Tell ’em about the Honey…Mumford…

honeymonster-770x470

THEN:

Back in the day, when I used to work in teacher education, we used to dedicate hours of the curriculum to teaching our students the notion of learning styles. My students would all studiously complete their VARK questionnaires, we’d discuss at lengths the theories of David Kolb and Honey and Mumford (I always saw the Honey Monster in my head when they came up in discussion) there would be a post – VARK moment of self absorption and ‘all about me’-ness when we all chattered about how, according to our results, we needed to teach – and be taught according to our newly discovered preference to read, or listen, or ‘do’ / watch in order to learn, then spent another session looking at how to plan lessons according to our own students’ learning styles.

Ultimately, our classroom discussions would always end at the same point. That we all had a certain preference or leaning towards a certain learning style, but that didn’t mean we didn’t learn when doing something a different way. I may prefer to hurtle into learning something new like a bull in a china shop and learn through a process of trial, error and an emotional rollercoaster ride, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t learn about imaginary numbers while watching and listening to Hannah Fry on television last night. And I learned the first verse of Jabberwocky when I was a kid by reading and rereading it.  For my part, I always wondered aloud about the possibility of daily stresses and strains – how hungry we were, how thirsty were, whether we had a good night’s sleep the night before; how seemingly little things could subconsciously affect our learning styles. I admit to agreeing to having certain preferences – leanings towards certain style of learning, the way I’ll lean towards a certain pizza topping or chocolate bar, but not exclusively and solely to these: it’s important to this analogy to remember that I also enjoy roast potatoes and apples.

NOW:

A few years ago, academic papers, articles in education-based newspapers, blog posts by respected education thinkers, conference keynotes and TED Talks started busting the ‘myth’ of learning styles.  There was no such thing as learning styles, and to think there was meant that educators around the world were doing a grave disservice to their students, who had been pigeonholed into learning according to their VARK scores and  ill-prepared to take on a fully 360 degrees, multisensory world when they left education. BOOM!

NEXT?

A few months ago, a colleague asked me to turn some of her old teaching materials into a online package that could be used as a ‘flipped classroom’ resource. A large percentage of the content was around learning styles. There were links to online VARK tests, articles about learning styles, the need to tailor teaching according to individual or group styles, and for a second, I wondered if I had gone back in time. It’s tricky, and to paraphrase the old saying, you can can take the teacher educator out of the classroom…but my role is different now, I work in Professional Services rather than academia, and it’s certainly not for me to tell teaching staff what should or shouldn’t be in their programmes.

Then, two weeks ago I attended an International Exchange week in Finland. I noticed on three separate occasions that the theory of learning styles as fact was embedded in presentations from academics around the world. (Why were you there then, you ask? And yes, as promised in my last post, I will get around to that.)

And this week, a random VLE announcement from a lecturer in my inbox reminding students that their learning styles assignments needed to be sent to him by the end of the week.

Am I out of the education-as-curriculum loop? It’s been almost 8 years since I set foot in a classroom, so education practices and theories will have moved on. Maybe learning styles ARE a thing, and steps toward more black and white thinking are the way forward? (I always thought more in terms of shades of grey, hence my ‘leaning’ as opposed to ‘learning’ styles theory.) Maybe there are more styles that we weren’t aware of 10 years ago? I always thought there were just the four – but look! There are now eight learning styles! If this keeps going, we’ll have 32 by the time I hit retirement age!

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Finally, maybe, this is a sign of the times and a sort of low-key flat earth conspiracy theory? (DISCLAIMER: I’ve been watching a lot of ‘Ancient Aliens’ on Discovery) We’ve known for a very long time that the world is round, yet there’s growing support for the contrary. Maybe the same is true with learning styles too.

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Manners Maketh Mobile

This week I spoke at my institution’s Centre for Education and Innovation Open Seminar (#CEIOS) series. The umbrella title of the seminar was Adding a Mobile and Interactive Aspect to your Teaching and Learning, something that in 2018 seems to be as contentious a topic as it was a decade ago. My presentation was called Please Destroy Cellphones Before Entering, and the thinking behind it was ignited by a sign I’d seen blu-tacked to the front of a lecture theatre, where I was asked to show a group of undergraduate students how to access a wiki activity on their laptops, tablets and smartphones. Sadly, I had to inform the group that I couldn’t run the session as planned because of the poster*. Though, because of the size, (A4), only the lecturer and eagle-eyed members of the front row could read it: 

