Keeping the collaboration love alive

A number of us at the DCU Teaching Enhancement Unit have been having conversations recently about the pros and cons of working with other people on educational research projects. As self-proclaimed blended professionals (as per Whitchurch, 2009), we sometimes become involved in collaborative research projects with lecturers and other staff. Amongst other things, the involvement of a learning technologist or academic developer on a research project can potentially:

  • Help source relevant literature from educational research
  • Advise on relevant learning theory
  • Provide input on methodology and ethics
  • Highlight potential journals/calls for papers
  • Review and provide feedback on abstracts and drafts
  • Advise on the structure and writing of paper
  • Act as a critical friend and sounding board for ideas

The advantages are mutual. For our part, working with lecturers on research projects gives us a deep insight into the challenges of teaching at university, raises awareness of pedagogical issues in particular disciplines, and helps us to stay abreast of emerging and evidence-based technologies and approaches. It also helps us to build up our network and portfolio of publications and who doesn’t want that?

But there’s a but…

While for the most part, these have been very positive experiences, leading to scholarly outputs that were significantly better for the multiple perspectives, there can be some risks involved, particularly with new working relationships. A recent article on co-authoring from Times Higher Education would seem to confirm the benefits of a pre-nup agreement of some kind to help negotiate the process. In particular, the following paragraph on the importance of clear division of labour stood out:

The transition from initial idea to published artefact usually involves a significant amount of time and effort pursuing a variety of tasks. These range from scanning the literature to gathering data, and from negotiating with editors to making the diagrams look presentable. For your co-authoring experience to feel collaborative it helps that these tasks are identified and shared among the members of your authoring team. Be clear on who is doing which bits.

My colleagues and I agreed that it might be a good idea to share the THE article upfront with those who might be new to the co-authoring process. Indeed one of my colleagues is working on a detailed set of guidelines for collaborative authorship, including the thorny questions of author order, what constitutes a ‘significant intellectual contribution’, and ownership of data.

Collaboration Checklist

Taking this one step further, I would also like to suggest that it might be helpful to review a checklist to confirm “who is doing which bits”. Once you’ve agreed that you’d like to work together, then it’s time to get down to some nitty gritty and ask questions such as:

  • What is the agreed order of author names?
  • Who is going to source potential publication opportunities?
  • Who is going to draft and submit the ethical clearance forms?
  • Who is going to write and submit the abstract?
  • Who is going to write the introduction, literature review, methodology, discussion, conclusion? (Or whatever format has been agreed.)
  • Who is going to review and provide constructive feedback on the first draft? How will that feedback be delivered?
  • How often will you meet?
  • Who is going to liaise with the publisher from beginning to end?

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list but it might prompt some useful thinking about who is doing what and when. I would be of the view that the person listed as first author should typically do the lion’s share of the above – but it is entirely context-dependent and some writers may prefer a much more organic (and arguably more collaborative) approach to the writing process.Ultimately, it should be about working well together so you have to go with an approach that suits all involved. If you can establish that approach sooner rather than later, the chances of a blissful (or at least relatively harmonious!) collaboration are greatly improved.


Whitchurch, C. (2009). The rise of the blended professional in higher education: a comparison between the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Higher Education, 58(3), 407-418.

Peer Review – some lessons learned & some friendly advice

Inspired by events and discussions at the recent Y1 Feedback Symposium, I’ve been mulling over how I can improve the peer review process in an online staff development course that I teach. During his presentation, assessment researcher Professor David Nicol made the point that students seem to learn more in conducting a feedback review than actually being the receiving party. The Nicol, Thomson, and Breslin (2014) research on peer review makes convincing reading about the evaluative and cognitive benefits of the review process, and  I’ve decided to share that paper with my own students to explain why we’re using this approach.

This got me thinking about how I’ve used peer review (actually, I called it peer critique, which is probably not ideal) in the past. While not claiming to have vast experience with the approach, I have used it with a class of online students who were asked to give each other feedback on proposed strategies. Some unexpected issues came to light:

  1. Some peer feedback comments were interpreted as being undiplomatic and irrelevant
  2. Providing what I thought were helpful ‘prompts’ for questions/comments ended up being regurgitated directly, in a small number of cases
  3. While some students loved it (particularly those working in similar disciplines), some participants were unconvinced (as they felt they did not receive the type or quality of feedback they would expect)
  4. Because students were free to discuss using any communication mode of their choice, several offline conversations were not visible to other students or me
  5. Some students did not engage at all with the process and some left significant elements out (eg did not explain what aspects of feedback they planned to incorporate or omit)

There appears to be a fine line between providing appropriate scaffolding and micro-managing the process for students: you want to give them enough information to know how to get started with a peer review but not so much that it becomes a simplistic or somewhat pointless exercise. At the symposium, Prof. Nicol made the point that students should ideally generate their own criteria for quality when conducting peer review. While I might see this working in a small group face-to-face setting, I am not sure it would be as successful in an online context where silence (the equivalent of the blank page) is simply easier to ignore. So I suspect the online learner requires the provision of at least some guidelines as a starting point for the discussion and you can find helpful advice on peer feedback forms from the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Of course, to a large extent it depends on the course design but in the online context I think I’d prefer to play it safe by providing at least some suggested criteria or guidelines at the start.

