Making the transition to blended learning as an educator for the first time? Some tips to ease the transition

Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney, School of Nursing and Human Sciences

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There has been large growth in the availability of programmes of Higher Education (HE) via remote means over the past 10 years with the aim of facilitating an “anytime anyplace” approach to learning.  This is driven by the need for the HEIs to provide flexible learning opportunities as well as a desire to attract students from wider pools. In theory this should require fewer resources and les campus facilities thereby easing the burden for institutions with shrinking budgets, fewer staff and more students.

In keeping with this agenda the School of Nursing and Human Sciences (SNHS) at Dublin City University offered a new blended learning Bachelor of Nursing Studies (BNS) Programme in 2011.  The students who take this programme are qualified nurses, many of whom are very experienced in clinical practise but are returning to education after a prolonged gap in classroom style learning, and some have limited IT skills. Hence for many of these students the return to learning was daunting and a steep learning curve ensued.

The students were not alone in their apprehensions however as the programme team who had to transition the programme from fully class room delivered teaching to a blended learning format were also feeling somewhat apprehensive with one staff member admitting that “I was frozen at the thought of making a video with myself in it”. It occurred to me that a stint in the Gaiety School of acting might have come in handy for the preparation ahead but I had never envisioned a career in “television”. As it turned out I had to become adept at filming, lighting, sound and editing before the year was out.

The programme team and the students who were based in Ireland and further afield including the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Tanzania survived the first year however and afterwards we reflected on the entire process, how well it had worked, what specific issues emerged, how we dealt with them and moved forward and in this blog we share those experiences in order that others making the transition to blended learning for the first time can benefit from our experiences. It is noteworthy that there is a paucity of published literature providing advice for educators embarking on the process for the first time.

Student engagement, student readiness as well as staff readiness were identified as important considerations in the successful execution of the programme. Initial apprehension and anxiety about engaging with technology enhanced learning were identified as barriers, in addition to tight timelines and existing heavy workloads. This time commitment involved not only developing the materials and front loading of work but also getting to grips with the new technologies and finding innovative ways to deliver material and get comfortable with it. In addition designing new smaller activities to both assess learning outcomes and engage students remotely required additional time and planning. These activities had to be conducted at the same time as existing or on-going programmes were being delivered and the usual workload allocation was in place for these staff members. Arising from this we recommend that consideration be given to staff involved in making programme transitions from traditional face to face to blended format within workload allocation to allow adequate time for the amount of work required.

Fears and apprehensions and hence staff readiness to use the new technology emerged strongly in our data. The idea that a staff member would be “frozen at the thought of making a video with myself in it” is a concern and indicates a training requirement which should have been addressed prior to this point where the programme was about to be rolled out.

It was also apparent that the transition required considerable input from our “technical” and “learning innovation” colleagues at all stages of the process which should be ongoing even after the programme has been launched. This will greatly enhance the quality and presentation of the materials as well as helping with ideas to deliver content and design assessment strategies.

Student ability/readiness to engage with technology enhanced learning was an important determinant of success. Insufficient IT skills resulted in some attrition from the programme in this first year. An orientation programme was subsequently developed in later years of the programme to capture and support struggling students as early as possible in the semester to reduce attrition from the programme. This took the format of “designated times” when students could phone/skype in and get technical support up to week 3 of the programme. Going forward we recommended that all prospective students should have a basic level of competency in IT prior to embarking on the programme and that upskilling was necessary prior to starting.

Face-to-face time with academic staff emerged as being very important to our students, evidenced by the fact that they turned up for the few tutorials offered even though some of them were as one colleague put it “the graveyard shift” which might have taken place in the early morning/late evening and even at weekends. A similar high participation rate was observed in the remote tutorials for the students who lived outside of Ireland.  We scheduled these remote tutorials at 2pm Irish time to try and accommodate those around the world at different time zones. It was obvious that students had saved up all of the questions/queries they had for the face-to-face sessions rather than submitting them electronically and this prompted us we to make sure that we took a more pro-active approach on line in the future to encourage students not to be afraid to submit their queries electronically early on and to not wait until the face-to face/remote sessions.

During the face-to-face and even remote classrooms we noticed that students shared their contact details with each other and we observed how important peer support and peer learning were for them. Some students reported feeling rather isolated up until that point but thereafter contacted one another if they needed support in some way (morale or in academic matters). We concluded that activities that enhance regular engagement between students are important considerations which should not be lost in the process.

It quickly became evident that placing large chunks of course material on the VLE (eg moodle/loop) did little to engage students actively and that measures to promote active student participation were required, such as using smaller activities (quizzes), writing discussing forums and inviting replies, making short Camtasia files available, making pod casts or using open source ones, recommending ebook chapters and providing URl links to interesting articles.

