Interview with Rachel Challen, #EdTechBook chapter author

The Really Useful #EdTechBook, edited by David HopkinsAs part of a new series of posts, I will be talking to authors of The Really Useful #EdTechBook about their work, experiences, and contribution to the book. In this fourth post I talk to Rachel Challen, eLearning Manager at Loughborough College.

DH – Hi Rachel. When did you first realise that technology could have a positive effect on learning and teaching?

RC – I returned to education many years after I had first left, to do my PGCE at Wolverhampton University and did a module that was based on online resources. At that time we were only encouraged to develop PowerPoint presentations, but even so the opportunity with even the basic interactivity to engage students, blew my socks off. When I was at school, chalkboards were for dragging your fingernails down and board rubbers were for crowd control! 

I was extraordinarily lucky that my personal tutor on the PGCE was the wonderful Julie Hughes, renowned for her ePortfolio pedagogy practice and research, who gave me so much inspiration for thinking about things differently, putting the student first and just not to be scared about trying something out. I also have to admit that I used the OHT layering technique (that is technology right?!), but for me, technology isn’t just about technology, its about using the right tool for student impact, engagement and achievement.

DH – I can still remember my geography teacher at school, his drawings on the chalk board of glaciers and volcanoes were second to none, but don’t ever let him catch you talking or that board rubber would be heading straight at you … he didn’t even need to turn around, his aim was awesome!!

So, trying to ignore supersonic chalk board rubbers, what has been the ‘right’ tool in your arsenal of software/hardware box-of-tricks that has made the biggest impact for student engagement or achievement?

RC – Well, it won’t come as a surprise to my immediate team, :) but I’m not in the least bit technical: I definitely know how to use tools to their best advantage but I don’t have a clue how to make or mend them! I’m a Learning Technologist yes, but as we know that term covers a multitude of skills and knowledge, so my first thought when looking at something shiny is always ‘what value am I or the learners going to get from this’. I want something that will break down the barrier of collaboration, something that will help develop self actualisation through reflection and skills building, something that will invite students in and let them ‘be’ and something that will give students confidence in their digital skills for the workplace when they leave us. I think the right tool actually isn’t the technology itself, but the confidence as a tutor to have a go. Whether its using a webquest for flipped learning, a portfolio for reflection or a forum to create peer support, the pedagogy has to come first. I think a powerful example for impact, was a forum for PGCE teachers who when out on placement, met infrequently. They used an ePortfolio for communication and because of the ease of contact between peers and tutor, one student was able to get in touch quickly (almost instantly), resolve a serious issue that could have escalated and felt so supported that they remained on the course. One student saved…and thats amazing. But if I had to pick one specific approach, I would pick mobile technology. The affordances that this brings for interaction, collaboration, confidence building, flexibility in the classroom and instant access to knowledge should absolutely make it a teacher’s best friend!

DH – I know from my own experience that access and affordability of smart phone and tablet technology has changed how I work, and more importantly how I approach it. From sitting on the sofa in the evening and getting notifications of emails, meetings, mentions, etc. to tweeting, blogging, and collaborative efforts like #BYOD4L and this #EdTechBook project. But at times it’s also been problematic as it’s tough to form an effective strategy to manage not only your own expectations and FOMO (‘fear of missing out), but the expectations of others. Have you found this?

Interview with Rachel Challen, #EdTechBook chapter author

RC – Absolutely, we now live in a 24/7 communication society and thats my expectation as well, I’m no different – so it’s vital that expectations are clear. At any one time, I’m no more than arms reach away from a phone, tablet, laptop etc (in fact, i think they may actually be my arms!). If out of hours replies aren’t achievable, then as LTs we should be providing accessible help resources to help those tutors who start work after tea and putting the children to bed. Technology means we can work anywhere and anytime we wish but of course this can be totally overwhelming too. For me its definitely FOMO! I had a planned day away from twitter last week, but when I came back there were over 10,000 tweets. So I reevaluated my twitter COP, because I enjoy keeping up and seeing what people are researching, talking about and sharing thoughts between us but less is sometimes more! I can manage quite comfortably in a fast moving environment but I started one MOOC and in the first week, I got so many emails, tweets, G+’s, that it was unmanageable, off putting and I unenrolled. That was a lesson for me in online communication as a student – make the design, expectations but more importantly, boundaries clear…and then try and follow my own advice :o).

DH – Whilst an understanding of the ‘bigger picture’ can help direct development and progress, it can also be a distraction that, for some, could be overwhelming. I know your chapter will deal with more aspects of this ‘magic’ balance LTs have to manage between policy, management, and creativity, but do you feel the role of an LT needs to concern themselves with policy and management decisions?

