The State of Fluffy Sciences

I don’t know yet what will become of this blog. I think there is merit to both archival and deletion. But for now, it’s a fluffy goodbye to this site, and I hope you’ll join me in my new space

Hey everyone, long time no blog!

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on Fluffy Sciences. So long, in fact, that I have lived through a pandemic, gotten married, moved house, had a kid . . .

When I started FluffySciences, I was fascinated by the way a research methodology could impact the kinds of data you collected and the way you might answer your research question.

I have been lucky enough to pursue this passion and now I can make it my day-job. I consult on research methodologies across a wide range of research projects, and pursue my interests in science education as a senior lecturer.

I will always hold a space in my heart for Fluffy Sciences, for the times when I had a dedicated posting schedule thinking about science and knowledge, for the way it brought my my first book, and for being a home on the internet. But it’s not where I belong any more. The last few times the domain name has come up for renewal I’ve hesitated, and this year I finally made a space for me.

That space is It’s a new part of the internet for me, one where I can focus more on open-ness and reproducibility in research.

The internet is getting smaller. I think domains of your own are both valuable in terms of maintaining your own site, but also in terms of understanding how the internet works. It took an embarrassingly long time to set up, but I’m excited about where that might take me.

I don’t know yet what will become of this blog. I think there is merit to both archival and deletion. But for now, it’s a fluffy goodbye to this site, and I hope you’ll join me in my new space

Captured in Time

Some students have suffered immensely this year, their mental health declining, their performance suffering, and experiencing a year of hell. And yet some students are loving the new-found freedom and flexibility hybrid learning has offered them, their mental health has massive improved, they’re doing better in their assessments, and they never want to go back.

Early on in my lecture recording research, I came across a fascinating conflict. Students loved being able to capture something they perceived to be a valuable resource. Staff were worried the act of capture conferred artificial value to the resource. It took us time, but eventually we produced a resource bringing these two camps together, to get them to discuss where the value lay, and we saw a lot of benefits with this approach (this workshop is available for free on the QAA Scotland Focus on Lecture Recording site). 

Recently I’ve been exploring student experiences of the last academic year, to find out what we did well and what we could do better. There’s another conflict in there. Some students have suffered immensely this year, their mental health declining, their performance suffering, and experiencing a year of hell. And yet some students are loving the new-found freedom and flexibility hybrid learning has offered them, their mental health has massive improved, they’re doing better in their assessments, and they never want to go back. 

Our lecture recording workshop took a lot of work, and I’m very proud of it. As an intellectual exercise, can we do something like this to help our students resolve their disagreements regarding the covid experience?

What should not be a surprise to me is the obvious finding – people are all individuals and experience the world through their own unique lens of wants, needs and desires. We have to start from a position that neither of these experiences are Wrong. People who have suffered have absolutely suffered. And people who have thrived in this time have thrived. Both experiences are valid. 

It would be lovely if we could give both camps (and the myriad of camps in between, but this is a blog post so lets keep it simple) their own unique and tailored learning experience. Unfortunately, at least in the vet school, we don’t have the staff required to deliver that unique experience for each student. We have material which needs to be delivered, and we can’t feasibly deliver it in multi-modal approaches. So what choice do we make? 

This reminds me of the paradox of inclusivity – the idea that an affordance for one group can be a barrier for another. Say you are hosting an event, and one friend uses a seeing-eye dog. Another friend has a very severe dog allergy. Who compromises to attend the event? What’s fair to ask? We make these kinds of choices every day. When I teach I encourage students to step out of their comfort zone, I ask questions, even though I know it is uncomfortable for some students. I take steps to mitigate the discomfort, but ultimately I deliberately choose to push students whenever I teach. It is not always comfortable, because learning is not always comfortable. I take many steps to create an environment where you can recover from feeling uncomfortable, but I know for a fact they don’t work for everyone. With the tools I have right now, I still have students leaving my teaching feeling uncomfortable and stressed by their learning. So who should we make uncomfortable this coming year?

The coming academic year is set against a backdrop of trauma, loneliness, and discovery. Whatever choices we make, we will be upsetting people. I read editorials fretting about a fractured society, the remotes and the in-presences. As a society, we will need to reckon with this oncoming conflict, and we should start now. 

In this time we’ve gained the ability to make life so much more accessible. We have made conferences available regardless of travel cost (and certainly mitigating climate costs). We have made those with chronic illnesses much more capable of managing them as part of their work day. We have freed people. 

We have also locked people in tiny boxes we call “student housing”, and kept them from their families. We have not learned their names, or seen their smiles. We have made them pay extra for the ability to connect. We have badly hurt people. 

 And all of this applies to our staff too. To our families and friends, to the world we are preparing our students for. I don’t believe we can ever go back to what we were, and I worry there may be a mounting sentimentality to the past, conferring a false value to a time that didn’t really exist. If we choose to open up more, to demand face-to-face and international travel, part of that trade-off is going to be more deaths. If we choose to remain cautious, to stay hybrid, we must expect pain for many. 

