Teaching with synchronous technologies – symposium reflections

Friday 15th December saw colleagues from across the university participate an entirely online symposium exploring and debating synchronous technologies.

The symposium kicked off with Tara Morrison from Inverness College UHI, presenting through Blackboard Collaborate Ultra to explore the use of online synchronous communication. Tara took the participants through how she makes use of the functions of the virtual classroom to maximise student interaction.

The session saw good use of the chat space where participants debated the potential issues with bandwidth but agreed that when it works well that it allows for a ‘classroom’ experience for students which lends itself to the distributed context of UHI.

Screen shot of Tara Morrison's presentation through Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.

Tara Morrison’s presentation

Next up Michael Smith from Lews Castle College UHI presented through video conference to explore the use of chat spaces when teaching in synchronous technology.  Michael looked at how to manage chat spaces to ensure that they are inclusive to all students to ensure a positive experience for all.  Michael also discussed the reasons from moving from a-synchronous to synchronous chat technologies, largely to fit in with the busy lifestyle and diverse needs and external commitments of students.  This opened up the discussion around how to ensure that students engage when being taught through online learning technologies.   It was agreed that this can also be an issue with students in traditional face to face or videoconference teaching and there are different factors that might affect the engagement of a cohort of students and what works for some doesn’t work for others.

A screen shot of Michael Smith's presentation through videoconferencing.

Michael Smith’s presentation

Simon Clarke from Shetland College UHI presented through videoconference, starting with the history of videoconferencing technologies and the engagement with it for teaching at UHI.  Simon explained the advances in technology, including the advances in the recording facility, from having to send out recordings as VHS videos to the recording capabilities that we have now.  Simon spoke about the pitfalls of videoconferencing, largely due to user mistake such as poor lighting, poor video position, audio and poor classroom layout and lesson plans which are focused on the students in the room and not those participating through videoconference.  This is something that should be addressed, not just with lecturers but estate manager and technicians.  Simon went on to speak about the importance of educational leadership for educational learning/teaching technology and the need for more buy in and input from senior management and there should be more direction on what and how technology should be used in teaching.  Finally Simon looked at pc based videoconferencing for cost effective delivery and inclusivity of students at UHI that are not campus based.

A screen shot of Simon Clarke's presentation through videoconferencing.

Simon Clarke’s presentation

After lunch our keynote speaker, Sarah Cornelius from the University of Aberdeen used Blackboard Collaborate to discuss the opportunities of real time tools in synchronous and mobile technologies that allow interaction, flexibility and collaboration with distant learners.

Sarah discussed the different types of tools that can be used in a synchronous way.  These included padlet, blackboard collaborate, Mentimeter and TodaysMeet.  These tools were effective as they are easy to use and accessible for learners.

Next Sarah gave examples of where synchronous technologies were used to engage with students in a distributed context.  These included anonymous discussion forums for role play, real time technology – texts that were not limited to classroom times and examples of how to use technology for group facilitation – using synchronous technology to facilitate sessions where students were in groups at different locations.

Sarah invited participants to share the challenges they have experienced with synchronous technologies, these included the technical challenges, motivating and disciplining, lower digital literacies, facilitating teaching when some students are in the room and others are remote and lack to time to design innovative approaches for online learning.  Sarah then explored learner-cantered teaching approaches to tackle some of these challenges and in particular building relationships and issues of power and control.  Sarah spoke about the approaches she has used in her own work to encourage informal student relationships and social presence and trust with one another that can sometimes be a challenge with online learning.  Sarah also spoke about how to tackle doing this whilst maintaining power and control over the teacher facilitation so allowing informality but also ensuring the teacher knows what the students are doing, particularly if they are using their own technology for learning.

A slide from Sarah Cornelius' presentation.

Sarah Cornelius’ presentation

Finally Sarah spoke about the research she has done with facilitator aspirations to be learner centred but due to the complex environment of online learning, the tendency to retreat into ‘tutor-led’ approach to keep control of the environment.

Sarah summarised that we need to think about how we create spaces where students feel comfortable in and can learn in effectively.

Following Sarah’s keynote, we welcomed Simon Bradley from Lews Castle College UHI to talk about his experience in using synchronous technology to teach the BA Applied Music programme.  Simon explored how he facilitates sessions where students are in the room, on videoconference and those students who will view the recording at a later date – ‘The Here, There and Then’.  Simon spoke about how he runs his sessions – preferring a relaxed, inclusive and discursive approach, avoiding the tutor speaking throughout and allowing students to have influence on the direction of study.  Simon shared some resources that allow a student approach to videoconference seminars, concluding that video conference seminars should be:

  • Relaxed and searching,
  • Non judgemental
  • Stating the purpose of the seminar at the start,
  • Basing on evidence
  • Summative reports
  • Writing up the decisions coming from the seminar

Simon spoke about the research he did with students around how they feel about videoconference learning and how they use it in their learning.  Some of the key points included that:

  • 66% of the students surveyed felt the flipped classroom approach where tutors send reading and topics ahead of the session was a good approach, with only 3% replying with a ‘not really’ useful response.
  • 9 in 10 felt they could contribute more in the VC seminar having received the reading ahead of the seminar.
  • 73% appreciated the natural and engaging experience of social presence face to face, although half said that it is nice to have that option but not essential to effective learning.
  • 57% of the students who were surveyed felt that tutors should encourage and ask all student to speak up in VC seminars.
  • 63% felt the best aspect of attending live VC seminars allowed them to connect with other students and the tutor and 49% felt the worst aspect of live attendance was it is fixed time and not flexible.
  • 83% felt the flexibility of being able to watch in their own time was the best aspect and using VC seminar recordings for learning, 54% of students surveyed felt the worst aspect was the temptation not to watch it if short on time.
  • 86% of the students felt it was useful for tutors to summarise VC seminars and post them as blackboard announcements.
A screenshoot of Simon Bradley's presentation through videoconference.

