Tag Archives: teaching methods

Asynchronicity

Understand blended learning yet? Where are you on the big ‘Teams vs Panopto’ debate? And how many times have you used the phrase ‘asynchronous learning event’ in the last two months? subtext‘s correspondent has tried to navigate the maze of buzzwords, so you don’t have to.

While the May 2020 paper Academic Delivery in 2020/21 and Beyond, produced by the ‘Bronze Assessment & Teaching Team’, offers the vision of a University switching, maybe several times in one term, between ‘multiple operating modes’, the June 2020 document Minimum Expectations for Teaching Events 20/21, signed off by Prof Maria Piacentini, makes it clear that, as far as our planners are concerned, we should focus on an all-online academic year.

According to the May paper, there will be three modes: ‘normal operating conditions’ (unlikely, in the first term at least); ‘social distancing imposed’ (which would mean the end of face-to-face lectures, but hopefully keep seminars and tutorials going); and ‘face-to-face teaching suspended’. Assuming that some face-to-face teaching is possible, the highest priority will be given to science labs, with lectures getting lowest priority. Despite the stated need to keep ‘a distinctive Lancaster offering’, staff are being asked to consider how they could ‘streamline their current and future offerings’, noting that ‘opportunities for reducing the number of programmes or modules and sharing of modules across programmes should be actively sought out’.

Given that departments will have been advertising the courses they expect to teach for over a year now and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) takes a tough line when the ‘goods are not as presented in the brochure’, it seems unlikely that many courses could be ‘streamlined’ away, even if this was desired. A short summary of the CMA’s 2015 guidance to universities is available at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-providers-short-guide-to-consumer-protection-law

The CMA stresses that, ‘before, or at the latest when, offering a place to a student, you must tell them of any changes since they applied and give pre-contract information which includes course information and costs, information on complaints handling, and any cancellation rights.’ Most of our applicants were offered a place well before COVID-19 hit and the CMA is unlikely to accept ‘but hey, virus!’ as a reason why a key course can no longer be taught.

The June document moves from generalities to a highly specific — teaching staff might say too specific — set of rules. We must develop ‘asynchronous lecture events’, made available ‘no later than the start of the planned lecture’, and even earlier where possible. Live-streaming of lectures is specifically discouraged; the ‘gold standard’ is apparently to split up a lecture into 4 x 15-minute recorded segments. If possible these should be recorded from home; recording from lecture theatres should be avoided where possible. Don’t think we can ignore the timetable, though, as we must also build in ‘synchronous discussion sessions’ at timetabled hours.

As several commentators have already noted, this plan would prohibit lectures being taught, live and online, with recordings made available immediately afterwards; a method which would be the preferred choice of some. Instead, we’re asked to adopt a method which doubles staff lecturing time (once to prepare an ‘asynchronous lecture event’ and once to hold the corresponding ‘synchronous discussion event’). A further issue is that ‘synchronous discussion events’ are supposed to be recorded for students who don’t turn up. Experience suggests it is hard enough to motivate students to speak in seminars even in precedented times; will they be willing to speak if recorded, and what do we do about discussions around sensitive topics?

Speaking of students turning up, apparently ‘any synchronous aspects will likely result in clashes therefore must be recorded.’ Why lecture clashes are likely is not explained. If we can schedule a full programme to (mostly) avoid clashes when we’re all attending in person, why would things get any worse when we’re all connecting via Teams?

Could it be that Lancaster is having problems putting a timetable together with so many staff on furlough? subtext readers have noted that on 5 June, a request went out to those who have offered to volunteer to support needy people on campus asking for help ‘supporting the timetabling process at the University.’ Apparently, ‘the Timetabling team have requested some support in liaising with faculties and departments to identify and understand their needs and feed these back into the Timetabling team for them to process.’ Sounds far more rewarding than delivering food parcels!

If face-to-face teaching is permitted for smaller groups, then ‘seminars’ must be prioritised for face-to-face provision, but no such priority is given to ‘workshops’ in the sciences or the arts. The distinction between a seminar and a workshop isn’t specified, and at this point a trunked mammal walks into the discussion – given we had difficulty scheduling all our seminars into limited numbers of flat rooms when it was okay to squash 25 into a room designed to fit 15, how on earth could we achieve this if restricted by social distancing to 6 or fewer per room? And, given that halving the numbers in each seminar would mean doubling the number of seminar teaching hours, who is going to be teaching these sessions?

