On my radio

Words like ‘action’, ‘fade’, and ‘sound fx’ aren’t one’s you would usually associate with teaching and learning. But, last Monday, I and a group of colleagues converged on a recording studio in Milton Keynes to record a dramatised version of the lives of three Open University students. To be called This Student Life, this fictional rendition of the challenges facing distance learning students is part of a wider project of student engagement which I am currently leading.
I have written previously about why this type of drama is an appropriate form of teaching, and will not rehearse the same arguments here. Suffice to say that a drama allows for the exploration of issues in an entirely controlled environment, involving students in an element of role play, as they are asked to empathise with characters whose lives should resonate with their own.

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There are a number of reasons why a drama might offer a good learning tool. First, it is a relatively safe place to explore issues which are, by their nature, sensitive. This Student Life will tackle dyslexia, plagiarism, student debt as well as all the usual student worries about assignments, marks, attending tutorials, self-esteem etc. Of course, we could have talked to individual students about these issues, but this relies on individuals being prepared to expose themselves. Despite what our media obsessed culture may lead us to believe most people do not want to have their lives laid bare before an audience.
Second, the drama allows us to explore these issues in a single representative student or, in this case, small group of students. Whilst we all know students who seem to be incredibly unlucky, few real people have the incidence in their lives which listeners demand. That is why they are called dramas.
This latter point, however, does raise an issue which was never far from my mind as I developed the script. Whilst the script has to resonate with real students, it also has to be dramatic enough that people will want to continue listening. This creates a tension between the made up World of the drama and the real lives we are trying to portray. A drama is not an ethnographic representation of the lives of real individuals, and I freely admit to using dramatic licence in one or two places.

Like many writers I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame half-assed assumptions.

This quote is from David Simon, the award winning writer of The Wire.
I am heavily invested in This Student Life as writer, director and a supporting actor. As a writer using fiction to explore real issues I can see a connection with David Simon. Admittedly, the connection may not be obvious to everybody. There are not many drug dealers, corrupt cops, journalists, pimps or prostitutes to be found in This Student Life. On the other hand, The Wire does not have much to say about dyslexia, assignment anxiety, or plagiarism!
Artistic considerations are not the only ones as the story develops. It is no use writing a story about three teenagers if the actors who are to play the roles are obviously in their fifties. But, this brings me full circle to the issue outlined by David Simon, how accurate should my portrayal be? Let’s face it if I were to make a TV drama about Oxford University and all the actors were clearly 50+, it would lack credibility.

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The average age of an OU student is 31, and whilst the OU points out that 25% of its new undergraduates are under 25, this means that three-quarters are over 25. Given this context, it is not entirely unrealistic to have 3 students aged 32, 40 and 54. Though, I rather suspect that the OU would prefer to have a less representative sample.

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In a single evening and a whole day we recorded all 24 episodes with each episode lasting 6-7 minutes. We had little time for multi-takes,or for the actors to inhabit their characters. Within those 6-7 minutes each of the main characters has a developing storyline. In technical parlance this is known as a multi point of view. Writing a 7 minute episode in which the three main strands are around 2 minutes each may sound easy, but it is, at one and the same time, nowhere near long enough and far too much time!
For all sorts of reasons we had to avoid long Shakespearian monologues, especially given that the actors will only see the full script a couple of days before recording and there was no money in the budget for rehearsal time. It is also important to be realistic about how much emotion we can convey. A couple of the actors, including myself, have received no training in how to act. Believe me it is much harder than it looks!
This week we go into what the professionals call post-production. That is where we make the words which we have recorded as spoken by actors come to life, by a process of editing. Bad takes will be abandoned, lines that did not work will be expunged, context will be added by the inclusion of sound effects. The magic will be done and from this the final product, as good as we can make it, will emerge. It is both an exciting and terrifying process. At the end what we will have is a way of engaging our students in a dialogue around the issues raised in this piece of drama. Real issues, but wrapped in a veneer of fiction.

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I Can Learn (but can you?)

