Talking Teaching

May 24, 2011

teaching with panopto

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , — alison @ 4:35 pm

I’ve written previously about the lecture-capture system Panopto as a tool for supporting student learning. Anyway, our Teaching Development folks asked me to write a short piece about it for our in-house teaching support publication & very kindly said that I could post it here as well :-)

Panopto’s a tool for capturing classroom teaching and making it available on-line for students to access whenever they please. I first became aware of it when the University was gearing up for its i-TunesU presence, and decided that the technology had a lot to offer me and my students as a tool to enhance teaching and learning practices. (I am definitely not a fan of technology for technology’s sake – it needs to have a pedagogical benefit.) And I’ve been using ever since – for lectures, for podcasts, for catching up when I’ve had to cancel a lecture due to illness.

Panopto isn’t perfect. In a lecture theatre it picks up what the lecturer’s saying, but misses most or all of the other goings-on – the questions (remember to repeat them) & the discussion around various points. It also loses ‘sight’ of the speaker if they move too far to the left or right, although that shouldn’t stop you moving around, to speak to a group maybe, or to get closer to someone who’s speaking very quietly. But students viewing a recording can see the speaker (provided there’s a camera in the room; otherwise they’ll just get the voice-over), see the powerpoint slides (& any notes or diagrams added to these in class), and watch any videos or animations that were shown in class. They can stop the recording, replay it, view tricky points again and again. To me, this was a key reason for using panopto, because I could see how it gave students the chance to revise and review difficult concepts in their own time and at their own pace.

This was borne out by an informal survey I did with my first-year class last year. The most common reason they gave for using Panopto – and not everyone used it – was as a means of reviewing material that they hadn’t understood in class. ‘Used it to revise for exams’ was also a common response, & indeed, you could tell that anyway by looking at the usage statistics within the Panopto system. But it also turned out to be really useful for students with lecture clashes – and given that we emphasize the ‘flexible learning’ opportunities available at Waikato, that’s got to be a good thing. Students liked knowing that if they were sick they wouldn’t be missing out on too much from my classes. And someone said, ‘you could use it as an excuse to miss classes – but then you’d be missing out on a lot of the ‘extra’ stuff that goes on in the lecture room’. In other words, the students were using Panopto as an additional means of supporting and enhancing their learning.

It’s also an excellent tool for reflecting on my own teaching practices. I often watch a lecture later, looking to see whether something that seemed to go well at the time, really did. It’s actually quite hard to do this to start with, because you’re seeing and hearing yourself as the students do, & that may or may not fit with your own image of how you look and sound in the classroom! It can form the basis of discussion with a friend or mentor: ‘I did this particular thing because I hoped that it would… – do you think it would have had that effect?’ I know TDU have used a recording of mine as the basis of discussion with other lecturers on delivering constructive criticism of a colleague’s class – and the feedback I received from that was extremely useful (thanks, guys!).

So, if you’re toying with the idea of trying out Panopto in your classroom, I’d say, go for it. It’ll seem strange, the first time or two, but after that (as long as you remember to press ‘record’ & turn on the microphone! been there, done that) you really don’t notice it. I was told that the students just wouldn’t come to class but I can’t say I’ve noticed that – if they’re going to wag, they’ll wag, & this is just another excuse. But more seriously – your students will see your use of Panopto as just another sign that you’re interested in & keen to support their learning, & both you and they will gain from the experience.

September 9, 2010

panopto – good for more than just recording lectures

I’ve just been reading a thought-provoking essay by Laura Guertin - it’s certainly given me some ideas on ways to expand my use of panopto in my teaching :)

As you’ll have gathered from previous posts, I began using panopto with my first-year biology class in the A semester this year. And I’m very enthusiastic about it. I use it to review my classroom performance, & our Teaching Development Unit staff used on recording for a staff-development workshop on peer review – the thinking here was that participants might be more willing to give strong constructive criticism if the focus of that criticism wasn’t actually present. (I got the feedback in written form & found it very helpful.)

But that wasn’t the reason I decided to go with panopto. I was more interested in its potential to support student learning, hoping that it would be valuable for students who’d missed a lecture or wanted to view part of one again. We included a question on student attitudes to the technology in the course appraisals for the paper: comments were universally positive & included statements that they were downloading the lectures as podcasts to watch when travelling, & valued the opportunity to go over content that they’d missed or not fully understood the first time round.

