5 reasons why Mentimeter works so well

[if you have never seen or used Mentimeter then a quick look here may help]

[Listen -11 mins or read below]

When it comes to tools that will do a teaching and learning job there is a world of dedicated educational technology and ‘productivity’ tools to choose from. I’m very much an experimenter and a fiddler. If I see someone using or referring to a website or tool that looks interesting in a meeting or at a conference, I am there in seconds signing up and playing around and making judgements that have become a staple of my needs and preference-focussed filtration system. In broad terms I like to be able to try things for free, for it to be relatively intuitive and straightforward and (most important) fit for either pre-defined or imagined teaching or assessment purposes. I have written more about the how and why of this with my former colleague Dr Timos Almpanis here and in chapter 4 of this collection. I try not to evangelise and I am very much of the school that would argue that purpose rather than any given tool should be a starting point for discussions about integrating digital approaches but there’s something about what Mentimeter can do and how it does it that means I do sometimes slip into ultra-enthusiast mode.  Unlike a lot of tech approaches and tools that pass the initial ‘free, easy, fit for purpose’ test there’s something about the breadth of purpose that Mentimeter is fit for and its intuitiveness that, for me, make it a class above other tools. Also see here for why Chris Little at Keele made this point a while back and here for an evaluation of a number student response tools including Mentimeter from when I and a colleague at Greenwich were tasked with identifying  what the best institution-wide student response system would be.

1. It’s not hardware dependent

Like a lot of people similarly enthusiastic about opportunities for enhancing student interaction and engagement with digital technologies, I spent a lot of time (much of which was ultimately wasted) focussed on hardware. From interactive whiteboards to in-class ipad sets to PDAs and ‘flipcams’ the issues that directly impeded scaling of use as well as my own enthusiasm  were related to one or more of the following:

  • Amount of training needed
  • Device security and storage
  • ‘Just in time’ access limits
  • Responsibility for maintenance
  • Rapidity of obsolescence of kit

In my view, all these were factors that afflicted ‘clickers’ (voting pods that were handed round in face to face sessions) – as revolutionary as they promised to be -they were only ever used by the few, despite the gleaming aluminium cases and the sumptuous foam inserts that the clicker devices sat in. The BYOD dependence on user devices when it comes to cloud-based software alternatives like Mentimeter means that:

  • People usually know how to use their own devices or at least access the internet
  • Device security, maintenance, updating is not an issue
  • They are, by definition, available; turning an oft-cited teacher frustration of mobile device distraction into a potential virtue

‘What if students don’t have a device?’ is a common question but, like many things in this domain, it’s largely about framing. I will always make participation optional and make it clear ‘if you have a device on you’ if in a face to face setting or ‘if you have a big enough screen or a separate device nearby’ if online and frequently subvert the assumption that responses need to be individual and precede voting with group-based discussion with one person per group responding.

I have moved between institutions in the last year and both have invested in a site licence and access to the full suite of tools and functionality Mentimeter offers. This privilege is something that must be acknowledged so it’s certainly not ‘free’ any more (though I  personally pay nothing of course!) the free version is still relatively generous. In my view it’s an exemplary freemium set up. Just on the right side of frustrating in amongst the persuasive.

2. It’s a slide/ presentation tool that has many merits in its own right

One thing that is often missed because the ‘point’ of Mentimeter is interaction is how well it works as an alternative to PowerPoint as a presentation tool.  Even though PowerPoint remains the default across higher education for slide production (even during that weird period when everyone was doing Prezis!), for the most part colleagues seem to struggle to break from the desktop app habit. As a consequence, sharing of slides becomes an upload/ download faff or, even if sharing is managed via MS Office cloud storage there are often restrictions on who can view. Mentimeter generates a link so the first benefit is slides can be shared as easily as any website link. Secondly, the participation link enables the students to see the slides (including detail of pictures) on their own devices in real time (as well as or possibly INSTEAD OF the main screen). Thirdly the author interface is simple, there is a variety of slide types and styles, the copyright free image gallery is easy to use as is the ALT text prompt. Fourthly, the ability to add simple interactions (eg thumbs up or down) mean that students can be invited to contribute even to content delivery type slides by, for example, agreeing or disagreeing with a controversial idea or quotation.  The slides have more limited space for text and this (to some a limitation) is an excellent discipline when preparing slides to minimise the text and challenge the tendency many of us have to use too much of it.

A screenshot from the editing woindow of Mentimeter showing a bulleted slide with image and also the content slide types available

The editing window of Mentimeter showing a bulleted slide with a copyright free image and also the content slide types available

3. The participation and interaction options are substantial and adaptable

In a previous post there were a few occasions where students chose notoriety over maturity and tried to undermine sessions by being abusive in open text questions. This led to something of a knee-jerk response by some colleagues who questioned whether the tool should be supported or used at all. Much like (way way back) access to YouTube was banned for all students AND teaching staff in a college I worked in because ONE student accessed a (seriously) inappropriate video. The sledgehammer / nut response was not the way to address things, not least because Mentimeter’s existing tools and functionality enable users to avoid and tackle such behaviours. So, if open text questions are used there are ways of monitoring and filtering content (including a profanity filter) and of the ten interaction/ question types only three are open text.  To grasp this, however, does often necessitate more than superficial exploration and experimentation (or coming to one of my hour-long workshops!) One thing I commonly do is encourage colleagues to consider how they might eschew the favoured word cloud and open text formats and find ways of fully exploiting the lesser used types.  In addition, it’s important to think about how the interactions are presented and managed. A well-designed question can be an excellent vehicle for prompting discussion prior to ‘voting’ or as a prompt for analysing/ rationalising responses that have already been offered.

screenshot from Mentimeter authoring dashboard showing all the question types available

Mentimeter authoring dashboard showing all the question types available

4. Frequent updates and improvements

There’s no resting on laurels with Mentimeter and there does seem to be acknowledgement of user requests. For example, the ability to embed video in slides from YouTube is a real blessing and, if using Mentimeter as a slide tool as well as for interaction, further minimises shifting between tabs or different software.  The recently introduced collaborative authoring of presentations was much requested at UCL and enables more efficient working in addition to the collaborative potential. A very recent and welcome improvement is the ability to have active hyperlinks (in both participation and presentation modes). The ‘Mentimote’ tool that allows you to use your smartphone as a slide clicker, moderation tool and presentation embellisher has also recently switched from beta to ‘fully fledged’ mode and works very well, especially for live in-person events.

5. When Covid came, Mentimeter was equipped to adapt.

The default pace setting in Mentimeter is ‘presenter paced’. That is, the presenter advances slides and only then can participants see them. This is very much in keeping with the how Mentimeter (presumably) was conceived and how many people who are users regard it. However, the non default option (audience paced) allows slide collections with interactions to be accessed at audience pace. When lessons switched online almost across the board it was common for academic colleagues to take the intuitive approach and try to replicate face to face teaching in online environments via Zoom, Teams or Collaborate. They often tried to incorporate Mentimeter slides too. Whilst this is do-able and it is something I routinely use myself, the complexity and both mental and actual bandwidth this layer added to already struggling staff and students (with kit, with space, with implications of Covid) meant that it often felt unsatisfactory. Alongside my and colleagues’ recommendations to rethink how online time could be exploited and optimised I encouraged colleagues to think about the possibilities of using Mentimeter asynchronously. By encouraging participation ahead of a session then presenting results in a session much faffing, device and screen changing is removed but still students have a buy-in to the content. When I came to my current post it was fascinating to see how colleagues in similar positions to my own such as Dr Silvia Colaiacomo were saying the same thing here.

