Research update #13

One of my principle reasons for using this blog in my research/study is that it offers an effective and searchable way to put my first-draft thoughts and quotes/references down in a central and searchable space. I found this very useful when I did my Masters and hope that it will prove equally useful now.

My main challenge is the overwhelming amount of ideas and information that I’m currently swimming in. By taking on – at least for now – the challenge of developing an holistic understanding of the factors influencing (positively and negatively) the use of TELT in Higher Ed, I’ve opened myself to trying to understand the nature of H.E itself and how all of the pieces work together (or don’t, depending on how they seem to feel in the morning)

This has meant that I had a virtual bombsite with (digitally) jotted down questions and ideas for my job and quotes and scattered references and issues. I think I’ve now put this into some kind of triage/processing system. In brief, I’ll read the paper/book/etc, scrawl barely legible notes on it in pencil, highlight (it seems) every other word and then convert that into a blog post here.

From there, useful quotes (all annotated and properly cited) go into a quotes/refs page in Scrivener under the broad factor heading (e.g. Teachers and teaching). Simultaneously I have another page (organised by factor) with appropriate citations that is for my questions and ideas. These get filtered down to key points which go into a Notes for Lit Review page (again organised into factors) and this will give me the structure of the Lit Review itself and help me to make some semblance of order of my thinking.

I’ve just finished updating the Questions/ideas and Quotes/Ref pages and am up to transferring that to Notes.  All of which means that it’s been a little while since I’ve actually read something new however revisiting the range of papers that I’ve already looked at was interesting in terms of seeing which areas my thinking has progressed in. (not many but some)

Going by my project plan, I should be moving on now to looking at Universities as Organisations as a factor – which I’ve never been 100% sure what I mean by but it seems relevant and like a handy catch all for a lot of spare influencers.

Generally still feeling ok about things.

Research update #12: Crazy but worthwhile

So I’ve just posted my thoughts on a paper by King & Boyatt about factors that influence the adoption of e-learning. This has taken me far longer to work through than any other paper – though there was probably a small interruption there in the middle because I’m a bit of a political tragic and I’ve been hoovering up stuff about the U.S election and had a little trouble focusing for a while (and now I really don’t want to talk about or hear about it. Perfect time to bury myself in research )

Anyway, while I can feel time ticking away (which I’m told is a perpetual feeling for PhD students), I don’t think that the time I spent on processing this paper was wasted because it has helped me to think about a few things in my big picture and also it has raised a few questions that I’m keen to dig into deeper. Primarily that of what the real and most powerful motivators are for the adoption of TELT/e-Learning practices (and there are always multiple ones because that is the complex kind of world that we live in) and how do they affect our approach to implementing this for the right reasons.

I’ll leave the question of how we fundamentally shift university culture until my next project I think.

Thoughts on: Exploring factors that influence adoption of e-learning within Higher Education (King & Boyatt, 2015)

This is a big post because it is about a journal article that covers some of the core issues of my thesis in progress. I’ve spent far longer looking over, dissecting and running off on a dozen tangents with it than I had expected. My highlights and scrawled notes are testament to that.

scrawled notes

In a nutshell, King and Boyatt attribute the success (or otherwise) of adoption of e-learning in their university to three key factors. Institutional infrastructure, teacher attitudes and knowledge and perceived student expectations. This seems like a reasonable argument to make and they back it up with some fairly compelling arguments that I’ll expand on and provide my own responses to shortly.

They use this to generate a proposed action plan which includes a coherent and detailed university level e-learning strategy – which includes adequate resourcing for technological and pedagogical support, academic development training, leadership, guidance, flexibility and local autonomy. Everything that they propose seems reasonable and sane yet (sadly) quite optimistic and ambitious. From their bios, I think that the authors aren’t teachers themselves but education advisors like myself but the perspective put forward in the article is very clearly from an academic’s perspective. (Well, 48 academics from a range of discplines, ages and years of teaching experience.) All the same, there were more than a few occasions when I read the paper and thought – “well it’s fine to suggest communities of practice (or whatever) but even when we do set them up, nobody comes more than once or twice”.

I guess the main difference between this paper and my line of thinking in my research is that I want to know what gets in the way, and I didn’t get enough of that here. I also found myself thinking a few times that this kind of research needs to avoid falling into the trap of forgetting that teaching is only one (often de-prioritised, depending on the uni culture) part of an academic’s practice and we need to factor in the impact that their research and service obligations have on their ability to find time to do this extra training. To be completely fair though, the authors did recognise and note this later in the paper, as well as the fact that the section on perceived student expectations was only that – perceptions – and not necessarily a true representation of what students think or want. So they propose extending the study to include students and the university leadership, which seems pretty solid to me and helps to strengthen my personal view that this is probably a thing I’ll need to do when I start my own research. (I’m still in proposal/literature review/exploration swampland for now). To this I would probably add the affordances of the technology itself and also the Education Advisor/Support staff that can and would help drive much of this.

This paper sparked a number of ideas for me but perhaps the most striking was the question of what are the real or main reasons for implementing e-learning and TELT? Is it simply because it can offer the students a richer and more flexible learning experience or is it because it makes a teacher’s life easier or brings some prestige to a university (e.g. MOOCs) or (in the worst and wrongest case) is perceived as a cost-saving measure. There is no reason that it can’t be all of these things (and more) and that makes a lot of sense but some of the quotes from teachers in the article do indicate that they are more motivated to adopt new tools and teaching approaches if they can see an immediate, basically cost-free benefit to themselves. Again, I’m not unsympathetic to this – everyone is busy and if you’re under pressure to output research above all else, it’s perfectly human to do this. But it speaks volumes firstly about the larger cultural questions that we must factor in to explorations of this nature and secondly about the strategic approaches that we might want to take in achieving the best buy in.

