For our pre-sessional course this summer at Sheffield, we’ve taken a leap into the unknown and adopted a flipped learning model. This came out of two separate demands, one pedagogical and one practical. The pedagogical one was a report after a BALEAP inspection – which was generally very positive – suggesting that we were giving students too much input and not giving them enough opportunities to develop learning autonomy. And to be honest, I think they were right. Our students were really being treated as secondary school students with a very traditional 9-3 content-filled day with the teacher spoon-feeding a lot of information to them.
This is fine in some ways but it’s not representative of the skills they need when they start their masters’ programmes at the university. They will need to be very independent and self-guided and we needed to start developing these skills sooner.
The second practical one was a sudden increase in student numbers – from the previous year’s 1600 to around 2100 this year – that meant fitting all the students into individual classes would have been impossible given the number of rooms available at the university in the summer. We needed a new model that would reduce time spent in class and allow two different groups to occupy one class at different times of the day.
So, the basic idea we came up with was this. Students would have four lesson ‘slots’ in the day but only two of those would be teacher-led. The other two slots would be used for students to engage with online interactive content. Each classroom would have two separate groups occupying it, but the teacher-led sessions would be at different times of day.
The idea of the interactive content slots would be to provide the lower-level input (basic info about grammar, vocabulary, writing language etc) that would then be followed up with more higher level skills in class with their teacher. So, for example, one online content slot might focus on the basics of paraphrasing: what it is exactly, some basic techniques. Then in-class, the teacher would focus on refining that skill through practice and discussion.
Of course, this all sounded fine in theory, but we then needed to get down to the details of how that would work in practice.
As the person in charge of developing the online content, my main focus was on ensuring that the content was engaging enough and of a good enough quality that students didn’t feel they were being sold short on their course. It wasn’t enough to just throw together a few PowerPoint lectures with teachers talking over them and pass this off as interaction.
Luckily, I had created some online content for another smaller course we had developed the previous year for PhD students and we used that as the basis for this course. This used a software programme called Articulate Storyline, which is often used to create online training, particularly the kind of Health and Safety compliance stuff you often need to complete when you start a new job. The software is very powerful, and with the right training and the right pedagogical knowledge of how elearning works, it’s possible to create quite sophisticated and engaging materials.
We only really started doing this in April for a late June start, so time was really against us. Luckily, we managed to negotiate with our management to have a team of around 7-8 people fully engaged in doing this, 3-4 to work on writing the materials and 4 to turn that into digital content. Even having that team though, it became apparent that we would not be completely ready for the start of the summer school.
First off, we ran training sessions for the materials writers in the process of storyboarding content. This is basically writing a detailed lesson plan describing how the content will look. To be able to do this, they needed to understand what the function of the content was, how it fit into the syllabus and also what kinds of interactions were possible with the software. Then we did the same with the technical team, helping them get familiar with the software and the standardised procedures and templates we would use for creating the content.
The production line then began with the storyboards being written, passed onto the technical team with feedback given; then the technical team creating a draft of the online content, this then being reviewed and commented on by at least one story boarder and one technical person to ensure that the content was accurate and there were no bugs or glitches.
In the final term of the academic year, we worked on creating as much content as possible before the start of the summer school. We knew we wouldn’t be able to finish it completely, but we wanted as much done as possible to create a buffer during the summer to allow us to continue to work on it and finish it off. We knew in the summer that the numbers of teachers available to work on the project would drop as many were directly involved in either managing or teaching on the summer school, so we knew the production would inevitably slow down at that point.
We used a lot of digital tools to help us manage the project, particularly as people working on it were based in different offices and buildings. Google Docs were essential for creating the storyboards that everyone could then review and critique if necessary. We also used Google’s messaging system, Hangouts, to communicate and clarify things as we went along, often we needed information immediately to continue to working on something and the inevitable delay that comes with using email did not suit this kind of workflow at all.
It was slow going at first despite the numbers of people working on it. Both teams – the lesson designers and the technical team – needed time to get to grips with what exactly the content was meant to look like and there was frequent back and forth in the early stages as either the lesson plans were too ambitious and couldn’t be realised in the learning software or the opposite – they weren’t ambitious enough and didn’t have enough interaction to make them engaging for the students.
It was taking one team (two people) almost a week to produce one piece of content for the summer and given that we had produce around 70 of these for the summer, it meant we were significantly behind the deadlines we needed to meet.
But gradually we began to speed up: once a few bits of content had been produced, the lesson designers got a clearer idea of the types of interactions possible and not possible in the e-learning software and the the technical team began to get more familiar with the software and were able to be more creative with it and produce content much quicker.
We were never going to have all the content ready by the start of the summer school, but by the time it started, we nearly had about half of it prepared, and we knew that we had a smaller team ready to work on it throughout the summer.
In the next blog post, I’ll discuss the realities of actually implementing this during the summer school.