Anyone going to follow Clay Shirky & ask students to put laptops away?

Not Allowed!

Not Allowed! By My Sideways World on Flickr

Back in February I blogged about attention and and whether students were checking out of the flipped classroom.   In the post I mentioned the work Howard Rheingold has done around attention literacy and videoing one of his classes and then subsequently only allowing one or two students to take notes on laptops in his classes.

Several months on I continue to mull over these issues and so probably no surprise that a tweet linking to a piece on Medium from Clay Shirky outlining why he’s asked his students to stop using laptops and mobile devices in his classes caught my attention.  Shirky has banned the use of laptops in class unless they are required and in the piece he explains his rationale.  He says:

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when I do have a specific reason to ask everyone to set aside their devices (‘Lids down’, in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting — when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.

So this year, I moved from recommending setting aside laptops and phones to requiring it, adding this to the class rules: “Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it.)”

Shirky goes on to outline the problems with multi-tasking, including the long term negative impact it can have on declarative memory.  He says:

People often start multi-tasking because they believe it will help them get more done. Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded. However, it provides emotional gratification as a side-effect. (Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.) This side-effect is enough to keep people committed to multi-tasking despite worsening the very thing they set out to improve.

On top of this, multi-tasking doesn’t even exercise task-switching as a skill. A study from Stanford reports that heavy multi-taskers are worse at choosing which task to focus on. (“They are suckers for irrelevancy”, as Cliff Nass, one of the researchers put it.) Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.

Shirky doesn’t say how his students have taken to this laptop ban though he does highlight that some students will opt of paying attention anyway (something which has always happened anyway even in the days when we didn’t laptops).

Has Shirky been too radical? It would be interesting to hear what lecturers and students think about banning laptops.  Is anyone else thinking of banning laptops or already done it.  How has that gone down with students.


Attention & students checking out of the flipped classroom

Following a couple of conversations with students over the past week and reading a few articles in Clinical Teacher and Medical Education I’ve been thinking about attention in lectures and student learning skills.  The picture above isn’t too far removed from the daily view our lecturers see, a sea of MacBooks and laptops, there are growing numbers of iPads and other tablets and some students will be interacting with 2 or 3 devices.  It’s a sight that some teaching staff find disconcerting.  They question what students are really up to, are they paying attention, are they on Facebook, texting their mates?
After being hit by a sea of laptops in a tutorial she was delivering Hannah Beckwith (1) has asked if we’re hitting a wall in teaching undergraduate medical students.  Hannah was taken aback and questioned why students felt the need to have their laptops.
First of all, I found myself asking the question ‘why?’ Why had the students felt it necessary to bring a laptop to the tutorial? Were they scared? Had previous sessions been too interactive, and did they feel the need to place a physical barrier between the ‘interrogator’ and themselves? Or were topics too complex, and learners struggling to keep up? Such that they needed to search the internet during the tutorial to supplement understanding? Or were they bored, and using the time to check e-mails or Facebook, messaging their friends around the globe complaining about their ‘ridiculous timetables’?
I tweeted the link to this and got a couple of responses
If I was a student today I’d be taking my iPad or laptop along to lectures and tutorials in the same way I used to take along a note pad.  I do it at conferences, I take notes, might tweet or Google to look up something that’s been mentioned so I have it saved for future reference. I do however fully accept that there are students who have an issue with attention in lectures and classes and that lecturers may find it off putting not being able to make face contact with students as they are hidden behind laptop screens.

Students switching off in lectures is nothing new, I remember boring lectures where students ended up playing hangman or battle ships or keeping a tally of how many times a lecturer repeated a particular phrase or word. We had some great lecturers and some weren’t so good.  Lectures get a bad press these days because they don’t necessarily promote active learning and higher order thinking, for me lectures provided a framework to build on in my own study time and I’ve referred previously to the fact that students do still get inspired in lectures.  Howard Rheingold has also written extensively about attention and I’ve often thought it would be interesting to replicate what he has done. Videoing a class and then showing them what’s it’s like from the teacher perspective and then showing what the students were doing on their laptops and then running classes where only one or two students are allowed to use a laptop for notes taking for the class.

