Flippin’ EAP: Part 2 10

In a previous post I talked about our EAP centre’s decision to move to a flipped learning model for our pre-sessional to accommodate the need to develop students’ learner autonomy and also to deal with the increased numbers of students attending. I stopped the post just before our pre-sessional was due to begin, so I wanted to give you an update on how things have gone since then.

Teacher buy-in

The first thing we had to address was how to introduce this model to the teachers. We provide a one-week induction for new teachers coming onto our programmes and this was crucial for introducing them to the idea of flipped learning and helping them to feel invested in this pilot project. We ran two sessions specifically on this, the first one was a theoretical one discussing exactly what flipped learning is, why we were adopting it and what were some of the pros and cons. I didn’t run the session but did attend it and was happy at how quickly the teachers got to grips with the idea and how they seemed genuinely positive about it as an approach to the classroom. In some ways it can take some of the pressure of teachers as they are no longer directly responsible for all the input on the course and this can free them up to focus on the higher order skills.

The second session – which I ran – was a more practically-focussed one looking at some of the actual content itself. I gave a brief presentation explaining the process outlined in my previous post and talked through the principles of e-learning that guided it. I then gave them time in pairs in front of a computer to look through multiple examples of the content we’d already created and to critically analyse it from both the perspective of the student and the teacher.

Part of the induction training on the interactive content

Part of the induction training on the interactive content

I was genuinely anxious how the teachers would respond to the content. We thought what we’d created was polished and pedagogically sound, and the few people we’d shown it too were very positive about it, but the real test was the 60+ teachers who were going to have to actually use it.

They responded very positively…I distinctly remember one teacher calling me over and with a very serious face saying, ‘this is really good….’ And I said, ‘but…?’, assuming there was a criticism just waiting in the wings. But no. She said, ‘there’s no but, I’m just really impressed, it must have taken such a long time to make this’. And that was generally the response we got. I mean, you can judge for yourself, I’ve created a short screencast of one of the earlier pieces of content below giving info about the Academic Word List.

Getting teachers to buy in was crucial and running those sessions really helped. The next stage was to convince the students.

Student buy-in

Our academic management team had thought about this quite a bit, and felt it was important to address it head on rather than assuming the students were just going to accept such a new way of studying. For that reason they built an actual writing task on the topic of flipped learning into the first week’s programme and the teachers and students had to discuss multiple times in class and really think about the benefits and drawbacks. I think that helped students to get their heads round it.

We also ran technical sessions for students in the first week with out TEL team, this covered the basics of technology at the university but we also spent a small chunk of time making sure they could all find and access the online content as well as giving them some example content to work through to orient them to the way it was laid out.

Orientation content for students

Orientation content for students

Technical concerns and issues

From my role as the technical lead on this project, I did have some worries about whether our VLE, Blackboard, would cope with so many students accessing content at the same time. There was no way we could test this ahead of time and our tech department at the university assured us it could cope with hundreds of students accessing the interactive content at the same time.

On the first day we released content to the students, I did sit anxiously waiting for the complaints and issues to come rolling in – my email was the one given out to students in case they had any technical issues – but there were very few, just the occasional issue with browsers blocking the pop-up window the content opened in.

Over the course of the summer we’ve had very few technical issues, they only seemed to increase slightly when students had to access any kind of streaming video (they were asked to watch a weekly lecture online). The university servers struggled to cope with delivering simultaneous video to so many students.

On the issue of our VLE, I did find the process of uploading and releasing the content incredibly confusing and convoluted within Blackboard. There are so many settings and sub settings and no clear documentation to explain what they all mean. The content is uploaded in a format called SCORM and when you set it up in Blackboard, you are faced with impenetrable menus like this:

Complicated SCORM menus

Complicated SCORM menus

It was difficult to find any clear guidance online as to what all this meant and the only way I worked it out was through laborious trial and error. Blackboard is not a good VLE. I counted that for each piece of content I needed to adjust 17 individual settings. Fine if you’re doing this once, less fine if you have to do it over 60 times during the course of the summer.

We got some initial feedback from students after the first few weeks, and generally they were very positive about the flipped learning approach and the interactive content. More than 80% though it was either excellent or good.

Tracking and reports

The other issue we had multiple discussions about was the tracking of students progress through the VLE. Before the programme began, the plan was to produce regular reports on the students’ engagement and completion of the content and share them with the teachers to flag up any potential issues down the line.

Within Blackboard you can generate many different types of report, such as completion of content, times they have accessed the course or how long they have spent on individual lessons. But creating them and making them easy to read is quite time-consuming and it’s questionable just how reliable the data is. For example, one metric it measures is time spent within the course, but it’s clear that students who just leave their browser open on the VLE rack up far higher numbers than those who close the tab once they’ve finished. We also need to take into account that some students may do the content together, so only one of them registers as having completed it.

In the end we decided against making these reports available to teachers, we felt that the time it would take to generate them compared with their actual usefulness wasn’t justifiable. But it’s something for us to look at next year and work out how such reports could fit better into the programme.

Informal teacher feedback

Over the last 6 or 7 weeks I’ve chatted informally to some of the teachers working on the summer school and asked them their opinion on the interactive content and the flipped learning model. Generally they seem positive about it – admittedly they might not be exactly truthful given I’m the one who helped create it – but the one thing they did stress was the need for the interactive content to have much closer ties to the lesson that followed it.

This is something that we knew is an essential part of the flipped model. The content they do outside class can’t be seen as just additional work or extra practice, it must feel like an integrated part of the course and failing to do it will make the subsequent lesson difficult to follow. Sometimes we managed that, but it was clear in other places that the connection wasn’t so strong and students didn’t feel compelled to complete the online content. I think the time pressures we were under to complete the content meant we weren’t able to do this to the degree we wanted and it’s definitely something to work on for next year.

