Just so I don’t get all rusty and completely forget how to post in this blog, I thought I’d share a cool new tool I’ve discovered- thinklink.
This is the background: I am currently assembling an online course about disease in nature and am looking for ways of getting students to work with the material in a series of small-ish assignments. Our students get plenty of practice writing essays, but with scientific information, text is not everything. It has always struck me in student dissertations and literature reports that very few include custom-made figures. Of course for anything other than reports of their own research, it is perfectly fine to borrow published figures, as long as they are correctly attributed. By comparison, it is a lot of work to prepare figures from scratch, but it’s the thinking, not the doing (as in graphics design) that takes so much time. You don’t know if you really understood something until you’re made to draw it (try explaining how a toilet cistern works!). This is why I am going to include a small number of “creative” tasks in the course.

fungal life cycleOne specific example in my online course was the reasonably complex topic of pathogen life cycles. Both fungi and oomycetes (aka “water molds”, including such lovelies as potato late blight, sudden oak death and crayfish plague) tend to have alternative sexual and asexual life cycles (see pic). There are all sorts of variations on the themes of plasmogamy (cells from separate hyphae fuse, but the nuclei stay separate), karyogamy (nuclei fuse), meiosis (nuclei split) and spore formation. Not all species include all steps.

I’m going to ask students to research the life cycle of one pathogen of choice and then to annotate the generic picture (above) with info on what each stage/ event/ process looks like for the particular pathogen they have picked. Here’s where thinglink comes in:

Life cycle of Phytophthora infestans (Potato Late Blight)

Life cycle of Phytophthora infestans (Potato Late Blight)

Rather than producing really complex composite graphics, or simply reproducing an existing pic (see example for potato late blight; M. Piepenbring via Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 3.0), I’ll get them to insert information tags and/or hyperlinks into the template via thinglink.


When I tried to do that for wheat stem rust, with admittedly one of the most complex life cycles of all fungi, I realised quickly that I hadn’t completely understood it. This pathogen does not quite fit into the general scheme, and I had to get a bit creative while thinking how to map the different types of rust fungus spores and hyphae onto the scheme. (For nerds: the “problem” is that like many basidiomycetes, rust fungi spend much of their life as dikaryotic mycelium. Karyogamy and meiosis occur a long time after plasmogamy, and crucially, after a host switch from barberry to a cereal, before going back to barberry. I know, right?) Below is my annotated scheme for stem rust. This would be provided for students as an example of how it could be done, but also with a note that pretty much any other pathogen is less complex than this one. Simply hover over the pic for long enough to see pics and text. I think that’s pretty neat.

I have not completely worked out how to make this work for students. If they like, they can get their own accounts and just share a link with me, much like I’m sharing my thinglink here on this blog. If I can bring myself to shell out $35/year for the “edu premium” version, I can set up student groups that don’t require them to sign up, and in addition I would unlock many new features.

Speaking of which, in the free version there is a limited choice of tags (five coloured dots, or letters A-E) and (I think) only text, online figures, web links and links to youtube videos can be included. I’ve not really needed anything fancier yet, so currently for demonstration the free version is fine. There are some bugs though; when I tried to copy and paste text I had written in MS Word, it wouldn’t let me. Bizarrely, only pasting into the for the URL box worked, from where I could drag it into the free-text box. There was also an issue with moving the tags (dots) around. Rather than allowing simple dragging, any click and drag on a tag would resize the tag itself. Using opposite corners to enlarge and then shrink the tag, it’s possible to move tags elsewhere- but what a drag. Perhaps this is sorted in the “edu premium” version, and they are testing users’ patience by making the free version buggy? Might upgrade after all…

On the thinglink website, many of the featured examples are just randomly placed links on fun pics. Once I had a closer look at what’s possible, though, it really struck me that this could work fantastically well for science education; both as a didactic tool and (as described above) to get students to assemble interactive graphics as an assignment. Thinglink provides an embed code that has worked well in our virtual learning environment. Here are two more examples I’ve put together in relatively little time:

Finding the right flip

It’s been over a year since I posted reflections on my first attempt at lecture flipping. On joining the introductory biochemistry course as lecturer two years ago, I inherited slides that were packed full with detail, to the extent that 50 minutes of lecture time would be filled to the brim with telling students about biochemical “stuff”. Thing is, I love lecturing, almost all of that “stuff” is important, and I didn’t feel that any of it should be dumbed down or trimmed. But delivering a set of traditional lectures just didn’t seem a good use of time when the same content could be found in any number of places online. The idea of lecture flipping made intuitive sense- let the students work through the basic concepts in their own time, then use the lecture time slot for more interesting and useful stuff than reciting textbook knowledge. So off I went to prepare videos, homework and pub quizzes, and tried to find ways of making the “showtime” in the big lecture theatre more interactive and fun. I posted last year how that ‘flip 1.0’ worked for everyone.

