Louise Howson talks to Andy Wakefield a senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences about how learner generated digital media benefits both students and teachers.
Listen to the entire series here
Welcome to the pedagogy podcast brought to you by the Bristol Institute of learning and teaching. Each week we look at a different piece of the pedagogy pie and see how we can inspire exciting new practice at the University of Bristol. We hope you enjoy this slice of teaching and learning engagement. My name is Louise Howson. And today I am joined by Andy Wakefield. If you’d like to give us a little bit of an intro as to who you are and where you’re from in the institution, that would be great.
Thanks, Lou. So I’m a Senior Lecturer over in School of Biological Sciences, I teach topics such as Ecology and Conservation Biology. Pathway three member of staff. So my focus is entirely on teaching, being innovative, trying new things, I supervise loads of different student projects. I’m not afraid of taking a few risks with some of my teaching, I feel like I’ve got the confidence enough to do that. They don’t always pan out, right. But I’d like to think that student’s learning experience should be fun in some way. And I think some of the things I’ve tried, tried to promote that as well as lots of other kind of good practice within teaching learning.
So thinking about this innovative practice that you were talking about here, we’re looking at learner generated digital media, within this pedagogy podcast. So what kind of problems are you trying to fix by using this particular method?
I kind of noticed that a lot of our assessment within the school was really focused on doing lab reports, doing essays, whether that was continuous assessment or end of unit sort of summer exams. And it felt very uni modal kind of form of communication for our students. And I don’t think that really reflects the skills they’re going to need when they graduate. A lot of communication, day to day isn’t done through writing essays and doing lab reports. Sure it’s definitely got a place. It’s a key kind of academic skill for our biologists and zoologists. But I was really keen to kind of mix it up a little bit, I’ve got a bit of training or previous experience in filmmaking prior to doing a PhD and then becoming an lecturer. So I kind of wanted to use some of my skills there, bring that into my teaching a bit.
My first entry into doing learner generated digital media was was actually a nudge by some colleagues. within the school, we have a week long workshop that happens at the end of second year for our students. And the students have to pick one from about 15 different options, we’ve got a huge amount of choice. And this particular year, we were looking for new workshops to be generated. And a couple of my colleagues actually thought about doing a science communication, using a filmmaking unit that they can pick. And then you will have prior experience. So we kind of jumped in and helped out with with some experience there. One thing kind of led to another, and that field course is still running five years later. But I’ve actually now taken the same sort of principles. And I use that within another unit that I teach on conservation biology, where I get students to make podcasts in pairs. And that was a real transformation from what they used to do, which was writing an individually written essay on a topic within conservation biology. And I didn’t really feel like it reflected the manner in which there’s quite a lot of debate within the field about different solutions to conservation problems and biodiversity issues. There’s often no kind of one right answer. And again, coming back to the original point I made, it didn’t really help to tackle some of those skills that students are going to need in terms of communication. So with that particular unit, I kind of was a bit bold and went to replace that essay with a pair produced podcast task, which meant the students could still have the same topic and learn about something within conservation biology. But they could do that as a pair. And they could research as a pair they could discuss, they could bounce ideas off each other. They could build some digital literacy and learning how to produce podcasts, they could gain all the skills in communication, but also in teamwork and collaboration. And yeah, we’ve been doing that for four years now. And it’s kind of gone from strength to strength.
Sounds fascinating. And it’s it’s nice to have like that inception of we’re talking about a podcast on a podcast, so it’s good to have. Exactly. And so in terms of finding the background here, so you have got a background, obviously, in doing digital things, where did you kind of find the grounding in terms of theory and linking that to your practice?
Just to clarify, my background was very amateurish, you know, it was hobbyists. There wasn’t really any formal training. I came to Bristol, because it was a great place for natural history filmmaking, just like many of our students do. And that was one of the reasons why we set up that communication of science through filmmaking as a week long workshop to fulfill that desire of our students. In terms of grounding it within pedagogic theory, I knew it was all the right ideas, but but then trying to put that into context of existing literature. I found some work by an author called Holger Reiner who’s based in Sydney. I think he’s a digital technologist, he and many colleagues over at Sydney have actually produced a number of papers. They’re all they’re all very similar, but they’re all very helpful. And there’s a couple of papers that I’ve used quite a lot to help me just check in with what I’m doing and making sure I’m not missing out on anything really important in terms of setting up the assessment that I do, setting up the activities that go around it, make sure there’s suitable constructive alignment with everything.
So there’s a paper from 2017, written by Rainer and colleagues, that’s all about the kind of taxonomy of learner generated digital media. And it’s a really useful starting place for anyone thinking about doing this because it goes through the different domains that you need to think about when setting up a project or an assessment like this, what the students need to know what kind of training they need. But it also gives readers of the paper an idea of the different types of media that could be used. So you’ve got everything from something like a podcast, or even a producing a brochure on something all the way through to something much more complicated, like doing a blended media film, maybe so actually filming some material, but adding some animation all the way through to creating a game, which I have no idea how to do. But I’m sure people in computer science would be great at that.
Yes, there’s loads of different ideas there of practice. So really thinking about how you can stretch and challenge your learners. And we kind of talked about just before we went on air about authentic assessments. So do you feel that that really comes through in terms of your practice as well?
