Categories
education technology

Using email as a learning management system

First of all, we should stop calling things like Moodle and Canvas “learning management systems”. At best they’re content, or student management systems. Pet peeve out the way? Tick.


I’ve been advocating for low-tech solutions to the problem of remote teaching and learning ever since I noticed how many people seemed to be pushing for things like synchronous, video-based lectures during the current crisis. Usually, I’m a fan of technology-based learning and teaching but that’s with the assumption that everyone has good access to the internet and appropriate devices. Now, with students and educators working from home, and acknowledging that we’re all reacting to a crisis – rather than implementing a carefully planned, coordinated, coherent strategy – I think that the only ethical option is to use as little technology as possible.

I honestly that that we can get 90% of where we need to be simply by using email.

I’ve posted what I think a set of universal principles would look like in this situation, which disadvantages the fewest students as little as possible. And the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching has shared their list of low tech principles for remote teaching, which is a great resource. And during the process of reviewing these principles I started wondering what the simplest solution might look like, assuming that at least some form of internet access is a minimum requirement (our students are at home and can’t travel). And I honestly think that email could substitute as a learning/content management system.

Some of the features of an LMS that most educators would consider to be core to its purpose include being able to do the following:

  • Upload and store content in a variety of formats e.g. text, slideshows, video, audio, etc. You can attach anything to an email.
  • Access materials anytime, from everywhere. There are email clients for virtually every device and operating system, all of which enable offline access. Email never “goes down” and is one of the most reliable systems on the internet.
  • Provide asynchronous access to all of the relevant content and communication for a module. Email doesn’t require that you interact in real time.
  • Teachers can modify the content, and students can see the updated material. Email is sorted by date, so new content is presented first, which means that updated attachments appear at the top of the filtered list.
  • Students and teachers can re-use the material any time they need. Offline access means that attachments are available all the time (or students can download them onto their local storage).
  • Students can learn collaboratively. The ability to have threaded conversations in a mailing list means that collaborative discussion is possible (it may be awkward, but it’s possible).
  • Assessments can be completed by students within the LMS. You can include any questions or tasks you want students to complete within email.
  • Should be simple to use. No-one needs training on how to use email.

There is also a well-documented disadvantage of the LMS; it requires a technology infrastructure that is non-trivial to manage. In fact, we have higher education institutions here in South Africa that simply don’t have the technical infrastructure and ability to maintain an LMS. But they all have email.

So it seems that email as a technology satisfies all of the requirements of a learning management system. But how would you use it? I think that with a few basic naming and organising conventions, you could ensure that all students across a programme could be up and running with this system in a few minutes.

Basically, educators within a programme would need to agree on a Subject line naming convention e.g. Module name – Type of email – Title/content. For the module that I teach, it might look something like this: PHT402 – Announcement – Submission dates, PHT402 – Assessment – Quiz no. 2, or PHT402 – Notes – Health and human rights. Students could filter their emails by the module code (“PHT402”) which would only display emails for that module, as well as by Type (“Announcement” or “Notes”). Everything relevant for those search terms would be presented in reverse chronological order (most recent first) making it very easy for students to find whatever they’re looking for.

You can see how it’s possible for students and lecturers to do the following:

  • Search and filter their system for the content they need, when they need it.
  • Communicate privately with the lecturer, or with a learning group (3-5 peers), or with everyone in the class.
  • Threaded email discussions look a lot like discussion forums, which are often touted as an important feature of the LMS, and which would work perfectly well by email.
  • Write an essay that includes links to sources, embedded images, complex formatting, etc. for an assignment, directly within the email client.
  • Embed Google Form-type quizzes directly into the email so that students can complete them without leaving the email client.

Since email provides offline access students could connect to the internet, download everything they need, and disconnect. Then they’d review the work and communication while offline, compose responses and any questions they might have, reconnect, upload it all, and then disconnect again. This would all happen without having to “go” anywhere (no browsers, links, logins, or apps other than the email client) or do anything. I honestly that that we can get 90% of where we need to be simply by using email. Everything else might just be more of a distraction.