Another issue raised by some of the team related to when there were periods of apparent lack of activity on the VLE and it lead one colleague to ponder “sometimes you wonder if there really are any students out there”. Early, regular and timely feedback to students was identified as critical for student engagement but also for student improvement particularly amongst the weaker students; this can also help to identify students who are particularly challenged in the online environment.

The retention of some element of online examination was considered desirable in order to reduce the reliance on 100% course work and subsequent risk of plagiarism, but this would be a concern for all educational programmes and is not unique to online / blended learning. Reservations about whether transitioning the programme to an online format encouraged students to engage in additional practices of plagiarism were expressed by some. Others felt that elearning was no more likely to encourage plagiarism than other forms of learning/assessing. There was agreement that quality of content should remain the core consideration for the programme team and that ongoing work should be undertaken as the programmes progress into subsequent years to improve not only the content and delivery but also the sustainability. The need for a global content is important, after all the very idea of elearning is the prospect of reaching wider audiences.

The positive aspects expressed by the team involved included the new learning opportunity and experiences afforded to them in setting up the programme, the feeling of satisfaction now that it has been delivered, the peer sharing of experiences/content and assessment strategies between those on the programme team, which is not normally how we work as academics, which tends to be more solitary in nature rather than working together in groups.

In the field of nursing elearning is a relatively new and emerging field which will require huge cultural shifts for staff and students alike. It is clear that students value face-to-face time with their educators though so we should be careful to strike a balance between the tools used and the personal input and presence, otherwise we might be throwing the baby out with the bath water. The learnings from our experiences are likely to be transferrable to other fields of study as they are unlikely to be unique to nursing students/educators – hopefully you can use some of them to inform and ease your transition to blended learning.

 baby bath

 

Image sourced on google images at

https://facultydiary.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/73909-baby-with-the-bathwater.png

A peer reviewed publication entitled “Transition to blended learning: Experiences from the first year of our blended learning Bachelor of Nursing Studies (BNS) Programme” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Contemporary Nurse. If you want to see further details of the evaluation contact maryrose.sweeney@dcu.ie  for a copy of the paper.

Is it there LOT to be HOT? Some thoughts on pedagogical aspects of blogging

Dr Mel Duffy, Lecturer in Sociology & Sexuality Studies, School of Nursing & Human Sciences

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Traditionally, university students were initiated into the frame of critical thinking. It was a movement from the descriptive with the understanding that, as students, they faltered and felt out of their depth as they questioned their ability to critique with the overriding sentiment of ‘who are they to do so?’.  The authors of the subject matter of their choice were seen to hold the keys to knowledge and from them they would learn.  It is rather daunting for a student to be asked ‘well what did you think?’ or indeed ‘do you agree?’ to the point of ‘how would you have written this differently with the knowledge that you hold’?  This is the interactive space of a classroom whereby the student would be encouraged through words, facial expressions and body language.  The lecturer becomes a reader of bodies to enable them to help students. When we move to the internet and blogging, two out of three tools of engagements are removed.  The challenge will become how to interact and encourage without the physicality of seeing and reading or indeed the setting of the classroom.

There is an assumption that students are computer and indeed internet literate which for those of us not of their generation can be quite daunting.  However therein lies the conundrum.  Using a tool such as blogging for pedagogy is inherently different that using it as soap box for everyday living. Zawilinski (2009 p.652) suggest that using what has become ordinary communication tools of the internet such as twitter and blogging does not necessarily create ‘effective and efficient’ usage.  Indeed the question does arise as to how do they move from the soap box scenario which we might call Lower Order Thinking (LOT) to what has become called Higher Order Thinking (HOT).  Deng and Yuen (2011) indicate that blogs facilitate those with little technical skills to become publishers.  The online blog offers space whereby ones thoughts, options, emotional reactions, political agendas and activism can be winged out to a wider audience rather than family and friends being set upon over dinner or indeed a couple of beverages.  One could say that the internet alleviates their burden.  However, the problem arises as to how it becomes more than just the visceral reaction to the moment.  It is this that the facilitator/administrator of the blog in the academy has to encourage movement from reaction to thinking, to reflection to critique.  Whatever the language used to describe the outcome whether it is HOT or critical analysis, it is the movement of thinking into a space of combining reading, reflection and evaluation into a coherent written format that is at play.  My concerns are centred on this movement, if other students are critiques of their peers work what skills have they developed to become the critique? Taking up occupancy of the academy was to impart training and development of the skill set required.  The internet and use of the blog would appear to once remove the academic from the process which raises the spectre of our knowing that the skill set acquired by the student falls into the HOT category.  Deng and Yuen (2011) suggests that blogs have a potential wider audience of all internet uses, however if the skill set is to be developed, does it not require a closed blog group?  Indeed this raises the question as to whether there is any such thing as a closed group on the internet?  It would appear that those who engage with this process become advocates for its usage suggesting that it is a ‘transformational technology for teaching and learning’ (Williams and Jacobs 2004 p.245), that by supporting lecturers it can ‘readily engage learners in a problem-solving setting’ (Wang et al 2007 p.276) and it has become an ‘enabling learning tool’ (Farmer, Yue and Brooks 2008 p.123).  For me I am confronted by Frost’s (1916) image of the road not taken and maybe for me it is a leap into the unknown and emerges from the undergrowth of pedagogy irrespective of the space it finds itself in.

