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One of the most enjoyable and inspiring books I have read this year has been Sir Ken Robinson's "Out of our Minds"  and my ref...

Friday, 16 October 2020

A swan song


My final teaching commitments before I retire are fully online. I have taken on 2 groups of Business School Master's level students of Management who would like to learn some French, some are absolute beginners, some have experience or speak another romance language. This is not for credit, it is an optional course for which the resources have already been placed on a moodle course and which has previously been provided as a face to face experience. Attendance is the only criteria for assessment. There are over 100 students on the class and all share access to the moodle environment. They are not grouped in any way, all can see everything. I have about 40 of them and this week I met them for the first time in a Microsoft Teams channel I set up for our synchronous sessions. There will be 8 weeks @ 2 hours a week, all running at night. They are joining me from wherever they happen to be right know due to covid, some in Warwick, many in Asia. 

Anyone reading this with any teaching experience will be able to decode what I have just described - a highway to hell in teaching terms! A hiding to nothing perhaps. Putting to one side the pedagogical challenges of designing for this mixed ability, time poor group of students I would like to capture here some of the many issues that present themselves in the light of my rich experience of teaching with technology. 

Closing psychological distance matters.

In a physical classroom there are many techniques I use to do this. Some may call them ice breaker activities but they go beyond the "first impressions" stage in a language class. My constraints in this setting are imposed by the requirement to teach using MS Teams. This (like many of the tools institutions provide for teaching) is not designed for teachers. It is cobbled together from the leftovers of tools created and sold to businesses, often with the tagline that they are solutions to better team work. In MS Teams case it remixes a huge investment made in buying Skype (see this from 2011) with the extensive use of MS Office 365 in HEIs. Recouping return on investment whilst claiming to be a covid solution. So, once the students have their email address (courtesy of Office) they can join a Teams channel and hold meetings. So far so business like. They can even join as a guest but they will then have restricted access. However, in a teaching context where one is trying to establish a collegiate, collaborative and welcoming environment this just increases the work the teacher must do. Student names appear in the room in surname/first name order. Many of my students have very long names, meaning is is very difficult to see their first name in the participant pane, so I have to cross reference with a separate spreadsheet to avoid mistakenly speaking to people using their surname. No possible renaming as we have in zoom, no freedom for students to access under a name of their choice. Reminiscent of a public school classroom from the era of Jeeves and Wooster. So far so colonial.

Feeling at home.

The combination of a Teams space and a moodle course means that tutor time has to be invested in a guided tour. Despite already having a recorded version of this prepared before I started teaching, most had not seen it and so some serious hand holding was needed. I used screenshare to show everyone around both spaces, sharing links in the chat so they could investigate further. I designed a task in sub teams (group work within MS teams) for students to input into a notepad shared document how they wish to use our precious time together. This gave them experience of jumping into a different virtual room and collaborating together. This is do-able in Teams and by and large we got through it but it is very clunky compared to the interfaces I am used to for breakout rooms (in Zoom/Bb Collaborate for example). No quick room allocation through drag and drop, no one-stop recall message to call everyone back in 5 mins, instead I visited each room in turn to invite them back the main room, interrupting whatever they were doing to demand their presence. I certainly didn't feel at home. 

Emotions matter. 

We know that learning is positively or adversely affected by one's emotions. Most virtual rooms acknowledge this by offering a range of emoticons or reaction images which participants can use during conversations, giving a guide to the "room temperature". In MS Teams you can raise your hand and just like in school you can be ignored! It is not easy to navigate through a large group of students in order to ensure everyone feels heard. I became very reliant on good old fashioned teaching skills - namely my voice - to inject warm and welcoming vibes and encourage everyone to use the chat so I could deal with their queries. People who don't feel heard just get noisier or withdraw. Another cultural reference came to my head: Joyce Grenfell.  Those were not the days! Of course there were individuals for whom I didn't have a Warwick email address and they couldn't participate in the group activity as their guest status prevented them from seeing the subgroups. More work for me to sort out and update their details and more disappointment for them. It is lonely when you can't get through the door. 

So all in all, this term will be a challenging one. One where I am constantly reminded that my 10 years of experience through virtual exchange, although it has equipped me for anything, has failed to result in evidence informed technological provision for great teaching and learning. Plus ├ža change! 

