Category: Pedagogy

Engaging industry, students and universities: A workflow

A few years ago I shot a video that explained how we were using digital approaches to engaging industry, universities and students in order to solve ‘real world’ problems. Things have moved on since then and I’ve refined the process considerably, but the fundamentals still persist.

If, through your teaching practice, you are interested  in engaging in these kinds of approaches where multiple stakeholders work together to solve problems, this video might give you some ideas.

Feedback about the feedback

(Click to enlarge)


The problem

There is a lot of time pressure on academics and while some of it can be predicted (#MarkingHell), some of it is less predictable; research projects evolve and require attention; a call to provide a service within the university at short notice, (and/)or a high teaching load. It can lead to academics feeling pulled in all directions feeling as though they are only making slow headway towards their primary goals. Therefore, it’s no surprise that academics look for ways to minimise some of these time pressures so that they can concentrate on those things that they feel are most important in their career. That makes sense: either become hyper-efficient at, say, marking assignments through enlisting the aid of technology, or do the minimum amount possible thereby shortening the time required for that task.

Technology certainly has a role to play in improving efficiencies. Comment ‘libraries’ can provide quick copy-and-paste comments for the more common and frequently used feedback statements (did someone just say ‘needs a reference here’?). Indeed I make good use of a digital marking library that I have developed over the years. In fact, when I opened it up for use by my teaching team I found that we cut marking time by about a third. In itself, this seems like a good thing. Less time marking means more time doing something else.

But faster doesn’t always mean better. If my teaching team and I aren’t providing high quality feedback in the first place, just speeding the process up does not drive better student outcomes. Copy and paste of generic feedback statements isn’t good enough: students need direct, targeted and actionable feedback if they are to improve.

The solution:

Last year I instituted a new requirement in the assessment pieces associated with my strategic management class for the group assignment: Feedback about the feedback. This process works in the context of two, linked group assignments – the first assignment is due about half way through the semester and the second at the end of the semester. Students used theory and the information that they gather for the first assignment to help them make recommendations in the second assignment. The aim here is that students  take the feedback that we give them in the first assignment and use that to improve their performance for the second.

It works like this:

  1. Build an extensive marking library to help with the heavy lifting of the most common and repeated feedback comments – share with marking team;
  2. Provide clear examples of high quality feedback and spend time training the marking team on how to write effective feedback that is targeted, relevant and provides clear advice on how to improve (in addition to the generic feedback comments);
  3. Put a new requirement in the second assessment piece for the students: ‘as an appendix, write a 500 word ‘response’ to the feedback provided by the marker in the first assignment incorporating what strategies the students are going to use when writing the second assessment piece of assessment in order to improve’.
  4. Encourage the students to seek further, targeted clarification if required. To do that, I shot a video explaining how the feedback process works and how it will help.

The results

Frankly, they were astonishing. We saw a dramatic uplift in the performance of students in the second assignment compared to the first, but most importantly, the kinds of improvements we saw were directly linked to feedback that we gave the students in the first assignment. For example, if we pointed out that the students had not read widely enough to have a solid understanding of the theory, we tended to see evidence in the second assignment of a deeper engagement with the readings and also an improved understanding and application of theory. If, in the first assignment, our feedback suggested that students needed to focus more on the implications of the actions that they were recommending, we tended to see students beef up that aspect in their second assignment. We also saw an improvement in final grades compared to previous semesters.

Putting in the 500 word response ‘requirement’ ensured that the students at least read our feedback and it also ensured that the markers provided enough feedback of the correct kind that allowed students to get an idea about how to improve. Win-win.

Now, of course, not all students engaged with this process fully, but the magic of it is that our marking team (which includes me) had no way of knowing prior to reading the second assignment which student groups were going to take our feedback and act on it and which weren’t. This meant that we had to provide excellent feedback for all groups (we should have been doing that anyway).

The upshot of all this is that our marking and feedback process is more thorough and when it comes to allocating grades in the second assignment students can see why they were awarded the grades that they got. If we pointed out in their first assignment that their referencing needed to improve, but there was no attempt to improve it in the second assignment, then the students could not complain that they were given a poor grade in terms of that element. For me this is important because as course-coordinator when students complain about their grades, I can point back to our feedback and show them that despite being told how to improve that they didn’t take up the opportunity. Last semester I had the smallest number of queries and ‘appeals’ against grading than I’ve ever had. Better feedback processes saved me work.

I’ll be using this process again in my new course Management In Practice and tracking the outcomes. If you try something similar, I’d love to hear how it works for you.




