I got bored of lecturing so the students quit me (and my take on the active learning debate)

I describe how active learning put me out of a job in a follow-up to an earlier post on how I scrapped lectures in one of my classes. 

This is a follow-up to an earlier post where I discuss running a project management module with no lectures and no traditional seminars – so go read that first.

We have reached week 4 of my project management class and I have hit upon a problem that I did not anticipate. To recap, the two students groups have 300 hours each to allocate to complete their project. I thought that the students might have issues getting their projects started and I also worried that the projects selected (an enterprise app and updating an open source strategy text book) would prove to be too complex. 

Besides the students using Zoho projects to manage tasks, we have a more low-tech way of updating status.
Besides the students using Zoho projects to manage tasks, we have a more low-tech way of updating status.

No the issue we have hit is… the students don’t seem to need me… at all. I thought that I would have to intervene to get them to pick projects, I didn’t. I anticipated I would have to intervene to get them to separate into two project  groups, I didn’t.  I was convinced that I would have to very directive at the start to get them to work out the starting tasks, it never happened. 

I have had a couple of short conversations about the number of manhours that the book group should allocate to find new examples for the book and another conversation with the App group of estimating the number of hours given they have never attempted this task before. Other than that, I have largely been reduced to making cups and coffee. This might change as the weeks progress and we run short of man-hours but I wouldn’t bet on it. I have therefore found it pretty hard just to get out of the way. I think so far I’ve managed to keep this in check but it’s a very different experience from the traditional lecture and seminar. 

Students are making really extensive use of their phones to track, manage and complete tasks - so much so we made signs for the door. 
Students are making really extensive use of their phones to track, manage and complete tasks – so much so we made signs for the door. 

So, you might conclude from this that I’ll be switching all of my classes to this active learning approach – well.. no. There has been a lot of discussion of the merits of active learning vs the traditional lecture but frankly most of it is rubbish. In a UK HUM/SS context that gap doesn’t exist in the same way it seems to in the US to start with. However the real reason it is an impoverished debate is because the discourse is centred around the perspective of the individual lecturer or how it would change individual modules which is a myopic approach.

When I decided to run this project management class this way, I carefully considered how it fit within the overall diet of the students – that is to say – how would it contrast with their other modules this year. So the debate for me wasn’t really about my individual choice but how it fit the development of the student body in the context of their course of study. Students should be engaged in a range of ways and to do that properly, programme teams need to think carefully about how everything stitches together not simply “what do I want to do?”

Getting students to improve the quality of your assessments

How to write better assignments in less time with the help of your students

One of the challenges of a new semester is ensuring that we produce high quality rigorous assessments. Here’s a quick and easy way of improving the quality of your assessments.

I teach a third year strategy module.  Two weeks before I officially handed out the assessment, I uploaded a copy of the previous year’s assignment to Google docs with students having viewing rights a week before. Briefly the assignment asks students to assess the market performance of a chosen organisation and make recommendations for changes. Students were asked to consider the following:

  • ·         Does the assignment make sense?
  • ·         Which elements need clarification or changing?
  • ·         What organisation shall the case be based around? Should it be more than one?

I then asked them in their seminar slots (there are six running in parallel) to edit the document or make comments on it.  

On the left is the assessment, on the right are the comments. 
On the left is the assessment, on the right are the comments. 

During a period of around four hours, the students made around 5000 edits to the assignment and I believe this act of co-creation had the following positive benefits:

  • It alerted me to problems with my own writing where I thought I had been clear but had not;
  • Most of the conversations on the day were student to student and therefore the knowledge creation about what should be in the assignment or what elements were unclear was self-directed;
  • The students had a much deeper understanding of what the assignment required because they had to consider carefully which organisations would best meet the learning outcomes and assessment criteria;
  • JISC talks about developing digital capabilities that will make someone fit to live, learn and work in a digital society. One of the key attributes is the ability to collaboration and co-ordinate activity in a digital environment. This works perfectly for that type of development. 

One of the interesting side-effects was that although I stated to students that they only had to edit it during their normal seminar time, many continued to edit all day or for many days afterwards. 

The end result was that many things that I thought were clear were obviously not and together we produced a much clearer and stronger assessment. I now do this for all my modules. 

I got bored of lecturing so I quit.

Well not entirely. One of the issues that I don’t see much discussion of in the academy is boredom, like refusing to work for free, it seems to be a topic that is taboo. The simple truth is I’m bored of lecturing, very very bored.

The problem is that my student teaching reviews go up every year (they can actually only go down now), I get nominated for a student led teaching award every year and have won twice in the last three years, so clearly this boredom isn’t impacting my actual classroom performance. 

Stagnation will surely occur if I don’t make my teaching fresh to myself let alone my students and then my performance will decline unless I shake things up and try something new rather than sleep-walking through the academic year. 

