Flipped learning in a team-based situation with a dash of TEL by Dr Cindy Becker

This is my new recipe for extending the academic year and helping to welcome our new students. As with any new recipe, some bits of it went really well and some aspects of it were less impressive – and there was one moment when I was in danger of failing to cook up any learning at all.

Along with my colleague Mary Morrissey, I have been working this year to introduce our new module EN1PW: Persuasive Writing. We have been ridiculously excited about the chance to share with our students all that we firmly believe they need to know about how to write practically and persuasively. We have devised a plethora of assessment tasks via blackboard (with help from Anne Crook and our other colleagues in CQSD) but I wanted to go one step further and use technology to enhance the learning experience even before our students reached the lecture hall or seminar room. Aware of the university’s desire to produce a more structured and active Welcome Week for our newcomers inspired me to create a quiz using screencasts, in the hope that students would feel part of our department’s community of learning from the off.

That was my first mistake. Because optional Part 1 modules are allocated to students on Friday of Welcome Week, I was not able to send out the quiz to the relevant students in enough time for them to use it prior to our first meeting. Lesson learned – this recipe would work better for a compulsory module.

Undeterred (I had by that time spent ages on my computer) I gave them the details of the quiz by sending out a document to them on Monday of Week 1, asking them to work through it prior to our first seminar in Week 2. (Richard Steward and I had worked hard to try to make this a bb quiz, but we could not guarantee that the screencasts would play reliably on every device a student might use, so a word document it had to be.)

The quiz consisted of 8 questions, all asking about aspects of writing with which new students struggle each year. The quiz was designed to go further than immediate learning: my idea was to use each question as a springboard to discuss other aspects of writing style. I was also keen to have them work in teams. In the seminar I asked them to get themselves into groups of four – they will remain in these groups for the rest of the term, for a variety of group-based tasks.

I went through the quiz, asking them to recall their individual answers (most had written these down on the sheet) and then decide on a group answer. That was my huge mistake: I just had not thought through in advance how to do this. Should I run through the whole quiz first, asking them to make their group choices, or run through the screencast for each question and then ask for their answers one at a time? I mistakenly chose the former option and ended up realising, too late, that it would have been more effective to have taken the latter approach. This was made more difficult because I had not thought to put the subject of each question on the question sheet, so it would have been easy to get lost had the student beside me not written the topics on her question sheet.

So, things went wrong from time to time, but generally I was pleased with the experience. I found that some of them had shown the quiz to their new flatmates, who I gather were impressed that they had been given a ‘fun’ task before the first seminar. Some of them had called home to discuss the questions. In the seminar it worked really well as a team-building task: they were so busy arguing over possible answers that they forgot to be strangers. I also realised that there were some things I would have assumed they would know which they did not. I am not sure, for example, that I would have found out that some of them were confused by prepositions if we had not been having such a free ranging discussing as a result of the quiz. I think that using animated screencasts really helped in this respect. Seeing a set of cartoons in a seminar set a tone of relaxed, discussion-based learning, which was just what I wanted to achieve.

It was all that I hoped it would be in terms of learning, and with the glitches now fixed on the question sheet I feel more confident about the teaching. I learned more about screencasts using ‘Powtoons’ software too – like the fact that each screencast will publish with a screenshot of exactly what is on the screen at the moment you press the ‘publish’ button. It took some time for me to go back and finesse all of the screencasts in the light of this, and even now I realise that I could have done it better by including an initial title screen. Still, that is the pleasure of teaching, learning and technology: there is always the next thing to learn, the next challenge to face. It is nice to think that I am learning just as hard as they are.

You can find the revised document here: EN1PW introductory quiz(2)

Group work: sure, but what about assessment? By Heike Bruton (a TLDF project)

Group work has many well-documented benefits for students, but it also provides considerable challenges. A frequent complaint from students is that differences in contributions are not recognised when everyone in the group receives the same mark – the free loader issue. However, when students are working unsupervised, it is very difficult for the tutor to gauge who contributed to what extent. This is where peer assessment of group work can be a key part of the assessment framework.