In my experience, anything new that I try tends to be middling on the first attempt, worse on the second (see boring stats at the end of the post, comparing last year’s survey with this year), and much better after that. An enormous amount of attention goes into the first attempt, and that compensates for the lack of prior experience. Things may not work out perfectly, but more likely out of misjudgement than poor preparation. The second time round, there is a false sense of security concerning the technicalities, but at the same time the experience base is not yet big enough to compensate for technical glitches. This past semester I had another go at lecture flipping, trying to be much more sophisticated. And that’s where I went wrong…

I decided to wrap up a sequence of short videos and exercises into a single Nearpod “homework” that students could work through at their own pace. In essence, I had turned the material into a mini-MOOC, inspired by the structure of EdX courses I liked. Below is one example for one of the more complicated topics (enzyme kinetics and enzyme classification) that I felt would benefit from self-paced study:


Putting videos onto YouTube was a clear improvement- I’m not sure any other platform would be as widely accessible. There’s also the added perk of YouTube analytics, which I still haven’t quite got my head round:


So, it seems that for this example, the single biggest spike in viewer numbers was on the day of the lecture itself (as opposed to a day or two before, to prepare for the lecture) when around 120 students watched the video. There’s another small spike on the day before the exam. About a third of those who clicked on the video stopped it after less than half a minute, but the rest stayed for at least 4-5 minutes. Small peaks in “audience retention” show where students have re-played short segments; typically listening again to important definitions. I can see that practically all of the first spike of viewer numbers came from the Nearpod exercise (“unknown embedded player”), but the handful who watched on the day before the exam found the video via a number of ways- surprisingly very few via the channel “biochemistry rocks”. Finally, it’s fun to see that in addition to the obvious views from the UK and a healthy number form other English speaking countries, I had four viewers each tune in from Iraq and Russia. I’m aware that there’s nothing remarkable about that considering the global reach of YouTube, but it’s amusing nevertheless. With the ability to generate all those data, it’s no wonder that the MOOC folks are still marvelling at their click analytics and are taking their time getting to the important bits– understanding how to make online learning work.

An encouraging result from the analytics was the fact that a great majority of students on the course (over 400 out of 540) watched a set of videos on “simpler” topics in the first week of the semester (the very first lecture was held on January 26th):


So why do I consider this a mixed success? After all, the average exam score went up from 48% to 58%, which is great. Comments from students were quite mixed. Some of the positive ones were very encouraging:

I found the idea very useful for more complicated lectures because the videos are made by the lecturer so you essentially get the same thing you would in a lecture but condensed, which [gives you] the chance to see for yourself what you don’t understand right away. Then the actual contact time is spent on specific bits of the material that actually cause problems and need explaining, rather than wasting time on simpler concepts that most of the students might already know. Those that don’t get a video can rewatch [it] as many times as they like [and have] questions to learn on their own time. I think it’s quite an efficient way of learning and very original, good job 🙂

There was some very justified criticism too:

In my opinion, the key to this method’s success is the lecturer’s confidence in it. At times during the lectures that followed the flip sessions, I sensed that the lecturer was getting frustrated and confused with the equipment and the students which led to more disorder. If the lecturers keep calm and show full confidence in what they are doing, this would hopefully reflect on the student’s behavior.

Bam! Direct hit. In the first session with a live interactive Nearpod “pub quiz”, the WiFi on my iPad cut out and I wasn’t able to show the student view. When I switched to projecting the teacher’s view (the desktop from which I was controlling the quiz), I overlooked that it indicated the correct answer, so the whole thing turned into a joke. Although our e-learning guru was at hand and kindly offered to plug in his mobile for the student view, a couple of fairly chaotic minutes had passed by the time we were back up and running. There are easy ways to avoid this, for example with separate browser windows showing teacher and student views. This is what I meant with “false sense of security concerning the technicalities”- I felt I was confident with using Nearpod because I had been successful previously, but got a bit rusty with the details.