So who do we make uncomfortable? To me there’s an obvious solution: we prioritise the social lives of our students. We make big outdoor, well-ventilated spaces. We close them last. We give up on in-person lectures (although oh how I miss them) to keep the student unions and societies free. We agree that students can stay near their family homes so they can spend that precious time with their people. I believe we need to make a sacrifice here – but we all need to make that sacrifice. My proposal would be that we don’t go back to offices and lecture halls just yet. But we make sure that no one spends 6 months in a single dorm-room ever again.

If we all take a little bit of the discomfort, maybe we can avoid the cruelty of the last academic year.

Totes Emosh

I don’t really know who reads this blog. I’m not sure what influence I have over edu-twitter. I am too tired and too emotional to write anything sensible or analytical here. I have many half-finished drafts. I’m not even sure what I’m trying to communicate here. I want to be insightful and witty. I want to be helping. I think I’m just venting.

I have been crying a lot. Its the end of Week 3 of teaching, and I’ve had at least three big meltdowns and some smaller ones.

I’m one of life’s criers. I cry at graduation, at weddings, at birthdays, I cry at the thought of this advert and at the bridge of this song. Tears are my response to any strong emotion. I’ve cried in meetings. This is who I am. 

This week, I’ve had a lot of questions from my students. They haven’t understood some elements of the course. I haven’t been clear enough. Each time the questions come I feel the tears pricking. I’ve heard from some of them about the shitty year they’ve had, I’ve listened to their worries, and I feel just awful for not being better at this. 

In this swirl of guilt and sadness comes frustration. I’ve said this I’ve written this I knew all this would happen. I want to scream. I want to cry. I do cry. I walk away from my emails a moment and come back. 

I rewrite what I think I’ve said before. I try so hard to be kind. I film another round up video to try and put a face to everything that they’re getting. 

And my god this is taking up my time. Trying, and sometimes failing, to be kind is eating my time. I see the untackled jobs and emails mounting. And I will not answer emails after five. Unless you count the insomnia emails.

I don’t really know who reads this blog. I’m not sure what influence I have over edu-twitter. I am too tired and too emotional to write anything sensible or analytical here. I have many half-finished drafts. I’m not even sure what I’m trying to communicate here. I want to be insightful and witty. I want to be helping. I think I’m just venting.

Here’s what I’d like to be reading:

You’re doing the best you can right now. I know that this sucks, and the fact that you’re doing it at all is the victory. Remember that the students are stressed too, and kindness goes both ways. You have made some mistakes, but you know that you can learn from them. Mistakes don’t mean you’re stupid. What will you do differently next time? Remember, I’m asking what you are going to do differently. You only have control over a limited number of factors, which one of those are you going to change? 

One of the small factors I have control over is a bit of an audience. Someone to share this with. To say “hey, I’m finding this hard. I think you might be finding it hard too.” Maybe I can help us keep staff and keep students if I just remind people that at the other side of a screen is a human who’s hard a hard 7 months.

Most of all, I want to be told I’m doing a good job, and I want a pat on the head for getting this far.

That’s probably how the students feel too.

Standard Setting Non-Existent Exams

I wrote a blog about those #SQAresults, #covid, the Scottish education system, and tried not to panic about what’s going to happen next academic year …

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) released its exam results this week to huge uproar. This is a fascinating, and horrifying glimpse into what might await us in higher education, and the rest of the UK. Let’s talk about it. 

The SQA Higher exams are sat in 5th (15-16 years old)  and 6th year (16-17 years old), and are typically the exams that get you into university. Typically, the maximum you can sit in a year is 5. I have 6 Highers, because I sat 5 in 5th Year and 2 in 6th Year (and failed my Higher Psychology – a discussion for another day). There are also Advanced Highers, which we won’t discuss here. 

To get in to do Zoology at the University of Glasgow, you now need 5 A Highers at the end of 6th Year (it was easier back in my day!).

You sit a preliminary exam around Christmas time (the prelim) which are, to the best of my knowledge, set by the individual school based on what has been taught so far. The actual Higher paper, sat in May, is held at the same time and same place with the same paper across the country. This year, students could not sit their Highers, and so the SQA asked teachers to estimate what they thought students would get instead. 

The majority of students who sit these exams are aged 15-18 years old. Over the past four years, 76.8% (+/-1.2%) of students aged 15-18 have achieved an A, B or C grade in their Highers. This year, teachers estimated that 88.9% of this age category would achieve an A, B, or C grade. 

The SQA had a problem. 

The teachers estimates would have meant a 12% point rise in the number of students across the board who received a A-C Higher grade. Why were the teachers estimates so high? What was the SQA going to award students? Could the SQA use the students’ last exams, a prelim that wasn’t standardised across material or paper, to fairly discriminate between ‘excellent’ and ‘satisfactory’ students? What were they going to do?

Option A: Use the teachers estimates

Teachers were told to guess at what their student could do on their best possible day. This, I think, is a crucial mistake in the story, because best possibly days are rare, and have big impacts on performance. I rarely ever had my best possible day on my exams (see my failed Higher Psychology). I expect teachers also felt very sorry for students, and I expect they wanted to support students through this. I would not be surprised if a few schools leant on their teachers to whisper “hey, we could do with some better results this year”. The result? The estimates were far out of line of normal exams. 

