Conversations on online learning

Episode 7. Dot Powell

February 15, 2021 Digital Support Partnership Episode 7
Conversations on online learning
Episode 7. Dot Powell
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode we chat with Dot Powell, Director of Teaching and Learning Enhancement at the Warwick Business School (University of Warwick). 

Warwick Business School Profile 

ESOL Nexus Project 

Warwick Business School Blog 

Peter Vorderer et al. (Eds.) Permanently Online, Permanently Connected: Living and Communicating in a POPC World 


Stuart Taylor (ST): hello i'm stuart taylor and welcome to conversations on online learning a podcast in which we discuss online learning and how to support it in each episode we'll ask our featured guests to relate their own particular area of expertise and experiences related to online learning and we'll discuss how this has informed their understanding of online learning we'll also ask our guests to share their advice for teaching and learning support staff who want to enhance and develop their support our guest today is dot powell dot is the director of teaching and learning enhancement at the warwick business school and joins us today from kenilworth welcome dot 


Dot Powell (DP): thank you very much stuart and it's great to um get the opportunity to reflect i think i think we've all been manic over the last uh nine months and it's just really nice to be able to pause sometimes and uh you know think about it all think about how it's changed our practice and uh sort of i don't know get some get some fuel to move forward um with i think so thanks for the opportunity 


ST: absolutely thank you and i couldn't agree more about that chance to to stop and reflect and we hope everyone listening out there has taken the opportunity to to listen to this and have a walk as well get some fresh air and and then just take that pause you said so needed and but i thought we could kick off top by just if you could tell us um a bit about what you do and your journey to doing that your your origin story if that's okay 


DP: yeah that's great well i started out teaching english to adults um who didn't have english as a first language um and worked in that area for probably 10 to 15 years and moved into teacher training but in the middle of that i decided to take a master's degree and my master's degree was one of the first ever online master's degrees i think there was probably only one other that was going on at the time and it was run at the institute of education the university of london and uh you'll begin to guess how old i am when i say that the way that we did this included dial-up internet so we had to um log in download all the messages from a forum listening to that little dial-up sound as we um you know waited for the connection offline we had to answer all the questions or reply or start a conversation and then we had to upload it all again and surprisingly we did actually manage to build quite a good community despite the fact that it was the definition of asynchronous you know it was absolutely no way that we were communicating in real time at all the only time we actually saw each other was when we had a couple of weekends together in london um and that i think was the beginning of my interest in online learning um and then through the rest of my career i had opportunities to do things like tutor for the ou which again was um a lot longer ago than than you know than the way that he that online learning is now but was the beginnings of that sort of thing uh deliver a blended teacher training program which included face-to-face teaching but also creating asynchronous tasks and activities for people to do online and then the last job that i went into before i came to the business school was to run a website project for the british council called esol nexus which was about developing learning materials and for asylum seekers and refugees and their teachers and making them available online so i've got a sort of thread of online learning sort of going through what i've done in the past really and so then i came to the business school i came in as an e-learning consultant what was the team was called e-learning at the time and a few years later we sort of reconfigured the team so that we were called teaching and learning rather than e-learning and and the thinking behind that was that um not only had the remit of the team expanded but all teaching and learning is e-learning now you know technology is used in in all areas of teaching and learning so we wanted to remove the emphasis from the technology and move it back into the teaching and learning um and so two years ago i i took on the role of directing the team and we support teaching and learning across the business school a large portion of our work is developing online learning materials but we also support technologies in the classroom and the team consists of media specialists digital public specialists and consultants who will support individual academics with various projects that they want to do and the ways that they want to develop their teaching 


ST: that's fabulous yes that's wonderful in that that through line through and and as you said back to the dial-up days of fun memories of that as well and it really uh emphasized the the materiality i suppose of of connecting of you actually having to physically connect rather than this a bit of ubiquity now i think with with our with our connection because you see that moving away from focus on the technology to the pedagogy into the learning and teaching practice um is something that i think we're hopefully those who are maybe new to this form of of delivery um of teaching and are starting to to get to grips and in this current situation beyond the kind of emergency pivot i suppose and and then you talk about i i know that work business school does like such fabulous things with that model and and am i right i'm saying is it the is it three years running yeah it's been the best distance learning MBA course is that right true 


