Tuesday, 29 March 2016

If you want to be productive, try blended learning

A new report from the Productivity Commission raises concerns that New Zealand's tertiary system needs to develop new models of working. The assumption is that universities have not changed and are still locked into a lecture-room mentality.

While I would debate that this is the case, given my own experience with online learning and innovative pedagogies, it has come to my attention that some 'academics/lecturers' are unable to see past the notion that teaching has to be face-to-face to be effective. Putting aside the question of how much these experts actually know about teaching (or learning), I want to make this point:

Academics could be more productive if they would open their minds to the possibilities of blended learning.

What is blended learning? 
Combining the best parts of on campus, workplace, community and online interaction, where the online communication can be synchronous and asynchronous and where learning management systems like Moodle form a foundation for critical discussion, individualised feedback, and plug-ins like Panopto enable video-casting, while wider social media expands the audience and interactive possibilities.

In any given week, I will present panopto mini-lectures and explanations to students; facilitate online discussion; give individualised feedback via dialogues or eportfolios; talk on the phone or via skype/appear.in and receive notifications of personal problems from students themselves or from our pastoral care administrator. Along with the rest of our teaching team, I met with students last month, for a block of oncampus time, and it was wonderful to see them in person and to teach, talk, listen and assess some work in a regular class setting. It was also exhausting and I can see how teaching full time on campus sucks the life blood out of my colleagues! When the students returned home, our work continued online and in their base schools and communities, and I felt things gradually settle into a productive pattern for all of us. I feel connected to the students I work with and I am proud of the quality of our interactions and pedagogical approach. I am especially proud of what the students accomplish when they qualify as teachers while juggling family, paid work and adult life.

Will it work for every subject?
Yes, blended learning can potentially work for every subject, where there is a will there is a way. If students need time in laboratory settings, arrange this for them on campus or elsewhere. That is part of the blend. Teacher educators like my colleagues in MMP successfully teach physical education, dance, drama, music, visual arts, science, mathematics, literacy, technology, te reo and all manner of other subjects via a blended approach. I have a colleague in chemistry who swears by YouTube clips and simulations, and another in electronics who sent students down to their local hardware store to obtain components and then the students' whole families got involved in constructing circuits in the kitchen.
Let's try to think outside the square and find some imagination.
And no, it doesn't all have to be online. That is the point of a blended approach.

Will it work for every student?
Why wouldn't it work if the approach is individualised to the student's needs? Some students may need to meet more often in person, to have additional structure, targeted feedback,  or to have disability taken into account. This doesn't mean they will do better in an on campus programme with lectures, tutorials or labs, and dinosaur teachers.

I have learned from recent interviews with alumni from the first MMP cohort (1997-1999) that study groups in their local communities were a significant support for them. Students in the same region would get together over coffee every week and sometimes more often, to support each other and talk about their assignments, throughout the entire three years of their degree. And some of these study groups became lifelong bonds, with members still in touch after 19 years.

What I'm saying is that if students need to meet in person, this needn't be with the lecturer in every case. Peer support is important. To meet with a lecturer, students can phone, make an appointment to visit, or talk via skype or appear.in
There have been times when I've travelled, particularly to Tauranga, to meet with students too. I see less of a need for it these days, as students use the alternative avenues suggested in between on campus blocks.

In terms of structure, I like to have an organised approach myself, so I start each week with a list of priorities for students to work on in each class. As well as listing these at the top of our online paper, I email them to every student, and then sit with my teaching partner/s to talk students through what is coming up (via Panopto).

In terms of individualised feedback, it is a nonsense to suggest that students on campus get more of this. Large classes are just a blur of bodies and backpacks! I certainly did not receive individualised feedback in Education 101 when I studied with 150 others, and as a first-year (Fresher, in Otago), I was far too intimidated to ever make an appointment to talk with my lecturers.

Online, we have an Individual Tutorial Dialogue space with each and every student. Students readily pick up the phone to ask a quick question, and receive a quick answer. And when students have a query at 2am, chances are there will be another student online in our 'Can anyone help?' space to come to the rescue. It is a great feeling when students gain independence and interdependence with peers, which bodes well for the teachers and professional colleagues they will become.

