Monday, 23 April 2012

Reflections on teaching and learning - using Prezi

Like many in this wired World, I’ve been playing around with Prezi – the non-linear presentation tool. I came across it about a year ago thanks to Nicola Osborne and like many tools in the Lakeland Plastics of the tinterwebs it seemed to fill a need I only ever had a niggling sense I had – for a presentation tool that unlike PowerPoint did not make you present in a linear fashion (I have since discovered the ability to press “B” in the middle of a PowerPoint and also am a lot better at designing and animating slides). The fact Prezi is free to academic users also helped my conversion.

I’ve watched one presentation delivered by Prezi (I felt a little bit seasick too) and delivered three – one for a Petchakucha of my research interests, and twice in teaching. I’m going to focus on these two and think about Prezi as a teaching tool.

The student experience

I’ve got a bit of an insight into the student experience of being subjected to a Prezi from two perspectives – firstly from everyday feedback and secondly, rather usefully, from an autoethnography I have a couple of students doing for their dissertations and my PGCap. From this it seems Prezi makes for a poorer teaching and learning experience than PowerPoint from a practical and seemingly pedagogical point of view. One practical problem – students cannot print out a Prezi. Or they can, but it’ll either be one sheet the size of a billboard or 70+ sheets of A4. I had trouble enough because I saved my PowerPoints as pdfs, so this was a bit of a problem with Prezi. This was the case even though ever lecture was twinned with exhaustive distance learning notes. I embedded my Prezis in our VLE (BlackBoard) but I’m not sure how many people went back to them. Also, students feel seasick too – and I didn’t do that much zoomy swoopy stuff on my Prezis! My student doing their autoethnography also thought I’d presented using Prezi three times, whereas it was just twice in two separate lectures. This suggests that it actually failed to deliver a lasting impression for this student.

My experience

I deliver my lectures as a story. The beginning is usually a real-world, nice example of some of the issues I will be discussing in the lecture. The middle is the construction of theoretical scaffolding and then fill in some the gaps with real-world examples, often through the use of group work in class, and then end (now) with a “this is what you should know” section. So, PowerPoint actually suits this way of speaking. I felt much more comfortable speaking to the narrative of PowerPoint. Further, it was much easier to get an overview of a PowerPoint presentation written some months before in the five minutes before a lecture began, than it was the equivalent Prezi.

To be fair on Prezi, I think it was also partly my fault and that I was trying to be too clever. In the effort to make something that looked good I discarded the PowerPoint rules-of-thumb: using bullet points to summarise points and act as prompts; using strong images as prompts and to provoke thoughts etc. In one of my Prezi delivered lectures I got to one frame and it was just a gigantic question-mark. Clearly I’d put this in a year before with the idea that this would be a good time to ask the class questions of clarification. Could I remember what the question was? I’d hidden the answers in the dot at the bottom of the question mark and had to swoop in, check what they were, and zoom back out again and ask the question. Which rather defeated the purpose of asking the question in the first place. And as an interactive lecturer I also found Prezi, by making me a bit more nervous, reduced the amount I happily engaged with the class.
Finally, the one thing I started using Prezi for – the non-narrative nature of it – wasn’t helpful at all. The couple of times I did have to go off-piste, so to speak (navigate around the Prezi field without using the pre-drawn path) I was just lost and it took my far too long to find what I was looking for and zoom in on it properly. The one thing that really bugged me was at the end of drawing your path around your Prezi, if you had to change it, especially if it was near the start of your presentation, the only way to do it was delete the whole path and start again. This compares to just inserting a new slide in PowerPoint.

So, in conclusion, I have to say I’ll probably be ditching Prezi entirely for teaching next year and sticking with PowerPoint (for all its flaws) for the foreseeable future. The real test will be in the end of semester feedback and the exam results!

Monday, 9 April 2012

What inequalities?

The semester has just about finished. Just trying to get as much writing done before the exam scripts land on my desk. The semester has been very busy teaching and with completing a rapid research review for a funder on equalities and place-based socio-economic policies (mentioned previously, with some thoughts, here).

I also had to teach equalities this semester in my Social Sustainability course to a postgrad class of (predominantly) planners; mentioned, in a somewhat dramatic fashion, here. What do I mean by equalities here? In technical parlance, I mean the nine protected characteristics identified under the Equality Act 2010. More broadly, I suppose you could sum it up as all those inequalities in the World that are not socio-economic inequalities, but are usually in a reinforcing relationship with socio-economic inequalities. As a gay man and all round wishy-washy lefty liberal I did know about equalities in this way, but until now I had not gone into such depth. I was also aided in my deliberations by my fantastic students who produced some really fascinating insights when I set them an Equalities Impact Assessment as a coursework assignment (did you know women have less resilience in the aftermath of natural disasters?).

So the review really got my thinking. I had assumed, I now know naively, that good regeneration, or a very productive, positive socio-economic policy will help all equally. After all, it's socio-economic inequalities that matter most, isn't it? Of course the reality is much more complex. The evaluation of the New Deal for Communities programme suggested that black and minority ethnic people, and more ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, actually do a lot better out of place-based socio-economic policies. Further, our own wee bit of analysis demonstrated that in the most deprived neighbourhoods in the Scotland (i.e. those datazones in the "bottom" 15 per cent of SIMD) there was a disproportionate number of people who classified themselves as "not-heterosexual". Unfortunately, due to the age-old small n problem we could not unpack the figure any more than that, but do bear in mind that this does not include those who did not disclose their sexual orientation. This finding certainly questions the notion of the "pink pound" for me.

Whatismore, I also had a quick skim through Scottish policy and all 32 Single Outcome Agreements (on the latter, I should be able to make that available in a Google Doc once the report is signed-off). A lot of the academic literature (see this for example) I read suggested that a key issue was that place-based socio-economic policies are often unintentionally "blind" to equalities issues because of the sort of thinking I was prejudiced with - they'll benefit everyone, won't they? Or if the policies are not "blind" then they "see" in a very problematic way - such as having targets to get people off disability benefits, rather than a positive policy of encouraging active inclusion and citizenship with disabled people. The problematisation of populations was picked up by the Equalities Impact Assesment of the Edinburgh Partnership SOA. Looking through Scottish policies this was definitely a clear trend. I'm not saying policy is intentionally sexist/racist/disablist etc. but just that equalities could be taken more seriously. Another element of this is the focus on early-years intervention in Scottish policy, a topic to which I oft-return but don't publish on. Policies like the Early Years Framework have to be, by their very nature, gendered in their impact. Yes, we want fathers to be involved in a child's life, but it is predominantly women mothers (do you know, the ones who actually give birth) who will be the object/subject of antenatal and maternity projects. Rather worryingly, I thought, the EYF talked throughout of "parents" throughout and only used the word "mothers" once - and in the context that we must not forget about fathers.

So, what does this all mean? Well, I have to return to the cry of Equalities Officers everywhere, we need more Equalities Impact Assessments. And just because a country or local authority does not have the numbers on equalities groups, as Scotland very rarely does, does not mean we can ignore the issues as populations cannot be counted. We can still infer impact using techniques such as logic modelling. And for two of the protected characteristics - sex and age - we're literally falling over ourselves in data, but people do not take an equalities perspective. I also think we in academe are equally as guilty of this - a point rather forcibly made by the feminist scholar Mary Hawkesworth in this conference plenary I heard. As an acdemic interested in socio-economic inequalities, I should be explicit in recognising that these are not the same for everybody, are not experienced in the same way by everybody, and not everybody responds to them in the same way. 

If I'm not careful, equalities, place-based policies and engagement could become my research niche...