Going online to enhance face-to-face teaching

October 16, 2014 at 11:27 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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This was the title of a talk by Professor Simon Lanacaster from UEA, who was visiting our Chemistry department. The lecture room was packed and his dynamic and enthusiastic presentation did not disappoint. His aim was, as far as possible, to get his audience to experience first-hand the methods that he has adopted to teach his courses in a radically different way – and that won him the Royal Society of Chemistry Higher Education Teaching Award in 2013 for “innovative use of technology to engage, challenge and enthuse students by blurring the boundaries between the internet and the lecture theatre.

Right at the start he encouraged us to avoid taking our own notes and to tweet our comments and observations instead using the hashtag #sotonpeer. The idea is that Storify could be used after the session to weave the best tweets into a coherent summary – and true to his word, he made that available at 1am this morning, just 8 hours after the talk. In everyday use this task would fall to the students and there might be several alternative summaries to choose from.

Maybe we (the audience) need more practice or advice on how to tweet effectively, but in my opinion the Storify fails to capture much of what was said and includes a lot that is irrelevant (if amusing). But there are a few gems in there – in particular Richard Treves linked to a post by Clay Shirkey which includes strong evidence against the use of laptops, tablets and phones in class, except when specifically requested by the tutor. He argues that they are a constant (and highly effective) form of distraction, and that multi-tasking interferes with learning: “Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.” For myself, I did find that tweeting and reading others tweets during the session was a major distraction, and that the notes I took (I was bad and ignored his request) did capture the points I found interesting. Why didn’t I tweet them instead? Because they mostly took more than 140 characters. I also wonder how appropriate Twitter is for the diagram-heavy notes that chemistry requires.

Simon did say that he used Twitter comments by students as a source to guide ‘just-in-time’ teaching, adapting it to their concerns and questions. He also uses a Twitter widget in their VLE (Blackboard) so that students who choose not to use Twitter can still see the tweets from other students. He encourages students to post photos of their experimental results, and they are very motivated by getting responses from around the world. There is also a #hashtagane meme…

The session then moved on to the use of screencasts (screen and voice) and compared this to lecture capture (screen, voice and video). There is plenty of evidence that students use recorded lectures for last minute revision, binge-viewing all the lectures like a HBO Box Set shortly befor exams – hardly a good use of their time! A better idea is to flip the classroom, so that students view recorded material before they come to a session that can be much more interactive because it doesn’t have to transmit the content. The challenge is of course that student may come unprepared, and need to quickly learn that that is a bad idea. As Simon put it “Turning up to a flipped session is like attending a fancy dress party without dressing up, you’re missing out on the experience.”

Simon uses Camtasia Studio to create and edit his screencasts, and has used the advanced functionality of that application to produce ‘vignettes’ – a key chunk of a longer screencast that is augmented by quiz questions.These focused learning/revision resources are needless to say extremely popular with students. However, one challenge is the amount of tutor resource required to create these vignettes, and his solution is to get his undergrads to prepare and present presentations that are then recorded using Camtasia. The students are paired and allocated a revision topic. They produce a draft in PowerPoint which is reviewed by their tutor. Feedback is provided by adding narration to the PowerPoint. The drafts are also shared with their peers who give provide further feed-forward advice about how to improve them before they are presented. The recordings of the best presentations are then used as learning resources for future cohorts.

Throughout the session Simon used TurningPoint ResponseWare to gather instant feedback from the audience on the points he was making – for example “What would it take for your department to adopt some of the methods used today?” where option 1 was “An Act of God”! Handsets were available for any members of the audience who did not have a web-enabled  device to hand. This worked really well, although my phone battery was getting low by the end of the session and at present this is a concern as tutors make more use of in-class mobile technologies. That said, the latest phones have a fast-charge facility where they can recharge to 50% in just 15 minutes, so this is likely to be a non-issue in a couple of years.

The final part of the talk was on the benefits of peer learning, and the use of a Student Response System such as ResponseWare to faciliate conceptual questions that really get students to engage with and discuss the subject. This is of course based on the fully researched and proven learning gains of the Peer Learning techniques developed by Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard. Simon’s advice is “Don’t ask recall questions in a flipped sessions; they need to be challenging and require understanding of a concept. Questions need to be in ‘the Goldilocks zone’ where not all students will be able to answer correctly.”. He has asked students to suggest possible answers in class, typed them directly into TurningPoint and polled the cohort. This has the advantage of crowd-sourcing student misconceptions rather than trying to anticipate them. I was amused that the example question Simon used required a basic understanding of the principle of accelleration under gravity, yet the majority of a room packed with PhD-level science academics failed to get it right, even after further ‘peer instruction’ discussion.

So a great talk with some excellent take-home ideas, with the benefits coming from the integrated use of a range of technologies and plenty of student activity and input.

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