Tuesday, March 12, 2019

How to Blend and Flip a Course for a Flatpack Classroom

Next Friday, 15 March I will be speaking on "Blend, Flip, and Back to the Classroom". So I thought I should collect my thoughts on what to say. Here are some note, so far:

In 2008 I ended my last lecture for the year at ANU by announcing it would be my last lecture, ever. Having become disillusioned with the lecture format, I have been teaching online for the last ten years, with an award winning course offered by three institutions, in Australia and North America. During that time I looked at alternative classroom designs in Australia and around the world.

In February 2019 the Australian National University unveiled the Marie Reay Teaching Centre, a flexible teaching building. So this year I am going back to the classroom, to apply what I have learned, with a blend of online and classroom teaching in the new building. This is intended to be a model for how academics can easily convert conventional courses to new interactive ways of learning, and allow each student to choose the blend of online and classroom learning to suit their needs.

Overview of the Learning Module

I produced slides, and a video for the revised learning module, on how to provide students with help when preparing a reflective portfolio. This is specifically for students of  ANU Tech Launcher.

ANU Marie Reay
Teaching Centre

New Flexible Teaching Spaces at ANU

The Marie Reay Teaching Centre opened at ANU 25 March, along with the Culture & events building opposite, both by Architects BVN. These buildings have flexible teaching spaces, but flexible in different ways. The culture and events building has a 500-seat auditorium, and a 200 seat flexible space. Both of these have tiered lecture theater style seating, but which retracts electrically, providing large flat floor spaces, with high ceilings.

In contrast, the Marie Reay Teaching Centre has only flat floor classrooms, for 30, 60, or 120 students. The flexibility here is provided by retractable walls, furniture on wheels, and electronic screens on multiple walls.

147 seat seminar room,
ANU Sciences Teaching Building

This approach of one building with lecture theaters, and one with flat floor classrooms, differs from attempts to combine the features of the two. As an example, the ANU Sciences Teaching Building has a 147 seat tiered seminar room. The room has wide tiers with fixed tables for groups of seven students. This is designed so students can watch a presentation at the front of the room, and then discuss it in a group, around their table. However, the tables take a lot of space and are fixed in place. Display screens on the tables block some of the view.

In contrast, the ANU Kambri complex has two buildings with specialized seating for specific pedagogy. The ANU Cultural Centre Building has high density tiered theater fixed seating for lectures. Opposite is the Marie Reay Teaching Centre with low density flat floor movable seating and tables for group work. This has the advantage that both format rooms can be used simultaneously. and offer a greater overall seating capacity, than would general purpose lecture/group rooms.

Wall mounted LCD screens and desks on wheels at ANU Marie Reay Teaching Centre
Wall mounted LCD screens
& desks on wheels at
ANU Marie Reay Teaching Centre
While the tables in the Marie Reay Teaching Centre are on wheels, one room (4.02) has five electronic screens on each side wall, spaced to allow each of five desks to have a screen (for a total of sixty students). This overcomes the problem of the desks becoming immovable, when computer screen are installed on them.

Students doing a Lego Serious Play exercise at the Australian National University in Canberra
Screen of Wheels, in use at the
ANU Barry Drive classrooms,
for ANU TechLauncher group activity
Other rooms have two projection screens for presentations. I have suggested these be supplemented with screens on wheels, which can be positioned for group work, or to display what is on the main screens. Such screens on wheels have been used at the ANU Barry Drive classrooms for an ANU TechLauncher group activity.

Top Down Course Design

My approach to course design reflects the limited flexibility of the new buildings. Flexibility is provided, but not at the expense of efficiency.

The learning is designed top down: start with the learning objectives, or externally set requirements. These set, in broad terms, the knowledge and skills the student must have on completion of the course.  Often these objectives are not provided to the educational designer, or are so vague they are of little use, so they have to be found, or invented.

For the Reflective Learning module, I first tried adapting skills definitions from the Skills Framework for the Information Age:
"Upon completion of this module, students will be able to:
  1. Determine their own learning needs and possible sources, to develop individual skills for a project and for their career development.
  2. Identify appropriate accreditation and qualification paths. 
  3. Manage the learning, and evaluate its effectiveness through through reflection."
 From the skill "Learning and Development" (ETMG), Level 6, SFIA, Version 7, 2017. As used in "Learning to Reflect" (Version 0.1), February 4, 2019.
SFIA is used by the Australian Computer Society for accreditation of Australian university degrees, and by some employers in defining jobs. It is useful to have course objectives aligned with SFIA, to make accreditation quicker, and so graduates can easily show employers they have required skills.