I've provided written bullet points to accompany panoptos for a student with a hearing impairment. Now graduated, he was able to fully participate in every aspect of the online class, and thrived in asynchronous online discussion with his peers. But on campus, he had to rely on interpreters to sign and note-takers to help him keep up. Blended learning enhances equity of access by enabling students to study without leaving their families and communities for prolonged periods, reducing the cost and helping mature people to take up new learning opportunities.

But one size doesn't fit all!!
What is there about blended learning that suggests it only comes in one size? Not all campus-based teaching/learning is created equal, and the sky is the limit when it comes to personalising learning in a blended format. By definition, there are more options when we blend diverse contributions to a student's education.

So what has all of this got to do with productivity?
I honestly believe that teaching online and in a blended mode has helped me to become more productive as an academic. I listen to colleagues wrestling with timetable clashes and room bookings, wondering how they can be in three places at once, if there even is a suitable venue to gather their class. I hear people say that they don't have time for their research, administration and service, let alone to have a life because they are too busy teaching, with too many classes and too many students, and too much pressure on their precious time!

Get a life! Try blended learning. Done well, your students will thank you for it! And you just might be able to shift a little time to do a few other things well too.

When I finish writing this post, I'll check online and answer student queries, and I'll monitor the current discussion and respond to two of the groups. I can call it a day and go home to my family and in the morning, (I might even work from home!), after checking back online and finishing the last of the eportfolio feedback, I will shut down Moodle and take some research time. If the phone rings, it will be because a student needs my immediate support, and I'll be there, but I won't be lugging my notes over to any dusty lecture theatres and I don't have any crusty powerpoint slides to revive. As for the laboratory, I hope the students have a good day in their base school!

Monday, 21 March 2016

Building capability in understanding

I currently teach in an ITE (initial teacher education programme) and have been interested to read students' posts to questions about experiences of online collaboration. Before this task was set however, I had created an opportunity for all the cohort to experience just that, through turning an OECD pdf (The Nature of Learning) into a GDoc, making a comment about the task, making multiple copies of this doc, then sharing each copy specifically with the email addresses of about 10 of the cohort. We ended up with about 15 groups. They had to choose three starters to precipitate a comment response in side the GDoc about the information contained in the document. The choice of starters were:

I wonder if....
This suggests to me...
This idea is new to me because...
I've seen/experienced/read about something like this when I...
I don't understand.....
I'm not sure this makes sense to me because....
So, [ask a question]....
Does anyone else....

Some students had never done this kind of task before, while others had experienced different kinds of online collaboration they drew on when later discussing their experiences. What I found very interesting in their posts was that many had not recognised this particular shared reading task as a possible experience of collaboration. 

For those who had never done this kind of thing before, it precipitated some moments of wonder as they realised what might be possible. Others worried about missing f2f personal interaction because they missed the body language cues. Some even argued that social interaction is diminished by online work, although this was not accompanied by evidence to show this. 

What I learned from this is that even those who had prior experiences of different types of online collaborations, the conceptions (Yes, I know it's early in the year!) about what constituted collaboration were quite wide. Some saw it as a communication means (a connection/transfer of information view), while others thought that it was about working to achieve a task/project outcome (a pragmatic, task-oriented view). Few explicitly noted that collaboration could also mean building knowledge and thinking together as social constructive activities; ones which Peter Skillen talks of in a blog post. Skillen also refers to Brenda Sherry's post about how what she thinks schools and learning should be about -  fostering deep understanding. 

We hope we are fostering that kind of thinking with our ITE students, through exposing them to ways of learning that perhaps challenge or push their comfort zones a little. 

I particularly liked Sherry's focus when she she poses a challenge of her own, for it resonates strongly with how I try to challenge my learners:

I hope that as the year goes on, my students' conceptions of how knowledge is built, shared, understood and created, is expanded so that they can create a variety of opportunities for their learners to practise. I hope too, that their levels of thinking grow deeper and deeper. After all, if our goal for all learners is deep understanding, then we are in this together! 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Peer mentoring for online teachers

Are you new to teaching online or would you like to refresh your approach by looking at others' online teaching?

