One of the very nice things about not being at Keele at the moment (for I am currently in Vancouver, no I wasn’t caught up in last nights post-hockey riots), is that I’m getting stuff done. It makes me wonder how much having an office inhibits productivity rather than contributing to it. Or perhaps its just an indication that sitting in a library or coffee shop is more conducive to working on dissertations and teaching materials (for goodness sake no one mention university open days). I’m trying to write my Teaching and Learning with Technology project up – I did a handful of pre-lectures (very tentatively) and a couple of lecture breaks with my first year class this year, with varying success but a large number of lessons learned.
I’ ve been teaching at Keele for 3 years and the only consistent thing is that nothing has stayed the same year to year. One particularly noticeable change is in how I use our online learning environment (VLE), and the kind of resources I put on it. At first I started by looking around and figuring out what everyone else did with the VLE: uploading lecture notes and other documents. Fair enough, but the software is pretty expensive to be used simply as a file server. In any case, the first time around for any set of courses is generally spent figuring out the material, not the teaching technology. Just being able to lecture in relatively coherent sentences is an achievement.
In year 2 I was forced to change a lot of lecture material due to either course restructuring or being given new courses. The benefits of this were that I no longer had to teach integration and differentiation for chemists in 1 hour lecture slots. The downside was that there was an awful lot of prep time. I decided that I’d like to try recording lectures, and acquired a digital voice recorder, uploading MP3 files. This was pretty well received by the students, but I’m not sure how much use was made of the files. I also started playing around with multiple choice revision quizzes on the VLE but found that the time needed to develop these was significantly greater than the benefits I perceived (and generally only a fraction of the class were making use of them, perhaps 20%). I also started using a tablet PC to directly annotate powerpoint slides (initially spectroscopic data and maths classes) in lectures. This was a big hit, and I’d recommend it as a teaching tool.
Year three was defined by screencasts. While creating MP3 files of lectures was OK, there was something unsatisfying about the idea of the listener being unaware of what slide we were currently talking about. I briefly toyed with the idea of reading the slide title but realised that it would be awkward and inelegant. I experimented with a trial version of Camtasia, capturing the audio and tablet PC annotations on powerpoint. After the first semester I used the digital voice recorder to improve the audio quality. Now, there is substantial time required to produce the lectures, particularly if you edit out any pauses or interactive bits that are poorly captured. Problem with this is that you end up with a 40 – 50 minute long video that’s barely navigable beyond stop, play, and pause. Camtasia does give you the option of a table of contents that allows the students to zip to particular slide titles, which is particularly useful. In addition to lecture capture (I have been busy this year), I’ve also used screencasts for whole cohort feedback on class tests (the subject of an HEA Physical Sciences Centre New Directions publication in the 2011 edition), and for pre-lectures. As part of the teaching and learning with technology module of Keele’s MA in teaching and learning in HE, I created 3 pre-lectures that were revision of key concepts from the previous semester. This was an admittedly timid foray into pre-lectures, mainly because I was scared to cover any critical concepts, fearing that the students wouldn’t access the resources. Well, the 80:20 rule was roughly in force with about 20% of the class accessing the pre-lectures (ain’t evaluation a wonderful thing). I realise now, on reflection, that covering essential concepts was probably a means to bolster engagement, simply using them as revision provided the students with an excuse to ignore them (the ‘I passed the module so I know the material’ idea).
So where does that leave me for the looming year 4? Well we’re getting seriously into these pre-lectures. We’ve been awarded an HEA Physcial Sciences Centre development project which will use pre-lectures to clear out some lecture time for more interactive activities. I think we plan to focus on ur first year teaching for this, but looking at my second year teaching (x-ray diffraction, multinuclear NMR), I think some of these topics could be very nicely done through a mixture of pre-lectures, conventional lectures and extended problem solving activities. To that end, I’m planning to cut 8 hours of lectures and 3 hours of problem solving into 4 hours of lectures and 7 hours of problem solving. I feel a bit more comfortable doing that, having done a few pre-lectures already and having worked out some of the pitfalls. Not quite sure how to approach the first year stuff, but I’ll figure it out.
So that’s what I’m working on at the moment – writing up my project, and doing some planning on the back of it. It is nice to have time out from the usual routine and distractions to focus a bit more. I should make the most of this time because once I get back, I’ve got 2 summer students working on two (completely cool!) projects, one to do with getting anions out of water, the other looking at silver-polymer conjugates as antimicrobial agents. Not forgetting, of course, going to SciFoo in August!