If you want to read more on my thoughts about Mentimeter see this post and also this collaboration with two former colleagues (Dr Gerhard Kristandl from Greenwich and Paramedic extraordinaire Richard Ward who is at Cumbria).

Here, too, is a video case study I made with a colleague and student from the Division of Psychiatry on academic and student use of Mentimeter.

Colleagues at UCL interested in using Mentimeter start here: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/digital-education/2020/07/09/mentimeter-at-ucl/m

Sell them what they want; give them what they need: managing tensions and competing expectations in live online lecturer development workshops [audio version]

The recently published special edition compendium from JLDHE of reflections on the impact of Covid19 on higher education teaching, learning and assessment is an excellent, accessible and diverse resource. The range and quality of articles makes me feel quite proud to be a part of it! The contents page can be accessed here. It is an open access journal and each article uses a common format under strict wordage guidelines so it really is possible to dip in and out.

My article is here and I offer an audio version of it below for those that prefer to listen or who may gain something from my efforts at being expressive.

 

In that role I was working closely with Dr Alison Gilmour (now at UWS) and I would also recommend her piece on ‘Adopting a pedagogy of kindness’.

The hybrid/ hyflex co-pilot: flying by the seat of your pants

[listen 8m 4s or read below]

Warning: If you dislike mangled, mixed and over-extended metaphors, please place this safety notice back in the pocket in front of you, remove shoes and exit swiftly (or parachute to possible co-pilot roles and responsibilities below).

Once you have navigated through the sea of ‘keep out’ and other similar warning signs and committed to dipping your toes into the shark-infested hybrid waters (Whatever you call it, we’re talking simultaneous live face to face and online teaching- Zoom or Teams mediated), you will know that number 1 in the advice chart is: ‘Get yourself a co-pilot’. But what is a co-pilot? What role could or should they play? Should they, like the kind of co-pilot you get on a plane, be able to land the thing if you were to become suddenly incapacitated? Is it a good idea to recruit students to do it? The following suggestions are based on doing the hybrid thing a few times a year over the last 3 or 4 years and a dozen or so times in the last 3 or 4 weeks.

Do you even need a crew? Or will a passenger do?

So, you have your pilot’s licence and you want to get into the cockpit asap. Surely the last thing you need is someone else twiddling knobs, making unauthorised announcements and looking better in their reflector shades? There are all sorts of reasons why flying anything from the new Boeing Jumbo Lecturehall to the Cessna 6-seater Skyhawk Seminar is likely to be something you want or are obliged to do alone. Assuming for a moment that your airline (read: institution, faculty/ department) can fund a co-pilot then there are plenty of reasons why you might benefit from having someone by your side. If the plane is no private jet and there’s not the reserves to dip into you might still want to find a way to get someone in and give them a shiny badge with ‘co-pilot’ written on it, whether or not they could land the thing themselves. Whatever the size of your aircraft this is more than the flying you may (or often not) have been trained to do. Suddenly you’re being asked to carry on flying but also remote control a car (perhaps with all your loved ones in it) on the motorway 30,000 ft below you. How helpful a co-pilot can be will depend on a range of factors:

  • Their own professional training and subject expertise
  • Whether they are paid
  • Whether this is likely to be a one off event or a sustained new way of travelling
  • All the variables you can imagine

So in an ideal world an equivalently trained co-pilot is optimal (a close colleague perhaps to get you through the first time), an in-training colleague (such as a PGTA), a student quality reviewer (UCL colleagues look out for an announcement on this soon) or even one or more of the passengers (sorry, students) you are flying that day. Please note: In the latter case, you will need to think through the implications, limit or spread the load and note that co-pilots have reported intense concentration requirements leading to them not processing what the pilot has been saying. Whatever your situation and whoever you are able to work with the following are roles that you might want to consider for the co-pilot. Most important is to agree and delineate roles prior to the session starting.

pilot stands next to plane

Ready to fly?

(possible) Co-pilot roles and responsibilities

Most of the following would not be reasonable to expect from a student volunteer and ALL of them would be unreasonable for any co-pilot, however well they were remunerated! Where students are asked to help maintain connection between online and in-person participants it may be prudent not to think in terms co-piloting given the necessary limits to what they can be expected to do. In those circumstances it may be wise to have a few students with different responsibilities (eg. One simply signals when an online hand is raised, another paraphrases in chat the in-person contributions).

Pre-flight checks

  • Helping to check equipment works ahead of a session
  • Role playing as a student in physical or online spaces to identify potential issues (from font size on display which may be reduced due to additional elements needed on screen to audio levels of mics and speakers)
  • Sending reminders, fielding questions about joining instructions and/ or seeding persistent back-channel (if used)
  • (Immediately before take off) Participate in final checks, guide students to seats (for optimal acoustics), assist with registration
  • Post re-assuring notes in online space and/ or backchannel- tell remote attendees when to expect pilot’s mic to be unmuted
  • Reminding in-person students to mute both mics AND speakers on their devices if they access the remote participation link (note: the more in-person students who join the online space, the harder it is to set up breakout groups)
  • Have links to all in-session and post-session resources to hand to paste into chat or backchannel
  • Serving drinks is not advised

Take-off

  • Welcoming in chat the online participants, by name if possible if group is not too large
  • If appropriate, facilitate connections between the two modalities- e.g. Volunteer students in the physical space waving over your shoulder into your webcam and the online particpants wave back.
  • Asking in chat if audio can be heard when pilot turns on their mic and be the point of contact if any technical issues are experienced
  • Reiterating participation protocols for contributions from online participants in chat (e.g. Raise electronic hand); how invitations to speak will work
  • Sharing links to or guidance about other channels of participation (e.g. Mentimeter participation link; PowerPoint Live presentation link and how to start simultaneous translation; guidance on starting subtitles in online platform)

Climb & Cruise

  • Flag ‘hands up’ to pilot at appropriate junctures/ pre-agreed times
  • Paraphrase in-room contributions in chat, especially where audio issues are known. Identifying the contributor (even initials only) helps online participants keep track of things
  • (If agreed) respond to questions arising in chat or at least acknowledge that questions have been received/ seen
  • Summarise/ theme remote contributions and questions
  • Open/ close and monitor breakout rooms
  • Send messages to breakout rooms that mirror in person instructions
  • In text-only collaborative spaces, add comments if appropriate and smooth facilitation between remote and in-person students

Descent and landing

  • Give opportunity to pose questions and commit to sharing responses if not addressed in session
  • Share links to resources, activities, follow up work or tasks to be completed ahead of future sessions
  • Seek evaluative comments (on connection/ access/ accessibility etc.)
  • Signpost preferred media for communications between live events and ahead of next session and where/ how to access any session recordings

What have I forgotten? What have you tried that smooths hybrid/ hyflex sessions with or without a co-pilot? Let me know!

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say on the subject of flying. There is an art, it says, or, rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” Douglas Adams

‘Basic Hybrid’ Teaching: Recommendations

[Listen 6m 50s or read below]

The recommendations below were synthesised from thoughts and experiences of colleagues from the Arena Centre and Digital Education teams at UCL.  Last update 6th October 2021. The recommendations are of course targetted at UCL colleagues but we hope there is plenty here that is generalisable to colleagues across the sector.

At UCL we are supporting approaches to simultaneous in-person and online teaching because we know that some programmes will have significant numbers of students who are unable to attend taught sessions on campus. As an instituion we have veered away from using the term ‘hyflex’ and opted for ‘basic hybrid’ to reflect the limitations of what is ultimately a compromise and compensatory approach in a time of ongoing challenge and crisis. Where possible we hope colleagues will be able to use alternative approaches.