Are you an experienced online teacher who likes to share with colleagues and make connections across universities?

The Universities of York and Waikato are seeking expressions of interest from staff who teach online and would like to be paired with a colleague from one of our institutions for mentoring purposes. 

The University of York has been operating a peer observation scheme since 2011, and joined forces with Waikato in 2014-2015 when online lecturers from Waikato's Faculty of Education opted into the York-Waikato peer observation and mentoring scheme, which involves partnering with a teaching colleague from the University of York in order to set goals, exchange feedback, and generate new ideas.

Here are 4 reasons to opt into peer mentoring:

1. Teaching online can often be an isolating practice, particularly when budget constraints increase teacher-student ratios and make team-teaching less common at tertiary level. An online mentor is someone to consult with when you need collegial support
2. Mentoring is a way of valuing teaching and professional learning, to strive for continual improvement, and to prioritise the scholarship of teaching and learning alongside other research endeavours.
3. While the institution may place greater weight on student appraisal data, peer mentoring is a way of triangulating with student perspectives. As well as knowing how our students experience our classes, and what their needs are, much can come from the perspective of an experienced colleague.
4. An international mentoring partnership is an opportunity to widen perspectives and to build research partnerships too. Waikato staff who participate in the York-Waikato online mentoring scheme might also be interested in applying for the York Link Award in order to follow up their work in person with colleagues in York.

If you are interested in joining the partnership this year, please email diforbes@waikato.ac.nz by 21 March with details of: 

  • What you teach online: subject areas/programme
  • Possible areas for your own development
  • What you might offer as a mentor 
  • Which time of year suits you best

The partnership is about collegial support, being internationally connected and informed, and working flexibly.
Colleagues from any institution working in any discipline are welcome, so please forward the information to any interested online teachers

Monday, 7 March 2016

Education and research in the 'real world'

I've been thinking lately about perceptions and beliefs and how these can be tempered by the seas of economic and political change. Sometimes, the term the 'real world' is used to dismiss the realities of others' professional lives as being somehow deficient or incomplete. This is often the case when universities or schools are discussed by those in the 'real world' (ie a different professional or occupational one).

Some dismiss a university as an ivory tower, but, as Veith argues, it is neither immune from influences of the 'real world' nor separate from it, for it in turn, influences the 'real world'.

Those of us inside the 'tower' are feeling the effects of economic and social change. Neo-liberalism for example, is taking a stronger and stronger hold of thinking and practice. Some of the effects of this are larger and larger workloads (so we work weekends, nights, annual leave) and have larger and larger classes in the name of 'efficiency', or, perhaps, cost cutting.

Being research focused also has its problems when the research that might have a huge influence in say, 10 years' time, is not funded because because its ROI (return on investment) is not discernible quickly. Education is a victim of this thinking. Finding sources of funding for research in various aspects of this field is getting harder and harder, so that educational researchers throughout the country scramble to bid for less and less and from fewer and fewer granting bodies each year. The ROI on the effort it takes to write these bids can thus be zero.

And yet, the educational research undertaken in this country can be ground-breaking, and none more so than work carried out at the University of Waikato. Te Kotahitanga is one these. Professor Russell Bishop won the Paolo Freire Award for this work, and the positive effects of the programme are still being felt. The New Zealand educational research association, NZARE,  has also honoured its work.

This Te Kotahitanga research was longitudinal, involved a lot of schools, and resulted in a wide number of publications that have been hugely influential in New Zealand schools, and ultimately on Māori students' lives and careers. This research could only exist with external funding. Education does not have an immediate ROI. Nor does research into it. However, its effects, as indicated by Te Kotahitanga, can be profound. In the ECE sector, Professor Margaret Carr's work and Learning Stories is another example of both local and international influence.

So, as Veith argued about the American academic system, the ivory tower concept is as mythical as the unicorn. I would add the supposed divide between the 'real world' and universities is a myth too. The gradual squeezing of funding for research into aspects of education in New Zealand is turning educational itself itself into a unicorn. If ROI thinking persists, educational research will become a mythical beast and the field will be the worse for it.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Orientation: Ready, set... Go!

