By Bea Alex, Pawel Orzechowski, Martin Hawksey and Clare Llewellyn
This week we ran our two-day intensive course on Text Mining for Social Research as part of the Future Government MSc programme offered by the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI). This is a fusion course meaning it’s taken by students and professionals at the University of Edinburgh, some located in the teaching room on campus and others from their homes and offices around the world. Our course is the first fusion course being piloted this semester and here we report on what we learned during the two intensive days working with the students joining us physically and virtually in the fusion classroom.
- Why fusion?
Why would anyone run a fusion course? Shouldn’t we just run two courses: Online and onsite? Surely there are different people attending these courses who actually want to learn differently? Would we actually be doing a disservice to both parties? We found that it gave us and the students access to more amazing people. There was a diversity of participants who benefited from the experience of others. The course was designed around pair programming so the group quickly got to know each other and which helped to reduce any physical or perceptual barriers. Students worked together, they shared their screen and connected to the large screens in the onsite classroom, and they talked — probably more than they would have in a traditional classroom. The student feedback, collected regularly over the two days, shows that most students enjoyed the fusion nature of the course.
2. The biggest problem will be video … it wasn’t
We thought no one would turn on their video and if they did the video would be pixelated and glitchy. We worried about how the online students would see us in the room and about whether we would end up focusing on the online students at the expense of those onsite. But actually this wasn’t an issue. We had three cameras set up, one on the presenter desk, one showing the front of the room and one showing the entire classroom from the back. Students, maybe because of the pandemic, have adapted to this kind of online interaction. Bandwidth seemed to be a non-issue. Some students had their cameras on and some didn’t. The REAL problem was the audio. We established early that the onsite students had to have speakers and microphone off when they moved from group discussion in break-out rooms back into the main room otherwise – the feedback was awful (squeeeeeek). The students did a really great job at this. The lecturers sometimes struggled. Despite this issue, ironically the audio for online students was sometimes better than for the onsite students, the combination of lapel and intelligent ceiling mics removing background noise in the room for those listening online.
3. Pair programming is something that benefits the less able students and the more experienced won’t like it … again not true
We found that the students launched straight into working together in a manner we didn’t expect even across the online-onsite modality. In some ways this was easier than in the onsite-only modality. Why find an HDMI cable when you can just share a screen? We watched students talk to each other through code and spot each other’s errors. The more experienced students said they benefited from explaining how something works — you only know something when you can explain it to somebody else. When we use pair programming in our teaching there are always a small number of people who would prefer to work on their own but overall we got very positive feedback on it. One student commented that “pair programming is super useful, (especially for someone like me, with no coding experience)” another liked the “vastly different backgrounds of participants”.
4. Masks were not a problem
We decided really early on that if the students had to wear masks, so did the teachers. We did worry that this would enforce a barrier and muffle audio. This just seemed to be a non-issue. Within seconds we forgot we had masks on and the audio was crystal clear. We realise that some students may benefit from lip reading when following a lecture so all our taught material is also recorded and made available with subtitles.
5. Everyone has and will bring hardware (earphones, hdmi-to-laptop connectors) … nope
They didn’t even when we had this obviously indicated in the pre-course notes. Luckily we had anticipated this and had lots of spares. By day two of the intensive all on-campus students brought their own headsets. HDMI adapters were however still an issue and we assume those who did not bring them just didn’t have them.
6. Fusion is much less challenging than you might expect
Being asked to teach students coding, data manipulation and text mining in two days might seem ambitious. Teaching students in a fusion fashion, online and onsite, across time zones stretching from the USA to Cambodia, those who are students or professionals, who may be coding literate and coding novices might seem insane. But careful preparation, experience and extremely good tech can make it not only possible but really good fun. We found that this kind of course lends itself well to a fusion style of teaching but the multitude of tasks and student support involved would make it challenging to be run by a single lecturer on their own. This is also true if teaching it solely to students on campus.
7. You need to be very explicit about the course content and timetable
Providing a consistent “badge” structure and message for teaching, the same structure for every new piece of content, reiterating the timetable throughout the day, telling students every single time how they could interact with the technology and with us took away the cognitive load from the students and the necessity for one-to-one guidance, thereby allowing us to focus on the teaching and learning.
8. You can only learn one new thing at a time
This strangely didn’t seem to be a big problem for the students, but it was for the lecturers. The students learned how to use the tech, how to work with data, how to code, and the fundamentals of text mining with ease. The lecturers had to deal with the new environment and the physicality of teaching onsite and online, coping with the multiple modalities all at once was hard. If we hadn’t known our content inside out this may have been difficult. It took us the morning session of day one to get settled into the level of multitasking needed for fusion teaching. After that our running of the course felt a lot more settled to us.
9. Students loved the flexibility more than we expected
We had students who were due to be online requested ahead of time to be there in person. Their motivation to be involved became infectious and improved the class. Students who had unforeseen circumstances, illness, meetings, caring responsibilities, work responsibilities, other class clashes, were still able to work around and be active members of the class. One student, for example, swapped between the onsite and online modality at the last minute due to her other commitments. This flexibility and the structure of the course in badges, meant that it felt inclusive and adaptable.
10. Students are way more forgiving than you may imagine
The secret of the way that we teach is that there are no secrets. If there was a slight teething issue we owned it, and talked through what we were doing to fix it. If there was an error on the slides or in the code we used it as a teaching opportunity. Solutions and questions were posed in the chat and one of the lecturers constantly monitored that. This helped all students to feel included and part of the environment.
In summary, we have had a positive experience teaching the intensive fusion course and are looking forward to making adjustments based on what we learned when we teach the course again next year when EFI will officially launch its new post graduate programme.
Beatrice Alex, Senior Lecturer and Chancellor’s Fellow, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, EFI
Pawel Orzechowski, Lecturer in Programming for Business, Business School
Martin Hawksey, Learning Design and Technology Lead, EFI
Clare Llewelly, Career Development Fellow at School of Social and Political Science