Saturday, 22 August 2020

#eurocallgathering A meaningful mission on my road to retirement


Summer 2020 was to mark my the end of my teaching at Warwick. I plan to retire at year end and didn't want to leave the next cohort part way through their learning. These were just plans in my head, but they were of course affected by the arrival of a global pandemic - forecast for some years by experts and yet unexpected by the UK Government, which of course had their eyes only on the earning potential presented by their #brexit agenda. 

As it became apparent that we would not be able to travel easily, thoughts turned to how we could maintain some continuity in the Eurocall community which is almost entirely supported through an annual conference, already some way into planning to take place in Copenhagen. A difficult decision was made, we would not be able to go ahead. I had been co-opted to the board of Eurocall in 2018 and this organisation has a special place in my heart. 

As an early adopter of technology for language teaching and learning I had become aware early in my career that there was a group of academics who researched in this area. As a teacher, even as a head of subject I didn't have resources to enable me to join a physical conference. I read some of their work and attended local training events in Warwickshire but back then there was no easy access to information through the internet. In the 90's, when Eurocall was founded I used CD-ROMs such as Granville in my teaching. Later in my career, having moved to work in Higher Education I was able to track down Graham Davies, thanks to his ICT4LT website and twitter. I contacted him in 2010 as I had taken on a role to support staff development at Warwick Language Centre and he kindly agreed to speak to our teachers in his Second Life persona. Even with my very rudimentary skills in Second Life I was able to get my avatar to wear a Eurocall t-shirt! Warwick language tutors listened to Graham together and discussed how we could further embed technology in our teaching practice. I felt I was offering them the chance to connect with the leading edge of research and those with most experience. 

Graham and I shared a love of Europe and the need to support language learning:

Sadly Graham died 2 year later. I attended a celebration of his life in Second Life, a really moving event. He cared deeply for the fellowship he found in EuroCALL and I felt honoured to be able to pick up his legacy through working on the virtual strand blog. I felt that the challenges I had faced as a young teacher would not be going away. The opportunity to make the work of Eurocall more open and accessible to all who supported language learning was one I could not resist. For me this was personal

The idea of the #eurocallgathering event was born of the challenges presented by covid19 in 2020. 10 years after Graham had spoken to our teachers, I put a plan together to use the under-utilised capacity of our G Suite to ensure that we could still get the community together. I set up a site a hashtag and a You Tube channel and spent the summer months pulling it all together. Thanks to the support of the executive, the conference committee was able to transfer much of the planned event online. We didn't have the joy of visiting Copenhagen but we were able to share our work and and fellowship for two packed online days which will also leave a legacy behind them for others to find. 

The wide range of research which is generated by this community continues and #eurocallagathering only shows a small cross section and much of my work continues with UNICollaboration which was born out of the work supported by Eurocall. The stream is widening, as John Gillespie pointed out in his keynote 

Thursday, 2 July 2020

SEDA panel: Educational development and learning technology - challenges and opportunities.

Screenshot from my Google music app.

Since lockdown my usual gym trip in the mornings has been replaced by time spent on my exercise bike in the back garden listening to my music and making the most of the warm  weather. My playlists have often thrown up some very apposite songs which have framed my reflections on work. This coming week I have been invited to contribute to a panel discussion hosted by SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and as I will have just 5 minutes I have decided to put further detail here for anyone wishing to follow up on my thoughts, which will be particularly drawing on my experience as a language educator. 

Firstly to frame my contribution please read the executive summary of this report. It is prefaced by this statement from Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) regarding why we need to direct greater attention to language learning in the UK because:

"the decline in Languages is so great and because there is so much uncertainty about the UK’s future place in the world."

Many of us working in languages have seen the challenges coming over many years and have been pushing for greater recognition of the demands that come with the contextual shift happening in our domain of intercultural communications. Covid19 has brought this into sharper focus, revealing the capacity gap for leadership in effective online language learning and teaching in HEIs. It is not all bad news though - there are many opportunities ahead. 

CALL (Computer-assisted language learning) and CMC (computer-mediated communication) have a good deal of literature to support professional development. The rise in virtual exchange, backed by research and financial support from the European Commission, offers skills development which empowers educators  and a range of activities for students unable to travel due to the current crisis. This learning is being shared across disciplines through a new academic organisation, UNICollaboration

When learning design is applied to the "new normal" of online or blended learning it is necessary to return to first principles and re-examine what you do with your students, why and how you do it. If you are spending your summer figuring this out, I suggest starting as a student - join a mooc . Establish your own professional online identity to reduce the psychological distance that is now part of how we must live and work. An important part of this preparation includes understanding copyright and ownership of your intellectual property. The Association for Learning Technology have brought together a great set of resources to help you

Creating interesting and inspiring digital learning materials which will enthuse your learners may well include some advanced produsage. It will certainly require critical digital literacies in order to ask difficult questions of your academic technologists and question the institutional status quo. You may wish to consider working as an open educational practitioner. 

