Should we stop worrying about contact hours?

Kate Cooper (Professor of History, Royal Holloway, University of London)

One of the problems worrying wise heads as they think ahead to the autumn involves the instructional quantum formerly known as contact hours. Once we are no longer meeting in timetabled classrooms, how will we know when we have done enough? It’s a question that has a philosophical dimension, but it’s also tremendously practical. On the one hand, digital teaching requires thinking ahead to solve as many problems as possible ahead of time. On the other hand, students navigating in an unfamiliar digital environment might reasonably need more support than ever.

In a piece entitled The need for Presence not ‘Contact Hours’, David White, who is Head of Digital Learning for the University of the Arts London, addresses the problem head-on. Part of the problem, White suggests, is that our way of thinking about what we owe our students has been rooted in a not-particularly-well-thought-through emotion: the attachment we all feel to ‘the University as a set of buildings.’ Partly out of habit and partly because emotional attachment makes us irrational, he says, ‘The narrow definition of Contact Hours in the UK basically boils down to “time spent in the same room together”.’ This means we have failed to think as carefully as we might about what our students need from their interactions with teachers, and the resulting muddled thinking can have spectacularly bad results.

So in the move to online teaching our initial instinct is to preserve Contact Hours by mirroring what would have been face-to-face sessions with webinar style sessions. What this looks like [in some contexts] is exhausting 3-4 hour online sessions which must be almost impossible to stay engaged with. Not only is this unsustainable, it is also damaging to the learning process.

Another useful approach comes from Colorado, where Sean Michael Morris is Senior Instructor in Learning, Design, and Technology at the University of Colorado Denver and Director of the online learning community known as Digital Pedagogy Lab. In a recent post Morris suggests that the answer to the problem rests on an idea we can all agree on: the best pedagogy is rooted in human relationships. “My expertise is digital pedagogy—specifically critical digital pedagogy—which resides more in the relationships between teachers and students than it does the delivery of instruction.” In facing up to the digital challenge, he says, colleagues can become so worried about managing the technology that they need to be reminded of the human element.

So as I’m approached with questions about what technologies might help build community online, what platform I might recommend for ensuring students don’t cheat, or what digital solution I know of that will enable meaningful discussion, I’ve found myself answering: teach through the screen, not to the screen. Find out where your students are, and make your classroom there, in a multiplicity of places.

How we make this happen, of course, is the question. What does it mean to be ‘present’ in a space that doesn’t actually exist?

Another important aspect of the problem involves not only space, but time. To what extent is a ‘scheduled hour’ a meaningful measure? Far less than we are used to, perhaps: to students (and staff) who are living in a state of perpetual disruption, freedom from set schedules can offer a much-valued silver lining, and is sometimes an absolute necessity.

My colleague Martin King at Royal Holloway makes an important distinction here. Even though being ‘present’ to our students is something that we are used to doing in real-time, sometimes the acts of ‘presence’ we can offer asynchronously are just as valuable. To illustrate the point, Martin kindly gave me permission to share a graphic analysis he made of the possibilities for ‘presence’ that can be offered to students through the Moodle/Replay learning tools we use in our own institution.

Martin places strong emphasis on something that is sometimes forgotten in discussions of ‘contact’, which is interactivity. Sometimes, when we are sailing along in our habitual way of teaching and learning together, we forget that what makes contact ‘contact’ is the fact of being able to interact. Often, interaction is the element that lights up the learning experience for students.

table showing online activities and their affordances
Source: Martin King, Considerations for online teaching Pt.1: Presence
(https://elearningroyalholloway.blog/2020/05/07/considerations-for-online-teaching-pt-1-presence/) (edited) 

Once we’ve turned our focus to interactivity, we can see that though we’re used to thinking of synchronous activity as conveying a strong sense of presence, when interactivity is present asynchronous activity can do so as well. And colleagues are already reporting that new forms of engagement such as discussion lists can elicit higher involvement from students who would hesitate to contribute in face-to-face discussion.

Another point to remember is that sometimes the ‘presence’ our students find most valuable and rewarding is that of their peers. Taking Martin’s analysis as a starting point, I made my own visual analysis, this time looking at how the social and interactive aspect of learning can work both synchronously and asynchronously, sometimes through engagement between students and staff, and at other times through engagement among students themselves. (The ‘asynchronous-social’ column in the centre offers particularly useful food for thought.)

table showing asynchronous and synchronous tools and their affordances

How can we translate these insights into strategies for supporting students? David White suggests that if we move our thinking away from counting contact hours to planning for meaningful acts of presence, we may discover that the new landscape offers surprising possibilities.

Here is the list White offers at the close of his post:

  1. A fairly quick, reliable, turnaround to emailed questions
  2. Being active ‘live’ in forums or text chats (an ‘office hours’ approach to asynchronous presence)
  3. Lively synchronous sessions – such as, webinars with plenty of Q&A
  4. Artfully ‘flipped’ use of pre-recorded teaching videos
  5. Audio, video or text summative feedback (if it’s been created just for you then it’s always a moment of presence)
  6. …and of course face-to-face sessions in various forms.

