Teachers who care, who serve their students, are usually at odds with the environments wherein we teach (hooks, 2013)
It is very easy in a modern university to get absorbed with systems, processes, data and results that often de-centre the individuals that work and study within these systems. We hear increasingly of the troubling consequences of student wellbeing issues and of staff burnout, and the pandemic has exacerbated many of the tensions and issues consequent of highly-pressurised ways of working and being that are common in higher education. A pedagogy of care deliberately pushes against these pressurised phenomena. It centres individuals by starting with respect, trust, inclusion and relationship-building as precursors to dialogue and affective development as well as academic development.
even for the majority who do “care” in the virtue sense—that is, they profess to care and work hard at their teaching—there are many who do not adopt the relational sense of caring. (Noddings, 2005)
As a prompt for discussion and as a starting point to help us all (as educators working in HE) interrogate our own current practices, we offer the following ‘pedagogy of care (hu)manifesto’ which draws on core concepts, principles and ideas found in the works cited below. We invite colleagues to consider their own (and their peers’) practices in light of each of these statements, to identify tensions, challenges, objections and potential pitfalls as well as opportunities, examples and affordances suggested by each of the commitments.
By embracing a pedagogy of care, we endeavour to:
Humanise things! Understand the value of connecting at a human level and modelling caring
Challenge conventions of hierarchy and authority
Challenge the narratives and norms of rigour and educational ‘suffering’
Normalise learning through mistakes
Recognise that positive relationships demand trust: Being ‘nice’ does not mean being indirect or dishonest
Appreciate that dialogue is essential to showing care (and listening is at least half of this!)
Accept that humility and normalising vulnerability show strength not weakness
Show and tell students that you care- DO smile before winter break!
Employ flexibility, openness and welcome with office hours
Above all: acknowledge where each student is at and don’t enforce behaviours or punish recalcitrance
In the case of wellbeing interventions in higher education, lesson- learning, sharing good practice and building networks around ideas and interventions are all important, but it is also critical to understand factors that shape HE organisations’ abilities to successfully take this knowledge forward and address wellbeing problems. (Watson & Turnpenny, 2022)
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.
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!
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?
Consider 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.
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 pollto 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.When 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.
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.
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).
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