Thursday, 29 October 2009


I am currently thinking about applying for a BU Teaching Fellowship. As part of the evidence of engaging with the subject I thought I'd list this blog as an example for using modern technology to foster discussion and dissemination of ideas in an educational context, etc.

However, it then occurred to me that I might not want to list the URL of this blog in an official application... I have chosen the URL on the spur of a moment during the Web 2.0 in Learning and Teaching course, and it seemed fine for an ephemeral thing to play around with. I didn't really expect that it would develop the way it did...

So, I have just exported this blog (in other words, downloaded all the posts into a file on my computer) and then imported it again into a new blog at a new URL: I feel happier putting this address into the application!

I am, however, not sure how to continue, whether I maintain both blogs, or continue using this one, with occasional synchronisations with the new one? Time will tell.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Great Expectations

I found myself in an interesting situation yesterday. A colleague had told me how some of my students were really enthusiastic and happy about one of my seminars (which is a wonderful thing to hear!), and I am fully aware that the module is working a lot better than last year, due to some changes in the way I am running it.

Then I needed to prepare this week's seminar session. Blank. Procrastination. Emptiness. Stress. The reason: I felt I needed to aim high, and find activities that would really live up to the high expectations that I now anticipate in my students. I couldn't possibly be letting them down by doing a second-rate thing, something I might have got away with in previous years. So I was contemplating what to do, dithering between different options, trying to (somewhat in vain) evaluate/second-guess which one would work better. In the end I ended up with a compromise which I think did work fine.

The problem with teaching is that you never stand still. You innovate, hit upon a successful improvement, and then you have to keep maintaining high standards. No time to rest and fall back. Constantly pushing yourself.

I guess it's a good thing...!

Friday, 23 October 2009


In the first year Language Foundation seminars I am currently teaching phonemic transcription. I write a few sentences on the white board, and then the students transcribe them in group work (if they want) into phonemic symbols. At the end of the session we discuss their transcriptions.

One issue that was always rather unsatisfactory is how to involve everybody (and not just the vocal and confident students) and how to get round the issue that it's a continuous stream (and not words in isolation).

Yesterday I suddenly had a flash of inspiration: instead of waiting for the students to volunteer solutions, and to ask somebody else when a word had been completed, I start with a random student. This students says how they transcribed the first sound (phoneme). Then I go clockwise through the room, each student contributing the next phoneme. If there are differences (there always are, due to the nature of the task), we briefly stop and discuss alternatives, before resuming the round robin.

Simple idea (pretty trivial, really), but it solves the problems. It also keeps all students on their toes, as they need to keep track where they are and which sound they have to do. And even the quiet ones have to participate. As it's low stakes (only a single sound each time), getting it wrong is not a drama.

Win-win situation!

Google Forms for Student Feedback

While thinking about a good way to elicit feedback from students on what they think of my re-designed module delivery, Bill suggested Google Forms (I was almost resigned to the fact that I'd have to use the dreaded WebCT for that!). In Google Forms you simply create a form, and populate it with questions.

Several options are available, multiple choice ('radio buttons'), check boxes, open text, scale, etc. The form can be embedded into a webpage, or sent by email, and this is just what I've done: each student registered on the module got a copy sent to them. All they need to do is to fill it in (which shouldn't take too long), and then that's all done.

The beauty of the whole procedure is that the results are automatically collected in a Google Spreadsheet, and you can even view an automatically created summary of all the answers. I'd be hard pressed to think of a way to make that easier!

Of course you can also use that for 'testing'. It just depends on the questions you're using. But it seemed to me to be an easy way of getting some feedback, anonymously, while the module is still running. The students will then also see the point in filling in the form(s), much more so than the end-of-year form they are usually being asked to fill in.

If this sounds like a sales-advert, it just mirrors how impressed I am with it. And amazed how I could have missed that in the first place...

Friday, 16 October 2009

Wild Idea on a Friday Afternoon

There's a particular style of presentation, called Pecha Kucha. With this you have 20 slides at 20 seconds each, meaning you'll be talking for 6 minutes and 40 seconds. And each slide changes after a fixed 20 second period. Maybe suitable for creative sales pitches a la Dragon's Den, but how could that possibly work in an educational setting? For one way to approach this, you might want to listen to this 6:40min YouTube clip:

Now, having a number of different people present in a single lecture slot is probably not feasible. But what about 4 individual, separate short lectures? You simply(!!!) take your lecture topic, and identify the four most important individual points you want your students to take home. Then you have the first talk. Maybe that's an overview talk, giving some context on what is to follow in the other three talks. Then a short break, and perhaps a few questions from the audience (being optimistic, student participation is anticipated...).

After that, you fire up the next talk. Again, just 20 slides at 20 seconds each. Just under seven minutes later you stop again, fielding another set of questions about the talk. Rinse and repeat.

