from their own laptops. Maybe some sessions can be hybrid but we need to work hard to make them truly inclusive and collaborative. Hybrid sounds like the best of both worlds but can so easily be messy and a disappointment for all. The solution is to decide on the best format for the group you want to be involved. There is no default in the future - decide the optimal format each time.  

This isn’t an argument against physical meetings, but rather a plea that we avoid drifting back to them. The familiar rhythms of seminars and conferences feel intensely alluring after the isolation and suffering which have characterised the last eighteen months. However, do we really want to return to a situation where they are the default? Or could we imagine an approach to academic events which recognises how these options (face-to-face, hybrid, digital) are equally worthwhile depending on what we’re trying to achieve?

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Inclusive online collaboration - from disability to extrability

Blind man sitting at desk with computer and paper on desk.
Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Over the last couple of years I have been learning about how we can make webinars and online meetings more accessible for blind and deaf people. This has come through collaboration with a remarkable guy called Oleg Kolpashchikov, who is president of the Russian White Cane organisation. He is totally blind and when we first met at a conference in Kazan in Russia three years ago I was so impressed with how easily he was able to use his iPad, mobile and laptop with the help of all the accessibility tools available today. Since then I have learned how blind people in particular can participate in webinars and online conferences and how we can facilitate their involvement. I admit I have only scratched the surface of this issue but I can share a few insights here.

A central theme of Oleg's work is the concept of extrability. What we so often describe as disability is in fact an extra ability, an extrability. For instance the loss of one sense demands greater use of other senses. Blind people need to develop extremely good memories or their ability to listen effectively. They have a keen awareness of the soundscape around them and this gives them an awareness of space that abled people lack. His organisation works a lot with activities where the abilities of abled and disabled people complement each other and where the development of trust is crucial. In a physical setting this can mean blindfolded seeing people being guided around a town by a blind person or even making food together in a blacked out kitchen. Or even working as a team to sail a yacht where the extrabilities can become very useful (sensitivity to wind direction, sounds etc).

How does this link into online collaboration. It can work very well as long as we make necessary adjustments. Firstly we have to learn to describe ourselves. We usually introduce ourselves by saying our name, what we do and where we live but for blind people you just add a few phrases to describe what you look like - I'm a man in my 60s with short greying hair, glasses, clean shaven and wearing a blue open-necked shirt. For deaf people we need automatic captioning or a sign language interpreter. Blind people can learn from videos as long as they have an audio commentary that describes the visual features of the film as well as the commentary. Here's an example of this that describes the work of Oleg's organisation.

We can also help blind people by making simple adjustments to our PowerPoint presentations in webinars and meetings. These are summarised in an article by Holly TukeHow to make your PowerPoint presentations more accessible. In short it means using the accessibility templates in PowerPoint and being consistent with the use of headings, sub-headings and normal text. Each headline should be unique and describe the contents clearly. Bullet points should end with a full stop so that text-to-speech apps don't just read out all the points as one sentence. Indeed punctuation is extremely important to avoid misunderstanding. Links should not be written as URL but as the title of the web page and a hyperlink, otherwise the text reader will read the whole URL character by character. It's also important to remember to add alt-text to images in the slideshow - just a short description of what the image shows. If you can post your slides before the session they can listen to them in advance and follow you even better. For those with hearing disabilities the presence of sign language interpreters or automatic captioning make the session accessible. Manual captioning is also an option but requires a skilled typist who can listen and type simultaneously. 

We can't realistically make online events 100% accessible for everyone but a few adjustments in our practice can lower the barriers that exist today. Working in mixed breakout groups of sighted and blind people is an excellent lesson that makes us realise the limitations of our "normal" interaction. It can be very confusing at first but with curiosity and a willingness to learn and adapt, the collaboration can work surprisingly well. 

The key is shifting our perception from disability to extrability.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Emotion and self-belief in online education

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Confidence and self-belief are crucial elements in education. Your emotional attitude to what you are studying can strongly influence your chances of success. We all remember subjects we hated at school and how that attitude was often formed by a simple dislike of the teacher who taught it or maybe the way the subject was taught. Or the classroom, or your classmates; the list goes on. Even the most pedagogical and well-planned lessons can go wrong if the student simply doesn't feel like working today. It's a wickedly difficult factor to influence since emotion is so often irrational and unpredictable.

There has been considerable research in the role of emotions in online education, for example the work of Martha Cleveland-Innes and Prisca Campbell, relating emotional presence to the wider community of inquiry model (see 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.). They define the concept as:

Emotional presence is the outward expression of emotion, affect, and feeling by individuals and among individuals in a community of inquiry, as they relate to and interact with the learning technology, course content, students, and the instructor.
Online learning can be very emotional, especially when tools and resources don't work as expected and when technical problems outweigh the actual learning experience. It's important therefore to build a community of trust in the group and acknowledge the emotional ups and downs. The teacher can turn frustration into more positive emotions by tackling issues with respect, humour and understanding. Timely support can also soothe student nerves. Students can also learn to help each other and offer emotional support - even a well-timed smiley can help.

