Thursday, 26 June 2014

Technology, distraction and harnessing our brains

Image courtesy of Hunter Langston designs
Image courtesy of Hunter Langston

I try not to call myself a technology evangelist, but I do believe that when used appropriately technology can enhance learning. So I've found it concerning to come across a number of articles in the past week highlighting the growing concern that certain technologies might be hampering students' ability to both concentrate and learn. But to what extent is this really a new phenomenon?

Our mind is unquestionably the most powerful technology we have at our disposal. But in the same way as the internet, laptops and mobile devices, our mind can also be a huge distraction. The ability to focus our attention and our thinking, even for a short period of time, is challenging. If you have ever tried to meditate and focus on being ‘in the moment’, you will appreciate the power of the subconscious to distract your focus, constantly throwing up disjointed thoughts and observations. Sometimes when I meditate I wonder how I manage to achieve anything at all amongst all the noise.

The ability to focus our attention for sustained periods of time is an essential part of consciousness, and developing and improving the ability to focus attention is an implicit in programmes of learning. Although presenting students with more stimuli in the form of information may capture their attention for a period of time, the length of this period will very considerably from person to person depending on their state of mind. There are also a range of variable including the tutor’s charisma, the way in which the information is presented, and the pedagogical approach chosen for the learning activity.

My point is that laptops, mobiles and the internet are tools just as the brain is a tool. The extent to which they are useful or distracting depends on the ability to harness and use them with focused attention. Few would deny that these tools have changed and will continue to change how we learn for the foreseeable future. But in light of this fact, perhaps there is a corresponding need to place greater emphasis on our ability to harness our attention.

Meditation is an effective way to help us become more aware of what it feels like to really focus. A basic three-minute breathing exercise at the start of each class would help clear the brain of at least some of the subconscious distractions that will hamper our ability to focus our attention. Rather than blaming technology for increasing distraction and disrupting concentration, perhaps we should instead consider trying to help ourselves and our students develop our thinking processes to take greater advantage of the affordances of these tools.
(And a big thank you to Hunter Langston for his excellent image above).

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Using Turnitin to support academic referencing

What is Turnitin?
Turnitin is a tool that enables staff and students to verify the academic integrity of written work. While some institutions take a punitive approach to using Turnitin, UCA has adopted a more formative position and advocates that is is used as a tool to support student learning. Although use of Turnitin is not currently mandatory, the university recommends that all students have an opportunity to submit some of their written work through Turnitin so that they can identify any weaknesses with referencing or academic writing.

Once a student uploads a piece of work through Turnitin they obtain what is known as an Originality Report. This indicates the percentage of text that has been found elsewhere on the internet in books, journals and websites. As Turnitin is not a perfect tool there is no fixed threshold above which a piece of work is deemed to be unacceptable. However, tutors are strongly advised to investigate any work where over 10% of the text  is deemed to have been copied from external sources. 

Help with Turnitin

The following videos demonstrate how to set up Turnitin, and what happens when a student submits a piece of work through Turnitin:

In addition, UCA provides an Academic Integrity website and Harvard referencing guide to help staff and students address problems with academic writing and referencing:

Improving writing and reflection with blogs

How can blogs improve writing and reflective skills?

The act of blogging is beneficial to students on many levels. Although it is a more informal way of writing than a traditional essay, this informality can be an advantage as it reduces the pressure on students to aim for perfection in their writing. In addition, asking students to write their thoughts on a blog obliges then to reflect before doing so, thus helping them to consolidate the knowledge they have acquired. Ferdig and Trammell (2004) summarise the four main pedagogic benefits of blogging for students: 

  1. Assisting students to become subject matter experts through a process of regular scouring, filtering and posting.
  2. Increasing student interest and ownership in learning.
  3. Giving students legitimate chances to participate and enculturating them into a community of practice.
  4. Providing opportunities for diverse perspectives. 

Students themselves also report that they find blogging a useful way to learn, stating that "their creativity and productivity skyrocketed because they knew that their work had the potential to be viewed quickly by an authentic audience that mattered to them."

In this article, students commented that "blogging is also a great way to put your writing skills into practice in the real world and develop stronger communication and organization skills" and "starting a blog while in college can help you in your specific industry niche".

A UCA case study

The introduction of mandatory blogging helped reverse the decline in academic standards in the CG Arts and Animation course at UCA Rochester. The course went from a 100% dissatisfaction rating to one of 100% satisfaction within two years, with the blogs leading to a significant improvement in students' writing and critical thinking abilities. This case study explains the role of blogs helping the tutor to turn the course around:

Blogging all over the world: can blogs enhance student engagement by creating a community of practice around a course?

