What got me started in online learning

Earlier in the summer I was running some staff development, and a reluctant attendee asked how a sport science lecturer (as I was) ended up getting into online learning, so I told them about my first foray into this area of work.

In my first full year of teaching (1998), one of my units was a level 3 ‘diet and nutrition’ and one of the assignments was to carry out a basic analysis of a week’s diet, compare this to energy expenditure and then make suggestions of how to improve the diet. Or in other words the assignment from hell for a Level 3 sport student. Even though this should have been completed earlier in the year, I hardly had any work handed in on time as most students tactically worked out they were only ever going to get a pass, therefore there was no point in doing the assignment on time, instead they would wait until the end of the year and finish the assignment once teaching had finished. The problem was that I had about 40 students, and every single one came to see me for help with the assignment, and although I willingly helped them, if I spent 30 minutes with each student, that equated to 20 hours of my time – and I was still teaching on other courses – so for about 2 weeks at the end of term, if I wasn’t teaching I had a permanent queue of students outside the office waiting to see me (and I was part-time so wasn’t get paid for all this extra work).

I realised that the help that I was giving the learners was effectively the same over and over again, so the following year (and I now had 3 groups to teach, so 60+ students) I decided to create some information and instructions on how to complete the assignment. This included a worked example (Excel), a template diary they could use (Excel), an animated presentation that explained the steps that were needed (PowerPoint) and an instruction sheet (Word) which hyperlinked to the other files and a few useful websites as well. I didn’t have a VLE at my disposal, but we did have a shared network drive that I could upload files to and the students could access. So I uploaded the work to there, created a simple printed instruction sheet of how to locate this shared drive which I gave to the learners when the assignment was handed out. The result was that a larger percentage completed the assignments on time, some even got merit and distinction grades. Those that still waited until the end of term, when they came to see me, I gave them the instruction sheet again, sent them away to find a computer and come back if still not clear, most were able to follow the online support so I only had about 2 students to work with 1:1.

So my first foray into online learning (even though many would argue this isn’t online learning) was motivated by time saving potential for me. It took me about 2 or 3 hours to set up, but saved probably 30 hours (of my unpaid time!) in student support, and the quality of the work was significantly better.

Having created the folder structure on the joint drive I realised that there was potential in this way of working, and I uploaded more and more resources throughout the year, and started to create a resource bank to support the subjects I was teaching.

In my next blog post I will continue the story of how this behaviour evolved into me using (and creating) a VLE to support my classroom delivery, in what would now be identified as blended learning with elements of flipped classroom – but over 14 years ago and about 10 years before these 2 terms became fashionable!

Taken from http://farm5.static.flickr.com/8258/8671894359_891da1da8b_b.jpg on 2013-9-13
Original URL – http://www.flickr.com/50251161@N08/8671894359/ created on 2013-04-21 12:50:39
Orin BlombergCC BY-NC 2.0

‘Flipping eL’ – ‘The Flipped Classroom’ – part 5 – Making it happen

This is the 5th and final post in my series on the notion of the flipped classroom. So far the previous posts have been:-

So if  an organisation wants to start using the flipped classroom, what are the considerations?

To me the most important point, is to think this through strategically. This is not something that can be taken on lightly or whimsically and without proper planning. We have to think about which courses this would be suitable for. As I mentioned in the second post in this series – not all learners will want this mode of delivery and especially if students are paying to study (at HE) if a course is going to be taught this way, I think it should be upfront and advertised so they can consciously choose (or not choose) to study there. In the past Universities in particular have had the freedom and mindset to change the way that they deliver without consulting with the students, and without any real comeback. Now that the fees are so high, we have to treat the student more as a customer, so cannot do this.