There has to be more to this technology, though, so it was good to read Guertin’s essay & find that she identifies a number of other possibilities for podcasts. Several of them really appeal to me & I’ll look at ways of including them in my own practice. The first is in reducing pre-class anxiety. I know from time spent advising students about their programs of study that some can be really worried about their papers – they’re not sure if they’ll be able to succeed, anxious about their ability to understand the content (especially if they haven’t studied that subject for a while or it wasn’t their strong suit at school), and often have misconceptions & preconceptions about what they’re likely to cover during the semester. Guertin suggests that providing podcasts before the paper or on course assessment.

This one got me thinking, as traditionally quite a bit of the first lecture is taken up with ‘house-keeping’ – information on when labs & tuts begin, how the course is assessed, where to find people & buy printed handouts, & so on. It’s a heap of information & – judging by the number of times we get asked for that same information later on – many students simply don’t take it in. Quite probably they just can’t take it in; they’re being hit with this sort of thing in all their lectures & it’s a real informaton overload. But, if I were to make the information available as a podcast ahead of time (& use the ‘participants’ list on Moodle to e-mail them all that the podast was available & where to find it), maybe they’d listen to it in advance & they’d have the podcast to refer to when they needed to. So that’s on my list of things to do before 2011A begins.

Another suggestion is to use them to provide answers to frequently-asked questions – things that repeatedly crop up when you’re meeting with students individually. (Now that I think about it, the same sort of thing would be really good in addressing common enrolment-related questions – we could put something together to go on the Faculty website for new &/or returning students to access! I must remember to talk with our registrar about that one.) If several students come along with the same or similar questions it’s probably a fair bet that there are others out there who are also puzzled by the conundrum-du-jour, & a podcast on the current week’s hot topic(s) would reach those students as well & also be an effective use of my time.

And I’ve written ‘interesting!’ in the margin by Guertin’s paragraph on making lecture summaries available as podcasts. This is based on a piece of research (author cited in Guertin’s paper) which found that most of the researcher’s students weren’t actually listening to the full lecture podcasts he was making available. (Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem if the students are getting all they need from the lectures & any associated reading, but anyway…) The students said they’d prefer much shorter reviews – so their lecturer turned this around by getting the students to do the work, making 6-10 minute podcasts about something they’d found interesting during class, & then uploading these to the server for their peers to view. This strikes me as an interesting exercise & I can see how it could be useful in our A semester paper where we already get the students to give brief presentations; many of them might well seize on the option of doing a podcast. Although for that, we’d have to ask the IT folks about making the software available to the students.

Although I have to say – when I read the heading for that paragraph, my first thought was that this would be an interesting discipline for the teacher. I suspect that it could actually prove to be quite a challenge to distill a 50-minute lecture down to its key ideas – but a valuable one, as it would surely focus the mind on just what the key ideas are that one wanted to get across :) And that has to be good for all concerned.

L.Guertin (2010) Creating and using podcasts across the disciplines. Currents in Teaching & Learning 2(2): 4-12

July 1, 2010

reflecting on panopto

Way back at the start of the semester, I started using Panopto software (plus the necessary bits of lecture-room hardware) to record my first-year lectures. It was a bit of a step into the unknown, really, but the technology was there & I could see some of the advantages that could accrue to both teachers & students. Anyway, after a semester of using it, it’s interesting to reflect on how things have turned out.

First up – there wasn’t a drop-off in the number of students coming to lectures :-) This was contrary to the expectations of some of my colleagues & I must say that I was very happy about it. Obviously my students see some value in actually being there. I wonder if part of that is the opportunity to ask questions & also to hear what others are saying – the microphone in the lecture theatre I’m timetabled for picks up my voice very well but not those of students asking questions. This means, incidentally, that you have to be absolutely scrupulously careful to repeat any question or comment that a student makes, so that someone viewing the lecture at some later time knows what’s going on. Without that, it would seem a very one-sided conversation!

It’s been interesting to see how & when the students use the recordings (Panopto gives you the opportunity to review all the statistics around that.) Only a few were looking at each lecture over the few days immediately following the actual performance. Of those only perhaps one or two would look at the whole thing; the others would just view for a minute or a few minutes. And I know that people who were ill or had to be away for some other reason were rapt to have the opportunity to see/hear what had been said in the class(es) they’d missed. So I can see the real potential for these recordings for someone like a STAR student: a secondary school student who’s also enrolled in a uni paper, but who might be doing it somewhere else in the country. It’s got to be better to watch lectures compared to just working through study guide & lecture pdfs from Moodle, even if you can’t actually participate.

The other fun thing to see was how the use statistics shot up before each test & the final exam. Must have been a lot of revision going on there!

