No more death by PowerPoint: A peer feedback process to replace student presentations

This blog post is a little different. I’ve written it to complement a presentation I gave at the 2017 UTS Teaching and Learning Forum where I presented about a subject that I teach in the Master of Education (Learning and Leadership) called Designing Innovative Learning. This post gives some more of the “how to” detail that I didn’t have time to include in my session at the forum. A copy of the slides can be found here.

Who has sat through several hours of presentations either as a student or as an instructor? While there’s a time and place for in-class presentations often they are not necessarily the optimal way to assess student learning or meet the learning goals. When running Designing Innovative Learning for the first time I was faced with this choice. Continue with the planned 10 minute individual student presentations which would use up over half of the final block (all day) class or go back to first principles and think about what type of activity would better suit the learning goals for the subject and the students? I chose the latter and changed the activity from presentations to small peer feedback groups.

Here’s how it works.

  1. As part of their final assessment for the subject, students design a learning initiative for an issue they have identified in their work context. There are two parts to this assessment. The first is the compulsory but ungraded peer feedback activity. The second is a report which students submit a few weeks later once they have their feedback.
  2. In class, all students are assigned to groups of three or four (depending on numbers in the class).  These groups use a template based on the Ladder of Feedback to provide feedback on each other’s learning initiatives which they are designing for their final assessment for the subject. Students are assigned to groups intentionally based on an earlier assessment where they outline the learning issue that they have identified. This ensures that students in the small groups are all working on similar projects which helps in terms of providing useful feedback and not needing to explain context to the others in as much detail.
  3. Each student has 20 – 30 minutes (depending on group numbers) to present an overview of their learning initiative.  It is up to students what they present.  Some students present an overview of their whole design or some just select parts where they want feedback – the choice is theirs based on what would be of greatest value to their learning and professional practice. The only limitation is that students only have 20 minutes. The remaining students in the group who are not presenting make notes during each presentation/discussion using the Ladder of Feedback template.
  4. Following the presentation, there will be 10-20 minutes for other group members to ask questions and give feedback.  The feedback sessions are timed and the instructor monitors when the time is up for each person and the group needs to move on to talking about the next person’s learning initiative.
  5. After all group members have had the chance to present and receive feedback, we spend some time as a class consolidating the feedback students received, discussing any questions that have been raised, and talking about how to incorporate the feedback into their final reports (which are graded).

Students who cannot attend class are still assigned to a group for feedback and they then prepare a short video or audio recording which is uploaded to a discussion board on our learning management system. Their peers then leave feedback in the comments of the discussion thread using the same Ladder of Feedback approach.

The benefits that I’ve observed from making this change include:

  • It made the activity a lower stakes part of assessment but still authentic in terms of how learning initiatives tend to be designed in the “real world” as negotiated collaborations
  • Students love being able to talk to peers in detail about their learning initiatives and work contexts – this provides a great opportunity for social learning and networking opportunities for students
  • Reduction in time from around 4.5 hours to 2 hours, freeing up block time for other activities and discussions to further the learning goals and finish the subject with more of a bang than a presentation whimper
  • Takes pressure off students who are not confident presenters or for whom English is a second (or third) language. Also means less preparation time for students who no longer need to prepare a full presentation if they don’t want to
  • Better quality and more detailed feedback for students to improve learning and assessment performance than they might expect following a more formal presentation
  • The opportunity for students to talk about their initiative and critically reflect on what they were planning. Often students comment that just talking about it out loud helped them process what they wanted to do and they have then changed their whole approach

Key take home messages:

  • Go back to first principles when designing or re-designing an activity or assessment

What are you trying to achieve?

How does the activity or assessment further the learning goals?

  • Simple is often very effective. Learning doesn’t always need to be high tech and you need to select the best tool for the job (see my last post for more about that)
  • Provide guidance and structure for students, don’t leave success to chance. I intentionally assign students to groups based on their projects as well as provide structure in terms of instructions and templates for feedback. This ensures that students can get on with productive discussions without worrying about what they are supposed to be doing.
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Can you build a learning community or must it grow?

Last weekend, I found myself at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney. This area was built in the early 2000s on the site of the old Sydney Showground. It was designed to be a new recreation and entertainment hub for eastern Sydney but last Saturday, when I saw the empty shops and not that many people, I was reminded of an invited presentation I gave at a professional conference many years ago about whether you can artificially create communities of practice or whether they need to grow organically. My presentation argued that, although you can create a learning and networking community, it needs a lot of guidance and facilitation to be kept up and running. In contrast, in my experience, a community which has grown organically through a particular project, learning need,m or professional affiliation tends to be more self-sufficient.

