Friday, 24 June 2016

Blending learning and teaching: One example

Dianne's last post has got me thinking about how we connect when we have combinations of face-to-face (f2f) and distance students, especially when we have to cope with three scenarios simultaneously. The juggling has to be creative to get all three to work.

I thought I'd share with you what we've tried to do in one paper that's part of a secondary graduate initial teacher education qualification. It is a compulsory, full year paper that has to be comparable across three versions - f2f locally, f2f in another city (about a two hour drive away) and entirely virtually, where students are spread throughout the country and are often already working in schools. These people might be teachers from other countries whose ITE quals are not recognised here, and this includes many teachers from the UK who migrate to New Zealand.

Another complication is that this paper consists of three diverse modules: Te Puawaitanga, which is about understanding cultural diversity and honouring our treaty partners; literacy across the curriculum, which is examining textual strategies and their links to learning; and PICT - pedagogy and ICT.

On the face of it, they have nothing in common, yet they are part of aspects underpinning the New Zealand education system. They help address the Key Competencies in the curriculum and support the professional practices of novice teachers. They also position these pre-service teachers to examine themselves, their contexts and their practices. So that there are synergies across the three modules, the other lecturers and I use Panopto to stream live and record our lectures to our local f2f group.  This is accessed through Moodle and all three groups are using the same Moodle site. To provide a mix that acknowledges the three versions (they are labelled HAM, NET, TGA), students are in subgroups for each discussion and all discussions are online in response to whatever is prefaced by the lesson itself. The discussions are also predicated on students having to try something out after the lecture to inform their online posts.

To organise the Moodle page this year, instead of having three different sites, all three groups (HAM, NET, TGA) and all three modules are organised into the same online space. Each module has its own section so the lecturers modified their section to suit. Each section was collapsible, to stop the page looking too daunting, but had easy navigation options that started with a structured overview diagram.  I created it using, which cleverly works with Drive. I had never used before, so I had to figure out what to do and solve the problems I needed to address. I had to create the three modules' content information as labels, adding hot links for each to the relevant area of the module, get the timetable information in order, and then work out how to imbed the overview into Moodle. The intention is that it operated as a ready reckoner for students to quickly find their way around. This is what the overview looks like. Students can enlarge or reduce the size as they wish by using a + or - option above it:

However, even the best laid plans have issues. One of these is the expectation that students will familiarise themselves with the site and read the information designed to help them, from the get-go. As learners, when we're busy, we tend to skim and look for shortcuts. This is eminently sensible when you already familiar with things, but not a good idea when everything is unfamiliar. When the total cohort is about 120 students, addressing individual help! emails (outside of Moodle) that ask questions about things that are answered in the site itself,  often requires some restraint. This is because questions can come thick and fast at the start of a programme. They can be overwhelming and stressful when students do not indicate whether they have tried to find out the answer before emailing, so this requires some more digging to check what didn't work first in order to rule certain things out, or offer good solutions where possible. A short video that screencasts the answer to a stated problem is one I find that works which I post into the Moodle site for everyone to use (in the Q&A area - see the image below):

I now have quite a large store of how-to screencasts that become useful as a just-in-need arises. As Dianne's post notes, the video posts can personalise and humanise what might otherwise seem distant and cold. One of our colleagues, lisahunter, describes her trials and tribulations of trying to teach online as a new staff member in Digital Smarts. She describes some of the labyrinthine efforts that took place as she found her way. You might enjoy reading her chapter. The book is free!

Also as Dianne observes, clarity and presence is something we strive for and constantly seek feedback on how well things are working. To that end, Dianne is leading a partnership with York University on peer mentoring online, where we are paired with someone else to seek a dispassionate point of view about our own puzzles of practice as we teach online. It is a wonderful experience and creates links that might not otherwise exist across space and context.

So what are your experiences? As a lecturer online or as a student learning through such an LMS as Moodle? We'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Teaching Online: Clarity and Presence

The final week of semester is already here and we are encouraging students to reflect upon their learning, and upon our teaching. This is not to suggest such reflection takes place only at the end of semester, but rather that this is the final chance to prompt evaluative thinking and to obtain student suggestions before class ends.

In a previous post, I wrote about ways to elicit student feedback and a little about how my colleagues and I respond to the suggestions that students make. In today's post, I want to sum up some of the ideas shared with us by our current cohort of first year students in the Bachelor of Teaching degree, studying online. This summary is for my own analytical purposes - to synthesise student input and consider how to action it; and also for students - to show we are listening and taking suggestions seriously, ready to act upon these. It may also be of interest to colleagues who have a  stake in what students completing their first semester of online study have to say. As always, there is much to be learned from listening to student feedback.