And – I know that at least some in the class were downloading lectures to their i-pods. I know this because occasionally you’d see someone in a tutorial scrolling through a lecture as they searched for something to help them answer a question. (I rather like this aspect of the technology. When we had our ‘on-campus’ days for the region’s year 13 biology students, I recorded the talks I gave & put them up as video podcasts onto our external server for teachers & students to access. They’ve been downloaded a few times too, so hopefully people are finding them helpful.)

So it’ll be good to see, when the course appraisals come back, just what the class members think of this new technology. Will they see it as a useful aid to their learning, or just a bit of flashy technology?

What has all this meant for my teaching practice? First up, it’s forced some changes in how I use the classroom. I’ve always been a ‘pacer’ (I’d have made a good lion in an old-fashioned zoo!), but with the fixed cameras that we have in most rooms, that’s constrained, because if you move too far to one side or the other, you move out of the reach of the camera. Maybe the shortened perimeter of my perambulations is better for the students, less distracting? I don’t really know.

I can report that my habit of drawing on slides with the mouse comes across well & is easy to follow in the ‘slide capture’ view. It means that I can annotate slides, maybe do extra drawings, & that’s accessible to the students afterwards. You could argue that I could equally well work on the whiteboard & that’s true, but it wouldn’t be adequately (if at all) captured by the camera in my lecture theatre. If you want an example: it became (alarmingly) clear 10 minutes into a lecture on reproduction that most of the class really had no idea about meiosis, going by their responses to my questions. So there really wasn’t much point in just pushing ahead. Instead, I stopped at a slide on sperm formation & development (spermatogenesis) which happened to have a large margin down one side, & ‘drew’ in that space as I talked about the process & answered questions.  It probably took about 10-15 minutes, but the students seemed much happier with the material at the end of that. Maybe it just helped them remember something that I know they almost certainly encountered at school. Anyway, we were never going to cover everything that I’d originally intended to – but it didn’t matter! We stopped at a ‘good’ place & later on I recorded a voice-over for the bits we didn’t get to & put that on the server for them.

And it’s really useful to see myself as the students see me. I know I use my hands a lot – it’s nice to see that it doesn’t come across as random hand-waving. You can hear what I’m saying: the words are nice & clear & there aren’t a lot of ‘ums’ (thank goodness!). I should probably stop running my hands through my hair when I’m thinking of how best to answer a question. The occasional jokes & asides seem to come across OK. (Actually, I know our Teaching Development folk are using one of my recordings to work with lecturers who want to learn how to peer-review/critique colleagues’ lectures – people are perhaps going to be more open & honest in their criticisms & comments when the person being talked about isn’t actually in the room! I’ve said I would very much like to receive feedback from that group; they’re bound to pick up things that I don’t even notice, so it’s got to be to my benefit & that of my students.)

And I really must stop drinking Coke before the class starts (even if the students do treat it as a bit of a running joke)!

March 12, 2014

teaching plant life cycles – trying a different approach

For whatever reason, I find that many students seem to struggle when it comes to learning about plant life cycles. The whole sporophyte/gametophyte, meiosis/mitosis thing really gets them – & that’s even before we start looking at how the life cycle is modified in different groups of plants. Yes, the textbook has lots of diagrams & yes, I’ve always started simple & worked on from there, with opportunity for plenty of questions, but still there are those for whom the topic fails to click. (Not to mention the lecturers in third-year classes, asking whether we really teach this stuff in first-year.) This year the issue’s become even more of a challenge, given that about 2/3 of my large-ish (N>200) didn’t study plants in year 12 at school.

So this year I wondered if it would help if I drew a really basic cycle on the board, as preparation for a more detailed session in the next lecture. I do this in tuts anyway, but not everyone comes to those… And because I use panopto for recording lectures, I needed to think about the best way to do it, because while there are whiteboards in the lecture room they are non-interactive, & the camera doesn’t do a good job of picking up things on a ‘normal’ board. And this is where having a tablet (not an iPad this time; it’s too frustrating when mine won’t communicate properly with the lecture theatre software) comes into it.

This is because, once the tablet’s hooked up to the lecture room system, then anything I might write on its screen (with my spiffy little stylus) is recorded via panopto. And so I left blank slides in my presentation, & drew all over them when we got to that stage, cute little frogs & everything :) (Why frogs? Because we started off with drawing an outline of an animal life cycle, slotting in meiosis & fertilisation, haploid & diploid – with the opportunity to expand on what those terms might mean – before going on to drawing alternation of generations in a very general sense.

