Tag Archives: teaching

From Ireland to the UK (and back): my open story

Featured image: Walton Hall by B. de los Arcos, CC BY-NC

Yesterday I took part in an online hangout organised by the team behind #101openstories, hosted by the wonderful Jenni Hayman. The initiative started a few months back when six fabulous women, all members of GO-GN, got together to invite the rest of us to tell our open stories. I’m sticking the recording at the end of this post, but to save Jenni the awful task of having to transcribe what was said, here is how it all started for me. In fairness, I’m also keeping a promise I made on Twitter, although I should have used my own account, not GO-GN’s. I got mixed up!

If I’m gonna tell this story properly, I have to go back to the year 2000 when I started teaching with the Open University. My background is in languages and at the time I was teaching Spanish at University College Galway (which then became NUI Galway). The OU, however, was distance education and a whole new adventure that got really exciting when from 2003, I think, we went fully online –I no longer met my students face-to-face but spoke to them once a month using a synchronous audiographic conferencing system developed in-house called Lyceum. It was fantastic. I loved every minute of it. (Remember Mattie the cat, Fernando?). By then I had moved from Galway to Dublin and was studying part-time for an MSc in IT in Education at Trinity College. It was my first excursion into doing research. See, teaching online posed new challenges: how different would I be as an online tutor? How would not having eye contact with my students affect the way I taught? The minor dissertation I wrote was then published as a chapter in a book available to purchase for £130.75 on Amazon. (I’m not even giving you the link). I didn’t know about open then.

Dublin didn’t quite work for a bunch of reasons, but upon returning to Galway and another semester of ‘traditional’ teaching, I wasn’t happy. I felt stuck. After getting a taste for doing research, I wanted more. I applied for a grant to do a PhD at the OU and got it. Hooray! That was probably the most significant moment of my career. It meant leaving Ireland though, for Milton Keynes, the town of roundabouts (I don’t know why they mention cows, I haven’t seen any). The horror! Don’t worry, I said to L, we’ll be back as soon as I graduate. Famous last words. Cue in financial meltdown, our Celtic Tiger caught having a nap. It would take us the best part of eleven years to return to Irish shores (I completed my PhD in 2009) and even now, I can’t say I’m properly back.

But let’s get on with the story. While PhD-ing, I was allowed to continue tutoring OU students; after all, they were the subjects of my research. One day, somebody asked: how would you like to share your teaching materials? The Department of Languages had just launched LORO, a repository of resources for language teachers, an online space that could be accessed by everyone. Here is the thing: if you were teaching beginners’ Spanish, for example, the OU would send you a CD containing materials that you could use in your online class, either as is or customised as you pleased. I had done a lot of that: had a look at what we were given, maybe used a resource without any changes once or twice, then adapted it according to what I thought had worked or not for my students; I had reused OU materials to build my own versions of screens and exercises. But I had no idea what the materials for the intermediate or advanced Spanish classes were, and even less of a clue what my colleagues teaching Chinese, Welsh, German or French were doing with their beginners. With LORO, that problem was instantly solved.

Soon I moved from being a user of the repository to helping others use the repository. It was also when I first learnt of Creative Commons licences. PhD under my belt, my next job was with the HEFCE-funded Support Centre for Open Resources in Education (SCORE), where my role was supporting anyone and everyone who was interested in using the OU’s Labspace (today OpenLearn Create) to set up an open course, for instance. I’m afraid at the time I didn’t think of it as the momentous event it probably was, but I was there when David Wiley himself shared with SCORE fellows his now lauded thoughts around the letter R.

Then came OT12, a MOOC on Open Translation tools and practices, and the SCORE Microsites, two collections of OER: one on research skills for international students thinking of doing their PhD in the UK; the other, for digital scholars.

At the end of 2012 I was appointed as one of the researchers with the Hewlett-funded OER Research Hub project, now Open Education Research Hub, and that was it, I haven’t looked back since. This post would get too long if I went into all that happened to us OERHubbers so maybe another time. Suffice it to say that there was ExplOERer and OEPS, and there is GO-GN (pride of place), bizMOOC and UK Open Textbooks. I’m not officially teaching any more; it wasn’t my own choice but because OU student numbers in the Republic of Ireland went downhill at such a speedy pace, that I was invited to volunteer for redundancy. (Blame, among other, the rise in fees and the demise of the ‘single module’ learner). But I’m still an educator, in a funny way, and I’d like to think that I’m still helping others think about open.

Here is the #101openstories recording from July 24th, 2017, with Anne Algers, Martin Weller and myself.


About flipped learning

Picture this: you are a Chemistry teacher in a school in Colorado; it’s Friday and you give kids a test; some kid fails, what do you do on Monday? You move on –“I’m sorry kid, I hope you can figure it out between now and the next test”.  It sounds wrong yet awkwardly familiar, doesn’t it? On a blustery morning in London we caught up with Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams, the Chemistry teachers in Colorado who came up with the concept of the flipped classroom. “The simplest way to explain flipped learning or the flipped classroom is the idea of taking direct instruction out of the group learning space and shipping it into the individual learning space”, says Aaron. By recording the content of each lesson and asking students to watch that as homework, they were able to free up class time to do more hands-on learning.  From then on, the question became “Why does every kid have to do the same thing on the same day?” Why not have them learn at their own pace and master material before they progress to the next thing? “When a kid doesn’t understand A, they can’t do B, they can’t do C, D is impossible. (…) In the mastery system, if they got to the end of a unit and couldn’t pass the test, we made them stay there until they learned it”. Jon and Aaron are sure not to take credit for the mastery model; the idea originated in the 70s, its implementation marred by the difficulty of having teachers repeat themselves ad infinitum and set up multiple assessments to evaluate different objectives at the same time. Technology has made mastery possible: “We can create videos for the content, the direct instruction and [students] can watch it whenever, and there are learning management systems that can randomise tests and do some amazing things”.

Our conversation ebbs toward the changing role of teachers: we no longer live in a society deprived of information; kids can access stuff anywhere any time on their own. “What do they need their teacher for?” asks Aaron. Not to deliver content, but “to help them wrestle with what they’ve already learned and take it to a deeper level”.

I believe that teachers by nature are reflective creatures: I wouldn’t just flip my classroom on a whim but in the knowledge that either something I’m doing is not working, or there’s something going around that promises better results and greater fun. An infographic based on a survey of the Flipped Learning Network reveals that 80% of flipped teachers report an improvement in student attitude, and 67% an improvement in test scores. Have teachers become more creative, more reflective when flipping the classroom? I ask. Aaron takes this up: “These teachers are engaging in play, they are having fun with what they are doing; a lot of teachers that we’ve talked to have said This is a way for me to get excited about my craft again. It really regenerates them, to want to be creative, to want to experiment with their own content”. Two teachers making videos together engage in rich conversation; if the next step is to make that material publicly available online  –“it’s opening up the doors of your classroom to the whole world”– that conversation becomes even more powerful as they think through the pedagogy.

One more thought I leave you to ponder: flipped learning is a grassroots movement; as Kari Arfstrom puts is “It’s not coming from Washington, it’s not coming from the State Capitol, it’s not coming from someone high up who’s got three PhDs and six books to their name. This is coming from teachers in their community who happen to hear about this philosophy (…) It’s not someone saying This is what you have to do in your classroom; this is something teachers want to do in their classroom”.

Image: CC BY Upside Down Roller Coaster by Austin Kirk