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After MOOCs perhaps one of the other things most talked about is the flipped classroom and there is growing interest in applying this approach where students watch condensed video lectures or engage with pre-reading resources before coming to the class and then applying that knowledge in various learning activities in the lecture session. Whilst appreciating the attraction of this approach, I’ve never really thought it was anything particularly new given that we’ve always had smaller group teaching sessions where students are required to come prepared and engage with pre-class resources.  I know many colleagues get exasperated because many students simply don’t come prepared and so half the session is spent trying to get everyone to the place where they can start to effectively take part in the learning activities they’ve planned.  It was interesting therefore to read a paper by Casey White and colleagues (2) at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and their experience of the flipped classroom in their new curriculum.

Virginia School of Medicine has redeveloped its curriculum to encourage more student engagement and active learning in the classroom based around constructivist and adult learning principles. The flipped classroom was adopted as an approach and there was a hope that this would also address falling attendance at lectures.  Students seemed to like these flipped sessions when they worked well but teaching staff noticed ‘dwindling’ attendance over the course of the phase of the pre-clinical curriculum and a growing issue around student attention with students being distracted from the learning task in hand.  Student evaluation highlighted only 25% of the class regularly attended these sessions and that the sessions varied in quality.

White and her colleagues ran student focus groups to investigate why students weren’t engaging with these flipped classroom sessions (allbeit the groups were volunteers and represented less than 10% of the year group).  Analysis of the discussions highlighted a number of issues including that

  • students did not always appreciate the value of collaborative working
  • some students lacked the skills for self-directed learning
  • some did not have reflective skills
  • others did not have the motivation required for adult learning.

In sessions where students could sit where they wanted they were less prepared as they would typically sit with their friends and would chose their table based on fun rather than who knew their stuff. The session for some served as a ‘social catch-up’ others admitted they watched videos.  There was however a difference in approach to team-based learning sessions where students were assigned into groups, they were more likely to prepare as they were more concerned about appearing stupid.  They also found the sessions more helpful and enjoyable because they were prepared.  Some recognised that sitting with their mates wasn’t always a good move and would switch groups based on the activity.  Students also highlighted the variation in the quality of the activities and their tendency to disengage if they weren’t great.

In terms of student engagement comments included:

More and more people are less and less prepared, that’s why you see a decline in attendance. With the problem sets, if you don’t feel prepared and ready to contribute, your time is better spent [at home] doing your own work.

There are some lectures where the resources are so good – I can read the book and understand everything and I don’t really gain too much from going to the lecture… But if I have read the material and don’t understand it by the time I’ve done the pre-reading, then I’m going to the lecture.

Others mentioned hiding at the back to avoid being called upon an they used the phrase ‘checking out’ to describe being present in body but “intellectually disengaged”.  They outlined how they resisted engaging in learning activities by allowing themselves to become distracted.  Some questioned why there had been away from traditional lectures.

Liz Mossop (3) in her  commentary on this paper in Medical Education titled, ‘The curse of the teenage learner‘, suggests we need to change the learning culture and train students in active learning. In a previous post I considered whether we spoon feed students and consequently don’t help them to develop their learning skills.  This has also been discussed elsewhere such as in this piece in the Times Higher which highlights the need to treat students as independent scholars.  As students are now faced with paying fees the focus seems to be students as consumers, I don’t think this is a helpful move.  It does seem that many students don’t know how to learn independently as so we do perhaps need to consider supporting our students to develop learning skills, but I’m surprised by the comments from the students at Virginia.  In the USA medical students graduates and it’s concerning that they don’t have adult learning skills.
What’s not clear in this paper is what approach the Virginia Medical School actually took in flipping the classroom and what sort of activities were developed and whether there was any assessment associated with the learning.  For example were students using electronic voting systems so that lecturers could address gaps in knowledge and understanding?  Was there any assessment attached to the sessions as is the case in some other implementations of the flipped classroom?
This is obviously just one paper, but I wonder whether others have had similar experiences to Virginia in introducing the flipped classroom?  Maybe these issues can be addressed by better designed sessions and staff development to better prepare and equip teachers for this type of learning  and teaching approach.  Do these sessions work better when linked to assessment – given the good old adage that assessment drives learning?  With growing interest locally in piloting some flipped classroom sessions and similar experiences with falling lecture attendance this paper has certainly sparked my interest to look at what else has been published to determine if there’s a sense of an evidence-based best practice approach to running this.  I’d be interested to hear how others have got on trying out the flipped classroom.