Which sounds fine in practice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, now that I’ve gone & checked the recording, I see that the material on my tablet DIDN’T make it across to panopto, which is downright annoying & obviously I’ve stuffed up somewhere. OK, everyone in the lecture theatre got the benefit of that experience, but those who weren’t, didn’t :( And part of the reason for doing the recordings, is that those who’ve got lecture clashes can catch up later. Mutter mutter mutter.

However, all is not lost. I’m staying later at work for an evening event, so I’ll do a re-record once I can get into a free lecture theatre.

All part of the learning curve – as is the anonymised ‘feedback’ thread I’ve set up on our Moodle page. If the technique helped most students understand the concept of alternation of generations, then I’ll work on doing it better. If it didn’t, well, I guess I need to go back to the drawing board.

March 14, 2012

how do you give feedback to university teachers

How do you give feedback to university teachers? – this was the search ‘topic’ used by one visitor to Talking Teaching. It struck a chord with me as I’m part of a small group of people discussing that very question, so I thought it might be a good topic for a blog. Not least because actually sitting down & writing about it should help to focus my own thoughts on the issue.

My institution expects teaching staff to carry out regular appraisals of their papers & their teaching in those papers.While there are a number of ways to do this, in practice most people use the ‘standard’ form: a set of Likert-scale questions on both paper & teachers that are common to all appraisals; a set of open-response questions (identify 3 things about this paper/teacher that should be changed/kept the same); &, if the lecturer chooses, some other questions as well. (Last year I included a set about student’s perceptions of Panopto, for a research project that I’m running with a couple of colleagues.) So there’s potentially quite a bit of information available there.

It’s what happens to this information, of course, that matters. Here, the current state of play sees lecturers receive a summary of the Likert question responses, plus any demographic information, fairly soon after the semester ends. Once the grades for the semester are finalised, we’re then sent the original survey forms, so we can then read the open-ended material as well. Both lots of information are potentially extremely useful if you’re wanting to improve paper delivery & your own teaching. The thing is – does everyone actually read it? Anecdotal evidence would suggest not: that the sheaf of paper may sometimes simply be flicked through (at best) before relegation to the paper-recycling device commonly known as a rubbish tin. When this happens, both students & teacher miss out. The students have spent time engaging with the questionnaire & do have a right to expect that their words will be read & (hopefully) responded to. And the lecturer may have missed out on suggestions that might allow them to enhance their paper’s delivery. And of course, there’s no closing of the feedback loop – letting the class know that you’ve read their comments & suggestions, & explaining how & why (or why not) you’re intending to respond to them. This in turn can see students becoming quite disillusioned with the whole process.

One of the options we’ve discussed, as a means of improving this part of the system, is whether to provide teaching staff with a summary of the open-ended questions as well, perhaps with a commentary alongside: “X% of the class felt that…. This suggests that… – have you considered the following.. ?” This, of course, would constitute a lot of extra work for our Teaching Development staff!

And there’s also the question of whether this is the best, or the only, way of getting feedback on one’s teaching.What about on-going formative feedback during the semester, using techniques like one-minute papers or ‘muddy questions’ (in which students highlight the points in a lecture that most puzzled or confused them)? Or the use of feedback surveys in learning management tools like Moodle? There’s also the issue of perceived legitimacy – I’ve heard it said that students don’t know enough about a given subject to give any meaningful comment. (While this is likely true about the content it’s certainly not the case for the methods – students do have a fairly good idea of the teaching styles & tools that work best to enhance their learning.) Would feedback be better coming from peers rather than students? How comfortable would lecturers be with having a colleague sitting in on their classes & providing constructive comments afterwards?

I seem to be posing more questions than I’ve answered! Please feel free to weigh in with your suggestions :-)

February 26, 2012

in the rush to ‘e-learning’, are we losing sight of our goals?

One of the ‘big things’ in schools these days seems to be the increasing expansion of e-learning. I’ve written previously on one school’s decision to require all its new students to have iPads, or similar tablet-style computers. At the time I worried about whether, in the rush to embrace new technology, the question of whether its use would enhance student learning was being left behind.  And a friend of mine who’s a secondary teacher recently said something similar: these technologies can be tools for learning but do not & should not replace the need for linking our teaching to a student-inquiry-based experiential and cognitive-conflict-based learning (which requires a lot of forethought & planning from teachers!).