Please note that the following relate primarily to basic hybrid that uses Zoom or Teams. Where Lecturecast Live is used to stream sessions there will be a lag and consequently very limited scope for interaction with those who are remote.

Pre-session:

Most important: Ensure the decision to use a ‘basic hybrid’ approach is likely to be the most appropriate one and that other options have been explored / discussed

  • Familiarise yourself with the log in and technical guidance and attend a workshop if possible
  • Trial log-in in the room that will be used if possible; if not, any equivalent room (not all rooms have the same configuration).
  • Try sharing screen and organising the screen in different ways- remind yourself what happens to your view of participants (in either Teams or Zoom) when you share slides or other content.
  • If possible, too, imagine yourself teaching in that space and think about where you will stand, where the mics are and what the implications are of movement.
  • Discuss availability with your department for PGTA/academic co-pilots (this should be a formal arrangement). Alternatively, look at building this role into the student experience, agree pre-session the responsibilities and protocols. Asking for a volunteer ‘chat champion’ from the in-person group is better than no support!
  • Recognise that any kind of hybrid is likely to slow the pace of the session so plan accordingly.
  • Plan to keep it as simple as possible, at least the first couple of times.
  • Plan opportunities for thinking/ processing time and (valid and useful) questions for students to respond to (via chat or via Mentimeter, for example).
  • Important: be consistent with and share the joining instructions (Moodle recommended) and include a comment about what to expect – remind participants that we are doing our best to support all students in challenging circumstances and, even with the huge upgrading we have done, our ‘basic hybrid’ approach is something we need to work together to get the most from it.
  • Remember: New students may also need some of the prompts about how to use Zoom/ Teams and even 2nd year undergraduates attending in-person may need support/ reminders about ‘ways of being’ in physical spaces.
  • Think about the affordances of secondary devices if you have them. A laptop logged into your Zoom account shows you what your online participants are seeing, can act as as a camera of sorts to show the room or objects and is also a camera that can be used for close ups of you as the presenter (note: the same does NOT work in MS Teams- only one camera shows up if you log in twice to the same account).
  • Wear clothes with pockets for the base unit for mobile mics where available.

In session:

an ink sketch of a griffin (or Gryphon)

Griffin by Gordon Johnson via Pixabay

  • Use ‘share’ function to share slides but, before doing so, consider opportunities for in-person students to see their colleagues on the whole of the main screen.
  • If you want to maintain a visual connection between in-room and online attendees you’ll need to partition your screen with some care and remember that if slides are smaller, fonts may need to be larger.
  • Online attendess will only see in-room peers if there is a camera open in that space- think carefully about limitations, policy and related issues before doing this (and seek in-room attendees’ permission if you do).
  • Use ‘spotlight’ function in MS Teams to focus on your camera if using a ceiling mounted camera (otherwise you are very small on remote participants’ screens). In Zoom this fixes the camera but also turns off ‘gallery view’ for online participants and does not enlarge the view so is less useful.
  • Remind all attendees that whilst circumstances may not be ideal, we value their contributions via chat, from the floor or via polling tools such as Mentimeter. The main thing to remember is one voice at a time unless in breakout discussions.
  • Value both groups equally – make a point of acknowledging online participants and their contributions.
  • Ask students to mute mics if joining online and if anyone in-person is also connecting to the Zoom/ Teams space they will need to mute both Mic and speakers. In-room students who join the online space need to be told to mute their mic AND speakers several times (!) or there will be audio feedback, echoes or other interferences. In-room students cannot simply turn on their mic to speak!
  • When online participants speak on mic it is prudent to mute the lecturn mic to avoid echo for online participants if using MS Teams (Zoom seems to cope fine).
  • If taking contributions from the floor and you have a mobile mic then moving towards the speaker may help in-room participants (but removes you from camera view and offers little benefit to remote participants)- better to paraphrase or ask co-pilot to do this  in chat.
  • Whole group (verbal) discussion is very challenging in this context and may be dependent on mics, bandwidth of participants and other factors. It will likely slow things down and feel awkward – find other ways to give all students opportunities to contribute (e.g. using a collaborative space like a Padlet, Jamboard or shared document/ slides.
  • Consider using an ongoing backchannel to connect in-person and online students (Teams does this but  Zoom chat ends when meeting ends). You may decide to use a Teams backchannel to support a Zoom meeting, for example.
  • Switching cameras to use, for example, a visualiser can be awkward so it may be better to use a tablet if you have one separately logged into the meeting which you then share from when whiteboard is needed.

Point of no return or return to horror high?

[listen 12m 35s or read below)

With apologies to both Bridget Fonda and to the killer on the left/ right etc, this was the title of my keynote at Kingston’s ‘Future of Learning’ conference in June 2021 and below is my related tuppenceworth in the form of 10 provocations on what we ought to be doing and avoiding as we prepare for at least one more year of uncertainty and change in higher education. I have been teaching online for 5+ years and integrating all things digital for a lot longer. Another way of saying that is I have learnt a lot of things the hard way by getting them wrong, wasting efforts unnecessarily and realising, too slowly, things I’d probably now consider to be obvious.  Everything I say needs to be set against that background. My position and my perspectives are informed by this. I did (and continue to), however, spend a lot of time supporting colleagues from across the disciplines and professional services and across the digital confidence, capabilty, enthusiasm and kit spectrums during and subsequent to the pivot online.

1. “Forced compliance” of 20-21 shouldn’t define how we understand online/ blended/ hybrid (or whatever the heck it’s called now)

post it notes from child to father asking him to be quiet

screenshot from twitter @mart_compton showing image with post it notes

When I think about the last year it’s a real mixed bag. If I can push aside the awful bits and focus on the work, I still find that the reflections are necessarily blurred with family/ personal stuff, not least because my daughter (age 9) was at home for a lot of it. She and I worked at either ends of the kitchen and my day was salt and peppered with notes like these asking me to keep the volume down.  This is emblematic in my mind of the necessarily different ways of working and being to what was ‘normal’. This tiny inconvenience is insignificant compared to some of the impacts felt across the sector by many academic staff and students, often struggling to find adequate space and kit to work with.  The suddenness and the necessity combined to create a situation where the decision to teach in these ways was largely out of our hands. Many have argued that the silver lining of the dark cloud that is still very much part of our lives is the way the pandemic catalysed advances in digital confidence and competence unimaginable in ‘normal’ times. The other side of this of course is  how the experiences of some teachers and students tainted many people’s perceptions of what an online or blended education could be.

2. Be (REALLY) honest with ourselves about what worked, what didn’t, what we developed and what we still need

screenshot from twitter showing child sat on a rock with the text of the tweet reading: (words Dr Verena Roberts- permission to share given) "My son’s online teacher has asked all her online students to find a sitting rock. Each week - they are are asked to sit, reflect, sketch, write & listen to the world. Pretty good example of experiential online learning to me .... I am so grateful for teachers like her"

screenshot from twitter-@verenanz showing boy on a rock

This (for me at least) is one of those things that sounds easy and obvious but is actually quite challenging. Do we ever give ourselves enough time to properly think? In the context of point 1 above, can we properly think without some form of scaffold  and/ or mediation? Do we have enough information to think usefully (and with opportunities for discursive exploration) to reflect with one eye looking back and another looking forward? This image really struck me during the lockdown. It’s from an academic in Canada (Dr. Verena Roberts: image shared with permission) who shared a picture of her son on his ‘reflection rock’. Time for reflection being built into the lockdown school day was a powerful reminder from a very different context of how learning does and should happen beyond those times we are ‘in control’.  So much was represented in that image: What is possible when we relinquish control; valuing the affective; encouraging liberty, creativity and independence. We need to give our students space and tools to reflect but not forget either that we also need the same opportunities.

