Yesterday we had a departmental meeting all about teaching. Not about planning next year’s teaching, or about approving future courses or other administrative issues. Rather, it was a chance to present and discuss ideas for how teaching in the department might develop in future, and in particular how we can take advantage of the opportunities offered by online tools to augment our face-to-face and distance courses.
We started with Judit Kormos presenting some of the work she and other colleagues have done on our distance programme. What I found particularly interesting was the way she presented different ideas and online tools in the context of the learning cycle for our programmes:
Initial reflections → Input → Understanding and reflecting on input → Applying knowledge/skills learnt → Reflecting on the learning experience
A number of the ideas work extremely well in distance learning contexts because from the beginning of the programme, there is an expectation that students will take part in these forms of interaction. Some of the potential issues we identified relate to expectation management: it is particularly important to set clear boundaries and patterns at the beginning, and to start as you mean to continue (e.g. if you won’t generally be replying to forum posts immediately throughout the year, don’t start doing this in the first week).
I particularly liked idea of using Voxopop, essentially a voice-based message board. This will allow students who might each be on a different continent to have structured interactions via voice rather than just written texts.
After some further discussion, we heard from Andrew Hardie about the government’s so-called Key Information Sets. These are supposedly an effective way for prospective students to compare courses at different institutions based on quantifiable features like student satisfaction, average salary of graduates, tuition fees, and crucially for yesterday’s discussion, contact time. It seems that only the ‘top’ (in terms of student numbers) modules in each year count, but the undergraduate module I’m most involved in, LING204, is one of these. The take-home message was that we don’t need to make huge changes, like adding more lectures to every module, but that we should make sure that all contact with students “counts”, in that it is timetabled and hence included in the official figures. This could include “online” contact, such as a chat-based office hour, which brings me to my contribution to the meeting…
I set out to present four ideas to colleagues, not as things we should definitely do on all courses, but just to raise awareness and stimulate discussion about some ways of interacting with students that not everyone might have thought of. I’ve included the four ideas below, and would welcome questions, comments or further ideas.
We had an extremely interesting discussion afterwards, with views ranging from colleagues who felt these ideas might just add work for little gain (for Lancaster-based programmes, at least), to more enthusiastic responses and ideas for adapting and taking the ideas further. One of the key issues raised related to ownership of the platforms and information: should we be using external companies (often US-based, and hence subject to the Patriot Act) to host our activities with students, with the subsequent problems this might bring? On the other hand, should we expect students to use our virtual learning environment (Moodle, as of this coming academic year). for interactions that they can already do (more easily) on the social media platforms they already use?
Augmented contact with students
Idea 1: Encourage a backchannel for your lecture
Ask students to raise questions or comment on your lecture using social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Moodle) before, during and after the lecture. Show these on the screen throughout, at certain points during, or at the end of the lecture. Advantages are increased engagement (including from students who may be reluctant to speak in a lecture), and a record of questions and answers that will remain available for some time.
Example: If using Twitter, ask the students to use a particular hashtag (e.g. #LING204) to post questions and comments and then show these on the screen using Twitterfall. Answer them then and there, or even better – tweet your answers. Or, if you have seminar tutors, encourage them to tweet in response to questions during the lecture. You could also pose specific questions and ask for answers via Twitter.
Idea 2: Conduct a collaborative analysis
Using a tool such as eMargin or Google Docs, set students a task which requires identifying or commenting on features in a text. This could involve highlighting items in different colours, or adding comments or tags. Advantages are that students can see their analysis taking shape in real time, and can help each other and discuss as they go along.
Example: During a seminar, ask students to work in pairs to identify persuasive features in a political speech in eMargin, and add at least one reference to a relevant scholarly source for each feature they identify. Add your own annotations where correction/clarification is needed. Then go through the analysis with the whole group.
Idea 3: Blogging the study process
Ask your supervisees (UG or PG) to record their research or study processes in a blog or vlog (e.g. using WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, Moodle, YouTube, etc.). They might report on findings, comment on literature, raise questions, engage with theories and have discussions with other students. They can choose whether to share their blog just with you, with selected other students, or to make it public. Advantages: this may help them focus on the research process, and may enable them to get feedback on their work.
Example: Suggest that a supervisee might use WordPress to set up a study blog, and post a brief summary (and critique, where appropriate) of every relevant scholarly work she reads. Where necessary, you could comment on these directly on the blog, or during supervision sessions.
Idea 4: Conduct a group office hour online
Invite students to attend your online office hour at a specific time (e.g. using Skype group chat, Facebook, Google+ or Moodle). This could perhaps be focussed on a particular course (e.g. revision session for a UG module) or could be for all interested students in a particular category (e.g. all UG dissertation supervisees). Advantages: students will have a record of the discussion, and be able to get an insight into their peers’ work. This may also reduce email traffic.
Example: Start a Facebook group for your dissertation supervisees. At regular intervals, conduct a group meeting during which all members of the group are expected to be online at the same time. Ask students to prepare something each week, and post it on the group wall before the session, then discuss them during the group meeting.