That concern resurfaced yesterday as I was reading the NZ Herald‘s on-line edition (on my iPad, lol), & found one story citing a couple of US reports suggesting that perhaps e-learning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The first of the Herald‘s references was to this report at Education News Colorado, which examines the performance of students who are taught entirely on-line (for a range of reasons, that could include having dropped out of  ‘regular’ schooling, living in an extremely isolated area, or for philosophical reasons. At this point I need to note that the news report is based on an analysis of on-line school data, & so far doesn’t appear to have been published in the science education literature. (However, the Colorado Department of Education annual report, from which the data are drawn, can be found here.) Nonetheless, the analysis does appear to highlight some rather worrying trends:

  • Online students are losing ground. Students who transfer to online programs from brick-and-mortar schools posted lower scores on annual state reading exams after entering their virtual classrooms.
  • Academic performance declined after students enrolled in online programs. Students who stayed in online programs long enough to take two years’ worth of state reading exams actually saw their test results decline over time.
  • Wide gaps persist. Double-digit gaps in achievement on state exams between online students and their peers in traditional schools persist in nearly every grade and subject – and they’re widest among more affluent students.

Now, one reason put forward by education officials for the apparently wide differences in results was that on-line education was pretty much an option of last resort, & certainly at least one Colorado virtual school does appear to target at-risk students who may well be behind on many educational indicators. However:

The analysis of state data shows, however, that most online school students do not appear to be at-risk students. Only about 120 students of the more than 10,000 entering online programs last year were identified as previous dropouts returning to school, and only 290 entered online schools after spending the prior year in an alternative school for troubled youth.

The obvious question is, why? Because there does appear to be something going on. And it’s relevant to NZ even though fully on-line teaching is a long way from the use of iPads & their like in a bricks-&-mortar classroom: we’re still looking at two stages on a continuum here.

Part of it could be that kids are not really as tech-savvy as we’d like to think. Putting them in front of a desktop computer, or giving access to things like tablets, doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily use the technology to its best advantage. They may well need to learn that skill. And those using the technology to teach also need to think about how well it fits their learning objectives – is it there because it’s ‘there’, or because it enhances learning in some way.

Coming back to the full-blown exclusively on-line learning thing: there are also issues of community & pedagogy. In a real (as opposed to virtual) school, students are part of an actual community that includes both their peers & their teachers, & which can extend into the community outside of school. It can be rather isolating to be a distance student, & not be a part of that (this was certainly my experience when I was studying extramurally for my teaching qualification).

Which is where the pedagogy comes in. Certainly from a university perspective, we haven’t always been terribly successful at moving from the face-to-face to the on-line teaching environment. However, technologies like vide0-conferencing, skype, moodle & panopto can help to give some sense of belonging to a learning community – as can tailoring teaching materials to this alternative means of teaching & learning, instead of simply uploading everything in the format that’s used in ‘normal’ classes. Are some of the students in the Colorado study missing out on that sense of community?

And the Herald‘s second reference? It was to this story (from September 2011) in the New York Times, which carried out what looks like a fairly extensive investigation on the use of technology in schools, before concluding that

schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

Now, that’s talking about the current status quo in parts of the US. New Zealand’s a long way back from what the NYT is describing, both in the extent of our technology roll-out & in the amount of money we have available for it.  And the research into the effectiveness of on-line teaching & learning is certainly being done (here, here, here & here, for example). (There’s also an interesting review of ‘virtual schools’ available here, which uses New Zealand as one of its examples.)

But still: technology, in education as elsewhere, is a useful tool, but not necessarily a panacea for all ills.

January 24, 2011

changing the culture of science education at research universities

This is a cross-post of something I’ve just written for my ‘other’ blog :)

 That’s the attention-grabbing title of a new paper in Science magazine’s ‘education forum’ section (Anderson et al. 2011). Most readers will know that science education is a subject dear to my heart, & a topic that Marcus & I write on from time to time (here & here, for example). The authors are all professors at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute & are supported by that institution to create ‘new programs that more effectively engage students in learning science’ (ibid), so I was keen to see what they had to say on the topic of raising the profile and status of teaching at the tertiary level.

In the opinion of Anderson & his colleagues (& it’s an opinion that I share)

Science education should not only provide broad content knowledge but also develop analytical thinking skills, offer understanding of the scientific research process, inspire curiosity, and be accessible to a diverse range of students.

