Friday, 29 January 2016

Classroom tablets

On occasion you come across an article or report that states something so blindingly obvious that you have to consciously restrain yourself from making a comment along the maturity and eloquence level of: "Well, duh."

Today, that moment came to me courtesy of an article entitled "Tablets: the correct prescription?" by Steve Wheeler which I read primarily because the title suggested the same conflict I feel about the value a class set of tablets provide. And what did I find?
Clearly tablets and mobile devices were designed to be used as personal tools, and as such can be best used for personalised learning
Well, clearly.

Then I took ten seconds to reflect on it.

Tablets and mobile devices have been causing me headaches in a classroom context for years. I think absolutely they are a fabulous learning tool. They are critically important for swift research, for individual thoughts and expression, and for a variety of points along the learning journey there's an app to support that!

But teachers worry about controlling a class full of teenagers with the internet at their fingertips. How do we maintain order? How do you ensure students stay on task? What if the devices are stolen or broken?

What if...? What then...? And why...?

I've been on this for a while now and looking around our classrooms I've seen success implementing personal devices for activities, I've seen failure, I've seen mediocrity. What I have never seen is an absolute, definite sign that this is the future of education and that "well, duh" moment showed me why.

The best and most valuable part of classroom time is interaction with the teacher. Some digital activities can be driven by the teacher using tools such as Socrative or BlendSpace, but many are independent activities. That's great for Directed Study time, or homework, or online learning or any one of a million varieties of learning *when not in the physical presence of your teacher*.

So what is the point of gathering thirty young people together to do individual activities? Why can't they stay at home?

Is the classroom really the best place for tablets?

On the flip side, I want there to be digital textbooks and for digital handouts and reference materials to become the norm. That isn't possible without tablets, and to access those materials in the classroom, the tablets need to be there too.

We need tablets to be a utility in the classroom, but maybe they are not the medium for a whole lesson teaching that people have been enthusing about. Maybe they can just be passive lumps that students occasionally glance at while the teacher drives things along. Maybe when the student is alone and struggling, then the active stuff begins.

I'd love to have thoughts on this topic because, as you can see, I am teetering to both sides whilst remaining firmly on the fence here.


Friday, 22 January 2016

Student deadlines

Online learning has been quite the buzzword around FE since the Feltag report was published [1] and one of the outcomes of this report is a shift in perception of what online learning is and how much (on occasion "if") it matters.

I have long been frustrated by the feeling that we (the digital technologists) are a nice extra to have, which lends an obvious bias to this blog post! I don't intend to apologise for this though - despite being a living, breathing embodiment of that particular British stereotype - because it is driving my enthusiasm for this opportunity to *prove* that online learning is a core part of the modern world and we absolutely should embrace it!

In light of the increasing number of challenges facing FE (take your pick: funding pressures, increased expectations, falling numbers of students or increasing quantities of minor natural disasters precluding access to our physical environments), online learning is being given its first real chance to shine.

We have the investment, we have reliable technology, we have a pretty reliable core infrastructure (recent Janet attacks notwithstanding) and in my humble opinion the best thing we can do is really mess with the status quo.

For instance, I just read this blog post "When students won't do the reading" by John Warner (aka @biblioracle) that talks about how we can encourage students to do reading in advance of class.

This resonated for a number of reasons:
  1. We are committing to 10% online teaching next year and we need to know our students are doing that work.
  2. The article picks up the repeating refrain that students *do not* have the independent learning skills that motivate them to take responsibility to prioritise their own workload.
  3. Students do not experience the same things as employees, despite our focus on preparing our students for the workplace. In this case, a variety of deadline types.
As John notes, the status quo for students is simple: all of their work has hard deadlines - when it has to be submitted for grading. Ungraded work is typically the stuff that students don't have time for.

For employees it is less simple: we have deadlines (once again using John's words) of varying priority: hard, soft, floating and non-deadlined.

John identifies that students would benefit from a variance in deadline types and, echoing Mrs Proudie, I agree with him. So how can we make it happen?

Luckily, we are already trialling this *smug zone entered*. I'll admit it's a side effect of another project, but the students it has been trialled with have responded really well.

I mentioned above we are committed to 10% online delivery next year. This is something we have been planning and working towards for a while now and this year all full time level 2 and 3 students had timetabled "Directed Study" sessions, where they were given work to complete unsupported by their teacher. This may have been online or classroom based, but all students were required to turn up to a directed study room as timetabled, scan in to complete a register and scan out at the end of the session.

Next year those sessions will be purely online. Students will be timetabled into a session in a dedicated Online Learning space, supporting students who don't have the ability or motivation to complete online learning at home. For the rest of the students however, these timetabled sessions aren't the smartest way to do online learning, despite the administrative benefits that come with the (theoretically) simple registration process.

This trial was run with Level 3 Business students and they are all, by default, marked as "present" at their Directed Study session. Their teacher sets them work for their session on the VLE, and releases it on a weekly basis (it's pages in a book, for those interested in the detail). They can complete this work at any time they wish before their timetabled session, but they always have to submit something on completion (into an assignment, complete with plagiarism checking). The teacher checks the submitted work five minutes before the start of the timetabled session and marks "absent" anyone who hasn't already submitted. Those students have to go to the Directed Study session and attend for the full hour.

In terms of online learning it's working well. The students are at the stage where they are in a routine and pressuring the teacher to open the submission point once they finish. The plagiarism check means they can't get away with submitting "Copy+Paste" material and a file size check is enough to gauge a very rough idea of the content. Of course there is a marking and review element after the Directed Study session, but this was the choice of the teacher. Automatic marking is still viable in other areas.

The side effect though is the deadline management skill. Students have a soft deadline: to complete the work before the directed study session means they don't have to spend an hour in that room doing that work. If they fail to meet that deadline, they have a hard deadline: attend Directed Study AND complete the work by the end of the session.

Suddenly they have the freedom to prioritise their time at home against their time in Directed Study. For students who like a lie in, want to finish early, or just fancy hanging out with their friends in the middle of the day, it's a no-brainer. For those who think it's more important to keep their evenings free to focus on other things, that's an option too. And for those without access to online resources from home, whatever the reason, there's no penalty.

I really do love online learning.


[1] Recently things have quieted there, but at a meting with Paul Feldman towards the end of last year I was assured that Jisc intend to pick it up and run with it again.