In this post Dave Middleton, HEA National Teaching Fellow, talks to Jenni Carr about the use of multi-media resources and online environments to enhance the student experience and the role of 'playfulness' in learning and teaching.
Much of the development of learning and teaching materials that you have been involved in has focused on the use of multimedia resources. Could you say a little about your motivations for this approach and how you think this enhances the student experience?
I’ve long felt that too much education consists of somebody standing in front of a group of students telling them things. I’ve also been acutely aware that even the best lecturers cannot maintain their audience’s attention for more than 15-20 minutes. I discovered a long time ago that there was no need to try, although ‘trying’ is a good word for some of the lectures I had to sit through as a student! We are surrounded by 21st Century media, and yet too often learning and teaching is delivered as if we were still in the 17th Century! I was always impressed with BBC documentaries, the way in which the presenters, from a position of ‘professional naivety’, could explore an issue as if they were learning it at the same time as their audience. It just occurred to me that if I wanted students to understand some of the difficult concepts we were dealing with – inequality, respect, alienation for example – that it was in everybody’s interest to make it as interesting and engaging as possible. That is why I have never felt that there is only one way of teaching, and also that the goal of a good teacher should be to use whatever tools that they have at their disposal. I should add, of course, that none of this was specifically my idea, I have watched more experienced colleagues with their use of audio and video and their engagement with social media, and been happy to shamelessly rip off their ideas and incorporate them into my own work!
In your staff development role you developed a training course for OU tutors on using Elluminate as an online tutorial system. What do you think are the opportunities and challenges presented by this kind of environment for supporting students?
The move to online learning in the Open University has been a massive challenge. Many of the tutors have been with the OU for a good number of years, and are very good at what they do. What they did not want was somebody like me coming along and saying ‘what you do is great, but now you need to do it differently’. But, in my view, online learning, especially in a distance learning environment is, I believe, what in modern parlance is called a ‘no-brainer’. We have students, literally, living in some of the most inhospitable parts of the UK and they simply cannot get to tutorials. Now, the OU has always said that tutorials are not compulsory, and that in itself is problematic. As soon as I started experimenting with Elluminate (what we now call OU Live) I realised that there was a huge number of students who had never had an opportunity to experience a collective educational experience, which most of us took for granted as students. I also realised that the idea that online tutorials are just face-to-face tutorials but on a computer was very wrong. There are things that we can do in an online tutorial that are nearly impossible in a classroom setting. The ability, for example, to have 20 or 30 students simultaneously writing on a whiteboard is unique to the online environment. That is fantastically empowering for students who often will not speak. Whilst I would regard myself as a techy person, I’ve always liked gadgets, I also think that you should use them to enhance delivery not just because you can. As an example, the OU has struggled to find a way to make forums work well. This is partly because of the forum system that we have, which pales beside Facebook, and partly because it was never clear whether forums were chat rooms or teaching spaces. That ambiguity is a real problem. My own view is that it is possible to be dogmatic about pedagogy and treat one form as if it is the only form. That I think shows a narrow-mindedness that should really have no place in a modern university. I’ll just add one point on the on-going battles over online learning. The war will inevitably be won by the technophiles, so we need to be in there working together to make sure the tech is used for the benefit of students and not just to cut costs. But my real point is the irony of receiving emails criticising the increasing use of online learning ‘sent from my iphone’!
In my experience you have always introduced a sense of fun and ‘playfulness’ into your approach to learning and teaching. Without wanting to be too serious (!) what role do you think playfulness plays in learning and teaching?