It’s not hard to imagine a student being happy with this approach to presence. It’s perhaps an idealized list – notice all those adjectives and adverbs. (‘Reliable’, ‘lively’, ‘artfully’.) So, the proof will be in the design (how do they all fit together? do they add up to more than the sum of the parts?) and in the delivery. But that is true for every type of teaching, so at least here we are on familiar territory.

Research conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Higher Education Academy (HEA) via the 2015 Student Academic Experience Survey discovered a greater correlation of student success to increased independent study than to increased contact hours, and increased independent study also correlated to a higher student sense of engagement.  Commenting on the survey, Professor Stephanie Marshall, then serving as CEO of the HEA, had this to say:

“It’s important to note the relatively high numbers who do not feel supported in independent study … we know that the skills developed through independent study are important to employers and to lifelong learning. Providing guidance and structure outside timetabled sessions is key here.”

So there is potentially much to be gained from shifting our focus from measuring staff input to considering how best to offer our students what they need.

For department chairs and administrators, there remains a thorny administrative problem: it’s far more difficult to assess whether a multi-strand ‘presence’ strategy has been executed successfully than it is to count timetabled contact hours.  But from the student perspective, if the present disruption forces us to focus on the fundamentals, this can only be a good thing.


Kate tweets as @kateantiquity: https://twitter.com/kateantiquity

Here’s Kate’s webpage at RHUL

History UK’s Pandemic Pedagogy initiative – starts today!

Over the past few weeks members of the HUK Steering Committee, coordinated by Prof. Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway) have been putting together a project to support historians as we move out of the ‘emergency’ phase of online teaching and start planning for the next semester/ term. Following our Steering Committee meeting in early June, we ran a survey of members’ views. This has helped us form a working group to generate some useful resources and to run (online) events. We are keen to reflect on the ‘emergency’ phase of teaching and learning and to share best practice through collaborative problem-solving.

To that end, we’ve divided our ‘Pandemic Pedagogy’ activities into two broad strands:

  • Lucinda Matthews-Jones (LJMU), Yolana Pringle (Roehampton) and Manuela Williams (Sitrling) are developing the strand on inclusivity and community-building.
  • Kristen Brill (Keele), Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway) and Jamie Wood (Lincoln)are working on our second strand on pedagogy and online tools.

The inclusivity strand will kick off with the first of a series of Twitter chats today (Weds 3rd June) at 11am. Here’s the poster:

Poster for June History UK twitter chat number 1

We hope that you’ll be able to join us.

Alongside this, the pedagogy and technology group aims to produce some pages for the History UK website over the next few weeks, each of which will involve a short summary of the results of our information-gathering on three topics:

  • An overview of tools for online teaching – an annotated list introducing various digital tools people may have heard of but not used.
  • An introduction to various ways of staging digital small-group interactions that move replication of face-to-face teaching (e.g. lectures or seminars).
  • A page focussing specifically on tools and strategies for collaborative close ‘reading’ (including images and other media) and annotation of ‘texts’.

Our key aim here is to produce short, user-friendly and practical resources (i.e. case studies rather than research papers or theoretical works).

To draw on the knowledge that’s already out there to inform this initiative, we are conducting a survey of historians in HE. Please follow this link to complete it:

We will be sharing the results of our work as soon as possible via the HUK website and/or Twitter account.

Finally, if any historians are interested in joining our group to help out with this initiative, then please do get in touch with any of us directly.

 

Kristen Brill (Keele)

Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway – @kateantiquity)

Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores – @luciejones)

Yolana Pringle (Roehampton – @y_pringle)

Manuela Williams (Strathclyde – @ManuelaAWill)

Jamie Wood (Lincoln – @woodjamie99)

 

 

Conference funding for panel on inequality, underrepresentation, and discrimination in the field of U.S. History with secondary school teachers (with BrANCH)

The Association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH) is the leading organisation for scholars of nineteenth-century U.S. history in the UK. In recent years, the association has sought to involve itself in initiatives to address issues surrounding inequality, underrepresentation, and discrimination in the field of U.S. History and is particularly keen to encourage greater racial, gender, and socioeconomic diversity among students studying U.S. History at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

History UK is providing £500 to help strengthen BrANCH’s relationships with institutions and individuals working in secondary education. Four teachers from local secondary schools will be invited to participate in a panel on 12th October at the 2019 Annual BrANCH Conference at the University of Edinburgh.

This panel, which will consist of both secondary school and university teachers of U.S. history, has three main aims.

  1. To share teaching practices, specifically regarding new digital archives and online resources that can be utilised in the classroom. Participants will focus on resources that allow access to non-traditional sources that can be used to develop new curriculum which moves beyond uncritically white- and male-centred histories of the United States.
  2. To discuss issues of diversity and equality among staff and students in the field of U.S. History in the UK. Panellists will share views from their vantage points in different areas of the education system and reflect on why certain racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups are underrepresented in the field of U.S. History beyond GCSE/A-Level.
  3. To explore future steps BrANCH and its individual members can take to address these issues, focussing on long-term collaborative initiatives between secondary school and higher education teachers.