Categories
education technology

Resource: Low Tech Remote Teaching Principles

  1. Keep it simple and low tech.
  2. Accessibility is core, not optional.
  3. Provide structure.
  4. Use what is available.
  5. Keep learning active.
  6. Scaffold learning by chunking content.
  7. Have a clear course outline.
  8. Be visible and contactable.
  9. Help keep students on track.
  10. Be kind to yourself and empathic to your students.

This collection of Low-tech remote teaching principles is a 3 page Google Doc produced by the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching. It’s a fantastic resource that starts with the 10 principles listed above before moving on to a list of Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to remote teaching, and finishes with a helpful checklist for teachers moving online. I think that every educator would be well-served by downloading this document and keeping it pinned up somewhere prominent. I know I will.

Note: If you find this resource useful you may also like my post on Universal principles of learning task design.

Categories
education learning

Universal principles of learning task design. Crisis edition.

It seems that everyone has decided to move teaching, learning and assessment online with a massive focus on synchronous, video-based lectures as the primary means of “delivering” the curriculum remotely. It’s as if we don’t have about 100 years of experience with distance learning to draw from and that there are no lessons to be learned from all of that experience. In this post I’m going to share what I think are important design principles for teaching and learning remotely, drawing mainly from my own experience with online and blended learning over the past few years.

While there are good pedagogical reasons for the principles I’m going to describe, there’s really only one reason that matters and it’s an ethical one. You should assume that at least one of your students is learning in this context:

It’s an extreme example but it highlights the fact that our students have enormous challenges trying to learn at home, and if this image doesn’t exactly describe all of our students’ home environment, it helps to focus our attention on what some version of those challenges might be. So here are my suggestions for anyone trying to work out how to “go online” over the next few months.

Universal principles for learning task design in a crisis

Prioritise asynchronous interaction. Because our students are at home with their families, elderly and sick relatives, young children and siblings, stressed parents, and barking dogs. Because their parents are now having to try and work at home as well, and they may all share one laptop (if they’re lucky enough to have a laptop at home). Because it’s not reasonable to expect 60 students to be able to get online at 09:00 on Monday morning. Because asynchronous interactions free everyone from the pressure of having to be availabe on your schedule. Asynchronous means that everyone has more flexibility to determine their own schedule.

Work offline as much as possible. Of course students will need to connect to the internet at some point (because we have to assume that they don’t have their notes, textbooks, slides, assignments and tests at home). But it’s not reasonable to expect your students to stay online for any length of time. Some of them (maybe most of them) will have always on, uncapped, fibre coming into their homes, distributed to 10 devices across multiple routers. We should not be focusing any attention on these students when it comes to learning task design. Our entire focus should be on the student who needs to stand in a corner of their back yard with their cellphone raised to the sky in order to connect to the internet. When we plan for the student who has an intermittent, unstable and expensive internet connection, we make it easier for everyone.

Privilege text over audio and video. There are lots of reasons that text is better than anything else and I’ll expand on these a bit since everyone is so focused on video right now and I think that this is an important point.

  • Text is searchable. Video and audio are not. Try finding a 30 second segment in a 20 minute video. Now try finding a description of something in a series of 5 one hour lectures. Try to avoid wasting students’ time by providing resources in a format that is searchable.
  • Text compresses better than anything else (making the file size compared to video, orders of magnitude smaller). This makes content quicker and therefore, cheaper to download. Also, lots of the video being planned for online learning is of the “talking head” variety, which means that the bulk of your students’ bandwidth is taken up by useless data (yes, the “video” part of your talking head is useless).
  • Text is usually more information-dense than audio or video, which again means that you can transmit more of it in less time. It also means that students can keep more of it in their limited phone storage capacity than they can with videos.
  • Text can be marked up with comments and questions, edited, copied/pasted, which is better for active learning than passively watching a video. None of your students can edit your video in order to extract meaningful information from it. They would have to transcribe the useful bits. This isn’t a good use of their time.

