Along with the rest of the UK educational community, I have ensured that my courses @UniOfBath are Covid-ready. This means designing them according to the Bath Blend which includes independent (self paced) learning, Live Online Interactive Learning (LOIL) and In Person Time (IPT). In this blog I reflect on what has worked well (and less well) and what I would like to keep in the ‘new normal’. In short, my thoughts on how to design the blended experience in a social and inclusive way, while sharing best practice. I hope this might be of use to other educators and I’d be keen to hear about your experiences too (leave a comment or pingback to your own blog).
In March 2020, along with other HE educators, I rapidly transitioned to online-only delivery of my classes. The whole experience was exhausting but somewhat exhilarating, opening up some new possibilities of delivering my courses in different, and in some cases better, ways.
So, as the semester drew to a close in May 2020, I started thinking about how blended learning means moving away from the lecture-centred view of education (is there a parallel to the way that nutritional thinking has moved away from the proverbial ‘meat and 2 veg’?).
So, for example a typical ‘lecture’ is rarely a 50 minute monologue. Rather, most lectures I have observed contain elements of content (didactic teaching), questions (posed by the lecturer for the students to answer), and teamwork (working with peers on class exercises).
My thinking at that time was that it was better to think about each element separately. For example, questions can be answered either alone (self directed) or with others (connected). This suggests several modes of delivery: online asynchronously (eg through forums); online synchronously (eg through real time polling); or during in person (face to face) sessions.
Continuing the thinking in this way led to a more complex diagram that allowed me to think about my teaching in a different way. This means that the pedagogic core is a set of 4 elements : self directed learning, connected learning, practical learning and personal learning. The delivery elements are asynchronous online (aka independent learning in the Bath Blend), synchronous online (aka Live Online Interactive Learning, LOIL) and in person time (aka IPT).
Fortunately, many of the elements were already in place in my teaching but needed to be reconfigured.
What follows next is a series of reflections about what happened when I put this model into practice. I include, as quotes, some student comments derived from an end of semester whole class focus group.
Independent Learning does not mean recorded lectures
One temptation when translating to the online world is simply to take your existing lectures and record them. I discovered that this leads to a few issues
- Hour long lectures are really not very engaging
- They also overload students, creating an expectation of students sitting through at least 10 hours of recorded content a week, plus associated self study, before they even get to the live online sessions.
Instead, I have tried a more holistic approach including video snippets, self assessment quizzes, games, asynchronous forums, ‘try at home’ activities and whatever else I can think of that is engaging, relevant, valuable and pedagogically sound. For this reason, I avoid the term ‘pre reading’ and prefer the phrase ‘pre learning’. My pre learning for game theory took the form of an online game (thanks, nickycase) and a series of short video snippets, each building up to a self assessment question (answered in the next snippet). There were 6 snippets each of 5 minutes – this cuts down the recorded content from 2 hours (had I just recorded traditional lectures) to a much more manageable 30 minutes, divided into conceptual chunks.
“[pre-learning allows] you to prepare ahead of time and thus allows you to focus on lecture materials with a basis of knowledge. However, if it is too long it can be overwhelming and unrealistic. “
The great thing about recording video snippets is that if you mess it up, you just record again – no time consuming faffing about in video editing suites.
Incidentally, this example was used in a session on game theory which I blogged about
In Person Time should be Social, Authentic and Simple
It’s probably fair to say that In Person Time was the area of teaching requiring most thought. Fortunately, the University had already thought through the Health and Safety environment – with students in small groups, but at 2m distancing, with low occupation rooms, good ventilation, and the use of face coverings, the risk levels were kept low. This allowed me to concentrate on the pedagogy.
Over the semester I did encounter a few issues and challenges:
How to keep focus
Energy levels are quite hard to maintain over a 4 hour session (with a lunchbreak). Having multiple disparate activities meant students were being asked to ‘gear themselves up’ a number of times over the day. Over the semester, I moved to a model where the 4 hours contains at most 2 activities and for semester 2, most weeks will be dedicated to a single topic.