DP: that is true we are um so when i took on the role somebody said we had nowhere to go but thankfully we stayed where we are for now 


ST: that's great well congratulations on that as well um and when it when it comes to your what you bring and to to that environment and especially in a leadership role as well and bringing your own expertise into as you say where do we go from there i wonder if you could talk a little bit about what interests you and what your your own expertise in in online learning and learning and teaching and and that um technological element too where does that lie for you 


DP: well i would have said that um a bit of a jack of all trades really um i've been involved in working on um development of asynchronous learning tasks and and engaging learners with um content particularly um really um really keen to make sure that there's always a reason for doing something i mean it's something that we say quite a lot isn't it but that you'd never provide a vineyard a video for someone without telling them why or what they have to do with it also the the idea of a narrative that moves through um online materials so that there's a journey that learners are taking on but the thing that's particularly become much more interesting to me over the last four to five years is the um the idea of what learners are doing when they meet together in virtual study groups which are groups where they haven't actually got any face-to-face contact with each other and it's something that we use on our distance learning mba and have done um for many years but i got particularly interested because i was asked to do a project um to introduce a peer assessment process and the idea of this process was um that the members of these study groups would assess each other on the basis of their team working behaviors so not on the basis of uh the product but of the process of team working so i worked on this project for uh sort of three to four years we looked at other models that are out there and created an online process which is embedded within our VLE and at the same time developed a sort of online training module for students which was about virtual team working and the sort of problems they might encounter and how they might deal with them and what good teamworking behaviors look like but it became clear to me as the project sort of rolled out and as we started to use it and we've used it now with hundreds and hundreds of students and you know tens and twenties of groups that the team working behaviors aspect of it didn't explain everything and that there's a relationship aspect that was going on in these virtual groups that i found particularly interesting and i wondered about how those relationships would be connected with learning and whether the relationships were important um you know in supporting the learning process and we we got lots of complaints students really love peer assessment as an idea until they full foul of it and then they absolutely hate it you know so you know if they've got a really poor scores for their teamworking behaviors you know they'll say it's because somebody didn't like them or they'll say it's because they had a you know a clash of personal clash with somebody and it all comes back down to relationship or an emotional level so that was the beginnings of my uh phd work which emerged from asking um study groups on a distance learning mba whether i could join them and be part of their group as a silent member and i was very surprised uh that they that a lot of them said yes a lot of them were perfectly happy for me to do it even to the extent of me joining their whatsapp groups and whatsapp became absolutely fascinating to me it's not something that we'd recommended that our teams did we provide them with a study space we provide them with structured activities we provide them with ways of file sharing but the very first thing they always do is set up a whatsapp group and i have always thought that that was a very private thing that they wouldn't be we wouldn't be able to get in there that they didn't want um members of faculty or staff members to be part of it but to my surprise good number of teams said yeah it's fine you just join our group and this became like an ongoing soap opera for me because i had a phone that a separate phone where i kept all my uh whatsapp groups because i obviously for data protection and is for security i wanted to keep it separate from my own contacts um i had it sitting in my office back at home when i came home from the office i would look at this this phone and it would be full of messages and the groups would be communicating with each other day and night they would be they would hardly be an hour of the day when there wasn't a message going backwards and forwards between these groups and they were talking about the learning they were talking about the task but they were also talking about themselves they were sharing pictures of their babies their cats they were sharing news occasionally they fell out with each other but not very often and this i found fascinating and i also found that it was supporting um the learning in a number of really interesting ways so the obvious things were happening so there was empathy for each other when they had a heart were having a hard time balancing work and study and there was clarification so they would talk about a concept they'd encountered and they would try to and clarify what it meant or they would work together to come up with a way of dealing with a particular problem or a way of solving a task but there was something else going on which and was much more subtle and it was something that i'm uh sort of now focusing on and looking into in more detail and that was where concepts and ideas from the learning actually became part of the relationship and became part of almost the humor of the group and the jokes and it almost those concepts were becoming embedded in in the way they talk to each other in a really sort of fascinating way so an example of that would be um there's a concept in operations management um in queueing theory about reneging and reneging is if you you know you walk up to the queue the queue looks like it's going to be too long so you don't bother to join it and it was one of the many concepts they had to learn in operations management and i found them joking about reneging so i found them saying oh gosh i arrived at warwick week which is our face-to-face um part of the course and they would say yeah but i saw the queue and i've decided to renege and they would be what's happening each other um all key characters um of important people from case studies became part of the group so um carly fiorina from hp was one of the um focuses of one of the case studies all the groups were talking about carly fiorina as if she was one of the members of the group you know they were sort of saying oh i'm going to be more carly today um so if it all together feels like this informal social community learning um which i'm sort of wrapping up in the concept of connected knowing um is a fascinating and i think a really important part of online learning because online learning can be very very isolating you've you know you're you've chosen to do it because you want to do it on your own essentially because you've chosen to do it because it fits in with your work or it fits in with your other commitments i mean obviously in this period nobody's chosen to do online learning it's you know it's what you have to do but on the whole um it can be very isolating and this whole group side of things i think um is something that's quite under explored and a very important part of the whole thing 


