One of my roles is to help out with professional development events for associate lecturers (ALs). There is a lot going on: there are a series of face to face conferences that take place across the country and there are two other subject specific events that I know of: one that is designed to help tutors who teach on undergraduate science modules and another session that is for tutors who teach on the postgraduate STEM programmes.
An interesting change has been the use and implementation of a piece of software known as Adobe Connect. This is an online conference and collaboration tool that replaces an OU branded version of Blackboard Collaborate. I quite liked Collaborate: it was oriented towards teaching, but I did find it a bit clunky, especially when it came to preparing more dynamic presentations.
Aware that there were other AL development activities happening across the faculty, I had a thought: perhaps we could run an online conference for tutors who are closely associated within our school, the School of Computing and Communication, using Adobe Connect. This blog post is a quick description about what happened, and a set of reflections of what work and what didn’t work. It’s also a place to note down ideas for future events.
Coming up with a plan
The school has a very small (and very new) associate lecturer development group which consists of myself, a fellow staff tutor, and an associate lecturer representative. Anyone in the school is welcome to join and contribute. We have a couple of regulars: a couple of central academics, one of whom plays a really important role as the connection between the school and the faculty student support team, which is based in Manchester.
A key question was: what messages did we want to get across? An answer was: since this is the first one, it might be useful to share some names of colleagues who play an important role within the faculty. Now that the concept of a region is now dissipating (irrespective of how important you think they may be as a useful idea) and university structures are becoming more aligned to schools and faculties, a key thought was: introductions could be very useful.
There was another thought: running an online conference using a tool that you have never used before, with other people who have never used it either is something that could be considered to be quite risky: things could go wrong; it could be very embarrassing. Or, put another way, it just might not work! Another thought was: just because things might be difficult doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t do them.
The school AL development group came up with a conference agenda:
10.00 – 10.30 Virtual tea and cake
10.30 – 10.40 Introduction and welcome: Chris Douce
10.40 – 10.55 Meet your head of school: Mark Woodroffe
10.55 – 11.10 Programme and curriculum updates: David Morse
11.10 – 11.25 Q&A with Mark and David
11.25 – 12.10 Online pedagogy: what do you do? Chris Douce
12.10 – 12.20 Online pedagogy session: Q&A
12.20 – 13.00 Break
13.00 – 13.10 Welcome back! Chris Douce
13.10 – 13.50 Working with the student support team. John Woodthorpe and Steven Wilson
13.50 – 14.20 Meet and share: meet fellow ALs. Clive Buckland
Explaining the agenda
Whilst the agenda might seem pretty straightforward there are bits that need a small amount of explanation. Firstly, what on earth is virtual tea and cake bit all about? This is, of course, a bit of informal time where everyone can meet and mingle. It is the virtual equivalent of the time when you arrive at a meeting, take your jacket off and fold up your umbrella; it’s that time when you have a moment to check to see that your microphone and headset is working okay and start to recognise a few familiar names.
The first two sessions are a bit like ‘keynotes’; they are formal ‘here’s some information’ presentations. They were designed to introduce the speakers (I learnt quite a bit about each of my colleagues), and to gain some updates about what is happening within the school. This was considered to be important, since it’s very easy to get overwhelmed with all the detailed information that comes out of the university. Those sessions were considered to be important, since they also emphasised the extent to which everyone now belongs within a school, rather than a university geographical region.
The next bit about online pedagogy was a bit ‘meta’; we were using an online tool to talk about how to teach using the online tool. This session was considered to be important since it was a subject that was very much on everyone’s minds: the university has been asking associate lecturers to complete some Adobe Connect training. I personally found the training useful: it introduced me to the various features of Adobe Connect, helping me to grasp the key concepts of pods and layouts. There were useful tips about online pedagogy too; I remember a particularly useful point about ‘leaning in and learning out’. The key point was: the more talking that you did, the more that you ‘leant into’ the laptop or the session, the more the participants would ‘lean out’ and be disinclined to participate.
A question that I had was: what are the best ways to use Adobe Connect for Computing and IT subjects? Since we’re all trying to find out feet, we don’t (yet) have very detailed answers to this question, partly because online teaching, like face to face teaching, is a skill that comes from practice: it is up to us to try to things out in online tutorials, whilst taking guidance module teams and following our professional instincts.