How to involve the remote students
It turned out to be really hard to provide a seamless experience for remote students. I did not even try to implement hybrid teams (though some educators have), but I did try to allow remote students to ‘join’ the room through video link. Even this was problematic, the remote students can see what is going on in the room but don’t feel involved. I have now started to run parallel sessions for in person and remote students, with a dedicated (and properly briefed) facilitator for the online students. This has the additional advantage of creating a ‘team teaching’ environment
“All the lectures get involved with all the modules, very holistic”
It also allows some modifications to be made to the online version of the class exercise. For example, instead of an in person ‘pitch’ that relies on body language, an online team might create an impactful poster or image.
Technical and Physical Issues
I had a host of problems with the AV equipment, starting with the ancient PCs being unable to handle zoom (our IT department replaced the PCs in double quick time once the issue was raised, but in retrospect I could have caught this earlier). I had issues with the range on the microphones, and background noise. I needed to think through the use of eg flipcharts or pens in a covid safe environment (risk management plans). I also needed to figure out a way of the cohort was divided into sensible groups (in our risk management plan, students are expected to take a particular seat and hence table location for the whole day).
I have now evolved a model with the following features
- It is better to have a few longer in depth activities than lots of short activities.
- The activities should be meaningful and involve practising skills that the students value (including those relevant for summative assessment)
- The activities should be social – that is, involve peer to peer interaction in a manner that is hard to capture online, for example those that involve the full range of communication including body language.
- Following Team Based Learning 4S model, activities should involve a ‘complex problem with a simple output’ – for example teams should communicate a vote (Yes or No), a choice (A-D) or a number (eg a bid price). That makes it easy to compare team outputs at a glance
- I do not have hybrid (mixed online and in person) teams.
- I now favour a parallel model with the online students being given a similar, possibly adapted exercise with a dedicated facilitator running that session.
As we learnt from this, we (the course team) developed some example activities that worked well, so might be worth sharing:
- Creating a 1 minute ‘advert’ for the “Vice Chancellor” on the importance of organisational change.
- Role playing a performance review between a disgruntled employee and a manager (conflict negotiation)
- Working up a ‘bid price’ in response to a tender
- Working on a Big Team Challenge with one of our industrial partners (thank you Rolls-Royce)
- In a session on agile product development, doing sprint planning using planning poker
With all these changes, we have kept participation high, to around 90% (around half the students attend in person, the others online) with energy and engagement levels high.
“IPT sessions were interactive and fun, we loved meeting everyone and socialising. Best parts of the week”
While I am delighted about this, it is interesting that the attendance for live online participation is even higher.
Live Online Learning : even better than the ‘real’ thing
I generally practice flipped teaching, where students spend the precious class time working in teams on meaningful learning activities. Flipped teaching is sometimes viewed with trepidation, the fear being that the pre work required will overload students. I counter this in two ways. Firstly, by carefully scaffolding the pre learning as described above (a rule of thumb is no more than 15 minutes of recorded content for each hour of contact time). In addition, I use some of the class time for facilitated team work on summative assessments – student work that in a traditional setting would occur outside the classroom. Therefore rather than adding to student work, I have time shifted it so more work is done before class and less work after it.
I found this this model works quite well with students when introduced and motivated clearly (my students want, and deserve, explanation and motivation for my pedagogical approach).
So how well does this work online? Even during the emergency online teaching, student feedback suggested that the continuation of live online teaching was valued
“… continued live lectures after lock-down … was very valuable for students like me who want to keep interactive lecturers and other students.”
This was particularly striking since the time of class (3-6pm) was now rather inconvenient to some of my students who were now in a different time zone. Nevertheless even those now working late at night continued to participate and engage in class. Perhaps the use of breakout rooms in some cases worked better than their previously cramped classroom environment
Moving into the new academic year (and with a more sociable time zone arrangement) I was fully expecting the sessions to be an important part of my teaching. In fact, my expectations were exceeded – I was pleasantly surprised to find that even at the end of semester, attendance was at 100%. With apologies to anyone whose vision of higher education utopia is disturbed by this, I can reveal that 100% attendance at end of semester is exceedingly rare (except where summative assignments are involved). Indeed, I did not achieve this in my on campus teaching last year, nor even this year (see above for my comments on In Person Time).
