‘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


(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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Slides from Digitally Enhanced Webinars event July 13th 2022


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. 


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

image: stevepb via pixabay

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

image: alieino via pixabay

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.

4 mini polemics about student engagement and online teaching: can you change my mind?

Dr. Martin Compton – Arena Centre for research-based education

In the video below (9m38s) I present four interrelated arguments about teaching online. In my view these represent four of the biggest and ongoing debates about online teaching in terms of lecturer agency. They are, in other words, things we can all do something about, if we agree there is a need to change practices. These provocations are designed to challenge thinking and stimulate debate. I start with the ‘change my mind’ challenge because I am aware that I am as likely as anyone to have biases moulded by my experiences and disciplinary expertise. After the video is a link to the results of a Mentimeter poll showing a range of responses to these arguments when I initially posted them.

Please note: The video contains frequent ‘quick cuts’. If you prefer a simple, talking head version, please use this link. Transcript is available here. 

To see all other responses to the poll please see below:

Referred to in argument 2: Guo, P. J., Kim, J., & Rubin, R. (2014, March). How video production affects student engagement: An empirical study of MOOC videos. In Proceedings of the first ACM conference on Learning@ scale conference (pp. 41-50).

For a longer argument on video length by me, see this post on ALT blog.