Friday, August 2, 2013

Interactive Engagement In Place of Tutorials at ANU

The College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS) at the Australian National University (ANU), is phasing out tutorials, according to two reports in the Canberra Times ("Staff freeze and bug exposure leave ANU students susceptible", and "Small is out at ANU, worrying students", Emma Macdonald, 2 August 2013) and one in the ANU student newspaper ("CASS Tutorials an Art of the Past", Sam Bradley and Vincent Chiang, Woroni, 1 August 2013).

Tutorials will be replaced with what are described in the articles as "large interactive workshops and forums", "forums/workshops" and "flip the classroom". Dr Royston Gustavson, CASS Associate Dean (Education) is quoted:
''... Such forums/workshops are typically run by the course lecturer, rather than tutors, thereby giving students a significantly increased opportunity to interact with their lecturer. ...'' From: Staff freeze and bug exposure leave ANU students susceptible", Emma Macdonald, Canberra Times, 2 August 2013
A student quoted in the second Canberra Times article makes the point that they didn't attend lectures as an undergraduate, but learned in tutorials.

There were no further details, but the large classroom format with a lecturer and interaction appears similar to the flipped classroom approach which Dr Adam Butt describes being used for teaching Actuarial Techniques at ANU:
Butt, Adam, Student Views on the Use of Lecture Time and their Experience with a Flipped Classroom Approach (November 8, 2012). Available at SSRN:

Dr Butt describes how he converted the lecture notes into readings for students before a class. The classes started with questions from students about the readings. The readings also had exercises to be completed in class (which took up most of the class time). Dr Butt also made use of Votapedia, this is a free student feedback system, similar to the use of "clickers, but using a mobile phone, smart phone or web application (developed in the CIST Building on the ANU campus by Dr Ken Taylor, of CSIRO). Students were surveyed on the teaching technique with 75% seeing it as beneficial.

Rendering of the TEAL classroom at MITIn 2007 Philip Long and Mark Schulz visited ANU to talk about the iCampus implementation of the Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) at MIT and later at University of Queensland for teaching science to undergraduates. The Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) project at MIT adapted what was essentially a laboratory style of teaching to other science subjects, with a technique called "interactive engagement". Short lectures are interspersed with group work in a room holding about 100 students, clustered around tables. Display screens are placed on all walls to allow students to see a presentation without the need for a mobility-limiting raked lecture theater.

The Canberra Times articles imply that tutorials would be replaced to reduce staff costs. However, MIT's research on TEAL rooms indicates they produce superior educational outcomes. Also it is not just a matter of one lecturer with a class of one hundred students: tutors are still required to assist student groups.

It should be noted that many on-line courses now incorporate live "Webinars" which use the interactive engagement technique. There are short presentations  interspersed with student activities, using the communication facilities of the webinar software for students to be able to respond. As with large face-to-face classes, it is not feasible for the presenter alone to run such a class on-line, they need assistants to help the students.

In my course ICT Sustainability I have weekly asynchronous forums for students to discuss topics. This format has proven very popular with students. Relaxing the real time constraints of a face-to-face classroom allow one teacher to handle a large class.

It should be noted that use of Interactive Engagement requires a significant investment in new course materials, teaching skills, equipment and new classrooms (when not delivered on-line). The course materials need to be carefully packaged into units of work which can be completed during the sessions. The work students need to do in advance of a workshop must be carefully considered and incentives put in place for them to actually do the work. Lecturers need new skills to teach intensively in short bursts "in the round". Tutors need to learn to think on their feet to support the fast pace. Rooms are required with furniture for small groups and display screens "in the round". Assessment needs to be designed in to enhance the student's learning.

Changes to teaching methods can't be made overnight and require years of planning. As an example, after the 2007 presentation at  ANU about TEAL rooms, I looked at how I might use these. But that would require reconfiguring current teaching spaces. Most university campuses currently have a large lecture theaters with raked floors and small tutorial rooms with flat floors. TEAL rooms are as large as a lecture theater, but with a flat floor like a tutorial room. The best example of such a facility in Canberra is the Inspire Centre at University of Canberra, with specialist furniture and a TEAL Teaching Room. But this is a new purpose built facility.

To see how an existing building might be reconfigured, in 2007 I discussed "Turning a classroom into a flexible learning space" and updated this in 2012 as "Designing a Decision Support Centre".

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