3. We need to push against binary thinking and simplistic narratives

Those that are not so good at reflecting or embracing nuance or those with strong vested interests in a swift return to ‘normal’  may be inclined to push, echo or sympathise with simplistic narratives: online = BAD; in person = GOOD. From the very start of the pandemic I heard (and almost certainly said myself) ‘we are not the Open University’ but that shouldn’t stop us from being open to models they have developed and honed over decades of offering remote and online education. Respecting and heeding wisdom from OU colleagues and practise, then or looking ahead, does not mean we want to occupy their ground or to become them. To suggest that as a way of closing down discussion is, to my mind, often a symptom of exclusionary thinking. Widening participation means developing an understanding of some of the positive aspects remote connection enabled for significant numbers of our students. By casting light on possibilities otherwise masked by years of convention we have revealed what is possible and the after-image of that has burned deep however swiftly we try to turn off the light.  The best we can offer is impacted by so many variables but we do know that disciplinary contexts help define what we do; that one size solutions would only ever be a temporary fix and that online and remote options in education exist for a reason. Accepting this in reasoned discussions about what post-pandemic pedagogies look like is essential.

4. Lectures and exams. Always elephants in the room; only a lot bigger now

Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna by Laurentius de Voltolina

Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna by Laurentius de Voltolina (public domain)

I expect most have seen before this classic 14th century image (a screen grab from a very early iteration of Lecturecast) of students snoozing or chatting in the lecture and the one being distracted by a smart phone under the bench. They think Henry hasn’t noticed of course but it’s amazing what you can see from the front. The pandemic has certainly given us pause for thought about the lecture as default teaching modality (in many places) and, likewise, the exam as default summative assessment (in many places) has been challenged, not least by emerging evidence of attainment gaps closing due to assessment modifications.

I am NOT advocating (like some) the end of the lecture completely BUT it is hard to argue that content-dense, one size fits all pedagogies AS DEFAULT really help us realise the EDI ideals that institutions present with great fanfare as defining the what University  X or Y is all about.

What I am an advocate of is (cf. point 3 above) a push back against binary thinking on the often polarising debate about lectures and exams, for much more nuanced thinking and openeness to new ways of working. Of course, if we conclude that breaking with convention would be better then we need to work out ways to resource and support that. Failing to change because a. we have always done it that way or b. it’s too expensive are fallacious arguments because they appeal to tradition and cost (according to one of my teachers from secondary school). If it’s worth doing then we need to work out how to do it.

5. Replicating face to face models is not optimising affordances of digital stuff

postcard drawn by jean-Marc Cote in early 20th century depicting a video telephone system

postcard drawn by Jean-Marc Côté in early 20th century depicting a video telephone system

This image is called ‘correspondence cinema’ and is one of a series of cigar box inserts and post cards created between 1899 and 1910 that imagined the year 2000. Most were way off but a few hit the mark- this one I like because it foreshadows Zoom and Teams but also reminds me that one of the big OBVIOUS conclusions many reached at the start of the pandemic was how we could use these tools to replicate what was being lost in lockdown- the face to face session. For lots of reasons though this is less than optimal and is NOT actually a feature of well- planned, invested in, developed online programmes. What should the features be then? Well, of course, there’s a long answer to that but: Along with more emphasis on asynchronous ‘content’ and optimising live, connection time for interaction, dialogue, debate we need to think carefully about our goals, our contexts and where we can use digital options can offer something different, new, better or can give improved access.

6. Start from a position of compassion, trust and openness

A starting point, now more than ever, needs to be one of compassion and trust. We and our students are dealing with the trauma of pandemic. We (and they) have adapted to new pedagogic approaches and will now be adapting once again. At a local level this means building in time for community building and building on the affordances offered by both analogue and digital ways of connecting, supporting and simply ‘being there’. More broadly I would argue that we need to resist narratives that divide; push back against the us and them framing of lecturers and students; resist too the pressures from enterprises that profit from us surveilling our students. Plagiarism detection wasn’t a thing when I was student- I am sure copying was – but the world somehow muddled through. I think it gives a false sense of rigour and can make us less likely to employ tactics previously used (for example, ad hoc mini vivas).

7. Grading can be degrading: ‘Ungrading’ and/or digital assessment and feedback can have powerful impacts

I talk about this here so will resit the urge to thump this tub again!

8. Shiny things (AI, VR, robotics, IoT) are a thing but not THE thing!

I see part of my role as trying to re-assure those colleagues who sometimes feel like the expectations are way up there in terms of what they should be doing- in some ways ‘shiny things’ can be distractors (most are NOT doing this stuff) and actually act as de-motivators. Innovation should be seen as ipsative; that is, it is relative to your own prior approaches. I talk more about his here.

9. Why so much writing? Value multi-modal, value listening, value silence. 

At school- imagined future post card produced in the period 1900-1910 - often credit to Jean Marc Cote

At school- imagined future post card produced in the period 1900-1910 – often credited to Jean-Marc Côté (public domain)

In this post I ask why it is that the communication skill most of us use least (IRL) is the one that is overwhelmly pre-eminent in our (UK) education system. What will it take to offer more audio-visual options and content? My own videos are often rough round the edges though I tend to favour audio options over video anyway.  Also, as someone who talks a lot and is very opinionated, I know how hard it is to factor in thinking and wait time when you’re on a roll and, for many, that difficulty was only exacerbated in remote, online interactions. This is one area where (assuming we are compelled by the need to value listening and silence more) is something we can blunt force train ourselves to do.

10. Value the student voice but don’t confuse want with need

I hope this last one speaks for itself- sometimes what students (indeed, all humans) WANT is not necessarily what they NEED in a given context. Before you ‘ah ha!’ me by referring me back to point 6 above, I would re-iterate that I am stressing here the value of disciplinary AND pedagogic expertise. I’m definitely not saying we always know best but, in the same way a patient might have some ideas about what is troubling them because they can use Google or know someone with similar symptoms does not mean medical professionals ignore their own expertise. If students are pushing back against well thought through approaches or loud voices are demanding X when you have planned Y it may be because it’s not what they expect or hoped for.  Maybe, therefore, we can do more to rationalise our approaches and share the pedagogic approaches we are taking. Anything that gets us talking with one another and with our students about what we are doing and why is likely to help.

Dazzled by shiny things

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robot

One of the tensions in the world (worlds?) of digital education is between the possibilities and affordances of new technologies and the realities of tech use in the wider academic community. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that in room 1 we might be supporting the use of mixed reality holographic processors or robot simulations while in room 2 the struggle to switch on the AV equipment and connect a laptop is very real. It’s too easy for tech enthusiasts to sigh (or worse, sneer) at those that struggle with technology. I am mortified to think that I may have been that person on occasion, allowing my frustration to show by (literally or metaphorically) ‘grabbing the mouse’ from someone and doing whatever was needed for them. This is at the forefront of my consciousness because at the weekend I helped one of my sisters get to grips with a smart phone and chromebook. She is artistic and creative but previously had little interest in personal affordances of such kit so, inevitably I guess,  the last year has been tough as she was not equipped to connect with family and friends. The ’emergency response’ kit and approach we initiated has now been supplanted by kit more suited to her needs and new realities.