If a course decides to use this model of learning, we have to think, do we do this for all units or modules, or just some. Or do we experiment with one term or half term first and see how it goes. The key here is that students have to be clear what is going on – we cannot keep chopping and changing as we go along, and for the idea of the flipped classroom to work, it has to become embedded within the students experience – so we cannot just do an odd session here or there – we do need to give this a significant amount of time for the students to settle into it. This area is where the process needs to be closely managed, and is where I think the biggest risk of failure lies. If for example students are studying say 6 units at one point in time, and 1 of the 6 wants to use the flipped classroom ideology. The process will need to be managed to ensure that the students have the time to be able to do the preparatory work required. The problem lies in (typically) week 7 of the semester when 3 of the remaining 5 units have submission deadlines – and the students spend their ‘free-time’ working on this rather than the other units, they then turn up to the ‘flipped’ seminar not fully prepared and the seminar makes no sense.

Another issue is how do we create (or locate) the content that the students will be accessing. One option is for the tutor to create these as they go along – which as long as they stay 1 or 2 weeks ahead of the learners is OK. Many don’t like this idea as they see it as risky, but from my experience it was no different to how many face to face lecturers work, so is an option – as long as the tutor recognises the time required and can factor this into their weekly schedule. The other option is to create everything up front – which requires a bigger amount of initial investment, and is seen by many as less risky but if you choose a style of content packaging, that when you use it with the learners doesn’t work very well, your initial investment will have been wasted, as the packaging will need to be retrospectively changed.

Another issue to consider is the quality issue. When we watch video we tend to judge the quality of the video against the quality that we see on TV, which is professionally produced (at huge cost), and delivered in HD onto your expensive 40″ flat screen – as a result most videos that an educational organisation produces to support teaching and learning will be inferior quality, but this is OK, and we are lucky that videos that apear on the Khan Academy has set a benchmark for us. For years we have talked about elearning or ILT as a method of getting away from ‘chalk and talk’ – and yet ironically the Khan Academy videos are basically just that (they even have a black background – like a chalk board), and although not everyone likes them – we cannot deny that they have had a huge impact on many people.

So if a tutor is creating video clips as part of the flipped classroom process – we can use screen casting software – some of the free ones being perfectly adequate. It doesn’t matter if we occasionally cough in the audio, or things aren’t really slick, as the Khan Academy has shown. If we want to use handwritten notes, then I would be inclined to invest in a digital tablet that allows you to write with a pen rather than the mouse, or if we know exactly what we are going to write then we can prepare these as typed boxes that we just drag into view during the process e.g. like in this video, where I have created a revision activity.

When I created this, my kids (and 2 others) were in the house making noise – I didn’t realise how much noise as I had my headset on – but you can hear them in the video. My initial instinct when I played it back was to re-record it, but I didn’t because I wanted to show that for teaching and learning purposes, this would be OK – we need to concentrate on the quality of the content and the way that it is presented – rather than spending hours and hours making the very little tweaks that although improve the quality doesn’t justify the time.

I have worked with a few organisations recently which seem to want to go for a wholesale blanket change of delivery to this new ideology – which worries me somewhat, especially as they seem to be doing this because there are problems with the quality of teaching and learning and they see this as a way out of trouble – however I am concerned that the current problems with teaching and learning will only be exaggerated by this process not solved.

Another problem is the support needed. Most organisations will have some form of central team that can help with the production of elearning content or videos, but it is highly unlikely that any could fully support an entire organisation switching in one go. If the flipped classroom is ever going to be a long running success, it will require tutors to be given the tools, time and support for them to create the bulk of the content themselves, with the central teams working in a support capacity, rather than a doing capacity.

And as I end many of these blog posts – the need for good quality CPD (and strategically delivered) is paramount. This isn’t just a 2 hour session in July to introduce them to the ideas – we need to learn about the differences between online delivery and face to face delivery, where and how to find appropriate images, how to capture effective videos, and probably even little bits of html so that we can put this together within the VLE.

If we get it right it could be great. If we get it wrong, it will be a disaster. The flipped classroom is definitely not a short term cost saving practice. If we are serious then we need to think it through strategically and carefully, and not just jump on the bandwagon because it is passing….then next one is probably just round the corner.