Looking back at my reflection on last year’s flipping, the issue of managing expectations remains. Like last year, some students argued that being talked through the content for 50 minutes is their preferred way of learning (“Didn’t like the way that we had to teach ourselves everything”). One clearly justified comment is that the material for the flipped format lectures looked different (“Flipped sessions makes it more difficult to provide a structure to my notes for revision and has been detrimental to my learning rather than helpful”). If students are used to learning “everything that’s on the slides”, having more material, even if it’s examples and exercises, must be frustrating and look like lots of additional work (“so complicated compared to the other modules where there are booklets with the lecture slides which are the most useful thing”). It seems that I need to provide much more explicit guidance on learning objectives, and perhaps even guidance on how to get there.

Last year I felt that replacing some of the multiple choice questions with “draw it” exercises would give me better insight into students’ understanding and possibly misconceptions. To a degree this is true; the variations were extremely interesting to see. The left half of the pic below shows one “Draw it” question in a homework exercise; the right half my feedback on “typical errors”. This was generic feedback to the course, not the individual student.


Preparing a detailed feedback document for these homework exercises, using actually submitted drawings, identifying the various types of mistakes and annotating each of them with helpful comments, was extremely time-consuming. I talked through some of these misunderstandings and answered many of the submitted free-text questions in the first half of some of the flipped lectures; the complete, detailed annotated feedback document was available on our VLE. And here I learned what I really should have known all along:

Timely, personalised feedback matters

Now, this is of course not a new insight; the importance of feedback is highlighted in every “Best practice in higher education” list. But there were ramifications for lecture flipping I hadn’t

anticipated: For me to talk through the “FAQs” that arrived via Nearpod, and giving general feedback on quiz responses does not seem to be as useful as I thought:

[What would improve the structure, organisation etc:]  Less time spent in the lectures answering questions from other people – very few seem useful

The issue of timeliness came up with the self-paced Nearpod homework exercises. Because Nearpod allows students to freely move around a presentation in homework mode, it is pointless to show the answers to quizzes after the questions- students could easily cheat by skipping ahead and then back. (I know I would be tempted to do that…) Without a way to make feedback conditional on actually submitting a response, there was no feedback until the lecture. Several students felt that this made the whole homework less worthwhile.

[I did not attempt the exercises that followed the video…]  Because there was not any direct feed-back so I felt it was a loss of time writing an answer that would not have been checked.

Flexibility matters

Without giving it much thought, I had parcelled up the work that I hoped students would do before the lecture into quite large chunks. At least for the more complex Nearpod homework on enzyme kinetics, it is safe to assume that a string of two or three 5-10 min videos and then a couple of not-so-trivial exercises would take well over an hour to complete for a novice. I’m not sure how flexible Nearpod is in terms of coping with logging off and on. The YouTube channel is of course easy to access directly for re-viewing, but the quizzes are straight-jacketed into Nearpod.

 I think that there is slightly too much to do for the flipped lectures i.e. too many questions and it can be frustrating trying to answer them after only having watched a short video on it. 

like I see 20+ slides, knowing this might take over an hour, I know I’ll need a good cuppa coffee to get through this.

[I did not attempt the exercises that followed the video because…] Sometimes seriously not enough time on my hands between writing up lecture notes, the many many online exams, essay prep, volunteering maintaining a job 

 It could be argued that students underestimate the time it takes to work through and genuinely understand the material; an hour or two per lecture might feel like a lot during the semester, but if revision time before the exam is included, that’s probably a conservative estimate. Still, with everyone’s time being more fragmented, having more flexibility in how, when and for how long to access the material and work with it is likely to be popular and beneficial for learning. Both the platform in this case (Nearpod) and the organisation of the material into “mini-MOOCs” reduced flexibility. The latter could be chunked into smaller units, but that would mean that students have to use several different PINs for each lecture, and many already disliked the few we used this year.

Challenge number one for the next year is how to structure content and materials in the clearest possible way while offering the greatest possible flexibility. It should still require active engagement instead of memorisation. And of course everything should be based on exciting, real-world material. Well, that should be easy… As for the videos, I am minded to produce even shorter, single-issue videos. Telling students about the bigger picture, conveying some enthusiasm and explaining why it all matters is something that works well in the lecture format. Explaining several dozen nitty-gritty concepts is not- some combination of short videos and plenty of practice material should work better for that, held together by a clear explanation of learning objectives. There’s some memorisation we can’t do without (eg amino acid structures); a couple of bespoke sets of Quizlet flash cards might do the trick and can be run on any mobile device. For the rest, I’ll have to decide on some form of worksheets and/or self-tests with automatic feedback on our VLE.