Low-tech over the Shiny New Thing. Now is not the time to ask students to download and install that new application that the IT department or edtech experts are suggesting everyone needs. If you need your students to go online, they should be able to do everything they need to via a browser, email client, or whatever software and apps you’ve been using extensively with them for at least a few months. These should already be installed on their devices. We not only need to assume that new apps will be an added expense to download and install, but it’s an additional cognitive load that will add to students’ stress and anxiety. In my opinion, email is the most fantastic killer-app in the current situation. In case anyone needs reminding, here are some features that are supported by email protocols:

  • One-to-one, private communication.
  • One-to-many, public communication.
  • Supports attachments of any format.
  • The email is an open standard that’s been around for longer than the web. It is solid, robust, stable, and very fast.
  • Email doesn’t require that anyone install anything since every device on the planet is capable of sending and receiving email.
  • Email supports asynchronous communication.
  • Email can be used offline with any email client.
  • Email is text-based.
  • Email is searchable.
  • No-one has to learn how to use email.

Simplicity over complexity. Now is not the time to have students struggling to understand what exactly you want them to do. Clear and simple instructions that leave no room for ambiguous interpretation are what students need to complete learning tasks in the current circumstances. I don’t any of my students to have to leave their homes (because they can only get online at the public library) in order to to send me an email to ask what exactly I expect them to do.

Everything is flexible. Deadlines. Learning tasks. Content to be covered. Assignment formatting. Everything. Let’s start from a blank slate and assume that this is an opportunity to think differently about everything. Let’s be open to suggestions, from colleagues, from friends, from students, from our own children. We can finally let go of the self-imposed expectation that we’re supposed to know what we’re doing and admit that, given the current global catastrophe, it may be OK to change…well, everything. Consider being flexible around the following:

  • Hard deadlines: “You can submit any time within a 3 day window.”
  • Format of student work: “You want to submit a narrated slideshow instead of an MCQ? Sure, let’s see how it goes.”
  • Expectations around device ownership: “No laptop? No problem. Write the essay by hand, take a photo of it and email it to me.” Pro-tip: It is unethical to expect any student to type an assignment on a phone.
  • Once we start looking for spaces within the curriculum for us and our students to be flexible, we’ll starting finding lots of creative, exciting opportunities emerging.

These principles aren’t perfect and they certainly aren’t new. But it feels like most educators and universities are throwing in their lot with a mass migration of content into learning management systems and other online platforms. I think that this is a mistake. Our students don’t need more resources that are high-bandwidth, expensive, and inherently worse than simple solutions. I believe that a combination of email, intermittent internet access, and plain text can get us 90% towards where we need to be with respect to teaching, learning and assessment in these trying times. Let’s not stuff things up even more by choosing “solutions” that will potentially disadvantage millions of learners across primary, secondary and higher education around the world.


Note: You may also appreciate these Low tech remote teaching principles produced by the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Cape Town.

Categories
education

Now might be a good time to stop “teaching students”

There’s a lot of anxiety among health professions educators right now as they try to move classes and entire courses online. They weren’t trained to do this, have little experience doing this, and many may not even want to do this. Hardly an inspiring thought. And I found myself agreeing with them. They didn’t sign up for this and most of them really do believe that a lot will be lost with the move online.

Thinking about this predicament (i.e. people who don’t think that “online” is the best way to teach health professionals, but who nonetheless must do it) made me wonder if reframing the question would change how they approach the problem. Instead of asking, “How do I move my course online?” what if we asked, “How can I help my less-experienced colleagues in their professional development?” Instead of focusing on building online classrooms, how about providing additional opportunities for CPD? Rather than focusing on moving content online, ask your less-experienced colleagues what the gaps are in their own learning. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to control the assessment process but rather try to help our less-experienced colleagues to evaluate their own performance.

You may already have noticed that each of the above shifts the emphasis from you as a teacher having to control the process of students’ learning (environment, content, assessment, etc.), towards something that probably looks more like a dialogue. A conversation. You know, probably more like how you learn. No-one tells you what you need to focus on, or how far “behind” you are, or what you have to read. Maybe over the next few weeks and months we could reflect on how each of us learns best and provide our less-experienced colleagues (previously known as “our students”) with more authentic opportunities to develop as healthcare professionals.


Note: Thank you to Joost van Wijchen who first introduced me to the concept of “working with our less-experienced colleagues”, rather than “teaching to our students”, and who recently reminded me of this wonderful mental model.