However, as I writing a module for use in an existing course, and that course was not aligned with SFIA, this approach did not work. In a later draft I replaced the SFIA objectives, with ones from the course definition:
"The module is aligned with two of the outcomes for the course:
3. 'learn any specific technical skills required by their topic, and apply them to project work.
4. apply and deepen skills in oral and written communication, and apply these in a project context.'
From Computing Project, Course COMP8715, ANU, 2019. URL https://programsandcourses.anu.edu.au/course/comp8715" as cited in "Introduction", of Learning to Reflect, Version 1, February 13, 2019.

Aligning Assessment with Leaning

My usual approach is to continue the top down development, by providing one major assessment task for each learning objective. However, in this case the final assessment task was already set by the existing course the module. So I have to set other assessment around this.
The main issue the module was intended to address was the difficulty Masters of Computing students had with the large assessment task at the end of semester. The obvious solution was to break this assignment into pieces delivered in sequence. However, the same assessment task is undertaken by students in multiple courses, all of whom are in the same tutorial group with the same tutor. Having different versions of the assignment for different students would be confusing for tutors and students.

Chunky Blended Learning

Designing learning takes time. I started designing the learning module in late 2018. At that time I was not sure if the new classrooms would be completed for first semester 2019. Even the week before semester started in February 2019, there was construction equipment around the building. However, this was quickly cleared away and the building opened on time, with the classroom equipped.

However, in late 2018 I could not be certain everything would be ready. So I used a conservative approach to blended course design, using what  Fleck (2012) refers to as "chunky" blended learning:
'The term "blended learning" usually refers to a mix of conventional face-to-face elements combined with on-line elements. However, this is at too general a level for in depth analysis, while the term "blend" perhaps suggests too homogeneous a mix: in practice the mix is more "lumpy", more a chunky fruit salad than a blended smoothie. At one extreme it is becoming routine for campus-based virtual learning environments (VLEs) to be used to provide additional notes and materials supporting conventional lectures.'
From Fleck (2012).
 The design is essentially a distance education course, with face-to-face workshops added. The learning management system (LMS), in this case Moodle (part of ANU's Wattle system) is used for providing students with course notes, videos, podcasts and other materials. The LMS is also used for routine announcements to the class, and individual communication with students. Small assessment tasks (quizzes and forum posts) are provided via Moodle's quiz and forum modules. Assignments are similarly done using the workshop module of Moodle.
As it was not clear what classroom would be available, the workshop design was kept general, and drawing on the preceding online activities.
  1. Announcements: General announcements while students set up the room.
  2. General Questions: Students can ask for clarification on administrative, content and assessment questions. Groups first discuss the question and if they are not  sure of the answer it can be put to the whole room.
  3. Forum Questions: Discuss your answers to this week's forum questions.
  4. Assignment Master Class: Bring along your draft assignment, ask for feedback from your group. Be prepared to put it up on the big screen for group feedback.
  5. Wrap-up: Any concluding remarks by students and instructors.
The same  format is used for all workshops, so that staff and students can become familiar with it. This avoids limited class time being taken up with explanations of complex exercise formats.

Chunky Online Learning

As well as the blended and online learning being chunky, the online component is in large chunks. The student is provided with a package of material for two weeks. This has notes, suggested readings, a quiz, discussion questions, workshop, and assignments. While the student is expected to undertake the work in this order, exactly what they do when in the two weeks is left largely to the individual.

This contrasts with tightly scripted online learning modules which give the student a few paragraphs to read and perhaps a video, then an automatically marked question they have to answer before proceeding to the next item. Such packages require considerable design and testing if they are not to hold up and frustrate students. Also these tend to require a high speed reliable network connection to function. In contrast the chunky approach allows students to download material, and use it offline.


Fleck, J. (2012). Blended learning and learning communities: opportunities and challenges. Journal of Management Development, 31(4), 398-411. http://dx.doi.org.virtual.anu.edu.au/10.1108/02621711211219059 
Worthington, T. My Last Lecture, Net Traveller (Blog), August 20, 2008. URL https://blog.tomw.net.au/2008/08/my-last-lecture.html 
Worthington, T., "A Green computing professional education course online: Designing and delivering a course in ICT sustainability using Internet and eBooks," Computer Science & Education (ICCSE), 2012 7th International Conference on , vol., no., pp.263,266, 14-17 July 2012 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/ICCSE.2012.6295070 Preprint available at: http://hdl.handle.net/1885/9013 
Worthington, T. Learning to Teach in the New ANU Teaching Building, Higher Education Whisperer (Blog), February 11, 2019. URL https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2019/02/learning-to-teach-in-new-anu-teaching.html 
Worthington, T. Helping Computing Students Prepare a Reflective Portfolio: Parts 1 to 7, Higher Education Whisperer (Blog), November 28, 2018 to February 13, 2019. URL https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/search/label/Reflective%20Portfolio%20Course

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