Please Destroy Cell Phones Before Entering

The presentation looked at the very black and white state of mobile device use in higher education. There is a ‘mobile devices in the classroom’ continuum with academics firmly rooted at opposite ends, but with very few in between. So there’s either a laissez faire attitude – let them bring in their smartphones, let them text one another, let them use Snapchat, let them use Instagram, and if they fail their assignment / course, that’s their problem (this is the end of the spectrum I admit to being closest to), or, as with the poster I saw in the lecture theatre, there’s an outright ban of mobile devices. This is usually because teachers feel that students’ attention should be focused solely on them – a reasonable enough expectation, but if you are wondering why your students are plasying around on Pinterest and not focussing on you, maybe you need to make your lectures more interesting and / or interactive? Or maybe, even if they ARE interesting and you ARE the best teacher in the world, maybe even the most captive mind isn’t going to be able to handle 3 hours of being talked at? 

Leaving contentious statements to one side, I argued that there needs to be a middle ground; a compromise. And while it’s true that research has proved that students who use mobile devices in lessons do not do as well as students who don’t, (see the presentation at the end of this post for more information), there is a need to consider the following: 

  • Banning mobile devices in 2018 is tantamount to cutting off somebody’s hands and / or forcing them to travel back in time 
  • Higher Education students are adults so by banning mobile devices, it could be suggested that we are treating them as children?  And if we treat students as children, will they respond by acting like children? 
  • A smartphone or tablet has an incredible amount of potential as a learning tool. So if you catch your student playing with their phone, is it unfair to assume they’re frittering time away on a social network, because they may be searching the internet for further information around something you mentioned that really hooked them? 

At the end of the presentation, I invited the audience – a mix of learning technologists and lecturers – to take the first step in drawing up a list of ‘Mobile Manners’; suggestions for how a compromise can be made so that mobile devices can be allowed and used in sessions, but without the current all or nothing approach.  Here’s what we came up with: 

  • Remind students that this isn’t a social space – it’s a learning space 
  • Be present: agree. Perhaps, on a Service Level Agreement with students at the start of a programme of study. For example: emails can only be checked at break times, important calls can be taken when needed, but devices must be on vibrate, etc. 
  • Give an informal breakdown of what the session is about: ‘I’ll talk for ten minutes – and I really need you to listen to this, then we’ll have a Mentimeter survey, followed by a group task for about 20 minutes, then another ten minutes of talking – again, I’d its important, so I want you to listen and make notes, then we’ll have a break where you can check your social networks / email / WhatsApp messages…”. This may be especially useful for cohorts of younger students 

Something that we kept coming back to was what could still be an elephant in many staff rooms: if lectures / taught sessions were more engaging, less ‘chalk and talk’, and there were more opportunities for student interaction, then maybe students wouldn’t be so quick to reach for their smartphones. Could lectures be shorter, perhaps? Could they be designed to be more interactive, with more opportunities for audience participation? 

I’m keen to see this list of ‘Mobile Manners’ take shape and become more definitive, so please comment below with any suggestions you have. Thank you in advance.

 

 *I did run the session – I was just trying to be funny. And, as usual, failed abysmally… 

Let’s Hear it for King Ludd!

imagesI’ve been working in the technology enhanced learning sector in one form or another for over a decade now, so I reckon I am able to give advice to the next generation of learning technologists without fear of reprisal. So here we go. Pin back your ears and take heed young Padawans, for here it comes:

Embrace your inner Luddite.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but your inner Luddite can be a critical friend and a bridge between you and any academic or teaching staff who are not sure or happy or confident about using technology. But before I explain why, I want to dispel a few myths.

We tend call anyone who refuses to engage with technology a Luddite, but to do so is to do a disservice to Luddites. Wikipedia says that:

“The Luddites were a group of English textile workers and weavers in the 19th century who destroyed weaving machinery as a form of protest. The group was protesting the use of machinery in a “fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labour practices. Luddites feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste as machines would replace their role in the industry. It is a misconception that the Luddites protested against the machinery itself in an attempt to halt the progress of technology.”

So they weren’t against using technology per se – but using it fraudulently and deceitfully. I’d change those rather pejorative terms  and in terms of education would suggest that we protest the use of technology for the sake of it, which is often to the detriment of better, manual methods. An example might be making notes in a class or lecture. Students could use a laptop or tablet and type their notes or take a photo of a classmate’s notes, but research suggests that the act of putting pen to paper ensures that a cerebral connection is made that isn’t made when technology is used instead, and the author is more likely to remember what he or she has written as a result.