Learning – Do students want face time or screen time?

Over the weekend I read a piece about a report on the future of learning according to millennials published by Millennial Branding and Internships.  This study surveyed 1,345 US College students about the future of education and reports that today’s students are more willing to learn online and that they see the future of learning as being virtual and social media driven.  I’ve not read the full report, but was struck by the fact that this study specifically asked “about students’ perceptions of and thoughts about online colleges and classes”, so it doesn’t perhaps provide an accurate picture of what students really think about the future of learning.  Despite this one of the findings is that

50 percent of students said they don’t need a traditional classroom to learn, but 78 percent do think that it’s easier to learn in a traditional classroom than online.
So in other words 50% do want a traditional classroom and 3 out of 4 students think it’s easier to learn in a traditional setting, which essentially highlights they want face to face contact.  Another report I came across this evening has looked at US teens aged 13-17 and how they view their digital lives and social networking.  This study highlights that the teens surveyed prefer to communicate face to face.
These findings are similar to those in a study undertaken by one of our former students, Robert McMillan.  This study was done three years ago and looked at whether students preferred using an elearning approach to a more traditional poster board resourced teaching session.  Robert found that whilst students liked the online resource, and would refer to it again to support revision etc they didn’t want online learning at the expense of small group teaching and 68% of students favoured elearning as part of a blended learning approach. Three years on I don’t think our students’ views have changed, they like and want more online learning that simulates clinical situations and scenarios and is rich in formative assessment and feedback which lets them see how well they are performing. They find these particularly useful for revision, but again they don’t want to lose face to face teaching contact.
With all of this in mind it was interesting to read another piece this evening in the Guardian titled, It’s too early to write off the lecture. Here Jonathan Wolf, Professor of philosophy at UCL writes,
For as long as the lecture is regarded as better than internet-based learning, it will survive on a substantial scale. And wherein lies its superiority? An interesting question. It is live. It is real. It is put on with you in mind, even if you are one of a large crowd. You experience it with other people. And, perhaps the clincher: it takes place in a university, bursting with life and interesting people who will inspire you in unexpected ways. Somehow live learning can be open and transformative in a way that transcends its educational function. Maybe one day we’ll work out how to do this better some other way. For the moment, while internet technology, if used well, can certainly enhance university teaching, and provide smooth access to excellent education for those unable to attend university, it is too early to write the lecture’s obituary.
Having just celebrated graduation it’s clear from chatting with our new graduates that they’ve been inspired by local ‘legends’ in the Medical School in lectures and clinical teaching. They’ve also received support and encouragement from teachers, doors have been open to discuss ideas, there have been research project opportunities and lots other activities to engage with.
Given all this there’s maybe life still in the old dog of traditional face-to-face teaching in higher education and we shouldn’t just assume that our students want to do all their learning online.

Issues with OERs: Leadership, reusability and students

On the #h817open MOOC we’ve been asked to consider some of the issues around OERs based on reading 3 articles from a list of suggested readings. I’m meant to pen around 500 words on what I see as three key issues for OER and how these are being addressed, but I think I’ll end up going over the suggested word count.

The articles I chose to read were:

  1. Atkins, Daniel Ewell, John Seely Brown, and Allen L. Hammond. A review of the open educational resources (OER) movement: Achievements, challenges, and new opportunities. Creative common, 2007.
  2. D’Antoni, Susan. Open Educational Resources: The way forward: Deliberations of an international community of interest. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2008.
  3. Hatakka, Mathias. “Build it and they will come?–Inhibiting factors for reuse of open content in developing countries.” The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries 37 (2009).

The three issues I’ve decided to highlight are

  • institutional leadership and strategy
  • reusability and
  • student involvement in developing OERs.

which have some overlap with the three priorities I’d identified as research priorities for OER.