If the SQA awarded the estimated grade, they would devalue the exam and the accreditation. This is complicated because the SQA is also the first national examining body in the UK to release grades, thanks to Scotland’s early summer. Every year, we get stories about how grade inflation is making exams easier to pass, and their results harder to trust. These stories arise from creeps of 2 or 3% points. 12% points would have been scandal.  Scottish students would have found it difficult to use those grades to demonstrate their ability, and access to university may have been a challenge. The SQA may have feared that other examining bodies would take a different line, and they would disadvantage Scottish students by being perceived as lenient, who knows? Certainly the rest of the UK is watching Scotland right now. 

Option B: Use the prelim grade

The next solution may have seemed logical – why not use the last exam the students sat? The one that they would have based any appeals on in a better year? (My Higher Psychology prelim was a C if I remember correctly. The appeal went nowhere). 

Exams are a pretty poor way of assessing students. The one thing we can agree on is that you can be broadly sure the right student is sitting in the right seat (ehhhhh), and that every student is seeing the same paper at the same time. At a national level, that requires a massive amount of coordination. It is a phenomenal amount of work to ensure that the Higher Psychology paper I sat in C201 in Park Mains in 2004, is the exact same paper that the other 2778 students were sitting. That when I left, the first moment I could, enough time had passed that I wasn’t likely to be texting my pal in Stornoway the answers. That me and the other 826 students who failed that paper were all fairly marked. It is an exercise in logistics that prelims, which are taken from past papers (in fact, I think I knew exactly which past papers were being used in my Psychology prelim), and are dictated at the level of the school, cannot match up to. 

Again we come back to standards. If the students didn’t all sit the same exam, how can we be sure that these 2020 grades are the passport to the future our schooling system is built on?

Option C: Standard set

And so the SQA took a third road. If about 77% of students usually achieve an A-C grade, then we have no real reason to assume that in a normal year, about 77% of students wouldn’t achieve the same.

But therein lies the rub. The SQA did not take the average of everyone – it took the average of your school, perhaps hoping to smooth over that prelim issue a little. Unfortunately . . . exams are a really, really terrible way to assess students, and consistently students in lower Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) categories, perform poorer. If you’re in the poorest 20% of the population, you are probably going to a school in a deprived area, with other poor students. Historically, your school will do poorly . . .

And this is what the data shows. 

Most peoples scores were inflated above the usual. Most peoples scores were brought back in line with what their school would likely do. Some very bright students in poor areas have probably done very poorly. Some middling students in very good schools may have benefits. There has been a lot of anger about this: 

And some more big picture observations

Model Answer: So what do we do?

The Scottish Greens have issued a ‘no detriment’ petition, which I have signed. This petition proposes that students should at least achieve the grade they achieved at their prelim.  But I actually don’t think this is a good answer either. 

The Scottish Government have assured students normal appeals procedures will go ahead, taking prelims into account, but I know from personal experience this doesn’t always get you the result you want, and up the page we just said prelims weren’t standardised, so . . . what do we do?

These exams didn’t happen. Even if they had, they would have been as shit as they always are in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion. COVID will disproportionately affect students in deprived areas, so why are we trying to pretend that four or five letters besides someone’s name, plucked from the aether, can tell us anything about these students abilities?

If I was in charge of university admissions, or had the ear of parliament and the SQA, I’d be advocating for “NULL” in those fields. I’d be advocating for more holistic assessment of incoming students to uni, much like Multiple Mini Interviews in medicine and veterinary medicine, and I’d be advocating for Scotland to take the lead here, because we need to fix this issue. We could be Finland, but we playing.

Exams are shit at assessing anything but whether a student can sit an exam. I don’t set exams in my courses at uni for this very reason, instead I set skills-based assessments wherever I can. I’m not perfect at this, and I could do better. I’ve recently had interesting conversations on twitter about whether we in the UK have an overly aggressive quality assurance approach when it comes to exams, and flexibility in QA this year is something I was firm we had to raise in our 10 Simple Rules paper. But I do like the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, I like what it tries to standardise in terms of assessment throughout all levels of Scottish education.

I just don’t think we should pretend students have sat exams that they haven’t.

Covid fucking sucks. 

You can find my visualisation code over on github.

Chronicles of Athena: Chatty Theenie

I’m training Athena how to use Augmented and Assisted Communication tools (talk buttons!) Want to know more?

Have you heard of Hunger 4 Words? Christina Hunger is a speech pathologist who has started using Augmented and Alternative Communication techniques to help her dog communicate. You can read about Christina and her lovely dog Stella over on Christina’s website here.

Needless to say, I was immediately fascinated.

Christina has a great introductory post here which I recommend you read to verse yourself in AAC. Athena certainly is able to express herself, often with different vocalisations, but often with behavioural cues. And she’s pretty good at understanding what we mean with our vocal and behavioural cues. Things like ‘food’, ‘play’ and ‘bedtime’ are all easily communicated between us.