 Now, you might think, ‘well, obviously!’, and certainly all my colleagues would agree that these are good aims, but the devil’s in the detail. All institutions have what are called ‘graduate profiles’, & ideally when new curricula are being developed, or existing ones reviewed, their relevance to that graduate profile should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The difficulty, though, is that most university lecturers aren’t trained teachers but have generally ‘picked it up on the job’. They’re not familiar with the science education literature &, with all the pressures on them to generate external funding and maximise their research profile, it’s going to be hard to take the time to find and read relevant material. Heck, at the moment I struggle to find time, and that’s in my research area!

Anderson et al argue that turning this around requires a culture shift at the level of the institutions themselves, suggesting that these institutions need to “more broadly and effectively recognise, reward, and support the efforts of researchers who are also excellent teachers.” They list 7 initiatives that would move things along towards this end.

Educate faculty about research in learning. There’s a wealth of literature out there on ways to enhance teaching and student learning. (I’m reading some of it myself at the moment.) But the key thing here is time. Without time for researchers in any given discipline to sit down & get a a feel for the education literature (without feeling guilty about not spending that time reading in their ‘own’ field, applying for research grants, supporting research students, or teaching…), & to play around with some of the ideas therein, this will be a long, slow process. Maybe a grassroots approach might be better, more engaging? At my institution we’ve got ‘teaching advocates’ (Marcus is one) who organise informal lunchtime sessions for people to sit down & discuss particular teaching approaches, or maybe just throw ideas around. These are good ways of getting discussions going & supporting people in what they’re doing in the classroom.

Create awards and named rofessorships that provide research support for outstanding teachers. Well, we certainly have awards: in-Faculty & cross-campus at this institution & all others I can think of, plus the national Ako Aotearoa awards. And it’s jolly nice to get one, too! But a question that I’d rather like to look into is, what is the wider impact of these awards? They’re nice for the awardee (in a time when the purse-strings are tight, it’s nice to know that you’ll be able to go to a couple of relevant, conferences without having to think too hard about how to fund it!), but do they change the attitudes & perceptions of others on-campus? Do they have a lasting impact on institutional culture?

Require excellence in teaching for promotion. The authors argue, & I agree, that this needs to be a broad-brush approach, not restricted to looking at data from end-semester course appraisals. They say, “[we] must identify the full range of teaching skills and strategies that might be used, describe best practices in the evaluation of teaching effectiveness (particularly approaches that encourage rather than stifle diversity), and define how these might be used and prioritised during the promotion process.” And as part of this we need to encourage people to try new things. There’s a real worry, & risk, that trying something new in the interests of improving your teaching will backfire: if for whatever reason the students don’t like what you’re doing, those end-semester scores may well decline as a result. Which is why these shouldn’t be the only way of measuring teaching quality and effectiveness. (This, of course, requires that the people involved in determing promotion rounds need to be aware of the existence & value of other means of assessing teaching quality.)

Create teaching discussion groups. the teaching advocate meetings run by Marcus & his counterparts, & the institution’s ‘teaching network’ meetings, are developing a nucleus of such groups. Maybe members of these groups might be interested in working on peer assessment of teaching? You can learn an awful lot from watching other experienced practitioners in action – I know I do. It can be a bit nerve-wracking, having another teacher sit in on your classes, but the discussions afterwards can be really rewarding. (In that regard, something like panopto is an excellent tool to aid reflection on your own teaching, if you’d rather someone else didn’t sit in & give you feedback.)

Create cross-disciplinary programs in college-level learning. Or maybe even just cross-disciplinary discussions. When I taught at high school, everyone was involved in staff meetings, so you had plenty of opportunity to talk with people teaching in other subjects. You tend to lose that sort of collegiality in large tertiary institutions, because every Faculty, & sometimes every department, will have its own tearooms & meeting spots. And that’s a pity, really, because unless you go out of your way to meet your counterparts in other parts of the organisation (or even just go to one of their in-house seminars), you can be closed off from some really interesting discussions about research & practice. (But yes, it is hard to find the time. Time, again; that really does seem central to all this.)

Provide ongoing support for effective science teaching. This can potentially be expensive up-front, but has long-term benefits in terms of student engagement & outcomes. Expensive, because students learn science best when they’re engaged in doing science – & this means lab & field work, as often as not.  But how else are students to learn what it is to ‘do’ science, & to become really engaged in that doing?

And finally, Anderson & his colleagues recomment engag[ing] chairs, deans, and presidents (in NZ, a ‘president’ would be a vice-chancellor), because institutional leadership is crucial in bringing about such changes. These leaders – & in fact, all involved in teaching & learning, need to

foster a culture in which teaching and research are no longer seen as being in competition, but as mutually beneficial activities that support two equally important enterprises, generation of new knowledge and education of our students.