Earlier in the semester, the coordinator of our programme travelled to the regions to visit students in their base schools and returned with some informal feedback for us. In a nutshell, she reported that students were happy with our work in the online class because everything is nice and clear and my teaching partner and I are on hand for students when needed. That is, the students immediately highlighted Clarity and Presence as two key elements in their satisfaction.

I've kept my ear to the ground to find out more about these two factors and have swiftly concluded that they are of tremendous importance to first-time online learners, and are reasonably straight-forward to achieve. They also represent, in my view, two of the biggest pitfalls for lecturers who teach online. Taking a closer look at each factor in turn,

Clarity - is about having a clear and simple layout in the LMS (in our case, Moodle), so it is easy for students to navigate and to find materials and interactive spaces for various purposes. I think of the Moodle site as a classroom first and foremost, and a tidy classroom can be read as caring for one's environment, and being organised. Of course there are other interpretations of tidiness, but when it comes to online classes, students seem to appreciate uncluttered simplicity.
Beyond spatial design, clarity is also about communicating expectations. We post a weekly reminder for students, warning them what is coming up, deadlines ahead, and how they might prioritise their time in the week ahead. Each year, we refine our assignment instructions and criteria, working to clarify these as best we can.

Presence - is about being there when students need us. Of course we can't predict when students will need us, so being present means 'standing by' regularly. This is a familiar message to me, as my doctoral work some years ago yielded the very same finding - that is, students studying online prefer lecturers to visit the Moodle space daily to answer questions, and to appear in online discussions 2-3 times a week in order to signal presence and reciprocate the degree of involvement expected of the students. Online, students perceive lecturers who are not actively present as being absent from class. Even if the lecturer is 'standing back' to enable students the freedom to express their ideas or to develop scholarly independence, students cannot know that this is the case unless they are explicitly informed. Which brings us back to clarity of communication.

There is a subtle distinction between standing back and standing by. The latter involves monitoring, signalling presence in unobtrusive ways, and being ready to intervene before problems escalate.

Alongside our responsiveness to student queries and our regular input into online discussions, students have expressed their appreciation of our panopto recordings. Initially, we intended to produce a videocast weekly (as we do in our shorter 3rd year class), however we found this repetitive so instead recorded 9 videocasts between February and June. In each, we spoke to the camera, news-reporter style, and talked the students through the week that was and the week ahead, expressing our interest in their discussions, explaining key ideas, and reminding them of upcoming deadlines and expectations. You could say Panopto videocasts are where clarity meets presence.

The students said:
"Your Panoptos are fantastic as it makes the subject and your expectations clear and easy to follow! (which is very important when you are stressed at 2am, on your own and hundreds of miles from uni, eating cake!!)"
"The panoptos have been great and it adds a personal touch to the paper."
"it was like I was in a class environment and you were speaking directly to me.  By doing this, it really personalised this paper for me."
"I really enjoyed the panoptos, as it gave me the direction I needed at certain times."
"Just to know that you are around made it so much easier"

Perhaps all of this sounds pretty standard. It isn't hard to do, after all. So, doesn't everyone teach this way?

Well, apparently not. There are still instances where lecturers struggle with clarity and presence. Perhaps they inherited an online paper, and had to hastily cobble together something based on past years' classes, resulting in a cluttered, confusing mess of a Moodle site. If lecturers are unfamiliar with a paper and unsure of expectations, this lack of clarity is conveyed to students. A staff member who has never used an eportfolio may find it challenging to teach students how to do so. As for being present, it seems some lecturers are overwhelmed by the volume of online traffic, or are intentionally standing back for legitimate reasons. Unless the learning intentions are shared, or better still negotiated with students, however, the students will remain in the dark.

If we want students to lead online discussion, we need to model this first and provide guidance and scaffolding to support their leadership.

If we teach online, it is not sufficient to drop into class once a week. Even lengthy posts at such intervals will be a case of 'too little, too late'. Teaching time in an online context is more effectively apportioned as 'little and often'. This is how we keep on top of the volume of messages and how we demonstrate we are there, working alongside students.

I am grateful to the students who have conveyed this feedback as they have taught me something very valuable about my teaching, helping me to prioritise and act.

Because this sounds self-congratulatory and even a bit smug, I will finish by saying: We haven't got it all right, we are not perfectionists. Thanks again to student feedback, we are re-examining one of our assignments for next year with a view to altering the summative weighting; we plan to provide more explicit demonstrations of how to contribute to online discussion; and we are modifying our word limits in the forum. As further student feedback comes to light, it will alert us to any further concerns and hopefully point us in new and productive directions.

How does student feedback inform your teaching?

How important are clarity and presence as factors in effective teaching?