References

Deng, Liping & Yuen, Allan H.K. 2011. Towards a framework for educational affordances of blogs. Computers & Education pp441-451

Farmer, Brett; Yue, Audrey & Brooks, Claire. 2008.  Using blogging for higher order learning in large cohort university teaching: A case study. Australian Journal of Educational Technology. Pp.123-136

Halic, Olivia; Lee, Debra; Paulus,  Trena & Spence, Marsha.  2010 To blog or not to blog: Student perceptions of blog effectiveness for learning in a college-level course. Internet and Higher Education pp.206-213

Hsu, Chin-Lung & Lin, Judy Chuan-Chuan. 2007. Acceptance of blog usage: The roles of technology acceptance, social influence and knowledge sharing motivation. Information & Management pp.65-74

Kim, Hyung Nam. 2008. The phenomenon of blogs and theoretical model of blog use in educational contexts. Computers & Education pp1342-1352

Wang, Kun Te; Huang, Yueh-Min; Jeng, Yu-Lin & Wang, Tzone-I. 2008. A blog-based dynamic learning map. Computers & Education pp.262-278

Zawilinski, Lisa. 2009.  HOT Blogging: A Framework for Blogging to Promote Higher Order Thinking. The Reading Teacher pp.650-661

How to motivate students to read prior to class: RATS!

Author: Catherine Corrigan Lecturer School of Nursing and Human Sciences

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Getting students to come to class prepared can be a challenge!

One way to encourage engagement with pre-reading activities is the use of Readiness Assessment Tests (RATs). I have been using RATs over the past 6 years and can attest that this method really works, albeit attaching a grade to the activity, which is always a good motivator.

RATs are short (10 question) quizzes that test the students’ knowledge about the assigned readings1. The items can be multiple-choice questions (MCQs), open-ended items, or a combination of the two. The questions are written at the remembering and understanding levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and are taken directly from the assigned pre-readings.

RATS

Frequent quizzes increase the likelihood that students will read prior to class1 and RATs are ideal to motivate this activity. A small percentage (2%) of the final grade can be awarded towards each RAT, meaning that a total of 10 – 12% can become part of the final evaluation, although as much as 60% has been awarded for the 10-item quizzes2.

Use RATs in class or online
RATs can be administered face-to-face or online, synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous RAT administration requires that the instructor display each item for an allotted time (typically 1.5 minutes), with the advantage of the computer automatically calculating the score and including it in the grade centre. Asynchronous online RAT items are written at the more difficult application and analyses levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, because the students 1) are allowed to use their resources and 2) are provided more than one attempt to take the RAT. Instructors can allow up to three attempts for an asynchronous online RAT – this process provides students the opportunity to increase their score. Most platforms such as Moodle and Blackboard can be set up to either accept the most recent score or accept the highest score, to facilitate instructor preference. The questions can include short essay questions that ask the student to explain the meaning of a topic in their own words for instance, as well as some MCQs and/or open-ended items. The student can access the assigned reading material up to three times, meaning that reviewing and revision is occurring, facilitating the development of declarative knowledge3.

Individual RATs and group RATs
When the student has completed their individual RAT (iRAT), they join a (pre-assigned) group to complete the same 10 questions in a group RAT (gRAT) in less time (1 minute per item). The gRAT provides the opportunity for students to accrue extra points; if they are successful in their iRAT, they are awarded the average of the two scores (iRAT and gRAT); however they can only get the benefit of the gRAT score if they ‘pass’ their iRAT, meaning that students cannot ‘pass’ an iRAT on the addition of the group score. If the gRAT score is less than the iRAT score, students get to keep their higher score. The objective of the gRAT is to facilitate another exposure to the material within a short space of time, as well as the learning that occurs through students’ discussing the RAT items, such as providing rationale for why they chose one answer over another. Scratch and win multiple choice cards4 (similar to lottery scratch off tickets) can be used for the gRAT, where students can get immediate feedback on which answer was ‘starred’ correct. An alternate method of review is displaying the questions for the class and discussing each question’s answer as a learning opportunity, in particular by discussing the MCQ distractors as well. Frequent assessment and feedback helps students learn1 moreover timely feedback is paramount to the learning process.