We know that Athena will learn a behaviour – she has a whole host of ‘tricks’ that she will do (despite me being a terrible trainer). So why am I interested in button pushing? Well I want to know if Athena can generalise and predict.

If Athena knows what ‘ball’ is, can she press ‘ball’ to tell me that’s what she wants, even if she can’t see it? Would she ever be able to press ‘food’ + ‘ball’ to tell me she wants her puzzle-feeder filled? Would I ever be able to say ‘food’ + ‘ball’ and would she be able to say ‘no’ + ‘food’ + ‘hedgehog’?

To be honest, I don’t believe she ever will. I think that’s a step too far for a cat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen scientific evidence that a cat can conceptualise of two different futures and choose one or the other. I think they’re more reactive than that. But one of the things I love about social media is how it can give us access to larger sample sizes, to more information, to more examples of what’s possible.

So I’ve started Theenie on her AAC journey. If you’re interested in following her, she has her own Instagram now!

Reflecting on Values

If nothing else, the impact of COVID19 is going to make people think about how they teach. Now’s a good time to think about how we work to the UK Professional Standards Framework

By now you will have read and no doubt commented on our 10 Simple Rules for an Online Pivot, after all it’s been preprinted for over a week, and time moves fast these days.

You have now sought out my blog for more of my intelligent wisdom on all things pivoting.

Sadly, my coauthors are not here to edit me down or cover for my ineptitude, so you’re stuck with me today.

Something we gently hinted at in our 10 Simple Rules, but didn’t have the time or indeed the energy to go into detail on, was the idea that monitoring and evaluation of courses was going to be exceptionally challenging over the next academic year. I think this also feeds into what we mean by ‘evidence’ in higher education, which is a conversation I have with my mentees for the Advance HE Fellowship Accreditation Scheme a lot.

Absolutely everyone teaching through this experience should be able to go for one of the Advance HE Fellowship levels after this. Associate Fellow, Fellow, Senior Fellow or Principal Fellow. The four different roles aren’t so much a progression up the ranks, but rather a reflection on the different ways you can teach. At R(D)SVS for example we’ve gone big on getting people to Associate Fellow level, particularly our clinical staff including vet nurses, and lab and teaching techs. The scheme is flexible, and allows our staff to get recognition for example as to how they manage their learning environment (you ever tried to manage 20 UGs in a cow shed?), even if their teaching role doesn’t include aspects like assessment and QA. Fellows are likely lecturers, Senior Fellows are supporting others to teach, and Principal Fellows supporting the sector and the development of their colleagues. 

As clinicians and STEMM practitioners, my mentees often take a narrow view of evidence, in that it has to be somehow quantifiable and testable. Perhaps we’ve spent too much time teaching null hypotheses. When my mentees are writing their reflective accounts of practice, I often spend time asking them to broaden their definition of evidence of teaching. It can be, I assure them, your  reading of free text comments in course evaluation questionnaires, your student feedback, even your feelings of how the course went.

The reflective aspect of Advance HE Fellowship follows the UK Professional Standards Framework. In the reflective part, you often focus on the Values of the framework, which are:

  • V1 Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities
  • V2 Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunities for learners
  • V3 Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development
  • V4 Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice

You demonstrate these across all areas of activity that are relevant to you, and with the core knowledge you have. People going at different levels of the award will use them differently, but I often find that people struggle to identify how they use the values. Well today I taught my first pivoted class. I think this one probably counts as ‘non emergency pivoting’ as we had a bit of time to think about it. I thought it would be useful for folks to see an example of reflection here for teaching. You can see where I highlight how the values affected my choices, and how I use ‘evidence’ in this context. 

This class was an SCQF Level 11 tutorial on data literacy skills, and was the first time I had taught this material as I was new to the course this year. It is very similar to an on-campus course I teach at SCQF Level 8 and an online MSc I teach at SCQF Level 11. In addition, this teaching is being split across two staff members, so needs to be consistent. I teach this kind of material quite differently on campus and online, so it was challenging to receive a new tutorial set with limitations on what I can change and how I can influence the classroom. I know from both other courses that this subject is sometimes challenging and frustrating for students, partly because students are often at very different stages with these skills, and being able to check with each individual where they’re at is a key part of the teaching. I have seen this in course feedback, and challenges in teaching data literacy is often discussed in the literature (Kross & Gau, V3). In my preparation I found myself wondering how many students would be learning with only one screen, and so balancing the computer task at hand with the handout and e-learning software. Having had several one-to-one interactions with students during this period, I’d noticed that workspaces were often not ideal, in bedrooms, or in shared workspaces with family (V1). I decided to mirror the handout on the e-learning software presentation, and when screen-sharing I would share a small window to ensure detail was preserved when viewing on a small screen (sharing my large monitor for example would result on very small text if viewing on a laptop screen, I had discovered this during a run through with a colleague, V2, V3). During the session I was keen to manage expectations and model the practice I wanted to see, for example I highlighted to the students that this was not ‘typical’ teaching and I would appreciate their feedback on what worked and didn’t work, and I told students that as I was broadcasting my mic a lot during the session, they may hear some background noise as I was working in a shared space. I wanted to ensure that reasonable levels of background noise, such as pets or children engaging with the students, was not something to be worried about during the session. There is a lot of debate at present regarding what a good learning environment looks like, and I have seen people take stricter approaches to effective working environments (V4), however in my previous experience with teaching this topic, particularly with online learners, it was more important for me to create a relaxed and welcoming environment, particularly for these students who are having difficulties learning online. In future I might want to re-evaluate this approach, particularly as some students may find their working style evolves with more experience at distance learning, and I will continue to monitor the informal feedback from classes and colleagues’ experiences to make that decision. 