Yeah, 100%. So I think a lot of our current or traditional assessments, like I said, writing reports and essays and things, that takes quite a lot of the boxes of what we think of in terms of authentic assessment. And in terms of it being challenging, requiring some sort of feedback and evaluation, I think where this goes a step further, is ticking some of the other boxes in terms of it requiring students to produce something an end product or a performance. So in our case, it is a podcast or a film that they produce. And then obviously, the teamwork aspect of it, that element of collaboration is kind of really important to having that kind of real life value to doing an assessment activity like a podcast or a film. And that’s often the bit that, you know, from my own evaluation of both the podcast task and the filmmaking workshop, students have loved the most, it’s an opportunity for them in the big cohorts that they exist in to meet new people with similar interests. And to hear different experiences, different perspectives on things, they can kind of end up having a bit of a transformative experience through listening to their peers, but they get all those other skills about, you know, time management, there’s no budgets to give them. But you know, there’s plenty of project management skills that they can learn along the way. And, you know, the way in which we set some of these assessments up with clear kind of formative tasks, a bit of feedback, and reflecting on their work, they can actually kind of start to become better self regulated learners as a result.
So we’ve talked a lot about the benefits and the advantages to students. But also, I suppose it’s a real advantage to us as well, in terms of this gets you out of that marking lull that you can have a bit you can have some real innovative practice, so you can mark as well. Are there any particular barriers that you had, in terms of trying to introduce this practice?
There wasn’t anything in particular, I mean, we’ve made a few, I guess, mistakes along the way, in the early years of introducing these types of assessment. I mean, talking about marking, you know, one wonderful byproduct of having students work in groups and submitting work within a pair or within a larger group is that you’re reducing the marking load, which either means you’ve got a lower workload, or it means you can add in a formative element that wasn’t there. And that’s exactly what we did with the podcasts. So we’ve got the same number of students, as we did two years ago when they were writing their essays. But that has never had a formative element to it. Now we’ve got students working in pairs. So there’s half as many podcasts being submitted for the summative assessment, which means that actually, we can introduce that formative task without any added assessment, or marking burden to staff. They’re also way more fun to mark. You know, it’s really exciting to kind of listen to the students creativity, how they’ve chosen to tackle a subject. And I don’t really feel like you get that creativity when, when you set them something like an essay, or lab reports, they have to follow a very clear and structured template in how they do them.
Coming back to what you’re saying about barriers or challenges. There’s always a bit of a lag time when trying to make changes to assessment within within a unit or within a program. There’s a certain element of patience when planning these and making sure you go through the right channels and getting sign off on them. But I think given that on my unit catalog changes, I’d actually referenced quite a lot of the work by Holger Reiner and other people. It was quite clear, I think, to further up the chain that actually there was a good pedagogic rationale for doing it, and that students were really going to benefit from it. Just as an observation. One of the early challenges that that we faced was about out the nature of the groupings between students, and how students would react to being paired with someone they didn’t know. The first year, we ran the podcast task, they had randomized pairings for their formative tasks. So they put with someone new, forced to work with someone new. And then we also randomized the summative tasks that to then swap partners might be someone else, that first year, we got a lot of students moaning about their partner not pulling their weight for something that counted towards a unit mark, and therefore their degree. After that, we changed it. So the following years, and we’ve done this ever since we randomize the formative pairings, so they still get to meet new people, which has been really helpful in light of COVID, and everything and online learning. And that kind of lack of cohort, sort of community that we see in many, I think many different degree programs, they get to meet new people make new friends. And then we give them a choice of choosing their own summative partner, they have to choose someone different. So they get a different perspective again, and actually, we don’t get any complaints anymore about that, which is brilliant. And it’s kind of that nice blend of exposure to working with someone they didn’t choose, which is really authentic, because, you know, we don’t really choose who we work with, in our day to day jobs. But also, they feel like they’re having a say in the performance of their team member because they get to choose who they work with, when it counts towards us and summative marks.
It’s really great to hear and in the same building that sense of community hearing points of view that they wouldn’t necessarily have heard of before. So that sounds fantastic. So it only leads me to kind of say, well, what’s next? What’s the next big thing that you’re thinking of doing in terms of generating these different ways of teaching?
I mean, there’s plenty of other types of learner generated digital media that that could be tried. So yes, we’ve got filmmaking, which technically is kind of blended media, how we do it, because we do have students doing stop motion animation, as well as going out and recording stuff. And their films are amazing, by the way, we have people from the BBC come in and informally judge at the end of the week, and they’re super impressed. And these are people who are working on like Blue Planet Two, and Planet Earth Three. And you know, they’re really impressed by what our students can do in a week. So maybe that’s another avenue is creating stronger links with employers and kind of career opportunities that go with this. And Bristol is absolutely the place to do that. In terms of science communication, and specifically Natural History TV and wildlife TV.
I think the other element that I’d really love to do, and if anyone’s listening is keen then get in touch – is to try to take something like the podcast task and make it interdisciplinary. So it’s all very well having two biologists talk about something like conservation biology. But what would be amazing as if we had a biologist, I don’t know, a student doing economics and social scientist all talking about some common problem, maybe something to do with more widely with sustainability, or climate change, or some current big topic, that they could all feed into their different perspectives, I think there’d be a huge amount for students to learn off each other there. It’d be really progressive, really exciting. And it would fit in with all the things that are being discussed within education for sustainable development, and kind of best practice there in terms of interdisciplinary teaching. So I’d love to do that. I haven’t got the silver bullet, no, kind of the magical answer as to how that would work. But I’m really kind of keen to explore that.
That sounds fascinating. We’ll make sure that you’ve got your details underneath this podcast link so that people can get in touch if they are definitely keen to do that. Thank you so much for giving your time up for us today. And thank you very much for all of the different ideas and hopefully that has inspired a lot of our teachers here at the University of Bristol to go out there and try things and as you say, some of it might be a bit difficult, you might make some mistakes, but the positivity which is coming out of this and the student learning gains that are happening, just sounds absolutely wonderful. So thank you very much.
Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
Dr Andy Wakefield
Senior Lecturer, School of Biological Sciences
Life Sciences Building