The principal aim is to raise awareness regarding issues of discrimination, underrepresentation, and inequality in our field. This will further facilitate the building of networks between these teachers and BrANCH members, most of whom teach in higher education.

Alys Beverton (Cardiff University and Marketing and Fundraising Officer for BrANCH) said:

“BrANCH has been wanting to strength ties between its members and colleagues working in secondary schools for a while now. With this support from History UK we’re going to be able to actually get some of us together in the same room to have face-to-face conversations about issues relating to equality and diversity in our field, as well as share ideas about new learning materials we can all use to bring the latest resources into our classrooms. We’re really hopeful that this will be the starting point for what will grow into longer-term relationships between BrANCH and secondary school teachers in Edinburgh and perhaps beyond.”

Lucinda Matthews-Jones (co-convenor of History UK) said:

“We’re really pleased, at History UK, to be able to support BrANCH in furthering subject conversations with local school teachers by providing financial support to bring 4 teachers to their conference both as delegates and speakers. As a sector we have a lot to learn from our secondary school counterparts on how history is taught to our students before they come to university. We welcome the opportunity to assist with this collaboration.”

Follow BrANCH on Twitter @Branch19th

For more on projects (and events) funded by History UK, on opportunities to apply for funding, go to our funding page.

Forthcoming HUK events in 2019: Developing collaboration between archives services and Higher Education

The National Archives and History UK

Come Together: Developing collaboration between archives services and Higher Education

Where: Venues and dates across England and Wales (for details see below)

Cost: Free (funded)

Audience: Archive staff, academics, and higher education staff considering, or working on, cross-sector collaborations and/or partnerships.  The workshops are open to academics from all disciplines.

Book your place via Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/come-together-collaboration-between-archive-services-and-higher-education-tickets-53860849250

In 2015 the National Archives published a ‘Guide to Collaboration between the archive and higher education sectors’.  Since its publication there have been a number of developments across both sectors, so following consultations and desk-based research in 2018 the guidance has been refreshed.  The revised guidance is aimed at those considering collaboration and those who wish to develop their collaborative practice further.  It covers:

  • Types of collaboration
  • Forming a collaboration
  • Developing collaborative working
  • Recording activities and capturing impact
  • Successful collaboration advice

In June 2018 a pilot workshop to introduce the guidance and support networking between archive staff and academics took place.  Following on from the pilot’s success TNA, History UK, and MALD have collaborated on taking the workshop around England and Wales.  It will be delivered in seven venues across the two nations. (details below)

This one-day workshop will introduce the revised guidance highlighting key areas of change. It will also explore practical ways to identify, develop, and sustain cross-sector collaborations.  It will include:

  • Understanding the archive and higher education sectors – drivers, initiatives, support, and language
  • Identifying organisational and project priorities
  • The collaborative lifecycle
  • Understanding outputs and outcomes – mutually beneficial and sector/organisational specific
  • Measuring impact in cross-sector collaborations
  • An outline of recent updates to REF, TEF and Research Councils
  • Priority setting for partnerships
  • Networking opportunities between the sectors

Pilot participants comments:

“It was great fun, and an excellent opportunity to network with people from both the HE sector and from the Archive sector.”

“Excellent interactive activities which really opened up opportunities for making contacts and discussion.”

“It was a total buzz – I loved the actives – and the new contacts and the insights were great.”

Registration 1030 | Start 1100 | Finish 1630

Lunch and refreshments will be provided.

 

Dates and venues:

Date (all 2019) Venue
Friday 31st January Institute of Historical Research, London
Wed 20th/Thurs 21st February Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool
End of March Glamorgan Archives, Cardiff, Wales
Thursday 4th April University of Bristol, Bristol
Thursday 13th June University of Leeds, Leeds
Tuesday 25th June University of Lincoln, Lincoln
Thursday 27th June University of Birmingham, Birmingham

 

Book your place via Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/come-together-collaboration-between-archive-services-and-higher-education-tickets-53860849250

Guide to Collaboration between Archive and HE Sectors – 12th June

Guide to Collaboration between the Archive and Higher Education Sectors – Refreshed Guidance Workshop – SAVE THE DATE : Tuesday 12th June 2018
Dear Colleagues,
 
The National Archives and History UK have commission Paddy McNulty and Mairead O’Rourke to refresh the 2015 Guide to Collaboration between Archive and Higher Education Sectors.  During Spring this year, we carried out desk research and a consultation with the archive and higher education sectors to inform the refreshed guidance.
 
We are now in the process of editing and refreshing the guide so that it is up to date with developments in both sectors.  The refreshed guidance will be ready in early June 2018, and to support it we are running a free one-day workshop on Tuesday 12th June at the National Archives, Kew.  This workshop will introduce the refreshed guidance, work through the case studies, highlight best practice, and provide participants with advice, guidance, and top tips for developing archive/higher education collaborations.  It will be of particular interest to those who wish to develop new or existing collaborations with higher education institutions.
 
We will post more details of the event soon, but in the meantime, we ask those who are interested in attending to save the date in their diaries.
 
We look forward to seeing you on the twelfth of June. 
 
Kind Regards
 
Paddy and Mairead

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