Has the VLE made lectures worse?

Leaving aside the arguments that lectures aren’t that useful anyway, a question from a colleague caused me to reflect on whether the widespread use (some would say abuse) of the VLE to host copies of PowerPoint slides has led to the lecture experience becoming less useful.

The question from my colleague was a simple one – could I send her the slides from a forthcoming staff development session I will be leading because she is unable to attend. A reasonable enough request, but one which I felt compelled to decline, because my presentation slides don’t have a great deal of text on them, and won’t make much, if any, sense without the accompanying presentation.

When I started to prepare the presentation, I thought I was doing the right thing. Minimalist slides, no bullet points, and lots of full screen images. The kind of thing that you see lauded as best practice for PowerPoint. (I’m using voting pads which integrate with PowerPoint so I can’t use Prezi on this occasion).

My design choice was also influenced by the fact that I know I have a tendency to fall into the trap of simply reading the slides on auto-pilot if they have too much text. This presentation is on one of my specialist subjects, so I could quite happily talk about it at length without needing to rely on a slide full of bullet points to guide me through it step by step. But the request from my colleague made me reflect on how slides are used in the modern HE presentation or lecture.

Which brings me back to my opening question – has the (ab)use of the VLE made lectures even worse? It’s been suggested that the widespread practice of distributing the slides used in lectures has reduced the need for students to develop note taking skills, and the reduced need for note taking means that attending a lecture is a more passive experience for students than ever. Some studies have suggested that note taking aids learning, whereas others would argue that students were never really able to effectively take adequate notes and process information they were listening to simultaneously, implying that reducing that note taking burden may be a good thing.

But having seen plenty of cringe-inducing slides in my time, I wonder whether some lecturers compensate for their students’ lack of note taking skills by designing their slides so that they form a fairly decent set of notes, to the extent that reading the slides can almost stand in place of attending the lecture? Is that what learners have come to expect?

And if that is what they are doing, what does that mean for the effectiveness of the live lecture, where we know that slide after slide of text-heavy bullet points is a great way to achieve PowerPoint Poisoning or Death by PowerPoint.

The lecturer just reads the slides” is a common complaint from students, but if the slides convey all of the salient points, you have to wonder how much scope there is for the lecturer to add anything of value.

A totally unscientific sampling of a few slide decks on our VLE and also the first few Google hits for those made available on the internet suggests a tendency for lecture slides which are packed with textual detail.
Some practitioners have suggested having two sets of slides, a presentation deck designed to be delivered as a live presentation and a reading deck for use without the aid of a presenter, but I can’t imagine too many academic colleagues feeling they have time to produce two sets of material, and committing to keep both up to date and consistent.

I’ve used the pejorative term “Virtual Revising Environment” to refer to the use of a VLE primarily to host material for the purpose of exam revision rather than for new learning to take place. But I can’t help but wonder whether the influence of this mode of consuming slides is in danger of becoming top priority in their design, to the detriment of the live audience.

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Confessions of a Reluctant Session Chair

I’ve done a few conference presentations now, but I still regard myself as a novice. The difference between the way in which I now actively submit proposals volunteering to give a presentation and the distinct lack of enthusiasm which used to greet any announcement that my undergraduate work would be assessed by presentation is not lost on me. When I was sent the programme for the eLearning 2.0 conference where I would be presenting on the Flipped Classroom, along with a note saying that I’d been allocated as Session Chair, I was back to those out of my depth feelings of presentations as a student all those years ago.

I tried to get out of it, arguing that there would be more qualified people than me in the room, and that I would be too busy mentally rewriting my presentation. An earlier speaker in the session had a very similar title for his presentation, so I was keen to avoid repetition and to pick up on angles where we had a difference of approach or opinion, so I felt I wouldn’t be able to clock watch at the same time. An email discussion with the Conference Chairs revealed that it was too late to change anything as the programmes had gone to print, but it wouldn’t be too daunting a task. The reason why I had been asked to chair the session was a cunning plan; the last speaker in each session acts as chair, because they have a vested interest in keeping those who speak before them to time so there is sufficient time for their own talk.

