Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Why not teach with technology?

(with thanks to Tristram Hooley

Student Engagement

Despite the technological problems I am seeing evidence of great engagement with the leadership project. It is really exciting to me how the students are organising themselves and their studies - they are way ahead of the timetable in terms of reading up on the topic of leadership because they are on a tight schedule to finish their work in time for the presentations at the end of March. They are also reading far beyond the learning materials that are available to them and are teaching each other about key leadership theories and traits, by posting short documents giving a precis of key theories and by adding comments and critiques to film clips they are uploading.

Attendance at the lectures and seminars is good and engagement is high - lots of  discussions, questions and very lively "team meetings" are taking place to ensure their projects are completed. In between times, the wiki notifications tell me that a core are working on the project late into the evenings, over the weekend and that they are also arranging team meetings outside of the class time I have put aside for these. There is good evidence that they are supporting one another - one group has posted a summary of the last seminar discussions for those members who didn't attend.

Interestingly there is a spirit of competitiveness emerging too - the groups are quite secretive about their chosen films and the theoretical stances they are taking. On the one hand this is positive as it makes for even stronger cohesion within the teams themselves, on the other I find it curious as final grades will not be given on a ranking of 1st, 2nd and 3rd! The desire to do really well and outshine others is emerging from within the teams themselves.

As part of the module next week we will be looking at what motivates people and I will be using this great RSA animation of Dan Pink's talk about "Drive"(Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink. Riverhead Books, 2009). What I draw from this is that the teams as I observe them in my module are engaged and motivated because they have a lot of autonomy over style, topic, group membership, meeting times, etc. The reward for their efforts is relatively modest - 10% of the marks for the entire module, but they are having fun, they are being challenged and in teaching one another, they are also perhaps making a contribution.

Does their level of motivation have anything to do with the use of technology? Arguably they could be having as much fun putting together the usual PowerPoint presentations, if they were allowed a choice of topic and group members. However, perhaps what the wiki and the other platforms they are using do is present a  level of challenge and the opportunity to master a new skill, alongside the topic they are studying.

And by using film and TV characters as the basis of their learning, which also might be argued as working with technology, they are freed from the usual constraints of the textbook and the classroom. They are exploring further afield and finding their own examples which help them understand the theory - often with humour or powerful drama which make the points all the more memorably. A number have commented that they enjoy the project as they are "learning without realising it".

Monday, 20 February 2012

Teaching with technology

Every time I think I have teaching and learning with technology sussed, the students I am working with surprise me, cause me to stop and think and try a new approach.

I do expect resistance, fear and confusion at the start, to have some early, eager adopters, and some laggards who will do anything to avoid engaging with the technology if they possibly can, but it is also important to listen to what students tell you about their experiences.

Surprises can be "good" and "bad" -  one of the younger students asked if she might be permitted to set up her own website and as she already had skills in using Dreamweaver learned at school.....  less welcome has been the sudden upsurge in illegal file sharing. It highlights I think not the inherent criminality of the cohort, but the massive increase and tacit acceptability of this kind of behaviour.An opportunity therefore has presented itself to teach students about copyright :)

I decided this week to try and start documenting some students' responses to the task and to the wiki we are using as a platform .
I filmed an interview with one of the younger students (let's call her Jude) who seems generally at ease with the internet and who says the wiki is much easier, more attractive and more fun to use than the VLE, being easier to navigate and find things with less clicks, and providing a really useful platform for collaboration.

I then interviewed an older student (his alias is Donald). His view was that the wiki was really counter-intuitive. He found it impossible to find material he needed on it, and was anxious about editing or adding anything.

We could regard this as a typical natives/immigrants digital divide, but in fact Donald is a regular user of the internet and has Twitter and Facebook accounts, although he admits he is largely a consumer and NOT a contributor. This tends to fit more with Dave White's thesis about digital residents and visitors.

Dave's "Garden Shed" analogy for the "visitors'" view of the internet fits too:  Donald was really at ease with the VLE or the corporate intranet he uses at work because he has become familiar with them and knows where to find the tools he needs for the job.

I have incidentally now taken on board what Donald and some of his peers have told me, about being unable to find stuff, and have reorganised the wiki pages into a more logical order. What seems straightforward to me (because I created it) only becomes truly user friendly with the benefit of feedback.


So what would be my top tips for any teacher thinking of introducing technology into their teaching? (And remember - these are the things I most need to learn):

1. Don't try to be perfect. Do use and promote something that you are familiar with, have used and can fix if things go wrong, but which you are also prepared to go on learning about yourself. Showing students that you too struggle with the tech from time to time is actually reassuring for them - and if they see how you work around the bugs and crashes, that teaches them how to do it too.

2. Don't try to keep control. Structure is important. Clear instructions are essential. Setting tasks to guide students through the necessary steps to master a new tool is a good thing. Deadlines, assessment criteria, etc are all really useful. But be prepared to change things as you go, to respond to the needs of each cohort differently, to answer crisis emails at the weekends and to renegotiate criteria, topics, group membership and even the deadlines if you want to keep everyone on board. Remember that the process is at least as important as the outcome.