Officially, today is the first day of semester for students studying on campus here in Hamilton. Ori2016 got underway last week and today the serious study is set to begin, with queues at the new payforparking machines before 9am this morning. This year, the university (Student Learning) has made a conscious effort to ensure the students participate in an academic orientation that sets them up for success in student life, as well as a social time.

However, for students and staff involved in our distance programme in initial teacher education, the work began some weeks ago, and the orientation has involved a combination of work online and on campus. This is a good time to reflect on how we orientate students in a blended programme and what the essential elements of effective orientation might be, particularly for mature students, returning to study, who are often new to studying online.

It seems to me that orientation is about setting students up for success and some of the ways we do this are by modelling organisation and encouraging students to dip their toes in and explore. For this reason, we strive to have our online papers in the Mixed Media Programme (MMP) ready and up online a week before the students arrive on campus for their block face-to-face time. Putting a class online doesn't mean it has to be all front-loaded and fully nailed down independently of student input, but rather that the essential elements of the course are ready, in keeping with the calendar description and paper outline, learning intentions and basic readings to start things off, plus an orderly structure with some dates to hang the course on. Having the class online before the students come on campus enables them to explore and come armed with questions and thoughts. While not all first year students will manage to get into the online class and look around, many do, and most of the third years take the opportunity to reconnect and make an early start on gaining familiarity with the learning challenges ahead. The work of our colleague, Merilyn Taylor, is designed to improve the transition experience of the first year students studying online, as Merilyn discussed at WCELFest16  by giving the students a taste of basic online tasks and academic community, boosting confidence to participate actively.

When we meet the students on campus, as part of the block course component in MMP, our sessions are designed to fulfil a range of orientation functions, fundamentally centred around establishing starting points that are respectful, relational, responsive and real:

Firstly, we want to show the students that we are real people, rather than faceless robots at the other end of a computer network. We enjoy meeting, talking, listening, sharing and spending time with students face-to-face, from the Powhiri to the social gatherings, the classes and the chats in the corridor.

Secondly, we want to establish conditions that are conducive to powerful learning. For me, this means balancing the tension between challenge and reassurance. I want the students to feel curious and intrigued by the coursework and learning challenges ahead, so that they are ready to jump in and put in their top efforts, taking the work seriously and rising to high expectations. However, I am also mindful that adult learners can be anxious, despite the wealth of relevant experience they bring to all things. So, I'm intent on promoting confidence too. In a nutshell, I guess I want to stir them up while putting them at ease, which is a balancing act designed to banish complacency without creating undue stress. My mission is to cultivate flow so that students are urged to throw themselves into their learning, without feeling daunted by the prospect.

Thirdly, we use our on campus sessions to demystify the assessment procedures in class. Where possible, our assignments take the form of rich tasks requiring higher order thinking. For example, the third year class is entirely built upon developing student leadership, critique, discernment of alternative perspectives, and productive argumentation. This is a tough ask, weaving learning with assessment, and it requires that students have a chance to rehearse the skills involved, as well as to see models and to receive formative feedback on initial efforts. Our in-class activities are designed as a dry-run for each assignment, not because we are 'teaching to the test' or because passing the assignment is all that matters, but rather because we crafted the assignment around the learning intentions and need to support the students' learning in these directions.

Finally, in relation to assessment, we try to get an assignment underway very promptly in the course. First year students present an oral assignment worth 20% on the third day of their course. By week 2, third year students are leading online discussion and facilitating group work. Early assessment builds momentum in the courses and enables early success and timely feedback.

When we farewell the students from campus, and they return home to work online and in base schools, our parting orientation contribution is a follow up vodcast (Panopto) in which we verbally recap the key learning intentions and instructions and remind students about how to refocus when they return to home base. We aim to panopto on a weekly basis this semester, in order to present the human face of online teaching by reaching out to students, giving feedback about assignments and discussion, and talking through upcoming tasks.

In all of this, we are striving to orientate the students to their learning and to the relationships that will underpin their academic and professional development.

How do you orientate students in your courses?