Anderson WA, Banerjee U, Drennan CL, Elgin SC, Epstein IR, Handelsman J, Hatfull GF, Losick R, O’Dowd DK, Olivera BM, Strobel SA, Walker GC, & Warner IM (2011). Science education. Changing the culture of science education at research universities. Science (New York, N.Y.), 331 (6014), 152-3 PMID: 21233371

June 13, 2010

the tyranny of powerpoint

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , — alison @ 11:31 pm

This is a re-post of something I originally wrote for my ‘other’ blog, as a result of reading a thought-provoking paper about powerpoint that was given to me by a colleague.

I began my university teaching career in the years B.P. (Before Powerpoint). Blackboards, chalk, & overhead transparencies (often hand-written & hand-drawn) were the order of the day. Since then, Powerpoint has become an almost universal tool & ‘chalk-&-talk’ is a rarity. But Powerpoint is just a tool, & using it doesn’t guarantee a good presentation. (Slides that simply present large blocks of text; blocks of text in tiny fonts; lines of text that ‘fly’ in from one side or the other; typewriter sounds as letters appear on the screen – don’t do it! Please don’t go there!)

Anyway, a colleague has just given me a copy of Yiannis Gabriel’s 2008 paper looking at the use (& abuse) of Poweroint as a teaching tool. And it’s really got me thinking.

Gabriel begins by noting that Powerpoint “accomplish[ed] what earlier technologies did (overhead transparencies, slides, chalk and blackboard) only more efficiently, more stylishly.” However, it’s probably had more widespread, more pervasive effects: Powerpoint has become the basic lecture  tool, but simply relying on it without thinking about how it’s used can have some far-reaching effects on the nature of the learning that goes on in lecture theatres. One of his concerns is that, while Powerpoint is great for showing information in visual form (graphs, diagrams, photos, embedded videos), it may also affect students’ abilities to analyse & think critically about information. (It can also act as a prop – how many lecturers these days would feel comfortable giving a lecture without powerpoint, if the power goes down or the technology fails?) In fact, he expresses his own concern that “Powerpoint inevitably leads to comfortable, incontestable, uncritical, visually seductive and intellectually dulling communication.”

Now, like almost all my colleagues I use Powerpoint on pretty much an everyday basis, & so Gabriel’s ideas gave me considerable food for thought. It’s easy to slip into using this technology routinely, in a way that’s really just ‘chalk-&-talk elevated to another level. I try hard to avoid this: I use images & phrases as something to talk around & as cues for students to think about concepts, & I try to encourage discussion around the ‘big ideas’ of each lecture, using things like pop quizzes to start things off. (I really enjoy it when students ask probing questions that require a bit of thought for me to answer properly, not least because it lets me model how scientists think about things.) But is this enough?

Certainly the technology has its shortcomings, although these tend to be in how it’s applied rather than inherent in Powerpoint itself. You’ve planned your lecture in advance, all the images & words are assembled onto your slides – how easy is it to deviate from this if during the course of the lecture it becomes obvious that some in the class don’t understand what you’re saying, or want to ask questions around a particular issue? It could be argued that you just have to get through that material – it’s needed as the basis for the next lecture or some other paper – & the students will have to come to tutorials or ‘office hours’ to fill the gaps. But by then the moment’s passed.

Myself, I don’t see the value in that. Better by far to address the issues that students raise, on the spot – after all, how can I expect them to understand the material that follows if they haven’t ‘got’ what I’m talking about at the moment? You can deal with this with Powerpoint, as you would have done in the ‘old days': I had the experience a few weeks ago where it became clear that many in the class hadn’t a clue about meiosis, & without it much of the rest of the lecture wasn’t going to make much sense to them. We ended up with an impromptu tutorial, with me using the computer mouse to ‘draw’ on my slides (having changed it from the usual arrow to a virtual felt-tip pen) to illustrate the points we were talking about. Yes, we didn’t get through everything I’d intended to for that class – but I was able to do an extra panopto recording later that day for the students to follow, & there were always the tutorials…

So I thought I was doing OK – & then Gabriel mentioned bullet-point lists… These are pretty much the standard way to present information in Powerpoint, but Gabriel points out that they contain some fish-hooks for teacher & student alike: “many people (and most  students) confronting a list will assume that it is exhaustive, that the items on it are co-equivalent…, and that they are mutually exclusive. In reality, few lists meet these requirements, and yet they block thinking into precise areas of overlap or items that are absent from the list.” There’s also a risk that students will see the lists as completely authoritative where they may actually be tentative. And it’s easy to use them to gloss over things that the lecturer’s not sure about, or doesn’t want to discuss – just don’t put those items on the list! 