3. Don't be too hard on yourself. Things will go wrong. People will get upset. It is not all your fault.

4. Don't be a stranger! You may be a lone voice in your department... so... you should get out more! Network with other people in your organisation who are trying to do similar things. Get on Twitter and Google + and find other like minded souls who blog about the problems and successes they are experiencing. Develop a robust Personal Learning Network online. Go to conferences. Write your own blog and invite comments. Give conference presentations. Share it all, with anyone who wants to listen.

5. Don't expect ever to step into the same river twice. The technology changes all the time. The platform you are using today will be upgraded in the middle of a project or it will be shut down before you run the project again next year.  Students this year will be nervous about using Facebook. Next year they will all have Twitter accounts. Last year's students had no computers at school. Next year's will all have used Moodle accounts for their coursework. This year you are familiar with your university's VLE but by next year they will have a new one.... that's life.

6.  Since the first books were printed and distributed it has taken over 600 years to achieve a near universal level of literacy. The rate of change which the internet has brought about may be much much faster but for everyone to feel as comfortable with technology mediated learning as they do going to the library to read a book is going to take a while. So, finally,  don't be too impatient.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Lost in wiki space

Had a bit of a depressing email from one of the students yesterday begging to be allowed to use something less "techie" for his group's presentation. It seems some of the group's members were moved to tears last week - out of frustration, fear or shame at not being able to understand the mysteries of the wiki.

I reassured him that participation was not compulsory - I'd be happy with any format they felt comfortable with. But my heart sank. I then came across this model of learning which reminded me how terribly difficult learning new things is. I figured that they needed to go through this struggle and that I would provide some help when we next met to ensure they could at the very least manage to create a PowerPoint presentation.

Today when I checked in with this same group during our seminar I found them happily working on their presentation based on Facebook as a platform.... hmm.... and they don't like wikis!

Another group informed me that they had decided against Facebook as an option because one of their number refuses to join it, so they have decided to develop a wiki of their own (making use of their newly acquired wikispaces account).

Another group proudly described themselves as "wikimonsters" and had also set up a new wiki, whilst yet another seem to be basing theirs around a blog....

If I was being picky, I find it frustrating that the vast majority of the students still seem to be using the wiki as a one page noticeboard with occasional message posting in the Discussions - as you would Facebook in fact. I guess one reason why some find Facebook easier is because if has a well known format and readily available templates to complete.
But I am really enjoying the project. I have never worked with a cohort of students where so much noise was generated during small group discussions, and where I can't get them to leave at the end of the hour because they are so busy planning their projects. The wiki notifications also show me the amount of work they are prepared to put in after our sessions. Three weeks in, 95% are signed up as members of the wiki now, and they are really into the task. The shorter timescale this year - as well as the incentive of a grade for their final project - seems to be really motivational.

A final thing for my learning: this year we are meeting for 2x1 hour seminars with half of the cohort in each plus a final one hour lecture with everyone. So far I have managed to avoid formal lecturing with a group this size. It is a new challenge for me and one I am not wholly comfortable with. I fundamentally do not like the concept of the lecture. But I am embracing this as a learning opportunity for me.  That seems only fair!

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Adventures in (wiki) space

At the end of January I began teaching a final year module to undergraduate social work students on leadership, teams and motivation. I ran this for the first time last year and had some really inspiring - and inspired - final projects from students using a variety of platforms.

This year I have used Wikispaces as a unifying platform to bring together this group, and one other from a different course, who are sharing the module for the first time. I could have asked IS to build me a common learning room on the VLE, but where would be the fun in that?

I confess I am becoming a fan of the Wikispaces tool for higher education. It remains to be seen whether the students will become fans, but there is no option within the VLE for anything like this kind of interactivity. Students are contributing to discussions, signing up to create groups, and now - thanks to the "Projects" option,  each group has a private workspace within the wiki which I can monitor.

They still have the option of making their final presentation using a different platform altogether, but so far they seem happy to play with the Projects pages and are sharing and building their ideas there.

Week 1 saw many students still not signed up to the wiki, confused by it, scared of editing anything and feeling a bit out in the cold. Last week I ran an intensive IT suite session with all 70 students in 2 rooms over 2 hours and managed to get 90% signed on and relatively comfortable with the concept. There is a bit of activity going on within the Project pages now, too.

One interesting dimension to this cohort is that one of their number is out in the Australian outback at the moment. She is able to participate via the wiki of course but we have also sent her a video greeting and I am looking into Skyping a lecture. This has added strength to my argument about using on line tools for collaboration i.e. one of the main benefits is the ability to bring together "virtual" team mates.

And as the final presentation of the group project will also be virtual, this does not disadvantage two of the group members who are due to give birth round about the time the assignment is due in! (Of course we could Skype them in from the maternity ward - but even I think that may be going too far...)

So - early days yet but encouraging to see the collaboration happening before my very eyes. The trick now will be to keep an eye open for those who still feel a bit lost in (wiki)space!