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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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#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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The difficult first post

I’ve been working in learning technology for over 10 years, although it’s only in the last few years that I’ve started to feel like I know what I’m talking about. 

I’m going to use this blog to reflect on aspects of e-learning.  Partly to document technical solutions, but also as a space to explore some ideas and maybe get some feedback.

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