I hope that example of a worked reflection, mapped to the values, will be useful for anyone worked towards Advance HE fellowship. What I did leave out was a feeling of intense sadness after I was finished. I felt homesick for my campus, my home, in a way I wasn’t expecting. What’s coming up is going to be hard for all of us – but if this is the push you need to finally recognise the active choices you make when you teach, well I’ll count that as a win.

Behind the Paper: Discipline Based Education Research for Animal Welfare Science

I’ve been working in education research longer than I worked in animal behaviour. Who knew?

Note: This has been sitting in my drafts for weeks and isn’t getting any more written, so here it is!

I’ve been meaning to do more ‘behind the paper’ posts whenever an article gets published, but I keep forgetting. Oops. One of my recent papers, Discipline Based Education Research for Animal Welfare Science has motivated me to start up the practice again.

This paper is somewhat of a Dear John letter to my former career. You see, as of 2020, I’ve been working in veterinary education research longer than I worked in animal behaviour and welfare. Moving disciplines from ethology to veterinary education was more than a little scary, and committing myself to work in a truly interdisciplinary space was a dive into the unknown.

DBER for Animal Welfare Science marks my sixth first author paper in education research, versus my four ethology papers and my one human-animal interactions paper. In terms of time and experience, I’ve been working in education longer than I was an ethologist. 

I have a couple of reflections on changing disciplines from your PhD studies that I thought others contemplating a similar move would find useful. 

The Deficit

There’s no way of getting around it – when you jump disciplines you have a massive knowledge/reputation deficit that you need to take time to recover. I’ve been exceptionally lucky in the team I ended up in, and I was supported during that year where my productivity dived and I was getting my teeth into some gigantic projects. I have two particular projects that I think of as my second PhD, one of which has also recently been published (here) and the other I’m currently writing up. The sense of scale on those tasks felt comparable to writing a PhD, not least because you’re doing them on top of the day job. You just don’t need to do all the ‘learning to research’ part of the PhD. You already  have your workflows and your skills, and its just translating them to a new context. 

Another aspect of the deficit though is progression. I ‘only’ made it to the Lecturer position in August 2019. My friends who stayed in the same field outpaced me in earning capacity relatively quickly. I’ve had many people assuming I’m further up the academic ladder than I am. Again, I’ve got a very supportive team around me who were supportive of me taking on responsibility before I was necessarily ‘supposed’ to. I did encounter the odd person who thought a Research Fellow shouldn’t be doing whatever thing I was off doing because I wasn’t ready yet. And I am the kind of awful person who gets bothered by that. I like being recognised for what I do. Know your value, and don’t be afraid to fight for recognition as an interdisciplinary researcher. 

The Culture

Something I didn’t expect when I switched disciplines was the need to take a long hard look at myself. The cultural biases I had as an ethologist only became clear to me when they were smashed up against the norms of educational research. This was really useful for me in a lot of ways, but it was also humbling. I now sometimes find myself gritting my teeth when I hear ethologists repeat those biases. Although by the same token, I see what education researchers ‘think’ they know being spouted forward when I’m able to say “actually, in this other field we do …”

Of course you soon develop new biases and ways of thinking. Something that gets my goat very badly is how ‘interdisciplinary’ is bandied around very freely.  I don’t think you’re interdisciplinary until you’re jumping across a ‘purity’ level. Two forms of biology no longer cut it for me. This makes me very fun at departmental meetings and wins me lots of friends. 

The Goods

I have been able to take things from one field into the other. For example, we have a really interesting PTAS project looking at human behaviour using an ethology lens. And of course DBER is part of it.  

I’m also so much happier in DBER than I was in ethology. This field always appealed to me, but felt like such a strange jump after I started investing in my career path. I started my PhD, not really out of any great love of the subject, but because it was 2009 and a paid job during a recession. I came to love it, and I don’t regret it at all, and more importantly I’m better at what I do now because of that time I spent in another field.

I truly believe that academia is going to experience some big changes soon. I believe that the old postdoc model is dead and careers like mine will become more common place. If you do find yourself staring at a frightening opportunity in the next few months, I can’t tell you what to do. But I can say that I have no regrets, and being interdisciplinary is the happiest I’ve ever been


So you’re pivoting to online teaching.

This is a blog about pivoting face to face university teaching to online – in case that turns out to be useful in the forseeable future.

Some of this may be Edinburgh specific. Its mostly based on my experience, and is meant to be about designing your teaching activities and managing your teaching environment.

