Reflections on improving teaching practice

Up until today, I was kind of maintaining 2 blogs…this one, and a reflective commentary that I included in my teaching portfolio wiki. The portfolio is something that our faculty suggests we keep for when we apply for promotion, etc. but I thought it could be something more. So when I started teaching in 2007, I thought about putting all of my teaching-related activities online in a public wiki, both for my own archiving purposes and for anyone else who might find it useful / interesting. Over time, it grew to become a portal to some of what I’m interested in. For example it’s also where I document my PhD progress, and my Open Textbook project. I’ve decided that since I was essentially doing the same thing in 2 places, albeit with subtle differences (evident only to me), it was time to post those reflections on teaching practice in one place, which from now on will be here.

One of the resources I enjoy most is the Tomorrow’s Professor blog, which is almost always a great starting point for a few minutes of reflection. I’ve just finished reading this post on improving the teaching of poor teachers, taken from the book A Guide to Faculty Development: Practical advice, Examples, and Resources by Ann F. Lucas.

One of the first points made is that poor teachers will often externalise the blame for underperforming students, often citing low student motivation or high teaching loads as the reasons for this. Effectively, this frees the lecturer from any responsibility to improve. When I first started teaching, I remember clearly how my tendency was also to look outside of myself for the problem, and it was only with a great deal of personal honesty that I could admit to myself that I wasn’t always doing a very good job. Having no teaching experience other than the teaching I was subjected to, I had taken on the role that had been modeled to me as a student, with most of my colleagues having the same viewpoint. There was no incentive to change teaching practice, especially not at the expense of research activities. This is changing at UWC though, with both grassroots programmes and upper management policies rewarding a scholarship of teaching and learning.

When you think about the misguided notion that knowledge of a subject conveys some kind of ability to teach it, you begin to understand how deeply entrenched is the centrality of content in a standard curriculum. What the universities are saying is that you don’t need to be able to teach in order to transmit content, an idea that is hardly ever challenged by our students, who seem to accept (and expect) that their experience of higher education will be a continuation of the previous 12 years of learning. Maybe that’s because the voice of the student is often missing from conversations on improving teaching practice? To address this issue in our department, we’ve taken steps to not only formalise our student feedback process, but to implement it in a way that facilitates engagement with that feedback by eliminating the more repetitive tasks associated with it e.g. data capture and analysis. I believe that if students are give the opportunity to be more involved in the teaching and learning process, to see their concerns addressed and suggestions valued, they may move to a space where the rewards for their participation are clear to them, and are no longer things that need to be externally motivated.

However, giving students an authentic voice means having to address them. I’ve had a few students openly reject the idea that they are at university to exercise their minds, and that instead, I should just pour forth the knowledge they require to be good physiotherapists. In these situations, it’s all too easy to throw your hands in the air and shout: “Why should I care if they don’t”? But isn’t the whole point of the job to guide students to a place where where their preconceived notions of education and the world are challenged? If we’re not up to the challenge, should we rather consider employment elsewhere?

Third year ethics assignment

I just wanted to send out a quick post to highlight the great work that one of my third year students has done as part of her ethics assignment.  The idea was to discuss the topic of human rights in South African healthcare using any method that the students wanted to.  I’m getting some great feedback from them, which is pretty exciting considering that students almost never want to discuss their assignments.

Here’s the link: http://laurenharwin.wordpress.com/

If you like the idea, please consider posting a comment or two on her blog, as she is trying to generate a conversation around the topic.

Results of a reflective blogging assignment in physiotherapy ethics

Earlier this year I gave my 4th year Ethics class an assignment in which they were required engage in a reflective exercise that not only encouraged interaction with others, but allowed them to see that their own perceptions of the world were different to others’.

Reflection has been shown to be a significant factor in developing clinical and ethical reasoning skills, so the initial requirement was to read two articles and then post a short reflection on each. Other students would then comment on your reflections and you would have to respond to that comment, hopefully having considered your colleagues comment. The learning objectives of the assignment were to:

  • Understand some of the ethical problems inherent in the South African healthcare system
  • Be able to discuss some types of ethical dilemmas in healthcare, even if they are not directly related to physiotherapy
  • Understand the role of reflection in your professional development, especially in the clinical and ethical reasoning process
  • Have participated in an online, networked conversation with your peers
  • Acknowledge the differing perspectives of others who may experience the world in different ways
  • Understand some of the advantages and disadvantages of using new technologies in healthcare education

I set up a WordPress blog on my own server because I wanted the students to have full control over their data (and it was surprisingly difficult to get access to a university server), created an author account for each student and then gave a tutorial on blogging and the blogging environment. The 47 students then had about a month to complete the assignment before the blog was closed to everyone.