ST: absolutely and that's absolutely fascinating i think we talked a little bit about this with one of our other guests Alison Gilmour and that relationship and between um those informal spaces and the the vles themselves and i understand that yourselves at work have got quite an extensive one that you've built in terms of a VLE that caters to what you'd think a lot of those social interactions as well and yet there's there's those informal ones and they're so important and do you see um much crossover then between those areas and maybe going the other way from the the whatsapp groups back into the course itself?


DP: now i did see that and it is interesting though you know having provided them with yeah we have got quite a powerful vle and we um and also i would say as well that um teaching faculty are quite nervous about these informal separate online spaces because their first thought might be in some cases but i don't know what students are doing i don't know what they're saying to each other they might be misleading each other you know what's going on um there was a connection with the learning that was happening in the vle i think sometimes it was just purely um instrumental it was purely i can't work out how to access this file can you tell me how to do it or if they were trying to have a synchronous online meeting and they couldn't log in they'd they'd what's up each other you know in order to find out how to help and they'd help each other to get online but they were constantly referring to what was in the vle they're constantly referring to the materials they were comparing with each other the progress and helping each other to keep on on in sort of in step with each other as well as groups so i think it had a really powerful role of sort of keeping them constantly connected and but also keeping them constantly connected to the learning materials that we provided them with so it didn't feel like it was separate at all it did feel like it was a sort of integrated part of the program yes that's great so absolutely fascinating and how many people would be on these groups out of interest what kind of numbers are we are we talking the groups i was looking at the largest was seven in a group the smallest was four so and i think that's a good size for a group really i didn't do any sort of comparisons but i think when a group gets too big and too cumbersome then there's always people that fall off the edges and that don't get included that's really interesting because i think i've seen some of that as as well on and i don't think what's up on facebook and the understanding where you've got and quite a large cohort of a few hundreds and they've all decided to join this informal space and um yeah you get a lot more silence and a lot more domination as well and so they're just a completely different relationship dynamic so it's really really interesting to see that on a on as you say a smaller and perhaps more effective level there so the idea of connected knowing i want that's really interesting i wonder if you could say a little bit more about that it actually comes from feminist theory um and the idea of it is that and it comes from it says that women tend to um to know about things through empathizing with others and in relationship with other people um and uh i can't really say an awful lot more than that at the moment because it's still very much in the thinking process but i think it has all sorts of connections with different ways of knowing but the particular emphasis that i'm taking is this thing about knowing in relationship and and actually forming an environment in which you feel safe i suppose and you feel like you're able to be part of a of an identity of a relationship with others which means that you together can know something uh something new mm-hmm that sounded horribly funny i'm afraid 


ST: no no it didn't and it's it ties in quite nicely i think with that idea of um those places and i think a lot of and those of us supporting that kind of learning this idea of collaboration and how you bring in collaboration to your your own courses or things like that is is there is there a connection there that you could maybe speak to a little bit because i i i believe uh maybe not to just focus on the the distance learning mba course but by all means do and since it's very tangible there but this idea of a lot of that my understanding is a lot of that is collaborative learning and building things together and projects as you said there's the peer evaluation aspect of it as well but imagine others too and so is that the idea of a connected knowing speaking directly to that a collaboration or in a in a formal education way 