In addition, the engagement of all students was really impressive, in a typical lecture theatre it is hard to get input from anyone further back than the first few rows (not impossible, but still the online medium certainly lowers the barrier to participation). The fact that students can share their initial thoughts in the privacy of a breakout room does seem to build confidence as reflected in our end of semester student feedback :
“Breakout Rooms: Allows you to mix with others and gives an opportunity for people to get comfortable working together.”
All of which suggests that the convenience and inclusiveness of online sessions is something I would want to keep in my regular teaching. The one caveat is to protect against digital exclusion (for example, students with connectivity issues, or with lower specification IT kit). To help this, I record all my sessions (except the breakout rooms) and am working on improving the captioning. Students really value breakout rooms for private team discussions, and I am going to reflect on the best tool for this (eg Teams, Zoom, GatherTown).
Keep it Social
As an advocate of Team Based Learning I am a great believer in the power of peer learning. But team working of course is a very important aspect of student experience in the blended environment. This semester I have witnessed real friendships developing between students who have not even met each other in person. I have also been privileged to witness the transformation, over the semester, of ‘random’ groups of students developing to high performing teams. I often start the LOILs early, allowing students who wish to do so to join a breakout room with their team for a private pre class discussion and social bonding. I remain in the main session and we chat about what people have been up to over the weekend. One of my colleagues plays music before class!
“Enjoyed the music in Management Practices”
That said, and while there is definite value in having long lived, ‘permanent’ (semester long) teams, there is also value in creating opportunities for students to work with as many of the cohort as possible. The teams are have a different composition in the various units the students study. And during in person time, we deliberately mix up the groups so each student will have a ‘team for the day’.
Next semester, we are going to run one unit where the teams will be mixed up every 2 weeks, to keep things fresh. In the other unit the teams will be permanent over the semester.
“it would be nice to have the opportunity to be in a breakout room with everyone on the course by the end of the semester “
Keep it Inclusive
I am fully supportive of, though not an expert in, inclusive learning. The notion of inclusive design is that by making things better for a minority, you improve the experience for all. So, the various inclusive aspects we have incorporated include:
- Remote students are catered for by having a dedicated facilitator during ‘in person time’.
- Learning resources are made accessible to screen readers etc (using a tool called Blackboard Ally). The tool also makes recommendations on colours, fonts and other display aspects.
- All recordings, whether pre learning or a recorded online session, is captioned. Using the Panopto tool, students may choose to play the recording at a variety of speeds. We are looking into live captioning tools for next semester.
- The pre learning is released in sufficient time to ensure that students are able to come to class prepared so that if their connection fails during class and they drop out of one activity, they are still able to join in with next activity. In addition making pre recorded material short (5 minute snippets) helps those with unreliable or slow internet connections.
- In a classic example of inclusive design, we were asked by our disability service to provide a clear weekly planner of teaching and assessment to meet the needs of one of our students. Not surprisingly, this resource proved enormously popular with the whole class in helping them plan their time.
Share the Love
And finally, of course I am keen not just to share my learnings (the purpose of this blog) but to learn from others.
One thing we found invaluable is to practice the sessions, for example trying out remote collaboration tools, or walking through the logistics of our in person time (ideally using the actual room). Having colleagues act as proxy students can help reveal any issues that can then be resolved (for example, noise on the microphone, issues hearing chatter from the room, hybrid collaboration, problems sharing screen or whiteboard tools etc).
One really nice idea is that of a tag team, for example the first person (A) to deliver an in person socially distanced class is shadowed by the educator (B) scheduled to go next. So B acts as a classroom helper to A and meanwhile observes what is working well (and maybe not so well). A and B have a washup meeting. The process then repeats itself with C shadowing B. We didn’t manage to implement this, but others at the University did and it worked brilliantly.
And of course the students can be (and are) fantastic co-creators of the experience, not just giving us feedback (allowing us to course correct our approach) but also coming up with new ideas and approaches that we intend to implement for next semester including more social events, more team mixing, industry challenges and inter cultural learning.
“A chance to learn about other’s experiences from different cultures/countries.. closer bond between our study colleagues”
“We would like to see more relaxed non-course related social things being orgainised. So we can get to know each other better. “
I hope you found this blog useful – please do leave your own thoughts and experiences below as a comment, I am keen to learn from you as well.