To feed or lead class?

I read Judy O’Connell’s post in which she describes a colleague who is giving a lecture on the use of Powerpoint in order to give students more than a summary of important points in serial delivery. Judy references the Chronical of Higher Education on the topic. I am not sure it can be removed without leaving a stain. In another recent article, Micheal de Percy talked about the drivers that often promote ‘service and delivery’ at University. I made me wonder about the dilemma teachers between feeding the class verses leading it, and a strategy to over come it.

It doesnt wash off, but washes over.

It doesn't wash off, but washes over.

Educators face a bloated syllabus (which are a summary consensus view of the discipline). Students often say they want revision notes and powerpoint summaries (it sustains their often successful surface learning strategy). External exams are designed in ways that teachers can almost predict questions and game the system focused on results and competitive performance. They provide students with model answers and strategies to pass the test. It happens and we’ve all seen it. “If you want to access the band 6 marks, this is what you need to include and how to do it”. Enquiry gives way to rote learning, which is why enquiry and group work is often afforded lower percentage points in summative assessment. This will be perpetuated as governments insist on drawing up league tables. Yes we have ‘in-course assessments’, but these are usually  internally designed and marked; unlike the almighty HSC exam – everyone knows the exam is the deal breaker here; and powerpoint is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.

Teaching is an essential input to a product (the qualification). It is not simply a service. Qualifications issued by universities are supposed to indicate the capabilities of graduates. Over-relying on student satisfaction (as the main indicator of quality) encourages a service culture which is not entirely appropriate to the teaching role. Michael de Percy (ABC News)

Leading the class is much more of an ideological challenge than a technical one. Many teachers use a very limited toolset. Summising of content in powerpoint is perhaps 50% of their ability – and is often cited as a ‘desirable’ when it comes to student satisfaction. Yet Powerpoint was designed for techies to give summaries to marketing people back in the day. They wanted to spend least amount of time and effort explaining key things, so made Powerpoint. It was not a ‘learning tool’ – but a presentation tool. Over the years it just got more bloated, but still does what it was designed to do. I’m not even getting into BAD Powerpoint; simply by recognising it’s purpose is to talk, not listen – then we can start to think more about developing two-way engagements with learners.

Should we abandon powerpoint, or equivalent Web2.0 slidedeck application entirely?

If we actually want present a summary, then use it. If we want to lead students to deeper or wider thinking, not just remembering, no – dump it. – To lead learning at a deeper level, we should present a range of possibilities and influencers, not a summary. We can still use something visually impacting, aligning with the outcome intended, but we MUST avoid drawing a line between the resource itself and the summation of knowledge. That is what powerpoint is spectacularly good it. We are often so poor at formative assessment strategy that we give students no chance to make that connection – as the summary is on the powerpoint – we draw the line – asking the question and then giving the answer moments later.

I maintain that you can transform learning and teaching using a very limited number of tools. I return over an over to Diigo as the edu-webs killer application.

What is an alternative strategy?

Adapting an aggregator and using in a familiar teaching mode – using Diigo. Diigo provides a way to provide lecturers and teachers with the powerpoint backdrop to present ideas and components of the discipline, but does it in a way that discourages reading dot points. How so? by using Diigo’s list feature and tagging content. The lecturer can collect a mass of content and tag it to represent syllabus content – what is it I want them to know (the outcome). They can reference their own resource or those of others directly. This compiled list is then presented as a webcast in Diigo (example: here). It allows the lecturer to move between areas (links), and encourages them to talk about, not read them. Students no longer receive a 20 page powerpoint to remember, but 20 links, related to the discipline that they have to constructively align to the outcomes though guided enquiry (the activity).

We know if they are learning though assessment. Students need to be asked questions about the discipline and to use the Diigo List as the learning pathway. They can reference that content; or better still – use Diigo to comment directly on the page. Diigo of course allows teachers to set up a ‘class’ account and envoke collaboration. In effect, they draw all over the pseudo-powerpoint! – involved at a meta cognitive level almost immediately – and exploring, comparing, negotiating – as well as remembering. A massive shift in pedagogy, using a very simple tool.

Consider the two options presented – and decide – adapt of ignore. Try or deny.

One option is to provide 1000 students with a summary in powerpoint; the other is to provide interactive content that allows a 1000 students to socially construct a shared, consensus view. The problem is not which is better learning – but which do students see as more effective at getting the qualification. The former. I think convincing students is just as important as convincing lecturers of the perils of powerpoint. This plays out is student satisfaction surveys – ‘a good powerpoint is like gold’.

How do we encourage a change in behaviour?

But we must be cautious of the quantitatively-driven concept of student-centeredness where it detracts from the quality of the qualifications – in essence, the outputs which university teaching creates. Michael de Percy (ABC News)

Through educational leadership at the policy level. The job of education leaders is not to do easy things like buy IWBs and Netbooks (thats a purchasing officer), but to transform the standards of education sufficiently that teachers feel confident to stop feeding and learn new ways to lead. Equally students know why this is important to their attainment, and are not simply buying a service. Teachers and students can’t climb the learning ladder, unless leaders allow and encourage it to be extended. Powerpoint or otherwise – and right now the oppositional polarity being demonstrated by political policy is not exactly helpful to this change process in my view. Regrettebly, most leaders get their key-facts and briefings from powerpoint. We create out own reality.


