Will blended learning end in tiers?

Regular followers of this blog, or my work in general, will be aware that blended learning is probably my main focus of work at the moment, and has been for the last few years. As I have conversations with people about blended learning both in FE and HE, I am starting to realise that a 2-tier approach to this area of work is forming, as I will try to explain here.

Image of a tiered cakeTier 1:

Within FE in particular, as a consequence of FELTAG, many providers are now starting to do more blended learning, but in most cases this is taking the form of taking existing face to face provision, and introducing bits of online, to create the blend. There is no problem with this approach per se, however quite often we are experiencing a simple replacement mechanism, where a face to face activity is replaced with an online activity.

Tier 2:

In contrast there are some providers across the spectrum, who rather than taking existing courses and replacing bits of it, are designing (or totally redesigning) courses as blended learning courses, to take the full advantages that Blended learning offers. This means that the face to face elements and the online elements are designed to both go hand in hand with the other (rather than one being a subservient bolt on of the other), and we aren’t just replacing face to face activities with electronic equivalents.

Conclusion

This second approach often requires reasonable up front investment, so is currently mainly in the realms of HE, private training, and (interestingly) some voluntary sector provides – but it is clear that the quality of these products is far greater than the tier 1 approach. In FE at the moment the tier 1 approach works best in the short term, as cheaper to develop, and many FE learners don’t have the skills and discipline to cope with the higher quality tier 2 type courses, but the problem that I foresee is it isn’t a case that people can start on tier 1, and then over time they gradually morph into tier 2 – in order to move from tier 1 to tier 2, there has to be a major shake up and redesign of the course, and I don’t think that people are aware of this.

This makes me wonder whether FE organisations (and to a lesser extent HE), as well as (or even instead of) trying to manage the mass migration that is taking place to force all courses to have some online bits in it – should they be prioritising a few key areas or courses, ideally the ones that they are strong in and have a good potential captive audiences for, and trying to get those to go for a tier 2 approach. Yes this requires an upfront investment, that is an issue – but is not doing this a risk that organisations will have a problem down the line that in four or five years, we will end up in a similar place to where we are now, trying to manage a mass migration from tier 1 to tier 2?

Image Source: Source: https://morguefile.com/p/846201

The 4 stage model for use of a VLE

A major part of my work at the moment, is working with and around VLEs, either by creating content and activities, or providing training to teachers or learning technologists in the effective use of the VLE. As part of my work in this area, I have identified that there are different steps to go through for the effective use of a VLE, which I have simplified into the following diagram, and which (I think) has huge significance strategically for organisations that are trying to get teachers in particular to make better (or at least more) use of the VLE.
Set of steps, which are labelled from bottom to top as; Managing, Designing, Building, RepurposingThe 4 steps are:

1: Managing

Many of the clients that I work for, hire me to design and create the various activities that form the backbone of a course on a VLE. The teachers then become skilled at managing these activities – e.g. pointing the students to quizzes at the appropriate times, moderating and encouraging forum based activities, providing constructive feedback for formative assessment activities etc. These teachers in the main are not involved in the design process, and certainly not the building/creating process.

2: Designing

Once a teacher has worked with and managed activities that has been created by someone else, they start to understand how such activities work, what the important ingredients are, and why and when the activities are used. They can then start to design new activities – this may be sketching out the ideas or concepts on paper, it may be creating source information in Word, PowerPoint or Excel – the information then goes to a learning technologist who turns their ideas and content into the actual activity.

3: Building

The third step is the actual building or creating of the activities, i.e. using the VLE tools to actually create the books, quizzes, assignments, forums etc. from this content.

4: Repurposing

Once someone has become proficient at building activities, they can then start to repurpose existing content, and hand in hand with this, build content in a way that makes it easy to repurpose in the future (either by them or someone else).


Some organisations have a centralised learning technology team, which is great, as they can help teachers gradually work their way up through the steps. When a teacher is new to this area of work, the learning technology team can do the building for them, allowing the teacher to concentrate on managing and designing. Then as the teacher becomes more proficient, they may start to do some or all of the building, and later repurposing.

However, there are many organisations out there that don’t have such a support mechanism, or the team is too small to be able to effectively meet all the building and repurposing needs of the organisation, and this then forces steps 3 and 4 onto the teaching staff, often without them having worked through steps 1 and 2.