RC – In my experience, not only should they be concerned with them, they should try and be part of the decision making process and have some influence on the direction. Working creatively is obviously key and coming up with solutions and ideas but we can’t work in silos otherwise nothing we do will ever be embedded and become cross institutional practice. Why develop a fabulous pilot which can’t go into full implementation because we haven’t understood the underlying strategies or concerns. As LTs, we have the absolute privilege of working with all departments (curriculum and support) and the ability to cross pollinate is key to bringing projects to the table which bring value and impact to all.

DH – Totally agree with you, but how realistic is it for that approach to work? Does it depend on team size, location (department, faculty or institution), and individuals at the different levels of management or is it the culture, where research is sometimes considered more important than teaching?

RC – Ooo, tricky question! I’ve worked in different sized teams in different sized institutions in different sectors and cross pollination, although really hard work, has worked successfully in all of those, but there has always been a good degree of centralisation or at least a hub and spoke model so maybe that is the key. Maybe it is indicative of our different experiences as LTs but my role now is in the FE sector, which is a fast moving and reactive environment and the balance of importance is definitely biased towards teaching with a heavy reliance on action research. So I can only answer from my experience but what I do believe that is that as LTs, regardless of where we are placed, the focus of our role or the sector we are in, we have to make it realistic; we should be knocking on doors, breaking down barriers, supporting communities of practice and just making things happen :o)

DH – I’ve often considered this, and tried many times to break down these barriers, but have always come up against a multitude of reasons (and plenty of excuses) that prevent progress. I thoroughly agree about knocking on doors, supporting progress and breaking down barriers, but do you think that can always be effective?

RC – I’m sure all LTs have, at some stage, heard those perceived barriers you mention ‘no time, too busy, my students don’t like technology etc’, and they nearly always mask the real problem of low confidence and maybe low digital literacy. This is our challenge as Learning Technologists and also the discussion within my chapter – how do we manage all expectations, supporting strategic direction, upskilling staff, keeping the teaching and learning at the core of everything we do and getting full staff buy in. Learning Technologists as magicians? Quite possibly!

DH – I’m sure there are plenty of people who’ll agree with you, that we do indeed need a certain amount of ‘magic’ in some circumstances! Thanks Rachel. 

More news about The Really Useful #EdTechBook will be posted here, Google +, Twitter, Flickr, Pinterest, and on other social media platforms using the #EdTechBook hashtag. Please follow and join in.

Image source: Magdalena Roeseler (CC BY NC 2.0)

Dolly Mixture courses

This week I had a great chat with @nancyrubin and @CliveBuckley after I re-tweeted Nancy:

Are Courses Outdated? MIT Considers Offering ‘Modules’ Instead

My thoughts on courses and training, as I mentioned above, as just this: courses tend to fit the organisational structure of the issuing body and don’t always fit the ‘need’ of the learner. You join (example) a specific school or faculty to start and complete your degree in Business Management or Economics or Sociology. But what if the specific subjects you really want to study are only loosely based around the course structure that the institution wants to teach? What if you want to do 80% of the course, but there are some other, better related but not officially available, modules that would make your learning and / or degree certificate relevant to the career direction you want to go? What if the institution hasn’t kept up with changes to the industry sector, is still a good course and subject specialist, but the final qualification isn’t ‘quite’ what is needed to get the jobs that are available?

This is beyond the modular degree schemes or pathways, this is giving the option to be more flexible with the modules they take, even taking modules that aren’t obvious to the academics but are relevant and interesting to the students? Obviously this can be taken too far, you can offer too much flexibility, and students could take vastly different (and possibly even unrelated) learning journeys that actually make the overall qualification void.

Then came a great conversation with Clive and Nancy around the ‘dolly mixture’ course, as Clive called it. Why this? Well, the article starts by highlighting the changes in now we consume media:

“People now buy songs, not albums. They read articles, not newspapers. So why not mix and match learning “modules” rather than lock into 12-week university courses?”

With degrees fees in the region of £9000 a year in the UK, not to mention living costs and all sorts of other costs to take into account making sure your study meets not only your own expectations but also that of your career aspirations is essential. Businesses are changing, as are students and their experiences and expectation.

I highlighted the similarity between MP3s and MOOCs, about the disruptive influence each had on their respective industries. I’m not saying here that MOOCs are the way forward, others are already arguing that (and good luck to them), but I am saying that the attitude to learning is changing. The attitude to finding the courses is changing.

People buy more MP3 tracks than full MP3 albums, people real more individual articles than a full newspaper, why not make it easier for students able to choose and study individual modules instead of a full degree. If institutions are struggling, for example, to get students on to a 3 or 4 year (sometimes 5 years) part-time online course, then why not split it up into smaller, cheaper, shorter, easier-to-digest (and finance, and find time for) modules where students can come and choose what they want, from a broad range of modules, to study when they want, to study when they can afford, etc.

Yes, there are many many wholes in this approach, but why? Is it the approach that is at fault or are the restrictions we put on the course structure?

Image source: Josh Roulston (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)