Using the title “community of practice” is somewhat problematic since it has multiple meanings in current work and learning practice. On the one hand there is the original meaning proposed in the theory of peripheral participation by Lave and Wenger (1991). The original learning theory argues that a community of practice is a group of people who share a common interest and learn through regular interaction. Lave and Wenger (1991) go on to say that the way in which people learn is through participation in multiple communities where they are at first “peripheral” in that they are on the margins of the group, learning how it works, learning basic skills and so on. As people learn they become more and more part of the group. The community is just as much about how the community interacts and the norms of the group as it is about the learning aspect. Communities of practice have also been widely adopted in corporate learning and development as a less formal learning approach which is more social and better aligned with how learning really occurs at work (i.e. through participation). Such groups are often (though not always) started by the learning and development or HR team as part of the broader organisational learning strategy (often 70:20:10 but more on that in a later post). This means that the groups are not necessarily “owned” by the participants but by L&D. This is not necessarily a problem unless the participants are not seeing value in it or the original convener leaves the organisation at which point it generally fizzles out.

So back to my original question, can you build communities of practice or do they need to grow organically? My own research offers a potential answer to this. In my PhD research, I found that social networks were a key part of working and learning in contemporary organisations. These networks were both within and outside of organisations and tended to follow professional groups (e.g. HR, finance, IT, engineering). Basically, people form their own communities of practice as they move through their careers, and technology, specifically social media, has enabled this to an even greater extent. I think that an issue emerges when organisations attempt to co-opt networks or manipulate networks to meet organisational ends. This is not necessarily conducive to learning and may very well be completely counter-productive. In an excellent study examining exactly that, Boud, Rooney & Solomon (2009) investigated how a local council in Sydney, Australia had attempted to “formalise” everyday learning practices of council workers. One example from the study is “toolbox talks” between field workers at the council. Workers would often meet informally to chat about their work, swap stories – effectively, to network. This might be a chat when they ran into each other or an arrangement for a few workers to meet for lunch in a local park. The compliance unit (does anyone else hear alarm bells when you read that phrase?) then decided to formalise these chats and call them “toolbox talks” which the workers did not discuss in the same way and noted how the experience went from something that was informal and part of their everyday practices to something formal that “needed to be diarised”. Although management had the best intentions, their intervention did not engender the same benefits as the social and informal learning behaviours that they had wanted to foster. This is an excellent example of something I see often, the desire to formalise practices either to measure them more effectively or try to somehow capture their benefits. In contemporary organisations which are widely accepted to be in a state of flux and change, I would question the efficacy of such interventions into everyday practices when we have little idea of the outcome. As learning practitioners, we need to be very careful about co-opting everyday practices and become more adept at getting out of the way to allow organic networking and social learning to occur. We need to question our motives for intervening and be certain that there is benefit to be found in formalising something which may be working perfectly well already.

References

Boud, D., Rooney, D., & Solomon, N. (2009). Talking up learning at work: Cautionary tales in co-opting everyday learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 28(3), 323-334. doi:10.1080/02601370902799077

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Webinars, the way of the future?

I just had the misfortune to take part in a webinar. I say that with great sadness as I usually like webinars. I love the flexibility they offer and the fact that I can extract the learning I need and not feeling “spoon-fed” on someone else’s agenda. Sadly the webinar I just sat through did not fulfill my expectations (or anyone else’s in the room for that matter). There was a group of us listening and we only lasted 20 minutes into a 1 hour session. Why?

Ironically, this webinar was about giving webinars! The organisation and presenter shall remain nameless but the presenter positioned himself as something of an expert in the area and then bored everyone stiff. Why was it so though? He (pronouns only please) was energetic and tried to be as engaging as possible. He actually sounded like a radio presenter. Very polished, making jokes, talking about the weather where he was, etc, etc, etc. During what little I saw of the presentation I took notes in two colours – one colour for notes from the session (black) and the other colour for notes of what I was learning from the example being set (green). In this case the page looked like a Greenpeace promo.

Given all the effort that clearly went in, what went wrong? I’ve compiled my humble list of a few “don’ts” that I was reflecting on.

  1. Don’t just take your face-to-face materials and persona and graft them online
  2. Don’t use pointless pictures and slides.  Make sure they contribute to your message.
  3. Don’t have all talk and nothing to look at on-screen; it just inspires people to wander off and multi-task.
  4. Don’t try to stop people multi-tasking, it’s not your job!
  5. Reading out comments from people is boring. Have it visible so we can read it as we like (amazingly this webinar locked down comments “for privacy”).
  6. Get to the point! Don’t leave everyone hanging around while you try to build rapport with anecdotes and chatting. That’s not a luxury we can afford online and is it really necessary?

I don’t mean to be completely negative about this but I was honestly astounded by what I saw. The first point above is the most important for me. the presenter frankly seemed to have just taken a face-to-face presentation and tried to shoehorn it into a webinar platform and was encouraging us to do the same. I think that you need to respect each medium for delivery for what it is. Webinar is a flexible learning tool that people are going to use as they see fit…and that’s OK. You no longer need to control the room because there is no room. What I’ve learned from this is that it’s important for virtual presenters to let go and realise that you won’t necessarily have the participant’s attention all the time. People will multi-task. We live in that kind of world now. That doesn’t mean that they won’t still learn something from you it just means that you can’t control what that something is.

See, I have learned from the experience after all – just not what the presenter intended. Maybe that’s the beauty of webinar afterall? I can learn what I want, when I want.