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… 

The way to academics’ hearts is through their minds

I presented the following abstract at Cardiff University’s Learning and Teaching conference on Tuesday. And no, I haven’t forgotten about those ‘gaming is the future’ blog posts I keep promising; other things keep getting in the way!

When it comes to Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) there has long been an emphasis on demonstrating how to use digital tools in staff development sessions. However, there is little evidence of other staff development sessions examining the methods and models TEL. Institutional directives request that staff use a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and offer training on the mechanics of uploading documents and renaming folders, but they do not explain the methodologies or pedagogic models behind using a VLE. Other directives require that academic staff embed digital literacy skills into their teaching practice in order to hone their students’ own skills. Academic staff are rarely asked if they know what digital literacy means themselves, hoping, it would seem, that the meaning of digital literacy is learnt and passed onto students through a process of osmosis. I would suggest that if academics and teachers work from the taxonomy of pedagogy it is from this taxonomy that staff development is approached.

Repeated reviews into the professional development of teachers and ways to diminish their fear of technology have recommended that staff are given substantial time if they are going to acquire and, in turn, transfer to the classroom the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively and completely infuse technology to curriculum areas. (Brand, G.A., 1997). However, lack of time is just one issue, and constant emphasis of the need to ‘find time’ merely distracts from the proverbial elephant in the room: that academics are ‘scared’ of technology because they aren’t told how it fits a familiar pedagogic framework. Learning technologists are expert at explaining how to use a tool, but often miss out the pedagogical value of the tool, assuming that the teacher will think of a use for it.

In response to this, I currently run sessions for teachers and academic staff looking at methods and models such as the flipped classroom, Personal Learning Networks, blended learning, digital literacy, the benefits of online communities of practice, and the differences between pedagogy, andragogy and heutagogy. We have debated at length Prensky’s notion of the Digital Native against that of the Residents and Visitors model espoused by Dave White. We have looked at the psychology behind the online learner and their need to feel part of a group. When staff begin to understand these theories and methods, they feel better placed to choose tools that are appropriate to their curricula, their students and to relevant assessment process.

I would suggest that there is a real need to do more of this. If academics can see things from their particular (and familiar) perspective, they will see what tools work best and then, if needed, be taught how to use it.

Technology often feels like something that is being ‘done’ to people via institution-wide directives, and not something that they can do themselves. It is now 2017, so the time has come for a change in thinking.

References:

Brand, G.A., (1997), Training Teachers for using Technology, Journal of Staff Development, Winter 1997 (Vol 19, No. 1)

Prensky, M., (2001), Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, located at: http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf, date accessed: 22nd February, 2017

White, D.S. and Le Cornu, A, (2011), Visitors and Residents: a New Typology for Online Engagement, located at: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3171/3049This, date accessed: 22nd February, 2017

Don’t be Scared of the Dork

fear-of-tech

James Clay wrote a thought-provoking post last week. Called Show me the Evidence, James talks about how: “when demonstrating the potential of TEL and learning technologies to academics, the issue of evidence of impact often arises. You will have a conversation which focuses on the technology and then the academic or teacher asks for evidence of the impact of that technology.”

James cites fear as a key reason behind this, suggesting that many lecturers don’t have the capabilities to use IT, so lack the basic confidence to use learning technologies. To save face, and because it would be mortifying to have to confess to a lack of skills, they ask for the “evidence”. This then enables them to delay things.

Weirdly, I can’t think of a single occasion when an academic has asked me for empirical evidence or to cite the research framed around my work. I tend to go about things the other way-heading the academics off at the pass because I am the one who is afraid to look like a dunce in front of them.

I delivered a lunchtime session to academics looking at the flipped classroom model last week. The conversation turned to the (still) widely-held belief that anyone under 25 is a techy-wizard, while the rest of us can barely use our smartphones. (A different kind of stalling technique, perhaps? It’s always academics who bring this up.) I offered some ramblings about Marc Prensky’s ‘Digital Natives‘ theory being a load of old cock-and-bull, and that Dave White’s ‘Visitors and Residents‘ model was more realistic and less ‘pigeon-holey’. The group liked this as it appealed to their academic mindsets, so I was then able to sneakily show them some tools while they were feeling more at home.

Another thing I sometimes do is suggest that the academic in question might want to try out the method / tool that is being suggested, and then write a paper about the experience. Again, this appeals because it’s more in tune with how academics tend to work. I think a lot of the fear that James mentions comes from an assumption that learning technologists and academics speak two totally different, and incompatible languages. We don’t, but it can certainly be hard to prove it!

