Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Post-Its & Mobile Devices in the Classroom: An Example of Blended Learning

This post concerns using Post-Its and mobile devices in the classroom.  Where blended learning is pursued, I would highly recommend supplying at least one Internet capable device during in-class research sessions for use by students.  This can encourage the use of online repositories, but, more importantly, ensures equitable access.

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The learning environment (ceiling pictured) was a very large room with strange phonics that absorb vocal projections.  There were neither chairs nor tables.  The carpet was clean, and the existing resources included mattresses, two whiteboards, a number of power outlets, and reasonable wi-fi.

I set-up two laptops in different corners of the room and connected them to the wi-fi.  I navigated to the online learning environment, which contains copies of the readings.  Some mattresses were pulled by the laptops and others set in a semi-circle around the whiteboards.  When the 20-odd students arrived, they automatically sat on the mattresses in the semi-circle.  Some pulled out laptops, some checked their cellphones.  After a few minutes the session began.

Per the "ways of thinking and practising" of the discipline (Entwistle, 2005; Meyer & Land, 2003), a known meditation was recited to open the learning.  Students were re-introduced to me as their teacher.  The intent and general processes of the class were outlined.  

The first teaching/learning activity (TLA) (Biggs, 2003) utilised Post-Its and a large wall.  The wall was sectioned into three areas: A-G, H-P, and Q-Z.  On a Post-It, each student wrote one concept that they did not understand from the two lectures.  They placed their Post-Its on the wall in alphabetical order.  Once placed, the student received another Post-It to write down another concept.  All students placed at least two Post-Its with some placing more than five.  While placing their Post-Its, they read and commented on their peers'.

The Post-Its were then collated by primary concept whilst maintaining alphabetical order.  When picking up a Post-It, I would read it aloud and place it beside a similar one.  I spoke throughout the collation process, reading the Post-Its and justifying allocation.  After the first few, students began to call out possible categories for allocation.  Post-Its which did not fit the activity were summarised and responded to immediately.  In some cases, students were requested to make contact with me after the session for additional information.  When the first TLA was completed, 13 primary concepts had been identified.

The second activity utilised the laptops, students' mobile devices, and a whiteboard.  Students were asked to stand in alphabetical order by common name in front of the Post-It wall.  Students were split in the middle into two groups of similar number.  Each group was allocated their alphabetical end of the 13 concepts.

Students used laptops and mobile devices to define their group's concepts.  One group split their concepts between their members, whilst the other tried to work as a whole unit.  As I had only supplied two laptops, both of which were relatively slow, students tended to favour their smartphones and personal laptops for researching.  I sat with each group for a time answering questions, and offering suggestions about where in the online learning environment they might find more information.

When the groups finished researching, they wrote their answers onto their allocated half of the whiteboard.  I gave five-minute and one-minute warnings before asking them to return.  Each group stood and reported on their findings.  The audience and I corrected any misunderstandings through verbal feedback, and the reporting group adjusted their whiteboard accordingly.

The best part of this process is what happened after the class ended: about six students sat and copied the whiteboards.  Having tested the information, and now being able to find supporting information themselves, the students were confident of what their peers had taught them.  This is a process I would undertake again, and highly recommend.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Teaching Stream via VLT

Stream is Massey University's learning management system.  Based on Moodle, Stream offers a learning environment to students and teachers alike.  I am not a Stream expert, nor am I required to have any technical knowledge of this learning tool.  However, it is part of my University's infrastructure, and I have learnt to employ it well enough to be able to provide a modicum of support to other users.

I was requested to offer teaching development on a number of topics, including Stream, to sessional faculty within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.  Although I have taught Stream on a one-to-one basis before, I have never taught it to a group.  As my expert colleagues were busy, I taught my first group session on this topic today.  

Video-Linked Teaching (VLT) are rooms with video conferencing facilities for interactive teaching and learning across Massey University's campuses.  All facilities offer flat floors and furniture which can be arranged in different ways.  VLT facilitators are present at each site to offer technical support.  The primary room is at Manawatū from where I taught my group session.

In total, 15 participants were in attendance.  Three Albany faculty were present.  The remaining 12 were from Manawatū, one of which attended at Albany. 

The overall feedback from the session affirmed my practice.  The Manawatū VLT facilitator gave positive verbal feedback, reporting that the session offered three things unusual or brand new to the space:

    (1) use of Stream in VLT;
    (2) simultaneous editing by multiple Teachers of a Stream site;
    (3) projection of the far-end, resident computer for observation of teaching and learning activity.

I will be completing an evaluation report for the primary stakeholder.  As a result of written and verbal feedback, I will be recommending additional workshops – including blended and online teaching skills – for sessional faculty of that College.