I don’t have a magical answer to this problem, as money is tight, and organisations cannot just create large support teams out of nowhere, but if we think about this 4 step model, and identify the necessity for teaching staff to work their way up it, it is possible to rethink a little about how we do things. I have worked with some organisations recently where I have been asked to come in and run training, where I have had a few hours to try and get teachers jumping straight into step 3, and without any central support for the staff once I leave at the end of the day. This is always going to be tough for those staff. What would be really good is, if there is a mechanism where staff can manage some existing content first, then design some basic activities which someone else creates for them, and then they receive the training in how to build/create content etc.

Within FE and HE at the moment, there are huge pushes to get people using learning technology more (and in many cases the VLE)  – and what is very noticeable is the very different approaches that organisations offer in the way of support, and more significantly the different levels of understanding from the decision makers in these organisations.

Creating a YouTube based discussion activity in Moodle

I run a lot of training on effective uses of a VLE (usually Moodle) and one of the easiest activities that I show, is finding a video on YouTube, and then embedding this into a forum activity within the VLE.

The reasons for doing this are:

  1. By embedding the video (rather than simply linking to it) – we remove all the distractions, adverts, etc. that appear on YouTube around the edges.
  2. By adding this as a discussion activity, we ask the students a question – this will focus their attention whilst watching the video, rather than just passively  ‘absorbing’ it.

It doesn’t matter if students don’t actually post their answers to the forum (although useful if they do), as they will still benefit from watching the video with the question in their mind.

The following video goes through the steps of how to embed the video, and the basic settings within a Moodle forum activity.

And if you want to only show a portion of the video you can always identify the exact start and end points that you want to play, by following these instructions:

https://davefoord.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/cropping-a-youtube-video-before-adding-to-moodle/

Trimming and Embedding a YouTube Video into PowerPoint

I have blogged many times in the past about things to do with PowerPoint, including how to embed a YouTube video, or how to use TubeChop to embed a YouTube video.

In more recent versions of PowerPoint (2013 and 2016), the ability to embed a YouTube video has been made easier, and the following video will take you through the steps:

Although easier to do than in the past, this technique has been unreliable for some people in some organisations, so I always recommend to people to paste the video’s URL onto the slide somewhere as a live link, so if this doesn’t work, you have the fall back of simply accessing the video via the YouTube website.

This technique is showing how to embed the video – this means you still need access to the Internet when viewing the presentation, and it won’t work if the organisation blocks YouTube.

This technique replaces the older method of using the shockwave flash object, or using TubeChop to trim the video.

Evolution not Revolution of Education

I was recently introduced to this excellent video clip on YouTube which brilliantly portrays a very simple education message that seems to be being missed over and over again. The message being:

Individual technologies will not revolutionise education, however high quality, enthusiastic teachers who can use the technologies appropriately will help education evolve.

Enjoy the video…

Technology over the years, has allowed education to evolve and to adapt to the benefits that the technology brings, however it doesn’t and won’t ever replace the role of a good teacher. As mentioned in the video, every time a new technology comes along, those people responsible for promoting it (e.g. the people selling the technology), often fall into the trap of claiming that this new technology will ‘revolutionise’ education – and sadly many senior managers have been duped into believing this – and believing that putting their hands in their pockets and (often unstrategically) throwing money will solve all their ills.

It is often said that, and I will say again here, that technology in the hands of a poor (or no) teacher will make the education experience worse. Technology in the hands of a good teacher may make the experience better. The key here being the quality of the teacher. In investment terms we need to invest more in the staff using the tools, rather than the tools themselves – if we do this then education can naturally evolve.

Within Further Education in the UK, I am seeing a very varied response from organisations to the challenges that FELTAG brings – many are going to throw tokenistic amounts of money into trying to buy a solution – others are simply asking the already overworked teachers to do even more work in their own time to solve the problem, and then a few are realising that FELTAG is all about and requires high levels of senior manager joined up thinking and strategic leadership. If we look at the use of technology as evolution rather than revolution, that alone make the problem and challenge much simpler to comprehend and act upon – and is a good starting foundation for this area of work.

Using discussion forums to create ‘Stretch and Challenge’ activities

I am currently working with various different clients, helping them to develop their use of the VLE system Moodle.

Discussion icon One of the techniques that I show people is how a discussion forum can be used to create an effective ‘stretch and challenge’ activity. Stretch and challenge, is a term that is used by Ofsted, and relates to ‘does the tutor provide an opportunity for the more able learners to be sufficiently challenged – beyond the core learning objectives that they expect everyone in the class to meet?’ A few years ago – this area of work seemed to be one of the key questions being asked by inspectors, and something that caused many tutors problems. Other factors in the Ofsted inspection regime are currently more important, but stretch and challenge is still observed and commented on.