Challenge number two remains the question how best to use the lecture slot. Last year I wrote “It is probably going to be a combination of brief summary, case study, worked example and homework discussion.” Doing all of that would be cramming too much into one session, and I know now that the homework discussion is not all that useful. But the part I haven’t spent enough time on is that of case studies and worked examples. As part of his final year project, a student worked with me to produce an interactive revision resource for enzymology based on a case study. Student users in the first year biochem course were very positive about the scenario and found it much more motivating than isolated abstract questions. This is clearly the way to go, but it’s also far more laborious than producing conventional resources. As for worked examples- a colleague in the business school is very successful with video recordings of “pen & paper” statistical calculations. Students are asked to watch these in preparation of small-group exercise-based tutorials. Some of the more mathematical aspects in my course (pH calculations, enzyme kinetics) would clearly benefit from “how to” videos, but not many concepts in the course lend themselves to this kind of treatment.

So many ideas, so many things to consider- not least how much time I can reasonably invest in producing ever more colourful, exciting, engaging resources. It’s an interesting journey. I’ll report back next year! Though in the meantime, I will hopefully have some reflections on my first attempt at designing an online-only course unit for our Year 2 students.

Below: student responses to a survey on their “flipping experience”. N=92 for 2014, n=63 for 2015.


I am a MOOC dropout

Let me confess. Yes, I am among the majority who have signed up for a MOOC and didn’t have the determination/ time/ interest to stay on and complete the course. That’s why the carcinogenic molecule (or is it a splinter of graphene?) that is the icon of Coursera’s “Introduction to Physical Chemistry” is hanging over my notes like an angry rain cloud.

mooc dtced


Massive Open Online Courses are one of the most talked-about recent developments in universities. Are MOOCs the future of higher education? Will they put us all out of our jobs? Nothing but hype? I wanted to see for myself. In the words of a colleague, I signed up to see what it’s like being a MOOC student, and to steal their best ideas.

Being a part-time distance learner on a “proper” credit-bearing, award-winning MSc course means that it would have been difficult for me to devote a lot of time to additional online learning, so it was always going to be more skimming than deep diving. I decided to have a look at one of the first four MOOCs offered by colleagues at the University of Manchester. As an undergraduate I studied Physical Chemistry for four semesters, and I developed a grudging fondness for the subject- it was all equations and calculating stuff I didn’t much care about with those equations, but the bigger picture made sense and everything came together in a satisfying way. Would my colleagues pull off an inspiring online course in what can be an extraordinarily dry subject? If it can be done for Physical Chemistry, anything is possible. (This comment of mine on the “Introduce yourself” discussion board won the approval of the course organiser!) On the lookout for courses closer to my own subject, I found “Introduction to Biology- The Secret of Life” from MIT and “The Chemistry of Life” from Kyoto, both hosted by EdX.

Rather than the actual content, it was the ideas for online pedagogy that interested me. What would take the place of 50 minute lectures? How would assessment and feedback work? Is there contact with staff? And considering that experimental lab work –the experience of actually doing science rather than just hearing about it- is central to our on-site degree programmes, what would happen instead in cyberspace?

In the event, while there was little mindblowing innovation, I did take away many good ideas. All three courses unsurprisingly had video lectures, typically between 5 and 15 minutes long. Some were narrated PowerPoints that must have come straight from the original lecture, some were Khan Academy style. Eric Lander, human genome pioneer and high-profile MIT professor, was filmed delivering “Introduction to Biology” to what must have been a select studio audience –surely more than 50 MIT students normally take this introductory class? Motonari Uesugi of Kyoto University talked straight to camera about “The chemistry of Life” in front of a SMART Board. I can’t say it made a huge difference; all lectures were clearly very well planned and delivered enthusiastically. With Lander’s extraordinary charisma and energy, the “live” experience certainly added to the enjoyment of watching the videos. I hadn’t expected to get inspiration from a MOOC for improving my delivery of traditional lectures!

