The big shift online

his blog has some thoughts on notes from designing the shift from fully campus based learning to a blended approach for the start of the academic year in September 2020. Instead of being simply a backwards review I have posted as it is still relevant and contains challenges we face to move into the next academic year - either with or without covid-19 in attendance.

Please feel free to share:

This blog has some thoughts on notes from designing the shift from fully campus based learning to a blended approach for the start of the academic year in September 2020. Instead of being simply a backwards review I have posted as it is still relevant and contains challenges we face to move into the next academic year – either with or without covid-19 in attendance.

How to move forward -what is the blended learning mix of the future going to look like?

Looking through the notes I made over the past year I have picked out for this blog items on teaching with a blended approach and assessment.

Blended teaching

To start the semester I designed a blended learning template for our department. We had a timetable for each module, week by week showing what the topic was and which academic was leading each week. Then each week was a folder on our virtual learning environment (blackboard).In the folder the students should have a clear outline of the expectations on them. I produced a weekly planning guide for students, we added in the details of what they were expected to do – eg watch video lectures, complete online tests, read chapters of text books and so on.

We were encourage by the university to chunk our larger lectures into small 15 minute or so sections. This fits generally with what we know about how learning is best achieved. Many of us naturally broke our big sessions up anyway and interspersed some student activity into the sessions.

We encouraged module leaders to have a blend of asynchronous and synchronous sessions. In chemistry we asked for one hour per week of synchronous per module (first and second year, more for final years). The recorded was made available asynchronous then the synchronous used as tutorial or problem sessions or to help students who may not have fully understood all the material so far. This was designed to give a students control over the pace or their learning, also acknowledging that they may have other commitments and difficulties this year more than previously.

This approach has largely worked well and the student feedback largely positive. The sessions that help consolidate knowledge rather than a lecturer on transmit mode have been mentioned. Explicitly students have said they don’t want new material delivered in these sessions. Students appreciate knowing what they are expected to do each week, which is really hard to know without the regular access to academics that would occur if teaching was on campus.

Assessment

Our modules have a fairly consistent design for assessing students. The majority have two assessments – a piece of coursework and an end of module exam. Most of the coursework we use will be absolutely fine in a new environment of blended learning and online delivery. One of the major questions to answer was, and still is, how to deliver exams. Traditionally science in particular has quite a few exams, often at the end of the degree. This year they will be 24 hour open book exams, so much more thought is needed into the design of the paper. Exams can be used very well to cover content across the whole of the programme but also understanding and application of the ideas they have picked up during their degree. We are often asked about why we chose to keep exams when some programmes (non-science) have removed them, and without getting into big arguments about it we have to meet certain accreditation criteria from our professional bodies – for instance this quote from the Royal Society of Chemistry guidance:

An appropriate proportion of marks linked to key concepts should be assigned on the basis of formal examination conducted under controlled conditions. Such examinations can be open or closed book.

RSC Accreditation handbook.

An issue often raised around exams is their link to future work – how useful is it for students to cram and learn rather than complete some work that allows them to explore and apply their knowledge? The assessment has to help them understand the content that they have been delivered. This may be a great opportunity to make future exams more authentic. Acknowledge students have the web at their fingertips and get them using it in the proper way – finding papers and designing resources. They do need to be robust though and the right level of challenge for where they are in their degree.

Staff are rightly concerned about ‘grade inflation’ maybe it is easier to score high grades this year (it will be if exams aren’t altered). This is particular concern of many of my staff colleagues who feel that by making things open book we are not assessing them in a rigorous manner we need to make sure that we do both challenge and support for students.

So were are we going from here?

So how do we integrate the way we have worked this year with the traditional campus approach? We have learnt a lot of how to teach online, the practices and pitfalls, we’ve all experience of Zoom fatigue, concerns with generating community and interactions..

Exams – we will need to come up with a Department and or University approach to these, time scales and so on. We have done some work in the department around the types of questions and problem solving. Based on the grades I’ve seen for this year it has been quite successful in preventing grade inflation but there is still work to do!

Blended – keep some of the good aspects of blended to create a hybrid online and on campus approach. Use the recordings to give students the key concepts then make better use of the face to face on campus time. Yes some difficulties with size and upscale – will need further thinking by tutors on big classes. I will aim to keep the work schedule for students, being more explicit in what i expect from them each week than maybe I was previously.

Asynchronous and synchronous blend should be continued – pre work and so on – flipped learning. This is a much more student centred approach, allows them to control the speed of their own learning.

Labs – (see lab blog here) – hopefully we can use the virtual labs that worked well to supplement the wet labs they will get when campus is more open.

Student community – this is an area I am concerned about with online learning, it has proved very hard to get students to communicate with each other in online sessions. Fingers crossed for next year!

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.