Lecture flipping- part 3

film strip


On to the geeky bit- the technology behind the flipped lecture. I haven’t uploaded the videos (yet) to youtube so an icon will have to do…

Even before I decided to volunteer for the biochemistry lectures and before I planned “lecture videos”, I was fascinated by science videos on YouTube- asapscience, Earth Unplugged, Minute Earth and especially Minutephysics, Myles Power, Periodic videos, PHD comics, SmarterEveryDay, thebrainscoop, Veritasium, Vihart and Vsauce. Creating something, merging science with a little bit of art and creativity sounded like fun, and I wondered if I wanted my own science channel. Trouble is, all of the above “content creators” (as YouTube calls them) make videos with pretty high production values –read: recorded under semi-professional conditions with very good cameras and lighting. My first attempts at creating videos the way Henry Reich does for Minutephysics (time-lapse recording of hand-drawn doodles on paper, a beautifully simple version of professional videoscribing as e.g. seen in RSA animate) were not encouraging. Much easier to start from animated Powerpoints and record screencasts. Without a vast amount of research, I settled on Snagit to do the screencasting. It’s very easy to use and cheaper than the full Camtasia studio. Snagit does not include editing, so I decided to subscribe to Adobe Creative cloud as well (affordable with educational discount) so I can use Premiere Pro, although chances are Camtasia studio would have been cheaper in the long run. It’s a shame that Adobe decided to exclude their screen capture tool (part of Captivate) from the Creative Cloud.

Having watched a few traditionally recorded lectures done with screen capture technology, I found them unbearably slow compared with the snazzy YouTube channels above. For a succinct style, I scripted the videos and created the Powerpoints alongside the script. I created those ppts based on the previously existing lectures, but soon found I wanted my own style and needed to include way more animation than would be practical for a classical lecture. After a while I found that I needed to make those animations move slowly (or fade in/out over eg 2 seconds instead of 1) because the 10-15 fps recording rate of Snagit otherwise made things jump awkwardly. For the voiceover I recorded my reading the script with Audacity on a Rode Podcaster microphone, using a fleece jumper around the mic (and myself!) to achieve a reasonably dry sound. This was good fun and surprisingly easy. Some room for improvement though- I’d like the sound even drier, and I’d prefer to speak standing up rather than hunched over the desk mic. Should be easy to fix. Having recorded the screencast (just clicking my way through the ppt), I spliced video and voice together in Premiere Pro to make text or images appear just at the right time. It took a while to get the hang of it and arrive at a routine for cutting, moving, rate stretching etc, but in the end this was a very satisfying thing to do. In some of the other videos I edited in other clips, for example of molecular dynamics animations that I found on the web. I’ve yet to learn how to produce animations of rotating protein structures but that’ll come.

Making these videos was very enjoyable, but also extremely time consuming –about 2-3 full days of work per lecture-, and having started production on the first one I realised I would only be able to convert 3 lectures to videos this year. Probably just as well because this was a trial run, and it makes sense to learn from the first round before rolling out the flipped approach to all of my lectures in the unit.

Each of these videos shrunk the 50 minute lecture down to 15-25 minutes split into two videos or just one. This was intentional, so students would be able to go through material for revision more quickly, but it also meant that I had to talk quite fast. I would have to wait for student feedback to see if they agreed.

Lecture flipping- part 2

communication cycles

Moving on to the design of my flipped lecture experiment. So here are the principles I wanted to apply in my flip teaching experiment: As a resource for self-paced learning, I would make videos available that would replace the teaching of “stuff” in classical lecture format. Having individually worked through the videos at their own pace, the students would be able to do simple exercises via Nearpod (next post) and submit them online. In the original lecture time slot, I would discuss the solutions to exercises, spending more time on those that seemed more problematic. There would then be a second round of Nearpod quizzes during the lecture, this time (as in Eric Mazur’s classes) allowing peer-to-peer discussions, and again online submission of answers from mobile devices. These pub quizzes would be more challenging and more real-world, thus hopefully more interesting or even inspiring, and perhaps answering the question “why do we have to learn all that stuff?”.

The two rounds of quiz would result in two cycles of learning, articulation of understanding and feedback, which should mean –for those who actually take part- in much better learning.

This pedagogical side is summarised it in the illustration above. The chart analyses the different elements of this flipped lecture according to Diana Laurillard’s Conversational framework (Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies, Routledge 2001, or more recent publication). Showing off what I’ve learned in my DTCE course last semester…

The left hand side shows what Laurillard calls the Teacher communication cycle. Traditionally, the first arrow (here: video) is the lecture, and the two following arrows are the exam (“students articulating their conceptual understanding”, or just ticking boxes in MCQ) and the exam mark as feedback. In fairness, we have a lecture-by-lecture online quiz as well as an end-of-term exam here, but both are summative (marked). Additional cycles of exercises with formative feedback were something my “focus group” had also requested- last summer I quizzed my personal advisees what they thought might improve this lecture unit. The peer communication cycle on the right is new and hasn’t been tried in this large lecture unit before.

