Half term pulse check (part 1)

Reading week! Also known as: Fly to Jamaica Week. For me, though, it’s almost always Fly to London Week. I’m in the UK right now for work meetings, plenty of theatre-going, and, of course, catching up with the friends (actually, more like family) I left behind when I moved from Queen Mary back to Western in August 2014.


Getting away for reading week has a number of advantages (for faculty and students alike). It’s necessary, I think, to get physically as well as mentally away from the classroom for a time, just to check in with ourselves and make sure we’re taking care of the needs that often go ignored in the term. (Proper nutrition! Proper sleep! Game of Thrones! OK, so I am so not a GofT person, but I know all y’all know what I mean.) For me, reading week is always a pleasure in part for the excuse it affords to check out of my head and back into my body for a few days. But it’s also a pleasure because it provides a welcome, comparatively relaxed opportunity for me to take the pulse of the classes I’m teaching and work out if anything needs tweaking or changing as we head into Term 2, Part 2.

This winter term I’m teaching two classes at Western: 20th Century Theatre (an English and Writing Studies course), and Performance Beyond Theatres (aka Performance Studies, a core course in our Theatre Studies program). 20th Century Theatre is a full year class, and I invited the students in that group to fill out an anonymous survey at the mid-point (Christmas break); I then made micro-adjustments after going through their responses with my TA Meghan before we returned in January. In Performance Beyond Theatres, though, THIS is the midpoint, so I did a quick survey with them last Thursday, specifically focused on the blended learning experiment we’ve been doing in that class this semester.

[What’s blended learning? Click here.]

This post is about that experiment, the students’ feedback on how it’s gone so far, and my response to that feedback. (My next post will be about the utterly amazing artists’ talk we held in 20th Century Theatre just before the break – inspirational, fun, and provocative. Look forward to that one.)


Back at Christmas time, my friend and colleague from Brock University Natalie Alvarez and I embarked on an utterly mad teaching experiment. We decided to mingle our two undergraduate performance studies classes online in order to give our students on our separate campuses (about 200km apart in real space) some value-added learning opportunities. Why the hell? Well, for one thing, performance studies is still a relatively new phenomenon in Canada, and especially in undergraduate classrooms in Canada; Nat’s class and mine were thus not only unique birds, but they were also, kismet-like, happening at the same time. We therefore figured some kind of co-teach model would offer our students exposure to one another and to our shared expertise in the field as teachers and researchers, as well as an opportunity to collaborate on some pretty unique assignments. (We also hoped the experiment would set a precedent for blended learning opportunities in our separate departments going forward).

IMG_1925 (At right: Nat + me in Portland, before the blended learning madness overcame us.)

So, armed with optimism, courage, and a couple of drinks, we put together a shared course WordPress site (which needs to remain private, as it’s a place for learning, trial and error – no links here), created a short intro video explaining our logic to the class, and then committed to trial running the virtual portion of the course until reading week, when we would ask the students whether or not it was worth continuing.

The layout of our blended course has looked like this so far. Each week, one or the other of us creates an online lecture based on the week’s readings. (Our course outlines are not fully identical, but our readings and our assignments are deliberately matched.) That lecture is meant to be about 25 minutes long, and it includes a task for the students to do in the remaining 25 or so minutes of what we call their “virtual hour”. For example, during the week on Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” I delivered an online discussion of the reading, focusing on three key ideas, and followed that with a video demonstration (starring my dear friend and collaborator D.J. Hopkins) of the task I set for the group for the week.

(My demo with D.J. during de Certeau week: a taste of the student experience.)

Following this virtual hour labour, our individual classes have met live each week for two further hours in order to work through both our reading materials and the materials each student produces as part of their task work. (Each student has also been required to comment on one other student’s task materials in order to demonstrate online engagement; typically, my students comment on work by Brock students, while the Brock students, who are part of a much larger group, look at one another’s materials as well as Western students’ materials in equal portions). In typical “flipped classroom” fashion, we try to use our face-to-face meetings to explore challenges in the readings, work through problems we’ve encountered in making sense of them, and nuance our thinking about our weekly subject matter as much as possible. (IE: no lectures here.)

I’ve personally found our online work really gratifying, humbling, and instructive. It’s been a significant challenge for me to learn how to use video tools in a not-crap way (I’ve been teaching myself Screenflow, for example, and have figured out how to do basic video editing in Quicktime as well). As I rarely lecture in my “real” teaching life, I’ve also found preparing and delivering the online lecture materials a useful way to rethink stagnating elements of my own pedagogical practice. (Yes, active learning friends: lecturing does have some real advantages.) The materials my students have produced in response to the weekly online lectures have been consistently of a high calibre, and some of them have been simply outstanding. I always find they contain insights worth pulling out in “real time” classes, and frequently those insights lead us on to further discoveries.

The process has not been without bumps, though. In part because Nat and I are in no way AV experts our online materials have often been posted to our shared website later than planned, and other hiccups have occasionally interrupted their sharing. (Last week Youtube blocked my lecture on Judith Butler because one of the videos I embedded, by the awesome feminist performance artist The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein, contained a Backstreet Boys audio track. Welcome to the neoliberal classroom!) On the content side, sometimes in class I’ve felt like we’re treading ground already familiar from the lecture, and I find I have to really challenge myself to get the balance between concept reinforcement and further concept development right. (This is much harder than it sounds.)

So what do the students think so far? On our mid-term surveys we asked three questions:

  1. What have you found productive/useful about the virtual hour labour?
  2. What have you found unhelpful, or unproductive?
  3. Would you like to continue with the virtual hour after reading week?

The feedback did not provide a consensus – half the students wanted to keep the virtual hour, while the other half did not! – but it did prove remarkably consistent. Most students said they found the online lectures helpful and clarifying – and we’d already sensed in class that this was the case. They also, however, said that the lectures were too long and that the tasks plus lecture consumed easily more than an hour (more like 1.5 hours, in fact) each week.

The students are not wrong: by the end of our first six weeks our online lectures had crept well beyond 30 minutes (my last one was 43 minutes! Yikes!), and of course Nat and I easily forgot (as many teachers do) that students always take much longer than we do to complete any learning task – they are simply less experienced learners and so inevitably slower. I found myself, a bit embarrassed, thinking back to my review of Martin Bickman’s book back in January, and to his comment about how he, at least, was never bored by his own lectures… without question Nat and I fell a bit in love with our own commentary on our favourite performance studies topics, and forgot about our stopwatches.

At the same time, though, we found ourselves thinking carefully about the implications of this feedback for our teaching more broadly. After all, what the students’ comments reveal is that there simply isn’t enough time in any given teaching week to cover complex topics as fully as we might like to do – or as we believe we need to do.

Now, of course, we all know this is true: it’s a teacherly cliche to complain there’s not enough time! It’s also easy to forget, however, that you’re blabbing on too long or trying to cover too much when you can just run long in a live classroom hour and pick up the following week where you left off; I’m as guilty as everyone else of bad classroom time management. To our surprise, however, our virtual hour sessions seemed to operate like a pace car, showing us in real time how little teaching time we’re actually working with – and thus how prudent we actually need to be with our answer to the all-important question, “how much is actually enough?”

So what’s next for the blended experiment? We’ve decided to try one more virtual hour, and in it to enforce a rigorous 20-minute online lecture cut-off time. (REALLY.) We’ll do a further, quick pulse-check at the end of that week and then make a decision about the remaining three sessions – online, or go live, according to a student vote. Whatever the results of that vote, though, I know I’ve taken from this first trial run a total classroom time-management recalibration, which can only be a good thing.




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