Resigned to the fact that I couldn’t get out of it, and heartened by assurances that there would be support available from the Conference Chairs, I read more about the role both from the conference’s own guide for Session Chairs and other guides I found online. Maybe this wouldn’t be too bad after all. An email to the presenter who had a similar title to mine resulted in him sending me an outline of what he was going to cover so I could preempt that by giving a slightly different focus to my presentation.

On the day, everything was going well. An unscheduled comfort/drinks break before my session meant we were running late, so I would have to amend my copy of the programme with the real timings once we got underway. I took the opportunity to highlight a few key phrases on my copy of the abstracts in case I needed to ad-lib a longer than planned introduction to fill awkward silences and was ready to go. The break was useful as the venue’s IT guy was having issues getting the sound system and the first speaker’s laptop to cooperate. Once he was ready, I kept my introduction simple, as we were running late and it wasn’t long since a scene-setting talk from one of the joint Conference Chairs, and soon the first speaker was on.

I was dreading the “have a backup question in case nobody asks one” aspect of the role, because the two other presentations in the session were so closely related to my own work that I was struggling to come up with something which I didn’t already know the answer to or would pre-empt my own presentation. I guess in the role of Session Chair trying to fill an awkward silence you have a bit of leeway to ask questions which would otherwise be considered poor form, but I wanted to avoid it.

The first presenter gave an interesting talk and threw up a couple of points which differed from the approach the literature recommends, so I was prepared to ask a question on that, but hoped to be able to keep it to use in my own talk. I don’t think anybody noticed that I’d made a slight mess of the timings by forgetting to leave some time for questions when I recalculated for the late start! I got away with it and took several questions from the floor.

So far so good. The next presentation involved a technical demonstration. The venue’s IT guy was on hand, but it took a little while to get their kit set up, which was eating into their allocated time. Their presentation would have benefited from a longer slot, and demonstrated perfectly why I like to use screen recordings in place of live demos where it’s practical and time is limited – much less stressful and more likely to work! They seemed to be barely past the introduction when I was holding up the 5 minutes card – even after I made the executive decision to curtail the questions so they could have the full 15 minutes for the presentation. As it happened their demo was foiled by a poor 3G connection so I suggested taking some questions while the presenters were waiting for their party piece to finish loading, which apparently it did some time during the next presentation.

Relieved that I hadn’t needed my (poor) backup questions, it was my turn. I’d kept my presentation simple because of the time constraints, with a very straightforward PowerPoint presentation. Having nobody to keep me to time, I used the stopwatch app on my iPad, and was amazed that even with unrehearsed asides to address points raised by the previous speakers and a pause for a glass of water when my voice started to disappear, I finished at pretty much 15 minutes exactly. Only one question, asking me to expand on something which I’d said I was glossing over due to time constraints. Maybe between myself and the previous speaker we’d covered most of the points which people were interested in, or more likely, people wanted to get out of the hot room and get to the coffee break.

I wasn’t entirely sure where to go from there, so I invited the audience to join me in thanking the other speakers in the session and was thankful for one of the joint Conference Chairs taking over to direct people to the refreshments.

Somehow, I’d got away with it, everyone had had their full 15 minutes and some questions, and despite a few delays the lack of questions for my talk meant the conference was unexpectedly back to the published schedule.

In summary, I have to say that once I settled into it, chairing the session wasn’t nearly as nerve-wracking as I thought it would be. With a little bit of thought beforehand, simple things like making sure you have an accurate clock or watch, making a note of the real start and end times of the sessions, and being prepared to be flexible when things do go wrong it can be an enjoyable experience. And “Session Chair at an International Conference” is certainly going to look good on my CV.

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Review: Polls by Blackboard (beta)

Blackboard have been showing off their new Polls by Blackboard service, which is available as a publicly usable beta.

Billed as an alternative to a dedicated hardware audience response/clicker system, it uses participants’ own tablets and mobile devices (either via a browser or a dedicated app) to allow them to take part in votes as part of face to face teaching sessions in a similar way to services like Socrative, Poll Everywhere and Responseware.

Leaving aside the awkward question of whether it’s appropriate to require students to bring their own devices to take part in lectures given the current tuition fees regime, and the regularly rehearsed argument from certain lecturers that if students have their phone in their hands they’ll be tempted to mess about on Facebook rather than listen to the lecture, Polls by Blackboard doesn’t seem to be the way forward.