Luddites feared that their skills would be replaced by machinery, and this ‘fear’ is now a concern that we need to be cognisant of. Referring back to note taking, handwriting is a beautiful skill – damn it, it’s an art – but now we type rather than write by hand. I adore calligraphy (but as a southpaw am rubbish at it), but the thought of it becoming automated -or worse still, dying out completely – terrifies me. Because if we lose it, we lose a bit of humanity.  So let’s learn the new skills the twenty first century demands of us, but not to the detriment of the old skills that bring so much joy – and aid learning.

Finally, despite what we may believe, the Luddites did not protest against machinery, and did not want to halt the progress of technology. This suggests that they were actually all for technology – but not from an evangelical ‘this will replace everything’ point of view. They saw it as both a boon and a concern – as something to be embraced, but to be critical of at the same time. And I think a good learning technologist has the same, balanced view.

One other thing. Earlier I talked about being a bridge. I find that academics who claim to dislike technology don’t actually dislike it at all – they just lack confidence, are nervous, and don’t want to admit it. Bridges can be built and crossed if we, as technologists, accept this, and explain how sometimes technology isn’t the answer, that in some cases pens, paper and talking to one another in the same physical space is the best method, and that technology is not a panacea, nor is it evil. It’s just another tool to add to our toolkits, to be taken out and used only when it makes things better. You wouldn’t use a hacksaw to hammer in a nail, and it would be daft to replace an effective old-fashioned teaching tool for something digital just because it’s digital, at the expense of effective learning.

 References:

Association for Psychological Science, (2014), Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension, accessed at: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/take-notes-by-hand-for-better-long-term-comprehension.html, date accessed: 1st March, 2018

Wikipedia, (2018), Luddite, accessed at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite, date accessed: 1st March 2018

A bit on the side…

51ENCRCE3FLThat got your attention, eh? 😉

I’m going to start this post by travelling back in time to about 20 years ago. Here, at the tender age of 27, my career in education started and I became an adult literacy tutor.

I bloody loved it, because everything I had been immersed in to that point had been about words and language. And yes, we take it for granted that parents and school teachers will teach children how to read, but there have always been adults who, for one reason or another, have fallen through the net, and it was them that I wanted to reach out to.

As my career evolved, it moved away from adult literacy towards teacher training, then away from teacher training into Technology Enhanced Learning  and BOOM! – here I am, your friendly neighbourhood Learning Technology Manager, who is still all about words and language, but who now spends her daylight hours being more about HTML5 and SCORMs and flipping the blended learning MOOC…

…the thing is, as much as I love the world of technology, I still hanker for those days of adult literacy and burbling on about how getting to grips with language makes life just so much easier and opens so many possibilities (often literally as well as metaphorically). So it’s with a Ric Flair-style WOOOOOOO! I can announce that I have made a brief return to the world of adult literacy by way of an on-the-side freelance gig that has made me punch the air with glee.

Take a look at this:

So here’s a situation where refugees and indigenous people are living and working side by side through circumstance rather than choice. This has lead to frustration and confusion from both groups, not helped by the fact that the number of international languages being spoken across the board is massive – and the blocks to communication this has thrown up seems almost insurmountable. It makes sense then, to agree to use a lingua franca, and in this instance it has been agreed that this will be English.

This is where the Avallain Foundation comes in. The foundation wants to focus on people who have been left behind because of emergency and change, and they firmly believe that education is the only constant variable that can be the key to going back to society, the community or the labour market; something I’m very much in agreement with. They are also very aware that education isn’t limited to the classroom and that new technologies and the internet enable access to lifelong learning at a very broad scale.

So they (we) are developing adult literacy and numeracy curricula at 3 levels – beginner, intermediate and advanced – to be delivered using a blended learning format. The content is embedded in the stuff they need to know – so it’s all written around food hygiene, healthy living, disease prevention, computers and the internet and business and commerce. And that’s not stuff that the foundation decided that they need to know –  they actually went to Kakuma and they talked to the refugee and indigenous populations to find out what the potential students actually wanted.

What’s great is that I’m coming at this from two angles – I’m writing the level 3 literacy curriculum, but I’m also learning how to use Avallain’s in-house e-learning authoring tool to develop the online content based around it.

This has been the first time since my teaching days that I have been involved in the whole process; my current day job means that subject specialists give me content that I go on to develop electronically. I’d forgotten how much deeper the relationship with content and with the final electronic product goes when you are involved from the jotting-the-theoretical-content-down-on-the-back-of-a-fag-packet stage right through to the beta testing the electronic resource stage.

