Thursday, 31 October 2013

#digilit #fail Back to the Drawing Board

Artist: Lucy Gough

well, this week I am mostly teaching old school stylee. I am currently designing Powerpoint slides, having handouts printed and thanking whoever stocked the SCALE UP room with resources for the mini whiteboards, pens and board wipes they provided.

Oh and if anyone knows a good joiner.....

So here I am, an edtech aficionado, teaching a digital literacy skills module, in a state of the art classroom, completely stymied by tech failures. On Monday the first problem we encountered was the partition doors between two classrooms refusing to move, so we had to teach 2/3 of the class in the same room as the teaching podium and 1/3 behind a screen - complete with disembodied voice over the speakers (that was after we ran to the shop to buy batteries for the mic which was completely dead on arrival...). By the time I arrived later that same afternoon to teach my second class, the VLE had either gone on strike or been hit by the St Jude weather event as I could not open a single link and the students could not log on to the system via their fancy mac books.

Fortunately I was able to reach You Tube for the video clip I had lined up and we used the aforementioned whiteboards for the interactive group task. But the class dragged a bit as I was defeated by the perfect storm of tech failures.

I have been considering whether Scale Up is the right acronym for me to continue using. The term is virtually a copyrighted one which has fairly strict criteria about the way the process is managed and which I don't really feel I achieve. My students charmingly refer to it as SCUP as that is the abbreviation that shows up on their timetables, and this week I was trying to work out how I could accommodate SCUPPERED as a new name..... please submit your answers in the comments box below:)

I have though considered:

BAGEL - big active group environment for learning (this is particularly apt as the tables in the classroom are round, with a hole in the middle!)

BABEL - big activity based environment for learning (reflects the noise level of 108 students all talking at once!)

or even

LIBEL - Large inquiry based environment for learning (I am hoping some of my critical comments about the project aren't deemed to be libellous)

On a positive note, my third year class seem to be getting into their creative stride - one group posted an Instagram video rather than use the white board for their visualisation of a dysfunctional team: it was a very cool response to the task. This is the part of the module where I start to get excited - when the students take over and get into their projects. My job becomes less about teaching and more about guiding. On this note, here's a nice little piece about project based learning which serves as a useful checklist when teaching this way.

And finally, I recently found out that I won the Vice Chancellor's Award for Teaching this year (one of 5 such awards across the University). The criteria are around creativity, innovation, inspiration, employability and technology. The module I teach to the year 3 students ticks all those boxes I know (she says modestly!) but I feel a little bit as though I have cheated - the real inspiration, creativity and innovation comes from the students themselves. Still, its great to have my efforts and struggles recognised - it will certainly keep me going through the disasters and dark nights of the soul I seem to experience on a weekly basis.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Week Four - Groups

oh dear, oh dear, oh dear..... why is group work at university such a fraught subject?

Well, let's face it, working in teams in the workplace is no walk in the park either. And that's really the theme of the module I teach to my final year students.

The aim of this module and its associated assessment is to experience being part of a project team - and then to reflect on that experience using relevant theory. Normally we look at old favourites such as Tuckman and Belbin, but increasingly I feel that these don't really touch some of the real problems that teams and individuals within those teams seem to experience.

This week's session focussed on choosing the team. Most students had already begun the process and I had provided a Google Spreadsheet on which they could organise themselves. A good number of students hadn't managed this by the day before the deadline so I sent out a reminder and a warning that I would allocate anyone not already signed up. I also stressed that the purpose of the seminar was to meet with other members and work together on the project. This message had a big impact on attendance and in the end there was just a handful of students who hadn't formed a project team.

The seminar itself probably looked from the outside to be rather chaotic - and probably felt that way too for those students still involved in negotiations - and peregrinations around the room - to find a "home".

But by the end of the hour - to everyone's relief - the job was done. Everyone seemed to be fairly happy with their final groupings so I was shocked when the next day one student reported having been bullied by another because she had chosen not to work with her.

The second task I had set the students on Monday was to develop a group contract. All spoke about equal contributions, attendance and above all, treating one another with respect but intergroup groundrules have not been discussed.

What is happening when problems like this occur? What prompts such nasty behaviour? Is there any way that these difficulties can be avoided ? Some colleagues have commented to me that selecting the groups FOR the students is a better option, as it avoids just this sort of problem. See also this paper on Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams which advises a fairly presecriptive approach.