From here, I’ll include the notes that I took that go into more specifics and also include some quotes. They’re a little dot pointy but I think still valuable. This is most definitely a paper worth checking out though and I have found it incredibly useful, even if I was occasionally frustrated by the lack of practical detail about successfully implementing the strategies.

 

“In addition, the results suggest that underpinning staff motivation to adopt e-learning is their broader interest in teaching and learning. This implies a bigger challenge for the institution, balancing the priorities of research and teaching, which may require much more detailed exploration” (p.1278)

Glad to see this acknowledged.

This paper focuses on Adoption. What are the other two phases in the Ako paper?
Initiation (a.k.a adoption), Implementation and Institutionalisation
Getting people to start using something is a good start but without a long term plan and support structure, it’s easy for a project to collapse. The more projects collapse, the more dubious people will be when a new one comes along.

Feel like there are significant contradictions in this paper – need for central direction/strategy as well as academic autonomy. Providing people with a menu of options is good and makes sense but that makes for huge and disparate strategy.

The three core influencing factors identified. (How well are they defined?)

Institutional infrastructure
Definition:
Includes: institutional strategy, sufficient resources (to do what?), guidance for effective implementation.

Question of academic development training is framed with limited understanding of the practicalities of implementation. Assumption that more resources can simply be found and allocated with no reciprocal responsibilities to participate.

Support needs identified:
Exploration of available tools and the development of the skills to use them
Creating resources/activities and piloting them
Developing student skills in using the tools
Engaging with students in synchronous and asynchronous activities
Monitoring and updating resources

Unclear over what time frame this support is envisioned. Presumably it should be ongoing, which would necessitate a reconsideration of current support practices.

“Participants suggested the need for a more coordinated approach. A starting point for this would be consideration of how available technologies might be effectively integrated with existing pedagogic practices and systems” (p.1275)

Issues basically boil down to leadership and time/resourcing. Teachers seem to want a lot in this space – “participants in this study reported the lack of a coherent institutional-wide approach offering the guidance, resources and recognition necessary to encourage and support staff.” At the same time, they expect “ongoing consultation and collaboration with staff to ensure a more coherent approach to meet institutional needs” (both p.1277).

If you want leadership but you also want to drive the process, what do you see leadership as providing? I do sympathise, this largely looks more like a reaction to not feeling adequately consulted with however my experience with many consultation attempts in this space is that very few people actually contribute or engage. (This could possibly be a good question to ask – phrased gently – what actions have you taken to participate in existing consultation and collaboration processes in ed tech)

“A further barrier to institutional adoption was the piecemeal approach to availability of technologies across the institution. Participants reported the need for a more coordinated approach to provision of technologies and their integration with existing systems and practices” (p.1277)

Probably right, clashes with their other requests for an approach that reflects the different disciplinary needs in the uni. How do we marry the two? How much flexibility is reasonable to ask of teachers?

Staff attitudes and skills
Definition:
Is this where “culture” lives?

Includes:
“including their skills and confidence in using the technology” (p.1275)

“A key step for broadening engagement is supporting staff to recognise the affordances of technology and how it might help them to maintain a high-quality learning experience for their students.

[teacher quote] There’s a lot of resistance to technology but if you can demonstrate something that’s going to reduce amount of time or genuinely going to make life easier then fine” (p.1275)

Want to know more about the tech can do – a question here is, for who. Making teaching easier or making learning better? Quote suggests the former.

What about their knowledge of ePedagogy? (I need to see what is in the Goodyear paper about competencies for teachers using eLearning. Be interesting to compare that to the Training Packages relating to eLearning too)

A big question I have, particularly when considering attitudes relating to insecurity and not knowing things – which some people will be reluctant to admit and instead find other excuses/reasons for avoiding Ed Tech (”it’s clunky” etc) – is how we can get past these and uncover peoples’ real reasons. It seems like a lot of this research is content to take what teachers say at face value and I suspect that this means that the genuine underlying issues are seldom addressed or resolved. There are also times when the attitudes can lead to poor behaviour – rudeness or abruptly dropping out of a discussion. (Most teachers are fine but it is a question of professionalism and entitlement, which can come back to culture)

In terms of addressing staff confidence, scaffolded academic dev training, with clear indicators of progress, might be valuable here. (Smart evidence – STELLAR eportfolios – Core competencies for e-teaching and some elective/specialisation units? This is basically rebuilding academic development at the ANU from the ground up)

“The findings highlighted the importance of a pedagogic-driven approach to implementation that supports staff in recognising the potential of technology to add value to students’ learning experiences. While staff recognised that support was available centrally, they suggested that it needed to be more closely tailored to the specific needs of staff and extended to include online guidance at point of need and communities of practice that facilitated sharing between colleagues” (p.1278)

These seems to strengthen the case for college/school level teams. I am well aware that teachers tend not to engage with academic development activities and resources outside their discipline area – which I think is partially tribal because the Bennett literature suggests that there are actually few differences in teaching design approaches from discipline to discipline. This seems like a good area for further investigation. What kind of research has been conducted into effectiveness (or desire for) centralised Academic Dev units vs those at a college level?
Perceived student expectations
Definition: Students expect their online learning world to match the rest of their online experiences.