I wonder whether this is the subconscious reason why some academic staff don’t engage with e-learning at all – because, on some level, they don’t want to feel the disconnect that comes when they hand their content (their ‘knowledge’) over to someone who doesn’t understand the subject area, but is going to go on to develop that knowledge into something that they, as the subject specialists, don’t feel they have much ownership of.  I certainly feel as if I have done a much more immersive and ‘well-rounded’ piece of work if I write the content from a subject specialist perspective, and then go on to develop that content using my learning technology skills.

Developing these curricula is a wonderful, fulfilling experience – but it has certainly given me much pause for thought.

It’s all Academic! 

academicWorking as a Learning Technologist (LT) means that it can be hard to feel a true sense of identity. Rather than sitting squarely in one camp – be it academic or professional support – the LT often has a foot in each tent flap. As far as my particular role (Learning Technology Manager) goes, I am aligned to the professional support framework, so I am a member of several administration-themed committees and working parties along with colleagues from our student data, marketing, admissions and assessment teams.

I do spend some of my working week carrying out various administrative tasks including but not limited to enrolling staff on our LMS, checking student alignment to modules, setting up rubrics in Turnitin and copying content from one area of Blackboard to another. However, I spend more of my time talking to academic staff about where to embed technology into their curricula, their modules and their individual sessions. I discuss with them the pedagogy of online and blended learning, the best methods to use to enhance learning, to improve students’ critical thinking skills and to allow students to engage reflectively on course content. I show academic staff how summative and formative assessment can be carried out with real accuracy and validity using digital enhancement and how web apps and smartphones can make a session more innovative and interactive. I develop online resources and modules for national and overseas students that nod to a variety of learning theories and engage users via a multi-sensory, multi-media, truly two-way experience. I also show academics how to best use a toolkit of technology-based artefacts to enhance teaching and learning and I explain why this toolkit is just so bloody valuable.  And if there is time, I spend the rest of my working week reading, researching and writing around the subject of education and technology.

I started reading The Really Useful #EdTechBook by David Hopkins on the plane back from *INTED2015 last week, and was struck how different institutions perceive the role of Learning Technologist in very different ways. This, I assume, has a lot to do with the fact that it’s very hard to categorise or pigeon hole what a LT is. ‘In reality‘, states Peter Reed, one of the contributors to Hopkins’ book: ‘the Learning Technologist is a complex professional (and academic) role, and its variations and derivatives have increased over the years.’  However, Oliver suggests the practices of Learning Technologists are ‘little understood, even within their own community.‘ (Oliver, 2010) Reed expands upon his original statement:

Think of the Learning Technologist as the middle person in the complex relationship between learning and teaching and technology.  Typically, the role involves a good appreciation of both elements.  Critically though, a thorough understanding of learning and teaching precludes an understanding of technology.  This is imperative, as we must first identify the challenges, within and of, pedagogy, before applying theory to practice.  If we don’t understand these core aspects of what it is to learn, or indeed teach, how can we possibly advise on how technology might be an influencing and enhancing intervention?  The understanding of technology and its place in education, for me at least, will always come second.  Thus the role of the Learning Technologist sits comfortably alongside academic staff within curriculum development initiatives with a particular focus on applying theory to practice.’

So there seems to be a growing consensus of opinion that the role of the LT is firmly entrenched in the academic side of institutional life.  This then highlights an issue that needs to be unknotted.  If Learning Technologists are working with academic staff to shape their teaching practice (and don’t forget, we have the word ‘Learning’ in our title), then perhaps we should be aligned to the academic side of our institutions’ lives?  That way we can help to shape teaching and learning with technology at grass roots level. Here’s one final quote to finish off:

‘Learning Technology teams are typically considered a professional service – some institutions, (which Selwyn suggests is derogatory) consider them non-academic, non-Faculty or ‘support’ staff (Selwyn, 2014, p56), but the very placement of the team can have consequences for the role and how they are seen by academic staff.’

References:

Oliver, M (2002), What do Learning Technologists Do? Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 39(4), pp. 245-252.  Available at http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/3083/1/Oliver2002What245.pdf, date accessed: 18/03/2015

Reed, P (2015) The Structure and Roles of Learning Technologists within Higher Education Institutions: The Really Useful #EdTechBook, published by author under Creative Commons Licence

Selwyn, N (2014) Digital Technology and the Contemporary University: Degrees of Digitalization, Routledge

*INTED2015 post-conference blog post to follow. Honest!