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.
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.
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).
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
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
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 revamped for FRA in January 2022 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)
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-@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 (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 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
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 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.
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 narratives 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 that 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?
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 remains 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 contextare more likely to follow.
5. What’s your portal?
Your Virtual Learning Environment may be the logical launch point for your resources but as you 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 before 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, 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 be 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 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.
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.
Without being immersed too deeply in the psychology, I am leaning on the language of ‘cognitive dissonance’ (Festinger, 1957– good 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’.
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.
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.
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).
The Reflect Educational Blogging platform is provided by UCL to allow students and staff to blog for teaching and learning purposes. Any views expressed on these pages do not necessarily represent the views of the University.