The Desolation of Smug

Pausing to reflect at the onset of a new year may seem a bit cheesy, but I do think it necessary to take stock on occasion and the start of January seems a logical time to do it. So crack open the digestives and I’ll bring on the Dairylea.

A year ago today I was winding up my old job at Cornwall College and preparing to start a new one at Cardiff University.  Everything but the job title would be different and would involve a cultural and institutional move from further to higher education, a geographic move from a chocolate box coastal village in Cornwall to the middle of the capital city of Wales and an emotional move away from family and friends to a place where I knew nobody. Living arrangements changed more than geographically: having lived on my own for three years, after 6 months of living in Cardiff I had to adjust to living with my partner when he moved in over the summer. As living with someone means compromise on both sides, I’m still finding it hard to get through weekends without my (pretty selfish) 14 hour ‘Skyrim Saturdays’…

I realise now that the decision to move to Cardiff was, quite possibly, mad. The contract I was offered was for one year only, with only a small possibility of being kept on for longer than a year just that: a small possibility. I had signed a two year, full time contract at Cornwall College just weeks before.  And I lived here for God’s sake:

Charlestown

The day after accepting the job and handing in my notice I got a call from the university saying that because of issues with HR, my new role had changed from being full to part time, so it would be perfectly understandable if I decided not to take the role after all. Were I not such a foolhardy muppet I would have politely backed out, put down the phone and asked my boss if I could take back my notice. But….look, I’m not a spiritual person, I don’t believe in the ability to see the future or in any sort of sixth sense, but I knew that I wanted to work in a university, I wanted to live in Wales and that everything would be fine.

So, having left Cornwall, for the first two months of my time in Cardiff I worked for 3 days a week, enjoyed long weekends and lived very frugally. The department I worked for got the go-ahead to form a new School with a second department, and as a precursor to this happening, this second department employed me for 2 days a week, so I was now full time. Once the new School was formed, it was decided that everything should be built from the bottom up, so new roles were devised and job descriptions were written. All staff were invited, using anecdotal evidence, to match their skills to those laid out as part of these new job descriptions. I chanced my arm and matched my skills to those of the newly-written role of Learning Technology Manager and in November was told that my match had been successful.  So…promotion and a permanent role were both mine, meaning that there was no need to worry about being homeless in Splott after my initial one year contract ran out.

Here’s where I start getting a bit smug perhaps.  But this is a post for me, something to go back to when I feel like the village idiot of London (which is quite often, but probably something best discussed with a therapist) and will not be read by anyone else, so is as good a space as any to list my achievements so far in 2013.

  • ePortfolios
  • Electronic handbooks
  • Assignment Essentials package for all School students
  • Health and Safety training package for all School students
  • Online research module for all School students
  • Online palliative care module
  • Online genetics module
  • Electronic Multiple Choice Questionnaires (replacing paper-based summative exams)
  • Online and interactive Expert Patient materials
  • IPE digital hub

So here’s 2014 and as I adopt a Krytonesque level of smuggery, I can honestly say that working at a university is everything I had hoped for. I feel fulfilled personally and doors are starting to open professionally. I have been asked to present a keynote address at an upcoming conference and my School is paying for the dissertation stage of my Masters degree, which I made a start on in October. I miss my old home, but find city life exciting, colourful and incredibly freeing. I can indulge my love of live comedy, film and theatre and this year, on my birthday, I will be popping down the road to fulfill a dream of over 20 years: to see nine inch nails play live.

I still miss Skyrim Saturdays though…

Kill the Pigeon (Hole)

Whatever happened to individuality? Why are we so scared of people not fitting into a recognisable, comforting box of our own design that we feel compelled to design quizzes, tests, skills audits and questionnaires to force people to fit into constructs of our own imagination? And why, after ‘building’ such constructs, do we merrily label ourselves according to our learning style, teaching style, form of intelligence or preferred blend of coffee?

Educators, as far as I know, are reasonably bright, therefore I would hope, reflective, critical and self-aware people.  Yet I know of no other industry or sector as that of education so willing to pigeon-hole teachers and students with relentless head-down, arse-up passion.  As soon as another dusty, bespectacled academic decides that teachers are either dolphin or panthers (or some other mobile phone tariff), or that we are aural, visual or kinaesthetic learners, their thinking becomes reified as the new black in education without question.

