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Unconventional methods of teaching using new technologies

Tagged:

Francis Wright
Contributor:
Warren Boutcher
Department: School of English and Drama

Quick Summary

This case study concerns a design for a humanities module which uses e-learning tools to engage all students both individually and in collaborating groups continuously throughout. The process begins before the module starts, by means of introductory videos they watch and respond to before the first session. They then post individually on learning journals before the lecture on each topic and I give feedback within a week if they do it on time. Between the lecture week and the following seminar week they work together in small groups through a wiki to collaborate in the development of a plan for their group presentation. Again, the designated small group leader each week gets feedback within the week.

Background

I was setting up three interlocking level 6 modules all to be taught in the same class – 30 cu and 2 x 15 cu versions (i.e. students could take the whole year, just the first semester, or just the second semester) – on Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama. Students who were starting in semester 2 would need the same access to introductory and inductive course materials and exposition as students starting in semester 1. I wanted to teach the module in unconventional two-week blocks on one topic, as I was dissatisfied with the two-hours per week lecture and seminar format for third years: a three-hour lecture discussion with the whole cohort one week (as it turned out, 27 students), followed by two separate two-hour seminars (of 14 and 13 students respectively) the following week. 

 The assessment would be weighted differently for the one-semester and two-semester versions but would balance a final essay against marks for individual week-by-week contributions as pedagogy in humanities subjects puts considerable emphasis on the combination of weekly reading and discussion in classes. But I also wanted a balance between individual contributions and group collaborations. I wanted the students to work in a structured way in small groups between lecture-discussion and seminars, with a different student group leader each time, to prepare not individual but group presentations in a variety of formats e.g. debates, acted-out passages, av-rich presentations etc. But my experience of small group work on other modules led me also to want to give them a separate opportunity to record their individual responses to the same topics before the lecture-discussion – if you do not give students this opportunity and they receive marks for ‘group work’ anxieties quickly emerge in groups that have non-contributing members.

Methodology

After a preliminary discussion I asked my e-learning assistant to prepare various sample set-ups for the three core elements of what I wanted to do:

  1. a way of delivering introductory course material online in advance of the beginning of the module both in semester 1 and in semester 2 (when new students taking the semester 2-only version join us) – this should be on open access so that it could also be used for module recruitment and potentially for promotional purposes beyond QM;
  2. a way of allowing students to collaborate online in the week between the lecture-discussion and the seminar to build a joint plan for their presentation and to communicate regularly in a manner that could be monitored by the module convenor;
  3. a forum for individual responses (not visible to other students) for submission before the lecture-discussion that could be easily viewed together by the convenor for incorporation into the lecture-discussion (so that I already knew what the class thought when I started the lecture) and for subsequent marking.

I did not stipulate that these all had to be achievable with in-built QMPlus tools – the field was open for use of all kinds of online resources.

Outcome/results

(1) ended up occupying by far the most of our time. (2) and (3) proved to be relatively straightforward as we judged that the available QMPlus tools would work. We used the QM wiki tool for (2). The idea was that students would use the wiki itself to build a plan for the presentation and the ‘comments’ tab to communicate with one another. We are now in week 4 of the new modules and this has mostly worked well with one exception: the wiki tool has no function that alerts contributors to new updates – the students were nonplussed by this. In practice they do not tend to build the actual plan together – the group leader decides the outline of what they are going to do and suggests parts or tasks the other members might like to take up – they then choose. I can easily see how quickly the group leader starts organising things over the week and what the contributions of the other group members are.

For (3) we used the in-built QMPlus blog tool. Again, this has worked well. For the first formally assessed blog all 27 students had submitted by the deadline – 11 am before the 2pm lecture-discussion – giving me time to absorb what they had written before beginning the lecture. They are, however, very time-consuming to mark and comment upon on a bi-weekly basis.

(1) took up most of the time available because, once we had decided that short videocasts was the best way to go, we were confronted with many options for making these, from the QM in-built Chrome tool to various free online screencasting tools to bespoke commercial packages such as Camtasia. We decided they had to be editable screencasts as:

  • you rarely get it right in one take
  • they needed to be quite professional, not dull, with visual effects
  • they need to be adaptable and editable year on year

for we also realised the key thing was not the production of a set of videos that would do the job for this year and all future years, but the training of the module convenor in how to make good videocasts. Especially in the case of new material it can be difficult to judge how and in what level of detail, with which key concepts, you want to introduce a module until the module actually starts and you have the students in front of you.

In the event we went with Camtasia, which I purchased via IT on departmental expenses. My e-learning assistant trained me in how to use this by producing bespoke how-to guides and by sharing videos back-and-forth and by editing ones that I had made. I successfully made two videocasts: one introducing the key concepts of the module using a graphic, one running through the module profile/ assessment/ mode of delivery etc. This meant that in the very first session I could get straight on with discussing the first topic: Hamlet and Titus Andronicus.

Overall outcome: three interlocking modules up-and-running smoothly in blended learning mode with no real issues (so far!).

This project provides a model for (a) incorporating videocasts into teaching; (b) delivering a specific form of weekly blended learning involving both small group, collaborative work and individual learning journals.

Advice for others

  • I had an old module on similar themes, with some similar elements but rather than revive that and adapt I started from scratch: much better to redesign a whole module and incorporate e-learning in the foundations of the design that to bolt-on e-learning elements to an existing module.
  • Start very early designing the module: I started more than a year before first delivery and I still went right up to the wire getting everything ready for launch – even with an extremely helpful e-learning assistant.
  • Learn how to make animated and interesting short videocasts – these can be an invaluable teaching tool for freeing up classroom time for interactive activities.
  • The E-Learning Assistant suggested that if I am going to get them to watch a screencast of key concepts before the module even starts then I need to ask them to do something on the back of watching it. Thus, I added a formative assessment which required them to write 250 words before the module had begun applying the concepts in the videocast to the first two plays: 20 out of 27 did this.
  • Other suggestion was that the videocast is fine but ‘I only really started paying attention when you started asking questions in an animated voice rather than just stating stuff’

The videocast can be accessed here : http://qmplusmedia.qmul.ac.uk/media/core-themes

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