From webinar to seminar – flip don’t flop!

This is not a seminar. (Jean Marc Cote 1901, Image in the Public Domain)

UCEM has recently announced that we will be moving away from webinars in favour of ‘online seminars’. This is not just a change of terminology. It is another step towards embracing active strategies in our teaching, and complements the goal of the Transform programme to provide a more focused and outcome-led student experience.

The case for online seminars

Webinars have come to be known as virtual lectures or presentations, enabled by the use of a webinar technology platform. There may be space for Q&A and some discussion, but predominantly this type of teaching is used to deliver content and information in real-time, from a tutor to a group of students. The challenge here is that there is little reason for a student to participate in real time. As the webinars are recorded and made available after the class, the student may see  little added value to attending a synchronous session.

This is more so the case for distance learners than those who undertake their education in a face-to-face setting. Whilst lecture capture technology in Universities is increasingly being used to provide students with recordings of  their lectures, there is little evidence in the sector of reduced class attendance as a result. Whilst I was at Oxford,  we ran an annual survey of students after implementing lecture capture. The analysis revealed that there were many factors at play when it came to attending lectures, not least the social aspect of seeing peers and staff, physically in the same space. The digital space is not the same. It’s not as easy to make comments to those sat next to you, to share notes, for a tutor to gauge how their students are engaging with the content via facial expression and adapt teaching on the fly in response. There are no fluid unstructured opportunities to  talk around the space of the lecture – as you are sitting down, leaving the room etc. Learning does not just happen in scheduled timeslot. Attendance is deliberate choice by the student largely based on whether they believe that the session will benefit them (Billings-Gagliardi et al., 2007; Dolnicar, 2005), and  students will opt for synchronous teaching when they think the content is going to be difficult and they will receive support (Bassili, 2008).

The aim of turning our focus towards online seminars is to encourage student engagement, collaboration, and to enrich teaching contact time by providing support in the areas where students need it the most.  To attend a seminar is to engage in a conversation, work together and build understanding from others’ experiences. Our modules are to be 9 weeks long and with busy professional students from all over the world, time for scheduled synchronous teaching is limited but incredibly valuable for humanising the learning experience, providing access to experts in the field and to peers.  We want to explore how to make the best use of that time and move beyond the delivery of content .

Flipping the virtual classroom

Diagram of the Zone of Proximal Development
The Flipped Classroom has emerged from social constructivist theory which is based on Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ Vygotsky assumed that whenever a student is at the zone of proximal development for a specific task, providing support will give the ability to accomplish the task (Vygotsky, 1978). Once the student becomes skilled at the task, support can then be removed and the student can work independently.

In effect we want to explore flipping our virtual classroom.  ‘Flipping’ is a pedagogical approach that takes the classroom activities that learners can do without any help  – for instance watching a presentation,  and moves them outside of the class session.  Activities that require more support and feedback, such as problem solving or formulating arguments, move inside the class and the instructor uses scaffolding techniques to help the student to accomplish these tasks that they would usually experience difficulty with. In addition, opportunities for collaboration and discussion should lead to more active  and socially constructivist learning, and a better student experience.

Small-group interactions are at the heart of the flipped classroom, because they keep students focused and help them to construct meaning from their experiences. With a large cohort of students it is important to explore any functionality that the webinar technology or VLE provides for break-out groups so that students can benefit the most from interactive activities. Student benefits include:
  •  Relatively easy and certain involvement of everyone.
  • Permit and encourage meaningful participation in a low-risk, threat-free way.
  • Provide students with an opportunity to learn from peers and to test out the validity of their own ideas.
  • Can offer the diversity of views essential for good problem solving.

Ideas for online seminars

We need to design seminars into our modules to ensure that they become part of the students learning journey. Here are some of the ideas we have:

  • Use the functionality of the online webinar tool to get students involved. Polls are a great way to test the understanding of concepts and the results can make for both interesting discussion during your session and follow-up discussion in another form of content such as a blog post.
  • Use the webinar tool’s break-out rooms and assign students into groups to collaboratively brainstorm, work on a presentation, research a topic, or solve a problem in that room. You can dip into the room to see how they are doing and ask students to present their work back to the entire cohort. Small group activities require the instructure to implement interaction strategies to provide structure and purpose to the session. We will present some of these in a future blog post.
  • If your topic involves calculations, present scenarios in the online seminar that requires a calculated answer. Have students post their results and discuss.
  • Because the limit of working memory is about seven items of information, if you are using some presentation, this should present no more than five important facts before students have a chance to interact in order to process the data. For less fact-intensive topics, processing time could occur at regular fifteen to twenty minute intervals.
  • Related to the above, give students regular ‘brain rests’ and ask them to share the notes they are making online, for instance in a seminar Padlet board.
  • Open up the conversation and create a backchannel. Create a hashtag for your seminar and encourage students to tweet what they are learning on Twitter and engage with a wider community. You could consider asking for some students to monitor and tweet during the session to keep the conversation lively.
  • With small groups you may want to allow video or audio chat, but it’s always a good idea to take questions from the attendees. Most platforms also allow you to conduct a survey at some point in your session. This is a nice way to end a seminar to get feedback from students, and even let them vote on other topics they would like to approach in the next session.
  • Go on a digital fieldtrip. Ask students to research a topic on the web, then using screenshare take the rest of the class on a tour of what they found.
  • Use the seminars as an opportunity for reflection. Ask students to discuss questions such as in what ways, if any, are your views changing about the topic? What did you find most challenging about this topic? What do you still want to know about this topic? If students are undertaking the creation of a portfolio for their assessment that includes reflection, such an activity will strengthen their submission.