 But isn’t it actually dangerous to look at our class list, see that we have a majority of supposed ‘visual learners’ in our class, then teach a curriculum to their preferred style, ignoring the fact that in the real world nobody really gives a toss how you prefer to learn? By mollycoddling, aren’t we actually un-preparing our learners for the world outside of the educational institution?   

 Let me step back a wee bit – this is starting to sound very black and white and a little ‘ranty’. 

 I do admit to thinking that we all have different forms of intelligence: some people are more practical than academic for example.  In my Teacher Education days, when talking about Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (for years I’d ignorantly refer to him as Howard Marks by mistake, then wonder why my students would snigger and mumble about ‘Afghan Black’ and ‘Lebanese Red’) I could see exactly what the revered Dr Gardner was saying: Take 50 people with the same IQ and some will be better at maths, some at languages, some at music, some at construction and some at unicycling.  These broader brushstrokes do serve a purpose: roughly defining who you are without the need to constrict you, put you in a box, stick a label on you then move on to the next specimen.

 As humans, we seem to have an almost primal need to brand ourselves as ‘visual thinkers’, ‘left-brain thinkers’, ‘dyslexics’, ‘left-handers’, ‘dolphins’ or ‘reflectors’, so as a result, as soon as another theory of learning is published it becomes doctrine without challenge.  If we, as teachers, are supposed to be so bloody clever and critical, why do reify without question anything that certain people say?  (Though I am waiting with baited breath for the day that Geoff Petty suggests all Further Education lecturers should wear day glo green because the colour makes students better behaved. Education’s cry won’t be ‘but how can you prove that and doesn’t this all sound a bit mad?’  It’ll be ‘What shade of pink should we wear Geoff?’)

 Steve Wheeler is, amongst other things, Associate Professor of Learning Technology at Plymouth University and a genuinely nice bloke.  In his blog, Learning with ‘e’s, he posits that ‘the teacher’s worst enemy is bad theory’.  Because someone with the prefix Prof or Dr attached to their name has suggested something, we should not accept it without question. Instead, maybe we should do just the opposite and question it before accepting?

 Actually, that’s one of the reasons I left Teacher Education.  I could no longer espouse this stuff (Wheeler refers to it as ‘folk medicine’), nor could I really continue my habit of locking the classroom door and saying ‘all that stuff you’ve been told about learning styles is crap’, as mavericks cannot remain mavericks for long (as I found out)…

Read Steve Wheeler’s aforementioned blog entry, then read the rest of his blog.  It really is good stuff and it says exactly what I’ve been harping on about, but far more eloquently.

Social Networking – using Facebook for Teaching, Learning & Marketing

The following article will be published in the University of Plymouth’s Blended Learning Journal next month.  Here’s a sneak preview…

There are those who say that only the brave or foolhardy educator would consider using Facebook as part of their teaching toolkit.  The knotty issues of friending students, cyberbullying and online identity sit like land mines in the field of battle and institutions, for fear of blowing themselves up, often find a blanket ban of the infamous social networking site solves any issues before they have a chance to occur.

It’s now 2012, Facebook is ubiquitous and as much a part of people’s daily routine as cleaning their teeth, eating Shepherd’s Pie and washing socks.  Switch Facebook off at network level and you can no longer stop students from accessing it – as the proliferation of smart phones will attest.  Take students’ phones away from them at the start of each day and return them when the buses arrive to take them home and you are effectively switching normal life ‘off’ for students and plunging them into the dark ages.  Surely this isn’t the correct way to prepare young adults for normal life?

How then, do institutions embrace this technology while ensuring use of Facebook as a part of teaching and learning is safe and secure?

Cornwall College decided to bite the social networking bullet when it became apparent that the best way to contact students outside college hours was not via email (which students rarely check, it apparently being ‘the domain of the elderly’) or through the VLE, but to go to where the students already were: Facebook.

The next step was to write a Briefing Paper extolling the virtue of safely using Facebook as part of teaching and learning and a Safe Use Policy designed specifically for social networking.  We wrote a short, dynamic and image-rich online training session for staff interested in using the social networking site, a checklist highlighting a series of criteria that teachers had to adhere to in order to set up a Facebook space for their learners, then sat back and waited…

…Six months later and the college has almost 2 dozen Facebook spaces used to sharing important course-related information, films, documents and links (and those all important messages to students) and to market the college’s restaurants and beauty salons. 

Whetted your appetite?  Follow these links to access downloadable copies of the Briefing Paper and Acceptable Use Policy, and watch a webinar that explains all of this in more detail.

LINKS: