10 Days before the US election, almost 40 students and four academics from across England came together to debate the Trump v Clinton fight for the White House, using Blackboard’s Collaborate platform, writes Politics & IR Director of Teaching & Learning, Mark Shanahan. I’d first come across collaborate at a TEL Showcase event, and had discussed its potential use with colleagues from other universities at the British International Studies Association’s Teaching and Learning conference at Newcastle University in September. When the university was looking for innovative Week 6 events, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to land on the political theme of the day and get students and lecturers from a range of universities talking – all without the need for anyone to book a room or a coach…or even (in theory) get out of bed.
The benefit of using Blackboard’s Collaborate tool was the relative ease with which we could bring academics from Reading, Manchester, De Montfort and Huddersfield Universities together both with their students and a US-based journalist for 90 minutes’ discussion of the US elections. The sound and picture quality wasn’t always perfect – but that was probably more down to user equipment than the tool itself.
Allied to the video content, we had a live chat stream which was incredibly popular. There was a constant flow of questions from students for the academic participants and comments and responses between the students themselves. There was actually so much chat going on that it wasn’t always able to quite keep up with the flow and bring it into our video/audio. We started early with a pre-chat, and ended up running well past our planned hour. We learned a lot. Between myself and Senior TEL advisor, Adam Bailey, we agreed it would have been great to capture both all the chat for future use (we got some), and more so to use screen capture technology to keep a record of the event. We also realised early on that we needed a chair/moderator to keep the event in shape – and I fell into that role.
The response from both students and academic participants after the event was very positive. All the students who responded to a brief Surveymonkey questionnaire after the event want to do more of these link-ups via Collaborate – and want them to be longer. Equally, my colleagues Pete Woodcock, Head of Politics at Huddersfield, Alison Statham a Senior Lecturer in Politics from de Montfort and Howell Williams who’s at Manchester are all keen to get in front of a webcam again – perhaps to pick over the bones of the US election, and definitely to look at other politics subjects where we can share our views and expose our students to opinions beyond their own institutions.
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.
Facebook can be a distraction to learning but it can also be an aid. I believe strongly that lecturers should do their best to make their subject interesting to students. It can be an uphill battle. However, this year’s experiment in using Facebook as a student engagement technology with a first year Photosynthesis class of 300 was a great success (measured by student response) and this is how I did it.
1) Set up a closed and secret Facebook group
For this you need a Facebook account and a Facebook friend who is willing to be signed up to the group. Log in to Facebook, select ‘Groups’ and then click the +Create Group button. Choose a sensible name for the group. You will need to add one friend to allow the group to be created.
2) Add some content
To help the students understand what is needed add a short welcome message – “This closed Facebook group is to allow me to run quick quizzes during the photosynthesis teaching. Sign up now but there is nothing you need to do in this group until the lectures are due.”
3) Invite the class the join
You can invite students by inputting their email addresses: click on the ‘Invite by email’ link then paste in the comma separated list of addresses. You can also email the link to the group via Blackboard and ask them to request to join. It is important in the covering email to explain the purpose of the request and that you are not asking, or needing, them to become a Facebook ‘friend’. Many students use Facebook for their private lives and it’s not appropriate for staff to have access to that in most circumstances. Also ask that they bring an internet enabled device to the lecture – phone, tablet or portable – it doesn’t matter which.
4) Monitor the joining requests
Make sure you add people quickly once they have requested to join. You should check at least once per day. If the proportion of the class joining is small to start with you will need to send a reminder round, however once some people are signed up it’s likely their classmates will get on with it. Don’t expect to get 100% sign up – some students don’t have a Facebook account.
5) Prepare your question and answer set
Think carefully about which points are important in your lecture, which are amenable to simple question and answer, and which issues can be chosen to give a spread of questions over the whole 50 minutes. Facebook surveys allow a question and then any number of answers but it’s best to keep the choice simple – anything from 2-6 works well. Don’t put the questions in Facebook yet – once they are there they are visible to the students and they can start answering them. Prepare a simple text document (I use Notepad but any text editor will do) and save the question and the answer set.
6) One day before the lecture
Remind students to bring internet devices. Explain to those without them that you will use a show of hands for them when voting is happening. Remind them that there is still time to join the group if they haven’t yet got round to it.
7) The lecture begins
Welcome the students, put Facebook on the screen and post a simple question related to the lecture topic. This gives those signed up a chance to vote and also encourages those that haven’t joined to join. This also gets the students used to the idea they are going to be interacting with you and the information you provide.
8) Question breaks
Over a double lecture period I posted 5 series of questions, roughly one set every 15-20 minutes. Interspersing the standard lecture delivery with these short changes of style and a request to think about what has been taught helps all the students to keep up and gives chance for peer learning via the Q&A exercises. In a class of almost 300 students it took 2-5 minutes to deal with each Facebook question and the accompanying discussion. While those with IT chose their answers I did a show of hands for the rest of the class. If you have only a maximum of 50 hands to cope with out of a class of 300 it’s quicker and easier to count.
9) After the lecture
The Facebook group is set up so students can use it for post lecture Q&A. Do let them know how long you will monitor it on a regular basis. If you are a regular Facebook user you will see if there have been any new posts. If you are using Facebook just for this, do make sure you log in periodically in case any questions crop up. Any questions that come up can be dealt with and the record is there for all students to see again at revision time.
Is it a good idea to encourage students to log on to Facebook during a lecture?
There is an obvious risk that encouraging students to log in to Facebook will simply distract them into checking their timeline. However, if the student has bothered to turn up for the lecture there is the opportunity to keep them engaged with the content through the mini lectures followed by highly interactive Q&A sessions. Experience this year suggests to me that the students find the approach engaging and highly educational. Certainly the module feedback from several students picked out this lecture from the rest of term as a successful approach to teaching.
Large first year classes can be difficult to engage during lectures. Students are new to University, often unwilling to stand out from the crowd and feel hidden amongst a large group. This is challenging for the lecturer who is trying to judge whether their lecture message is hitting home, whether they have paced their lecture at the right speed and whether the content of the lecture complements the background knowledge of the students. It is also challenging for the students who will become bored if the teaching material is pitched at the wrong level, delivered at the wrong pace or just find the content irrelevant. Interaction with the Facebook quizzes allowed the students to see the answers their peers were giving, allowed me to identify and discuss areas of misunderstanding and even to challenge the depth and confidence of understanding by setting the occasional question with no correct, or multiple correct, answers. In the case of no correct answers the students could query the options and offer a correct one. In the case of multiple correct answers the class could soon see that it was split over more than one option.
There are plenty of amazing facts to throw at students about photosynthesis – plants produce 42000 times the weight of the great pyramid in sugar every year, half our drugs are based on products of plant chemistry and the oxygen we breathe is a waste product of photosynthesis. However, this does not necessarily impress 200 first year students – available oxygen, food and medicines don’t seem to engage the imagination – they are just things that are there. The challenge was to find something interactive, that would work at this scale, that was not stupidly expensive to run, that didn’t need lots of equipment to be carted around campus and that the maximum proportion of students could relate to. That ruled out PRS systems (heavy to carry around and unfamiliar to students), twitter needed commercial software to gather data in a useful way live and the dominant demographic of those on Twitter is a rather older age range than our first year students. The obvious choice was to engage with Facebook. Student responses suggest this was a worthwhile experiment but I will only be sure when I have this year’s exam results to compare with last year’s.
It’s quick, easy and free to set up. I realise it’s not for everyone and will not suit all styles of lecture however there’s little lost by trying this approach once, it may suit your teaching and deepen student engagement.
Turnitin automatically generates an ‘Originality Report’ with a ‘similarity index’ expressed as a percentage, and links to matched sources, including other students’ work, the internet, and other publications. It’s available at Reading through the University’s VLE Blackboard as well as a web portal.
As Associate Dean Orla Kennedy, who has been chairing these informal lunchtime gatherings this term, pointed out, the event coincidentally took place at the same time as a meeting of SCAM (the University’s aptly named Sub-Committee on Academic Misconduct) but still saw a good turnout of some 20 colleagues from academic and service departments across the University.
Speakers Virginie Ruiz (Systems Engineering), Sara Broad (Institute of Education) and Mary Morrissey (English Literature) are among those leading the use of Turnitin in teaching and learning at the University. Each shared their approaches and experiences, highlighting different aspects and issues surrounding the use of Turnitin, before addressing questions and concerns from colleagues.
I have been working with a placement student, Rachel Glover, a third-year undergraduate in Politics and International Relations, to carry out research into digital literacies for student employability, focusing on the University’s extra- and in-curricular work placement schemes.
Rachel and I were up first, followed by Cindy Becker (English Literature) and Hannah Jones (Agriculture, Policy and Development). Organiser Joy Collier had asked us to set the scene a little bit, so we thought we would share some of the insights from our research into digital aspects of work placements, and to show our colleagues the model that we use to evaluate students’ digital experiences. Our presentation slides can be found here.
The framework we use is adapted from Rhona Sharpe and Helen Beetham’s ‘Developing Effective E-Learning: The Development Pyramid’ (2008) which describes the development of digital literacies in terms of access, skills, and practices as prerequisites to becoming a critical, informed, expert user of digital technologies.
If we apply this to work placements, it becomes about affording students digital opportunities. Work placements can provide opportunities for students to experience and explore digital technologies (access); to develop technical proficiency in using digital technologies (skills); and, crucially, to apply these skills in a professional, ‘real world’ context (practices).
This is where the real value of work placements lies – in bridging the gap between students’ learning and how this is applied in a work environment, and in making that connection in the student’s mind, too, so that they are digitally ready and so that they have the awareness and the ability to articulate that readiness in order to make stronger applications, perform better in interviews, and, ultimately, better able to do their jobs.
Developing those higher-level attributes and attitudes – digital literacies – requires reflection. Cindy and Hannah spoke about the ways in which they encourage students to reflect on their placement experience and how this is linked to assessment, which surely then ought to be based on students’ ability to draw out and illustrate their learning and development rather than a descriptive account of, say, the company or their day-to-day tasks while on placement.
