Assessing the Student Experience concerning an experimental sequence of blended learning activities, in order to disseminate good practice within the department of English and Creative Writing (ECW).
Interim report prepared for UCU Learning & Teaching Show Case: 14 March 2017.
Note: these are what can be thought of as provisional key learning points, and other lessons will follow after more scrutiny of the research data.
First an example of a series of activities – concerning child language acquisition – which was one topic we covered during a four-week online pod. Note: the students had chosen (or had been placed in) groups of around four. This particular series was expected to take one week.
The resources were:
- a section of the textbook being used in the module (3 pages);
- a group wiki on Nile (3 distinct questions);
- a recorded ‘voice-over’ PowerPoint presentation (12 mins);
- three 60-second video ‘sound bites’;
- two open access video clips on YouTube (10 mins and 3 mins).
The process followed in this series was:
- Step One: Read pages 181 – 184, and as you read REFLECT on this:
- ‘Because so many children acquire language effortlessly, it is easy to underestimate the complexity of the process taking place’ (Thorne 2008, page 181).
- The theories relating to this are classified in four headings: behaviourist, cognitive, nativist, & interactive approaches, so as you read NOTE what the key features of each approach are.
- Step Two: Make your first Wiki entry: What are the key features of each approach? (behaviourist, cognitive, nativist, interactive) and what are any weaknesses – feel free to add your own opinions.
- Step Three: Watch the recorded ‘voice-over’ PowerPoint presentation, which gives a critique of some of the ideas presented in the text book.
- Step Four: Second Wiki entry: How would you distinguish between ‘training’ and ‘education’?
- Step Five: Access further resources; three 60-second video ‘sound bites’ covering key theories; language acquisition device; zone of proximal development; scaffolding.
- Step Six: Access two video clips on YouTube (language acquisition device: 10 mins, and zone of proximal development: 3 mins).
- Step Seven: Third Wiki entry: Have your ideas changed about the strengths and weaknesses of the four approaches?
- Step Eight: Tutor feedback: a clear deadline (and promise) that: Your tutor will give formative feedback to the wiki after 18.11.2016.
Note: These materials were trying to apply the university’s understanding of blended learning as outlined in this online lecture:
While the experimental pod was running the team carried out research concerning the student experience as a part of a Learning Enhancement and Innovation project.
- The first lesson learnt was the value of taking the approach of ‘students as co-creators’ – i.e. recruiting participants who would be active agents, in contrast to just eliciting feedback. We recruited and employed (via Unitemps) a post-graduate research assistant and 8 undergrads. They all signed contracts and were paid for their involvement. The post-grad researcher enabled us to place a buffer of anonymity between staff and students. LESSON LEARNT: The results of these steps were that the comments were extremely full (20,000 words on discussion boards and emails) and very frank (a wide range of emotions) which will enable us to redesign the module omitting the major mistakes in the pilot.
- We had to remind ourselves constantly that the research was not to find out what actually happened during the pilot, but rather to find out what different students felt/believed was happening. So, for example, concerning a claim that when students emailed the teachers for guidance but were just told ‘it’s all on Nile’: there is no value in countering this with the tutors’ disclaimer that this request/response sequence never happened. LESSON LEARNT: What is important is the belief (and the sharing of that belief amongst students) that it did happen. It is important to remember that this research was carried out in the interpretivist framework
- In our experiment we created a ‘pod’ of several interrelated online tasks leading on to each other. This was influenced by our previous experiences of preparation of on-line materials for distance learning (i.e. materials intended to be more stand-alone than those in blended learning), and we were hoping to satisfy the university’s definition of blended learning. The student reaction to this complexity of tasks of was extremely negative. LESSON LEARNT: we should not try to use any extended chunks of online learning, we can get students to ‘visit’ some online activities, but this will only be a short get-away not an extended stay.
- For the above series of activities we believed that we had supplied clear instructions, however an aspect of the new literacy of the virtual world seems to be – thanks to Steve Jobs and Apple – that instructions should be unnecessary, ‘what-should-be-done’ should be intuitive. People do not read instructions, the expectation is rather that tasks should be self-evident. LESSON LEARNT: Hence online activities should not be too complex – in terms of designing an activity it is better to think of the architecture of a chapel, not of a cathedral! The more the complexity (e.g. number of steps in a task) the greater is the need for explanation; and explanations/instructions will ALWAYS be ignored or misunderstood.
- It is necessary to be really cautious of asking students to do online group work, we should not make students hostages to fortune (or rather dependent on other students: even with something as simple as asking students to comment/collaborate in order to produce a Wiki). In this pod the activities were all deliberately formative not summative, but this still did not remove the unease of having to work with others who have different agendas and needs. This was a very frequent criticism, and connects to the next, and largest, dilemma, relating to ‘contact time’ (see 6 below). LESSON LEARNT: Group work should be designed to try to avoid creating dependencies, and should not (as with a Wiki) mean that individual contributions are subsumed in a collective ‘whole’.