Categories
education

Comment: Please do a bad job of putting your courses online

For my colleagues who are now being instructed to put some or all of the remainder of their semester online, now is a time to do a poor job of it. You are NOT building an online class. You are NOT teaching students who can be expected to be ready to learn online. And, most importantly, your class is NOT the highest priority of their OR your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.

Barrett-Fox, R. (2020). Please do a bad job of putting your courses online. Any Good Thing blog.

Instead of asking, “What does the best version of this online course look like?” we should instead be asking, “What is the least worst version of this online course that will get the job done?” You may be thinking that the process of moving your class online is going to take a few simple steps, and that you can delay publishing it until it’s ready but the truth is, if that’s your approach, then you’re never going to get it out there.

This is how Mathew Inman (of The Oatmeal) describes the process of creating something new. He’s talking about the creative process but you can just as easily imagine that this is how many educators think things are going to go when they move their classes online:

But this is how it actually works:

See the full post on what Mathew has learned about creativity from 10 years of publishing The Oatmeal online comics. With some reflection there’s a lot to learn here about online and remote teaching.

Don’t expect it to go smoothly and don’t be hard on yourself when things don’t work out. Publish your class or course online before it’s perfect (before it’s even ready) and then focus on iterating. It will get better. You’re not building the ultimate online course; you’re building a minimal viable version of something that will get the job done.

The post from Rebecca also includes loads of really good insight for teachers, including taking the following into consideration:

  • Your students know less about technology than you think. Many of them know less than you. Yes, even if they are digital natives and younger than you.
  • They will be accessing the internet on their phones. They have limited data. They need to reserve it for things more important than online lectures.
  • Students will be sharing their technology with other household members. They may have LESS time to do their schoolwork, not more.
  • Some of your students will get sick. Others will be caring for people who are ill.
  • Many will be parenting.
  • Social isolation contributes to mental health problems.
  • …and plenty more important points to think about while you’re moving your class online.

This is not a “how to” type post but it includes so much useful advice for anyone trying to do remote teaching and assessment right now. There isn’t any technical advice in Rebecca’s post (there’s so much of that out there already) but it’s one of the most important posts you’ll read on the topic.

Categories
assessment education learning

Resource: Online learning in a hurry

Dave Cormier has provided an excellent series of short (5 minute) videos called Online learning in a hurry, for teachers who are now expected to move their teaching and assessment online.

What I really like about this collection is that it’s not a list of [insert service here] for remote teaching and learning. For example, the first post (not a video) is about setting up clear lines of communication with students and managing expectations. This is way more valuable than another “How to use Google Docs” article.

It takes Dave some time to get to advice on moving content online, which is where most other resources start. While the collection of videos is presented as advice for getting your teaching online “in a hurry” it’s also a considered and thoughtful approach.

The video series is also available as a YouTube playlist.

Categories
writing

A critical pedagogy for online learning in physiotherapy education

Earlier this year the Critical Physiotherapy Network published Manipulating practices: A critical physiotherapy reader. The book is a collection of critical writing from a variety of authors dealing with a range of topics related to physiotherapy practice and education.  One of the interesting features of this collection is that it is completely open access, which means that the authors, and not the publishers, have the intellectual property rights to make choices about what is permissable to do with the content of the book. So we get to experiment with what it means to publish something in an academic context. While the entire book is available in different formats, including PDF, HTML, EPUB and XML, there is no audio version.

I’ve therefore taken the liberty of reading and recording my own contribution to the book, a chapter entitled A critical pedagogy for online learning in physiotherapy education, and making it available both here and as an In Beta podcast. I’m interested to know if this is something that might be useful so if you listen and appreciate having an audio version as an option, or even if you just think it’s a good idea (or a bad one), please let me know.

