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 Pandemic Pedagogy fellowship

At the beginning of June, History UK launched a ‘Pandemic Pedagogy’ initiative to help support
historians move out of the ‘emergency’ phase of online teaching and start planning for a remote
and socially-distanced campus in the Autumn. The aim is to produce short, user-friendly, and
practical guides than can inform planning, including:

  • 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
  • A page on tools and strategies for collaborative close ‘reading’ and annotation of ‘texts’

History UK is seeking a postgraduate student for a fixed-term fellowship to support the initiative.
The History UK fellow will conduct desk-based searches of websites, blog posts, and social media
for relevant case studies, reports, and other practical guides. They will write clear and concise
summaries of their findings to help inform the resources that History UK will produce and curate,
and attend virtual team meetings. They will be encouraged to write a blog post for the History UK
website on a topic of their choosing (relevant to the initiative), and may also be required to assist
in the organisation of an online ‘Pandemic Pedagogy’ roundtable.

The fellow will be expected to work flexibly for 50 hours in total over four weeks, starting on
Wednesday 17 June, or soon after. All work needs to be completed by Wednesday 15 July. The
renumeration for the fellowship is fixed at £750.

Person specification:

  • A postgraduate student (MA or PhD) in History, or a related subject, based at a higher
    education institution in the UK
  • Strong research skills
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills
  • Ability to work independently and with minimal supervision
  • Excellent organisation, project management skills, and attention to detail
  • Expertise and interest in pedagogy (preferable)
  • Experience of writing for the web (preferable)

To apply:

Send a CV of up to two pages and a one-page cover letter to pandemicpedagogy2020@gmail.com.
In the cover letter you should explain why you are interested in the role, how you meet the person
specification, and what you will bring to the initiative.

The deadline for applications is Thursday 11 June at 2pm.

Applications will be reviewed by the team working on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative:
www.history-uk.ac.uk/2020/06/03/history-uks-pandemic-pedagogy-initiative-starts-today and the
successful candidate notified by the end of Monday 15 June.

Launch of New Funding Scheme for Black and Minority Ethnic History, supported by HUK, EHS and SHS

History UK, the Social History Society and the Economic History Society and are launching a new funding scheme to support Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) history. The scheme has been created in recognition of the under-representation, structural inequalities and racism afflicting UK Higher Education Institutions. We are committing £2,000 a year for three years in the first instance.

The BME Events and Activities Small Grants Scheme will provide grants of up to £750 to support activities and events run by BME historians or on subjects relating to BME history. It is open to applicants looking to run conferences, workshops and symposia, as well as other activities such as exhibitions, walking tours, performances of podcasts. The initial call for applications for funding opens today and will close on 1 September 2019. Further details are available here: http://socialhistory.org.uk/bme-events-and-activities/

Lucinda Matthews-Jones and Jamie Wood, co-convenors of History UK, said:

This funding scheme represents another strand to History UK’s support for diversification of the historical profession in higher education, including events around inclusivity in the classroom, new-to-teaching workshops, and our annual academic job boot camp. We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with other subject organisations to address the issues raised in the RHS report last year and hope that this can lead to further initiatives.

A panel of experts, comprised of Professor Catherine Hall (University College London), Dr Meleisa Ono-George (University of Warwick) and Dr Jonathan Saha (University of Leeds), will assess all applications to the scheme.

This support is open to professional historians (working in universities or elsewhere), independent scholars, retired staff and students alike. The only stipulation is that applicants should be (or be willing to become) members of either the SHS or EHS. In the case of applicants who are permanently employed in Higher Education Institutions, their department should also be (or willing to become) a subscribing member of History UK.

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

BOOKINGS NOW OPEN: Launch event for the refreshed Guide to collaboration between the archive and higher education sectors – 12th June 2018 at The National Archives, Kew

Over the past few months, HUK have been working with The National Archives to update the Guide to Collaboration between the Archive and Higher Education sectors that was first published in partnership with RLUK in 2015 and will know that a project is underway to refresh the guidance to reflect key developments in the academic landscape, notably, REF, TEF and Doctoral Training Partnerships.  The refresh has been undertaken in partnership with TNA and has been led by Paddy McNulty Associates.
 
We are delighted to invite you attend the launch event for the refreshed version which will take place on 12th June 2018 from 11am-4pm at The National Archives, Kew. There is no charge to attend and lunch and refreshments will be provided. Details of where to find us can be found here:  http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/about/visit-us/how-to-find-us/
 
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
 
In addition to the above it will be a great opportunity for people from both sectors to meet and network.
 
For more details of the programme for the day and to book your place, please follow this link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/come-together-developing-collaboration-archives-and-higher-education-tickets-46109624127 

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