Tweaks, remixes, sprints and marathons – TEL project designs

The next step in the development of our Student Champions initiative will see us define a range of projects types, so as to answer the question “what can Student Champions do for us?”. We want to enable innovation, but at the same time engage a much broader portion of the University population in Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL). So, I am currently getting out and about looking for “remix” style projects – that is to say, cases in which a teacher (and their students) can easily adopt and implement a different learning design pattern or technology, without opening up a big scary can of worms. A remix should have an obvious application, easily appreciated value, simple configuration of options, and most of all, its workings should be clearly visible and understandable to the average person.

An example of a remix would be: “replace show of hands voting with anonymous PRS (clickers or online) so as to increase student risk taking and engagement”. It is, in effect, a design pattern with clear instructions on implementation. At Warwick, we would recommend using our centrally supported Turning Point system (either hardware clickers or the Responseware app).

Remixes are important from a diffusion of innovations perspective – they travel fast between people and different contexts, but they also have significant impact in each case. Remixes have the further benefit of increasing the confidence of teachers and students in TEL innovation. More successful remixing leads to a greater capability for design change and flexibility.

From a more developmental perspective, we can view remix projects as sitting on a continuum that describes the complexity/difficulty/regularity of TEL work – tweaks, remixes, sprints and marathons. We hope to have lots of remixes defined, but expect to find more complex projects (sprints, marathons) that might over time become simpler remixes. We are currently funding two projects with this in mind.

In Life Sciences, a team of talented undergraduates have been developing interactive online learning resources, and more importantly, developing a production approach (selecting technologies, designing workflows etc). They are on to their second round of production. Their approach has moved from the sprint/marathon end of the spectrum closer to the remix end.

In Classics, we are trying a different technique. We have two PhD students who are researching and designing an approach to the encoding of ancient texts (TEI). Importantly, they are working out how this can be integrated in the undergraduate curriculum, and how it can become a more common research practice across the department and beyond. They are in effect building a new kind of remix for us.

Here’s the definitions:

Tweaks: At the simplest, easiest end of the spectrum, below the level we would normally describe as a “project”, there are “tweaks” – simple changes to existing practices aimed at optimising without disrupting. Tweaks are typically suggested as a result of peer-to-peer or expert-to-peer teaching observations. We would like Student Champions to develop a capability for spotting and (diplomatically) suggesting tweaks. But that might be a more long term issue. We also need to recognise that in some cases a teacher might need to approach the adoption of a tweak into their habitual practice as a project in itself – change is harder than we imagine! Tweaks are rated low on the “can of worms index” – meaning we should be able to adopt them without too many unforeseen consequences.

Remixes: In which we replace a learning design – so for example going from a straightforward didactic lecture to an interactive lecture using clicker – as described above. Remixes score a little higher on the “can of worms index”.

Sprints: Tweaks and remixes are relatively straightforward and self-contained kinds of project, whereas sprints require more planning, adapting, problem solving, trying out alternatives and fitting things together – so for example tracking the performance of students in clicker-based tests over a whole module. Warning – this might open up a whole can of worms (but some people seem to like that kind of thing, and it is after all necessary for progress of any kind).

Marathons: In some cases, change has much wider implications and requires more people and systems to be coordinated together, and takes much longer with repeated periods of experimentation, reflection and adjustment, such cases can feel like marathons. This reminds me of the time I tried to fix a blown bulb in the dashboard of my motorcycle – £15k later and I had redesigned and refurbished the whole bike. Expect huge buckets of worms falling in a constant drizzle with the possibility of sunny spells and better weather next year.