An opportunity for that shake-up arrived this academic year when I was tasked with teaching a new project management class to 2nd year undergraduates. The class has never run before and therefore has no predetermined format. 

So I started to plan out the course in the normal one hour lecture and two hour seminar pattern and… I just could not face it – and then it struck me, I just wouldn’t bother lecturing and we’d scrap the seminars as well

There is another important aspect to this – the need for students to develop the sorts of digital capabilities that the graduates of 2020 and beyond will need. There is a lot of discussion about the best way to embed this type of skills development into University teaching but to me what is obvious is that teaching students how to use specific technologies is not as important as giving them the space to develop adaptable skill-sets. 

So this is what is happening – I am actually doing a lecture (couldn’t quite get away from them) but it’s pre-recorded and the students watch it every week before attending – the first hour will therefore be us discussing what they saw and me clarifying and providing additional material. Ah but what about the other two hours a week? I’m glad you asked…


There are 30 students in two seminar groups – which is 30 X 2 X 10 = 600 man-hours or 300 hours per group. We lost week one to set-up and week twelve will be project shut-down and a party – yes you heard me, if the projects are successful, we’ll invite the sponsors and have a party – just like the real thing.  

Group 1 is the business school skunkworks:

The Skunkworks will be undertaking a project for an internal University sponsor with the aim of making a meaningful real impact to the University, its students and the people who work in it. Although some projects will be proposed, the members of the Skunkworks will decide themselves which project they wish to take on. You are our applied research wing.

Group 2 is the student led research hub:

The student led research hub will be undertaking a research project with the aim of producing new knowledge. The topic will be discussed and decided by the members of the research hub. You are our pure research wing.

 

The reason that there are two different projects is because if one of the projects appears to be ‘failing’ then members of the other seminar group will be asked to work as consultants to help the other group. 

To facilitate this, we are using real project management software – in this case  Zoho projects. The students will use zoho to monitor the projects and rack up billable hours. 

To get the students use to Zoho projects, we have a 'resources' project where we are discussing what biscuits we want every week. I've never seen a real project team work without drinks, so I'm providing tea and coffee every week. 
To get the students use to Zoho projects, we have a ‘resources’ project where we are discussing what biscuits we want every week. I’ve never seen a real project team work without drinks, so I’m providing tea and coffee every week. 

The use of the software has another function – In theory it is impossible for a student not to contribute because if they not allocated and do not complete tasks to rack up billable hours then they will be unable to complete their assignment because they will have no evidence to support their assessment. 

Every aspect of the projects is controlled by the students – how they allocate the billable hours, how they agree a project scope with project sponsors (if there is a project sponsor) – everything, if they picked a project I actually don’t like – well that’s tough – I only have one rule in my classes, we don’t lie to each other. I told the students they pick the projects and I’d be a liar if I changed that. 

If both projects completely fail, the students can still submit a final assessment because they will talk about the reasons why and compare to more successful projects and underpin that with theoretical and professional perspectives in this area. 

Some issues that have already emerged in the first two weeks:

  • I have had to make signs to indicate that this class makes heavy use of mobile devices. The students are controlling the projects via their mobile phones and we are writing project docs in google docs (on our wifi network, no charges occurred). To anyone walking past the classroom it looks like everyone is messing around on their mobiles, me included.
  • I had to buy a multi-charging station because students devices go flat. 
  • Students are already asking questions like “who owns the IPR?” which is a really good question we will deal with (them) and also is one of the critical questions that underpins the digital economy.

I’ll get into the projects themselves and how its actually going in a couple of weeks. If it all falls to pieces – well we’ll deal with that as well but I have faith in my students, otherwise what the hell are we all doing here? 

 

Teaching practice: Saving time with QR codes and NFC

How to use NFC tags and QR codes to save yourself a lot of time when students want to make appointments to see you… (less than ten minutes to set-up)

In a previous post I discussed how I make use of an online appointment system to save time and reduce email traffic. Here’s another aspect to this, how students can book appointments directly from my office door. Very straightforward to implement – I use Calendly because it works with MS Exchange but if you use a google calendar it works fine with that as well. 

This is simply a piece of paper I stuck an NFC tag to and then laminated
This is simply a piece of paper I stuck an NFC tag to and then laminated

This is all very straight forward – it contains three different ways that students can check my available slots and book in. 

1) They can manually type in the URL

2) They can use the phone on their camera to read a QR code – if you have never used this before there are many website that will generate these for free for you. 

3) Finally they can directly tap their phone against the notice if they have an NFC enabled phone. NFC tags are fairly cheap to buy and you don’t need any special equipment to set them up. Any NFC capable phone can be used to write to the sticker – in this case the URL of my diary.