- We were naively confident that the materials – and the structuring of the materials – would satisfy the institutional requirements as to what amounts to contact time, and at the same time would be liked by the students. There seems to be, however, a fundamental (and ideologically based) disagreement: the institutional view is that contact time ‘can occur both face-to-face and online’, and the project team thought they had achieved this. The students, however, really restrict their definition of ‘contact time’ to direct contact with tutors, not with the materials, not with other students. Connected to this is a clash concerning tasks related to materials: the institutional view is that allocating something to read/watch without a specific task using this material would not count as contact time, in contrast some students were suspicious of such engagement activities and really preferred just to access the materials and bring that learning to the next seminar . LESSON LEARNT: Resolving this is an institutional issue beyond the remit of an individual module team: but it seems that a change of language is necessary, particularly when added to the next lesson learnt below.
- The students’ academic appraisals of their experience are heavily influenced by their economic appraisals. There were frequent references to what can be thought of as a ‘value-for-money’ discourse, and this of course is linked to a more general marketization discourse and the implied possibility of looking at (or recommending) alternatives (which is what markets are all about). Linked to this was a finding that teacher input to the creation of online activities remains invisible to students: face-to-face activity is seen, but online materials preparation (and even online feedback) passes unnoticed. LESSON LEARNT: Again this is an institutional issue beyond the remit of an individual module team: but it seems that it is vital to reassure students that the attention they receive is not being watered down. Once again it is necessary to remind ourselves that in this context it is the ‘interpretivist’ framework that counts.
How will we take this forward?
- The module will be redesigned for 2017-2018, and the lessons learnt will be shared with other members of the English and Creative Writing team, and at the ILT conference in May.
- An overall plan of the redesigned module will be shared with the students who participated in the research.
- We will seek to publish several journal articles arising from the research.
- The redesigned module will make a more limited use of online activities than had initially been planned (around 15 – 20%), and these will be dispersed throughout the course in order to maintain student:teacher contact.
- Online activities will each only involve one or two steps, rather than chunks of interconnected tasks.
- Any group tasks will be in self-elected groups, will only involve one or two steps, and will not be summative.
- Tasks will be designed to be as intuitive and self-explanatory as possible, with any instructions being embedded within the tasks, as and when needed.
- We will try to escape the megalithic imposition of VLE-thinking, and keep things simple! Just because you can (technically) do it does not mean that you (pedagogically) have to do it!
 The instructions on the Wiki included: ‘You need to add comments/ideas to all three sections, but in addition you should respond to the postings by the other people in your group: for example you can ask for clarifications, or give examples, or start a discussion if your ideas are different. As a group you are collaborating to create one finished text, so you should add your ideas directly onto this evolving page using the ‘Edit Wiki Content’ button.’
 One example: ‘I feel as though it would be much better if it were individual tasks as online activities. It is more practical and not as frustrating as group work. I prefer the discussions we have in class, as it’s more interactive and fun to hear everyone’s perspective’. Another example: ‘The issue for me is the online group work, I find this ineffective. It requires a level of responsibility, the fact that the grades arent individual, based on group input means that many wait for the next person. Discussing has its benefits yes, but I feel that the submissions should be individual, however they are submitted.’
 There are lots of caveats concerning this: the lecture referred to earlier states the need for ‘structured, integrated, scaffolded, tutor-designed learning activities that enable students to meet learning outcomes within a specific timeframe’ … ‘Expected to include an appropriate balance of learner-tutor, learner-learner, and learner-content interactions’.
 One example: ‘Contact time for me is basically the time in which I am getting information, explanations and help from the lecturer, either in lectures themselves in direct form or afterwards face-to-face or on email in conversation form.’
 One example: ‘I just felt as if I was copying out the textbook and reordering the words, which didn’t really help me learn any more than if I had just read the textbook. … . All that the lectures and the Online pod do/did, is just reinforce/restate what the homework reading already told me.’
 One example: ‘I didn’t pay thousands of pounds to watch videos on YouTube when I have been doing this for years now. I did, indeed, learn things, but for free. I would rather be in class for two hours, do research and get something done, or make these online activities a little more ‘challenging’. If anything, I opt for one-on-one tutorials.’
 One example: ‘Also why are we paying money to the Uni and to lecturers when they’re technically not teaching us but relying on us to teach ourselves? If that’s what I wanted to do I wouldn’t be here. I should be paying myself instead’. Another example: ‘I think it will be an element to teaching, but won’t replace face-to-face. As a student (of any age) there is nothing better than face-to-face with a teacher. You can be fully engaged with lessons, your work and teaching as a whole if you have someone explaining it to you, rather than have it written on a screen. People are less-likely to be motivated (to learn) if they see that all the teacher has done, is put the work on a computer.’