‘Flipping eL’ – ‘The Flipped Classroom’ – part 4 – increasing accessibility

This is the 4th blog post in a series on the topic of the ‘Flipped Classroom’. In the previous post I identified the possible benefits that this model could bring in terms of widening participation, with one area being possible benefits to disabled students, which I want to unpick further here.

Not all disabled learners are going to prefer this model, but there are going to be many that may. The commonest disability that we are likely to encounter within education is dyslexia, and if I broaden this out there are 3 categories:

  1. Those that are diagnosed.
  2. Those that aren’t diagnosed yet.
  3. Those who have dyslexic tendencies without being officially recognised.

Organisations will know how many of the first group they have, but we have no idea how many of the other 2 groups that there will be. The advantage of the flipped classroom is this may help these learners without them having something different (and the associated stigma) to the rest of the class.

So – how may this help? Education discriminates against dyslexic learners because education has an over reliance on the importance of language – the very thing that dyslexics find most challenging. Many dyslexics are above average intelligence, and they develop coping strategies to overcome this discrimination. For many the coping strategy is based on ‘getting through the lesson’ and they have to spend a lot of their effort just making sense of various forms of information and the way it is presented, rather than trying to develop a deep understanding of the topic being taught. If we have a flipped classroom scenario – the learner can use tools like text to speech, coloured overlays, onscreen reading bars etc to help them access the information. If any content is video or audio the learner can pause, rewind etc. giving them the extra time needed to make meaningful notes – rather than having to work at the pace the tutor has set.

If a learner accesses the information up front, they can then come to the seminar session prepared to enter into high level discussion with their peers.

In my first post in the series, I mentioned how a visually impaired learner may benefit, and the logical reasons are the same – they take control of their support needs and adaptations, they work at the pace that is best for them, and in an environment that they find most conducive to learning. Similarly if a learner has a hearing impairment, they can study in an environment (probably one without background noise) that is best suited to them. One issue that is interesting here, is many educators think that audio (including video) is not going to be good for someone that is deaf. If someone has no hearing then this would be true, however there are many people that are deaf that have some hearing, and make use of hearing aids to amplify sounds to give them some hearing. For these people – listening to a lecturer speaking in a lecture theatre with the sound of the air conditioning, projector, students coughing, squeaking of pens taking notes etc is very hard, even if an induction loop is used. However – if the same content is provided as audio or video, which they can listen to in their own environment and using technology to amplify the sound to the best level for them – again with the ability to pause and rewind bits they didn’t fully hear is very useful.

Of course there will be many disabled learners who won’t prefer the ‘flipped classroom’ ideology – but the key here is the notion of choice that I identified in my second post in the series. The learners who prefer the flipped route sign up for courses running it, for those that don’t they sign up for an alternative course. The challenge here will be for the people advising the students, to have the confidence and knowledge to advise the students correctly, without introducing a prejudice that ‘because they are disabled the flipped classroom won’t work for them’.

If some organisations do get the flipped principle working, and the right students choose those courses, we have the potential for some disabled learners to be able to study without having to declare their disability (and the associated stigma) and that to me is a very powerful and exciting position.

The image below shows a student using technology to invert the colours to high contrast and increase the text size.

Taken from http://farm5.static.flickr.com/3073/3050414114_f2ae8bb229_b.jpg on 2012-5-14
Original URL – http://www.flickr.com/66606673@N00/3050414114/ created on 2008-10-20 10:43:05
cobalt123CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

‘Flipping eL’ – ‘The Flipped Classroom’ – part 3 – Widening participation?

This is my third entry in my series on the notion of the ‘flipped classroom’. There are many other sources of information on the pedagogical benefits that this model may bring (and similarly there are many posts that counter these benefits), but in this post I want to look at one area that hasn’t been covered in as much detail, and that is using the idea of the flipped classroom to widen participation.