Simon Bradley’s presentation

Finally Simon looked at other research that has been done around VC teaching and summarised that a range of approaches needs to be used to engage and cater for the needs of the students at the university.

In our penultimate session, the academic team, Anne Bevan, Lindsay Blair, Siun Carden and Roxane Permar, from the MA Art and Social Practice Programme shared their experiences teaching with synchronous technologies.

Roxane explained the research that was carried out into the versatility of using virtual tools to teach social engaged art and if it would create connectively between lecturers and art practitioners in the region.  The findings informed the teaching of the MA Art and Social Practice Programme and revealed that you can teach practical skills online and that online learning is good for facilitating connectivity at a local and national level.

A screen shot of the The MA Art and Social Practice Programme Academic Team's presentation through videoconferencing.

The MA Art and Social Practice Programme Academic Team.

Roxane spoke about an annual virtual symposium whereby students can connect with presenters internationally and see that although living in small communities their own work could have a wider significance by connecting with universities internationally, which they really valued.  Through this positive feedback it was embedded in the curriculum for the MA Programme.

Roxane then spoke about the ways that the team have explored to encourage students to connect and build relationships with one another and a rapport with tutors.  Guest speaker seminars, group work, virtual induction, and buddy system are used to help with this.

Roxane and Siun explored the challenges of virtual learning when teaching social art practice, with Siun explaining the importance of place when teaching virtually.

Lindsay who teaches the Professional Practitioner Module talked about how she connects with her students to share her experience as an experienced art practitioner, from writing a brief, understand a brief, pitching for a job and faux interviews to build confidence within students.  Lindsay explained how she facilitates group work through using different videoconference codes to create separate groups in a session.

Siun concluded the session by speaking about The Winter School, a residential to explore cultural and social programme over 5 days and with live synchronous sessions for those who can’t attend in person which is planned for mid-January 2018.  The students have started to take on the challenge of how to connect virtual participants with those attending in person, with one presenter sending weaving kits out to the virtual participants so that they don’t miss out on the practical element of her session.

The final session of the day saw William Mohieddeen and Helen Doyle, student association coordinators from HISA present on the research that HISA have done into the new proposed university VLE.  William explained the Student Partnership Agreement – HISA and UHI agree on areas of work that are the priority for the upcoming year and is reviewed annually.

The Student Partnership Agreement identified that students wanted to see improvements into videoconference and VLE at UHI.  The VLE was ongoing, so HISA Officers joined the VLE working group which oversaw the progress of the project.  A student voice was crucial to the decision making process for the new VLE.  Lead student representatives at each Academic Partner held focus group and student representative councils to identify key themes for feeding into the VLE review group.

Themes included:

Accessing grades and feedback:  Students experiences differed across courses and for individual students.  Current Blackboard features could be difficult to access.  On one course grades were not available to all students on the course which could have been tutor issues with IT.  Solutions were discussed at focus groups and a suggestion of a single tab with a list of grades for the individual for all the modules they had taken might be a solution.

Consistent experiences: This was the greatest concern with VLE that the students who provided feedback.  Students experienced varying practices across classes and different tutors.  It was felt that the VLE induction was too brief with no follow up and an expectation for students to learn the style of Blackboard for each class that they were taking.  Ensuring all students are included in correspondence for training sessions is essential.  A troubleshooting area where all students could access was put forward as a solution.  Students will low IT ability didn’t have the necessary support which led to discussion to ensure that there is access to have the right disability support for students, in particular students with dyslexia, to have functions to accommodate their needs.

A screen shot of William Mohieddeen and Helen Doyle's Presentation through videoconferencing.

William Mohieddeen and Helen Doyle’s Presentation

Student Communication via VLE: The focus groups revealed that students who don’t use VLE for learning would still be interested in the possibility of using it as a tool to communicate with one another.  The same students would also like to be included in communication relating to training sessions on the VLE so that, should the they decide to they could use the discussion threads and group functions as a way to communicate amongst themselves.  This would create a sense of community amongst the students who are learning remotely but not through the VLE.

Mobile access:  Mobile access to the VLE is essential for the new VLE system for UHI’s student community.  The new VLE system should have an easy to use mobile app or a mobile site is needed going forward.  The current VLE mobile platform does not have all the same functions as the desktop site and this needs to be changed in the new VLE.

Transitions to new technology: Students are concerned about the transition from the current VLE to the next and the disruption to learning.  It was suggested that the transition shouldn’t happen mid-term and a robust training should be provided to all students and staff to ensure consistency.

William concluded that the HISA Officers and Executive Committee intended to take forward the main themes to be considered when implementing the new VLE; robust training and support with clear troubleshooting for students and staff with an online tutorial.  Disability support to be assessed with a student’s equality impact assessment done on the chosen platform to ensure equality for all.  The need for consistent experience across studies.

Finally William spoke about the importance of student engagement in institution decision-making and the benefits to projects like the VLE by engaging with students to hear fist-hand their experiences with learning in the VLE.

In summary one of the overriding themes throughout the day was the need to ensure students have the chance to build relationships when learning with synchronous technology  – and relationships not only with the tutor but in particular relationships with one another, relationships that allow for discussion, debate, peer support, venting and celebration of achievement.  An ongoing challenge but vital to the success of synchronous teaching.  The need for consistent and equal learning experience for all students was also a recurring theme throughout the day as was the importance for student led decision making in regards to learning experience of our students.

With thanks to the organising team, Keith Smyth, Fiona Grant, Simon Clarke and Simon Bradley.  Also to all those who presented and partcipated on the day!

Session recordings and resources from the day can be found on the LTA Past Events page.

Alex Walker

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