Taking her through the set up, scaffolding control of devices and processes was (for me) a slow process and already has required some remote support but we are exchanging messages and pictures and the effort on both our parts was very much worth it. It reminded me of some colleagues I worked with at the start of the pandemic and how they had to battle with their own sense of inadequacy exacerbated by often insensitive colleagues whose assumptions about baseline digital compentence in the student and staff body did little to help with the transitions and adaptations many had to make. Roger’s oft-cited ‘Diffusion of innovations’ (1962) curve gives us the pretty negatively-connoted ‘laggards’ and this does little to help conceptualisations, assumptions and, ultimately, appropriate ways to support our colleagues. Even with the impact of Covid, even with my own delight in shiny things (like the 360 camera I’m currently playing with) I need to accept that digital enthusiasm and competence is utterly diverse. What does that mean? Well, for me, it’s about being  open, accepting and compassionate and recognising that for all the gloriously shiny, attractive things we can do, those most in need of our care are the ones who are struggling with what they must do.

For the interview for my current post I was tasked with making a video (or similar artefact) about the affordances of new technologies and this was the argument I made. Video is 3 m 24s (warning: starts with LOUD music; skip to 1m10s for actual argument).

Image: https://pixabay.com/users/thor_deichmann-2306827/

‘Blended by design’ thinking

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The initial response to the Covid-enforced campus closures can be characterised as ’emergency remote teaching’ (ERT) (see Hodges et al., 2020 for detailed discussion of this) and whilst many saw it as a great opportunity to put ‘online learning’ to the test, the rapidity of the shift and the lack of proper planning time meant that this was always going to be hugely problematic. In many ways, conflating ERT with online/ blended teaching has buttressed the simplistic narratblue light on emergency vehicleives we are increasingly hearing: online = bad; in-person = good. This is a real shame but understandable in some ways I suppose. As time went on, I witnessed tons of experimentation, innovation, and effective practice informed by scholarship of teaching and learning. Each of these endeavours signified an aspect of our collective emergence from ERT towards models of online and blended teaching and learning much better aligned to research evidence and, frankly, what experienced online/blended teachers and designers had been arguing and promoting for some time. Will this be reflected in planning for 21-22 and beyond?  At UCL, the perspective on the near and medium term future is being framed as ‘blended by design’.

Given ongoing uncertainties AND the growing acceptance of the many opportunities for embracing many of the affordances realised by blended teaching, learning and assessment in HE (particularly in terms of inclusive practice),  my feeling is that a focus on by design’ is an important framing, as it counterpoints the implied panicky, knee-jerk (though necessary at the time) ERT and emphasises the positive and nuanced aspect we can now take. In other words, it’s not because of ‘forced compliance’ but because we and our students will benefit. We have more time (though it may not feel like it) to reflect on approaches that work in our disciplines and make informed decisions about how we might remain flexible whilst optimising some of the more effective and welcomed aspects of online tools & approaches and how that can be woven into how we will likewise optimise time in-person. It goes without saying (I think) that ‘blended’ learning can be many, many things but at some level seeks to combine coherently in a single programme or module in-person and online media, approaches and interactions. Such a broad, anchoring definition is helpful in my view. In an institution like UCL,  one size will never fit all: we are gloriously diverse in everything so it allows for huge variation in interpretation under that broadly blended umbrella (please excuse my mashed metaphors). All I’m suggesting is we open our minds to other ways than being, and to face, head on, some of the pre-existing issues in conventional HE, especially if our inclination is to ‘get back as to how it was’ as swiftly as possible.  With this in mind, I believe it is worth taking a few moments to consider our mindsets in relation to what ‘blended by design’ might mean so I offer below some thoughts to frame these reflections (as someone who has been blending for 20 years or more and has taught fully online programmes for 6 of those):

[the challenges to think about our thinking below have been developed and updated and were originally published  as an infographic here]

1. Reality Check

In our enthusiasm to do our best by our students, it is easy to forget that much of what we have done over the last year was catalysed by a global pandemic. We are still learning as we are doing and the fact that students did not necessarily sign up for an education in this form brings all sorts of new demands to both teacher and student. Whilst it is important to listen to and understand frustrations arising from this, we should also recognise thicon represnting a person thinkingat blending our teaching and assessment practices offers some new potentials but that the workload and emotional demands we have all faced could cloud our perceptions.  One positive aspect to think about as we start reflecting, is that most of us are building on what we did last year so the resource development for many of us should be significantly reduced (for example re-use of recorded lectures). The same applies to essential digital skills development and a growing understanding of what constitutes effective practice in blended modes. The following points all seek to underscore these as we plan for next year.

2. What experienced blended practitioners will tell you

The ‘content’ is best made available asynchronously. Students need orienting to clear, inclusive, signposted and accessible resources and activities that are, where possible, mobile-friendly. Face to face time is NOT best used for didactic teaching. Building a community is fundamental. There are a number of points here but all are fundamentals to consider when blending by design. In fact, they’re so important, it may be useful to re-frame them as questions:

a. Is most of the content available asynchronously in the form of audio, video, text? icon representing chat

b. Is that stuff accessible? Not only accessible in terms of inclusive practice but consistently designed, presented and organised  so things can be found easily and students know what to do when they get there? So, for example, do videos come with instructions on how much to watch, what to look out for, how to approach the video, how the information will be followed up/ used/ applied?

c. Are face to face sessions (web-mediated or in “meatspace”) optimised for exchange/ dialogue/ discussion/ questioning/ interaction?

d. What have you done pre-programme, pre-module, pre-session and within each module/ session to build community?

3. Different starting point; different focal point

(To generalise massively!) Content as ‘king’ drives a lot of learning design in HE but, whilst it remainsicon representing a crown fundamental (of course), we need to reconsider its pre-eminence.  Students who have chosen a campus degree are craving on-campus time but we need to be alert to what is being craved here: The company of peers; the proximity of experts. Instead of framing our thinking and actions based on a big lecture or lengthy ‘delivery’ and knowledge-based outcomes we need to open multiple channels of communication first. Another way of looking at this might be to consider typical prior learning experiences and other influencers on expectations of a ‘higher ‘ education. Most, if not all, of our students will know how to approach conventional teaching (a room, focussed on 1 person at the front, usually with a board) and can adapt to environments that have disciplinary specificity (labs, field work) because these fall within their expectations. New pedagogic approaches and differing or unexpected modalities challenge them to learn to ‘be’ in those spaces. We need to guide them. It may seem obvious to us but until we spell out ways of being in novel environments through our words and modelled actions we may be disappointed with levels of engagement.

4. C Words

If social communication is fostered first then opportunities for collaboration, creation and co-creation linked to the content and in an uncertain and unfamiliar context are more likely to follow.

5. What’s your portal?

Your Virtual Learning Environment may be the logical launch point for your resources but as youicon representing a map integrate other tools and settings (webinars? labs? visits? video content? social media?) you may find your are posting notifications and guidance in lots of places. Stick with one portal and launch all from there. Students need to know where to go.

6. No point recreating the wheel (as they say)

Before you make a resource or record a video check to see whether: a. You have done something beforeicon representing a wheel you could adapt b. Colleagues have something or are working on something similar or c. You can find something you could use in whole or part online. Find clear ways to link to/ share these and signpost explicitly. There’s a big difference between simply posting a few YouTube links and weaving directions, narratives and questions around those videos and then sharing them of course.

7. Golden rules

With ‘flipped’, self-access content that students will discuss/ use/ apply later you should be thinking of short, bite-size chunks of information. What are the ‘threshold concepts’? Don’t worry about high-end production in the first instance or the odd cough or interruption – these are both expected and human. If you have curated a lot (see previous point) think even more about how and when students will connect with you.