“One student expectation reported was the availability of digital resources accessible anytime and anywhere: participants suggested that students expected to access all course materials online including resources used as part of face-to-face sessions and supplementary resources necessary to complete assignments.” (p.1276)

Seems like there are a lot of (admittedly informed) assumptions be made of what students actually want by the teachers in this section. Maybe it is reasonable to say that everyone wants everything to be easier. But when does it become too much easier? When they don’t need to learn how to research?

Student need to learn how to e-Learn

“These findings suggest that for successful implementation of e-learning, students need to be supported to develop realistic expectations, an understanding of the implications of learning with technology and skills for engaging in these new ways of learning and make the most out of the opportunities that they present” (p.1277)

Interestingly phrased outcome – DO students need to learn more about the challenges of teaching and/or the mechanisms behind it? Is this just about teachers avoiding responsibilities? It sounds a bit like being expected to study physics or road-building before going for a drive.

“However students confidence with online tools and resources was perceived to vary and the finding suggest that students need to be supported to develop skills to engage effectively with the opportunities that e-learning affords…

It is not clear whether this is an accurate portrayal of student views or whether staff attributed their own views to the students. It would be valuable to ascertain whether this perception is a true representation by repeating the study with students.” (p.1278)

Again, nice work by the authors in catching the difference between student perspectives and teacher assumptions. I guess the important part is that whether the students hold the views or not, the teachers believe they do and this motivates them to use the technology.

Students don’t want to lose F2F experiences and they don’t want eLearning forced upon them when it seems like a cost-cutting measure. They do want (and expect) resources to be available online.

Outcomes

Proposed elearning strategy

“Reflecting on the factors that influenced the adoption of e-learning, participants suggested the need for an institutional strategy that :

Defines e-learning
Provides a rationale for its use
Sets clear expectations for staff and students
Models the use of innovative teaching methods
Provides frameworks for implementation that recognise different disciplinary contexts
Demonstrates institutional investment for the development of e-learning
Offers staff appropriate support to develop their skills and understanding” (p.1277)

I’d add an additional item – Offers staff appropriate support to develop and deliver resources and learning activities in TELT systems.

I have a lot of questions about this strategy – what kinds of expectations are we talking about? Is this about the practical realities of implementing and supporting tools/systems which recognises limits to their affordances? Modelling the use of innovative teaching practices – just because something is new doesn’t mean that it is good. I’d avoid this term in favour of best practice and/or emerging. Is modelling really a valid part of a strategy or would it be more about including modelling/showcasing as one of the activities that will achieve the goals. The goals, incidentally, aren’t even referred to. (Other than the rationale but I suspect that isn’t the intent of that item)

Overall I think this strategy is an ok start but I would prefer a more holistic model that also factors in other areas of the academics responsibilities in research and service. The use of “e-learning” here is problematic and largely undefined. There’s just an assumption that everyone knows what it is and takes a common view. (Which is why TELT is perhaps a better term – though I still need to spend some time explaining what I – and the literature – see TELT as)

Support:
Face to face support complemented by online guidance (in what form?)
Facilitated CoPs to support academics sharing their experiences. (Can we anonymise these?? – visible only to teachers (not even exec). If one of our problems is that people don’t like to admit that they don’t know something, let them do it without people knowing. )

Wider marketing of support services in this space to academics. (I don’t buy this – I think that teachers get over marketed to now by all sections of the university and I’ve sent out a lot of info about training and support opportunities that get no response at all)

Faculty or departmental e-learning champion (Is that me or does it need to be an academic? Should we put the entire focus onto one person or have a community. Maybe a community with identifiable (and searchable) areas of expertise

Big question – how many people use the support that is currently available and why/why not?
My questions and ideas about the paper:

Demographics of the sample reasonably well spread – even genders, every faculty, wide distribution of age and teaching experience as well as use of TELT. No mention of whether any of the participants are casual staff members, which seems an important factor.

It’s fine to look at teaching practices but teaching doesn’t exist in a vacuum for academics. They also have research and service responsibilities and I think it would be valuable to factor the importance of these things in the research. The fact that nobody mentions them – or time constraints – suggests that they weren’t part of the focus group or interview discussions.

My overall take on this – the authors expand on previous work by Hardaker and Singh 2011 by adding student expectations to the mix. I’d think there is also a need to consider the affordances of existing technology (and pedagogy?) and perhaps also a more holistic view of the other pressure factors impacting teachers and the university.

“The findings highlighted the importance of a pedagogic-driven approach to implementation that supports staff in recognising the potential of technology to add value to students’ learning experiences.” (p.1278)

There are a lot of reasons that TELT is actually implemented in unis and while this might be the claim as the highest priority, I would be surprised if it made the top 5. Making life easier for the uni and for teachers, compliance, cost-cutting, prestige/keeping-up-with-the-Joneses and canny vendors all seem quite influential in this space as well. Understanding how the decisions driving TELT implementations are made seems really important.

King, E., & Boyatt, R. (2015). Exploring factors that influence adoption of e-learning within higher education: Factors that influence adoption of e-learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(6), 1272–1280. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12195

Research update #11: It wasn’t procrastination after all

Half-way in to the slightly manic process of reorganising my Scrivener notes for my PhD thesis proposal, I wondered if I wasn’t using it to avoid to actual work. I was painstakingly working through a host of references (some with annotations – mainly from the abstract I suspect) – that I had added early on from my initial proposal and largely just dumped into my broad categories without much further thought. I haven’t since come back to them or considered how relevant or useful they are or what I plan to do with them.

