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?”

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?