8. On and off campus connections

Whether time and space for face to face meeting is available or not, office hours, tutorial times,icon representing wifi feedback slots and seminars need scheduling. The more this can be factored in the better.  NOT scheduling lecture watching time makes sense (offers choice/ flexibility etc) but recognising that things work better within weekly chunks as far as planning activity and making connections is concerned. So, for example, I might ask students to watch videos on topic X sometime on Monday or Tuesday before attending an applied lab session on the Wednesday (I need to find out if there is research data on this as this is purely from personal experiences). With groups who are geographically widespread, fostering time-zone specific communities of practice will really help.

9. If you care they know it!

Insecurities students have about completing studies, technical abilities, time available etc. can beicon representing caring hands ameliorated significantly when we use time to connect, to show willing, to be available. No-one expects teachers to be online/blended education experts overnight but there is a growing expectation that we will have learned from the inspiring (and bitter) lessons of the last year or so and reflect that in the way we design and facilitate teaching, learning and assessment.

10. By design

To acknowledge, reflect on and then act accordingly means we are doing ‘by design’. Starting with the principles above is actually a lot further ahead than the initial, thrown together responses many were obliged to adopt last year. The blend is inevitable but a pedagogically- informed, compassionate and effective blend is more desirable.

The time has come to make your breakout: opportunities and pitfalls when using breakouts in live online sessions

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This article is co-authored with Dr Alison Gilmour from University of Greenwich. This is an updated version. The original was posted here: https://blogs.gre.ac.uk/learning-teaching/2020/11/09/using-breakouts-in-live-online-sessions/ 

“When explanations make no sense

When every answer’s wrong

You’re fighting with lost confidence

All expectations gone

The time has come to make or break

Move on, don’t hesitate

Breakout”

(Swing out Sister, 1986)

The lyricists behind ‘Breakout’ were prescient, as a ‘need’ for breakout spaces within platforms used for online teaching is often seen as an essential feature for sense-making, confidence building and helping students get to the right answers. They enable students to engage with each other in ways that come close to the small group interaction of face-to-face environments. As the dust began to (very slowly) settle after the emergency response to Covid Lockdown in spring 2020, the HE sector at large heard a strong message from student for more interaction (JISC, 2020). Student engagement became a key talking point in our discussions with staff about their initial experiences of teaching in the blended mode. For those obliged to teach with Microsoft Teams, the slow roll out of breakout room functionality became a sore point as they looked jealously at colleagues who could use Zoom. In fact, given that we had been using Zoom as part of our own online programme and could no longer, we looked jealously back at our former selves for some time! block characters talking in symbols to each other. Speech bubbles say ..., ! and ?

Our extensive experience of using integrated breakout rooms in equivalent platforms such as Adobe Connect and Zoom, has taught us that whilst breakout spaces do offer excellent opportunities for changing the dynamics and engaging students in different ways, they have to be used with care. This is not least in the context of webinar tools as  evolving platforms, as the introduction of  new features can inevitably mean glitches and inconsistencies. Imperfections or limitations in the ways tools work can also frustrate: The lack of an ability to record Zoom breakouts or for anyone other than the meeting instigator in Teams to use breakout rooms are two such examples. 

Always start with the why

As academic developers, when colleagues express a desire to use a new technology, tool or feature, we normally take people back to the question of purpose. Why do you want to use breakouts, and what are you trying to achieve in terms of your students and their learning? Colleagues recently explored the question of why we may introduce breakouts and the following were at the forefront of our collective thinking:

Supporting active engagement and interaction 

  • To enable students who may never or rarely meet, or communicate virtually, to work together.
  • To support student confidence-building through expression, and testing, of ideas within a small group.
  • To purposefully bring students into discussion groups with those whom they wouldn’t normally work.
  • To support contributions from people who feel uncomfortable contributing in front of a larger group. 
  • To support contributions from people unable to contribute due to the number of contributions within a larger group. 

Supporting active student learning

  • To support more interactive classes, with more opportunities for peer learning and less didactic teaching.
  • To enable more student-led small group discussion of a specific topic in a small group.
  • To brainstorm different perspectives and viewpoints and summarise these when back with the main group.
  • To provide the opportunity for different breakout groups to work on different sub-topics of a larger issue.
  • To allow a semi-private space for students to apply learning or practice.

Issues such as feeling apprehensive about who you may end up in a breakout room with, to what extent this space is ‘private’, and whether people will even talk once they get there, all reinforce our belief that this function should not be seen as a panacea for student engagement. If your students are quiet, not actively engaging and not turning their camera or microphone on in synchronous online sessions, the addition of breakouts could compound rather than change this. So, how can we set up breakouts to maximise engagement?

‘How’ Strategies

A cartoon style laptop showing a webinar in actionConsider for a moment the old and fondly remembered days of heated, mask-free and packed seminar rooms. After putting your students into small group discussion, what happened next? Did you ever find that after setting the ball rolling your next 5 minutes were spent moving from group to group clarifying, cajoling or calming? ‘What are we supposed to be doing?’ is not an uncommon question in these circumstances, even when you feel you have been 100% explicit in your initial instruction for the group activity. 

Now consider the difference between that scenario and setting the same activity in an online breakout space. Of all the potential issues, the biggest is likely to be students suddenly finding themselves in a smaller group, in a virtual space in which their tutor isn’t immediately present to clarify, and uncertain about what they should be doing. It is of course possible to request help, but the mechanisms for this are less obvious than getting your attention in the physical classroom. To that end, in any breakout scenario the following ‘rules’ are generally helpful to apply. Before putting your students into breakout rooms, tell them:

  • why they are going into small groups;
  • who they will be in breakout groups with or clarify that this is randomly allocated (if it is);
  • how long they will be in the breakout activity;
  • clear instructions for the task;
  • that what they say is between them unless you join their breakout but you can see meeting notes/ the chat;
  • if you are likely to pop in;
  • that they can message you (remind them how to do this);
  • to look out for messages from you in the chat; and
  • if you are allocating roles (e.g. note takers) to support the discussion upon returning to the main call. 

Avoiding assumptions

Even with this guidance, we need to acknowledge that we can’t assume students know how to engage with each other virtually and in breakout rooms. Breakouts can certainly be useful in developing student confidence in speaking but we shouldn’t assume that they will be either willing or able to turn on microphones (let alone cameras). 

  • You may want to have a pre-breakout activity exploring with students a commitment to ways in which they may engage respectfully and productively in breakout spaces and with acknowledgement that not everyone may be able to participate in the same ways.
  • We always suggest a note taker is nominated. In Teams we suggest that they use ‘chat’ rather than in-meeting notes (as then everyone in the breakout has access to them after the session, unlike meeting notes). In Zoom the same does NOT apply so it is worth considering where notes might be taken if they are likely to be needed later (eg. a collaborative document). 
  • You might want to consider techniques for determining if and how you will get ‘volunteers’ for feeding back in plenaries, and identifying this role before the breakouts.
  • It’s worth noting that a frequent face-to-face teaching complaint from students is that plenaries are dull, especially if every group is covering similar points. Is a plenary beyond a general chat necessary at all? Can you use the chat feature to get a delegate from each breakout to share two key points instead? Or could you use a Mentimeter poll to which each group contributes and you as facilitator in the main room can pick up on some key points for further discussion in the plenary? Such approaches mean that plenary responses are captured in the written form for students and can be accessed after the class or shared on Moodle.colourful representation in cartoon style of three laptops all with webinar windows openWhen designing teaching and learning for blended modes, we repeatedly emphasise purpose, signposting and avoiding making assumptions about our students’ abilities or confidence. In this sense, breakouts are no different from the guidance for any other tool or platform you are considering introducing to your teaching. Be prepared for glitches and having to think on your feet. In terms of pedagogy, it may prove for many that the bigger ‘breakout’ needed is from our own assumptions and mindset about how we teach and manage online spaces. Nevertheless, finding the right balance between relinquishing control and offering structure and coherence in breakout spaces can be tricky but ultimately rewarding. 