One feature of the EdX courses that I liked a lot was the navigation through a series of alternating short video lectures and two-question self-test quizzes. “Introduction to Physical Chemistry” had longer self-tests after between five and ten short lectures. Here, the volume and complexity of didactic teaching made the whole course feel surprisingly conventional; a real throwback to my undergraduate days when formula after formula and definition after definition fell from the heavens. The majority of self-tests in all courses were multiple-choice, which makes sense because it offers instant feedback. The two EdX courses also had drag-and-drop questions and quite a number of interesting interactive plug-ins for manipulating molecular structures. However, in the biology course the later bits on genetics are largely MCQ. The most innovative assessments were used in the “Chemistry of Life course”: several peer-reviewed exercises where students were asked to e.g. come up with a research project proposal. These exercises came with very detailed and useful guidance for the peer reviewers. The most charming and original of these tasks was to re-draw a drug structure and “read” it like a star constellation (a “drug constellation”) or a molecular Rorschach test: this structure looks like a child with a balloon; the drug will make the patient cheerful like a child. Only the Japanese could come up with that. “The chemistry of life” emphasises the need for innovation and originality in science, and this task hits the spot in a playful way.

I was too late to participate in those exercises and so unfortunately could not see what students came up with, but peer reviewing seems a valid answer to the dilemma of the enormous student:staff ratios on MOOCs.

It is difficult to assess how many participants there were on the courses; the “Introduce yourself” forums had around 150 posts for Physical Chemistry and around 1100 for Introduction to Biology. Clearly there were many more students on the course who never posted anything, and the number of actual scientific discussions was very limited. In Physical Chemistry, the Professors and PhD students were astonishingly engaged in the forums, both for science and banter (by far the most lively thread was “Scientific Songs”), and this was very much appreciated by the core of most dedicated participants.

Another feature of Physical Chemistry was “lab work”. Not quite as hands on as in this physics MOOC, but still- a demo experiment was filmed and participants had to read changes in temperature or gas volume over time from the screen. These readings needed plotting so that physical constants could be calculated. Another experiment involved a Flash simulation of a spectrometer that allowed a reading of hydrogen emission wavelengths. Good experiments with excellent instructions. I think science can’t be taught without at least some experience of the scientific process of experimentation because equations and constants do not, in fact, fall from the heavens. They are the fruit of hard work.

Judging from the introductory discussion posts, MOOCs largely reach an audience of current (or soon-to-be) university students and older graduates who want to branch out or tap into nostalgia like me. Not quite a revolution in HE there. Nor did I see any truly novel pedagogy (except perhaps the creative “Drug constellations” task with its own Flickr site). But maybe I’d need to take part in a cMOOC for that. Still, I’ve learned a great deal and found these MOOCs a treasure-trove of neat ideas for the online part of my own teaching. I am cautiously excited about MOOCs.

Lecture flipping- conclusions

2014-05-29 09.37.57

As I write this, the students on the biochem course are sitting their exams. A fitting conclusion- we’re all reflecting on what we’ve learned, although I’ve probably got an easier time reflecting on what I’ve learned from my lecture flipping experiment. A few weeks ago I wrapped up the online poll reported in my previous posts. In addition to the “agree/ disagree” polls, I collected a large number of free-text responses. Many were along the lines of “good idea but…”. From a small number of very enthusiastic comments it is clear that the flipped format works really well for highly motivated learners with good self-discipline; these are most likely the students who would do well whichever format we throw at them. Many others said they preferred the traditional lecture, typically without clearly articulating why. It would be easy to dismiss the less positive comments on the basis of “they just don’t want to put in the work”, but it’s more complicated than that. So what have I learned, and what will I do differently next year?

Managing expectations and changing habits

Among several similar comments this one is very telling: “Lecture flipping doesn’t teach in the depth we need.” To me this reflects the traditional expectation of coming to school or university to “be taught”, rather than to learn. I have not visited my colleagues’ lectures much, but I suspect most of our teaching especially in the first year is about “telling”. “I think lecture flipping is a good idea but it seems a bit like trying to do a seminar as would be done in say history, where material would be read and then discussed. I don’t know how well this could work with science subjects because often we are just being told facts rather than made to consider our opinions.” A typical expectation is that the lecture is where learning happens. Come to the lecture as an empty vessel and leave filled up with knowledge. Some concluded that, all things being equal, “I didn’t learn as much in the flipped lecture as I would have in a normal lecture.” As an additional learning resource for exam preparation, the videos were universally welcomed; as a tool for breaking the pattern of “passive learning” in the lecture, not so much.