This video illustrates the size of the challenge. Time now brings a new context to this recording which includes a section about Brazil's leadership in this area before Bolsonaro. 

Take a look at your own learning, explore heutagogy and reflect on the opportunities that the digital domain and open educational practice offer to you and your students. This could be a summer of transformation. 

Thursday, 14 May 2020

How important is measurement?

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Last August I started incorporating regular visits to the local gym in my routine. Aware that I am not getting any younger and that my work has included substantial periods of time sitting at a screen I really needed to include more physical activity in my life. All was going great, then came lockdown. Fortunately I have an exercise bike and thanks to the lovely weather I have been able to set up a little home gym to keep things moving but I am aware that the balance has tipped somewhat as all my teaching, interaction with colleagues and social life is now screen based. My husband has started leaving the scales out in the bathroom to draw my attention to the need to review the effects of lockdown lasagne and increased home baking..I studiously avoid the hint as I know what is going on and don't need another cause of stress in my life right now. 

Last night's #LTHEchat  gave rise to a tangential conversation (as it often does) about the National Student Survey (NSS) and measuring student engagement/enjoyment of learning. Of course metrics have been the focus of much in education over recent years with many calling on empirical evidence as a basis for change. A suggestion that the NSS results could include emotional engagement information brought strong reactions;

and a call to discuss such surveys in a future chat. This prompted me to reflect a little on measurement in general. There is a tendency to assume that opposition to measurement comes from a desire to hide away from investigation. I do not believe this to be at all justified in education. Most practitioners want to understand how people find their teaching, we have in interest in knowing what works and what doesn't. There is little satisfaction in working away blindly without feedback. However let's not be naive, we need to know the purpose of such measurements. We need to understand the basis of the judgements and how they will be interpreted. For those working in education measurements and metrics have been used not to inform but to be interpreted selectively in order to advance certain agendas. Used to reduce the costs of teaching by removing experienced practitioners in favour of cheaper labour without a thought for how new practitioners will be supported. Used to pit head teachers and colleagues against each other through league tables. These are not in the interests of learners, they do not support the necessary interpersonal dynamics that create a great learning ethos, they do not help improve your teachers, they create a culture of fear and prevent true collaboration. 

Another area of measurement - summative assessments - which have been hugely changed due to the #pivotonline agenda have increased stress and anxiety to our learners this year. We really need to stand up for what is helpful to learning and look critically at what we're measuring and for whom. If we really to wish to serve the learning needs of our students and indeed ourselves we need to question the purpose of measurement - the intended audience, the nature of the interrogation and the awareness of how subsequent judgements impact on the stakeholders. If measurement matters, how and what we measure matter more. If the stakes are too high, I don't want to play. So the scales can go away for now!

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Whatever next?

As our teaching term ended and we returned home for the Easter break in the hope of finishing some outstanding tasks and maybe some well earned rest suddenly all our hopes were overturned. COVID19 was about to change everything as the UK government suddenly decided this was a risk which needed more extreme measures. To be honest their response was too little too late but as ever the impact of crisis measures was yet again to put ordinary folk into the position of being "the elastic resource". This is an expression coined to me by one of my previous Heads of Department, a very wise Germanist. She would say whatever needs changing always relies on the workers being an "elastic resource" - stretching ever further, even when we are already over stretched. So it was again. All our carefully planned and prepared exam papers would need to be shelved and we were asked to create new assessment methods to fit a world where no-one could share a physical space, a new reality of social distancing and online "delivery". Otherwise we would not be doing our job. 

For me this reality of working remotely has been a way of life for at least 10 years so it didn't hold any of the fear I saw elsewhere. We (the language teaching community) have had at least 30 years of academic research into computer-assisted language (CALL) learning which has informed what we do and helped us to avoid some of the basic errors and misunderstandings which result from random application of shiny tech to teaching scenarios. Surely all would be fine. 