The first issue is that a pie chart showing other participants’ answers is displayed, updating in real time, after participants vote.  Students are likely to see this on other students’ devices (particularly in a tiered lecture theatre) and could be influenced in how they vote.  This negates a major point of voting systems in giving less confident students a voice, as it gives the ability to just vote with the majority.  It would be an easy improvement to only show the result after voting has been closed.  It’s also unsuitable for Peer Instruction because students can see the results of the individual first vote before they turn to their neighbour for a group discussion.

The second issue was neatly demonstrated at Blackboard’s Education on Tour event in Salford yesterday, when the Wifi network appeared to be unable to handle the number of simultaneous users in the same room.  This issue would defeat all internet based voting systems rather than being specific to Polls by Blackboard, but I have to wonder whether each device regularly refreshing the latest aggregate scores from the server led to a performance hit overall.

The third issue is that the instructor needs to authenticate using a Facebook account (which requests access to your friends list – apparently because that’s required by the Facebook API) which will be  a dealbreaker for many colleagues.  The same can be said of the fact that polls can’t be embedded inside a PowerPoint presentation, necessitating an alt-tab to switch to a browser.

All in all, I’m a bit underwhelmed.  I know it’s a beta, but all of these issues seem to me to be fundamental limitations of a design which doesn’t really fit with the way that educators use response systems in practice.  It’s going to take a lot more than this to tempt me away from dedicated clickers.

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Flipping the classroom – for Staff Development

This afternoon I ran a Twitter workshop to help some colleagues (some already Twitter users, others completely new to it) to use it as a way of networking and to increasing the reach of their research and generally enhance their profile.

Having spent this year working on a project to pilot the flipped classroom model, helping various colleagues to implement it with their students, I decided it was my turn to try, and flipped the training session.

Before the session, I asked the participants to look at a couple of resources that were available online.  The materials were Twitter in Plain English – a  (2m30s) YouTube video  – and a short article called It’s Time for Scientists to Tweet.  Both were chosen with brevity in mind.  I also asked participants to set up a Twitter account in advance and email me the username.  (I told them this was so I could prepare a handout to use in an activity, but it was also because brand new accounts don’t always show up in searches, which would have wrecked the hashtag demo I planned.)

This turned out to be one of the smoothest training sessions I’ve ever run, because everybody was starting from roughly the same place.  The participants all arrived with a basic understanding of the concept of Twitter and some of the reasons why it would be useful to them, so I was able to kick off with a brief recap of the concepts and add some further examples of why they ought to be using Twitter to give a bit of depth, before going into some hands on activities.

Asking participants to spend 10 minutes looking at a video and reading a short article in advance meant that I didn’t have to subject them to a lengthy dose of “PowerPoint poisoning” to cover the basics, which a number of participants were well beyond and would have been bored by.  Some participants came with questions, prompted by the material, which they were able to raise in the session.

It’s often a feature of this kind of session that it is curtailed due to time running out.  Taking the basics out of the session means that there is more time for participants to complete the activities when support is available from the facilitators and other participants, rather than being encouraged to complete them after the session, and for questions and discussion which can often be one of the more useful parts of such a session.

Of course it may just have been a combination of having a good group of participants (who had chosen to attend rather than having been told to) and having a great co-facilitator (thanks Gavin!) that made it work so well, but I really think that being able to skip presenting the basics and get to the interesting stuff within the first few minutes of the session made a big difference.

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Reducing Plagiarism through Assessment Design

Over on the University of Huddersfield iPark blog, I’ve posted a summary of Dr Mike Reddy’s recent webinar for Plagiarismadvice.org, principally on redesigning assessments to reduce plagiarism but actually about good assessment design in general.

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#octel Week3 – What is Learning?

This week’s “if you only do one thing” task is to reflect upon a recent experience of learning something.  My choice is a recent crash course in statistics when I needed to analyse some data to see whether there was any statistical significance and I realised I couldn’t put it off any longer.  I won’t say too much about the specific data I’ve been working with as I hope to have something publishable in due course.

