Friday, 6 June 2014

Some thinking I have been doing in advance of the APT conference in July "Connected Learning in an Open World".......

What makes a classroom connected and open and how do these factors change the behaviours of both teacher AND student?

For me openness has many facets. It's about being open to change, open to student centred strategies, open to students taking over the content and design, going beyond the closed environment of the traditional classroom to encompass the wider world and even encroaching on the students' and the teachers' private space and time.

Connected can mean a classroom that is connected to the internet, but also means students being connected to one another - working together to solve a problem, both in the classroom and beyond it. Connected too to the teacher in new ways - through social networks as well as email or face to face in classroom time and tutorials.

Once you start to change the teaching environment you change the way learning happens. Until very recently the traditional classroom had not changed its appearance in over a century and our traditional expectations of student behaviours match this environment - students who are attentive, facing forward, sitting in rows and following instructions. Teachers who are standing, speaking and directing. In the connected and open classroom, these boundaries, like the boundaries between classroom time and personal time, teaching space and social space, start to be eroded.

Clearly things are changing and the typical classroom is being disrupted technology. This is a visualisation submitted by a masters student at the University of the Balearic Islands in Ibiza on the impact of ITC in the classroom. This is a great video, exemplifying the notion of connectedness and openness on so many levels: the student uses You Tube to submit his assignment and he adopts a meme - the Harlem Shake - which itself symbolises both collaboration and disruption.

So yes, we think of BOYD, wifi,  technology in the classroom, the internet, flipped approaches etc, as being the disruptive elements that bring about connectedness and openness, but there's something else that makes a difference - and again we saw it in the video: seating arrangements.

In the US there has been developing a movement? known as Scale Up which is changing the shape of classrooms. There are some variations but essentially the space is dominated by large round tables seating 9 students in 3 groups of 3. Round tables are especially important because they enable the student to look at other students and not at the teacher, symbolising a less teacher dependent and more collaborative way of working.

This has an impact on how we structure teaching sessions: to make full use of this new type of space, it is necessary to rethink the curriculum and the pedagogy. As an example - when I first started to teach this module it was known as Study Skills. Students completed their main assignment by visiting the library and finding and photocopying three journal articles about a particular group of users of health or social care services, they wrote a short precis of the three articles and submitted an individual hard copy (this is just 4 years ago). Now the module is known as Research and Professional Practice: students work collaboratively in groups to research a particular group of users of services, but this time using electornic databases, websites and social media as their sources. They submit their final projects using an internet based platform such as Pinterest or Tumblr. The curriculum focus on digital citizenship and skills and instead of lectures and seminars, there are active workshops where over 100 students come together to learn, work and create.

I'd love to be able to tell you that this module is a big success and that all the students are over the moon about the new classroom . They are not. They sometimes find it hard to see the relevance of what they are doing to a career in health and social care. They find the classroom noisy and unfocussed. They find the tasks too demanding - or not demanding enough. Attendance has not improved. Grades have not improved. The workshops and the planning that goes in to them are exhausting for the teaching staff too. But we are doing something difficult here, running just one module in this way - sowing the seeds of change - in a first year that is delivered 80% traditionally - 1 lecture/1 seminar. I like what Dewey said about the familiar....
Familiarity breeds contempt, but it also breeds something like affection. We get used to the chains we wear, and we miss them when removed. ~ John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum (1902)
First year students in particular like and expect the traditional lecture and seminar format - they feel this is where and how they actually learn something. Freeing them from their familiar chains is going to take time.

SCALE UP stands for Student Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside down Pedagogies - essentially the flipped classroom approach is used with students studying learning materials at home and coming to class to participate in activities which demonstrate the theory.

In Scale UP US style - which actually originally focussed on Undergraduate Physics - students are tested, ranked and then assigned to mixed ability groups for the activities and group assignments. Each student in the three-member group also has a secific role - which alternates each week. These are generally the recorder or note taker, the investigator/experimenter and the sceptic or questioner who challenges the group's assumptions.

My institution in the past 12 months have adopted the Scale Up methodoloy and I volunteered to be one of the "early adopters" for my first year module in Study Skills.

My own classroom looks superficially like the MIT set up, but with considerably less space, which does cause some problems of noise and restricted movement. I also don't test students and place them in mixed ability groups. However, my students are provided with Mac Books. This is also a feature of more recent iterations of Scale Up, the group of three students share one lap top so that the emphasis is on shared learning and collaboration.

This contrasts with the way I used to teach the "techie" bits of my module - that is, as distinct topics, in one off sessions in a computer lab, where each student had their own pc and where their focus was still predominantly on following what the teacher was doing.

So in the Scale Up classroom, round tables are helping to provide more connectedness. Another important aspect is the wifi - which in this classroom is generally reliable and fast. This allows the students to turn their faces even further away from the teacher, and makes the classroom walls even more permeable or open to the outside world.

In my module I see this having an impact on two levels: firstly by enhancing the independent learning of the students - i.e by encouraging them to find their own answers ("Google It!!"). Secondly by supporting them to develop "digital competencies" - using effective search strategies, evaluating what they find on line, bookmarking and storing information safely, presenting information in innovative ways, using social media appropriately and developing an online identity that is congruent with their future roles as health and social care professionals.

Having a connected and open classroom has changed the form of the assessment. Last year it was classroom tests and essays about the value of social media in education. This year its a presentation of their research using social media - both as the source of information and as a presentation platform (e.g a Pinterest board about homelessness; a Tumblr blog about fostering and adoption).

So now, a funny story that almost completely undermines everything I have been saying about classroom design. In April I went to the University of Murcia on an Erasmus exchange to witness for myself some really advanced work in the use of TEL. My hosts in the Faculty of Education have an international reputation in this field.

Due to some losses in translation, I was expecting an open and connected classroom not unlike my own. I had been asked to conduct an interactive workshop on using social media for research (Pinterest) for a group of teachers in training on a module which focuses on the use of ITC in the classroom. What I found was a traditional raked lecture theatre, students who brought in a variety of devices of their own and, on that particular day - no wifi. After an initial panic, the students simply downloaded the phone app and did the exercise that way, sharing information with one another until each group was able to get on line and start on their pinboards. The teachers didn't intervene or help in any way (to be honest I had forgotten 3G and phone apps in my panic and dismay at everything going wrong). This is part of the ethos in the team that runs this programme. They told me that they used to give quite a lot of instruction to students about platforms and tools they could use; now that support is minimal. The students complain and get distressed that they can't manage these new ways of working without teacher input, but gradually they go away and get on with it. And they are proud of their achievements.

At the end of the day this is not really about technology, it is about decreasing students' dependence on the teacher as the fount of all wisdom and coming to view themselves as thinkers, creators and teachers.

So, the moral of the story is that what really makes for a great pedagogy in the open and connected classroom is not the technology, not the tables, not the wifi, not even the flipped classroom. What is most important here is TRUST - of the teacher in the student and of the student in himself.

As I reflect on my experiences home and abroad over the last year, and look forward to the reshaping of the curriculum for the next one, it is this notion of trust that I am going to try and embed into my plans. Trust isn't the same as blind faith. I know things will go wrong, but I also know that there will be something to learn. So I guess I'm going to have to trust myself on that too.

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