Today was a good day.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The LSE Book Review

I published my first review for the LSE Review of Books last week.  The blog publishes daily (in itself an amazing task) and offers reviews from disciplines across the social sciences. Contributions are are made by writers from both within and outside of the London School of Economics (LSE).  The Review is managed out of the Public Policy Group, a section of the Department of Government.  Ultimately, the blog "seeks to encourage public engagement with and understanding of the social sciences, via involvement with their best written and most accessible products – books and ebooks".  I like being involved with such a worthy endeavour.
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The very patient Managing Editor helped me craft a balanced piece of work.  The only thing I would change is contextual to the last paragraph.  To rectify, I recommend readers visit Stephen Ramsay and his discussion on the two types of digital humanities. This thoughtful, well-constructed piece provides a more complete context to the "bitter ideological war" than anything I could write.

Although the site's licensing allows me to copy and distribute here, I always think it better to drive readers to the original site.  This benefits the publisher's hit rate, and offers the reader exposure to other aspects of the site.  If you would like to read the review, please visit  Who knows, you might find something else there which intrigues you.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Through the Trees: Resourcing Transitions

As a teaching consultant, my lectureship is tasked with supporting staff to develop and deliver pedagogically sound papers and programmes based on contemporary principles of teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum design.  I attended an event last month for the local chapter of the Tertiary Education Union.  Interesting conversations ensued around one table, which has relevance to my work.

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One lecturer discussed the difficulties he was having with the rapid speed of technological change.  He felt that he was expected to assimilate one new system into his teaching practice, only for it to be quickly replaced with another.  One method for responding to this difficulty is a policy that resources transitions between processes.  This means every time a new process, technology, or policy is initiated, resources which assist with the transition to the new system are automatically provided.  Such resources should include individual and unit assessments followed by training, but may extend to marking assistance or capital items depending on the assessed need.

Although transparency was identified as a general procedural issue, the quality of information was also perceived as problematic.  A trio described the onslaught of unnecessary emails from administrators across the institution.  Although not quite spam, the content was not focused on the academics' three areas of interest: teaching, research, and community service.  They, like me, look forward to a filtering device that automatically deletes emails about lost cats.

Adding Twitter Widgets To My Moodle Site

Today, I added two Twitter widgets to my Moodle site.  You could try it to.  After a little wiggle, this is what I came up with:
  1. Login into your Moodle and Twitter sites.
  2. In Moodle, turn editing on. In "Add a block", use the dropdown menu to choose HTML.
  3. Configure (think "edit") with a title and choose HTML at the bottom of the Content box.
  4. Navigate to Choose "Create New". Select type (I added "User Timeline" & "Search") and "Create widget". Copy the resulting code.
  5. Navigate back to your Moodle page. Paste the code into the Content box. Save and you should be go!

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Avalanches, Blogs & the Future of UK Higher Education

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I subscribe to the Guardian Higher Education Network for information about UK college and university politics.  This morning's email included a link to an article by Jessica Shepherd predicting the end of the "middle-ranked" (and the panicked gasps of the elite) university within the next decade.  Being an employee of one of these, I was interested to read the interview with Sir Michael BarberPearson's Chief Education Advisor.

The article focuses on recent work by Barber and a team of Pearson staff.  Barber is the lead author of a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research entitled An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead.  The other two authors, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi, are both executive directors at Pearson.

The Report
The primary argument of the report is:
that a new phase of competitive intensity is emerging as the concept of the traditional university itself comes under pressure and the various functions it serves are unbundled and increasingly supplied, perhaps better, by providers that are not universities at all. (p. 1)
Parts of this argument remain undefined in the report.  Massification reconfigured the idea of the university long ago, but the report relates the 'traditional university' only to "Yale or Harvard ... Oxford or Cambridge" (p. 7).  As such a definition limits the extent of change being proposed to four institutions, this may just be a lack of clarity.  If the authors refer to the teaching/research/service model, the 'traditional university' has been 'under pressure' (or 'in crisis' or 'dead') since at least the nineties (if not earlier).  That a 'new phase of competitive intensity is emerging', therefore, becomes available for analysis.

Although most threats are identified in the report, 'a new phase of competitive intensity' might suggest increased bargaining power by suppliers.  Most faculty would argue that this is simply not the case.  Indeed, minimal increases have been reported in the US.  Even getting a job in the Academy can be a battle.

More interesting is the argument that non-university 'providers' might fulfil some 'functions' in a superior way than current 'supplie[rs]'.  The language (including 'competition') constructs education as an economic versus public good.  Given the authors are all employed by a company with significant investment in higher education, this should not be surprising.

