The Heriot-Watt Pre-sessional English (PSE) Online programmes are almost finished for 2020 with materials delivery and assessment now complete. In migrating the campus-based programmes online, we used a flipped learning approach. Bishop & Verleger (2013) provide a working definition of this concept by contrasting activities which require human interaction with activities which can be automated using technology. (see image) For programmes delivered wholly online the contrast would be synchronous versus asynchronous activities.
Early exchanges in March on the BALEAP discussion list suggested that some institutions were simply going to move their campus-based programmes online with a similar number of synchronous teaching hours and perhaps a smaller number of students per teacher. I didn’t consider that to be an effective solution, partly because of my own experience in March, trying to teach synchronous classes. Online teaching felt more intensive than face-to-face, and hence tiring for teacher & students, and the online space felt crowded. I took the decision to follow a truly flipped learning approach by cutting synchronous sessions to two 50 minute slots Monday to Thursday. All other interaction would be asynchronous.
Students were told before the programmes started that they were expected to spend three hours preparing for each 50 minute session by completing tasks in the coursebook (Access EAP: Frameworks) as instructed through a series of PPT presentations with a teacher voiceover. The development team prepared these preparation PPT slides for each lesson together with a more concise collaboration PPT to be used by the teacher during the synchronous sessions. Thus, students could listen to a real teacher talking them through the instructions to tasks and supporting the activities with hints and some answers. Students could listen as often as needed and could choose when to prepare. Examples of the Preparation and Collaboration PPT slides are available for the lesson on Arguing from sources with writer’s voice that formed the basis for the interview task I wrote about recently.
There was some unhappiness about this model of online learning from both permanent staff and PSE teachers on temporary contracts, because of the reduced opportunity for human-human interaction for language learning. Asynchronous interaction was seen as inauthentic and definitely inferior. I wanted to reflect on this attitude at the end of the programme, particularly in relation to the amount of human-human interaction that is typical in a university degree and the amount we were able to provide in the PSE Online.
Most academic communication is, in fact, asynchronous and text-based. Staff in universities do not spend 20 hours per week in face-to-face interaction with students or other staff. They send huge quantities of emails, read and peer review each other’s’ publications and spend a lot of solitary time designing programmes or writing textbooks and research papers. Lecturing, which is not especially interactive, may occupy less than six hours per week. Funding cuts mean that early and mid-career academics are lucky if they can attend 1 or 2 conferences each year to network face-to-face with colleagues in their field. So they establish their identity and build their academic profiles in text-based social media such as LinkedIn or on personal webpages and blogs.
In contrast, a pre-sessional programme might typically have 20 hours of class time with a teacher and other students plus some guided social activities. Heriot-Watt PSE programmes blend this with additional asynchronous peer evaluation of writing on discussion boards to simulate the peer review typical for academic publications. I’ve regularly observed pre-sessional teaching and notice that not every student gets 20 hours of quality interaction. The more fluent students can monopolize spontaneous interaction with the teacher, while the quieter ones may never say anything in the class. The teachers may depart significantly from the programme syllabus and not cover all the learning outcomes necessary to prepare for assessments.
In my view, less proficient students got a higher quality learning experience in PSE Online than they would face-to-face. The constructive alignment between learning outcomes, assessment and learning content was tighter and more clearly explained to students in the Preparation PPT slides. They had an individual teacher talking them through tasks and plenty of rehearsal time so they could contribute more effectively in the interactive classes. Not all teachers would agree with this stance but one commented: ‘I think virtual space (a lack of non-verbal cues) and time constraints (2 x 50 minutes, four days a week) had a largely positive bearing on teaching methodology with less instruction, more consolidation and appraisal of students’ asynchronous efforts in preparation.’
Bishop, J.L. & Verleger, M.A (2013) The flipped classroom: a survey of the research. Paper presented to 120th Annual Conference of the American Society for Education in Engineering. Atlanta.