Students in the main though prefer to make their own choices because they know  - by their final year - who they can work with, who turns up and who makes a fair contribution. They have commented in their NSS and end of module evaluations that group work marks are unfair if the group is "landed with" an absent or non contributing member or someone whose work is of poor quality. They also hate it when that person gets a decent grade despite their poor performance because other group members take up the slack. I would also say that in 3 years of teaching this module to 6 different cohorts I have actually only ever experienced one problem group and I have always stuck with self selection.

As I was puzzling over these questions, I was directed to this interesting article about workplace relationships which I think has relevance here. Inter- and intra-group rivalries, bullying, exclusion, and withdrawal have their roots in anxieties about personal competence, competitiveness, envy and insecurities around belonging. These anxieties are as true of the student group as they are in the workplace or the family, but we rarely discuss them openly.

Groups that are forced by circumstances - or their tutors - to work together, need a way of developing a sense of belongingness fairly quickly so they can get on with the task before them. If they spend too long "storming" amongst themselves they may fail to accomplish their more strategic objectives. A quick way of a group starting to feel more cohesive is to set themselves up as separate from all the others.

Within the group, especially if the membership is not self selecting and students do not have existing bonds of friendship, another survival tactic is to develop cliques or to scapegoat one particular individual - again this allows the rest of the group to feel superior, to have a sense of being "on the inside", as they identify others who are on the outside.

The leaders role in these circumstances is to name the process and make it clear that bullying is unacceptable. Lencioni has an interesting take on group development which builds on Tuckman's original model and shows just how dysfunctional teams can become if the forming and storming is not negotiated appropriately - time has to be spent on building trust so that any subsequent conflict can be dealt with appropriately and healthily.

Hmmmm - as someone who hates conflict in all its manifestations, I confess I am not entirely clear what consitutes "healthy" conflict, but I think that what is meant is that dealing with differences of opinion, or deciding what to do when there is a range of opinions, don't have to feel threatening if a group of people have a basic sense that they are all on the same side.

So this will be my theme for Week 5 I suspect.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

#digilit #digital identity Week 3 Digital Citizenship

This week with my final year "leadership" students we have been exploring ideas around digital citizenship and the way leaders use social media. The group exercise this week was to find the blog, Linked In page or Twitter feed of a well known leader and comment on their digital identity. This was a follow up to the work we did last week on our own digital identity.

There are some great resources out there on the whole subject of digital citizenship including this video and this infographic which provide nice jumping off points for discussion.

I fear I am getting to the point now where I feel the need to lecture. Over the next few weeks there is some heavy content that I want to ensure they are getting to grips with on the theory of team work, for example. I don't particularly want to stand in front of them regurgitating stuff they can go away and read for themselves, but I do at least want to give them some pointers on where to start and what the main themes are. I am thinking of perhaps doing some mini videocasts which they can review after the seminars - I really want to keep the class time for group interaction - and my more personal interactions with each team as they get to grips with the tasks.

Each week as we wait for the class to start I conduct some mini focus groups with students to see how they are getting on. They report that they are finding the Macs a challenge even though most are managing to use them effectively in the class. They also acknowledge that in Year 3 there is so much more work to be done outside the official "contact time" - in all modules, not just mine. This group of students are possibly having a harder time in the Scale Up environment as they have not used technology before in the classroom environment (well apart from checking Facebook updates on their phones...) and are more used to a traditional lecture format, but some it has to be said have worked in a workshop setting before and like the more interactive way of working.

This week I came across this lovely Edutopia blog post about student engagement. This was written about US 8th graders but I think it applies equally to undergraduates. In brief the principles are:

1. Interaction with peers
2. Using technology
3. Connection to the real world
4. Love what you do (teacher)
5. Get me out of my seat!
6. Bring in visuals
7. Student choice
8. Understand your students
9. Mix it Up (varied activities)
10. Be human (teacher - have fun yourself!)

I couldn't have put it better myself and I'm pleased and proud that I am incorporating much of this already into the module. Getting them out of their seats is perhaps one thing I might try to do better at... something to think about!

#digilit #digitalidentity Week 2 - they came back for more! this week I planned things better and simplified the task.