I have no idea whether that would work. It could be great, in that it keeps the students' attention going, as there are breaks; no continuous talking for long amounts of time. It forces the lecturer to be well prepared, decide carefully what to talk about and how, and – as mentioned in the clip – lends itself nicely to podcasting. Bite-sized chunks, just right for the facebook generation?

It could also be a complete disaster. A choppy lecture, stop-and-go, artificial constraints, innovation for the sake of innovation, strange concepts, violating students' expectations on how to absorb information, potential for a stunned silence after 6:40mins, topics might not lend themselves to being presented like that.

One way where it might just work are workshops or mini-conferences. There would be a genuine reason for having such constraints, as there wouldn't be any pre-specified 50min slots, and you would have more than one speaker.

When starting this post I was all enthusiastic and willing to give it a go, but the more I think about it the more skeptical I get. Maybe I will give it a go some time. Maybe it's best to try it out at a low-stake event, such as organising a mini-conference. Especially in the English department this might work well, with a mixture of different subjects, from Linguistics, to Literature, to Old English... or at School/College level. A more varied set of topics would mean you could get a good overview, and if you weren't interested in a talk you'd just wait until it's over. While waiting you might find that it's more interesting than you initially expected.

Now how would that be for Open Days...?!

Monday, 12 October 2009

Back to Basics?

Technology is not always the best solution to a problem.

One issue that took two weeks to sort out was the assignment of students into groups in the FREDA module. I put students into groups, made one of each group a coordinator, and put their emails on WebCT with the 'suggestion' that they all should look up which group they were in, find out who their coordinator is, and email that person so that a group meeting could be set up.

For some reason, some students simply didn't do it. I have no idea why. Maybe this is too strange and unusual given the other tasks they have to perform at university? It was beginning to interfere with my running of the seminar, as I expected them to discuss the readings in the groups, and I didn't want to assign further readings until that had all been sorted.

Now in today's lecture I cut through this Gordian knot. I finished 10 minutes early, and sent all the TELLING students away (even though some were confused enough and stayed on asking what groups they were in...), and called out the groups, asking them to come to the front of the lecture theatre. And finally, the groups would meet... A few students were absent, so I rearranged/merged two other groups on the spot, but most groups now managed to get themselves set up.

What email and WebCT did not manage in 2 weeks was achieved in 5 minutes after the lecture... Now I hope that it'll all be a lot easier when the groups get reshuffled after reading week!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Various Updates

And another three weeks have passed since the last entry. Blogging for academics really cannot mean a post a day... but among these three weeks was: spending one week abroad at a conference in Mannheim, Germany, and then the first week of term with a re-written lecture and various other planning and preparing of teaching.

My conference talk was about reconciling grammar and phraseology (you can't, really), and I think it was well-received. It's always hard to tell, as my presentation style is very different from most other talks at pretty much any linguistics conference. Most talks will feature slides full of text, and very few images. Perhaps the odd diagram or two. Mine, on the other hand, hardly contain any text. Lots of pictures, and some slides with one sentence, blown up to fill the whole screen. And about 60 slides for a 30 minute talk. Now all I need is a black turtleneck sweater...

I also use this presentation style in my lectures, and in today's lecture on phonology I had the impression that the audience (first year students) did indeed listen (apart from lots of coughing, but I blame the weather for that). There is so much useful information about presenting effectively on the web (and in books), but this does not seem to have filtered through to academia. On the other hand, I don't know if there are any studies on how students respond to different presentation styles.

Then my Discourse Analysis module started. I duly split the students up into groups, deciding on the spot that the students in one seminar group would be 'group coordinators' for this half term, and then of course timetable clashes and late registrations messed up my nice 10/10/10/10 distribution, which now seems to be more like 12/7/9/12 or something. Still have to wait for another week or two before this settles down. And of course, some students didn't turn up, and consequently missed all of the detailed administrative monologue I delivered. I also hope the students where not too overwhelmed, but I will see over the coming weeks how this turns out.

Yesterday I then produced the first podcast for the module, 12 minutes altogether. I think that's plenty long enough to listen to me talking about odds and ends... I thought it was a useful way to round up what had been done in the seminar group meetings, repeat and expand on various issues. Tomorrow and Thursday in the group meetings I will find out if anybody actually listens to the thing!

Producing it was not very difficult. Just jotted down a list of things I wanted to cover, got the digital recorder set up, and started talking. One thing I noticed when doing the post-editing: I need to make it clearer when I restart. Probably say 'RESTART', that makes it a lot easier to find where to cut out bits where my spontaneous talking lead into a cul-de-sac. I don't like writing a full script, as it would be a lot more time-consuming, and it would take away the informal/conversational character of the podcast. Who would want to listen to me read out stuff? No, just as in lectures, free speech. I did notice some things I didn't like, eg my blatant over-use of the word 'basically', which I need to cut down on next time. But for the first attempt I am quite happy with it.

So, nothing for three weeks, and then a massively above-average-length post. I'll try to go back to a more regular schedule of smaller posts, and will try to also write a bit more about the 'research' part, which is the slightly under-represented triplet of the blog's title...