Planning for ‘snow days’

About 5 years ago I was supporting an institution – who due to their geographic location, would have numerous days each year affected by snow. As an organisation they were determined to stay open as much as possible (otherwise they would go entire weeks without provision), and so they planned for ‘snow days’. These were a mixture of subject specific student paced activities that could be taught at any point during the calendar year, and then generic sessions teaching things like study skills, careers sessions etc. The idea was that if on a snowy day, half the teachers and a quarter of the students couldn’t get in, they could simple use these planned activities to provide education to the learners with the resources (teachers that had made it in). They even had a member of staff (who lived within walking distance) whose duty on such a day was to co-ordinate which students would get which activities to ensure they didn’t have wasted repetition. This model worked really well, the staff and students were used to it, and accepted it, and because the sessions had been planned in advance (and once planned are valid for future years) – they were quality sessions, not something thrown together at the last minute just to fill time.

Snow covered roadAbout 3 years ago, I was contacted by a college to provide training for some of their teachers. The idea being to improve their skills at creating ‘online’ learning activities that are self paced and can be run with minimal tutor interaction for that particular activity. The way that I ran the session, was to create online versions of the ‘snow days’. I had one attendee from each subject area, so the first challenge was to identify a part of the curriculum that can be taught in isolation to other parts, and most importantly at any time of the year between late November and the end of March. Once that topic was identified, it is then building the learning activities for that topic, usually in the form of 5 stages as following:

  1. Providing them with some content – e.g. links to websites, videos, or files.
  2. Asking them a set of challenging questions around that content, to help focus the learners on the key points, and to think critically about the content. Depending on the subject, these may be closed questions that can be tested with a quiz where the computer gives instant feedback, or open questions where students either discuss with their peers via some form of forum activity, or more individual questions, where the student either brings answers to a future classroom activity.
  3. Designing an activity in which the learners will use the information from the above, to do something creative. This could be designing a poster to explain the concept, writing a press release from the eyes of a certain person, creating a mind map of the key information, etc.
  4. Designing a ‘stretch and challenge’ activity – e.g. something optional that the more able students can do if they want, but are not obliged to. In simple terms, this is usually a challenging, discussion provoking question posted into a forum.
  5. Assimilating the above into an area on the VLE in a way that is self explanatory, can be hidden until required (and then un-hidden easily).

The idea here, is if the organisation has a ‘snow day’ or similar (flooding, swine flu etc.), they have something already planned, which is easy to administer, can be completed by both the students that have manager to get in, and for some of those that haven’t, and if the weather is such that it hasn’t been required during the year, the teacher can just run this anyway at a convenient time for them.

I have run similar training sessions with other providers since (including schools, and a University), and they have proved to be very successful – not just training staff in a different way of teaching, but at the end of the day they have a tangible product (a planned ‘snow day’), and for one organisation in particular, this was picked up favourably by a future Ofsted inspection.

If any organisations are interested in me running such training days for them, then please get in touch via http://www.a6training.co.uk/contact.php – I have already had 2 communications this morning, from teachers at organisations that will today be using the activities planned in these training sessions.


Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/winter-snowy-street-frozen-snow-1209348/

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‘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.

‘Lesson planning’ or ‘Lesson documenting’?

When I started teaching back in 1998 I created a simple single side of A4 session plan template that stood me in good stead for my first few years of teaching (including many grade 1 inspections grades). Then when the team that I was in became a Centre of Vocational Excellence suddenly my template wasn’t good enough – I had to complete 4 sides of A4 per session, detailing my session to the finest detail and justifying everything that I did to ensure that I covered Key Skills, had different learning styles, differentiation etc….OK I recognise that these things are important, I don’t have a problem with that, but the format that we used to ‘plan’ the lessons didn’t actually help with the ‘planning’ process, nor was the 4+ page output easy to use during the actual session.

And this problem is not unique to my teaching experience. Just about every college in the land will have a lesson planning template that has been created which includes every little detail that an inspector may want to see, these templates are usually created in badly formatted word documents with the expectation that the tutor creates about 30 or so different files over the year with 1 per session.

A planning tool should be something that encourages (or at least allows) creativity, an ability for a tutor to easily move things around until they get the structure and balance of the session just right, and it is here that these templates are no longer ‘lesson planning’ tools, but ‘lesson documenting’ tools, and to add to the problem, many organisations try to create a single standardised format for all forms of learning. I used to teach a range of abilities including learners with severe learning difficulties, FE and HE and each different level actually needed a slightly different session plan. What about people that will be delivering the Diplomas – where you have consortia delivering the course – whose session planning template will you adopt, or will people create one just for the Diploma (which is what I would suggest).

Example of a mind mapped lesson plan

Example of a mind mapped lesson plan

So what do we need? – I think there needs to be a cultural shift to refocus the process of lesson planning, and we should look at tools that are quick and easy to use for tutors to create their lessons (for this I personally use Mind Genius) – once a lesson has been roughly mapped out by the tutor, they then need to be able to easily transport this information into the more formal ‘lesson documenting’ grid – where they can then complete the rest of the information.

One thing that I did do back in my teaching when confronted with the 4 page lesson plan format, was to use Excel to integrate my Scheme of Work with my lesson plans. This was created as a way of saving myself time as any information that was added into the scheme of work would automatically pull into the relevant lesson plans. This saved a lot of time and reduced pointless repetition (and subsequent errors) between the scheme of work and the plans. I also put the whole thing onto the VLE – so rather than printing my Scheme of Work and giving it to the learners in week 1 (only for it to be out of date by week 3) I gave the learners a URL which pointed to the Scheme of Work. This way if I made any alterations to the Scheme (as was always the case with me) the learners had an up to date version. I also gave the learners access to the session plans, this is not everyone’s idea of a good idea, but I had nothing to hide, and especially as I ran leadership units, giving them access to my session plans was a good resource in its own right.