Bringing the outside in…

In a Technology Enhanced Learning Showcase led by my PGCE trainees last week, I was reminded of the use of Skype in the classroom as a means of bringing experts in for our learners.*


Those of you that read my blog regularly will be aware of my appreciation for teacher expertise in subject content knowledge. Not only should teachers be experts in their content knowledge (CK), more importantly, they should aspire to be experts with pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) (I have written about this in a previous post, if interested). To acquire expertise in PCK takes years, however,  it could be asserted that there are many situations where abstract concepts can be made more concrete by experts in particular fields of a domain; those that can share ‘real world’ experiences with learners, as opposed to a teacher’s ‘text book’ understanding.


I have used Skype myself with learners and found it invaluable. Just a couple of examples include:

  • When teaching Foundation Degree teaching and learning students about professionalism, specifically in FE, I was able to organise a Skype call with David Russell, CEO of the Education and Training Foundation to answer trainees’ questions about how the organisation supports practitioners with their development. My understanding in this regard was limited at the time.
  • When delivering a module on inclusion with trainee teachers, I was able to invite Amjad Ali and Nancy Gedge into the room to.share their views with trainees and answer their specific questions about the subject – something that both have vast experience in.

The opportunity to engage with the depth and breadth of knowledge, skills and experiences is something that I alone could never offer to learners.  I am by no means a pioneer in using Skype to bring experts into the room, but in using it, found that my learners thrived.


There are many ways in which you might engage with experts in your subject. Below I have listed a few ideas which might inspire you to try it for yourself in your subject:


The list is not extensive; the only limitation to how you might use Skype is your imagination.


Using Skype or similar packages does not come without problems from time to time, however. For example, trying to download Skype software onto college systems was like asking the IT technicians to work on Christmas day – a bit of a chore. Moreover, you have to rely on a reasonably good internet connection and of course have a microphone and camera, which not all school/college computers have. Putting this to one side, I’d say from time to time, the opportunity outweighs the cost.


*Thanks to the three trainees that shared their use of Skype – it provided inspiration for this post. There are other packages that can be used e.g. Google Hangouts, so you do not have to limit yourself to Skype.

Why use visuals?

Along with the other half a dozen books I am working my way through, I am coming to the end of Ruth Clarke and Chopete Lyons’ book on Graphics for Learning. My fascination for this sort of thing is borne out of admiration for my good friend, Oliver Caviglioli’s work (if you haven’t seen this, you’re missing out). For information, in this post I will be using graphics and visuals synonymously.
In their book, Clarke and Lyons spend a chapter (4) exploring how learning happens and how graphics can be effective in supporting this. Here is a graphic they use to show human cognitive architecture which aligns with Baddeley and Hitch’s Working Memory Model.


They note that because of the importance of long term memory, those with little domain knowledge (novices) suffer when information is not presented effectively to them, as their working memory (WM) becomes overloaded. Using visuals with auditory information during instruction can work to reduce this burden on WM however, as two pathways into WM are distinctly separate – one visual and one auditory.

Essentially, the working memory is like a bottle neck. If we pour too much into the bottle neck, much is lost… now imagine having two bottle necks into the same bottle, we’d keep much more information (yes a very simplistic way of looking at it). Better still, imagine if the same information went in both visually and auditory… this is what Paivio calls dual coding – a really useful approach to providing new information to learners.

Dual coding in action?
Using graphics benefits learners in numerable ways, not just the above. Here I will discuss some of the reasons outlined by Clarke and Lyons:

1. Graphics help to direct attention

They suggest that almost any ‘visual will attract attention’. Attention is key to learning anything new, but in a typical classroom, in addition to the information being taught, there are other stimuli which can distract learners. Having a visual for learners can provide the focus of attention, however, they should be used with caution:

  • The visual should not be irrelevant to what information is being shared (random clip art images should be avoided).
  • The visual, if complex, should also have signals to direct attention to component parts such as small circles or arrows.
  • Simple visuals are better for more novice learners.


2. Graphics help to activate prior knowledge

Learners ‘know stuff’ already, but it will be in the abyss of long term memory and it is important for us to draw it (no pun intended) into the working memory in order to link new knowledge. Clarke and Lyons tell us that ‘a visual provided before the main lesson content can help to build an effective base knowledge structure. This skeleton structure provides a frame on which the learner can attach additional lesson details.’ This is corroborated by Marzano’s work on classroom based instruction, whereby non-linguistic teaching methods such as graphic organisers have a startling effect on achievement (0.75 Ave. ES)

In spite of this, a graphic that activates inappropriate prior knowledge will depress learning according to Clarke and Lyons, so there is a need to ensure clarity and order with the graphic that is used.


3. Graphics help to manage mental load

‘Since working memory is the site of active processing, good instructional materials must preserve its limited capacity for learning.’ I have blogged before about the use of storyboards to assist with delivery of new information. This is one example of how to manage the mental load. Simple visuals (line drawings) are said to be better than more complex visuals. For instance, when drawing the heart, for novice learners it would help to draw a simple boxed line drawing as opposed to a cross section of the heart, which is often seen. As learners become more competent with the content, visuals can increase in complexity.


4. Graphics help to build mental models

Where Clarke and Lyons refer to mental models, they basically mean ‘schema’, or patterns of knowledge and skills in the long term memory. The more expert one becomes, the more complex and organised our mental models become. We learn by linking new information to existing mental models and in using graphics, abstract information can be made more clear with how new information links to current knowledge.