Okay, so there I was minding my own business and checking my emails. You know how it is, its the end of July, and you’re mainly deleting rubbish. But one caught my eye. It was from a colleague, and widely circulated. “I’ve come across this article” he said “might there be some lessons in here about online education more generally that we need to debate and consider further?”
The article was by an American academic, Jennifer Morton and I clicked on the link to find out what lessons I might learn.
The article, a blog piece, compares the experience of students giving presentations ‘in-class’ to the future dominated by MOOCs. Whilst recognising that MOOCs appear to increase access to higher education Morton then claims that, “the adoption of online education by large public universities threatens to harm the very students for whom a college education is an essential leg up into the middle class.”
This is because the skills conferred by a ‘middle class’ education including “social, emotional, and behavioral competencies” are lacking in the home lives of poorer students. These skills, it seems, can only be learned in physical classrooms as poorer students are able to learn from their better educated and more socially articulate peers. Thus, “our priority should be to offer students, in particular those who are not already part of the middle class, a classroom in which they can learn to navigate middle-class social norms, be comfortable with and develop relationships with students from different backgrounds, and speak their minds.”
My initial reaction to this was that it is wrong to assume that online learning and MOOCs should be regarded as the same thing. That the evidence that students can only learn these social skills in face to face settings is asserted rather than proved. I wrote back to the list that the initial email had been circulated to pointing this out and arguing that the author was so keen to disprove online tuition that they failed to see the inadequacies of face to face teaching which is held up as a gold standard to which online teaching can never hope to compare.
On re-reading the blog piece by Jennifer Morton, I would also say that it seems incredibly patronising to poorer students. The only value of education seems to be to drag them from the gutter into the respectable middle class. It is almost as if they are being judged solely on their inability to know which knife to use at the dinner table. I think I misunderstood the article because I had assumed it was about the value of face to face teaching against that offered by online alternatives. It is actually about how to create a middle class by taking small numbers of lower class students and applying peer pressure to improve their middle class credentials. I suspect that many middle class educators would agree with the sentiment expressed by Rex Harrison when he sang of a gender he could not understand in the film My Fair Lady ‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’, adapted to ‘why can’t those rough types be more like us.’
Whether or not the goal of expanding higher education is to make us all middle class, there remains the issue of whether online tuition serves the interests of students or is simply a pale reflection of classroom based provision. One of my colleagues in replying to my assertion that face to face is held up as a gold standard replied unequivocally that “excellent face to face teaching” was indeed a gold standard.
The key here is probably in the word “excellent”. What is excellent face to face teaching? And, what is it about online tuition that means it is destined to fail to reach these dizzying heights?
I have taught extensively in both face to face settings and online, and I have also attended others sessions in both. An excellent teaching session, in my view, is one that engages students, stimulates them and encourages them to return. I have certainly seen outstanding face to face sessions, but I have also seen truly inspirational online teaching. It is not the mode of delivery that is important but the enthusiasm, commitment and imagination of the tutor that makes the difference.
Whist I am certainly aware of innovation in face to face teaching I only have to glance at a website such as TeachThought to see that the majority of innovation is happening online. In other words, whilst developing our teaching skills is important regardless of mode of delivery, if we want to be excellent that can no longer be achieved by fixating nostalgically on a mythical past of “excellent” face to face teaching.

Tommy, can you hear me

If you’ve ever done an online tutorial, you’ll likely have experienced a point where you have asked a question, and all you get back is a deafening silence. It is tempting to think, paraphrasing The Who, that nobody can hear you. The temptation is to blame being online, as though our face-to-face seminars and tutorials are overflowing with chatter-boxes.
What is happening, then, in these online sessions where students refuse to speak? One simple explanation is that it is something to do with the artificiality of using a microphone. This is plausible until we consider that the majority of our students seem to have a piece of technology welded to their ears most of the time and it does not hinder their ability to speak.
In an evaluative survey of 300 Open University students which I carried out last year, I tested the hypothesis that students did not like using a microphone. In an array of attitudinal statements 38% agreed that they did not like using a microphone. However, as a control, I also asked about whether they disliked talking in tutorials. Guess what? The figures agreeing that they were anxious about talking in tutorials was 38%, and when I correlated these two questions, it turned out that it was, more or less, the same people.
Now, we always need to keep some perspective when comparing face-to-face teaching with online as battle lines can easily be drawn and rather than a discussion we have an argument which neither side wants to lose.
My figures suggest that about 4 in 10 students are uncomfortable speaking – in any environment. I suspect that in the face-to-face setting we have tried and tested strategies for overcoming this. Putting students into pairs for example, or just doing all the talking for them. In the online environment, however, instead of thinking creatively we too often fall back on the old ‘the technology is to blame’ excuse.
Online tutorials are still relatively novel both for tutors and students, and as we feel our way into making them more mainstream we need to be bold in developing strategies for coping with things that we may have glossed over in our face-to-face experiences. The non-talking student is nothing new, but whereas in a classroom that student has the option to speak or not; in the online classroom built- in chat functions and interactive whiteboards provide an opportunity to engage students in ways that classroom teachers can only dream about.
So, is the problem of non-talking students overcome in the online classroom?