Sunday, July 21, 2013

Teaching, AG

One of the concerns I frequently hear raised by lecturers is the complaint that universities are decreasing lecture contact time, and consequently lecturers are having to reduce the content they deliver in a teaching session. Inevitably, the fear is that standards will drop as we 'dumb-down' the content for this reduced teaching schedule.

It's an interesting concern, and reflects the curious conflict that has arisen for lecturers and teachers in this AG (after-Google) era. Content is readily available at the touch of a keyboard. There is very little that can't be found within a few seconds of a Google search. So why are we so wedded to the idea that we need to deliver content? Ironically, many of the same people who worry about the reduction of content also complain that students lack the ability to think critically, to analyse sources appropriately, and to synthesise the information they find. This seems a little contradictory: will students ever learn to be analytical and critical if we continue to provide them with the content we think they need? I would certainly agree (based only on my own observations) that many students do lack these skills, and rely too heavily on whatever appears at the top of their Google search without understanding exactly how those results lists are created. But is this any different from my own undergraduate (not quite pre-computer, certainly pre-internet) days, when we took scrupulous notes in lectures so that we could parrot back in the exam everything we had been told? The excellent students were those who worked their way through the supplied reading list; again, not too different from the Google search results.

Stepping away from content delivery can feel risky. I know. I recently was asked by one of Massey's flagship institutes to run two three-hour professional development sessions on facilitating problem-based learning (PBL) as part of their preparation for the roll-out of a new curriculum. There is something particularly terrifying about being asked to present oneself as an expert, in front of a room filled with people who are international experts in their fields.

For days, I wrestled with how to design the sessions. Lecturers from the institute openly acknowledge their tendency to be 'tough on outsiders'; an admission which increased my anxiety! Adding to this was the fact that some of the lecturers who would be attending the session were PBL evangelists who had used the strategy in their teaching for years, others were anxious but enthusiastic about the changes, and still others were morbidly opposed to being forced to change their teaching style. I felt that I needed to present them with three hours of riveting content that would convince them all of the value of PBL whilst at the same time provide them with all the skills and strategies they would need to be competent facilitators themselves. A little daunting. A throw-away comment to one of my colleagues provided me with the answer: instead of presenting myself as the expert and spouting forth for three hours, I would present the lecturers with the problem, and give them the opportunity to solve it. No better way to learn about problem-based learning than to do it.

And suddenly the task became a lot easier from my side. Instead of trying to design a scintillating three-hour lecture (an unlikely combination) with riveting powerpoint slides, all I did was find a range of practical readings about PBL facilitation, photocopy the letter that had been sent requesting the professional development in the first place, divide the lecturers into groups, and set them off developing a professional development session to train a group of lecturers facilitation of  problem-based learning!
The first session thus became a PBL-in-action session, with me modelling facilitation skills, and the lecturers experiencing the role of students. And it was an outstanding success. At the start, many of the lecturers grumbled that what I was doing was a cop-out, and the lazy option, exactly the sort of feedback shown in the literature to be the typical first response of students starting PBL. One or two actively worked against the process, again, typical of a student response. The majority, however, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, knuckled down and tackled the problem, and rapidly became engrossed in the process.

Whilst all this was happening, I was making notes on the process, the comments that were being made, and the behaviours that were occurring. That was the real focus of the session, and the debrief that followed was an interesting process. Even the lecturers who were opposed to the introduction of PBL were engaged and had a better understanding of the process. One admitted that his opposition arose out of his own anxiety of handing control of the classroom over to a group of 100 students, a genuine and common fear. What really convinced people, however, was the fact that they had remained interested and engaged (even if in opposition) for three hours; they had tackled and shared a range of literature, critically reflecting on how it would apply in their own circumstances, and by working in the group, they had generated considerably more and deeper learning than I would have had I lectured them for three hours.

An issue that arose out of the first session was the need many of the lecturers felt to have a 'practice-run' facilitating a PBL session. We arranged this by bribing a group of student volunteers with the promise of a lavish afternoon tea. Lecturers then took turns to work in pairs to facilitate the students working through one of their PBL scenarios, whilst their colleagues observed and offered feedback. Again, it was an incredibly valuable learning experience for everyone. The facilitators were given feedback from their peers and the students themselves; the students got to see lecturers working on improving their craft, and all of us observing found ourselves reflecting on our own teaching and knowledge of PBL as we watched the facilitators working their way through the process. Like the first session, feedback from this session was overwhelmingly positive. A senior lecturer noted how valuable it had been to get immediate feedback from the students, and decided he would incorporate strategies for doing this into all of his teaching. Another said that the session had been the most valuable experience in all her teaching professional development.