Leadership and institutional strategy Atkins et al highlight that there is a challenge in institutions buying into OER and D’Antoni outlined the role that faculty can play in incentivising the development of OERs and the need for institutional leadership and support for OERs. Perhaps buy-in to the whole OER philosophy is more widespread amongst those institutions that have received funding for OER projects. Sometimes, however, I wonder what the motivation was in applying for OER funding? Was it driven by high level institutional buy-in on OERs or was it seen as a way to fund development of online material to support local curricula. But maybe I’m being unduly cynical! Back in 2011 the HEFCE Online Learning Taskforce published it’s report Collaborate to Complete. It recommended that institutions need to take a strategic approach to online learning and realign structures and processes to embed it. It said

Institutions and organisations need to invest in learning, and leadership and vision at the highest level is required to bring a step-change.  Such changes will not occur rapidly enough without effective organisational structures and processes.  Online learning is a strategic issue, not a simple, bolt-on option.

Whilst this recommendation relates to online learning generally rather an OERs specifically, it would be interesting to see how many universities have responded to it.  With all steady stream of hype around MOOCs have they become the focus of attention at senior levels in universities at the expense of OERs?

personally I’d like to see more defined policies developed around OERs in institutions and to see rewards in place for staff who create high quality open resources and see them getting recognition in the same way that researchers do.


The article by D’Antoni mentions that if there is little or no awareness of OER availability then these resources can’t be exploited.  In some respects this links to institutional policies and strategy, if these don’t exist then how many staff are aware of OERs?  In my experience many staff aren’t aware of copyright issues around the reuse of online images let alone OERs and creative commons licences.

There are a number of issues that impact on the reusability of OERs.  For some academics there’s the ‘not invented here syndrome’, which hinders engagement with OERs and reuse or as Hatakka says simply a preference to develop local content.  There can also be issues or concerns about quality of OERs and where this relates to factual accuracy this is understandable.  In a field such as medical education, in which I work, the age of the OER can also be issue.  The resources we develop are subject to annual review and updated to reflect new clinical guidelines, and drug treatments. Do OERs have the same review cycle and include a detailed revision history documenting changes? Some of the issues around quality can also be very subjective and even trivial, such as not liking a particular colour scheme.

A more significant issue that limits reusability is context and this is particularly the case with large OERs.  This issue of context is raised in the articles by Atkins et al and Hatakka and again has relevance in medical education. Different countries have different healthcare systems, drug names, even within countries there are local clinical guidelines, national guidelines and differences in the NHS between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These issues are particularly significant when reusing content in developing nations.  Funding the development of medical education OERs in the developed world may seem well-intentioned, however this funding could perhaps be better invested in supporting medical schools in developing countries to develop resources based on local expertise and knowledge. Students undertaking electives in developing countries might also be encouraged to develop OERs that could help prepare others for their electives and the situations they may face.  Focussing development in the developing world would also help to develop resources for modes of delivery that are most accessible, in many African nations this would be for mobile devices.

Even with little OERs reusability can be an issue and this was something I witnessed when I was seconded to an academic collaboration called IVIMEDS – the International Virtual Medical School (Harden & Hart 2002).  IVIMEDS involved medical schools from around the world and started off with great ambitions.  These weren’t realised, in some ways some of the ideas were ahead of their time but there were also other issues which are shared by the OER movement.  One of the principles on which IVIMEDS ran was the idea of collaboration and sharing reusable learning objects (RLOs).  Medical Schools paid a membership subscription to be part of the IVIMEDS club and access a repository of RLOs. There was limited engagement with the big OERs developed here but more with the little OERs which were videos, medical illustrations and Flash animations explaining concepts and principles. Whilst these were used, there were frequent requests for the original Flash files as individuals wanted to edit and tweak these RLOs.  I think the ability to modify an OER may therefore also affect its reusability.  Many OERs are developed using locally developed technologies or proprietary tools eg Flash, Articulate, which not everyone has ready access to.  This was one of the reasons that IVIMEDS went on to develop Riverside a rapid content authoring tool so that content created by members could be modified and reused by other members.  There are also open source tools like Xerte developed by the University of Nottingham which may help to make content more reusable.  Open source content development tools would need to be a key component of the open participatory learning infrastructure proposed by Harris et al.