So trying to tie all this neatly together, here are some ideas for the next time I use a peer review approach in online teaching:

  • Record a screencast or video that captures my thoughts ‘thinking out loud’ as I read and annotate a sample draft (this might help to model suggested feedback and tone, addressing points 1,2 and 3)
  • Set up a central location (such as a discussion forum) with a designated thread for each pair to respond to online (this might assist with points 3 and 4 by increasing visibility into the process and enabling greater access to other classmates’ reviews)
  • Create an infographic that provides a recommended pathway for the assignment, from beginning to end (this might clarify the multiple steps involved, addressing point 5)

As luck would have it, my 14-year-old daughter has been doing a peer review for her English class in recent times and has been subject to intense questioning about it by her mother. I should add that she is completely unimpressed by it as a learning device (sigh) and reckons that it is too hard to “be honest” with one’s friends. I know it is the job of a 14-year-old to be unimpressed by everything but she might have a point about that – could anonymity help or hinder the peer review process?

If anyone else has comments on proposed or previous experiences of online peer review, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Speak up, my friends.


Nicol, D., Thomson, A. & Breslin, C. 2014, “Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: a peer review perspective”, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 102-122.


The White-Knuckle Ride of the Virtual Classroom

motorbike on rollercoaster








Photo Credit: oiva_eskola via Compfight cc

Imagine if you had to check if your students could speak at the beginning of every class? Imagine if you were never 100% sure that they could hear you when you spoke? Imagine if you never knew for sure if the doors to your classroom were open (and would definitely stay open) for the duration of your class? Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to the rollercoaster ride of teaching in the virtual online classroom.

I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a professional development module on Online Teaching for the last semester at DCU. As you’d expect, we’ve used many different formats, approaches, and technologies – discussion forums, multimedia learning objects, Padlets, Soundcloud, Articulate, Google Docs and more. But without a shred of doubt, the virtual classroom experience has been the most challenging for me to get to grips with as a teacher.

Now part of me wonders if maybe it’s just me. But I consider myself moderately technically competent. I don’t think I’m stupid. And I’ve had the benefit of some practice and tinkering with systems such as Adobe Connect and Google Hangouts in the past. In fact, I’m part of a local (‘Meitheal’) community of practice where we regularly connect using web conferencing technology. So wouldn’t you think it would be a walk in the park? Well let me give you a flavour of how things went:

Webinar 1 –  over 20 participants attended and in retrospect, this was probably the most successful event technically. A written guide to Adobe Connect was distributed to attendees before hand, along with specific requests to complete connectivity diagnostic tests and audio configuration in advance. I benefited from great advice from Suzanne Stone about easing students into it with a fun, ‘no pressure’ orientation. At one point students were invited to use their microphones to tell us about their day. Despite some minor hiccups, most students were able to participate and use the mic. My colleague Pip Ferguson was also there to help moderate the discussion and keep track of the chat box activity while I led the session.  (Stress-o-meter rating: High. This was my first webinar of the course and I wasn’t sure how it would go.)

Webinar 2 – about 11 participants attended but it turned out that several others had tried and failed to access via Adobe Connect. This was due to an institution-wide ISS issue that I had no control over. That was rather disconcerting but at least I knew the session would be recorded. After being inspired by advice from Michael Hallissy, I was keen to use breakout rooms as part of the webinar so that people could split up into groups to discuss what they heard. Turned out my genius plan to split people into specific groups took longer than expected and there was noticeable delay while I moved people around into their respective groups.(Stress-o-meter rating: High. Dead air for a while – the minutes felt like hours.)

Webinar 3 – By now I was hoping that all of the teething problems would be sorted. Turns out that this time, several students had issues using their mics and there was a lot of not-so-scintillating “Can you hear me? No. I can hear you but you can’t hear me” conversation going on. This became particularly problematic during the breakout sessions which had to revert to chat box conversation mainly. This was particularly frustrating since I wanted participants to be able to talk about their online collaborative projects, by, well, collaborating online. (Stress-o-meter rating:  High. Growing despair about the way the technical issues were affecting how I wanted to run the course.)