What is good teaching?

I was reminded in a student-panel session last week that just maybe I have to deal with the ‘ethics’ committee before recording the views of volunteer students. Academics enrolled in a Foundations of Learning and Teaching course were there to listen to the ‘student perspective’ on what is good (and bad) learning and teaching at University.

Their views seem to be echoed online, as this High School student video, buried in YouTube talks about – so I’ll just use this instead.

  • Leading learning, not controlling the class.
  • Having Teachers that THEY can connect with
  • Teachers who realise (though action) that a student is a human being with a range of interests and ideas to share.
  • Allowing students to connect to the teacher without reinforcing the power teachers have over them.
  • Teachers who connect with the content and shows passion for what they are doing – and saying.
  • if they don’t take an interest, then why should you” – teachers faking interest is obvious!
  • Students know that good teachers have a DRAMATIC impact on positive learning experiences
  • They remember ‘good teachers’ because they recognise ‘good teaching experiences’ (and visa versa)
  • Good pupils hope to be remembered

The ‘student panel’ were critical of both the ENTRY and the EXIT events, but also positive about  well designed courses that take into account the ‘learning load’, motivation and learning preferences of the students.

A teacher writing on a blackboard.
Image via Wikipedi

They were giving the room really valuable feedback on instructional strategies that work or don’t – for them. To reinforce the fact that often highly knowledgeable teachers fail to engage students … another YouTube clip … time to spot the strategies here. This clip really engaged the cohort, and pulled together the student panel session and the need to consider much more than content when teaching.

Students highlighted over reliance on summative assessment to grade students. This was later reinforced when the cohort learned about the Solove Method of grading.

They further talked about the assumptions teachers make ” students are there because they are ‘into’ the subject” – when in fact they are curious, interested but not (yet) deeply engaged in it. This assumption leads to issues of engagement if the teachers does not do adequate ‘oil dipping’ for prior knowledge – or motivation.

I was quite amazed to learn that many teachers (higher education) won’t use ‘online learning’ such as a discussion forum, as they have a 1000 students and insufficient resources. I’ve heard that from teachers with 20 students before too. Building effective learning communities remains one of the most important professional development sessions that teachers can attend in my view.

I think that is is great question to ask students ‘what is a great teacher’ (class) or ‘how can teach you better’ (personal).

It was great to see how keen students were to give positive, constructive feedback in the session – and how seriously that is taken as a key element of curriculum renewal. Students are the mirror that we need to look into more often I think.

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They are just not that into you
Image via Wikipedia

More ‘yeah buts’ … and more solutions.

“I’d love to give students more personal feedback, but it’s impossible! I have 900 students!” … “there’s no way I could deal with 900 students in on online discussion!” … “if I put my lecture online, half the students stop showing up!”. So, here we go, let’s find some solutions …

Student concerns about linear learning approaches

From the student perspective, they are often critical of the ‘entry’ event into learning – too much information, too little information, lack of consistency etc., and just as critical of the exit point – lack of feedback – “I put my heart into the essay and all I got was a grade, not even a comment!”, “I don’t know what I need to do to get a better grade?”,”why is this 18/20 not 19/20?”.

Technology as the middle ground

I have to think that what happens in the middle is best supported by a discourse community, and in fact attaining large numbers of participants is a great thing, not a bad one. We all know that group activities suffer the long-tail. In a group of 900 students, realistically 90 will be active voices. Not all of them will be ‘creators’ of conversations, some will join existing ones, some will be critics – the vast majority will be spectators – they will read lots, but often contribute almost nothing. They are however influenced by the behaviors and views of the group.

Renewing Motivation and Participation in learning

It all comes down to motivation – intrinsic or extrinsic, whether they are interested in deep or surface learning in the context of the topic. So in reality a teacher will not be dealing with 900 individual conversations, more like 10% of that, and not at the same time, nor do all posts and replies need addressing. The teacher is a mediator who threads together ideas that steer students in the right direction and occasionally ‘jump start’ the conversations. The value of participation is in the feedback and shared learning experiences of the community itself, not because that is where the ‘answer’ is.

Renewing Pedagogy

Imagine a year 12 HSC Advanced Mathematics class, with 24 students and 1 teacher. They are successful learners, deep knowledge seekers, intrinsically motivated and hungry to solve advanced problems to attain sufficient knowledge to ‘ace’ the exam. Now imagine the same class – but with 240 students and 10 experienced mathematicians. The class has a set of problems to solve and can do so whenever they feel like it. They can work with each other, or work alone – but whatever they do, they solve it in an open space online. Does each teacher need to spend as much time ‘teaching’, will more students mean less or more learning? Can students learn – without the presence of a teacher? Can they learn from more than one teacher after the end of the school day? Would they want to?