My interpretation is that the concept at the heart of lecture flipping is so radical that I’ve not done enough to explain and “sell” it to the students: I provide you with all the material you need to learn the fundamental concepts at your own pace, with as much or as little repetition and redundancy as you like. You can listen to me talking through it all, or just read. You do your best to come to the lecture prepared, and perhaps you’ve done the homework exercise. During the “lecture”, we do something that’s way more interesting than memorizing stuff- get your brain in gear and apply the concepts you’ve learned to new, real-world problems. Understand why these concepts are relevant. Discuss with others in the course, learn from them, teach them what you have understood.

Clear structure and guidance

One of the side effects of time-pressed preparation was a certain off-the-cuff quality of the whole experiment. Sometimes I was only able to release videos and homework quizzes at the last minute. Since not all the material for the following week was laid out in front of them, some students were confused and “didn’t know what [they were] supposed to do”. These students come from a school system that is in love with testing and has often been accused of “teaching to the test”, with very tightly defined testable learning outcomes. At the time of my lectures, they had been at Uni for little more than three months, still getting used to taking charge of their learning. My conclusion is that I need to put more effort into organising materials and guiding them through it. Structure is everything.

Classroom management

One of the most frequent comments was “I think this group is too big to do lecture flipping, people talk too much and you can’t hear what you’re saying…” Inviting peer discussions during the pub quiz inevitably led to a more chaotic lecture- that was the whole point. More problematic was the space between those discussion periods. With a very large class it is impossible to switch from chaos to lecturing within seconds, and apparently there was residual chatter for quite a while even after I started talking again, with the consequence that some could not hear me well. The commenters expressed a lot of anger at fellow students for not shutting up (Rude people will be rude. Thought it was great, shame about all the people talking over at all times). With hindsight, part of the problem was the nature of pub quiz questions. It does not always take long to settle on one of the MCQ answers, and many will have had idle time before I continued. That’s presumably when the discussion moved on to “last night in the pub” or to weekend plans, and I can’t blame them for tuning back into biochemistry reluctantly.

What next?

If I was to get rid of the interactive lecture but kept the videos and homework quizzes, lecture flipping would be a sure-fire success –no commitment required from anyone. Some students suggested “half lecture, half quiz”. A colleague at a recent conference talked about his extensive experience with lecture flipping and was asked “So do you re-cap the material as a short lecture?” and responded that he felt strongly this would send the wrong signals; that it’s OK to come to class unprepared. I realise that my flipped lecture (half discussion of the homework quiz, half pub quiz) had little to offer to anyone who has not had a chance to do the work, maybe for legitimate reasons.

The compromise might be in ramping up to “full flipping” more slowly so students can get used to this way of working, and allowing for a little more slack in the system. (quote: I think if we’d used that method for a longer period of time, those kinks would’ve been ironed out, as people realised that they needed to listen for the answers. (Plus some people are just grumpy and don’t like change until they get used to it) While I want to keep the pub quiz element, the first half of the lecture slot needs to run more smoothly and feel more like a traditional lecture so everyone is tuned in. It is probably going to be a combination of brief summary, case study, worked example and homework discussion.

For the pub quiz, I am going to make more use of free-text questions and drawing functions of Nearpod. While that means that the result can no longer automatically evaluated by the Nearpod server, a writing or drawing activity is more engaging and challenging than ticking a box and should therefore keep classroom talking task-focussed for longer. The collective answers will give really valuable insight into the students’ developing understanding.

Finally, the videos need to go onto YouTube to eliminate problems with access and hosting, and to allow downloading if desired. That also means more attention to copyright issues, but so be it. Videos have to be shorter and less condensed so that only one concept is explained in each, and there will be follow-up exercises on our virtual learning environment. Alternating short chunks of video and exercises offer more flexibility and make it easier to stay focused.

It’s been an exciting experiment and a rewarding experience. Many technical and pedagogical issues need addressing, but overall this was an encouraging pilot study. Plenty of work for me this summer to produce more videos, more questions and case studies.

Lecture flipping- part 5 (What the students thought)

After 3 lectures in flipped format, I asked the students to take part in a survey and feedback their experience with the approach. About ¼ of students (n=131) responded, a pretty good rate I guess. I tried to ask questions that suggested both positive and negative experiences and asked for responses on a Likert scale.