I want to meet the person who said that people learn more by being bored. It’s amazing to me that if you were to say to most lecturers what constitutes a successful lecture they would mostly say that getting a laugh in the right place is quite important. Many people, however, tend to a view that if the subject matter is serious, you should be too. Now I can see that there are not a lot of jokes to be had in some subjects, but laughter and play are incredibly important features of a civilized society. In my opinion, some of the problems with society more widely, and HE in particular, are that the managerialist agenda is entirely humourless. I have always tried to inject some of my own personality into what I do. I’m not a particularly dour person. I enjoy a laugh with friends, will usually try to see the funny side of events and don’t tend to dwell on sadness too much. That’s not to say that I am entirely immune to any of those things, but I find a smile, a laugh, even a little chuckle during teaching brings out the best in students. I was in a meeting not too long ago when it was asserted that ‘students do not like role plays’. Like most such assertions there was no evidence for it, and my suspicion was that the person making the assertion didn’t like role plays. That is fair enough. But, I have used games (often painstakingly created out of laminated card with very complex rules), role plays, dramas, and yes, just jokes, throughout my teaching career (of course, the concept of my ‘teaching career’ might fall into the joke category!). No student has ever given any feedback to me, either to my face or anonymously, to suggest that this was what they disliked about my teaching. In fact, very often I have had students tell me that the sessions are amongst their favourites. Of course, there were no doubt students who suffered in silence, but their desire to be bored was possibly being well met in other learning and teaching contexts, so I was reasonably confident that I was doing them little real damage!
What advice would you give to a colleague who is about engage in e-learning/multimedia experimentation of their own?
At the risk of sounding like a Nike advert – just do it! The easiest option is to just keep on doing things as they have always been done - rock no boats, take no risks, and concentrate your efforts elsewhere. But, taking the easy option is not always the best option. It’s a bit like saying you can either enjoy going to the theatre or enjoy watching TV, but you can’t do both. Why not? I enjoy the theatre, I also enjoy TV. At different times, and in different ways. Why would I think any differently about different media. I can make my point by arguing, by writing, by using photos or in a video - why would I want to restrict myself to just one of those options? The only limits to what you can do are your imagination, your technical skills and your budget. Well, we all have imagination, and if you are really not sure how to use multimedia in your teaching there are a number of very good websites with great examples that you can borrow. If you are worried about your technical skills, just practice. You may never be able to create a photo as good as David Bailey, but if you practice who knows what you might capture. And, as for budget, well the truth is that until recently I have worked with no budget at all for virtually everything I have done. It’s amazing how much free software there is out there. As a simple example, making a short video for use in the classroom. You need some screen capture software (there are a lot of options but a free one is Open Broadcaster Software, and if you are a Mac user you can use Quicktime to capture video), and someway of recording audio. That’s all I started with and you know, the little videos that I created weren’t particularly good, but they were better than nothing. I recently decided to create a podcast and whilst I do, thanks to the HEA, have some pretty fancy equipment, all you actually need is a microphone, which all laptops and tablets come with, and the ability to create an MP3 file and upload it. The results may not be that good, but you can judge for yourself here: https://audioboom.com/SyniadDa. Moreover, in most universities there is a department somewhere with a cupboard stuffed full of equipment that has never been used. Track it down, get those videos and audio recorders out of those boxes and just play around with them. And, if you have some students who you can encourage to collaborate with you it is possible to make some fantastic resources that will benefit everybody. We did just that with a grant from the HEA, and the results are on You Tube: .
- Active reading
- Looking after yourself
- Revising - some dos and don'ts
- Study methods
- Support for your studies
- Reading and recall
So, I guess, that is my challenge to anybody reading this: liberate that shiny, new equipment and just create something.
Future-gazing – where next in terms of developing your own practice? Is there an emerging practice/technology that is grabbing your interest?
This is a tricky question, actually. I have reached a bit of a crossroads career-wise and could just carry on doing what I’m doing, or look for something else to get involved with which I think would enhance the student experience. The problem is that the desire to innovate is sometimes greater than the opportunity to do so. I’ve been excited by the possibilities opened up by live streaming events. In the distance context, the ability to bring the institution closer to the students obviously has massive implications. However, I am worried that live streaming can become a fairly passive medium for students and rather than developing an interaction between academics and students becomes yet another way in which we get to talk at them, rather than to them. We are still at the early days of using social media and I suspect that the time will come when every academic uses Twitter, Facebook and writes a regular blog. The problem is by the time we all do students will have moved on to something else!
I mentioned that it is hard to innovate, I do wonder whether others feel that in an era of ever-increasing cost cutting, that innovation is something that we can no longer afford?
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