Tentatively hugging the digital tree

Tentatively hugging the digital tree

As I undertake the design and construction of the new capstone subject Management in Practice for the School of Management at RMIT University I’m aware of the opportunity to embrace some newer, digitally delivered, tools and approaches to learning and teaching. But what does that mean in the context of our students? How might I go about doing it? Does it matter which approaches I use, or is the fact that this course is ‘digital’ be enough?

We’ve seen a significant shift at RMIT over the past few years as we begin to move towards a more digitally enabled organisation. The transformation has been going on behind the scenes for some years, but recently it has become increasingly obvious to front-line people that there is a significant transformation underway. For example, RMIT’s ICT strategy to 2020 is organised around five themes:

1. Best in class digital student experience – Invest in new technologies which transform the student experience and underpin the digital strategy
2. Innovative and efficient Service Integrator – Reposition the ICT function to source and manage services more efficiently and to focus on business outcomes through innovation
3. Elegant global service experience and systems – Move to single global systems and processes which enable the global operating model
4. Data to fuel differentiation & decisions – Ensure quality data and integrated systems are available to support data based decision-making, and enable personalised and contextualised services
5. Simple & secure technology foundations – Ensure foundation technology is simplified, free of duplication, and secure

When looking at that document, I was struck by what the authors had framed as ‘RMIT’s Perfect Storm’ (pages 6 and 7) where they framed the challenges that RMIT is facing:

1. Adaptive learning
2. Re-inventing credits
3. Social media
4. Flipped classroom
5. Self-paced learning
7. Digital assessments
8. Massive computing for research data
9. Listening and sensing technologies
10. Ebooks and digital content
11. Open micro-credentials
12. Predictive analytics
13. Advanced classroom technologies
14. Physical virtual presence

There’s a lot there to consider. Lots of moving pieces. It looks complicated. So what does all this mean for me as a teaching academic? The obvious themes in this document that I are ‘Best in class digital student experience’ and ‘Data to fuel differentiation and decisions’. The challenges that stood out included:

  1. Adaptive learning
  2. Re-inventing credits
  3. Social media
  4. Flipped classroom
  5. Self-paced learning
  6. MOOCS
  7. Digital assessments
  8. Ebooks and digital content
  9. Predictive analytics

It appears these are the drivers of much of the technology adoption in RMIT and if I want to remain an effective educator, I’m probably going to have to adapt my approach to teaching. You know, Academic Expectations and all that….

So, in thinking this through, some of the questions that I have are: How do I go about implementing some of these things in my practice? Do students want any of this stuff anyway? What’s the case for all this digital transformation in the L&T space?


The case for adopting a digital approach to teaching and learning

It appears that the case for the move to digital has been made mostly in the UK and in the USA. Australia seems to be following a similar path although a few years behind. Some interesting reading that I came across included an analysis by Delloits on the adoption of digital tools in education in the schooling system (not HE), and the Digital Student Project in the UK. When I dug into this report a little deeper and looked at the student digital experience tracker pilot report I was struck by some of the statistics:

The following comes from page 17 of the report:

With regards to the overall student digital experience:
Approximately seven in ten of students believe that
when technology is used by teaching staff it enhances
their learning experience
Around 6 in 10 students believe that digital
assessments are delivered well

Technology use by teaching staff:
» 72.2% of HE students and 70.1% of FE and skills
students agreed that when technology is used by
teaching staff, it helped their learning experience

And this is what the Higher Ed Students said they wanted (Pages 19–21):

Offer recorded lectures
Make better use of VLEs: standardise use by staff, add
presentations, teach students how to use it effectively,
and improve access (eg mobile friendly)
Improve online services: more online resources/
activities, assessment submissions
Provide access to better / more computers and devices

And this…

Keep providing online 24/7 access to as much content
as possible
Keep providing 24/7 library access
Keep providing as much material as possible (lecture
notes, slides etc) on the VLE, and make it accessible
any time any place
Keep using technology, and embracing new
technology services and resources

And, finally, this…

Stop sending irrelevant emails! (very many students
said this)
Stop early morning lectures
Stop “death by PowerPoint” and other boring lecture
behaviours eg too long, unbroken

The recording of lectures is a no-brainer. As a student, I wouldn’t bother getting up for an 8:30 lecture if I knew it was going to be recorded. It seems, then, the decision on how to do lectures in this ‘new’ environment is going to be a design question I’m going to spend a little time exploring. If, for example, I choose to put all lectures online, what’s the best way to do that? What opportunities do I sacrifice when adopting an online process? What becomes available to me in the digital space that isn’t as easy in the F2F space?