Webinar 4 – about 14 participants attended. This time the technical problem was squarely at my end. Despite having reminded students about the importance of preparation, I was the one who couldn’t share my voice this time. Thankfully my colleague Muireann O’Keeffe was able to take the lead until I got sorted out. (Stress-o-meter rating:  Off the chart initially, when I couldn’t ‘speak’. Reduced by assistance from presenter who led the event at the start. )

So where am I going with with this saga, you may be wondering? And why does it matter to anyone else?  Well based on my own (limited) experience, and because forewarned is forearmed, I’d like to offer anyone considering hosting a virtual classroom session/webinar some words of advice. Here are five  critical conditions, as I see them, to give you a decent chance of success:

  1. Allow time for technology orientation – both for you as the host, and the students. This is particularly important if you want students to use the mic (see 4).
  2. Allow yourself flying time – expect a few wobbles as you gain confidence and skills. You will only improve over time but you won’t be perfect to begin with (if ever!)
  3. Have some technical backup – have a colleague and ideally some form of Tech Support on hand to help you moderate the discussion and/or step in as needed
  4. Do try to make the sessions interactive – it is probably much easier to broadcast rather than hear back from the class but then why bother with a webinar at all? If you’re doing all the talking, there’s a question to be asked. Polls, chat box questions, and most of all students’ voices help to democratize the learning experience.
  5. Run them again, and again, and again – the only way to get better at these, I suspect, is through frequency. Torturous as it may be, it’s probably best to practice as often as you can. They should get easier but I’ll get back to you on that!

I would also love to hear your experiences and thoughts too, so please do reply if you’ve got something to say about this. There are undoubtedly many many factors that determine if you will have a disaster or a dream live classroom event. And, of course, not all of them are within your control. But who ever learned by playing everything entirely safe?





LI501 Update: From Theme 1 to Theme 2

The title of this blog post will probably only make sense to participants of LI501, the Online Teaching module I am currently coordinating so I may revise it in future to something clearer. But for now, it will suffice.

As I write this, we are just over two weeks into the course, and we have completed the first Orientation & Reflection theme. The video below gives a general picture of how things went and also sets the scene for the forthcoming theme of Discussion:

What are the areas for improvement?

  1. To be blunt, I don’t like how things look on Moodle! I sensed from a few of the students’ discussion posts that they too were struggling to perhaps find things and make sense of it all. I need to figure out a way to show fewer resources. Although this approach is not unusual in a MOOC, it is possibly overwhelming, messy and confusing for those unfamiliar with that format. While I did manage to combine a number of resources within the Discussion Learning Object, I feel there is still a way to go with the interface. I may yet incorporate this blog in some way.
  2. I need to make it clearer that students can contribute resources/ideas via Diigo
  3. To keep the focus on active learning, I feel I need to move away from the learning object approach for the next theme at least – I may create one for the Creating/Reusing Resources theme but will confirm based on how things go over the next fortnight. I am still concerned that there may be playback issues despite hosting the learning object on Dropbox (instead of Drive).
  4. I need to use a visually appealing way of presenting the task for the Collaboration theme (which is the third one of the series). Above all, I wish to make the the instructions for the collaborative activity around course design crystal clear. It is a complicated enough activity without adding any additional layers of confusion.
  5. I need to ensure that Module Facilitation is my top priority and focus my time and energy on that rather than on creating new resources. For this theme I particularly want to ensure that students critically consider what they read and hear so my challenge will be to create responses that probe what is said.

As I  write though, I can see that the first post of the Discussion theme about the online learning animal has just come in. And indeed another participant has tweeted about it. Hopefully that’s a promising sign of things to come.


The Early Days of an Online Teaching Course

It’s day two of LI501 and all is rather eerily quiet so I would like to take some time to reflect on where I am as a tutor at this point in time. LI501 is the online teaching module that I’m currently co-ordinating at DCU. We got off to a flying start yesterday (with a three hour orientation session) and signs are very promising that this is a chatty bunch with plenty to say about their knowledge (or perceived lack of knowledge) in relation to technology. Whether this enthusiasm for talk will translate to the discussion boards remains to be seen.

We have a fantastically mixed group of schools (Business,  Health & Human Performance, Engineering, Science & Languages) were all represented. It was fascinating to hear the participants talk about why they have signed up for this course. Issues with large class sizes, differences in levels of understanding, and a desire to do ‘more’ with technology were all mentioned. But it was a feeling of lack of engagement that seemed to run through most of the comments and drove home to me how important that particular theme will be. While it is ‘officially’ due to start in several weeks, I see the activities that we engage in in the run up to that theme being highly relevant to the engagement objective too.

For my part my biggest challenge for now is to start building up that all-important sense of instructor presence and learning community. Through my meetings/conversations with the participants, the face to face session,  photos, videos, and even emails,  myself and Pip are doing our best to create a supportive and welcoming environment that invites participation. But will that be enough?