Creating and sustaining online discussion

Q. Why is online discussion useful? 
Creating opportunities for online discussion is an effective way of supporting students' language skills. Moreover, the majority of both Home and EU students now entering university have grown up with online communication via social networking sites and many expect that their university learning experience will incorporate these technologies.

Online discussion supports learning in the following ways:

  • By increasing opportunities for students to read and write about their subject
  • By making it easier for less confident students to contribute to class discussion
  • By fostering supportive relationships and a sense of community amongst students

Q. How might I incorporate online discussion in my teaching?

There are many ways of introducing online discussion to your students, but before doing so it is important that you clarify how it will support their learning. Simply asking students to share their thoughts and ideas on a blog is unlikely to work unless they can clearly see the reasons for doing so. It's also important that you are prepared to participate in the online discussion as tutor presence is as important online as it is in the physical classroom. Building on the reasons listed above, here are some examples of how you might introduce online discussion:

Create a class blog and post a weekly discussion question

Setting up a class blog is quick and easy, but it can be a powerful way of stimulating discussion with a new group of students. The Postgraduate course at UCA Farnham used a class blog to encourage less confident students to feel connected to the course. At the end of the first lesson, students were asked to upload a link to one of their favourite songs and write a few sentences about why they liked the song. The tutor also shared a link to one of her favourite songs. This activity was a great ice-breaker as it enabled students to share something about which they were passionate and encouraged them to comment on other students' songs. Here are some more suggestions for kick-starting conversation:

7 conversation starters to stimulate discussion

Students who are sometimes too shy to contribute to class discussion often prefer online discussion as they have time to think about what they want to say before sharing it with the group. In addition, providing students with the abiliity to converse with each other online can foster a sense of community around the cohort. The following articles provides further reading about the benefits of creating an online learning community around your course:

4 reasons to build an online learning community
Make the community about your members

Use Twitter to encourage communication and collaboration
Despite the exponential increase in the use of Twitter many people are still unaware of its potential to enhance learning and discussion. Several courses at UCA have created a course Twitter account which they use to send messages and share links to useful resources with their students. Here are some tips for using Twitter in the classroom:

60 inspiring examples of Twitter in the classroom
50 ways to use Twitter in the classroom
Using Twitter for teaching and research

Ideas for online group work

I'm in the process of putting together some tips to help tutors set up online learning activities. This post considers ways of introducing online group work.

Q. What are the advantages of online group work?
Image courtesy of flickr user @gavinkeech

A. Providing opportunities for students to collaborate online can significantly extend their opportunities to learn. Students now entering university are often comfortable with communicating online, and constructing a collaborative online learning task can help them develop a range of skills including:

    literacy and grammar
    appropriate online etiquette and language
    team work
    critical thinking

Q. What sort of activities could I create?

Small-group blogs

Blogs are normally associated with individual learning activities, but they are also able to support group work. One example is to divide students into small groups and allocate a blog to each group, and in addition to creating a final presentation ask them to record all the research, inspiration and discussion that happened along the way. The blog provides a linear folio of research and ideas that both the students and the tutor can access in order to track the progress of the project.

Students can use 'tags' to organise their blog posts and indicate the ones that they would like the tutor to mark. Asking students to tag the blog posts that they would like to submit for final review obliges them to critically reflect on the work they have generated before selecting items to be submitted. In addition, tagging can help with the assessment of each group blog as it prevents the tutor from having to scroll through the whole blog looking for tne final pieces of content.

Whole-class blogs and discussion boards

Setting weekly discussion tasks is an effective way of encouraging students to collaborate in between taught sessions. For example, at the end of a session you can set a question for your students to discuss based on what has been covered so far, or on a topic that you want them to research. This question is posted on a class blog or discussion board. The following taught session then begins with a discussion of the content that students have uploaded.

Another variation on this activity is to set up two or three blogs / discussion boards and to post a different question on each. Students' homework is to write a short summary against each of the questions, and their responses are then used as a basis for discussion at the beginning of the next taught session.

Group mind-mapping with Prezi

Prezi is usually used as an alternative to Powerpoint, but it is also a good tool for supporting visual collaboration. Similar to the group blog activity, students work in small groups and are each allocated a Prezi. Each group is asked to gather visual research on a given topic and upload it to their Prezi workspace.

Using the comments feature, students are then asked to comment on and critique the research of other groups. Tutors can also provide targeted formative feedback on each group's work-in-progress and share additional links that they might find useful.