Lecture flipping- part 1


So, I’ve very recently learned (from a student!) about the ADDIE model for instructional design, and I think it makes sense to follow that model here. Let’s talk about the analysis phase!

Much of this actually happened more than half a year ago, so this account is probably edited with a bit of hindsight. Last summer I volunteered to take over the first half (10 lectures) of our 1st year introductory biochemistry lecture. As a biochemistry graduate I had a rush of nostalgia thinking about topics like lipid structures that I had not come across in my research for a while. Apart from the desire to go back to my roots, as well as to be seen to be taking on more teaching while I had the opportunity to choose what interested me, I was also keen to try the lecture flipping approach discussed in an earlier post.

The class is compulsory for all but a handful of our year 1 life science students and this semester had about 530 students enrolled (not that one ever sees that many). About 100 of these are biochemists “by name” while the rest vary in the degree of enthusiasm about chemistry and molecular life sciences in general. When I first met the students I asked who disliked chemistry or felt very insecure about it, versus who thought it was a piece of cake. There were many more in the first camp. It is safe to assume that for the majority biochemistry is something they grin and bear somehow rather than expect to enjoy. Some, but not many, brought very good A-level chemistry knowledge. For the purposes of instructional design, it’s safe to consider them novices. There was my challenge!

The unit has been very well run for years and I had an experienced colleague to guide me. Having looked through the material and the six-page list of detailed learning objectives (just for “my” half of the course!), it struck me how much factual “stuff” has to be learned. Of course it was no different in my student days. Somehow the memorization of amino acid structures and metabolic pathways is a character-building rite of passage. The dilemma is that there’s only time to teach the “stuff”, and we keep our fingers crossed that deep understanding of concepts and the ability to apply that conceptual knowledge to new problems come as a byproduct.


Twiddla: online interactive Whiteboard

first twiddla


But before that, a brief interlude. I had long been looking for a sort of collaborative whiteboard that allows students to annotate and comment on a single document such that each comment would be immediately visible to all participants. I’m aware of shared documents in eg Google docs or Dropbox, but I wanted something a little freer where students could circle around stuff, add notes etc. I think I first came across Twiddla in this post on emergingedtech. As the post says, these kinds of tools tend to come and go, and it’s one of the frustrations in this business that any online tool that works well this year might not be around next year.

Anyhow, Twiddla is pretty uncomplicated and allows you to upload documents, pictures or webpages as background to a whiteboard that can then be annotated by everyone who is sent the URL for that particular “meeting”. Everyone can highlight stuff, draw lines and boxes around text or images, and add notes. In this case the learning objective was to understand the conventions of writing a lab report. A colleague had written a very nice “bad example” lab report which I had turned (crudely) from a pdf document via screenshots into images. It is possible to upload a regular pdf as background but I didn’t have the “proper” Acrobat software to trim the pages I didn’t want off the original document.

Having inserted text and images as background, I sent the link to the 8 students with minimal instructions and invited them to annotate “everything that was wrong” with the “bad example”. One issue I had to explain is that the “erase” function needs to be used judiciously- comments, highlights and background are erased together, so all would be lost. However, anything in the “comment layer” can be selected and moved or deleted individually, and Ctrl+z for “undo” works in the whiteboard.

As the figure shows, the students had no trouble finding their way around the whiteboard and annotated heavily but in a very orderly way. They also used individual colours for underlining and freehand highlighting (I think- don’t know who did what), but it’s a pity that text boxes can’t be colour-coded. Instead I suggested using the initials. One student got in very early and added loads of comments, which made it less rewarding for the rest of the group. But I suppose there’s no straightforward way of encouraging a more synchronised collaboration unless it’s really essential for the task.

I think this worked well as a preparation for a face-to-face discussion, but it was a bit tricky in the tutorial session to work from what had turned into a very complex annotated document. Calling on the individual students to explain their comments did not seem a particularly intelligent way to go about it. Maybe I’ll invite the group, or smaller groups of students, to summarize the take home messages instead of trawling through the whole whiteboard myself with everyone watching. I think there is plenty of potential for other kinds of collaborative tasks with this tool.

A flipping experiment



This is not going to land me in Cory Arcangel’s “Sorry I haven’t posted -Inspiring Apologies From Today’s World Wide Web”… but December through February have been madly busy and it’s hard to get back into the habit of writing when that’s not your natural impulse.

January and February saw one of my boldest experiments using digital technology in the service of teaching, and I will blog about my experience in the next couple of posts (honest). With a combination of lecture videos and digital pub quizzes, I had a go at making lecture flipping work for an undergraduate class of 500 students.