Having videos available, at least as a learning and revision resource, was almost universally seen as positive, and almost all students liked the videos. The picture was more mixed for the specific use of the resources in flip teaching- not all who liked the videos found that they could learn well from them, and some were not keen on the peer discussion element.


Given the choice, almost half of all students would prefer the traditional lecture; a small number explicitly said in the free-text response that they learned better that way. I have to admit I was tempted to phrase the question “…rather just let the lecture wash over me while I daydream…”  Many felt a bit bowled over by the concept and the unconventional “lecture” experience.


The majority of students felt reasonably briefed about the new approach, but some had issues with Nearpod.


It was reassuring to see that most students at least tried to watch all videos (1-2) relevant to an upcoming lecture even though I only just managed to upload them 2-3 days in advance. Only a small proportion supplemented their online learning with reading. For my generation, that is pretty amazing- textbooks were the starting and often end points of all learning and revision. I have to admit that because I took it for granted, I did not explicitly urge them to read. We do recommend a textbook and even indicate suitable chapter numbers for each lecture, but text book reading has become a niche approach to learning it seems. Then again, if biochemistry is not your main subject you are unlikely to invest £50 in a textbook.


Lecture flipping- part 4

Seasoned flip teachers generally agree that the online provision of lecture videos is the less important part of classroom flipping. The whole purpose is to free up contact time for more meaningful interactions, problem solving, peer discussions and the like. Small groups allow for genuine student-teacher discussions and collaborative learning with bespoke advice and feedback. In a very large lecture unit, this is more difficult- but not impossible.

In my flip teaching experiment, I’ve used Nearpod again to deliver online quizzes. These take the shape of online slideshows (originally PowerPoints converted to pdf and uploaded to the Nearpod server) into which “functional slides” can be inserted. These could be quizzes, polls, free-text questions and (the most fun) a “draw it” exercise. With pre-set correct answers, the quiz is clearly the easiest to deploy in a very large class because of the automated evaluation (more below).


Trouble is, multiple choice quizzes are pedagogically quite limited tools and tell you little about the current conceptual understanding (or possibly misconceptions) of the students. The “draw it” activity reveals more:


Still, the majority of activities here were MCQ questions. One weakness of Nearpod is that the functioning interactive quizzes have to be in “Nearpod format”, which means slotting a limited number of words into a fixed form. The number of possible answers is not fixed, but images can’t really be included which means that I have to ask students to look at the “question slide”, remember which answer was correct, and then proceed to the fixed-format actual “voting slide” (the black one, bottom right). Works OK, but is tedious.


Students ideally would have watched the video(s) and attempted the voluntary homework before coming to the lecture. I then talked through the results and explained the answers. The “Post session report” was a great help because I could see which questions were easy and which needed more explanation. I also shared that report –several dozen pages long and available as a pdf – on Blackboard to allow students to check their own results by scrolling down to each question. To keep confidentiality, I had asked them to sign into the homework exercise with their student ID number, but apparently that hasn’t been clear enough… Giving feedback on a “Draw it” exercise took more time (the pdf report shows each participant’s drawing and I added a short note for each), but in the end there was only a finite number of wrong ideas.


After that, the fun started. The homework function of Nearpod is actually a more recent development; at the core is the ability to have live, interactive presentations. Tapping into the rich cultural heritage of this country, I dubbed these interactive sessions “pub quizzes” because that’s what they were, minus the beer: Students were invited to get together in teams (as far as the rigid lecture theatre setup allowed), download the Nearpod presentation according to the PIN I gave out and sign in with their team name. The presentations included a bit of fun to live up to the spirit of the pub quiz. Then there were then about five or so MCQ questions that had a real-life connection, required a bit of problem solving and were a little more challenging than what they would see in an exam. Turns out that coming up with these questions was one of the hardest things in the whole lecture flipping experiment! I explained each question and then gave them 2 minutes to discuss it in their team. Full-on chaos ensued- in a good way. I made them vote, and thanks to the excellent wifi capacity of the lecture theatre got virtually instant voting results from all 100-odd teams, which I then discussed briefly.


The live sessions generated a post-session report on my Nearpod accound as well, which again I made available. Half the fun of evaluating this report was in seeing the team names students had chosen. The first page alone included “1Pussypatrol”, “Add me on Grindr”, “ARAWRBOOBYBOOBY” and “asexual”. No lack of diversity there.