What’s this project all about?
Cathy Hughes from Real Estate & Planning has developed and implemented her own online system of peer assessment of group work, and has given presentations about it at various T&L events. With the help of an award from the Teaching and Learning Development Fund, Cathy appointed me as Research Assistant. Our hope is to find a sustainable system for those colleagues who wish to use it. This may mean developing Cathy’s system further, or possibly adopting a different system.

What peer assessment systems are staff currently using?
The first step of the project was to find out what peer assessment (PA) of group work tutors at the University of Reading are currently using. We conducted a number of interviews with colleagues who are currently using such systems, and we found a variety of systems in use (both paper-based and digital).  Most systems seem to work well in increasing student satisfaction through the perception of fairer marking, and encourage reflection. However, all such systems require quite a lot of effort by those administering them. While lecturers are unanimous in their estimation that peer assessment of group should be done for pedagogic reasons, unsurprisingly they also say that a less labour-intensive system than they are currently using would be highly desirable.

What peer assessment systems are out there?
Cathy and I investigated available peer assessment systems. After examining several digital tools, we identified one system which seems to tick all the boxes on the wish list for peer assessment of group work. This system is called WebPA. WebPA is an open source online peer assessment system which measures contribution to group work. It can be used via Blackboard and seems to be very flexible.

Where to go from here?
You can try out a stand-alone demo version here: http://webpaos.lboro.ac.uk/login.php. This site also contains links leading to further information about WebPA. We are currently putting our findings together in a report, and we will disseminate the results throughout the University.

Supporting Postgraduate Study by Dr Cathy Tissot and Dr Carol Fuller

At an away day prior to our Periodic Review, staff had an opportunity to have some creative dialogue around how we can better support our postgraduate students. This came up as a response from some thought provoking feedback from our current students when asked how we can improve. International students, students with English as an additional language, and particularly part-time students who are in full time employment were the ones we were particularly keen to support in more flexible ways. The part-time students in particular are taught outside of traditional teaching hours and often live at a distance to UoR so it is not easy for these to access library and student study support services. Students new to postgraduate study can often lack confidence in their writing skills, for example, and this group voiced interest in having support mechanisms that were accessible and readily available to them outside of traditional hours.

What’s the solution? Discussions lead us to conclude that we could make better use of Blackboard and Mediasite (this is video capture platform that allows you to view a PowerPoint while simultaneously watching the recorded presentation).  Drawing on feedback from students plus ideas based on experience of common issues, staff drew up a list of ideas for short, bespoke video clips. The idea was that these could be included on Blackboard, across all courses, and in a folder special designated ‘study support’. Students can access these whenever they need or refresh their skills at particular times, for example, when writing an assignment. This way the resource is available when students need it, not when we can timetable to deliver it. It is therefore very much a student led resource. All the videos were also transcribed to make them fully accessible to all students.

The videos are short, focused and specially filmed. Here is a flavour of some of the areas we covered:

  • APA Referencing
  • Using Endnote
  • Making a complaint
  • Writing a literature review
  • Doing a presentation
  • Avoiding plagiarism
  • Word for academic purposes, plus many more!

Here is a link to an example of one of these (you will need your username and password to login – which is in the top, right hand corner. The videos can be found in the Internal Folder – the Institute of Education – Student Study Support, near the bottom of the list) and if you have any ideas as to what else we could cover (or want to volunteer to do one) we would love to hear from you!

Word for academic purposes

Study support for MOOCs – do the Study Advisers have the answer? by the Study Advice team

The recent announcement that Reading has been selected as a partner in the Futurelearn project to provide free online courses is an exciting move towards new ways of engaging with a potentially massive cohort of students. However, concerns have been expressed about the lack of support for students studying the courses, especially those run by profit-seeking companies. The Times Higher Education Supplement (14 Feb 2013) reports Prof Josie Taylor of the Open University commenting that it is unethical to recruit large numbers of ‘inexperienced learners’ without providing them with support for their learning practices. Certainly if one of the aims of MOOCs is to act as a recruitment tool for future students by providing a taste of the teaching available at institutions, building in the probability of failure seems both wrong and commercially unwise.