5. Graphics help with transfer

Clarke and Lyons argue that with all the knowledge in the world, unless we can retrieve it and bring it back to WM, we won’t be able to transfer it to alternative situations. They distinguish between near and far-transfer in their book, both requiring different types of graphic to maximise the type of transfer.

Near-transfer is the type of thing we will do more frequently, like a following a process for sending an email – the difference being that there will be different content to include.


Far-transfer requires the use of concrete and abstract examples – Clarke and Lyons inform us that in developing far-transfer, ‘graphic illustrations that build mental models, use varied context, transition from concrete to abstract, and provide a work context for immersive learning environments’. I feel that this warrants an entirely separate blog post, so will look at this further in the new year.


6. Graphics can optimise motivation

Clarke and Lyons highlight motivation as the key to effective learning and that visuals can play a huge role in motivating learners. They recommend using visuals that help learners see the relevance and value in the learning and trigger interest for learners. It is important to note that while visuals can interest learners in the learning material, the ‘edutainment’ that often comes with instruction can actually impede learning (guilty of this your honour). So try to avoid eye candy and instead focus on relevant graphics.

In addition to this, a recent post by Greg Ashman caught my eye, arguing that by reducing cognitive load, we increase the motivation of our learners. If we look back at the purpose of using the visual pathway to WM – to reduce load, then we find additional benefits to using graphics.


So that’s it, six reasons why we should consider using more visuals in our instruction. If you do use them though, please heed the advice of Clarke and Lyons.


Diary of a Teacher Trainer #2

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to deliver a training session for 24 PGCE post-14 students last week. The topic… Well it was mobile learning. After my recent post about learning technology I was determined that I was going to be sharing ideas that I believe genuinely support learning and that it would not just be a ‘free for all’ of ideas.


My session started with the obligatory ‘whizz bang’ welcome video which introduced the concept of embracing mobile learning, followed by a brief overview of the session:

  1. What is m-learning?
  2. Why should we embrace it?
  3. How can we do this effectively?


Following this, I asked the students to produce a visual representation of ‘m-learning’ in groups of 3/4 (5 mins). In doing so, they were asked to think about what they believe m-learning is and what it means to them. Of course, I provided them with some images to cut out, coloured pens, and A3 paper to use as they wished. Wait… This isn’t very ‘edtech’; using paper and pens I hear you ask? Hold fire as there was method to my madness…

Derby Uni PGCE students mid-flow with the visual representations

After the 5 minutes, I stopped the task and explained that typically at this point in lessons, the learners would share their visual representations by standing up and speaking to the whole class. After which, another group would do the same and so on. This often results in learners feeling anxious whilst waiting for their turn and as a result, they’re not really listening to others – I’ve been that person!


Why not record themselves presenting it then? You don’t have to film faces, but could film the visual representation and students could point to areas that are being explained. So that’s what they did. Using the simple record function on a smart phone (only 1 needed in the group of 4), they were able to present and then share the video via email with me. It can also be added to a host like Padlet or the Virtual Learning Environment very simply and it is then available to revisit until removed. Simples…


I then provided a bit of information about what m-learning is using definitions from Crompton (2013) and JISC, making broad links to the social constructivist theory of learning. This in essence was what the students had done, co-constructed their own meaning of m-learning in their work to answer my first question – what is m-learning?


Following this we moved onto my second question – why should we embrace it? To open this, I provided access to a Go formative quiz in which they were required to answer questions relating to m-learning. This included:

  • Approximately how many FE  learners (16-19 year olds) own a smart device? Answer – 9/10
  • What generation of learner joined FE for the first time this year? Answer – Generation Z
  • What does this mean for FE providers? Answer – Who knows?


The group then took part in a brief discussion about each of the questions. It was interesting to hear that many had not considered the impact of increased technology use. It’s hard to ignore.


Finally, I introduced the students to how they might begin to integrate a little technology into their practice. I cautiously advised them that any technology must be simple to use, serve a purpose and be at least as equally as effective (preferably more) than conventional methods of teaching (that is in terms of input, time, access, inclusion, output). I introduced three apps that I have found useful in the past.


1. Padlet: I asked the students to identify the various technology that they have used by adding to a Padlet wall. I was surprised at how little they had used, and were even aware of. Together we explored a few uses of the technology. Around half of the group thought that it would be something they’d find useful in their context.

2. Thinglink: After a quick demo, I asked the group to peer assess one another’s visual representation (from the earlier activity) using this app. They went over to another group’s visual representation and took a picture. They then went back and added feedback in the form of comments and/or videos, before emailing it to me. We discussed other ways in which they may use this in practice and again, around half of the group thought they’d use this in their practice.

3. Aurasma: After a couple of demonstrations and allowing the students to explore its use, I realised that this element of the session was perhaps a little too complex and went against my whole ethos in using technology. I had planned to get the group to provide peer feedback on another’s work, but they were struggling to navigate the app and this created a bit of a lull in the session with me being in high demand to support them. I am really excited about augmented reality and have used it to good effect previously, but only a few of the group were as enthused by this as myself and wanting to explore it further.


I ended the session with a summary which asked the group to reflect on the various edtech tools that they had used in the session and consider how they might use any of them going forward. There was a catch. I wanted them to use the ‘talk to text’ feature on their devices to email the summary to themselves and copy me in.


At the end of the session, I was pleasantly surprised by how many of the students found it to be a positive experience with the vast majority clear with what they intended to try in their contexts and why. Upon returning home, I replied to each and every reflection summary that I was copied into to ensure that the reflective activity using talk to text served a real purpose for the students. I think in summary that is the key to using technology – keep it simple and ensure that it serves a purpose.