Finally in relation to reusability there is the role of Web 2.0 and social software, which may help to increase the reuse particuarly of little OERs.  Social media tools which support the curation and sharing of content, eg, Tumblr, Google+ and blogs can be used by teachers to provide context and narrative around OERs linking them to local curricula and used to signpost students to learning opportunities.  There is growing use of and engagement with Web 2.0 in higher education and this may lead to greater discoverability and reuse of OERs.

Student involvement in developing OERs

In the review of the OER movement by Atkins et al, the issue of sustainability of the movement is raised. One of the approaches to sustainability that they suggest should be explored is the involvement of students in “creating, enhancing and adopting OER”.  They propose an “OER Corps” where students could receive some training, recognition and some funding to facilitate their involvement in the creation of learning resources.  They feel that students could particularly play a role in developing content for disadvantaged communities and the developing world.

I think this suggestion could be taken further and the development of OERs could be embedded into courses and form new forms of assessment.  Do we always need to ask students to write an essay to demonstrate their understanding of a topic, could they create a video or some other type of resource.  This year in our 4th year dermatology clinical attachment students have been asked to work in groups and create a 5 minute video on a topic from a list of topics relating to dermatology.  They’ve also been asked to write some MCQs to go with the video, some open questions and provide links to additional resources for further reference. The initial reaction to this task has been a bit of a sigh but all the groups have really enjoyed working on these projects, their reflective pieces have highlighted how much they’ve enjoyed the task and how much more they have learnt because they’ve had to effectively teach a topic.  The quality of the videos has generally been excellent and it’s interesting to see the students also comment that they feel it’s been worthwhile because their work will benefit other students in their learning.  Essays are written never to be looked at again, but these videos will be looked at by other students both locally and wider afield where they’ve been posted to YouTube.

Involving students in the development of OERs is something I would like to see nurtured and developed further.  As I mentioned in my previous posts I think there are additional benefits to be gained for students around employability.

I’m well over the suggested 500 words, hopefully that won’t count against me when I submit this for my first badge!

Additional references

Harden, R. M., and I. R. Hart. “An international virtual medical school (IVIMEDS): the future for medical education?.” Medical Teacher 24.3 (2002): 261-267.

Thinking about hackdays

HackDay 2012 by Fora do Eixo, on Flickr

This weekend there was an NHS Hackday in Liverpool.  It was interesting following the tweets from Damian Roland and @_elljay_ and this evening to read her account of the event and her team looking at hacking the NHS eportfolio.

Reading this has got me thinking about whether Universities should be running hackdays.  At Dundee, where I’m based, computing students have over the past few years taken part in Yahoo hack days.  This is all good experience for them but the key thing about the NHS hack day was that it saw doctors working with developers, it was more of a multi-disciplinary team approach.  What would happen if computing students got together with medical students, art students, education students, geography students etc and staff from across the University.  What ideas would come forward and what could be developed?

Canvas the VLE from Instructure, which is attracting growing interest was developed by students.  Mark Zuckerberg co-developed Facebook whilst a student at Harvard.  How many other ideas are there lurking in the student community?

One of our medical students Matt Pendleton hit up on the idea for WardWatch an app to support clinical teaching and has built a team of medical students and a PhD computing student.  It’s been great to watch the project developing and see how much the team have learned along the way on a whole host of issues such as IP and business planning.  With growing emphasis on transferable skills and employability would a University hack day event provide an opportunity for other students to go on and develop some of these skills and get some experience of multidisciplinary team work.

For @_elljay_ the problem is the NHS eportfolio, something which a lot of doctors would like to see improved.  I wonder what our students would like to improve and how they’d go about it if they had the chance.  Would be interested to know in particular what colleagues in Dundee think.

Image Attribution
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  HackDay 2012 by  Fora do Eixo 

Medicine for students as and when required!