I was aware that a colleague taught basic stats to his Year 0 students, so I had a (slightly cheeky) look at some of the screencasts he had produced for them, which gave a good overview of which test to use in which circumstances and I had a go at some of the examples he demonstrated.  Then I plugged my own data into the spreadsheet and got some results which seemed reasonable.  Realising that his material was designed to teach stats partly as a means to teach advanced Excel, I was able to cut a few corners when I looked at other sets of data as I’m quite experienced with Excel.

I ran into a problem where the published lookup tables for the Mann-Whitney method weren’t sufficient for the number of items of data I was working with, so I asked my colleague for advice.  He suggested looking into using SPSS although he wasn’t familiar with it himself.  Searching for suitable tutorials online I was able to understand enough of the basic operation to get results out of SPSS for a small data set which matched those I got manually, so I was then able to use it with confidence to analyse the larger data sets which I was interested in.

In many respects this strategy is similar to the inverted classroom that he is using with his students – engage with the online resources and then have the opportunity to discuss with the tutor.

This fits quite neatly with the Learning Types typology given in the ocTEL material for this week

  • The screencasts dealt with the “know that” aspect, giving the background to why we use statistical analysis and in which situations you would choose a T Test and where a Mann-Whitney is appropriate. 
  • The screencasts also demonstrated the procedures through screen recordings, covering the “know-how”. 
  • “Knowing in action” would be my having to decide which test to apply to the particular data set and learning through mistakes when it went wrong. 
  • In terms of “other” factors I think that motivation played a part in that I was learning in order to solve a specific, real, problem rather than because somebody had told me that I needed to learn this material, so I had the motivation to seek out information and assistance where appropriate.

Other models could also be applied; Bloom’s Taxonomy seems to fit quite well too, with the screencasts being used to gain knowledge.  Trying my colleagues examples allowed me to gain a comprehension of the concepts and applying his examples to my own data was an example of application.

There were elements of analysis in testing whether the results I got from SPSS matched those I got manually to confirm whether what I had learned how to do was correct.

There was some synthesis in combining my colleague’s prescribed method of carrying out the statistical analysis with my own knowledge of how to use Excel to find short cuts for the procedure.

It could be argued (albeit tenuously) that there were elements of Evaluation in selecting appropriate tutorials for SPSS that covered the information I required in a context that I was able to translate to my own particular data sets.

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#octel Week 1 – TEL Concepts and Approaches

The two examples I looked at were that of Eric Mazur on Peer Instruction – a technique which I have some familiarity with – and the HapTEL dental simulator. I’m not sure that there is a fair comparison of which is “more powerful” – both offer significant advances as learning experiences compared to that which they replace but in very different contexts.

Peer Instruction – and the inverted classroom/Just in Time Teaching model which usually goes alongside it – deals with turning a lecture into an active learning experience and as such it can be implemented in many subject disciplines. It’s about recognising that lectures were introduced as a compromise to counter a lack of resources (copies printed reading material), a limitation which the internet means no longer needs to exist. This means that we can get students to learn the material in more engaging ways where they are less passive and thus more likely to learn the concepts and be able to apply them. Peer Instruction works well because students have to actively participate in the session, and have to defend their answer to a peer and hear their explanation. We’ve often seen that as students begin to explain their answer, the penny drops and they realise why their original answer was wrong.

The HapTEL system relates more to practical classes and so is a solution to a niche problem. I can see the benefit of something similar in other healthcare disciplines where practicing on a real patient is not appropriate. Perhaps something similar could be used to allow students to practice administering injections for example.

I think they both offer something very powerful to the learning experience, but to comment on one being more powerful than the other would be comparing apples and oranges. On some courses it could be very appropriate to use both of these approaches, Peer Instruction in the lectures to facilitate learning of the theory and HapTEL to facilitiate the practicals.

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#ocTEL Introduction

I’m taking part in #ocTEL, the Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning that ALT are running, partly to experience taking part in a MOOC, and because it seems like a great opportunity to find out what other people are up to.

So by way of an introduction, I’ve been supporting learning technology for over 10 years, initially mainly dealing with supporting the VLE but more recently I’ve really repositioned my role to be a lot more about looking at ways that TEL can enhance the learning experience rather than being just about dumping a few Powerpoint files on the VLE.