I mentioned in my first post that this model of teaching does not reduce costs by reducing the teachers hours – however there is a potential time saving for the learners. Let’s think of a ‘possible’ taught session running from 9.00am to 10.00am in the morning. You get into the classroom, the students drift in, a few are late due to buses being held up, queues on the ring road, etc. You turn on the computer and projector – it takes a few minutes to warm up and login. You locate your PowerPoint presentation…..10 minutes into the lesson you take the register, you then start the teaching proper at 9.15, but because so many missed last weeks session you have to recap more than planned….During the session you set tasks and activities, and you have to give the students time to do these. Some students are quicker than others so finish and then get bored, others are slower so don’t get to finish in time….. you spend time dealing with classroom management issues rather than the teaching and learning… and then start to wind up at 9.50 so you can be out of the room in time to get to your next lesson across the campus that starts at 10.00am!

In my opinion, when you deliver face to face teaching, if you can get a ratio of more than 60% quality teaching and learning time you are doing well. If we then take into account the fact that students often have ‘wasted’ time in between lessons, and if they are reliant on public transport or lifts from others, they may have dead time at the start and of the day as well. All in all – if we look critically at the model of classroom based education – it isn’t a very efficient model. In the past this didn’t matter – but with the cost of education increasing, and the need for people to work alongside their study this is becoming an influencing factor.

Bethnal Green Town Hall

So where does the ‘flipped classroom’ come into this. I believe that the same 1 hour lecture that I described earlier could be repackaged so the delivery element of it, could probably be delivered in about 15 – 20 minutes. If the students accessed say 3 or 4 of these before coming into the organisation for a quality seminar type session, where the tutor could unpick some of the more complex issues, the skills could be applied, and managed discussion takes place – you then have a model that is far more time efficient for the learner, as well as making it cost effective for learners from further afield, who want to study at your organisation, but previously couldn’t because of the daily travel or accommodation costs.

Another area where the flipped classroom could widen participation is for learners with disabilities – I will unpick this element in another blog post just on this topic.

Many organisations that are seriously looking into the use of the ‘flipped classroom’ are going down the road of changing their current teaching models to this idea. There are 2 possibilities here (and excuse my gross over simplification here)

  • The organisation is already providing high quality provision – in which case why change, and is there a risk that the quality may drop?
  • The organisation is currently providing low quality provision, and they see this as a way of resolving these issues – in which case I would expect the quality of the flipped outcome to be equally low.

So here is my idea. Rather than organisations completely changing the way that they deliver existing courses – instead take one of their courses that is currently being successfully run, and look to run an additional cohort via the ‘flipped classroom’ ideology alongside their existing provision, thus allowing learners to choose which model they want to follow. As well as potentially widening the customer base of ones provision, you also end up with potential lessons that can be used if there is an unforeseen closure of the building due to snow, flooding, swine flu, Icelandic volcanoes etc. You also would have a wider pool of resources that the face to face lecturer could call upon in their teaching, and if a learner misses a few weeks due to illness, then there is a potential catch up mechanism in place to get them back on track.

The arguments that I am presenting here, sound very similar to the discussions that I have been having for the last 12 or so years around the benefits of e-learning – the difference is, that with e-learning, organisations seemed to get stuck with an ‘all or nothing’ mindset – in other words, the belief that if a learner chose to learn via e-learning they were doing so because they wanted all of their learning in that way with no or minimal face to face contact with the tutors. What the flipped classroom model is doing is creating a better mixed mode of delivery – which has always been my preferred methodology.

To some the ‘flipped classroom’ is just a fancy new term for things that people have done before – and many think that it is a passing ‘fad’ that will soon to be replaced with the next big buzz word. Both options I think are possible – but whilst it does have currency and is being discussed by people, I hope that it creates an opportunity for organisations to look critically at what they do, to start to act more like businesses and think about their customer (and future customer) base and if we get it right, there is a huge potential that we can improve the quality of our provision, just by widening the participation.

‘Flipping eL’ – ‘The Flipped Classroom’ – part 2 – One size doesn’t fit all!