When I think about it, I can see some of these things coming through in students’ test papers. For example, in teaching about the different ‘major phyla’ of animals, it’s easy to list the key features of each phylum in a series of bullet-points. I make the point in lectures that there may be other interesting features in a particular phylum – but in a test, for many students it’s as if I’d never said that; the bullet-point items seem to be all-important. This suggests to me that these students haven’t thought about other things that were said in lecture, or maybe those other things didn’t even register. And it’s made me wonder if there are other steps I could take to get this information across in a meaningful way that prompts the class to think carefully about what’s being said & why it matters.

Gabriel criticises images as well. And I agree with him – it’s quite easy to put together a sequence of images that can engross the audience, to the point where they don’t actually think critically about what’s being said. But I also strongly agree that it can enhance student learning & understanding of things like anatomy or physics. Diagrams, too, are a double-edged sword. Used simply to present large amounts of information they can be both boring & overwhelming – but they can “also open up new possibilities of creative thinking, communication and learning.”

I can see that I’ve got a lot of thinking and reorganising to do. I’d like to re-jig my Powerpoints to encourage a number of skills in my students, to enhance their learning – and because many of the skills that Gabriel identifies as desirable emphasise aspects of the nature of science itself:

  • filtering out the irrelevant & focusing on the memorable and significant;
  • tolerating uncertainty;
  • coping with ambiguity;
  • recognising & enjoying the fact that we don’t have clear, permanent solutions to every puzzle & problem;
  • developing the capacity for analytical, critical thought.

Using Powerpoint in a way that goes beyond it being merely a tool for presenting information can only enhance students’ learning (& – speaking personally – my enjoyment of teaching).

Y.Gabriel (2008) Against the tyranny of powerpoint: technology-in-use and technology abuse. Organisation Studies 29: 255-276. doi: 10.1177/0170840607079536. Document available online at

March 5, 2010

the sound of my own voice

Filed under: science teaching — Tags: , , — alison @ 2:49 pm

Every now & then I take a timid step into the unknown. ‘Unknown’ for me, that is. Today, the step was to record my lectures using ‘coursecast’ (Panopto) software, so that my students can view them again (& again & again… heck, I hope not – if they need several viewings then my explanations etc probably aren’t up to scratch!)

I must say, I was quite pleased with the result. Students viewing a recording get to see a smallish ‘live action’ screen that shows me plus the backs of a few rows of heads; a list of slides that allows them to jump from one to the other; the current slide plus thumbnails of the others, which allow allows them to jump between slides; & if enabled, a view of the computer screen is also available. The quality of the recording is good – but I must say, it’s quite strange listening to your own voice! Sounds different when it’s actually echoing around in your own head.

I didn’t use the ‘screen capture’ option & now I think I should have done, & will in future. This is because I routinely ‘draw’ on my powerpoint slides – I always use the arrow (cursor) as a pointer, because it’s much easier on the eye than a jiggly laser pointer spot, but you also have the option of using it as a pen. This lets me cross things out (if I’ve made a typo, for example!), underline for emphasis, & draw scribble a diagram for explanation. I find it really helps the classroom dynamic as well – lets the students see I don’t mind who knows that I’ve made a mistake, plus it can inject a bit of humour. Anyway, those scribbles don’t show on the slide capture function, so I’ll enable ‘screen capture’ from now on.

Now, here’s the philosophical musings… It could be argued – & I suspect many of my colleagues will do this – that if my lectures are recorded & available after the event, that the students won’t bother coming at all. (They said this when I started putting all my ppts on moodle ahead of lectures, & I didn’t notice any obvious drop in numbers!) Personally, I don’t think it’s all that likely – there’s a lot of interplay in my lectures that the recording won’t pick up, because it’s student-based & I’m the only one wired for sound. And there are a lot of benefits to be had from doing this sort of thing. Students who are ill won’t have to rely on study guides or their friends’ notes but can still see the performance. And students who didn’t catch a comment, or who need to hear something again, can replay it. Similarly, if they didn’t understand the first time, they’ve got the opportunity to hear things again. It’s got to be good for students.

Good for me, too: I get to see (in miniature) & hear what the students see & hear, so if I’ve got any irritating mannerisms etc then I can identify them & – I hope! – work to correct things.

So hopefully it’s a win-win for everyone :-)

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