For the arts, the prescribed solution is to get students doing their practicals at home: ‘departments may seek to enable the use of domestic internal and external spaces by individual students in which case appropriate consideration must be given to H&S and EDI issues.’ The idea of clusters of Theatre Studies students all practising out on County Square does have a certain beauty to it, although probably less so when faced with Lancaster’s usual winter weather.

Neither of the documents discuss the likely number of students who will actually be living on campus, because of course no one knows, but we’re reassured that we’ll still be offering ‘a college-based campus learning environment’. We can only hope that most of our students turn up in person, given that if they don’t, our much-publicised cash flow problems may go from being serious to critical. Fingers crossed.

SPECIAL REPORT: END OF PART ONE

Are the days of Part I at Lancaster as we know it numbered? The paper ‘A proposal for radical improvement’, drafted in July 2017 by the Dean for Academic Quality and recently seen by subtext, would have required very rapid change to be implemented in time for an October 2019 start. The response from many departmental heads of teaching was not positive – ‘it can’t be done!’ said one – and the whole matter has gone out to a working group.

The basic idea is easy to state. In place of three Part I subject options (which in faculties other than FASS usually means two subjects in your major and one in your minor), the student would study:

– Only major courses in the first ‘core’ term; then

– A mix of major and minor courses (usually one-third major for a single honours student) in the second ‘exploratory’ term; then

– Back to your major subject for the third ‘bridging’ term.

Final assessment of courses would take place at the start of the following term, so there would be no end-of-year examinations, except for the third term’s courses which would be assessed by coursework. The emphasis moves towards the programme, and away from the department or the module. This approach to assessment, moving away from the end-of-year exam as main arbiter of success, shows the influence of recent educational research and the team in OED.

So could it work? In terms of content, staffing and timetabling, the main change would see first years studying just their major in the first term, in order to help them ‘become inducted and assimilated into their academic disciplines at an early stage, as well as beginning to learn some of the most important material for their degrees’ and ‘speed up progress towards a feeling of belonging to students’ academic disciplines, programmes and departments.’ This frontloading of core content is contentious. For many of our programmes, the deep learning occurs in the second term, after everyone is hopefully settled in, but this approach may no longer be feasible under the new proposals. Some departments have suggested that professional accreditation would not be possible under the new system.

The description of second term options envisages an ‘anything goes’ mix. There might be non-standard options in a student’s own discipline, alongside courses designed to broaden the horizons (Physics’ former Part I in ‘The Universe as an Art’ is mentioned approvingly) and double-weighted ‘switching modules’, designed specifically to enable those thinking of ‘switching’ to move into that subject more or less straight away, so their third term courses could be in their new subject.

For departments that currently offer minor-only Part I courses, this might not be too great an increase in workload, but for departments that currently mix major and minor students together, it could represent a significant hike . . . unless of course your current major class is so big that you’re on the verge of double teaching anyway, in which case, so the thinking goes, why not offer two slightly different streams?

It’s not entirely clear how combined honours degree schemes – which can currently be run efficiently with relatively small numbers due to the sharing of modules with single honours students – would fit into the new model, especially during the core term. Natural Sciences gets mentioned, as a consortial scheme for which ‘programme teams have little flexibility and find their students’ requirements can be subservient to those of departments,’ but there’s no mention of how Natural Sciences could fit into the new Part I structure.

Methods of assessment and concerns over timetabling aside, the end result might turn out to be, well, not entirely dissimilar to the educational experience at several other universities. A traditional course at a redbrick might include 75% of compulsory courses in the first year, alongside a variety of options, including for most students the opportunity to study courses in other departments. Lancaster’s approach to the first year, by contrast, is now rare in England and Wales. Scotland has always done things differently of course.

When you look beyond the thoughtful proposals on teaching styles and assessment methods, these ‘radical’ proposals for our Part I start to look rather like what everyone else is doing. Maybe the truly radical option would be to keep Part I largely as it is?