On Monday and Tuesday I’ll be working with Joyce Seitzinger from Academic Tribe as part of a Digital Design Sprint to learn how to think through many of the issues I’ll be facing as I create the new Management In Practice course. I’m going to capture much of that process as I can and publish it here so that others might learn from it as well. I hope you’ll join me.

Upcoming Speaking Engagement – Using Video in Teaching

I’m please to announce that I’m helping facilitate a workshop for academics who wish to use video and podcasts in their teaching. The workshop is described as:

This practical workshop will introduce academic and teaching staff to the use of short films and podcasts to engage learners and support learning and teaching. It will explore how to develop an idea into a film or podcast, record it simply using a smartphone, and use it effectively in face-to-face, blended and online modes of delivery.

I’ve been using video in my teaching more and more in the past couple of years and I’m slowly figuring out how to produce (relatively) high quality video for very little cost. I’m by no means a Hollywood director, but I manage to do some passable stuff.

There is very little ‘semi-professional’ grade video out there available for people to use in their classrooms. Most of the videos that ARE available on YouTube are poorly shot, have terrible audio and aren’t focussed enough for students.

My ongoing project is to try and change that – at least for the students who are taking my course.  😉

The workshop details are:

June 30th, 2015:  3:00pm-4:00pm

Building 80, Level 4, Room 20.

I’m sure that if you wanted to come along I could arrange for guest access – just send me a tweet: @jasondowns

Going beyond ‘student’ presentations

I’m so very proud of my students – the very top performers will be presenting their semester’s work to some of the executives of The Australian Red Cross Blood Service this Friday. They’ve worked incredibly hard this semester, my students, and today we gathered for a presentation masterclass with the aim of transforming what they know about giving presentations into something professional and what I like to call “boardroom ready”.

It surprises me every semester when I run these classes that the students have been able to get so far through university and no-one has taught them how to create a professional presentation. It seems no-one teaches them about structure, about the use of metaphor, about how to connect with an audience through the use of emotion. This saddens me.

So I thought I’d share two great presentations here that I show the students in the masterclass. The first one is of Nancy Duarte who gives a great introduction to what actually makes a great presentation. The video is 20 minutes long, but it’s well worth watching.

If you watch this presentation, pay close attention to not only what she is trying to say (her message) but also the way in which she is saying it. Her message is that good presentations have an identifiable structure, that if you follow this structure, then your presentation can also turn out well. If you pay attention to the process of her presentation you can see that she is modelling the ideas that she is trying to convey. This presentation is worth watching a few times and I ask my students to break it down, both content and process, to get to the heart of what makes a good presentation.

Some questions I ask my students include:

  • What is the main theme in this presentation?
  • What techniques does Nancy use to improve the power of her presentation?
  • What do you notice about her slides?
  • How does Nancy connect the beginning of the presentation with the end?

Often it comes as a surprise to my students that the art of crafting a good presentation is as complex as it is presented here. They are often so very keen to dive right into the design of the slides and start to pull the Powerpoint deck together that they underdo the thinking and planning of the presentation. The designing of the slides (if they are going to be used at all) should come at the end, not the beginning.

Another example of a good presentation that I like to show is one of Ben Zander talking about classical music. Ben is clearly a master presenter. He is charismatic, talented, funny and so very engaged.  It’s clear that Ben has given this presentation many many times (or one very much like it) and he is truly comfortable in front of the audience. But like Nancy’s presentation above, if you analyse what Ben is doing throughout his presentation, you can begin to see familiar themes arising. Ben uses cadence and rhythm to give structure to his presentation and he uses humour to great effect, punctuating his presentation with jokes and stories to keep the audience interested. However, the strength of Ben’s presentation is not the techniques that he uses to structure a great talk, but his use of emotion to connect with his audience.

On Friday my students will be trying to get their big ideas across to our industry representatives. They’ll have 15 minutes to present their findings and they’ll have 10 minutes of QandA to answer any tricky questions. All the work we have been doing throughout the semester comes to a very sharp point. I’m confident that they know their stuff, the trick will be if can they communicate it effectively. Ultimately the main lesson on Friday will not be how ‘good’ their presentation is, but how much they learn about making a good presentation as they prepare. It’s the same lesson that they tackled throughout the semester with their reports. It’s not the final report that matters, but what they had to learn in order to make the final report.

Process matters.

Why I use twitter in my teaching practice

I was recently interviewed as part of a research project on my use of social media, including Twitter, as part of my teaching practice. I use a range of social media outlets and tools in order to ‘connect’ with my students. If you are interested in what tools I use and how I am thinking about the role of social media in teaching, you can read about the interview here: Twitter for Strategic Management