DP: i'm not sure it is actually i think um what was interesting is that when these students uh just moved into a much more normal inverted commerce normal sort of face-to-face environment when they spent a week together they carried on relating in a very similar way so you they would be sitting in the lecture theaters and they would be what's happening each other about the concepts and about the content of the sessions there would also be what's happening each other about other things that weren't related um to the teaching which i think is entirely natural um but they they were retaining that connection with each other and i think it probably it does extend i mean think from personal experience i think when you form a really strong small group um of any sort the relationships probably do form uh some of the basis for the ways that you can move forward in your understanding of your context really 


ST: definitely i think it for for me um i'm thinking about quite a common strategy i think if you're anticipating or you've designed a lot of collaborative elements is having a period at the start of a course or a module of ice breaking right of icebreaking you know but that idea of what what you're speaking to there is you know you don't just break the ice once it's and then that's it done forever it's got to be there's got to be some kind of natural it's perhaps a wrong ad adjective but just is that correct?


DP: i think you're right and i think one of the things that triggers that is is actually does come back to the the input from the teaching faculty and it's about giving these groups really purposeful challenging things to do um because that generates that discussion it generates that um emotion and it's the emotion that you know comes out in the relationships um so i'm thinking of examples where for exam for example um you don't see it very often but i have seen a couple of really goods or group tasks where you set a group off on a particular task they have to do and then you throw in a curveball so you send them a message that says i'm sorry everything's changed you need to do it this way now or we have a simulation project where news flashes happen and the you know the business world has collapsed and you have to change your strategy in order to uh fit in with the new environment um and i think that's what COVID has done as well it's thrown as all a curveball and it's actually made some relationships get much stronger and i would hope actually that's um some student groups that have existed um in this time have actually become significantly stronger and significantly more useful because of all the emotion and the upheaval that it's caused but we're not very bold about giving people um sort of challenging and emotional things to do in groups we tend to just say oh if you'd like to get together and create a presentation and we'll see you in six weeks and you can give the presentation for us and so i think we can have a role in stimulating these things and not necessarily by saying oh we'd like you to talk among yourselves and we'd like you to build good relationships with each other um but we can give we can make the situation sufficiently challenging and actually maybe disorienting um that it just actually create that um need to build those relationships 


ST: were there any particular activities that you thought and worked really well in collaboration and you could you said you mentioned there were and instances of like curveballs being been thrown in that particular simulation and part of of of the course as well. Are there are there some things that we we should that work really well and some things that perhaps don't work so well?


DP: yes there was this one activity where um in a simulation um the groups were working um each group had a particular organization they were a company basically and then we provided an online news flash which was released online um at a particular time in a particular day um and we actually filmed somebody doing a news announcement as if it was real we did have a problem with one group who thought it was real um i can't remember what it was about it was about something like a currency drop or something like that which which freaked one group out completely um but then they had to change their plans um in order to encounters account for that um we've also found it really useful um to provide to give multiple um small tasks to a group which they have to then prioritize and order and decide uh which thing they need to do first that's really good sort of challenge and i think the third thing is providing groups with a piece of information which is completely irrelevant and leaving them to not even saying to them one of these pieces of information is irrelevant but leaving them to work out it really triggers some really high level sort of cognitive processes and some really high levels of discussions um where actually one is a red herring and uh you've that where they have to get to a point where somebody says do you know what i think this might not be relevant because that's how real life works that's so useful and again you've got the those informal and networks and spaces that you can imagine students feel feeling free to question that and say hang on am i getting this right here i i think this is an and that's a bit less exposed than having those conversations in the vle in that situation is it important do you think to have a period of of reflection with the students as well and unpack okay well this this curveball was kind of intentional and look back on that like how do you see that in light of what you experience now looking back on it is that important do you think i think so yeah and i mean one of the best ways actually looping back to the peer assessment process we use it in either a summative way where it would actually change or group mark or a formative way where actually you just look at the profile that you generated um for yourself and that others created for you and you reflect on why that might be you know why is it that i'm i think i'm really good at uh you know monitoring what the team is doing everybody else thinks i'm rubbish at that um and a lot of those reflections turn out to be about the relationships that you've had with others 