I had neglected to consider that assessment is still akin to a lesser known martial art in higher education. Often mediated solely through 3 hour writing sessions filling large halls with hoards of nervous students surveilled by a team of invigilators. It was, in retrospect, unsurprising that many were just looking to replicate such conditions online and move on. Of course that wouldn't work for language assessment, but it took a while before a plan was centrally agreed and meanwhile the elastic resource (ER) stretched further to plan, design and refine replacement activities which could be used to arrive at a magic number for those students who were hoping to graduate this year. Yes Jesse, aloting numbers remains a real issue in our competitive system which pits students against one another in order to identify those who are the most worthy of the best jobs. That's how capitalism views the world, on the basic of "merit". A fact we need to address more critically.

Social media was full of the fall out resulting from the call to #pivotonline.  Hurriedly deployed Microsoft teams reflected the urgency not of teachers but of managers to focus their ER to rise to the challenge before the Easter break despite the failure over past years to ensure that they were at least armed with the essential tool of assessment literacy! Fortunately some of us had undertaken some assessment training off our own bat, wanting to better understand what we do and why. I completed a PGCert in Assessment in 2014 which really opened my eyes but I still felt ill prepared to make this sudden shift and grew increasingly nervous when some colleagues started suggesting lengthy oral presentations to be prepared by students under conditions of which we were blissfully ignorant. It became clear over a few days that some of us would become ill, many would have to return to their home countries in different timezones, many would have to adjust to strict lockdown, caring responsibilities and even the possibilities of huge and painful loss. This would be nothing like business as usual. 

I found Dave Cormier's podcast really helpful and shared it with all those who were tasked with creating tools to measure performance under these new and bewildering conditions. 

Armed also with the learning shared at #OER20 on the theme of care in education I set about advocacy for a humane approach to assessment in every forum I could. I hope to have made a difference. Measurement may be important to some but it is not life and death. Supporting and facilitating lifelong learning matters.Yes Sean, we must first liberate ourselves to speak out and stand up for those to whom we are responsible. Otherwise we really are not doing our job. 

Friday, 30 August 2019

EuroCALL 2019: Critically open - designing for learning with your eyes open.

How do you choose your digital tools?

This coming week I will ask this question to those attending EuroCALL2019 in Louvain La Neuve, Belgium. Their input will update the word cloud above. I am interested to find out what or who influences our tool selection - do we use what we know? what we are told to use in our institution? what we have heard about from others?  When do we change tools? Does student interest or advocacy play a part? Are we aware of how some tool choices may negatively impact on student engagement? Do we think about whether a resource created using for example an authoring tool may not be accessible to some students? Perhaps we have limited choice.

I hope my presentation gives rise to discussion about how we can ask better questions when designing for learning in digital environments.

A favourite resource from Future Teacher 3.0 UK on this subject is available here.

You see sadly there is little training for web developers into the accessibility needs of those using learning resources, little awareness amongst learning designers and practitioners of the importance of accessibility and therefore the online resources which have been assumed to help support learning can sometimes just further marginalise  learners. Increasingly as the technology gets more complex, more "magical" thanks to algorithms and artificial intelligence we understand less of what is going on inside the black box. I believe that if we use digital tools we need to ask better questions, to uncover some of what is hidden from us. We need to use and promote critical digital literacy

I have been curating some of the conversations on twitter which relate to #criticaldigilit. I hope you find them useful.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

On the sustainability of teaching

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Recently I contributed to this final Future teacher 3.0 session by briefly sharing why I work in the open and support open educational practice (OEP) for teachers. I cannot separate that journey from the decision to learn more about ownership of digital learning objects and the use of Creative Commons licences. 
Sustainability is at the heart of that decision. Teaching as a profession is about creating the conditions for learning and growth and currently our wealthy economies are dominated by austerity and the drive to reduce regulation, resulting in open season on working terms and conditions. The gig economy continues to grow  and we will reap the negative effects of the societal impact.

The human cost of forgetting our humanity, our responsibility to one another, in favour of short term rewards is shocking. 

In my discipline the race to market language learning has decimated a real understanding of the fundamental fact that language is a human act, to improve you need to use it with real humans! 

It may seem dull to learn how to operate and share resources online legally but at the heart of that learning is freedom which is central to the sustainability of teaching. Already inequality of access to language learning is growing, access to learning resources more widely is being limited according to wealth:
These threats should be resisted by us all, but particularly by teachers. In a typical tongue in cheek tweet, Dave White commented on the difficulty of replicating human interaction through AI:
To sustain a good quality of human life we must first value each other, whatever our talents, flaws, differences and challenges and then refuse to support changes which undermine our collective potential to thrive.