My motivation to try this experiment came from a number of places. The idea of the flipped classroom is probably familiar enough. Activities traditionally done in the classroom and at home are flipped, such that students first encounter new concepts in private study with the help of specially prepared materials and often a form of lecture video. This knowledge is then applied in a collaborative way in the classroom, often via “real-world” problem-solving exercises. Having heard of successful applications of this approach in an educational conference, it immediately made sense to me. The format of university lectures has not changed for centuries. My memory of sitting in lectures is mainly one of defining the territory- most Chemistry textbooks were vastly overstuffed, so it was essential to get a feeling for how deep the professor would dig into the material. If memory serves, the actual learning happened at home rather than in the lecture theatre, listening to the god-like professors at ungodly hours of the day (yes, we did actually have 8am starts back then- unthinkable now…) If we assume that everyone has an optimal pace and an optimal time for learning, it seems unlikely that the broadcast medium of the lecture is “just right” for more than a handful of students. It also doesn’t allow for active learning, unless you count adding notes to lecture handouts as active.

Another inspiration was Eric Mazur’s concept of peer teaching, a variation of active learning that seems to work even in very large classes and fosters a shift from rote memorization to conceptual understanding. Watching the students in the video (from about 54:25) interact to discuss their understanding is a joy and something I wanted for my lectures. To be sure, these are Harvard Pre-Med students, so our students might be marginally less driven, but there’s no reason to think that peer discussions of real-world problem sets wouldn’t benefit their learning too.

So, more in the next couple of posts!

Brainstorming with padlet

2013-11-21 20.00.41

A new experiment with iPads – brainstorming for poster topics. First year students in all life science programmes put together a poster within their tutorial groups that is then presented at a noisy and somewhat chaotic but very enjoyable big poster session. Unless their tutor is more micro-managerial, the students will pick their own topic. It’s a serious academic activity- the posters are judged much as they would at a conference (quality and depth of content, readability etc), and any member of the group should be able to give a 1 minute poster talk. As the posters are glued onto cardboard in the old-fashioned way as opposed to just printed, there is a lot of scope for arts and crafts -occasionally including elaborate paper-mache structures and other 3D features.

The trouble with the laisser-faire approach to poster topics is that students sometimes struggle to find one. I thought that a digitally aided brainstorming session could help. Padlet (formerly known as wallwisher) has been around for some time, but this was a first for me. Anybody can “start” a virtual wall that works pretty much like a digital pinboard. Text, pictures, links etc can be posted and moved around by anyone who’s got the URL. I sent students the link and invited them a few days before the tutorial to get started. I also suggested they bring their own laptops to the tutorial if they have, but I brought some iPads as well. Only one or two posts were put up before the tutorial but it wasn’t a great problem. During the session I explained that I wanted each of them to find material, post it (ideally with their name on the post) and tell the group why they thought it was useful. My expectation was that the parallel/ synchronous literature search and discussions would speed things along.

It did more or less work out that way. None of them had used padlet before, so it took a few moments to learn how to post and edit. I practiced beforehand (wanted to come across at least a little competent) but they got the hang of it more quickly than I did. The fruit of their labour is above- a messy jumble of scientific and not so scientific fact(oids) about sloths, the algae in their fur and possibly some other creatures. Note the artwork by one of the students! The friendly green blob is an algae. A great start and not bad for the 40 minutes we had for this. It is obvious from the tagged posts that some students posted more avidly than others; some got lost in watching (scientifically related) Youtube videos and one or two seemed a bit lost at first. The students told me they were going to continue discussing and planning this activity on Facebook but that they’d keep the wall for reference.

All in all, a useful tool, I think. Some time was lost finding the wall (students who got a borrowed iPad needed to type in the URL manually) and learning how to post different types of content. I found it quite a bit more fiddly on the iPad than a desktop computer. There was also a correlation between the collective levels of extroversion in the group, (apparent) digital literacy and how much got done in the session. However, it’s nice that collaborative work can continue seamlessly after the tutorial, and that seems to have happened in the other group who brainstormed on penguins instead of sloths. Now that everyone is familiar with the “app” I think I’ll use it for other purposes.

Nearpod: What the students thought

2013-10-24 14.49.30

After the iPad & Nearpod experiment two weeks ago (see Oct 11 entry), it is only now that I had a chance to ask students (well, the group that was luckier with the wifi connectivity) how they felt about it. Their response was much more positive than I thought.

The main positive comment was that they could take a more active role, even though technically this only involved scrolling around on a web page, clicking one or two links deep, and then choosing answers in the quiz. Some said they enjoyed the quiz because they could make a choice without the awkwardness of speaking up or raising a hand. Overall, the feeling of being in charge made a difference.

And yes, one student commented that this experience -mobile, interactive, online learning- felt more like 21st century. He did not say in comparison to what- but yes, a lot of the tutorial work I do is still based on printouts, and I probably do too much talking and explaining instead of letting students get on with stuff.

Some student liked using the almost box-fresh iPad minis simply because of the allure of handling the beautifully designed, slick technology- obviously part of Apple’s success (“We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them” -Steve Jobs on the Aqua interface, 2000) and the reason hundreds are fingering the pads in Apple shops. And I suppose that’s OK, as long as we’re clear this is not the reason we use them in teaching….

This student feedback is very encouraging, for tutorial work as well as for the interactive exercises I want to do with first year biochemistry students in a lecture flipping experiment next year.