Martin Compton & Alison Gilmour (June 2021)

Ungrading: a continuum of possibilities to change assessment and feedback

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Introduction

I have recently had a few interesting conversations about how our approaches to teaching and assessment in higher education might change post-Covid and it seems apparent that ‘consensus’ is unlikely to be the defining word as we move forward. In a few of those instances I was talking about ‘ungrading’ and, judging by the more dismissive responses, I feel that a fuller understanding of what ungrading could be might help challenge some of my interlocutors’ assumptions and pre-judgements. In this post, I will start with a few provocations that I’d urge you to commit agreement or disagreement to before moving on. I will then offer a brief definition followed by some examples from my own practice and then a rationale with some links to other online articles (that deal with this topic more thoroughly and from a position of much greater expertise) before offering a rudimentary continuum of possibilities all of which can broadly sit under ungrading as an umbrella term. 

Yes or no?

  1. It is possible for practiced teachers/ lecturers to distinguish the quality of work to a precision of a few percentage points
  2. Double marking will usually ensure fairness and reliability
  3. For the purposes of student summative assessment, feedback is synonymous with evaluation
  4. Grades (whether percentage scales or A-E) are useful for teachers and students 
  5. Individual teachers/ lecturers have little or no agency when it comes to making decisions about how to grade or whether to grade

If you said mostly ‘yes’ then you are likely to be harder to persuade but please read on! I’d very much like to hear reasoned objections to the arguments I try to pull together below. If you said mostly ‘no’ then I would like to hear about your ungrading activities, ideas or, indeed, ongoing reservations or obstacles. 

Ungrading

As I mention above, ungrading is not a single approach but a broad range of possible alternative approaches and ways of seeing assessment and feedback. The reason I posed the yes/ no statements above was because the first prerequisite to trying an ungrading process is to hold (or be open to) a sentiment or value that questions the utility and effectiveness (and ubiquity) of grades on student work. Fundamentally, ungrading is, at one end of the scale, completely stopping the process of adding grades to student work. A less radical change might be to shift from graded systems to far fewer gradations such as pass/ not yet passed (so called ‘minimal grading’). A ‘dipping the toes’ approach might include more dialogue with students about their grades, self and peer assessment or grade ‘concealment’ as part of a process to encourage deeper connection with the actual feedback. Wherever ungrading happens on this continuum, it doesn’t mean not collecting information about what students are doing. By eschewing grades and rigid (supposedly measurable) criteria we open opportunities for wider, qualitative, multi-voiced narratives about what has been achieved. 

My toe dipping

In my previous role I was lucky enough to work on one of the only post grad (PG) programmes across the whole university that did not use percentage grades. Instead, all summative work was deemed pass or fail. The reason for this was because my students were my colleagues studying for a PG Certificate in Teaching in HE. To grade colleagues was seen as problematic for all sorts of reasons and even discourteous. One senior colleague said it would open a can of worms to grade colleagues who would question grades on all sorts of bases. This immediately raises several questions: 

  • Why is grading discourteous to colleagues but not to ‘normal’ students?
  • How did their status change the degree to which we evaluated (labelled?) them?
  • If pass/ fail worked OK (the only student/ colleagues who expressed disappointment at only having pass/ fail were high fliers it should be noted) and they achieved these qualifications, why wasn’t that happening on other qualifications?
  • Even if only appropriate with ‘professional’ students, why wasn’t it the default on, say, PG counselling programmes? 

I pushed the ungrading a step further by de-coupling the previous ‘gatekeeping’ aspect of lesson observations from the graded assessment process (each had been deemed pass or fail to that point), by removing grading from formative work and by modifying the language used on first submission summatives to pass/ not yet passed. 

I have also used audio and video feedback and sometimes coupled that with grade discussions/ negotiations and on others with embedding the grades within a multimedia response (harder to skim or ignore than text!). The biggest barriers in both instances were not the students but departmental and institutional pressures to conform to routine practice.  

So why do it?

“When we consider the practically universal use in all educational institutions of a system of marks, whether numbers or letters, to indicate scholastic attainment of the pupils or students in these institutions, and when we remember how very great stress is laid by teachers and pupils alike upon these marks as real measures or indicators of attainment, we can but be astonished at the blind faith that has been felt in the reliability of the marking systems” (Finkelstein, 1913 – yes, 1913)

There are two ways of perceiving the above quote I suppose: 1. The utility of grading has won through. Over a hundred years on, their use is still ubiquitous so surely that’s evidence enough that Finkelstein was mistaken or 2. Once we get stuck in our ways in education it takes a monumental effort to change the fundamentals of our practices (cf. examinations and lectures). 

Jesse Stommel reflects on the ubiquity and normalisation thus:

“Without much critical examination, teachers accept they have to grade, students accept they have to be graded, students are made to feel like they should care a great deal about grades, and teachers are told they shouldn’t spend much time thinking about the why, when, and whether of grades. Obedience to a system of crude ranking is crafted to feel altruistic, because it’s supposedly fair, saves time, and helps prepare students for the horrors of the “real world.” Conscientious objection is made to seem impossible.” (Stommel, 2018)

A century apart, both are objecting on one level to the claims (or assumptions) made in defence of grading: That they can provide accurate and fair measures; that there is no viable alternative; that they somehow prepare students for life after study. Although I admit I have not made a systematic review of the literature, it does seem much easier to find compelling research to suggest that grading has all sorts of reliability problems. Hooking back to my own (dis)interest in judgemental observations on the PG Cert HE, Ofsted (Governmental body responsible for overseeing standards in schools in England), the epitome of graded judgements, were eventually persuaded that the judgements their inspectors made about lesson observations were neither valid nor reliable. If such a body has issues with trained inspectors’ abilities to make fair judgements on a graded scale, it makes me wonder why similar discussions are not happening in that same body about teachers’ abilities to make fair, valid and reliable judgements of their students. One argument I have read to counter this is that it’s the best system we have for allocating places and deciding who is most worthy of merit – this is hardly a glowing accolade. In addition to this:

Grades can dampen existing intrinsic motivation, give rise to extrinsic motivation, enhance fear of failure, reduce interest, decrease enjoyment in class work, increase anxiety, hamper performance on follow-up tasks, stimulate avoidance of challenging tasks, and heighten competitiveness” (Schinske & Tanner, 2014)

And all this BEFORE we have even thought about implicit bias, the skewing of grading systems to favour elites and other prejudicial facets that are embedded in the assumptions that buttress them. Many esteemed experts in assessment and feedback are unequivocal in their concerns over grading and/ or the way grading is done. Chris Rust, for example argues:

“much current practice in the use of marks and the arrival at degree classification decisions is not only unfair but is intellectually and morally indefensible, and statistically invalid” (Rust, 2007)

For more detailed critique of the impact of grading I’d recommend Alfie Kohn’s website and especially this article titled ‘from degrading to de-grading’ and for a worked alternative see Jesse Stommel’s account and rationale here. For a forensic consideration of grading, including some interesting historical context I’d also recommend the Schinske and Tanner article

Deep end or paddling: an ungrading continuum

So, how might we do something with this? Without actually changing anything I would argue a good starting point would be to develop and share a healthy scepticism about the received wisdom and convention (of grading as well as many other seemingly immutable educational practices). If we read more of the research and feel compelled to act but constrained by the culture, the expectations of students, by the demands of awarding bodies and so on perhaps we could experiment with removing grades from one or two pieces of work. Alternatively, we might begin to change the ‘front and centre’ aspect of grades by, for example, concealing them, within feedback or inviting students to determine or negotiate grades based on their feedback. Going further we might involve students more in determining summative grades as well as assisting us in defining criteria for success at the outset. We may decide to shift to a minimal grading model or elect to grade only major summatives or offer a single grade across an entire module (or year?) or, going further still, use outcomes of peer review and student self-assessment to determine grades. We may invite (with justifications) students to grade themselves (see Stommel example) or perhaps explore the possibilities of offering programmes that do not grade at all. As Stommel (2018) says:

If you’re a teacher and you hate grading, stop doing it.