I think the experience of using this model has generally been a very positive one and I think it would be difficult to go back to the old way of doing things. Certainly there’s a lot to improve but we should have more time next year to tweak the existing content and the way the syllabus is structured to make it more effective.

As we’re drawing near to the end of the summer, I’ve got several emails from students asking whether they would continue to have access to the online content during the year. They said that the material is really helpful for them and it would be useful if they could have it as a reference once they got into their department. This was unexpected, so we’re now deciding how we can make the content available to students throughout the following year.

Final thoughts

It would be interesting to hear from EAP teachers working in centres across the UK and beyond whether a flipped model might work for you? Do you feel there’s a need for more autonomy among the students? Or are numbers reaching a critical mass where there just isn’t the space to accommodate them any more?

I think the fear of this type of model is that it’s the first step on the road to outsourcing EAP provision, it’s a way to reduce how many teachers are needed. For us that hasn’t been the case, we still need to employ the same number of teachers (or more this summer with the increased student intake) but the focus of the lessons has changed, teachers now need to focus on different kinds of lessons, not purely input focussed but more around practice and discussion. In many ways these are the skills that make us indispensable, no online content is ever going to capture the nuance and depth of those kinds of lessons and this just helps us focus on them.

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About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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10 thoughts on “Flippin’ EAP: Part 2

  • Julie Moore

    I was slightly nervous after your first post about how the whole experiment was going to go, so I’m really pleased to hear it was so positive. Congratulations! It sounds like a lot of work and a great achievement.

    I was talking to a colleague about what you were doing the other day and we wondered to what extent the tutors would be expected to go through the online content so they were familiar with what students were doing outside of their classes. Is that something you factored in/encouraged/paid hours for? I know when I worked on some – very small scale! – Blackboard content for students to work on outside of class many years ago, I soon realized that the tutors were setting the tasks, but weren’t looking at the material themselves, so they couldn’t refer back to it in class and link it up to in-class content. I guess it’s a balance between freeing up teacher time, but also making sure they can engage with the online input in class.

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      David Read Post author

      Thanks for the comments Julie! Good question about whether teachers had to go through the content as well. Yes, they did, but not in as much depth as the students. We set up the content so there was a quick access menu so that teachers could skim through the various parts of the content without necessarily having to do all the exercises themselves. We also reduced teacher hours this year. Previously they had to teach 19 hours a week, now they are only teaching 15 hours a week, so we hoped those extra hours would give them time to look through the content as well.

      • Julie Moore

        I really like the sound of the quick access menu. One of the things I find a bit frustrating sometimes with digital content from a teacher’s perspective is that you can’t scan through it like you can in a print book to get an overview – you often have to click through each question rather laboriously.

  • Joy Robbins

    Really interesting post David – thanks for letting us see how it went! I think that here at Leeds, as at Sheffield and perhaps many institutions, increasing pre-sessional numbers make flipped learning a necessity. But this is no bad thing: flipped learning is demonstrably more effective and, frankly, more fun. While I see your point that some may fear it lessens the teacher role thereby paving the way to outsourcing, I think if anything it enhances/ asks more of the teacher role in that instead of just delivering content, you have to be comfortable getting students to do something with that content.
    I’d love to develop good online content as you’ve done (and I hear you about Blackboard – how is something so clunky and hated still on the market??) and essentially flip via introduction of online materials, but short of that I think another way could be flipping via Team Based Learning (http://www.teambasedlearning.org/ – a specific pedagogic design, not just group work). It’s had great success in various disciplines but which doesn’t seem to have much presence in EAP yet – wonder if it’s been on your radar?

  • Aeronwy Thomas-Osborne

    I feel like more autonomy is definitely needed, but in centres I’ve worked in I don’t know if the various attempts at ‘flipping’ have really fostered it. For example, on the 4-week pre-sessional I co-ordinated this summer, the students were set pre-class tasks. For the first two weeks, they were directed to specific short online modules and/or online resources. The specificity of this then wound down as they were directed to navigate the independent study resources themselves and prepare for the lessons, for which they knew topics/learning outcomes in advance, as they saw fit. A few of them commented in the feedback that they didn’t do much preparation during these weeks because they knew it wouldn’t be “checked”. I like flipping because it frees class time up for productive practice and higher skills, but I wonder if the very nature of it being so directly connected to class content, and intrinsic to the students’ success in the following lesson, renders it less conducive to self-direction than we might like?

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      David Read Post author

      hi Aeronwy, thanks for the comments and agree that it’s a tricky balance. I think the challenge is to ensure that the online content and the classroom content are so tightly connected (e.g the online content is the input for the practice in class) that they are going to be at a disadvantage when they go into class. I don’t think we always achieved that, but that connection has to be made really clear to the students. If they think of it as homework or additional tasks, they are less likely to do it (especially since it won’t be checked in class).

  • Stephen Beale

    Hi David,

    Really interesting to read this – I am aware of Articulate but have never used it. I do some TEL/VLE work here at Swansea University for our pre-sessional programmes. When you said that about Articulate being similar to online health and safety training courses, I immediately have bad memories as they are the driest and dullest courses I’ve ever done (the GDPR one was particularly uninspiring, too).

    What I was curious about was whether the students got bored quite quickly of doing the online activities or whether you kept learning modules/activities quite short and to the point? It seems like they would get ‘fatigued’ quite quickly, but perhaps I am wrong?

    Did you also capture any qualitative data from the students themselves through things like focus groups? I would be particularly interested in hearing their thoughts as I know I’m still wary of how engaged students are in learning through platforms like Articulate as I know I find them insufferable! But that might just be my personal preference 🙂