Today saw the culmination of 4 months of hard work by about 10 of our 2nd year medical students with the launch of a new website DundeePRN Medicine for students as and when required.  I blogged back in September about blogging doctors and how a colleague in respiratory medicine had set up DundeeChest to support the teaching in the respiratory system block.  After an initial mixed response to DundeeChest (one student said – what blog?) by the end of the 4 week teaching block 98% of the year thought that all of the teaching blocks should be supported by a blog.  There has been interest from other systems and several other blogs have started up, and Friday will see the latest in the emerging Dundee Blogging Network, DundeeBones.

Early in the chest block DundeeChest asked whether any students were interested in getting involved in the blog, podcasting and e-learning developments generally.  About 10 students registered an interest and with the support and encouragement of DundeeChest, DundeePRN was born.  The students involved aren’t all techie types, but they do have a technical whizz among their ranks who’s built the site.  As a group they’ve shown real commitment and started to develop a resource, which whilst it’s primary focus is medicine at Dundee could become a useful resource for medical students elsewhere.  Many of the pages are public, but some can only be viewed by registered users, but anyone can register for an account.  The students have been posting links to BMJ articles, commeting on medical news, developing revision resources and providing a comprehensive overview of the teaching hospital and the learning opportunities available in clinics and on the wards.

DundeePRN was launched to our 2nd year students today and 73 new users have signed up since lunchtime.  Over the coming weeks the PNRers will spread the word to the 3rd and 1st year students and then the 4th and 5th years. They’re also hoping that more of the local clinical teaching staff will get inolved to help verify the content and also provide other input. It’s been great to watch DundeePRN develop over the past few months and see a group of students develop their own learning space.  Exciting times!!

Should Powerpoint handouts be uploaded to the VLE before or after lectures?

lecture handouts

Photo credit - libraryman

My PG Cert in Teaching in Higher Education kicked off last week with a workshop and one of the group activities involved us all delivering a short 5 minute micro teaching slot.  We had been forewarned about this so most of us had prepared a few Powerpoint slides to support our slots.  After we’d done our stint we had to evaluate our own efforts and then we got feedback from the other members of our small group and a course tutor.  This exercise stimulated some interesting discussion around student engagement and whether students today expected to be spoon-fed, in contrast to when we were all students when you had to take your own notes during lectures as there wasn’t the luxury of being able to download from the VLE what was written on the OHP or blackboard.  This discussion continued in the plenary session.  Some lecturers highlighted that they tended to use keywords on Powerpoint slides rather than have lots of text, which all seems to make good sense, but students weren’t happy because there wasn’t enough information for them on the slides.  Were they unhappy because they would actually have to listen and make notes …  I don’t know.

The debate about lecture Powerpoint handouts continued with some colleagues at the end of last week.  We currently make our lecture Powerpoint handouts available after the lecture has been given.  In a poll (run with Turning Point) in the last lecture of a 4 week teaching block one of the questions we asked was, ‘When did students want the Powerpoint handouts for lectures uploaded to Blackboard’. The options we gave them were before the lecture, after the lecture, at the end of a teaching block or not at all.  95% of them said they wanted them uploaded before the lecture.  Discussing this with a couple of lecturers there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for doing this.  The reasons for this are that, one they think that students won’t bother coming to their lectures if the handouts are available beforehand, and secondly as many of our lecturers are also busy NHS doctors they often don’t have their Powerpoint slides completed until just before the lecture.

I’ve had a very, very quick squint to see if I can find any literature that provides any evidence that releasing the lecture notes before the lecture affects learning outcomes for students and their performance in assessment etc or their attendance.   I haven’t really found much on this yet that I can get access to, but intend to do a bit more serious searching.

I’m interested in whether other institutions have protocols or guidelines on whether lecture slides should be made available prior to lectures, what are you encouraged to do?  What’s the rationale for making them available before hand rather than afterwards?  Does this approach affect attendance at lectures or learning outcomes.   Does giving out the handouts before the lecture encourage the students to come to the lecture more prepared and stimulate more interaction in the lecture or do you think it’s just spoon-feeding them?

I’d be interested to hear what others think!

Photo credit libraryman