My larger goal in this exercise was to try to find some kind of structure for my thinking – I’m increasingly aware that the Higher Education ecosystem is intricate and complex and most if not all of the moving parts impact on each other far more than the current literature seems to acknowledge. I’m still not sure what the best way to represent this is, but I’m hoping that creating some order will help me to place the myriad random thoughts and questions that I’ve come up with so far in something more manageable.

Which seems to be a point that I often reach in large projects (none as large as this, admittedly) before losing interest and moving on to something new. As I thought about this, I worried that I was doing this exact thing here.

Fortunately, I wasn’t. I eliminated a number of papers that seemed relevant on the surface but really weren’t, I found a few more that I’d completely forgotten that I have put into the high priority reading list and I think that now I have a place for everything and everything in its place. There’s a section for the actual writing (broken up by broad topics), a section for notes (broken up by broad topics which I’d say will get more and more subtopics), a section for quotes and references (with sub-sections for individual papers) and some general miscellaneous pages for ‘other’ stuff. What works best about this for me is the way that it lets me quickly jump around the proposal when something useful needs to be jotted down and the side-by-side structure of Scrivener lets me easily copy-paste chunks. It looks a bit like this.

scrivener screenshot

The other part of this process that was useful was finding a brief paper that has the same focus as my research, which gave me some assurance that I’m on track with my ideas as well as check whether I’m missing anything vital. (Turns out that I think that they are missing a few things, which is obviously good for me. I’ll post about this one shortly)

 

 

Research update: needing to reorganise Scrivener

I’m feeling more back on track with my PhD proposal literature reading and idea synthesising than I have for a little while but I don’t feel much closer to understanding exactly what I want to do yet. The closest I can come to it is that I want to identify the things in H.E that get in the way of people adopting TELT practices (that actually improve teaching and learning, not that are simply ‘innovative’) and find practical, implementable strategies to overcome them. I feel as though there is more than enough research out there about what these effective TELT practices are, I’m happy to take it as a given that TELT can help, and so I’m left wondering which sector of ‘education’ I’m looking at.

Is this in fact more about organisations and management and how things run? I have a feeling that it’s bigger than this which is why I still have technology and TELT pedagogy as standalone areas of investigation on the roadmap (as well as students, unis as organisations and TELT support strategies). One thing that I thought about as I was reading the Bennett et al (2016) paper was the fact that it didn’t include the impact of other academic activities (e.g preparing research grants) on the practical design process. This wasn’t the focus of the paper, obviously but the more I look at TELT in Higher Ed., the more inextricably intertwined and complex it all seems. (I’m mindful that I need to remember the advice here that it’s a PhD, not a Nobel prize)

I’m hoping that better organising my ideas in Scrivener might help me out. At the moment, it’s just a place where I have copy/pasted virtually everything that I’ve been finding in the many folders and subfolders and pages and subpages that make it a beautiful tool. Using Scrivener to work on an application to upgrade my HEA fellowship helped me to see for the first time what a powerful writing tool it can be, in that it effortlessly supports a writing style that jumps all over the place as ideas form. So my focus this weekend is to try to tame this beast – and may God have mercy on my soul.

Thoughts on: The process of designing for learning: understanding university teachers’ design work (Bennett, S., Agostinho, S & Lockyer, L. 2016)

When this paper was recommended to me because I’m currently looking into the work and role of university teachers (academics/lecturers/whathaveyou), I was hesitant because I thought that it might be more focused on the solutions area of my research and at this stage I’m more interested in understanding the problems. Nonetheless I read it because, well, I’d be an idiot not to listen to my supervisor and also because I was taught at one point or another by all of these women when I did my Masters and I have a lot of time for them and their work.

It explores one of the fundamental activities that makes teachers teachers – learning design – and examines the approaches that a group of 30 university teachers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds take in either developing a new course or redesigning an existing one. As I’m finding in a lot of education research, this is something that has been explored far more in research into teaching in Primary and Secondary teaching but scantly in Higher Ed.

I might just digress for a moment to a question of language because the more time I spend in this space, the more keenly aware I become of how seriously it is taken. Bennett et al make an interesting deliberate decision to use the term ‘teachers’ instead of academics, lecturers or even tutors, (professor being more of a title perhaps), which are the  terms commonly used in Higher Ed. Personally, I prefer it because in this specific context of teaching, teacher seems more accurate. ‘Academic’ also incorporates research and ‘lecturer/tutor’ are both tied to relatively specific teaching activities but ‘teacher’ captures all aspects of the act of teaching. I don’t yet feel confident enough in my role as an education advisor / professional staff member to use it however, because I worry that some of the ‘teachers’ that I work with would take it as diminishing their stature. I’m not saying that’s fair by any means and in fairness I know many more who wouldn’t give it a second thought – I think. I guess a question to consider here is also whether we can compartmentalise an academic’s activities so that they are variously a teacher or a researcher. And where does ‘scholar’ sit in that? So instead I do a little linguistic dance where I jump between academic and lecturer for the most part when I think what I’m really talking about in the context of my work is someone that teaches. In keeping with the style of the paper, I’ll stick with teacher here and ponder further use later.