Here are some quick stats:

  • 94 posts (2 each)
  • 222 comments (some students made more than the 3 that were required)
  • 109 tags (the main ones being MDR-TB, Apartheid and Torture)
  • 3983 pageviews (pretty impressive for 47 students)

While the initial results seem to be favorable, I have to say that anyone who assumes that all students in higher education are tech-savvy, needs to rethink that idea. One of the biggest challenges I had was trying to get students to understand what a blog is. And I don’t mean the deeper meaning of what blogging is, I mean the concept of a website that they could edit. Forget about RSS feeds and blogging software clients. The notion of digital natives does not apply here, and if the use of technology in education is going to move forward (in this country, at least), this is one major challenge that’ll have to be overcome.

You can download the content of the blogging tutorial here (2.4 MB ppt). I’ll be opening up the blog to the public once I’ve graded them, and will be presenting the results of an evaluation at the SAAHE conference in July.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-05-17

  • “Encouraging educators to blog” http://bit.ly/2X2hO #
  • Article on PLoS re. management of large digital libraries for academics, together with adding “social” to research http://bit.ly/CWgHE #
  • Blog post discussing different challenges for researchers / scientists in managing their digital libraries http://bit.ly/xrBOT #
  • To err is human: building a safer healthcare system (free book from the National Acadamies Press) http://bit.ly/AdDgO #
  • ASCILITE conferences, a brilliant source of content for anyone interested in technology and education http://bit.ly/EugZP #
  • Inequality in society = high rates of drug /alchol abuse, mental illness, teenage pregnancy, homicide, and low literacy http://bit.ly/KuWEb #
  • Thought provoking post by Steven Downes re. open systems of assessment http://bit.ly/16U0Df #
  • Mendeley blog post on how the software affects journal impact factors and publishing models http://bit.ly/43bCB #

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Blogging as a reflective tool

As part of their clinical placements (short term working placements in either hospitals or health clinics), the students in our department must write reflective pieces on their time at the placement where they look at things like their strengths, weaknesses, learning opportunities and clinical situations that raised issues for them.

This reflection is usually a typed page or two inserted into a file and submitted at the end of the placement.  Recently I’ve been wondering about the possibility of using blogging as a tool for our students to write their reflective journals, and encouraging other students on the same placements to to comment on each other’s work.

On one level I’m hoping that this will encourage further reflection based on feedback and discourse on both personal and clinical learning situations.  On another level, I’d like to use it to get students (and staff) to think about other concepts, such as the peer review process, the changing nature of academic publication and how knowledge is constructed through discourse.  I’m sure there’ll be plenty of other issues that are raised.

I also have anecdotal evidence that our students find it difficult to express themselves in clinical settings, for a variety of reasons, including not having English as a first language, which brings a subsequent lack of confidence when speaking in a group, as well as what seems to be an inferiority complex when confronted with students from other universities.  I’ve love for our students to be able to use this as an opportunity to find their own voices and tell their own stories in a semi-public space, which will still be a safe environment.

Here’s the article linked to in the post:
Academic blogging opens new world

How web 2.0 is changing medicine

The British Medical Journal published this article in December (2006), which may not seem like a long time ago in the traditional approach to academic publication but which in terms of the Internet is already old news. It asks, “Is a medical wikipedia the next step?”, a question I think is becoming more and more relevant as we see user-generated content proliferating in all spheres of our lives, but more and more frequently in the field of healthcare.

The author, Dean Giustini (librarian at the University of British Columbia Biomedical Branch), looks at the advantages of web 2.0 technologies or social software (e.g. RSS, blogs, wikis and podcasts) with particular reference to the creation of open content, improving access to information and the impact all of this has on medicine. We need to be asking ourselves how we can use these new technologies to better inform the way we teach, learn and communicate with our students and colleagues.

I think the final paragraph sums up my own opinion of the role of the Internet in influencing those of us who are creators and publishers of content:

“The web is a reflection of who we are as human beings – but it also reflects who we aspire to be. In that sense, Web 2.0 may be one of the most influential technologies in the history of publishing, as old proprietary notions of control and ownership fall away.”

An experiment

I’ve tried to blog a few times in the past and have lost interest every time. I think it’s because I never really felt that I had much to say. I still don’t think I have a great deal to say, or at least, anything that’s of any real importance but I do think that I often come across many others who do.

This blog is at attempt to direct those who may have similar interests to the people who motivate, challenge and inspire us in whatever we do. While I’ll try to keep it focussed on a few general themes (education, healthcare and tech), I may throw in a few other things that I personally find interesting.

Nothing exists in isolation, especially ideas, and so it’s important that when we look at our own projects and passions, we inform them not only from within their own narrow fields but in as much as possible, from the entire spectrum of human creativity and innovation.