When I was teaching, I used the VLE extensively to support my delivery. I would organise each course by topic, which was often (but not always) structured with 1 topic per week. Within each topic, I would provide certain common items – e.g. some notes related to the topic, relevant links, some form of activity and as the last item within each topic, I would pose a challenging question related to that topic. For this I used the discussion forum mechanism to pose the question. This was for me a convenient mechanism as easy to set up, and I was providing an opportunity for the learners to engage in discussion during or after the session. In reality – in most cases no actual discussion took place within the forum itself, however this didn’t matter – as I knew from observing the students behaviour and from verbal conversations that took place during the session or at the start of the following session that they had read the question, and some had thought about an answer to it. On some occasions discussion within the forum did take place – which was great as it gave the ‘quieter’ learners a chance to air their opinion, as well as giving learners access to other learners opinions (which then helped with their assignment writing where they had to present a balanced viewpoint on a topic – not just their own viewpoint).

Examples of some of the questions that I used in my teaching were:

  • There were discussions in the media about sexual inequality within sport, and it was highlighted that women tennis players at Wimbledon got paid significantly less than the men. Tim Henman then contributed to this debate, by stating that it was right that men get paid more as they play best of 5 sets, compared to women playing best of 3. I was able to use Tim Henman’s opinion as an opener for the discussion – which did evoke a huge response from both the males and females in the group – without me having to offer my opinion on the topic.
  • In biomechanics (science of sports movement) I carried out an experiment to estimate the force that the bicep has to exert to move the forearm. The reality is that the muscle itself has to exert a much greater force than the end movement (as this is a type 3 lever which gives mechanical disadvantage) – so the challenging question was ‘Why has the human biceps muscle evolved as it has which gives such huge mechanical disadvantage – which hasn’t evolution moved the muscles attachment to the forum further from elbow, which would allow greater forces to exerted by the forearm? (Please comment on this blog post if you want to offer an answer).

The hard part of this process was thinking of a good challenging question, here are a few tips:

  • When starting a discussion, making a statement and then ending it with the word “discuss” – often doesn’t open a discussion. Instead ask a more specific question to open the discussions.
  • If applicable – asking topical questions (e.g. relating to something currently in the news) will more likely evoke a discussion.
  • It is possible to ask a question from a viewpoint that isn’t your own – which allows you to ask more ‘risky’ questions (see the Tim Henman example above).
  • Asking a question from someone else’s viewpoint also allows you to ask a question that is more likely to create an emotional response – which in turn is more likely to attract an answer.
  • If students do post – you can contribute to the discussion to further develop it, explore other avenues/opinion, reference articles or webpages that are relevant.
  • If you do respond to posts – be careful not to ‘kill’ a discussion by giving the students the ‘correct answer’ straight away, instead try to lead them through further questions.
  • Questions don’t have to have a right and wrong answer (again, think about the Tim Henman question.
  • Think of a series of questions in one go – rather than one at a time. This is much quicker, and it is often possible to relate questions together. Most VLE systems will have the option to time release the dicsussions, or you can manually hide them, and make them visible as required.

If  you can think of other tips, then please add to the comments below.

Reflections on Using tablets in FE and HE assessment event

This blog post is an example of how a blog can be used for reflective practice. I am going to reflect on a training session that I recently ran, and use this reflective practice to help me improve the session for the future and help with my planning of other similar sessions.

Image of Dave Foord

Self Reflection

On Friday 28th March 2014 I ran the first FE/HE session for The Tablet Academy at Lougborough University. The session was designed to look at the use of tablet devices in assessment, and attracted 8 people from across the country.

There are lots of different people, companies and organisations offering tablet training at the moment, of varying quality and varying price (and no direct correlation between the two), so I was keen that I offered something different, something more than the very easy “look at me and how clever I am with an iPad” type session, that yes can be inspiring, but often doesn’t give people a chance to unpick bigger issues.

Therefore the main focus of the day, was to try to get the attendees to think openly about the use of tablet devices in assessment, including the issues that may arise, and not just the positives that can be brought. We also made the decision to focus on BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) rather than specifying a particular platform (e.g. iPads).

The structure of the day was:

  1. Introduction presentation.
  2. Exploring options of how tablets can be used in education.
  3. Designing, completing, then assessing an assessed activity with tablets.
  4. Bringing it all together.