Abstract

In order to graduate physiotherapy students who are able to thrive in increasingly complex health systems, professional educators must move away from instrumental, positivist ideologies that disempower both students and lecturers. Certain forms of knowledge are presented as objective, value-free, and legitimate, while others – including the personal lives and experiences of students – are moved to the periphery and regarded as irrelevant for professional education. This has the effect of silencing students’ voices and sending the message that they are not in control of their own learning. While the integration of digital technology has been suggested as a means for developing transformative teaching and learning practices, it is more commonly used to control students through surveillance and measurement. This dominant use of technology does little more than increase the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of information delivery, while also reinforcing the rigid structures of the classroom. Physiotherapy educators who adopt a critical pedagogy may use it to create personal learning environments (PLEs) that enable students to inform their own learning based on meaningful clinical experiences, democratic approaches to learning, and interaction with others beyond the professional programme. These PLEs enable exploration, inquiry and creation as part of the curriculum, and play a role in preparing students to engage with the complex and networked systems of the early 21st century. While the potential for pedagogical transformation via the integration of digital technology is significant, we must be critical of the idea that technology is neutral and be aware that our choices concerning tools and platforms have important implications for practice.

Categories
assignments ethics physiotherapy technology

IPE course project update

This post is cross-posted from the International Ethics Project site.

My 4th year students have recently completed the first writing task in the IEP course pilot project. I thought I’d post a quick update on the process using screenshots to illustrate how the course is being run. We’re using a free version of WordPress which has certain limitations. For example it’s hard to manage different cohorts of students, but there are many more advantages, which I’ll write about in another post.

My students will keep writing for their portfolios using the course website, which I’ll keep updating and refining based on our experiences. The idea is that by the end of the year we’ll have figured out how to use the site most effectively for students to work through the course for the project.

Categories
learning social media technology

Online learning and the underlying software

Capture

I came across this post by Michael Sean Gallagher, Creating elearning: Using plugins in WordPress, which touches on the idea that we should be paying more attention to the tools we use in online spaces. When Michael posted the link above on his blog, and then shared it to Google+, I commented on it. I realised that my comment would be lost if the service ever went way. Because of that, I’ve moved it here, and associated it with the original blog post.

I’m trying to figure out ways to fold my online activity back into my blog but I haven’t yet found a workflow process that is simple. I’ll update this idea as I spend more time refining the process and experimenting with new tools. For now, I’ll just have to do it manually.

Anyway, here’s my comment on Michael’s post, which I’ve just copied from Google+:

Nice summary of using an open platform like WordPress to create an online learning space. I have similar reservations as the author, especially around using Google’s services, since they shut down Reader. It was the first time I lost a service that I use often and that is deeply integrated into my learning network.

As much as I love using Google+ and Drive, I’m also trying to figure out how to keep add much of my online activity in a space that I control. We use Drive in my department, with about 120 students creating course content collaboratively but at least Drive allows me to export all of those notes in a useful format. Even if Google+ allows me to export my data as an XML file, what can I do with it?

We also use a WordPress / Buddypress combination as a closed social network, which also works well. Again, the reasoning behind this choice was the control that we (and students) have over the data that is generated through activity in the network. I think that as learning becomes more distributed, we should be paying more attention to the code that underlies the platforms we choose.

Categories
physiotherapy research social media technology

Design principles for clinical reasoning

graphic_design smallerClinical reasoning is hard to do, and even harder to facilitate in novice practitioners who lack the experience and patterns of thinking that enable them to establish conceptual relationships that are often non-trivial. Experienced clinicians have developed, over many years and many patients, a set of thinking patterns that influence the clinical decisions they make, and which they are often unaware of. The development of tacit knowledge and its application in the clinical context is largely done unconsciously, which is why experienced clinicians often feel like they “just know” what to do.

Developing clinical reasoning is included as part of clinical education, yet it is usually implicit. Students are expected to “do” clinical reasoning, yet we find it difficult to explain just what we mean by that. How do you model a way of thinking?

One of the starting points is to ask what we mean when we talk about clinical education. Traditionally, clinical education describes the teaching and learning experiences that happen in a clinical context, maybe a hospital, outpatient or clinic setting. However, if we redefine “clinical education” to mean activities that stimulate the patterns of thinking needed to think and behave in the real world, then “clinical education” is something that can happen anywhere, at any time.