Another aspect of emotion comes in a new report from College Innovation Network, The New Digital Divide: How EdTech Self-Efficacy is Shaping the Online Student Learning Experience in Higher Ed, showing how students' perception of their proficiency in using digital tools and platforms, their EdTech self-efficacy, determined to a large extent their experience of online education during the pandemic. Those with a positive experience of and attitude towards educational technology also felt positively about their online learning experience during the pandemic. Furthermore, those who attended institutions where online education and the use of digital tools and platforms were already established found the transition relatively simple and were very positive to how online teaching had contributed to their learning process. Those who lacked experience of online education or had low confidence in their ability to learn in an online environment struggled.

The results of the survey further show the impact of EdTech self-efficacy on the student learning experience. Students’ reports of their EdTech self-efficacy was the most robust predictor of how they reported on a variety of aspects of their online learning experience this past year, including whether they felt they were learning effectively in an online environment, and how academically prepared they felt for next year.

Another digital divide mentioned is that of access to and ownership of digital devices and broadband internet access. Here there is a clear divide where less privileged groups had difficulty accessing course material and were unable to fully participate in online activities because they couldn't afford the necessary subscriptions and devices. They suffer from both the lack of necessary technology and the lower self-esteem that results in.

When students are required to use new tools and software in their courses, they are not only learning new course content, but they are also learning how to use new EdTech. Our data show that substantial portions of students struggled to learn how to use new EdTech in their courses. It’s important to realize that the introduction of new EdTech results in a dual learning experience for students. This can be beneficial as students are learning how to use new technologies, but it is important to design courses to incorporate proper instruction of new technologies to students, and ensure that all students have the digital literacy skills they need to succeed in courses.

This may seem obvious but we need to be reminded of the digital divide that is present in most institutions and how this links to self-esteem and confidence. How many students drop out due to low self-esteem and lack of experience? How does previous bad experience of online education affect future performance? When faced with a difficulty a common reaction is to say "I knew I wasn't good enough to do this sort of course" and drop out. We need to learn to meet these pre-conceptions from the start and create a sense of trust in the group where concerns can be raised and resolved with understanding and respect. Often it's not simply technical issues but emotional responses that can be most damaging to the student's learning journey.

An article in Inside Higher EdWho Are the Students Struggling With Online Learning?, comments on the CIN report by advising that teachers spend time with a class discussing previous experience of educational technology and making sure that there is adequate support in helping them get familiar with the platforms and tools used on the course. Obviously this also means designing the course to avoid tech overload and providing scaffolding and support for the technology that is used on the course. Many students face a double learning load - the course content plus the course platform and tools. Recognition of the power of emotional presence can be decisive.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Commuting to a zoom meeting - back to work but not quite

Photo by Jose Losada on Unsplash
After so many months of Zoom meetings (or Teams/Google Meet etc) we are now trying to grapple with the novelty of being back in the office. The trouble is that many of the old routines now seem rather inefficient, especially meetings. Of course it's good to see colleagues again and we have all missed the social interaction around physical meetings but I suspect many people will want very convincing reasons to come to a physical meeting in future. Online meetings are generally more efficient and you don't have all the transition time of going from place to place.

One colleague who helps students with special needs said that her level of service had increased while working from home because she could help more students, no matter where they were, and could schedule meetings more tightly than office appointments. It also levelled the playing field for online students and this is important to remember as we move back to campus. Classes and meetings held in Zoom give all participants the same conditions (all can be seen and heard and have access to the chat) whilst hybrid setups nearly always give an advantage to those who are on-site. If we're going to normalise hybrid teaching all students must feel fully included in the session.

However, video meetings can present a problem to all who work in an open plan office. Conditions are not ideal and to get privacy or sometimes even reliable bandwidth many people prefer to take such meetings from home to minimise the risk of disturbance as in this post in Inside Higher EdZooming From the Office.

I knew something was different when I had to leave work early to get home in time for a Zoom meeting.
That happened last week a few times. I had 5:30 Zoom calls several nights in a row, and I live about a half hour from campus. So I left a little early in order to be able to be online in time to keep working into the evening.
Until 2020, that paragraph wouldn’t have made any sense. Yet, here we are.

Similarly absurd is commuting to the office to take part in a succession of video meetings. I used to do that most days before the pandemic but now I will think twice. 

Another feature of tha past year has been having to experience major life events by Zoom: special birthdays, graduations, new grandchildren, weddings, funerals. Another article in Inside Higher Ed, by Leah Blatt Glasser, Zooming Into Retirement, describes the poignant experience of watching the students in her last lesson before retirement disappear one after the other on her Zoom screen. Same for her farewell to her colleagues. Somehow the closing of video windows and finally being alone on the screen says a lot about today's society.

Retiring on Zoom has been one of the strangest experiences I’ve had in all my years at Mount Holyoke College. The rituals of on-campus toasts, collegial hugs, fond farewells, expressions of mutual gratitude, even love, were all postponed indefinitely. What I had at this critical moment of parting was my computer screen. It was all so unreal that even now, several months after that last class, I find it hard to grasp that I did, in fact, retire.

The pandemic has been an emergency situation and digital media at least kept us together and allowed contact that in former times would not have been possible except by letter. However, we have also learnt that online communication can increase accessibility, equity and flexibility and so when we organise physical events in future we need to consider who is excluded and use digital media to widen access.