LECTURES AND SECRET CONVERSATIONS: dialogues in spaces that only want you to broadcast

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Can technology give teachers meaningful feedback during a lecture?

Much of my time over the last year has been spent in Lecture mode. I don’t want to do this but the architecture of the University makes it very hard to avoid, when teaching technology applications.

All technical teaching takes place in our Media Labs, serried rows of computers facing to the front, with the teachers position in front of the Projector screen. Teamwork, peer assisted learning and collaboration aren’t encouraged by this set up, and the teacher can’t see what the students are doing on their screens.

The thing is, the labs are seen as a big draw to prospective students. If you look at University PR you’ll see shots of the light and bright media labs. Visiting prospective students think they are great and are only interested in the software and technical specs of a space where they will spend a considerable proportion of their time. Such spaces have a place within the teaching cycle, but the problem for me is they are a monoculture. There is no media lab with a cabaret table arrangement to enable team co-operation for instance, no quiet space for small group contemplation of technical issues.

Thus, technical tuition quickly tends towards the didactic- “are you all still with me?” as I demonstrate some software technique with no real idea if students are copying parrot-like on their screens, or have tuned out.

I’ve been reading a lot about Laurillard’s Conversational Framework, and it’s fair to say the format of the labs do not lend themselves to conversations or dialogue between Learner and Teacher. Rather this is part of what Laurillard refers to as ‘Learning by Acquisition’. As she notes “the multimedia capabilities now available through technology have been exploited well to improve presentational quality, using pictures, diagrams, animation, audio, video, and hypertext, but these attractive presentational formats still invite the learner to follow rather than initiate action, and language is still the dominant form of presentation” (Teaching as a Design Science, p105)

So, Digital Tech might be able to incite conversation and dialogue in the lecture. In a paper entitled “Maximising Dialogue in Lectures using group response systems” Cutts refers to impediments to such interchange and flow, and proposes the use of Group Response Systems (GRS) as a way to maintain dialogue in labs like I teach in, both during and after lectures.

megaphoneLectures can be more than a one way transmission, and lecture spaces that are organised to privilege lectures can be usurped. Cutts et al points out that barriers to dialogue revolve around Time (the didactic imperative of covering the subject territory in the allotted period), Learner attention (students are often too busy making notes to ruminate and reflect) and Narrative (the didactic imperative of getting through the programme).

Now, it’s called a Conversational Framework because it assumes the ideal model of a dialogue between a single learner and a single teacher, not a one-to-many situation like a lecture hall. If dialogue is to be maintained then other issues also need to be tackled, which Cutts labels as Identified Responder (learners don’t like to admit they don’t understand in a larger group, so don’t engage in questions) Response Range (difficult for the teacher/broadcaster to gauge the range of misunderstandings or limited understandings in a group due to low feedback), Response Relevance (engaging with an atypical student question which has little relevance to the rest of the group can skew the class leaving more important misunderstandings undetected), and Monitoring Progress (how do you read the students’ progress throughout a ‘broadcast’. Are they with you, or when do they start to flag?).

Whilst teachers may fret about the failings of a lecture format, it’s also important to remember there is a symmetry in Laurillard’s framework- it’s not the teacher pushing and the learner taking- it’s a circular flow. The learner needs to proactively demonstrate their progress regarding understanding the concept in hand- the teacher is no mind reader. Learners need to be able to air questions and have them addressed to promote learning.
According to Cutts et al, it’s possible to overcome such barriers with a particular technology- a Group Response System (GRS). They provide the hotline back to the teacher during a lecture. This tech (sometimes called Audience Response Systems) can be in the form of a smartphone app these days as opposed to hardware ‘clickers’. (See Increasing Student Engagement and Retention using Classroom Technologies eds by Wankel, C., Blessinger, P., Emerald books). Each student/audience member connects to a central computer but their response is anonymised thus alleviating the barrier of Identified Responder and also Response Range (because the teacher sees a complete sample).

In evaluations, Draper & Brown reports over 85% of students attempted to work on and answer questions if a GRS was used, compared to only half that number if “hands-up” responses were sought. (S. Draper, & M. Brown, Increasing interactivity in lectures using an electronic voting system, Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2004 Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 20, pp81–94.)

The typical mode of use here is that the teacher stops lecturing, asks a question, waits while learners respond to the question using the GRS, and then continues the lecture making use of the aggregated responses displayed. Cutts, being a professor of computer science education has written his own software that allows students to ‘vote’ if they are confused or bored. At scale this represents the voice of the individual and the group. On a basic level the Learner has spoken and hopefully initiated a response from the teacher. However, more sophisticated feedback is possible. Text responses could be aggregated and voted on, thus determining more specific data on the learner’s responses. It is an easy step from this to alleviate the Monitoring Progress impediment. Response Relevance will still be a problem, but Cutts points out that the data collected by the GRS (which is usually intended only for the teachers so that they can identify bottlenecks and attrition points of student comprehension and then alter their lecture for next time), can be released to students afterwards replete with lecture notes, so students can put the two together to proactively construct new learnings. Students can revisit difficult points and see how other students negotiated them, or ask further questions of their peers via a forum or follow up groups.

clapometerBy giving out handouts augmented with response graphs and other GRS conclusions, the students can chart how their under the radar dialogue changed the tutors response in the lecture. Using the same data the tutor can supplement it with further FAQs, reading lists or learning guides for those students.

In my teaching context of a handful of students I find it surprising that I deal with the same impediments (although probably not so acutely) as a grand lecture theatre set up in Glasgow’s mighty Computer Science department (where Cutts et al hails from!). That’s partly because the media space is built to promote efficient lectures, not dialogue. The cost of some GRS system would not be economical for our media labs of 24 seats, but using students’ smartphones might be worthy of experiment.

According to Cutts, the impediments to effective dialogue can be assuaged if not nullified by GRS or anonymous interactive technology, but just as importantly the collected data can be used constructively AFTER the lecture too by both learners and teachers. Intriguingly, this tech can be like a non-disruptive back channel, hidden below the surface. It won’t disrupt the lecture, merely, if the teacher wants, nudge it in new directions.

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