My PhD was about exploring the possibilities for change that are made available through the integration of technology into clinical education. The main outcome of the project was the development of a set of draft design principles that emerged through a series of research projects that included students, clinicians and clinical educators. These principles can be used to design online and physical learning spaces that create opportunities for students to develop critical thinking as part of clinical reasoning. Each top-level principle is associated with a number of “facets” that further describe the application of the principles.

Here are the draft design principles (note that the supporting evidence and additional discussion are not included here):

1. Facilitate interaction through enhanced communication

  • Interaction can be between people and content
  • Communication is iterative and aims to improve understanding through structured dialogue that is conducted over time
  • Digital content is not inert, and can transform interactions by responding and changing over time
  • Content is a framework around which a process of interaction can take place – it is a means to an end, not an end in itself
  • When content is distributed over networks, the “learning environment” becomes all possible spaces where learning can happen
  • Interaction is possible in a range of contexts, and not exclusively during scheduled times

2. Require articulation

  • Articulation gives form and substance to abstract ideas, thereby exposing understanding
  • Articulation is about committing to a statement based on personal experience, that is supported by evidence
  • Articulation is public, making students accountable for what they believe
  • Articulation allows students’ thinking to be challenged or reinforced
  • Incomplete understanding is not a point of failure, but a normal part of moving towards understanding

3. Build relationships

  • Knowledge can be developed through the interaction between people, content and objects, through networks
  • Relationships can be built around collaborative activity where the responsibility for learning is shared
  • Facilitators are part of the process, and students are partners in teaching and learning
  • Facilitators are not gatekeepers – they are locksmiths
  • Create a safe space where “not knowing” is as important as “knowing”
  • Teaching and learning is a dynamic, symbiotic relationship between people
  • Building relationships takes into account both personal and professional development
  • Building relationships means balancing out power so that students also have a say in when and how learning happens

4. Embrace complexity

  • Develop learning spaces that are more, not less, complex
  • Change variables within the learning space, to replicate the dynamic context of the real world
  • Create problems that have poorly defined boundaries and which defy simple solutions

5. Encourage creativity

  • Students must identify gaps in their own understanding, and engage in a process of knowledge creation to fill those gaps
  • These products of learning are created through an iterative activity that includes interaction through discussion and feedback
  • Learning materials created should be shared with others throughout the process, to enable interaction around both process and product
  • Processes of content development should be structured according to the ability of the students

6. Stimulate reflection

  • Learning activities should have reflection built in
  • Completing the reflection should have a real consequence for the student
  • Reflection should be modelled for students
  • Reflections should be shared with others
  • Feedback on reflections should be provided as soon after the experience as possible
  • Students need to determine the value of reflection for themselves, it cannot be told to them

7. Acknowledge emotion

  • Create a safe, non­judgemental space for students to share their personal experiences and thoughts, as well as their emotional responses to those experiences
  • Facilitators should validate students’ emotional responses
  • These shared experiences can inform valuable teaching moments
  • Facilitators are encouraged to share personal values and their own emotional responses to clinical encounters, normalising and scaffolding the process
  • Sensitive topics should be covered in face­to­face sessions
  • Facilitators’ emotional responses to teaching and learning should be acknowledged, as well their emotional responses to the clinical context

8. Flexibility

  • The learning environment should be flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs of students, but structured enough to scaffold their progress
  • The components of the curriculum (i.e. the teaching strategies, assessment tasks and content) should be flexible and should change when necessary
  • Facilitators should be flexible, changing schedules and approaches to better serve students’ learning

9. Immersion

  • Tasks and activities should be “cognitively real”, enabling students to immerse themselves to the extent that they think and behave as they would be expected to in the real world
  • Tasks and activities should use the “tools” of the profession to expose students to the culture of the profession
  • Technology should be transparent, adding to, and not distracting from the immersive experience

We have implemented these draft design principles as part of a blended module that made significant use of technology to fundamentally change teaching and learning practices in our physiotherapy department. We’re currently seeing very positive changes in students’ learning behaviours, and clinical reasoning while on placements, although the real benefits of this approach will only really emerge in the next year or so. I will continue to update these principles as I continue my research.

Note: The thesis is still under examination, and these design principles are still very much in draft. They have not been tested in any context other than in our department and will be undergoing refinement as I continue doing postdoctoral work in this area.