Take home messages:

  • Online environments are different ‘spaces’. You will need to make a few adjustments to how you teach
  • You must set expectations at the start about how you expect students (and yourself!) to behave in this space
  • Remember that this will be an agitating experience for many, and you/your students may not be comfortable. A little leeway helps.

There are three broad types of teaching online

Asynchronous discussion

Examples: Learn discussion boards, email chains, Twitter(ish)

Characteristics: Discussion moves at broken pace. Sub-threads/topics can appear easily and the ‘point’ can get lost. Can be difficulty for students to articulate what their ‘question’ is if they don’t understand where they’re going wrong

My experiences: This form of teaching often has issues with clarity, and its probably where I make the most ‘mistakes’.

Consider what ‘tone’ you want to set. I like emojis and GIFs because in person I am quite jokey. Others like to maintain distance. Neither is wrong, but try to aim for consistency. Remember that if you’re pivoting online things will feel unfamiliar, exciting and scary. You need to manage your class. I would encourage you to make full use of the medium to communicate clearly. If GIFs aren’t your thing don’t be afraid to literally type out “I was making a joke there”. Written communication has a myriad of ways of expressing what Face to Face communication would rely on body language for. Make use of them.

To that end – I often make the mistake of responding too quickly in this context because I’m desperate to help. Take the time to think about your response, and accept that your students working from home may be struggling with kids, ill housemates, distractions, and the point of an asynchronous board is that you can take your time. Consider setting a ‘class hour’ where you’ll respond to all comments so students are aware when they might get a response and don’t need to repeatedly check back.

Looks like:

Synchronous discussion

Examples: Instant messaging apps (Slack, Skype chat, WhatsApp), webinars, Zoom, Skype Screen Sharing, Blackboard Collaborate

Characteristics: Often involves (but does not require) a live presentation of slides or screencast of activity. Participants can chat by voice which is often noisy and challenging. Participants can chat in a text box which can be challenging for slow typers.

My experiences: While this feels the most familiar, this is my least favourite way to teach at distance. Moderation is vitally important. You should mute all participants unless you have a small group you know well and you want collaborative working (if so – consider giving them separate asynchronous discussion boards). Not all participants will have the IT literacy/attention span/hearing ability needed to distinguish lots of speakers on a bad connection and interruptions will be distracting

Further, some participants, like me, are chatty by nature. Do not let me bulldoze discussion because I’m loud and clear enough to be heard with a crackly mic and I never learned to think if others wanted to talk. As always, set up the environment that you want to teach in.

It’s tempting to use the text chat function. Again, fast typers like myself thrive here, whereas others will be left behind. Consider your choices carefully here. I like to encourage discussion in the chat when I’m presenting and then keep a note of what questions to come back to, but this takes a huge mental load and is not for everyone. Its easier to do with a moderator.

If you’re uncomfortable moderating (you don’t know the tech, you find it too hard to multitask) ask colleagues to step in. Learning techs might be keen (although overloaded) your academic colleagues might welcome a chance to observe your style. Finally, possibly the best option is to ask students to nominate one of their own as moderator so they are all taking responsibility for the learning environment.

A very quick word on live chats/ back channels in these contexts …  I have only seen students use these respectfully. Staff seem to see text chat as an opportunity to be mean, and staff on live chats have made me cry as a presenter. Again set your expectations at the start.

If you really want a live discussion – I’m a big fan of Google Hangout style pieces and they could be a good drop-in/tutorial replacement. You could run something similar with most e-collaboration resources.

Looks like:

Pre-Recorded Content

Examples: Previous years’ lecture recordings, YouTube videos, Articulate lectures, MediaHopper lectures

Characteristics: Broad range of presentation styles. Can be a bit experimental. Can be very simple. Students don’t have facility to ask questions so needs to be paired with discussion of some type or activity.

My experiences: Paired with asynchronous discussion boards, this is absolutely my favourite way to teach at distance. It gives the learners a lot of control, and you can actually experiment quite a lot with format and message.

Pre-recorded lectures can be super short – want to demonstrate something that you keep getting asked about? Do a short video! They can also be as long as a regular lecture (or longer!) because students can decide how to parcel their time. Although don’t go overboard! Record yourself with a phone camera if you’re trying to demo something more practical, or screencast a program.

If you are screencasting or recording a presentation, do some PC hygiene before recording, especially if you’re going to be demoing anything online. Don’t run unnecessary programmes in the background it will make your laptop chug. Invest in a good usb mic that is YOURS and can sit in your home, especially in these times! Use incognito browsers so people don’t see how much toilet paper the cookies are advertising to you.

Looks like:


There are loads of activities you can build online in your virtual learning environments from quizzes to Jupyter notebooks and polls, etc. I think if you’re pivoting to online learning for Coronavirus you should stay away from this, especially if you’re unfamiliar. Thinking about building interactive activity sessions online is something I would spend a lot of time on in the course design process. Can you really do this quickly halfway through?

Key Advice

Pivoting to online teaching is not the same as designing an online course. This is an exceptional circumstance and we should Keep It Simple (Seriously). You may even wish to consider what your top 3 learning outcomes are and focus on those[1].