  • Finkelstein IE.  (1913) The Marking System in Theory and Practice. Baltimore: Warwick & York
  • Rust, C. (2007) Towards a scholarship of assessment, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32:2, 229-237
  • Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159-166.
  • Stommel, J. (2018) How to ungrade. Available at:  https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/ 
  • See also 
  • Blum, S. D., & Kohn, A. (2020). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (And What to Do Instead). West Virginia University Press.
  • Elbow, P. (1997). Grading student writing: Making it simpler, fairer, clearer. New directions for teaching and learning, 1997(69), 127-140.
  • Winstone, N., & Carless, D. (2019). Designing effective feedback processes in higher education: A learning-focused approach. Routledge. (Broader, contemporary issues around feedback and assessment design) 
  • Ungrading FAQs https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-an-faq/ 

Dealing with dissonance: now is the time for open, critical and mediated reflection on remote teaching and learning

The necessary, pandemic-enforced modifications that teachers and lecturers made over the last year have often been nothing short of miraculous. Most frustrating perhaps is where effort has been huge but responses (either engagement levels or evaluation responses) have been less than hoped for. I have heard colleagues desperate for a return to ‘normal’ and others very keen to hold on to and develop approaches they have honed or learned from scratch. Whatever teaching, learning and assessment look like next year, there will no doubt be degrees of ‘blendedness’, hybridity and necessary flexibility. Whatever our disciplines, it makes sense to take a moment to reflect on the experiences of the year and to consider what worked, what didn’t, what we WANT to keep, what we HAVE to keep and what that means for our workloads and impacts on our own and our students’ mental health (I originally typed ‘wellbeing’ but am starting to feel as though this word is being stripped of tangible meaning and weight). Anyway, so far; so obvious.

woman in glasses looking at screen full of computer code

image: geralt via pixabay

One of the things that has become clear over my years working in teacher and lecturer development is that ‘reflection’ as a process is not necessarily something that happens naturally for us all. And, even where reflection is happening, we can find ourselves (for SO many reasons) not modifying our behaviours and approaches. If we are going to properly address the issues in the paragraph above- in context- it may be that we need time (!) and perhaps some form of mediated dialogue to push reflection. As part of that, we need to open ourselves to candid and perhaps even difficult challenges to our thinking. One way we can do this is to see how far we as individuals (or collectively as members of a department, faculty, institution or disciplinary ‘tribe’) may be subject to cognitive dissonance and immobile thinking.

Without being immersed too deeply in the psychology, I am leaning on the language of ‘cognitive dissonance’ (Festinger, 1957good summary here for non-psychologists) and the ‘fixed and growth mindset’ conceptualisation of Carol Dweck (core ideas summarised in 9 min video by Prof Dweck here). Cognitive dissonance is anxiety caused by our own behaviours that challenge what is known (for teachers, a belief in the self and what constitutes effective teaching is important). ‘Forced compliance behaviour’ is the most useful way to think about this in the Covid context because the vast majority of lecturers and teachers have had to act in ways that conflict with beliefs and pre-conceptions about what equates to good teaching and what shapes us- what defines us- as teachers. Pre-pandemic, ‘digital education’ could be ignored and the research dismissed where there was no perceived need or obligation to engage. Clumsy edicts without clear rationalisation or evidence and behaviouristic award systems for degrees of compliance have often led to cynical compliance or overt resistance. Witness the frustratingly frequent phenomena of VLE ‘scrolls of doom’ and too oft-repeated references to ‘death by PowerPoint’.

hammer banging in a bolt while a spanner tackles a nail

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When Covid hit and the ‘emergency response’ morphed into something much longer, there was an inevitable and essential upskilling and mode switching but these pre-existing tensions framed persistent deficit narratives. When enforced, those most resistant (and fearful) are most likely to be subject to confirmation biases and this is completely normal and understandable but anxiety inducing and ultimately a barrier. Dweck’s notions of fixed and growth mindsets are useful ways of framing this, especially if ‘mindset’ is expanded to include departmental or institutional cultures.

Like many, I championed compassion as a driver and for it to be at the forefront of our pedagogy in terms of the way we interacted and supported students as well as centring care in expectations and sensitivities around how we worked with colleagues. I don’t want colleagues to be anxious! According to Festinger, to resolve the anxiety and stagnation, something needs to change: beliefs and/or actions. The pandemic forced us to change our actions. But to what extent have we fully embraced the wisdom of the research, the learning techs and instructional designers rather than ploughing on with what is most familiar (or a replica of that)? And in terms of beliefs, how much have we built in time for mediated reflection that can reframe negative experiences in our actions? Do we understand why some activities are more likely to work than others? Are our individual and collective minds open to the difficult questions of what scholarship and experts say- weighted against our ‘intuitions’? I have witnessed how the two big aspects of HE pedagogic conservatism – lectures and examinations- have been challenged. In some ways their persistence as defaults in the context of a HUGE library of pedagogic scholarship can be framed as an example of collective cognitive dissonance.  I felt that those that missed/ craved the lecture most were often those that suffered most; not because of ability or kit differentials but because of how wrapped in their identities the lecture is: teaching as performance. It is fascinating to witness how quickly debates about the future of lectures, for example, have become something of a false dichotomy, framed as: ‘your way is just fusty, boring lectures’ versus ‘you want to throw the brilliant lecture baby out with the pedagogic bathwater!’ This lack of nuance and this doubling down may be seen as a reflection of the populist zeitgeist but are we not supposed to be centres of research, debate and critical engagement?! We need time and mediation and space for openness to explore disciplinary-specific understandings, needs and possibilities.

large auditorium mostly full of people waiting for a lecture

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We can’t get everyone to change and shouldn’t force people to change. But in the clamour to get back to normal we are in danger of conflating the affordance of digital education more broadly with the experiences of 2020-21. What I’m saying here is as much about cultures and leadership as it is about individual examples of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Whilst this IS a challenge for colleagues to think critically about their work and thinking this is not meant to be read as a critique of that work. So, for people in my sort of role we have delicate job: I do NOT want to be seen to accuse anyone of closed-mindedness, entrenched thinking, suffering from confirmation bias…but that shouldn’t stop me from trying to push challenging conversations. How do I engage colleagues without the arms folding though?

In my view, those that are at the centre should be provoking and mediating discussions and debate around these issues; prepared to challenge intuitive discourses. Whilst I do not have the gift of time to offer, this is one of my goals this coming year and I want to take as many people as I can with me. I believe that cognitive dissonance is a useful vehicle for considering how powerful our mindsets are, opening this particular reflective doorway may be one way to start reconciling what has been a manic year.

Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. New York: Random House.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.