Hannah’s closing comments, which suggested that perhaps students should not actually be marked on this at all, that being able to truly reflect on their experience is enough, I found particularly thought-provoking.
My own closing comments were twofold: firstly, to encourage anyone involved in planning, assessing and evaluating placements to consider what digital opportunities might be embedded in them.
And secondly, to consider whether the development pyramid might be applied to planning, assessment and evaluation of work placements more generally, not just to look at the digital angle. After all, having the right tools for the job, learning how to use them and knowing what to do with them, are the building blocks required to develop any sort of professional competence. Thus the development pyramid might provide a useful framework for designing WRPL activities. I will say more about this in another blog post.
The 19th international conference of the Association for Learning Technology ( University of Manchester, UK, 11-13 September 2012) was buzzing with 700 participants, where I had the opportunity to attend some excellent sessions and to keep a watching brief on what is happening in the HE sector in terms of learning technologies and pedagogy. Below are some highlights of the themes, the technologies and the pedagogies that are prevalent in the UK HE sector.
Student engagement, interactivity in the classroom, assessment and feedback, Open Educational Resources, and Digital Literacies were some of the main points of the presentations I attended. VLEs are still dominant in institutions, with increased use of Mobile Devices, and classroom interactivity systems; Augmented Reality in Teaching and Learning has attracted attention as a powerful tool for learning.
Eric Mazur, in his keynote” The scientific approach to teaching: Research as a basis for course design”, provided evidence for the “flipped classroom”, where students’ interaction and engagement during the lecture had a significant impact on their learning. Appropriate design of course delivery and the use of voting systems has been instrumental for the learners.
An interesting aspect for me was the recognition of new roles within support staff in institutions (such as Teaching administrators) that have a major role to play in the student experience and are in a position to enable institutional change especially within a rich technological environment. UCL have presented on their project The Digital Department [Identifying new “blended” support roles: Identifying new ‘blended’ support roles to enable institutional change http://altc2012.alt.ac.uk/talks/28131] which is running in parallel to our own Digitally Ready project.
Two sector surveys were presented. The UCISA TEL Survey 2012, highlighted that knowledge of academic staff is considered far less of a barrier influencing technology enhanced learning (TEL) development than in other years but lack of time and insufficient financial resources are the top barriers to TEL. Although institutions had conducted studies on the impact of TEL on the student experience, the evaluation of pedagogic practices is less common (with Scottish universities appearing strongest in this arena). Finally, the survey highlights the notable progress of services for mobile devices by institutions, especially for supporting access to library services, email and course announcements for iPhone, iPad and Android devices. The second survey of 44 HEIs has revealed that 50% of HEIs are working on developing policies on e-submission, a topical subject among learning technologists.
Finally, in his talk “Research about Technology Enhanced Learning: who needs it?”, Prof Richard Noss, from the London Knowledge Lab, convinced us that “thinking about TEL is good at encouraging us to address deep educational issues that may themselves have little to do with computers – including reappraising what it is our learners need to learn, why, and how.”
I was glad to find out recently that I’m a Digital Hero. Though disappointed that the title does not appear to confer any super-powers, I’m glad that the University recognises the innovative work that many of us are doing in our different fields – Reading feels like a place that values digital innovation and encourages its staff to take the lead. Having had a lot of support from CDoTL’s Teaching and Learning Fellowship scheme and the Annual Fund I was very glad to come along to the recent Digitally Ready Day and explain to colleagues what I’ve been working on.
During my time in Reading I’ve been developing a huge digital architectural reconstruction model of ancient Rome. I use this a lot in research, in teaching, and in outreach talks. I’ve also licensed it to commercial broadcasters and am working with Typography and Systems Engineering to turn it into a smartphone app for tourists.
Students react very well to digital visualisations – they help give a vivid, instant impression of life in the ancient city – and have played a part in its creation through UROP placements. Seeing students enthusiastically contribute digital content of their own encouraged me to build this into the formal curriculum, so I’ve offered optional digital modelling assignments in existing courses, with uniformly high standards in the work submitted so far. From next academic year I’ll be running a new module, ‘Digital Silchester’, in which students will collaborate on a reconstruction of our local Roman town.
The software needed to get started in this sort of work is reasonably easy to pick up (I taught myself to do it) and some of it is available free. Among other things I use a modelling package called SketchUp which you can download for nothing to try out: http://www.sketchup.com/intl/en/index.html. I am sure this sort of work could be used in all sorts of academic disciplines and student projects, and hope that others will be encouraged to give it a go.
Digitally Ready for the Future: Sharing Good Practice
Thursday 19 July 2012
10.45 -15.00, Agriculture Building
The digital age has presented Higher Education with our greatest opportunity. We have new techniques, new technologies, changes in student expectations along with a phenomenal increase in access to information.
Amongst our colleagues are early adopters and forward thinkers who are keen to share and discuss their experiences. Join us and them for a day of ‘show & tell’ talks and workshops, to bring together those who are interested in using digital technologies in innovative ways, and to encourage discussion around digital issues.