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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.