Futurelearn’s webpage on MOOCs explained notes that ‘Due to the large number of students studying MOOCs, learning support comes from the online learning community rather than academic staff… MOOCs attempt to encourage students to be independent and self-motivating.’ Students will be encouraged to form online support networks using social media to build peer relationships. While peer learning and support is certainly a valuable and increasingly well-used strategy in universities, such initiatives involve peers already embedded in study at HE level, who are usually supported or mentored by trained staff. Independence and self-motivation are qualities we would all like to encourage in our students – but it’s equally important to recognise when expert guidance is more appropriate and have access to that guidance.

A project supported by the Annual Fund and carried out by the Study Advisers may have a potential answer to this problem. We have been developing a series of ‘bite-size’ screencasts on key aspects of learning practices, focusing on the issues most frequently discussed with students in Study Advice sessions. These avoid the traditional ‘talking head’ format, combining an explanatory spoken voicetrack with visual illustration of the ideas discussed, including animations and text extracts. Students can pause and re-watch parts of the presentations to build their understanding in ways that would be impossible during a lecture presentation.

We hope to launch the screencasts for access to Reading students via Blackboard later in the summer, as well as using them for a ‘flipped learning’ model for Study Advice workshops. If you would like to preview the resources developed so far and give us some feedback, please contact Michelle Reid (michelle.reid@reading.ac.uk) or Sonia Hood (s.hood@reading.ac.uk).

Blackboard Quizzes To Help Students to be Prepared for Laboratory Practicals by Dr Richard Mitchell

It is important that students turn up for our three hour laboratory practicals suitably prepared, but just providing the Lab Scripts in advance is not enough, as often students don’t read them! Now in Systems Engineering we embed a series of questions throughout the Scripts which are available on Blackboard in the form of a quiz.

Students are expected to do the quiz before they go to the Laboratory. As the associated theory behind each quiz questions is in the lab script, the students need to read much of the Lab script to do answer the questions!

A further benefit to this approach, as Judy Turner has pointed out, is that it benefits students with special needs: information in advance of the lab is useful for those with difficulties with multitasking and getting organised (dyspraxia), those who take longer to understand text (dyslexia), for people with anxiety issues. It can also be helpful for those with Aspergers syndrome who like to be organised and have routines.

In addition, feedback to Part 1 Systems Engineering students in their first term is provided through our ‘engagement’ system (see http://www.reading.ac.uk/engageinassessment/videos/eia-video-richard-mitchell-engagement.aspx, which assesses whether students are ‘engaging’ in each module. Participation in these quizzes is used to inform the judgement as to whether the students are engaged for the associated modules.

Using technology to find low-tech solutions by Mary Morrissey

Like a lot of people, I do not consider myself particularly savvy about technology: when I find that something is useful to me, I learn how to use it. That said, I think we can use learning technologies to come up with ‘low tech’ solutions to our teaching needs. Among the advantage is efficiency in terms of time and money: we already have the kit, and we know how to use it. I offer the following as an example.

It is often difficult to make sure that students are aware of detailed regulations that affect their work but which cannot be summarised or displayed easily. Conventions for writing and referencing are a good example in our department.  Last summer, Pat Ferguson (our Royal Literary Fund fellow whose role in the department is to help student improve their writing skills) observed that we had excellent advice on essay writing, but it was in our large Student Handbook, distributed at the start of the first year. Pat suggested that we make this information available separately.

I thought this was a great idea. I noticed there was other information in the handbook that students need through their degree too: there was information about our marking criteria; there were some very helpful examples that showed the difference between plagiarism and poor academic practice. I took these sections, and I created three separate documents with titles that I hoped would be self-explanatory: ‘Style Guide for English Literature students’; ‘Understanding Feedback – Marking Criteria’; and ‘Plagiarism’.