Here is my reflection on each part:

Introduction presentation

I created a short presentation that was designed to set the scene, and to try to create the mindset of not using tablets to replace laptops, but to look at what tablets do that laptops cannot, and how this can be used beneficially in assessment. On reflection, I should have spent less time on this point and more time demonstrating options of what is possible with tablets. I didn’t want to spoil the next activity by giving the attendees the answers to the tasks I was about to set them, but some of the the attendees would have benefited from such examples to help make the rest of the day less abstract.

Exploring options of how tablets can be used in education

We had allocated a significant amount of time (over 2 hours) to this part of the day, which was an opportunity for attendees to explore different options of how tablet devices can be used in assessment. Because each person would have different organisational needs, roles and devices, I created 7 separate tasks (challenges) for them to look at. Each task had some background information, then a set of questions/activities for them to work through which would hopefully guide them through an exploration of that topic, with me facilitating them to unpick some of the issues. I estimated each topic to take about 30 minutes so hoped that people could explore 4 or 5 of the options in the allotted time. As it turned out the tasks took longer than I anticipated, so they only managed to cover 2 of the tasks, which was a shame. For future events, there are various options:

  1. I could shorten each topic, but then have a section for each topic which is titled “further exploration” or similar – so they could continue exploring at a later day.
  2. I could have sent attendees some pre course information so they could look at the options and possibly start some of the tasks (even if they only downloaded any required apps, and created accounts where required on them – which would have saved time).
  3. I could have been more draconian with the time keeping, forcing them to change topics if they spent more than say 40 minutes on any topic. I am not a big fan of this idea, as I need attendees to be comfortable with their explorations, and it is more beneficial for them to unpick a smaller number of options well, rather than more options badly.
  4. If I increased the time of the introduction, to include a quick demo of each idea, this would then have saved attendees time when exploring these options.

Having jotted down these possible options, I think points 1,2 and 4 above could be used together to improve this part of the session, and is what I will do next time.

Designing, completing, then assessing an assessed activity with tablets

This part of the day worked really well. Working in pairs, each pair had 30 minutes to design a tablet enabled assessable activity. They would then share this with a different pair. Each pair then had 30 minutes to complete the task set by someone else, after which they returned the work to the original pair, who had a further 30 minutes to assess and give feedback.
For this activity I was very strict with the timings, using a countdown timer on an iPad to keep me and the group focused. By setting a very specific and challenging time helped to keep people on task, and stopped the afternoon from ‘drifting’. Attendees very much got into the spirit of this activity, they had a lot of fun (which is good), they were imaginative (which was the intention) and they uncovered a few problems with the logistics of actually getting the task to the other people. The main reflection (which was also echoed by the participants feedback) was they didn’t need 30 minutes to assess the work, so could shorten this easily to 15 or even 10 minutes, apart from that I would keep this part of her he day the same.

Bringing it all together

As with any good training session, it is important that there is a chance to reflect and regroup at the end, and some form of identified action for people to do next. For this I set the task of asking people to identify the 5 Ws – Why, What, When, How, and Who for them to identify a small step that they were going to take to move their organisation forward in using tablet devices in the process of assessment. After the slightly pressurised previous 90 minutes as they raced against the clock, this made for a useful reflecting and refocusing activity. We then had some general discussions and used Socrative as a tool to reflect on the day in general.

Looking at the feedback provided by the attendees all bar one were very satisfied with the day, with some highlighting a few of the points I have made above. A few said they would have preferred the day to be platform specific (e.g. Just iPad, or just Microsoft) rather than BYOD, and a few wanted to see more examples of good practice.

From my perspective, I wanted the day to be a chance for people to unpick the real issues around using tablets for assessment, and as such I knew that people would encounter certain problems during the day, which was good, as better for them to encounter them here rather than with real assessments, however these few problems may have been perceived as outweighing the benefits of using tablet devices, which wasn’t my intention. The biggest problem that people encountered was the BYOD issue – of working with ideas that work across all platforms. Many thought Google Docs would be a good option, but discovered that these didn’t work well on iPads and sharing them was more complicated than expected. I tried to reinforce the point that in reality you use the tablet devices when they are most appropriate and use something else when not appropriate, e.g. It is perfectly acceptable for a member of staff to use a computer to create the assessment, the student to use and tablet to complete it and the tutor to use a computer to mark it.

My thanks go to the staff at Loughborough University for their support, in particular Charles Shields and Farzana Khandia.