The Art of Pedagogical Logistics

Maybe it’s the weak pound or the Trump effect, but our summer pre-sessional at the University of Sheffield is the biggest we’ve ever had. Combined with our general English programme, we will have around 1600+ students here being taught be 120+ teachers – many of whom are new to our centre – and they’ll be based in 9 different locations around the university.

To support these teachers we have one director to oversee the whole summer school, 3 Directors to manage the various programmes within it, 9 team leaders to support teachers in the various locations, 4 technicians to provide tech support, 4 learning technologists to provide technology training for teachers and students and numerous assistants and admin staff to make sure everyone is in the right place in the right time and to process the masses of documentation required.

You get the message – it’s a big operation. And to manage all these people and all this information in the most efficient way possible is no small task. Interviewing teachers, designing the syllabus, scheduling the teachers classes, organising observations, submission of assignments and recording of assessments, updating teachers with important notices – all of these need to be done quickly and professionally if we want teachers to feel informed and comfortable in their work.

Pedagogical Logistics

Now, of course technology can play a role in this – let’s be honest, I wouldn’t be writing a blog post about this if it couldn’t, would I now? Now this particular blend of technology, pedagogy and administration I’m going to call – for want of a better word – Pedagogical Logistics. And it is a pedagogical thing, not purely administrative or technical, it takes an intimate understanding of how a pre-sessional course operates and how teachers work to make the best decision about which technology procedure or tool would work best in the context.

Let’s take an example of teacher observations, something I’m personally responsible for organising during our summer school. Over the course of the summer we need to observe 60+ teachers to meet British Council accreditation requirements. Obviously this can’t be done by one person so various senior staff and teacher trainers at our centre need to be involved. Tricky of course as they work in different places and have different holiday schedules. So, let me explain how I use technology to try to streamline this process as much as possible:

First off I use Google Docs to check observers availability during the summer school. Much more efficient than email, having one document on which they can all write when they are available is incredibly useful.

I then put the observation details onto a Google spreadsheet and use a couple of add-ins to the spreadsheet to distribute that information to the teachers and observers. Add-ins are these small programmes that you can install within the spreadsheet to add extra functionality.

One we use is called Formmule, this lets you use the data from a spreadsheet to create a personalised email to each teacher and observer letting them know the date, time and procedure for the observation. Again, this keeps things personal but at the same time is very time efficient. Once the data is in the spreadsheet, you need to write the email template, click a button and all the teachers/observers receive their personalised email at the same time.

We then use another add-in called autocrat to generate a personalised online document for each observation that can be used by both the teacher to write their lesson plan and the observer to make their observation notes. Again, this just pulls the data from the spreadsheet to pre-fill information in the observation/lesson plan form. This then generates a link that is added to the spreadsheet for each observation.

Again, this is a really efficient system as there are not separate documents for the lesson plan and observer notes, everything is in the same place, the summer school programme directors can see the spreadsheet so can quickly get an overview of who is being observed when and they can click on the observation document to see what the observer has written.

And it’s all paperless. The teachers write their lesson plan on the google doc, the observers write their notes on a laptop on the same doc during the observation and all the observation data is available directly from a spreadsheet for the senior team to access.

I appreciate some people lament the absence of paper in all this, I know that some people find it easier to write notes freehand for this kind of thing and some observers particularly take time adjusting to using a laptop during an observation. But realistically keeping on top of all these pieces of paper during a frantic summer school would be very difficult and would put a lot of burden on teachers/observers to keep, scan and send these documents through to ensure they are not lost and we have a record of them. Using our system, we take on board that responsibility for them and all they have to do is fill out the forms digitally.

This is just one aspect of pedagogical logistics, but we have developed many of these systems for our summer school. My colleague, Nick Murgatroyd, is an absolute genius at this kind of thing, and his main role as a learning technologist both before and during the summer school is to help devise systems that will support the academic programme and let them implement the syllabus they want in the clearest and most efficient way possible for the teachers and students.

Just to give a few examples of aspects of the course he’s helped organise:

Creating a developmental eportfolio tool

There are many static portfolio tools out there that let you collect documents at the end of a course as a summary of the student’s learning, but there are not any really that let the student and teacher edit and comment on the documents on an ongoing basis. I’ve talked about this a little bit in a separate post.

Nick developed a system using Google Drive, Google Documents and an incredibly clever tool called Doctopus to create an online folder for each student where assignments can be delivered to students and teachers have access to them for commenting and marking. These documents can also be centrally locked at various times to allow teachers to comment on them without students being able to edit it any further or see what they are writing.

With all these things, we are trying to reduce the burden on both teachers and students of being administrative gatekeepers for key documents. We want teachers to focus on their teaching and students to focus on their studies, we don’t want them to have to constantly worry about where a assignment is and whether they’ve lost it or not.

Assessment tools

Another issue Nick worked on with the senior academic team to solve was the submission of grades for students’ work. We don’t use exams to assess students, instead we use a series of assignments (extended essay, seminar discussion, presentation) that are individually assessed to form an overall grade for the summer. They have to reach a threshold level to pass the course and progress to their department in September.

This means there are a lot of grades for teachers to input so they are available for our senior academic team to look at. In the past we used to use a system using a Microsoft database system but it would often crash under heavy load – meaning teachers would need to input the scores again – and it could only be accessed on university computers, meaning teachers had to physically be on site to input the scores. Both of these things naturally caused a lot of frustration.

Nick came up with a more efficient system using Google Forms, where teachers entered the various scores using an online form that would not buckle under heavy usage and could be accessed from any device. These then went directly into a spreadsheet that could be accessed by the senior team.

Managing information

One of the trickiest things on a summer school is controlling the flow of information, teachers need to be updated on meetings, changes to the syllabus and a multitude of other things related to the summer school and it’s very difficult to ensure they all get the info at the time they need.

We decided quite a few years ago that email just didn’t work as an efficient system. It’s very confusing and frustrating for teachers when they get a barrage of emails, sometimes with poorly worded subject lines, and they have to click through each one trying to work out which bits are relevant to them and which to other people. And they can be deleted of course. Many times we asked teachers why they didn’t know something when it had been in an email and it turned out they had deleted it by mistake or deleted it thinking it wasn’t important.

So we decided to create a static website that can be used to give teachers information and we’ve been refining this over the last few years to make it as useable as possible for the teachers.

There are individual pages for the various programmes on the summer school (general English, 10, 6 and 4-week pre-sessional) and on these pages are links to all the digital lesson records, a calendar of key events on that programme, folders to various materials and most importantly, a dynamic daily and weekly notice board with key updates and timely information for the teachers.

This noticeboard is in fact a Google Doc that is embedded in the web page. We found this works best as multiple people need to add info to it and it’s easier to do it on an online document than trying to edit a web page.

The website is useful as we can put up various static guides to things like the VLE, using Turnitin and other technology tools they need to use.

The website isn’t perfect and we’re constantly getting feedback from teachers on how we can improve it, but we do think it’s the best way to manage information on such a busy summer school, for them having one place to go for all the info they need makes life much easier.

This concept of pedagogical logistics really becomes necessary on a summer school pre-sessional with so many new teachers involved and so many people having to learn new roles and procedures. We need clear and efficient digital systems to reduce workload and make sure all the information and data ends up in the right hands as quickly as possible.

I’m always fascinated to hear how other centres manage this flow of information in the summer, so if anyone is willing to share from different universities around the country, let me know in the comments.

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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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