The use of resources
It is up to the discretion of the instructor whether to allow the students to use notes for their face-to-face iRAT. The objective of allowing notes during the iRAT is not to make the test easier, rather to encourage students to read and take hand-written notes (not typed) prior to coming to class. Additionally, allowing the use of notes reduces the pressure of test taking. Pre-reading, note taking, iRATs, gRATs and an in-class review follows Marzano’s recommended four exposures to new material3 to facilitate learning.

Try it!
There are lots of advantages besides encouraging pre-reading! Unannounced quizzes motivate students to read prior to all classes because the quiz scores effects their grade5. For instance, RATs can be administered at the start of class sharp (to encourage timely attendance at a face-to-face or synchronous online webinar), anytime during class (to energise a fading group of students), or on any given day of class throughout the module. Avoid letting students know what day and at what time RATs will be administered – this practice encourages students to read prior to every class, attend class and be on time.

Online RATs completed prior to class provide data for the instructor that can be helpful for class preparation with an emphasis on areas that the students are finding challenging6. Face-to-face RATs can also be used as a means of formative assessment and the instructor can use the data on challenging concepts to prepare for future classes.

References

  1. Weinstein, S. and Wu, S. 2009. Readiness assessment tests verses frequent quizzes: Student performance, International Journal of Teaching and Learning In Higher Education, 21(2), pp. 181-186.
  2. Critz, C. and Knight, D. 2013. Using the flipped classroom in graduate nursing education, Nurse Educator, 38(5), pp. 210-213.
  3. Marzano, R. 2007. Art and Science of Teaching. Virginia: ASCD.
  4. Sibley, J. 2013. Team Cohesion-Readiness Assurance Process. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_Nzj-QU5Dk (Accessed: 11 April 2016).
  5. Vandsburger, E. and Duncan-Datson, R. 2011. Evaluating the study guide as a tool for increasing students’ accountability for reading the textbook. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 42(1), pp. 6-23.
  6. Heiner, C., Banet, A., and Wieman, C. 2014. Preparing students for class: How to get 80% of students reading the textbook before class. American Journal of Physics, 82(10). pp. 989- 996.

A Devil’s Glossary

Author: Paul van Kampen, CASTeL and School of Physical Sciences

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This twenty-first century homage to Ambrose Bierce aims to elucidate terms that often appear in this blog. Only typical examples pertaining to common practices in the teaching and learning of science in Faculty of Science and Health at DCU are shown.

  •  assessment: rigorous method of mapping a student’s cognitive development during 12 weeks in a narrowly delineated area of science onto an integer between 0 and 100; cornerstone of university education that allows a student to showcase the power of their short-term memory and their proficiency at complex routine calculations.
  • continuous assessment: watered-down version of assessment administered in every module in weeks 6 and 12 to engage students (meaning 2) and prepare them for the real thing. Not to be confused with formative assessment, which does not meet the criteria for inclusion in this glossary.
  • circular reasoning: logically flawless argument confirming a premise, e.g. “lectures are good if and only if they transmit information accurately. In their exams these students reproduced the information presented to them in lectures accurately, so their lectures were good”.
  • data: 1. (research) a set of scrutinized observations. Antonym: data (meaning 2). 2. (teaching) See data (meaning 1).
  • direct instruction: the transmission of knowledge; most effective in three-hour blocks containing two 10-minute breaks to groups of 200 to 400 students in a Venutian atmosphere, in which case it also transmits reasoning skills.
  • discovering things for themselves: the only alternative to direct instruction. See also teaching (meaning 2); ignore e.g. Socratic questioning.
  • to dumb down: to engage in teaching pitched at students rather than academics.
  • to dumb up: (rare, may only appear in this blog post) to engage in direct instruction that can only be examined by recall questions. See also assessment.
  • to engage students: 1. to interlace direct instruction with videos and story telling. 2. to attempt to turn all students into good students.
  • good student: 1. student who is assigned a large integer in assessment. 2. a pleasant student who appears likely to experience this.
  • learning: the vestiges of teaching.
  • reasoning skills: collectively they denote the ability to apply concepts and resolve hitherto unseen complex problems; transmitted by direct instruction.
  • science: a body of knowledge determined by scientists to be learnt by good students, and other students too if they behave.
  • Socratic questioning: endlessly asking students what they think to avoid preparing direct instruction; purported to cause learning in victims and hemlock poisoning in perpetrators.
  • teaching: 1. direct instruction. 2. (often within scare quotes) sitting around while students exchange pleasantries.
  • university education: 1. (archaic) the acquisition of advanced knowledge, research skills, professional and ethical values, and the facilitation thereof. 2. an elaborate form of certification that depresses unemployment numbers among the middle classes at roughly the cost of a Jobseeker’s Allowance.
  • unproven methods: any interaction involving students that is not direct instruction. See also circular reasoning.