ST: yeah that's wonderful and i think it gives um a lot to of people who want to kind of go for that and and realize that it doesn't take place in the vacuum or the formal vacuum of just the the vle um that's built up but there there will be or one can expect that there will be those inform that informal network of support that that's that's happening there and to um maybe acknowledge it a bit more in what what they're doing there and the idea of support as well and we talk a lot about it almost as um the antithesis of challenge and as as uh you know we're supporting learning in a global pandemic but we've also got you know on on our student side as well them encountering so many challenges um and hardships as well clearly that i what your research is about about those um virtual online communities of emotionally supportive are going to play are an absolutely key issue like right now moving forward and in that do you think that those touch on kind of all of the issues that we're experiencing just now and any other issues that this this perspective can can um help us understand?


DP: i really hope i i um i don't know that people are leveraging the opportunities of helping students to support each other as much as they could be it's interesting because when i've gone out sort of as we've all been doing i think googling you know what do i do in a covid pandemic you know roughly not exactly that but um group putting students into groups has not come up very often and in fact um and creating community has not come up that often it's the focus has been and maybe it's because it's about emergency teaching the focus has tended to be about how can i create materials uh what can i tell people to do um how can i run a session um on live you know online in a live webinar and there hasn't been a lot out there about how can i help students to support each other how can i um put them in situations where that support is available and in fact it's dead easy because if as soon as you put give the students six names that's all we've had to do for these whatsapp groups to just spring up you know is to say here's the people these students will self-organize we don't actually need special areas of vles or group facilities in order for them to do it they will self-organize and they'll support each other i mean obviously there's that element of okay i've got these students into these groups now what can i give them to do that would be uh purposeful and would be part of the course but in terms of the well-being side of things i think we've probably i should i can't speak for everybody but i feel that if what i'm seeing online is true then we might have missed a trick really 


ST: that’s wonderful to hear that is as easy as that as expecting that that will will self-organize as well is there is there any kind of resources that you that you know of that would would help that staff who are maybe a little bit um nervous about doing this for the first time or engaging with it?


DP: i have struggled really as i said i've sort of alluded to the fact it's been quite difficult to find anything um that really helps um there's there's a book which is um not at all related and to education but it's related to what people do in instant messaging applications like whatsapp and it's called permanently connected permanently online and i think it's and i find it a really really great read um one of the chapters is about being connected in groups but it provides the uh background to how we're behaving differently now that we've got our mobile phone in our hand all the time and i think that is for anybody who's interested in technology and learning technology i think that's it's a really good background book it's by peter vordera and it's a 2019 book and it is available well in my library anyway is available as an e-book and and i was able to download the whole book um and i found that really very useful um just to get me starting to think about new ways that people are being connected and uh yeah so i can recommend that i mean i have got a sort of if one or two other links but um no i have actually found it quite difficult to find much you know on this topic yeah and that that's wonderful here there's a book out there it can can read and one that isn't just tied to problem solving perhaps with regard to a course that is it's about and how we're generally living um i suppose there and i guess maybe um to encourage would you encourage that kind of conversation that reflection within courses themselves and between between um course leaders and tutors and and their students as well like build that in would be to know more yes i think so i think um my feeling is that the fear is usually um what would i do what would i give them to do um and you know then all the data things about well i can't i don't want to give students my what's my telephone number so you know to be in whatsapp groups and what have you and i suppose what i'd say is you don't have to do anything you don't have to be part of that group it's you know it's not about your role in the group you can direct from outside give activities um you know to be involved in but it is about this self-organization this finding things out together and and working together to support each other and i think obviously in some cases students actually prefer not to have a member of staff in their group anyway it allows for freedom i did have one group that funnily enough you know that um most groups said they forgot i was there because i just didn't interact with them at all one group suddenly emailed me and said uh we've removed you from our group we've decided that our conversations have become a little bit too much about the the experience we're having of our learning and we don't want you to pass that on to any of the um teaching faculty something of that you know nature and then i found i'd been removed from the group but it was very unusual uh but yeah so i think the element of privacy is probably quite an important one you know students to be able to share things as they want to 


ST: definitely and that's clearly frustrating as a researcher on that but kind of amazingly exciting because it proves that proving the point of what you're saying about it's becoming um you know so they're they're clearly so engaged with it on a course level and a deep emotional level that they've decided to make that explicit and distant shoot from us 