The authors explain that Higher Education in Australia since the 1990s has experienced a major period of change and this has

brought significant pressure on educators to adopt new and innovative educational approaches within a relatively short time. Design support services exist centrally or within the faculties of all Australian universities, but these are limited resources for which there is strong demand, leaving many university teachers to rely on their own skills. This is a particular challenge for discipline experts, who often have limited pedagogical training and are expected to balance teaching work with research, professional service and administrative responsibilities (p.9)

(And this is before we even start to consider the impact of the increasing reliance on international students and ongoing casualisation on the sector)

In an attempt to identify opportunities to empower teachers to design better learning experiences, the authors set out to understand their existing design processes. They conducted semi-structured interviews with 30 teachers that had been found by contacting professional organisations in Australia and vetted to ensure a diverse sample of disciplinary backgrounds and teaching experience. They were asked about their process and experiences in designing new units and/or redesigning existing units and given generic prompts to expand their responses.  Wherever possible they were encouraged to discuss multiple examples to minimise possible biases that might be encountered in discussing single experiences. The responses were coded and arranged into categories to create a hierarchical structure. (I hope you don’t mind the inclusion of these relatively dry methodology descriptions – I’m still working out my own). I’m mindful of the difference between this approach in understanding the ways that teachers work and that taken in the Goodyear study in a recent post of mine, where teachers provided a description of their work and thoughts as they did it, rather than months later. Given the complexity of design in comparison to responding to forum posts, there are clearly major practicalities to consider however I’d imagine that there is probably a happy middle ground. (To their credit, the authors do acknowledge the time distance as an improvable factor in their research)

There were a few notable findings, most significantly that the discipline area of teaching had virtually no impact on the design process that the teachers undertook. While there was roughly a 50/50 split between teachers who identified learning outcomes first versus those who identified the content they wished to cover, essentially all worked through a reasonably iterative process where they started with the broad considerations of the course and gradually focused on specific details. The content/outcomes focus was sometimes influenced by the fact that the teacher hadn’t previously taught a unit and needed to refresh their own understanding of the core concepts. This was generally part of a course redesign. It was also interesting to note that course re-designs were sometimes also deemed necessary because a new teacher to the subject found that the previous curriculum was too tightly aligned with the specific research interests of the previous teacher, which they didn’t share.

The interviews led to the creation of this model of general design processes

photo-28-10-2016-2-48-46-pm

One random observation that I also found interesting – none of the participants sought design assistance or used existing learning design models or tools. The authors comment that

it may be that the use of these approaches and guides has been integrated into the tacit practices of higher education teachers, or it may reflect their limited adoption. Further research is needed to resolve this question. Although this study helps to understand what teachers currently do, with the intention of informing further support strategies, there is clearly a related question of what teachers should do that also needs to be addressed as part of an overarching research goal” (p.16-17)

Bennett et al acknowledge several areas for improvement in their research – 75% of the participants were teachers with 10 or more years of experience which doesn’t offer insights into the perspectives of early career teachers, who may arguably have a greater need for support in learning design. Selecting participants based on their membership of relating teaching organisations would also have tended to load the study with the kinds of people that already have an enhanced interest in teaching practices too.

From my personal perspective, while I agree that there can only be benefits in taking more sophisticated approaches to learning design, I would have liked to have seen an examination of the quality of the courses that these teachers were actually designing and/or the impact that they had on student learning. For all we know, these courses could all have been designed uniformly badly. My main takeaway though was that, in the absence of formal training and in the presence of unfortunately (and inexplicably) under-resourced support units, Higher Education teachers may gradually work out at least what works for them in terms of learning design and evolve this across the course of their careers.

A few other areas seemed to be lacking that I think needed to be factored in as well – the timing of course design. In Higher Education in Australia, the weeks before the beginning for Semester 1 coincide with the application period for Australian Research Council (ARC) grants and this can be a time of significant pressure for academics to sustain their research, which still contributes more substantially to their standing within the university than their teaching does. While it makes for a much messier question, ignoring these impacts on academics’ activities may not provide us with the complete picture that we need to better support their teaching.

 

Thoughts on: A Devil’s Dictionary of Educational Technology (Bryan Alexander and friends)

Bryan Alexander is pretty great, kind of like the wild haired California wizard of the eLearning world. His work (in collaboration with commenters on his blog) in creating the Devil’s Dictionary of Educational Technology just makes him even cooler.

A couple of my favourites:

Big data. n. pl. 1.When ordinary surveillance just isn’t enough.

World Wide Web, n. A strange new technology, the reality of which can be fended off or ignored through the LMS, proprietary databases, non-linking mobile apps, and judicious use of login requirements.

 

Thoughts on: National Students as Partners Roundtable 2016

I was recently invited by @UQKelly – Kelly Matthews of the University of Queensland – to attend the National Students as Partners Roundtable on a glorious Brisbane Spring day. (For which I am grateful almost as much for the chance to escape a particularly bleak Canberra day as for the exposure to some interesting ideas and wonderful people working in this space). This isn’t an area that I’ve had much to do with and I was invited to bring a critical friend/outsider perspective to proceedings as much as anything.

Students as Partners (which I’ll shorten to SaP because I’ll be saying it a lot) more than anything represents a philosophical shift in our approach to Higher Education, it doesn’t seem like too great a stretch to suggest that it almost has political undertones. These aren’t overt or necessarily conventional Left vs Right politics but more of a push-back against a consumerist approach to education that sees students as passive recipients in favour of the development of a wider community of scholarship that sees students as active co-constructors of their learning.

It involves having genuine input from students in a range of aspects of university life, from assessment design to course and programme design and even aspects of university governance and policy. SaP is described as more of a process than a product – which is probably the first place that it bumps up against the more managerialist model. How do you attach a KPI to SaP engagement? What are the measurable outcomes in a change of culture?

The event itself walked the walk. Attendance was an even mixture of professional education advisor staff and academics  and I’d say around 40% students. Students also featured prominently as speakers though academics did still tend to take more of the time as they had perhaps more to say in terms of underlying theory and describing implementations. I’m not positive but I think that this event was academic initiated and I’m curious what a student initiated and owned event might have looked like. None of this is to downplay the valuable contributions of the students, it’s more of an observation perhaps about the unavoidable power dynamics in a situation such as this.