The online pedagogy session has a structure that was building up to a discussion: it began with a ‘talk’ bit, which was derived from an earlier session presented at a London development conference. This ‘talk bit’ aims to enumerate the different ways that Adobe Connect might be used in online teaching and learning (which has been created by speaking with tutors and observing what happens in module teams). The next bit was an interview with a colleague who had been an Adobe Connect early adopter. The final bit was an activity discussion using breakout rooms between different tutors. I’ll mention something more about this in a later section.
After a short lunch break, there were two final sessions: the first was a ‘group session’ by colleagues in the STEM student support team. Three members of the SST from Manchester joined the conference and shared something about what they did to help students. This section was considered to be important, since sometimes other parts of the university can seem a bit of a mystery. For a long time, it was not clear what the student advisors actually did and how they worked. Plus, in recent years, there have been so many changes, so it has been hard to keep up. The SST session was there to try to emphasise the importance of collaboration between the tutors and advisors.
The final session was an informal ‘cool down’ session; an opportunity for tutors to have a further chat with everyone and to start to gather views and opinions about the conference.
There were a couple of things that seemed to work really well. An implicit design principle was to move from ‘presentation sessions’ towards more dynamic activities. The two presentations at the start of the conference seemed to work well, as did the session that was run by colleagues from the SST.
One section that seemed to work particularly well was the part of the conference where there was an interview. I was inspired to adopt this approach by a fellow tutor who talked about using a ‘dialogic approach’ to tutorials which essentially means: ‘asking questions’. The colleague who I interviewed about the use of Adobe Connect gave some great answers mixed with some really useful practical advice such as: ‘consider your layouts a bit like parts of a lesson plan’. I would certainly use this approach again.
One thing that I was surprised about was the number of tutors who were able to find the time to attend: at one point there were over 40 who were able to come along.
What didn’t work
There was one part of the conference that clearly didn’t work: the discussions about online pedagogy using the breakout rooms. This didn’t work for a couple of reasons: lack of experience of using break out rooms, and secondly, the fact that the breakout rooms contained too many participants.
In terms of experience, there were two think I needed to work on: I need to develop a more detailed mental model of how breakout rooms work, and what the different buttons do. Secondly, before the breakout rooms are started, I need to offer very clear and unambiguous instructions about what everyone needs to do when they go to their rooms.
Another thing that wasn’t quite right was how the participants were allocated across the rooms. After some discussion, we decided to have three rooms, each room being dedicated to different levels of study. Room one was to be for level one tutors, room two of level two tutors and room three for level three, project and postgraduate tutors. The first problem was that I couldn’t easily put people in the right room using a couple of mouse clicks, perhaps due to my own inexperience. Secondly, due to the numbers of participants, the rooms were way too large.
My colleague, Clive Buckland, made breakout rooms work in a way that I couldn’t: he had a larger number of rooms, and allocated tutors to different rooms in advance of a breakout room activity. He also used the ‘auto allocate’ function rather than manually allocating everyone; this was a neat trick when working with larger numbers of participants. Next time I shall use this approach, or ask a fellow ‘host’ to help with the ‘breakout room’ admin.
Given that this was the second time that I was using Adobe Connect in anger, I would have been very surprised if everything worked perfectly. I’ve come to form the view that it is okay if things go wrong: one learns from those situations, and you can improve the next time around. This is, of course what happens with face to face teaching: if a session hasn’t quite works, there’s an opportunity for reflection and to figure out what could be done better.
A personal view is that there is a lot more that could be done in terms of school online conferences. Questions remains as to how often they should run; this is something that I’ll take to both the school planning group and the faculty planning group.
I would like to have more sessions about online, specifically regarding online tutorials at the first level, where students are introduced to programming. I would like to explore the ways that tutors might be able to share aspects of code, and encourage students to understand how to do problem solving and debugging, and maybe even do interesting things like real-time online pair programming using either OU Build (used in TM111), or Python (used in TM112).
There are also further opportunities to learn more about people in the school. Perhaps central academics or module chair could present short ‘module summaries’ to the tutors, or maybe talk about research interests and how they connect to different modules. Once I ran an AL development event that was all about exposing tutors to new developments and research in Computing and IT. There is no reason why we couldn’t do something similar in a school specific online conference.
Running an online conference using a tool that was new to everyone was a risk, but it seemed to mostly work. I personally liked the dynamic nature of the first conference, and the informal feedback that I’ve received has been positive. An ongoing challenge is to try to get more people involved.
A personal reflection is that when running or hosting one of these events is that you’re not so much a presenter but instead you become more of a producer. I’ve learnt that being a producer has been slightly worrisome but also pretty good fun too.