However, the argument is illustrated using the largest US university, the University of Phoenix, as an example (p. 18).  Unfortunately, the privately-owned Phoenix is facing a sanction of probation by the regional accreditor for “alleged administrative and governance deficiencies”.  Apollo, the university's holding company, made a statement in their corporate filing:
the review team concluded that the University of Phoenix has insufficient autonomy relative to its parent corporation and sole shareholder, Apollo Group, Inc., to assure that its board of directors can manage the institution, assure the University’s integrity, exercise the board’s fiduciary responsibilities, and make decisions necessary to achieve the institution’s mission and successful operation. (p. 2)
As outlined by Paul Fain, meeting accreditation requirements is essential to qualify for federal funding.  Without government support, 'better' may become 'never'. 

In addition to the general topic of public-private battles over education, the avalanche metaphor drew my interest.  Barber uses the metaphor within the interview:
I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't a few [universities] that could go under, given that this avalanche is coming.
I considered Tweeting the article and the report, then found the YouTube video.  Well-constructed stop motion animation is not cheap.  My interest peaked...

I searched Twitter for Tweets of the video and found one by The Dragon Fairy. "Barber shredded," she states before offering a link to an article by David Kernohan on the wonkhe blog. We're under fifteen feet of pure white snow does indeed 'shred' Barber's report:
The citations are shoddy, the proofreading abysmal – it reads like a bad blog post. Or a good Ted talk. It’s a serving of handsome slices of invective which would leave anyone sick to the stomach. 
Kernohan quotes parts of the avalanche metaphor's source: a Financial Times restaurant review-interview with historian Norman Davies.  He suggests failures by Barber et al. to quote with context, however Kernohan has also been selective.  Neither the report nor the blog quote the whole paragraph from which the metaphor is taken.  Most likely, neither found the whole paragraph useful to their argument.

It is likely that the avalanche of politics has not completed arrived.  Pearson has openly supported the report, front-paging it on the main site.  The blogosphere has only just started to respond (for example, Ferdinand von Prondzynski) and academic journal articles may be months off.  To be continued....

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

On Learning Design

In the process of doing my first review of a journal article, I noticed a frequent reference to the concepts of 'instructional design' and 'learning design'.  While I recognise 'instructional designer' as offering occupational identity, I have never personally resonated with 'design' as a term.  The work I create mixes thought and spontaneity.  Although I plan, why don't I design?

In my last post, I looked at a number of different educational concepts from an etymological position.  'Design', when treated similarly, is related to the Proto Indo-European *sekw- which means "point out".  The Oxford Dictionary of English (3rd ed.) suggests the mass noun version of 'design' as the "purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object".  Oxford Art Online notes the term's wider use "to describe the aesthetic and functional characteristics of an object" and "as an essential part of the process of making, marketing and selling mass-produced goods".  In general, these definitions construct 'design' as a concept located in development towards production and distribution.
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Like its root term, 'learning' is derived from *leis- meaning "to furrow; learn".  In contrast, 'instruction' is related to *ster- meaning "to strew, scatter, spread out".  Where 'learning' provides a space for knowledge to grow (and stand), 'instruction' distributes it (if somewhat haphazardly).  When related to 'design', 'learning' and 'instruction' acquire externally-driven structures and procedures.  These constructs find context online.

As those involved in online teaching and learning know, 'design' is a technological approach to education.  Its focus in periodicals, like the Journal of Learning Design (Australia), is "the design of learning experiences for ... students in online, blended and offline learning environments".  Indeed, instructional design is defined as "a technology for the development of learning experiences and environments which promote the acquisition of specific knowledge and skill by students" (p. 2)

The 'how' versus the 'why' dominates the discourse.  This is reflected in a theoretical application where "few if any designers actually use models to confine their practice" (p. 89).  However, early pioneers founded "much of their work on instructional principles derived from research and theory on instruction, learning, and human behavior" (p. 58).  Indeed, the history of design in online education presents strong theoretical positions.  The influence of behavioural psychology on instructional design is seen in references to Robert Gagné and B. F. Skinner.  Whilst acknowledging the technological core of instructional design, Merrill, Drake, Lacy, and Pratt (1996) acknowledge empiricism as a source of validity (p. 1).  There seems little justification for a purely instrumentalist approach.

When I analyse 'learning design', I see a practice-emphasised interpretation of education.  The benefits of this approach is that students are "active inquirers, working on problems that [can be] genuine problems for them (rather than merely problems the teacher ... imposed)" (Phillips, 2007, p. 238).  Unfortunately, the major limitation is relational: participants are easily located as (at best) designers and end-users or (at worst) producers and consumers.  One means for overcoming this may be identifying 'design' as just one means of constructing both the relationship and the process.  Thus, like the ADDIE model for which it forms an integral part, 'design' could be seen as one path to good teaching.

Unlinked Reference
Phillips, D. C. (2007). Theories of teaching and learning. In R. R. Curren (Ed.), A companion to the philosophy of education (pp. 232-245). Malden, MA: Blackwell.