From what I can see, while these projects are about breaking down barriers, they often tend to be initiated by academics – presumably because students might struggle to get traction in implementing change of this kind without their support and students might not feel that they have the right to ask. Clearly many students feel comfortable raising complaints with their lecturers about specific issues in their courses but suggesting a formalised process for change and enhancements is much bigger step to take.

The benefits of an SaP approach are many and varied. It can help students to better understand what they are doing and what they should be doing in Higher Education. It can give them new insights into how H.E. works (be careful what you wish for) and help to humanise both the institution and the teachers. SaP offers contribution over participation and can lead to greater engagement and the design of better assessment. After all, students will generally have more of a whole of program/degree perspective than most of their lecturers and a greater understanding of what they want to get out of their studies. (The question of whether this is the same as what they need to get out of their studies is not one to ignore however and I’ll come back to this). For the students that are less engaged in this process, at the very least the extra time spent discussing their assessments will help them to understand the assessments better. A final benefit of actively participating in the SaP process for students is the extra skills that they might develop. Mick Healey developed this map of different facets of teaching and learning that it enables students to engage with. A suggestion was made that this could be mapped to more tangible general workplace skills, which I think has some merit.

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As with all things, there are also risks in SaP that should be considered. How do we know that the students that participate in the process are representative? Several of the students present came from student politics, which doesn’t diminish their interest or contribution but I’d say that it’s reasonable to note that they are probably more self-motivated and also driven by a range of factors than some of their peers. When advocating for a particular approach in the classroom or assessment, will they unconsciously lean towards something that works best for them? (Which everyone does at some level in life).  Will their expectations or timelines be practical? Another big question is what happens when students engage in the process but then have their contributions rejected – might this contribute to disillusionment and disengagement? (Presumably not if the process is managed well but people are complicated and there are many sensitivities in Higher Ed)

To return to my earlier point, while students might know what they want in teaching and learning, is it always what they need? Higher Ed can be a significant change from secondary education, with new freedoms and responsibility and new approaches to scholarship. Many students (and some academics) aren’t trained in pedagogy and don’t always know why some teaching approaches are valuable or what options are on the table. From a teaching perspective, questions of resistance from the university and extra time and effort being spent for unknown and unknowable outcomes should also be considered. None of these issues are insurmountable but need to be considered in planning to implement this approach.

Implementation was perhaps my biggest question when I came along to the Roundtable. How does this work in practice and what are the pitfalls to look out for. Fortunately there was a lot of experience in the room and some rich discussion about a range of projects that have been run at UQ, UTS, Deakin, UoW and other universities. At UoW, all education development grants must now include a SaP component. In terms of getting started, it can be worth looking at the practices that are already in place and what the next phase might be. Most if not all universities have some form of student evaluation survey. (This survey is, interestingly, an important part of the student/teacher power dynamic, with teachers giving students impactful  marks on assessments and students reciprocating with course evaluations, which are taken very seriously by universities, particularly when they are bad).

A range of suggestions and observations for SaP implementations were offered, including:

  • Trust is vital, keep your promises
  • Different attitudes towards students as emerging professionals exist in different disciplines – implementing SaP in Law was challenging because content is more prescribed
  • Try to avoid discussing SaP in ‘teacher-speak’ too much – use accessible, jargon-free language
  • Uni policies will mean that some things are non negotiable
  • Starting a discussion by focusing on what is working well and why is a good way to build trust that makes discussion of problems easier
  • Ask the question of your students – what are you doing to maximise your learning

These images showcase a few more tips and a process for negotiated assessment.

students as partners tips negotiated assessment process

There was a lot of energy and good will in the room as we discussed ideas and issues with SaP. The room was set up with a dozen large round tables holding 8-10 people each and there were frequent breaks for table discussions during the morning and then a series of ‘world cafe’ style discussions at tables in the afternoon. On a few occasions I was mindful that some teachers at the tables got slightly carried away in discussing what students want when there were actual, real students sitting relatively quietly at the same table, so I did what I could to ask the students themselves to share their thoughts on the matters. On the whole I felt a small degree of scepticism from some of the students present about the reality vs the ideology of the movement. Catching a taxi to the airport with a group of students afterwards was enlightening – they were in favour of SaP overall but wondered how supportive university executives truly were and how far they would let it go. One quote that stayed with me during the day as Eimear Enright  shared her experiences was a cheeky comment she’d had from one of her students – “Miss, what are you going to be doing while we’re doing your job”

On the whole, I think that a Students as Partners approach to education has a lot to offer and it certainly aligns with my own views on transparency and inclusion in Higher Ed. I think there are still quite a few questions to be answered in terms of whether it is adequately representative and how much weighting the views of students (who are not trained either in the discipline or in education) should have. Clearly a reasonable amount but students study because they don’t know things and, particularly with undergraduate students, they don’t necessarily want to know what’s behind the curtain. The only way to resolve these questions is by putting things into practice and the work that is being done in this space is being done particularly well.

For a few extra resources, you might find these interesting.