While I did emphasise the importance of discussion during my presentation, it remains to be seen if it actually occurs and I am nervous that participants just won’t engage. I should mention a ‘moment of doubt’ that occurred to me earlier. I became conscious that one of the students seemed confused about how the discussion would take place online (wondering how it would happen in reality). I think they were also wondering about when to do the discussion. As I write this I realise that I am in the fortunate position of having a video recording of my talk so I can go back and look at that and confirm what was said. Very useful indeed and since this was my first time using that camera, the benefits for both the students who had to miss aspects of the session  and for me are quickly becoming apparent. Getting over my discomfort at being recorded for this and the introductory videos will have to happen sooner rather than later  and I can see myself using more video technology for my own teaching into the future.

But for now, to go back to the question of discussion, I have made one tweak to the layout to make the discussion forums less ‘buried’ in the page. I felt I needed to make the discussion tasks very prominent so I’ve included some intro text and links to those tasks at the top of the theme to make sure participants have a clear idea of what to do when they login. That’s about all I can do for now, it’s a bit of a waiting game but for now, I’m happy to wait and see… .




Preparing to teach about teaching online

In this long overdue post, I’d like to talk about LI501 – an online teaching module that I am very excited about co-ordinating at DCU with the kind help of my colleague Pip Ferguson. The infographic below is my depiction of the module and indeed my teaching and learning philosophy. Feedback from my TEU colleagues about the use of a poster-like infographic for this purpose has been very positive. (Thanks to Piktochart for providing the template which made it a rather easy exercise.)

LI501 Overview Infographic


A conference, a camera, and a collaboration

I’ve recently come back from the European Conference on eLearning (ECEL) hosted by the University of Hertfordshire so I thought I’d pen a few words to describe how it went and what I learned from it.

First of all, I have to mention how fortunate I feel in being facilitated to go to an event like this. It’s not cheap visiting the UK at the moment (makes Dublin seem like good value!) and it certainly costs DCU a few quid to fund a three-day visit. As a former self-employed contractor who had to pay for any form of professional development (not to mention self-fund any sick leave and maternity time), I’m grateful to have this cost funded by my employer and facilitated by my manager, Mark Glynn. I wasn’t told that I had to go this conference, it was something I wanted to do once I saw the mini-track on wearable technology, so I think that’s something very positive to reflect on. I won’t harp on any further about the dismal financial ‘entitlements’ of the self-employed in this country but suffice to say that it won’t escape the ears of any politicians calling to my door come election time. But I digress, and for now will stay in my happy place and think further on the conference itself…

The main difference between this and other educational technology conferences I have attended were that 1. the audience was truly international, and 2. I was, for the first time, co-presenting a paper at the conference itself.  Three of us from DCU (Dr Tatyana Devine from the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute, Patrick Doyle from the School of Nursing and Health Sciences, and me from the Teaching Enhancement Unit) had a paper accepted for the conference for a mini track on wearable technology. Our interest lay in the use of head-mounted wearable cameras for videoing laboratory practicals.  For this project, our lead academic used this type of camera to record the steps involved in performing a particular biomedical test so that students could view this procedure in video form. So far, feedback has been very positive and you can see the slides from our joint presentation below:

On a personal note, I found speaking at the conference extremely valuable, and compared with events which I have attended (but not spoken at), the difference was very striking. I felt much more involved in the conference itself, rather than skirting around the edges as an observer. And despite being fraught with nerves beforehand, the discussions that ensued afterwards were well worth it.  As for the presentation itself, which included a brief demo of the point-of-view video, it went well and the conversation afterwards was very active, which we took as a good sign.

As always, there is certainly room for improvement and attendees seemed to nod in general agreement with the students suggestions to add subtitles/annotations on chemicals used and volumes to the video. Amongst the comments and suggestions made on the day:

  • It would be useful if the academic showed the inevitable ‘glitches’ that occur while performing the experiment, which would also represent useful learning for students (so it doesn’t have to be all about modelling the ‘perfect’ experiment)
  • It would be helpful to see the ‘dos and don’ts’ of using this type of camera in education, perhaps in the form of guidelines for academics
  • Care needs to be taken to avoid ethics related issues if students come into frame

One biomedical science lecturer from Denmark spoke to me about how she is planning to try the technology in her lab and  – and even better, she is going to get students to try it out which is a logical next step. She immediately recognised the space and physical limitations of recording in a laboratory so that will be fascinating to hear more about how that pans out. Another UK lecturer, who uses video extensively, said that she now planned to try it out and hadn’t realised it had become (relatively) inexpensive.  Another attendee (Stine Ejsing-Duun) and I chatted on Twitter about the need to break the video down in to short sections (our one being a little over the mark at approx 10.5 minutes).

So in all, an excellent trip which as well as being thoroughly enjoyable, was also very informative and fruitful. There are a number of wearable camera-related projects underway in DCU’s School of Nursing so here’s hoping we’ll be seeing more use, and indeed more research into use, in the months ahead.