The point to me is that it is not a 900:1 ratio unless that is how you perceive it. Lectures could be more engaging on the personal level if some of the ideas the discourse community generates are addressed. If a lecture is merely a monologue, then I have to say, I probably would not show up either. What if a lecture was a hybrid – live conversation and online discussion? What if it was perfectly acceptable to do both. What if the lecture was ‘live blogged’ – and driving questions asked online and in the theatre.

Renewing Delivery

Web2.0 makes it easy to deliver a lecture online – live. Let’s say there is an hour ‘lecture’. Rather than present yet another killer PowerPoint (which is debate in itself), break up the time into delivery, challenge and reflection. Bring in the ‘online’ learners – allow them (and encourage them) to form sub-groups to answer questions and drive further discussion online later or at the time. Get a volunteer to ‘live blog’ the hour with a laptop.

Renewing Work Practices

The idea that there are tutorial discussions, lecture monologues and ‘online’ is not the preference of many students. By being flexible in delivery and support, we can accommodate students better. Sure it means changing the way, when and where we work, but not necessarily how long or how hard. Going ‘digital’ does not mean ‘more work’ at all – yet this is a continual argument to avoid change.

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What comes after this

picture-4I despair at teacher’s who think that PBL or Instructional is ‘the’ way that teaching will go in the next decade. That is naive to say the least and hardly worth beating your chest over. Learning is blended. I think that no matter what approaches you want to use – effective teaching demands that you are media literate – and so are your students.

This is the to me the most significant issue – not the style of delivery. You can be as passionate as all hell about your ‘method’, but if you are not media literate, online and in the global conversations, you are not going to be as effective as students need you to be.

Sorry if that cuts into your idea of what your ‘teaching job is’ right now. But there it is. It is not enough to do in 2009 what you did in the decade before. It is not enough to only change if the syllabus changes or you need to be compliant.

Technology transformed the possibilities. Now we have to re-think and talk about how to stay on top of it. Connectivism is in effect and that delivers connected, networked new knowledge.

Learning needs to be blended, multi-modal and fluid and connected. Technology is ubiquitous in this process. Learning will be instructional and inquiry based – synchronous and asynchronous. It will be virtual and distance, it will be digital and face to face – because it is already.

That is a BIG problem. Not enough teachers have any understanding of the complexity of that last paragraph. Those that do are often not empowered to deliver it beyond their classroom. Teaching as we have known it is doomed to fail if we don’t gain traction. The Titanic was unsinkable technology, the world economy was stable, and no US President would use a line from Bob The Builder to win office. Change is quick and doesn’t care if you agree anymore.

As a rough rule of thumb, I would suggest that a school’s capacity to renew curriculum and explore alternate approaches to learning is directly proportionate to the amount of people who are ‘media literate’ and active online.

I then wonder, given the limited time everyone who can do that has, how it can be done.

picture-5That was a conversation I have this week with Dr Ian Solomonides, who is the acting Director of the Learning and Teaching Centre at Macquarie University. I asked him how K12 teachers could connect with Higher Education, so that their interventions with technology could be assisted, supported or studied by Higher Education. I thought maybe this would strengthen the recognition that those who work K12 are doing.

I was half expecting not to get a concrete answer, but Ian explained about a global group looking at online learning and collaboration based in Australia, the Omnium Group.

Omnium is a research group of academics, designers, artists, programmers and writers who work collaboratively (and from different countries) to explore the potential the Internet allows for what we term – online collaborative creativity (OCC).

As I start working in Higher Education, I am more aware of people talking about Universities being last to take a seat at the table, but this does not mean that there isn’t progress or interest. They, like K12, have academics and lecturers that are passionate about the changes that technology brings and the laggards. Like K12, the issues of taking change to the people, thousands of people, is a challenge. As Ian said this week,

“we know we have to do this, but we are few and they are many, so we have to be strategic in where we do it, how we do it and then to make sure what we do is significant enough that it is maintained.”

Isn’t this the same dialogue in K12?. Hmm, I thought, same issues – but the terms of reference for a large Institution like Macquarie University – which in itself is under going massive changes are different. In this regard, storming the school Firewall Nazi’s office or flash mobbing un-cooperative curriculum laggards seems easier. But I guess there has to be evolution, not revolution, so I’ll put my stick down.

How important are connections between K12, TAFE and Higher Education – are we are all now in the same orbit when it comes to change?.

The Power of PLNs


So day one at my new job. Lots of random people, names and faces to remember. Much of the day spent trying to figure out how these people in offices communicate and looking at a proposed paper on ePortolios.

After reading that, I talked on Skype with Allison Miller who I met earlier in the year to discuss.

img_0019I wasn’t too sure if Allison was the one with the ePortfolio Lens or not, so I asked Twitter. After a 10 minute conversation on Skype.

I now have bags of information, directions and links to look at. The power of a learning network never fails to amaze me. I could Google all day long, spend hours searching the archives … or just ask Twitter and take a short cut to the good stuff. Thanks Allison! New desk, same network.

All I have to do now is figure out that people do with all these filing cabinets.