What did I take out of all of this (apart from relief that I had not been chewed up and spat out by a group of high-powered lecturers?) The incredible value of learning by doing. I would never have been able to achieve the same levels of engagement and enthusiasm from the lecturers had I lectured them for six hours. I am also convinced that their knowledge of PBL is significantly deeper than it would have been had I lectured them. By letting go of the need for content, and allowing them to create their own knowledge, I believe the lecturers had a far more meaningful and long-term learning experience, and one that could not have been found on Google. Was it 'dumbed-down'? No, I don't believe it was, and the lecturers certainly didn't seem to think so. Was it engaging and immediately relevant to each person in the room in his or her own context and at his or her own level? Absolutely. Was it scary to let go of control and not be 'the expert'. Very. But the results spoke for themselves, and even now, weeks later, I have conversations with individuals who participated in the sessions which indicate that they learned, retained, and have been able to synthesize, a significant amount about PBL. And for a teacher, that is immensely satisfying.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Visual storytelling

Towards the end of last year, Massey University held its annual Vice-Chancellor's Symposium, focusing on the theme of defining 21st century scholarship. As part of the symposium, delegates were invited to submit posters reflecting one or other aspect of that theme. As my 11 avid readers will know, I am particularly interested in social media and the impact that has on modern life, so it seemed apt to explore how social media defines, or has the potential to define, the modern student. (At the time of designing the poster, Facebook announced the creation of its billionth account! There is no denying the pervasiveness of social media!) Because I was examining the potential impact of social media, it seemed appropriate to present my information in the form of an infographic. And whilst I made this choice more-or-less on a whim, designing the poster was the start of an interesting exploration of how the infographic (or my version of the genre, at least) allows one to present a great deal more information than simply words alone.

At the time, I was rather pleased with the way the poster turned out, although looking at it now I can see that there are some issues with it. Never-the-less, using the infographic format allowed me to mix data, in the form of charts, quotes from the literature, and imagery (cogs to reflect the connectivist nature of social media; the wave to warn of the risk of drowning in it) in a way which I think probably told a better story than the words alone would have done. 

Soon after the symposium, I was asked by a colleague to help her with a poster for a conference, and incorporating infographic elements worked well for that too.

I really became convinced of the usefulness of combining images and text  this year. I am currently working towards an MEd., and have to complete some initial papers before I get stuck into a thesis. One assignment required me to draw up a table comparing different groups of learning theories. I found the task a frustrating one, as the table format implies that there are clear boundaries between the theories, which of course, there aren't, and that the theories evolved in some sort of orderly process. Limited also by time and word count, I decided that the only way I could effectively present the information was to resort to incorporating infographic elements into the task.

This was my final product:

The content of the infographic was more or less determined by the assignment, but including visual elements certainly provided me with more scope for description. The three head silhouettes attempt to show the differences in the ways each group of theories explains learning. The associationists see it as a process of fitting new knowledge onto existing constructs, so lego seemed like an appropriate image. The cognitivists focus on the processes of information storage and retrieval, and the scripts and processes used by the brain to do this, hence the use of computer and other technological images. Situative theorists see knowledge as social constructs, so the images used there all reflect collaborative human elements.

By arranging the individual theories at different levels on the page, I was able to indicate the chronological progression without suggesting that these thing were truly sequential, and I used the circular watermarks to indicate the overlaps between the theories. Finally, the small icons next to each learning theory attempted to summarise the specifics of the theory in a way that could aid understanding and recall.
Using the infographic format in an academic context had great value for me and helped transform a fairly mundane task into a challenging and useful learning experience. Of course, I was fortunate to have a lecturer who was willing to allow the idea. And this is one of the big challenges of academia: so much of it is rooted in the tradition of words (a lecturer many years ago described the cult of publication to me as 'shedding pseudo light on non-problems). Publication must be in specific peer-reviewed journals for it to hold any value (although recent events have brought the value of peer review into question). Blogging and other forms of social media hold little weight in the world of higher education, and yet I doubt there is any better way of disseminating knowledge to the masses than through the use of blogs, tweets and other forms of social media, such as the infographic. Engaging with these less-erudite and arcane forms of communication, might enable academics to re-connect with the common man (or woman) who, through taxes and fees, probably fund a fair chunk of the university anyway. And if information is going to be valuable and useful, surely it needs to be as accessible and widely disseminated as possible?

[1] Hoare, K. (2012). Personal tutor- evaluation of a student support system - preliminary findings. ANZAHPE Conference