In my previous post I introduced my opinion on the notion of the ‘Flipped Classroom’. In general I think this is a model that may have potential for certain learners on certain courses in certain situations, the problem is there are many situations were this won’t work, and my fear is that organisations will try to implement a 1 size fits all approach which invariably becomes a 1 size fits none.

Different sizes of boots

One size doesn’t fit all

For the flipped classroom to work, the notion has to be fully embedded, understood, and embraced by the tutors and learners to be successful. When I was at school, doing my GCSE subjects, we had a homework timetable where on each evening we would have 3 different subjects worth of homework – each 30mins long, and as students we did this without exception – so in this situation the flipped classroom could work – however I was lucky enough to have passed my 12+ and ended up at a very good Grammar School. I don’t think this model would work with schools that have less motivated students, or ones where students have less supportive family home lives. If you have a mixed group of students, where some do the necessary preparatory work, and others don’t the risk is that parts of the face to face sessions, would be spent trying to ‘catch up’ those that didn’t do their prep work – which would annoy those that did and seriously weaken the model. There will also be a fear from the school managers of the impact on league table positions, which I would see resulting in extra work for the teachers as they try to accomodate the needs of the less motivated students, to ensure they don’t do worse than the previous model.

If we look at HE, hopefully learners are more self motivated, better at managing their time and want to learn – so again there is potential that this could work – but I think we would need to advertise clearly before students enrol on a course, that this is the intended model, so that they can make a conscious decision as to whether they would prefer this model or not, and if not they then choose an alternate provider. If students have signed up for a course at an institution, and then suddenly we introduce this model without discussion with them, then I would expect an element of dissatisfaction from them, and if they are paying up to £9K per year for the privilege then in my opinion, dissatisfaction just isn’t an option.

The most interesting area for this model is FE – which is where I started my lecturing career. The norm within traditional FE is that students don’t get ‘homework’ the same as they did at school, so there isn’t the culture within FE for students to do out of class hours (unless it is an assessed piece of work). Many doing FE courses also have part-time work, and those on courses like BTECs will have huge amounts of coursework to negotiate leaving them no extra time for this model. The only way that this time could be created, would be to reduce the teaching timetable – but the risk of that is the learners just spend the time doing more part-time work, or other distracting activity, so I foresee the need to have ‘monitored’ class time where the learners sit in a classroom doing their prep – but this then self defeats the point of the process.

Where this model may work very well within FE is if learners actively choose to study their courses via a mixture of face to face and online delivery methods – This model had been difficult in the past to achieve as the funding model required a recording of the guided learning hours, so it was very difficult to quantify and record the proportion of time spent on the online elements – and because the college didn’t want its funding reduced had to deliver the same full number of contact hours. Changes to the funding mechanism in recent years means that FE qualifications will have a notional numbers of hours from which the funding model is based, however these hours do not have to be accounted for down to the last minute as was previous. This opens a lot of potential new avenues for FE colleges and Work Based Learning providers in particular, but from my experience as a freelance consultant, most organisations are not moving forward quickly in this area – one exception is Loughborough College, and in particular the sport courses – with whom I have been working on these things for a few years now. They have been delivering online learning at FE level very successfully for about 5 years, mainly to elite athletes for whom the demands of training and competition prevent them accessing a traditional face to face based course.

In a subject like sport there is always going to be a need for some face to face element, in order to access specialist equipment, in order to teach elements such as coaching, massage etc. and for a tutor to accurately assess the practices of the learners. So if a learner is choosing a course such as sport but they want to learn primarily through online learning – then this is where the flipped classroom can work. If the online content element of the course is thorough and well designed, then it is possible for the majority of the teaching and learning to take place via this medium – then learners come together at key times (e.g. for an intensive days or days) in which to cover the practical elements – but hopefully with some pre-knowledge so their time in the lab or gym is maximised.