I uploaded all three documents to Blackboard’s ‘Fileshare’ area for the department, and I created links from the Blackboard courses for all our Part 1 and Part 2 modules. (I am working on the Part 3 modules, but there are over 50 of those!) I also posted the documents in our central ‘Information for English Literature Students’ Blackboard organisation, on which all staff, undergraduates and postgraduate students are enrolled. By keeping the documents in ‘Fileshare’ I can update them every year, to include new ‘standard paragraphs’ for example. I overwrite the old file with the newer version, and all the daughter versions linked to it update automatically.

This isn’t rocket science, but I think it has helped us make useful information more readily available. Having in posted in most of our Blackboard courses makes it more visible; having three small documents (in pdf format) makes them easier to download and print.

Where would I go from here? Students have told me that they like a website with exercises that help with grammar and writing skills that we recommended. It’s based in the University of Bristol:  http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/exercises/grammar/grammar_tutorial/index.htm

I would like to create an interactive resource like this, and I know it can be done. The University of Aberdeen took the paper-based ‘Guide to Written Work’ (on which we all relied when I worked there!) and turned it into an internet-based resource with exercises: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/writing/

If anyone knows any low-tech ways that I could do something similar, please let me know!

Centre for the Development of Teaching and Learning (CDoTL) play host to colleagues from University College Cork.

On Wednesday 18th January 2012 CDoTL played host to a visit from colleagues from the Teaching and Learning Unit (‘Ionad Bairre’) at University College Cork (UCC), Ireland. Professor Grace Neville (VP Teaching and Learning), Dr Bettie Higgs and Marian McCarthy (Co-Directors of Ionad Bairre) spent the day meeting with the CDoTL team to find out more about the work of the Centre and its role in supporting institutional T&L enhancement.

UCC are currently undergoing a review of their teaching and learning support provision and were looking to other T&L centres both within Ireland and overseas to provide them with ideas and insights in supporting enhancement across institutions. The aim was to use their visit to inform recommendations for future T&L support at UCC. CDoTL were therefore delighted to be chosen by UCC as an example of ‘good practice’ in central enhancement of teaching and learning.

In particular, the UCC team were keen to find out more about Reading’s T&L Awards, Fellowships and projects schemes, as well as our provision for disseminating good practice and supporting colleagues’ staff development (e.g. as part of CDoTL’s work with the Centre for Staff Training and Development). Our UCC colleagues were also keen to find out more about the role of CDoTL in leading and supporting bids for external T&L funding, something which CDoTL have had much success in in recent years. The visit also provided the UCC team with an opportunity to find out more about our School T&L structures and to meet with the PVC Teaching and Learning, Professor Gavin Brooks, as well as some of the Faculty Directors for Teaching and Learning.

Left to right: Marian McCarthy (Co-Director of Ionad Bairre, UCC), Professor Grace Neville (VP Education, UCC), Dr Bettie Higgs (Co-Director of Ionad Bairre, UCC) and Dr Anne Crook (CDoTL.)

 Dr Betties Higgs commented on the University’s T&L Awards and Fellowship schemes “The reward and recognition systems you have in place are invaluable for reminding staff of the status of teaching and learning – key functions of higher education institutions.”

UCC also support Blackboard as their Virtual Learning Environment, so were interested to find out more about CDoTL’s work in supporting Blackboard and, more broadly, e-Learning, across the University. The visit was also an opportunity to showcase some of the methods used by CDoTL to engage with Schools, for example the Pathfinder work, in which CDoTL works closely with Schools in preparation for their respective Periodic Reviews. Dr Betties Higgs commented “The Pathfinder initiative is excellent. The support for staff comes at the right time in the cycle for the periodic review. It’s obvious that Schools benefit from the more in-depth consideration of Teaching and Learning, enabled by this initiative. We will be recommending similar support at an appropriate stage in our own Quality review cycle.”

Professor Neville’s comments on their visit to CDoTL “Thank you to the whole Team at CDoTL, and to your colleagues from the Faculties. It was definitely a good choice to visit Reading. We will be able to quote some of your initiatives when we make recommendations for our future in our Centre for Teaching and Learning.”

Dr Anne Crook