Thoughts from the CEI Learning & Teaching Conference 2017

Wednesday, Jul 5, 2017

Yesterday was the annual ‘Learning & Teaching Conference’ of the Cardiff University Centre for Education Innovation. This year the theme was ‘To Tech or not to Tech, is that the Question?’. It’s the first time I’ve attended this conference, and I thought I’d get some of my thoughts from the day down in pixels.

(Reading this back later, I realise what a tangent this went on. From “I’m going to review #CUCEI17” to “there are some teachers out there that could do better but I don’t know how to help them”. That was a quite a diversion, for which I apologise. For an actual summary of the conference there’s a great storify of the main discussions during the conference which I think sums it all up very nicely.)

It was a very interesting and at times thought-provoking conference. I felt the main thematic question was solved fairly early on, perhaps even before we entered the room. I think most of us realise it’s not about the tech, it’s about the teaching, and the tech is just one tool in our toolkit that helps us do that effectively. The answer to the question is therefore ‘no’ and the real question is: ‘what tech and how much?’.

The keynote was an interesting look at how technology can be embraced by a whole institution, but I think what really caught my attention during this talk (with one eye on our new building with MATHS) was the lecture theatres that are arranged for group work:

Learning Spaces
Learning Spaces

How fantastic would it be able to teach in that space - you could do so many activities beyond just standing at the front ‘lecturing’. I’m becoming more and more vehement in my belief that a traditional ‘didactic’ lecture is the wrong way to teach most topics in Computer Science, and is actually harmful to our student’s ability to learn and think independently. Breaking the link between the idea of a ‘lecture theatre’ and a ‘lecture’ would be a good start towards changing the way both staff and students think about these things we call ‘lectures’. One of the frequent comments I’ve heard (and apologies to whoever said it as I can’t remember who it was - possibly Vince or Dafydd) is “wouldn’t it be great to have lecture theatres that don’t have a ‘front’”. I can’t agree more.

But of course, this, a lecture theatre with a funky design, isn’t technology. Yes, the group tables can be tech-enabled, with power and interactive displays and all sorts of other gadgets and gizmos, but really we’re just talking here about rethinking our way of teaching to a more interactive, collaborative (and collectivist?) paradigm.

This is where I think the problem comes in. Show a lecture theatre like that to a room full of academics who have all managed to carve out the time to attend a conference on education innovation and of course they’re all going to start thinking ‘Wow, the things I could do with that’. We’re the same people who are already trying to innovate in our teaching. We used lecture capture as soon as they put webcams in our classrooms (or even before). We’ve tried out all the polls and live Q&A systems during lectures. We’re creating long-lasting communities for our students in Slack, asking them to text in questions during lectures, and open-sourcing our lecture materials. We’ve already moved past an “I’ll stand at the front and talk, you sit there and listen” model of teaching. Some have stopped ‘lecturing’ entirely, are fully committed to a flipped learning model and now spend all our contact time on interacting with students, working on activities or problems, and really delivering ‘value’. The conference in this regard was preaching to the choir. Yes, it was helping those of us keen on innovation to discover new tools for our toolkit, talk to other like-minded teachers, and to validate our own approaches, but it wasn’t really attempting to answer the big problem in our own work: How do we convince everyone else to change with us?

Because the big problem isn’t with the people who are trying to innovate. The problem is the academic who doesn’t want to do any of that stuff. The academic who thinks “well, I learnt through traditional lectures, so that’ll be fine for all these students”. I actually had a colleague say to me the other day “I learnt from a book, so I don’t need to make videos for my students. They can just read the book like me”. They generally didn’t realise the benefits that can be had by moving the passive learning to non-contact time and creating an active learning environment within their lectures.

We have stuffed universities with the kind of academics who don’t realise that they’re there because they’re the sort of academically minded studious individual who could have taught themselves off some notes scribbled on the underside of a table if they had to. Anyone who’s dragged themselves through three years of undergraduate education, a year of masters, three to five years of a PhD, and a probable multitude of short-term RA contracts on many different topics before finally reaching the relative stability of a lectureship is going to be the kind of person who can learn things themselves and quickly in whatever circumstance. They don’t know what it is to be the person who struggles in class, or who finds things difficult, or who just doesn’t respond well to a fifty minute ‘lecture’.

We have a situation where people who have no difficulty in learning are having to teach.

And I find that that means they have no desire to try to do things differently, because the way they’re doing things “worked for them”. So how do we communicate to these individuals that actually ‘it worked for me’ is not a valid argument. How do we show them that there is a better way? That they can actually engage with students in a more meaningful fashion? How do we make them understand that

Just reading from a fucking powerpoint is not education.

Those are the questions I want answered next.