The problem that most organisations face, and FE colleges in particular – is the diversity of the types of the courses offered (and the types of learners that study them) – means that each course would need its own unique model of doing this (if they went down this route) – but that is harder to roll out, and harder to manage. I have worked with a couple of colleges recently who are seriously looking at the model of the flipped classroom, and I am concerned that they are trying to enforce a model of ‘1 size fits all’ onto all of their courses – which I think will result in problems.

My next posts in this series will be trying to analyse some of the benefits and problems that this model would bring, and look at how an organisation could go about implementing this model if they do go with it.

‘Flipping eL’ – Making sense of ‘The Flipped Classroom’ – part 1

One of the current Buzz words at the moment in education seems to be the notion of the ‘Flipped classroom’ – which in simplistic terms is:

Rather than

‘Students coming to class to be delivered content, then going away to apply what they have learnt as homework’

Instead we flip this around so that

‘Students access the content upfront (usually in the form of video, or other self guided content) and then come to the class where they apply what they have learnt though discussions, seminar activity, questions etc. with the support of the teacher’

What is interesting is that I have been talking about this ideology for about 12 years now, and at neither of the organisations that I worked for (1 college and 1 university) did they give me the time of day (in fact whenever I mentioned it, I was smiled at, and we quickly moved onto another topic as my suggestions were seen as ridiculous and heretical – oh how I wish I had given it a name like the ‘flipped classroom’).

Steve Wheeler has recently blogged about this (http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.com/2012/03/what-flip.html) concept in less than encouraging terms, some of his points I agree with, others I don’t.

Steve correctly identifies that if students are paying up to £9k per year to study at HE (and that’s just the tuition fee) and suddenly they find that their learning experience is a set of badly produced videos instead of a high quality lecture or seminar – then they will be dissatisfied and Universities and Colleges could expect legal action taken against them. The key here with the concept – is this is not a cost saving idea but a quality improvement one, and only works if the contact time between student and tutor is the same, not less.

When I was at University, I was on a course with 211 other students, so for core units I sat (usually at the back) in a large lecture theatre with 200ish others. The lecturer would walk in, load their carousel of slides, talk for 50 minutes, whilst we frantically made notes, then they would walk out again, without any interaction between them and us taking place. In this scenario, the lecturer could easily be videod – I could have watched the video beforehand (with the advantage of being able to pause or rewind if necessary) and then attended a discussion based session where we explored the more difficult issues, or applied what is learnt.

This model doesn’t reduce the quality of experience, but increases it, however it isn’t cheaper for the organisation, as there is the initial production time and cost involved, and there is still a need for the seminars to take place (which if split into smaller groups would actually be more expensive). This to me is the key point – if we look at the flipped classroom as a cost saving exercise it will fail – we have to look at it as a more expensive option, but one that increases the quality of provision. If over time we get good at this, then it may (and I emphasise the word MAY) reduces cost benefits in the future.

Another point made by Steve Wheeler is questioning the accessibility of this model. This is where I strongly disagree with Steve. If a learner has (as per his example) a visual impairment, they probably have difficulty accessing the live lecture anyway. Having a video of similar content is probably more not less accessible to them, as they can play it on a large screen in their own room, they can pause/rewind easily to make it easier for them to take notes, and they can study at a time of day and in a room of their choosing – which is really useful as they can get the surrounding lighting how they want it, and take regular breaks to reduce fatigue. The key for them is then the quality of the contact session with the tutor. For many disabled learners they spend all of their time just trying to keep up with a lecture, they are unable to then think of and ask any questions. With the flipped classroom idea – they can then prepare and come armed with such questions, thus turning the seminar type activity into a very useful experience for them.

My intention is to post a series of blog posts around the notion of the flipped classroom, with my take on how and where it may work or not work, and the relationship between this and e-learning.

Taken from http://farm5.static.flickr.com/5128/5331946704_50752da8c2_b.jpg on 2012-4-12
Original URL – http://www.flickr.com/28430474@N05/5331946704/ created on 2011-01-06 19:45:30
Krissy VenosdaleCC BY-NC-SA 2.0