I discovered with the smaller seminar group on Friday that the students really like Twitterfall so I used that to gather responses to the task alongside the Discussion Board. I also managed to get Apple TV working and one or two started to ask me to display their work.

I still need to go slower.... what looks like a really simple and straightforward task to me took a bit of explaining, but once they got the hang of it, they were off. I am so grateful for the wireless mic when I need to stop the chatter and give a bit of information/instruction.

I really like that I am not tied to the lectern and can circulate around the class. Everyone seems to be pretty much on task most of the time - and generally having fun doing it.

The technological problems are there - we had at least 10 Macs that had not been logged off so had to be hard-rebooted (switch it off and then on again, basically). One of the screens had shorted and the sound was consequently too low when I showed a video - but IS were round in a flash (no pun intended) and set it all up again for me.

So today was an exercise in reviewing and protecting our digital identity. I used this great resource on Digital Identity for Health Professionals  which I can really recommend. Students took individual case studies and worksheets and concluded by presenting three action points they would recommend to others. They seemed engaged and interested in the topic and curious to Google themselves or check their Facebook privacy etc. I think it was a far more engaging session than would have been possible had I simply stood up at the front and lectured them about the perils of social media.

I have also been really impressed by the way students have engaged beyond the classroom, posting their presentations and discussion threads, Tweeting their thoughts. In order not to exclude students who are not on Twitter, I have collected Tweets into a Storify page and posted this on the Learning Room.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

A digital disaster

well that may be a little strong, but the first class in the new teaching and learning environment yesterday was less than smooth...
....and it wasn't the Apple Macs that caused the grief - in fact most students settled in happily to using them and were generally tolerant of the unfamiliar UI . Some had brought their own ipads and laptops too and the wifi stood up to the test.

No - the disaster was in another area altogether and I am left wondering why I never seem to anticipate the unintended consequences of change projects or at least remind myself to expect the unexpected.

The main confusion for the students seemed to be in navigating their way through the VLE. After spending the summer building what I thought a really beautiful learning room it was only when this was tested to destruction by 100 students that I realised my errors. Although I'd tried to put stuff into logical sections and sequences, students were nonetheless frustrated by having to scroll back and forth and wade through clunky breadcrumb trails to complete simple tasks. And engagement with those tasks was miniscule at the end of the hour.

So where did it all go wrong?

I think firstly I was too ambitious in terms of what I hoped to achieve in a first session with a large group, using unfamiliar equipment and an unfamiliar platform. I could have cut down the material by 2/3 and simplified the tasks.

Secondly, I didn't spend long enough explaining the layout and navigation of the learning room.

Thirdly, I do think that if we had been able to get the student mentors in post from Day One, more general support could have been offered which would have facilitated the process. There was some technical help available for the hardware, but noone on hand who could explain how the VLE was meant to be used (apart from me).

And what went well?

Well the session was well attended and the group were lively and engaged with one another in attempting to overcome their various problems (and in working on the set questions, to be fair).

I was freed up to be able to circulate around the room and help small groups where necessary. The vast majority were on task and not simply checking their emails. I did also see some groups leave the learning room to do a bit of googling in order to develop their repsonses to the tasks.(This is a GOOD thing in my book)

I spoke to a small group of students afterwards to get an immediate response. Their feeling was generally "it was a bit confusing but we'll get used to it" no shock horror then.

Nonetheless I spent a sleepless night tossing and turning as I tried to figure out what I needed to do to fix things. I was grateful to Twitter (as is often the case) for a lovely Edutopia post on learning from our mistakes
aimed specifically at the "connected educator" - which in turn led me to find these wonderful TED talks on learning from failure.

I do have some regrets about my hubris in thinking I could manage all of this in a class of over 100, but then I remind myself that the aim of Scale Up is to bring student centred, problem based learning to the large class. I also need reminding that bringing technology into the classroom is essential and an urgent priority - as this article echoes.  Making changes of such an order is bound to be fraught with difficulties.

Afterall is said and done, my big mistake yesterday might not seem much of a mistake at all to others. And I am learning from it. I am going to make some changes to my lesson plans for the coming weeks and I am going to add a screencast to the Learning Room which will explain the navigation.

I am then going to stop beating myself up and remind myself that whilst I have a responsibility as an educator to support and facilitate my students based on the best evidence available, ultimately I have to trust each individual learner to find their own way - and even to make their own mistakes - in the process of learning.