I’m currently leading a project piloting the flipped classroom model of blended learning.The project has really opened my eyes to how much of the “traditional” classroom based approach is a compromise, with lectures used as the primary means of teaching due to resource constraints rather than because lectures are a particularly effective way of learning.  It’s becoming clear that the main challenge in increasing the take up of TEL is now a people problem rather than a technology problem.

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Turnitin’s Sources in Student Writing

This post was edited on 01 Feb 2013 to add an additional point

I was interested to see the stats which Turnitin have released showing the sources which students’ work is most frequently matched against.  In particular, they highlight that Wikipedia is a source which students’ work is frequently matched against.  But is it really that clear cut?

Turnitin report showing 5% match from several sources, wikipedia highlighted first

Match Breakdown section of a Turnitin Originality Report

The full paper, which is available on request, doesn’t say much about the methodology of the research, which leaves several questions unanswered.

One potential methodological criticism of this study is that it relies on Turnitin matches.  More able students are likely to be paraphrasing the sources they have consulted rather than quoting verbatim – although this practice varies between disciplines – and such paraphrasing would not show up in a Turnitin originality report.  Arguably, therefore, this study only reflects the sources that weaker students are using in their work.

A further criticism is that the paper does not make it clear whether they are looking at just the match which is initially shown when you open the originality report or every match that it finds.

Consider this example from an originality report, where the highlighted source is Wikipedia.  Drilling down into the Match Breakdown section, you see that there are four other sources that have an equal match of 5%.  Clicking them in turn highlights the exact same phrases in the student’s paper as were matched with Wikipedia.

So it seems that Turnitin may have a bias towards Wikipedia, listing it first amongst potential sources where there are multiple identical matches for the same content.  (This is perhaps because of the nature of a wiki and the redirections on the site that mean each page has several URLs so it is listed multiple times, as in this example.)

Given that anybody can edit Wikipedia, it is perfectly plausible that the Wikipedia article has quoted (or plagiarised) the same source that student has used.  It is also possible that students are citing Wikipedia content without knowing it, where it has been reused on other sites which might look more credible (which Wikipedia encourage by publishing under a Creative Commons license).

So while Turnitin’s advice in the full paper that students be guided to follow the links from Wikipedia to the original source is perfectly sound, there is every chance that it could still show up as a match against Wikipedia in the originality report, and thus in any future updates to these statistics.

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Screencasting with PowerPoint 2010

Screencasts are a cornerstone of many blended learning and flipped classroom strategies. Many academics are put off because traditionally creating a screencast requires them to learn complex new software such as Camtasia or Captivate, once they have persuaded a budget holder to find around £100 to buy them a license for the software.

However for simple slide based screencasts (as distinct from those which use a screen recording to demonstrate software techniques) there is a solution which has fewer barriers for staff. PowerPoint 2010 quietly introduced a feature which allows your slideshow to be saved as a video file. Combine that with the narration feature which has been part of PowerPoint for many years, and you can build a screencast very easily using tools which are familiar.

The basic workflow:

  • Create your slides, using the animation tools to create any callouts
  • Use the Narration feature to add your voice, as if you were giving the presentation to a live audience
  • Save the presentation as a video
  • Upload the video to your institutional video repository and link to it from the VLE

This method is more forgiving than a true screen recording, because you can edit the text and graphics on a slide after adding the voiceover. You can also go back and re-do the voiceover for a particular slide if necessary without needing to get bogged down in video editor like tools.

Watch a demonstration of this technique

Accessibility may be a concern when using video files for screencasts. A possible solution is to make use of the Presenter Notes field in PowerPoint to add the extra detail that the voiceover provides (perhaps in bullet point or note form rather than a verbatim transcript) and upload the original, non-narrated PowerPoint file separately. (The PowerPoint file with narrations is usually quite a large file that would not be appropriate to place on a VLE).

This method of screencasting won’t be for everbody – those who have mastered Camtasia or Captivate will probably want to stick with those solutions. But for people who are yet to dip their toes into the water of screencasting, this method only requires them to learn two additional (and fairly intuitive) features of PowerPoint 2010.

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