Make pre-recorded content available to students wherever possible. If you have pre-recorded lectures from last year, you can upload these to your university’s media manager, virtual learning environment, or YouTube. You can record lectures using PowerPoint’s recording ability. These videos can be edited if necessary prior to upload.

Link to these on your VLE and create (or ask your resident learning technologist) discussion boards for questions.

Consider setting ‘office hours’ for questions – but be aware students may return to non GMT timezones. Try not to disadvantage students who are not in GMT locations.

Advice from JISC

You can view JISCs guidance here:

Some mental health tips

Respect the situation. We are not all suddenly thinking about this because its fun or an opportunity to prove our innovative teaching styles. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and its about minimising the risk of spreading infection to vulnerable folks. Vulnerable folks are therefore most likely to need your support as an educator.

Try to build yourself a good work space. How you work at home may well have changed over the years. I find for some reason I now need a more dedicated work space, as opposed to my PhD years where I was fine working on the sofa.

Finally – let the cat scream for attention, acknowledge the toddler sitting on your lap, forgive the little stressy mistakes people will be making. We’re all in this together.

You Should Record Your Teaching

You should be recording your lectures. I’m salty about this.

I’m about to go on two weeks annual leave so this is an excellent time for me to drop this particular post. Thanks to MichTheMartian on Twitter for reaching out and making me realise I haven’t ever really summarised this.

This post addresses the following concerns:

  • Students will stop showing up!
  • It won’t help students learn!
  • There’s no way to introduce lecture recording ethically in the current HE climate / Policy is hard / The union says no.
  • Its too technically challenging!
  • We just don’t have enough evidence
  • It makes me uncomfortable

Students will stop showing up!

If students stop showing up, there’s a bigger problem than you recording your lectures. 

Attendance at lectures is a complex, emotional and highly individual choice (1, 2, 3). Attending students may not necessarily be engaged in the teaching activity happening in front of them (4), and so anyone who is worried about students not showing up should be asking why their lectures aren’t ‘unmissable’. 

In her presentation here, Emily Nordmann has some practical recommendations for how to make the most of lecture recording, and she makes some excellent points about attendance.

Although it could well be moot as there is plenty of evidence to show lecture recording does not affect attendance (5, 6), and evidence which suggests an effect is mostly students saying they thought they would be likely to stop attending (and not observing actual behaviour, 7, 8), and oft-cited research showing an effect has a lot of flaws, see Susan Rhind’s blog here and Emily Nordmann’s blog here

It won’t help students learn! 

There’s a commonly cited paper showing no evidence for attainment with increased lecture use (8). 

I think that paper’s probably right – for students who are otherwise grand, recordings don’t really help. I wouldn’t have used them when I was at uni. The case for using them is not about making everyone better, but removing barriers. I use the term ‘mainstreaming accessibility’ a lot. Having a recording policy removes some of the pressure from lecture recording (see Sarah Chinnery’s blog). If you have difficulties getting to class for any reason, knowing you can review the materials reliably is helpful, and stops you ‘outing’ yourself to your lecturer or your classmates. We have lots of example of this in our workshop (see below). Emily Nordmann (again!) has a lovely blog on why we need to start talking about the socially progressive case for lecture recording. It is a technology which helps remove one of the barriers to higher education. At Edinburgh, we have evidence suggesting that these positive impacts start in first year (9). 

In addition, I have some current research ongoing which strongly suggests that students who use lecture recordings to facilitate their studies do so in a very active and engaged manner. This work is funded by Echo360 and you can keep an eye on my Twitter feed to see more about it.  

In another project I’m involved with, we’re seeing some excellent secondary uses of lecture recording to help us think about what happens in classrooms and how that can help students learn. Emily has another great paper which we use at Edinburgh to support our students to study with lecture recordings (10) and we have produced open source guidance ourselves (11). 

Related – here’s some UK sector-wide discussion on Widening Participation with Lecture Recording. This project is ongoing and you should keep an eye on it

And follow our Twitter:

There’s no way to introduce lecture recording ethically in the current HE climate / Policy is hard / The union says no.

A good policy is the key here. You need to engage with the policy consultations that come round, and policy makers need to be cognisant of the power a good policy has in helping support the introduction of these technologies.  For me the take home messages are

  • The recording is a supplementary resource and should belong to the class that generated it. 
  • Lecturers should have to opt in to saving that resource in any long term way
  • Each class needs to set its own expectations around lecture recording (I talk about this in the podcast here and also you can see an example of me doing this at the start of our last Collaborative Cluster on Widening Participation with Lecture Recording meeting)
  • Lecturers should be able to opt out of lecture recording whenever they feel the need to (linked to the class expectations – this can also support student learning, e.g. during ethical discussions. I talk about the practicalities in this podcast)

Richard Goodman talks about moving to an opt-out policy at Loughborough

Melissa Highton talks about working with the union to develop good policies at Edinburgh. 

Its too technically challenging!

Aren’t you lucky that the University of Edinburgh has put together a completely free resource talking about Delivering and Evaluating Lecture Recording so you don’t have to start from scratch?