International Journal for Students as Partners – https://mulpress.mcmaster.ca/ijsap 

Students as Partners Australia network – http://itali.uq.edu.au/content/join-network 

Student voice as risky praxis: democratising physical education teacher education

UTS Student voice in university decision making

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on: Teaching online (in Teaching thinking: Beliefs and knowledge in Higher Education) (Goodyear, P. 2002)

Writing about work by your supervisor feels a little strange but, as adults and scholars, it really shouldn’t. Obviously there is a power dynamic and a question for me of what to do if I disagree with him. Putting aside the matter that Peter Goodyear has worked and researched in this field forever and is highly regarded internationally while I am essentially a neophyte, I’m almost certain that his worst reaction would be the slightest brow-crinkling and a kindly, interested “ok, so tell me why”. He even made the point that the research may now be dated but it could be worth following the citation trail. Fortunately none of this is an issue because, as you’d hope from your supervisor, it’s pretty great and there is much to draw from it.

In summary, this chapter focuses on understanding what and how teachers think when they are teaching online. Sadly perhaps, little has changed in the nature of online teaching in the 14 years since this was written – the online teaching activities described are largely related to students reading papers and participating in discussions on forums. This gives the chapter a degree of currency in terms of the technology (although a few questions emerged for me in terms of the impact of social media) and I imagine that little has changed in teacher thought processes in this time related to assessing and trying to engage students online.

In some ways it’s the methodology used in the study that is the most exciting part of this – it steers away from the sometimes problematic reliance on transcript analysis used often (at the time?) in research on online learning and makes more use of the opportunities for observation. Observing a teacher reading, processing and replying to discussion forum posts offers opportunities for insight into their thoughts that a far richer than one might get in observing face to face teaching. By using a combination of concurrent and retrospective verbalisation and interview, a rich picture emerges.

Concurrent verbalisation involves getting the tutor to keep up a kind of stream of consciousness dialogue as they work on the discussion posts, with the researcher prompting them if they fall silent for more than 10 seconds. This can prove difficult for the teacher at times as they need to stop speaking at times to concentrate on the replies that they write but a balance is generally found. The session is also videotaped and the researcher and teacher watch it back together, (‘stimulated recall’),  which gives the teacher the opportunity to discuss what they were thinking in the quiet moments as well as enabling them to expand on their recorded comments. In terms of understanding the things that are important to teachers and how they work with the students, I find this method really exciting. I’m not at all sure how or if it will align with my own research when I come to it but this rich insight seems invaluable.

The author opens the chapter by thoroughly going through the motivations for researching teaching – ranging from an abstracted interest in it as a good area for study to a more action research oriented focus on improving specific aspects of teaching practice. He explores the existing literature in the field – particularly in relation to online learning and finds that (at the time) there were a number of significant gaps in research relating to practice and he proceeds to set out six high level research questions relating to online teaching. It seems worthwhile sharing them here

  1. What are the essential characteristics of online teaching? What tasks are met? What actions need to be taken? Are there distinct task genres that further differentiate the space of online teaching?

  2. How do these practices and task genres vary across different educational settings (e.g between disciplines, or in undergraduate vs postgraduate teaching, or in campus based vs distance learning) and across individuals?

  3. For each significant kind of online teaching, what knowledge resources are drawn upon by effective teachers? How can we understand and represent the cognitive and other resources and processes implicated in their teaching?

  4. How do novice online teachers differ from expert and experienced online teachers? How do they make the transition? How does their thinking change? How does the knowledge on which they draw change? How closely does this resemble ‘the knowledge growth in teaching’ about which we know from studies of teaching in other, more conventional, areas?…

  5. What do teachers say about their experiences of online learning? How do they account for their intentions and actions? How do their accounts situation action in relation to hierarchies of belief about teaching and learning (generally) and about teaching and learning online?

  6. How do learners’ activities and learning outcomes interact with teaching actions? (p.86)

Skipping forward, Goodyear conducted the research with a number of teachers working online and identified several key factors that shape what and how teachers teach online. The focus of their attention – is it on the student, the content, how well the subject is going, whether students are learning, the technology, how students will respond to their feedback etc – can vary wildly from moment to moment. Their knowledge of their students – particularly when they might never meet them in person – can shape the nuance and personalisation of their communications. This also ties to “presentation of self” – also known as presence – which is equally important in forming effective online relationships. Understanding of online pedagogy and attitudes towards it are unsurprisingly a big factor in success in teaching online and this also impacts on their ability to manage communication and conflict in an online space, where normal behaviours can change due to perceived distance.

There were a lot of other noteworthy ideas in this chapter that are worth including here and it also sparked a few of my own ideas that went off on something of a tangent.

Those who foresee an easy substitution of teaching methods too frequently misunderstand the function or underestimate the complexity of that which they would see replaced (p.80)

Teaching is not an undifferentiated activity. What is involved in giving a lecture to 500 students is different from what is involved in a one-to-one, face-to-face, tutorial. Also, interactive, face-to-face, or what might be called ‘live’ teaching is different from (say) planning a course, giving feedback on an essay, designing some learning materials, or reflecting on end-of-course student evaluation reports. (James Calderhead structures his 1996 review of teachers’ cognitions in terms of ‘pre-active’, ‘interactive’ and ‘post-active reflection’ phases to help distinguish the cognitive demands of ‘live’ teaching from its prior preparation and from reflection after the event) (p.82)

The affordances of the user interface are an important factor in understand how online tutors do what they do. This is not simply because online tutors need to understand the (relatively simple) technical procedures involved in searching, reading and writing contributions. Rather the interface helps structure the tutors’ tasks and also takes some of the cognitive load off the tutor (P.87)

Studies of ‘live’ classroom teaching in schools have tended towards the conclusion that conscious decision-making is relatively rare – much of what happens is through the following of well-tested routines (Calderhead, 1984). While swift routine action can be found in online tutoring, its curiously asynchronous nature does allow more considered problem solving to take place (p.97)

Many of these ideas crystallise thoughts that I’ve come to over recent years and which I’ve shared with Peter in our supervision meetings. I’m going to choose to believe that his inner voice is saying at these points, ‘good, you’re on track’ rather than ‘well, obviously and I wrote about this a decade and a half ago’. This is why we go with this apprenticeship model I guess.