DP: that's one other group that remember remembered i was there and they had a problem with um one of the teaching faculty not a problem with him as such they wanted to ask a question and they or they thought something wasn't fair and they said to each other in the messaging i could see them messaging each other going let's ask Dot could ask Dot could say something and i had to break all my rules about not getting involved and say hi guys i'm really sorry but i can't do that you know that's not that's not appropriate for me to sort of start representing you as a member of the group in that way you know sorry i can't do that and another one where um and the most frustrating one of all where the members of the group were telling um one of the group members that the nearest station to the university was london houston and i knew perfectly well that that was definitely not the nearest station to the university but you know all my rules were i must not get involved i mustn't tell them and that was incredibly frustrating because i was thinking i know there's this person he's going to be miles from the university and i can't tell him so um yeah it was fascinating 


ST: absolutely absolutely but um and i think that that that's just gonna i don't know it gives me a lot of um hope um that there there is going to be these emotional relationships building when so much of the i feel that the national attention is on what has been lost like already and and this to know that this is happening as well is really encouraging yeah that's wonderful um so uh thank you very much for recommending recommending the book as well um and this is clearly this is on ongoing uh research and your interests as well um is there a place where people can go to uh to to see what you're up to or to to what's the best way uh to get in touch with you and see where you're at at the moment?


DP: i'm on the wbs website so if anybody wants to get in touch then my email address is there 


ST: that's okay we can we can direct our listeners to the wbs website and that i know you guys i do blogs and and things there they can you can see what to see what's all happening that's wonderful and well if before before we wrap up and and thank you very much is there anything else you want to say to our listeners? 


DP: well i was thinking about um you know this the whole thing about emergency um teaching and going away from the subjective group work because obviously my role i've been involved you know in all sorts of things that have been happening in order to keep teaching going to keep teaching online and as you talk about emergency provision i think that's exactly what it's called what you know what it should be called um but i think um we've both gained something so i've seen um colleagues learning how to create homemade video content i've learned i've seen them also really engaging with how to direct student learning so you know watch this video and then do this and maybe you could do this quiz or what have you and they've really engaged with really great things that it would have taken you know years to get people to get to grips with if it hadn't been for the necessity of the situation but i've also noticed that some really important things have you know fallen by the wayside and i'd hope that we would bring those back in as soon as we can and one of those is accessibility and so we've we have managed to subtitle all of the 2600 videos that my team have processed since the beginning of lockdown which is quite some achievement but the content of some of those videos for example people's powerpoints probably break quite a lot of accessibility principles because there's just been no time people haven't had the time to think about those things and and to pay attention to those so i'd really hope that that comes back and gets really looked at you know again when we've got a little bit more time um and group work as well actually i think i've found quite a lot of people removing the group work assessment from their face-to-face module because they haven't been able to work out how to do it um so the simplest way and i can understand why because you're in you know a situation of crisis they've got oh we'll do it in a different way because it's just too complicated you know i'd hope that that people would start to think oh actually there might be ways of doing this you know we can do it even beyond when we go back to face-to-face teaching there might be some more um innovative and creative ways that that we can do group work and the last thing would be for people like us who support teaching and learning um i think we found ourselves running to catch up um so an example of this is and i've already said that my team specializing online learning creating online learning materials and helping technologies in the classroom so we were quite confident about that and then we find that colleagues want to do hybrid teaching which is where you have some students away online and some students in the classroom and for us it's a little bit like okay so we're doing that now are we can you just give us five minutes to find out how we do this because we haven't really considered it before and i think for us um we've had to be incredibly agile and i would hope that we continue to be agile although i think all of us would really quite like a bit of a breather now 


ST: sure sure absolutely well thank you thank you so much for for that it just remains for me to say uh thank you so much for speaking with us uh today and um we wish you all the best for uh the rest of your phd research and and and for your teaching um at work and and hopefully we'll we'll see each other in person soon 


DP: it's been really good to talk to you i've really enjoyed it and actually you've triggered all sorts of thoughts so i'll have to go away and back to my books now wonderful thanks 


ST: thanks Dot 


DP: okay bye