We just don’t have enough evidence

Overview of Edinburgh’s research

Me presenting on Edinburgh’s research

Edinburgh’s TeachingMatters Blog Lecture Recording Miniseries

Our TeachingMatters Podcast on lecture recording

I walked through how you can run your own evaluation and included a bunch of resources with the QAA here:

It makes me uncomfortable

I know it does. Believe me, it makes me kind of uncomfortable too. I’ve been on television, on radio, on stage on the Lyceum, written a book, and I still find it slightly uncomfortable watching myself stumble over words and have a brain blank in front of a class. 

But here’s the thing – students don’t care. They’re here to learn. And they want to learn. They’re not expecting you to be David Attenborough. They’re not expecting you to be perfect. And if you can use your mistakes to model good academic practice (jump to 5 minutes), maybe you can create better learners.

My research shows that lecture recording makes lecturers worry about getting things wrong, or being criticised, while students just view it as a tool (Show and Tool – or the free preprint if you can’t access that journal). This is a conversation you need to have with your students. Making mistakes is how we learn.

One of the big things I’d encourage you to make use of is the open source workshop we made available with the QAA (direct link to resource). Using this workshop we’ve developed new guidance on how to teach with lecture recording that will be getting printed and shared imminently. 

But at the end of the day – you’re the teacher. You’re there to help students. After the conversations I’ve been having lately with certain academics, this feels like a revolutionary thing to say. I am salty. I am salty that I need to defend students’ rights to have access to materials. I am salty that I need to justify writing “students should approach their lecturers for support” in student guidance. I am salty that academics are putting their personal comfort over the needs of their students.

You should be recording your lectures.

Can sin a-rithist?

Failte gu Fluffy Sciences! Is mise Jill NicAoidh. Tha aon cat agam. Seo Athena. 

In late 2019, Duolingo launched the Scottish Gaelic version of its app. My dad and sister have been learning Gaelic for some time, and I’ve been trying to pick up a few phrases here and there. I’ve been doing this mostly through Speaking Our Language, a brilliant BBC Scotland series that I think is supposed to take place in a post SNP victory Scotland where English has been outlawed and people wander around Glasgow stumbling through broken Gaelic with frightened faces. Its wonderful and I love it and you should watch it:

At school, I didn’t find languages easy, and therefore I considered them hard. Like many perfectionist people I would then announce I was terrible at languages. After a few weeks of playing around on Duolingo, I can confidently say I speak more Gaelic than German, which I learned at school for many years. I’m trying to avoid ‘classifying’ my language abilities these days as part thinking about how assessment and learning intertwine. 

In education conferences, particularly whenever gamification is mentioned, Duolingo is the Ur Example people use to illustrate how points, leaderboards, and rewards can be used to motivate learners. Both myself and my partner have taken the app up this month, he’s learning Spanish, I’m learning Gaelic, and I have some thoughts on how gamification and motivation tie in. 

I am very motivated to learn Gaelic. My little sister is currently shaming me, which is a big one, but there’s something beautiful about reviving a language that I see on signs every day, but is spoken by very few people. I recently learned that my grandparents used to speak Gaelic in the home, and my teuchter family must have done for many generations. It’s strange to think how quickly a language can disappear. 

There are lots of benefits to learning a language. There’s reasonable evidence that being bilingual slows the onset of Alzheimers, and learning new skills as an adult (and educator) can help you think more about learning. There is also, for me, a huge benefit in being able to read the street signs in my country. 

When you drive from England to Scotland you pass beautiful blue signs that read Failte gu Alba! I’ve had that said to me several times, but in my head I always read it as ‘Fail-ta goo Alba’. Now I read it, naturally, as ‘Fael-Cha gu Alaba”. Many people in Scotland use odd turns of phrase or strange grammar. The Scots dialect would say “It’s wanting cleaned”, and I see echoes of that in the way Gaelic constructs sentences, tha mi ag irraidh ti. I’ve no idea if these parallels are true, but I feel as though I’m recovering something precious. If it’s something I can do to roll back ‘Scottish Cringe’ I’m all for it. In primary school we were simultaneously taught to recite Scottish poetry but penalised for writing ‘yous’ and ‘wur’, and there’s a lot that’s needed to undo that damage. 

Learning on Duolingo is interesting though. I’m fascinated by silos in learning from a curriculum design point of view. There’s a phenomenon where if you learn something in one context you aren’t able to generalise it to another context. I feel like I’ve been fighting learning silos for my entire teaching career, and it frustrates me no end to find my own Gaelic abilities vanishing the moment I close the Duolingo app. I’ve peppered some Gaelic throughout this blog, all phrases I can reliably type into the app, and all of them I had to google in front of my word document. Duolingo does suggest you should write down as many phrases as you can remember after a lesson, but is that enough? When you scaffold ‘extra’ learning outside of class time, is that really divorced enough from the course context to break down these walls?

Both my partner and I have observed that our language skills aren’t persisting outside of the app’s ‘classroom’, even though we’re both motivated to learn. I have no answers for this problem, yet, but it’s been an interesting experience to have first hand. 

Tha mi a’ bruidhinn Gaidhlig, tha mi cho toilichte.