The whole thing took less than ten minutes from start to finish and the longest bit was waiting for the laminator to warm up…

  

Saving time with appointment slots

A short article about why automating your diary is a good idea.

Since for those of us who work as academics in the UK system teaching is about to commence, Below is a summary of some work I did automating my diary so students could book straight into it. Since writing it, I’ve switched to Calendly because of its integration with O365 but the basic principles remain. 

The TLDR version – it’s a real time saver, students come to meetings better prepared, it reduces the administration burden on me and I prefer it to office hours. 

Summary:

·         Students were given access to an electronic diary for a period of twelve weeks which allowed the booking of appointments without needing to email or speak to the academic about their availability.

·         This system resulted in a reduction of email traffic/information overload for the academic and a more transparent appointment system for students. Informal feedback from students suggests that they find the system both easy to use and highly valuable in helping them to manage their time on campus and seeking advice/guidance from academics.  

·         This is a very limited one person POC, a wider trial of such a system should be consideredin regards to 1) reducing the administrative burden of academics and 2)  the possible positive impacts on the students/academics and wider universities and by extension areas of the National Student Survey such as ‘Academic support’ and ‘Assessment and Feedback’.

Aims:

The objective of the proof of concept was to explore what would happen if students were able to book appointments without contact or permission with me. The hope was that such a system would reduce email traffic (information overload) and free up time spent fixing up appointments to be better spent on research, service or learning and teaching activities.

How the system works:

As the student body makes use of Google apps accounts, it was decided that the best approach was to make use of the built-in appointment slot system[1]. The account holder simply decides on what time periods are open for students or others to book appointments and then the time allowed for each appointment. For the purposes of this trial, 30 minutes slots were provided to students.

The link to the diary page was then added to my email signature. Students when clicking upon the signature were taken to the following page:

The open slots in the diary
The open slots in the diary

Students are only able to see when there are available appointments and not appointments made by other students or any private appointments that are present in the diary. A student would then click on and book whatever appointment slot was available and then add some information about what the appointment was about. 

What they see when booking
What they see when booking

Below is the view seen by the account holder, it show not only the appointment slots but also other appointments and teaching commitments.

My full diary, students cannot see my other appointments. 
My full diary, students cannot see my other appointments. 

 The account holder receives either email notification or a text message providing the name of the student and the time and purpose of the appointment.  If a student was unable to attend a slot or no longer needed an appointment, they deleted it from their calendar and the slot reappeared for others to book. If a student (as many have done) had linked their university account to their mobile device (iPad, smartphone etc.), then the appointment would appear there as well.

 

Impacts for academic:

From a lecturer perspective, the main saving has been from the reduction in the number of speculative emails from students seeking to book an appointment at a certain time on a certain day and the email traffic and administration that this results in. It was made clear to students that this did not mean that I was not in my office at other times but simply that they could know with confidence that I would be available to speak to them at those specific times. Over a 12 week period, 150 slots were booked out and the attendance rate was 86%. Many students continued to simply ‘walk in’.  As an individual academic, I plan to carry on using this system because of the many benefits that both I and the student body obtain from it. Other academics  who have heard about the system have used it on an informal basis to better manage their time and it appears to be seen as highly valuable.

Feedback from students:

A number of students were asked about their experience in an attempt to gain some informal feedback. The general consensus was that the system was easy to use and was seen as much more productive than simply trying to guess if an academic was available or make a trip to the university for the same purposes. Typical comments included:

·         ‘no offensive to anyone but it can often take a week to set up an appointment, you set them an email, wait a couple of days, you email them again, then the original date has gone’ (Student 007);

·         ‘I don’t like bugging lecturers so if they don’t reply after a couple of days, I just try and get on with it’ (Student 003)

·         ‘It is really really simple that is the good [aspect] of it, I saved a link in my ipad so if I need to see you, I just look up your diary and often I can see you are free in an hour, so I book, stay on campus to do some work and then come up and see you’ (Student 004)

·         ‘I don’t understand why I have to spend so long hanging around in corridors waiting to try and find a lecturer. Most places in 2012 don’t work like that, why does this place?’ (Student 003)

Wider usage scenarios?

It is arguable that such a system may have a number of positive benefits for the individual academic, the student body and the University as a whole. In particular, such a scheme may have a positive impact on categories with the NSS such as ‘organisation and management’ and ‘access to lecturers’.

At present, the Higher Education system has a myopic focus on Teaching Enhanced Learning from a limited perspective of what happens within contact hours or from material provided to students via VLEs such as blackboards. It is undeniable that such facilities need to be provided and utilised to best benefit. However, the re-engineering of processes such as student contact with academics outside of the Lecture threat/classroom might have an equally positive benefit but for a more modest economic cost.

 

[1] A number of UK universities including the University of Sheffield and the University of Glasgow already use Google appointments for this purpose.