As for the other random thought that emerged from reading this paper was that as we get more comfortable with using video and asking/allowing students to submit videos as assessments, we’ll need new ways to ‘read’ videos. Clearly these will already exist in the scholarhood but they may not be as widely known as we need.

Research update #9: What have I learnt

Rather than fretting about what I haven’t been doing cough#reading the literature#cough, I’m going to take a moment to reflect on what I’ve been doing instead, because it’s not like I’ve been lazing by the pool. I’ve been doing things that (I hope) will inform my research by giving me a bigger picture view of education and Higher Ed.

I went to the ePortforum for a couple of days – chatted with people using ePortfolios, learnt about what they’ve been doing, how social constructivism aligns with ePortfolios (quite well really), considered what the best applications for ePortfolios are (leaning towards competency based education and employability skills), enjoyed glorious Sydney weather and marvellous company, went to Joyce Seitzinger’s always great workshop on learning design principles and chatted to more of my education advisor (EdAd) peers about the value of setting up a Special Interest Group (SIG) through HERDSA

Consulted with EdAd peers on Twitter about the SIG and put an application in to formally run one through HERDSA. (To be completely honest, I’m not 100% certain about whether this is the best approach and what benefits being under this umbrella will bring but doing something seems better than umming and aahing).

Worked for far too long on an application to become a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. (Better part of the last three weekends). This involved a lot of critical reflection and writing, describing my philosophy of teaching and coming up with a couple of case studies about leadership and mentoring. These were particularly challenging because my perspective on mentoring is that a reciprocal relationship of equals is a far better approach – fortunately there is a body of literature out there to back this up. Long story short I wrote far more than needed for each section and had to do some brutal editing. I tend to use a lot of qualifiers (there’s one – tend) in my writing but mostly because I like the nuance that they bring. As it turns out, I hadn’t quite grasped (to be generous) exactly what was needed for the case studies and have been advised that an application for a level down (Fellow) is far more likely to succeed. As the first professional staff member to apply to become a Senior Fellow, this is a shame but I’ve also spent more time on the application than I’d expected and I truly need to get back into “proper” study/research. I’ve also been told by the big cheese in the process that he will advise me on my SFHEA application in the new year. It was nice -though taxing – to get stuck into some writing.

I’ve also been working on an infrastructure project which seems to be coming along – well actually two at the same time. (Kind of the same thing in two different locations with different stakeholders though, so that helps). It’s a One Button Studio – essentially a video booth with present lighting, sound, camera, backdrop – all a presenter needs to do is plug in their USB drive and hit “the button” to start recording a reasonable quality video. Learning a lot about the range of stakeholders and moving parts – there is construction to be done, cabling, contractors, sound analysis, hardware purchasing, security, questions of who owns which spaces and how we get into them, internal politics, support arrangements, questions about how sophisticated to go (as simple as possible) and somewhere in there user requirements. It does let me bang on a little about sociomaterial theory however and affordances.

STELLAR wrapped up – in some ways it kind of limped to the finish line with maybe 4 still active participants at the end but lots of valuable feedback and ideas for the next iteration. Pokemon Go has actually been giving me some inspiration – the random way that mini-challenges (catch a Pokemon with a randomised level of difficulty) pop up on a semi-regular basis has made me think about ways to release single question quizzes in Moodle on a timer of some description and some kind of rewards system for “collecting” different kinds. (That part is far more in the abstract so far)

I was also very kindly sent up to Brisvegas for a flying visit to the Students As Partners conference, in exchange for my outsider perspective via tweets (tick, done) and a blog post (coming soon, I swear). First impressions are that this is a potentially rewarding and enriching process that democratises education. There are a few core questions to be dealt with – how to ensure that student involvement is representative and beneficial and how much can/do students really know about what they need to learn? The event itself was run spectacularly well with a lot of student involvement and a very dynamic mixture of tag-teaming presenters, frequent discussion (at tables) breaks and a ‘world cafe’ approach in the afternoon. As I say, more on this soon.

I also put a proposal together to present at MoodlePosium which may or not have been conveniently copy-pasted from my HEA application in the spirit of reusable learning objects and also wrote up a strong enough argument to get to go to ASCILITE at the end of November.

On a more prosaic note, I reinstalled Windows 10 on my workhorse because it had developed a worrying habit of crashing on shutdown and some restart glitches and I assume most of you know how time-consuming that process can be, not the reinstall as much as tracking down all the software I had installed and serials and updates and whatnot.

Now I’m taking a week off work to get back to reading and reflecting and the research literature and oh dear I just thought about how cranky my project plan is going to be with me. I’m sorry planny, we can work this out – please don’t give up on me yet.

Also all the day to day work stuff and trying to help come up with practical and satisfactory approaches to satisfy stricter new national reporting requirements for Higher Education that are coming up in the new year, as well as keeping an eye on major education projects in the college that I haven’t been asked for help on with yet

Oh and also finalising the governance documents and proposals for the TEL/Online learning groups that I’m on at work that went to the executive last week. Of which there has been zero reporting back from the representatives that went to the meeting. I could chase it up but I’m trying hard to not look at workmail this week, so it can wait. Probably.