Teaching Complexity: Collaboration through digital learning platforms 

Teaching Complexity was a series of open online seminars that were designed for anyone in a teaching, teaching related or staff development role in higher education. Hosted by the Teaching and Learning Exchange, they were free to attend and run online to provide equal access to participants regardless of geographical location. Alongside international participants they were attended by those currently teaching and working in staff development at UAL and other HE institutions and even by a prospective UAL student.

The series was curated by Bonnie Stewart (Visiting Fellow, UAL and Assistant Professor of Online Pedagogy & Workplace Learning, University of Windsor) and David White (Head of Digital Learning, UAL) from the Teaching and Learning Exchange at the University of the Arts London. Each session had additional guest facilitators providing more in-depth commentary and guiding topics for the participants to discuss in the chat room.

Through talks, discussion and other activities, the seminars explored how open and creative approaches to teaching and learning can help students navigate the complexity of higher education and the digital environment.

TeachCom featured participants connecting with each other from around the world using two of our Digital Learning Platforms – Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and MyBlog. All the sessions were recorded and have been posted for public access on the TeachCom site.

An associate professor in New York commented that ‘as a scholar from (far) outside UAL, I really appreciated that the sessions were open to non-UAL folks. I also greatly enjoyed the participatory approach- the collaborative slides really made the sessions live, not just watching a pre-recorded episode.’

Bonnie reflected that for her ‘the #TeachComUAL series was, initially, an opportunity to bring together a series of interconnected topics both exploring AND modelling teaching practices for a time of complexity… to the extent possible in an open invitation series hosted on Blackboard Collaborate. What it became was a semi-immersive conversation – a series of moments that managed to bring together various voices via various modalities.’

Blackboard Collaborate Ultra allows the moderator to scroll through slides with their accompanying video or voiceover. There is a chat room in the sidebar for the audience to interact through text in, though anyone can also turn on their microphone to speak up. One of the popular features used throughout TeachCom was the ‘live slides’ that asked a question or gave a prompt and the audience could use their tools to add text or draw on them.

TeachCom was also attended by a prospective UAL student who wrote that they ‘really enjoyed accessing the Complexity and Creativity session. The visuals and diagrams were so helpful. I am a visual person [and] appreciated Dave’s explanations per diagram and module. They were realistic, clear and applicable. He provided insightful perspective.’

Bonnie attended sessions as both a facilitator and participant and in each role she found that the live slides gave a deeper visual sense of the digital collaboration occurring.

Another [highlight] was seeing the live slides do their work each time – inviting and making visible immediate (if short and decontextualized) contributions from the many participants who joined us. One of the limitations of Collaborate as a platform is that it doesn’t offer an avatar or visual for all participants on a call, unless they choose to take the mic and speak aloud…but the live slides helped me get a sense both for the tenor of “the room” each time and also for the individuals and the real, embodied experiences they were speaking from. Thus, the [below] tweet, from the Complexity session that I got to attend more as participant than facilitator, may actually be my favourite from the whole series.

One student-facing academic working in Philadelphia left feedback about their experience attending the Inclusive Spaces session:

It [gave] me a number of criteria and frameworks for asking myself how inclusive or exclusive I am being, for noticing and taking account of other perspectives, for inviting not just participation, but learner contributions to design. It will change the way I practice, both online and [face to face].

I’m thinking about online as a potentially much more open, inviting, creative space and modality than I did before. I’ll rethinking my VLE design and my practice. I’ll do my best to emulate the openness and the friendly, helpful, cheerful, but also sharp, smart, critical, vibrant thinking of the presenters. I’m inspired and I’ll do my best to carry it forward.

The collaboration of the sessions went beyond the digital and technical features and prompted conversation about taking the online discussions offline.

Bonnie wrote about how each session challenged her expectations around what each experience would be:

The emergent messages and ideas that I myself took away from the sessions were seldom those that I brought in, even though I had the privilege of designing some of the slides and often had the mic throughout. For me, the act of working with collaborators to offer key frameworks for the topics while being immersed in the chatroom and the live writeable slides – all in tight 60-minute windows – was truly a choral experience. It was heady, improvisational, occasionally overwhelming, and extraordinarily human – genuinely an example of connection enhancing my own thinking, learning, and sense of participation in something larger than myself.

After reflecting upon the Teaching Complexity series, David White said:

It was a real pleasure curating and running these seminars with Dr Stewart. It’s great to have the slides and recordings available on the TeachCom website. The energy and level of engagement with these seminars and activities was amazing to see, with the main seminars being attended by 50-100 participants (and it being clear that the approach could work for even bigger numbers). It’s confirmed for me that fully online teaching can be vibrant and connected.

I’m keen to support UAL colleagues who are interested in hosting open, online session in their areas of expertise. It’s a great way to host dialogue and debate and really increases the visibility of your work internationally.

If you are affiliated with UAL and interested in adapting the TeachCom format for your own seminar series, you can contact David at david.white@arts.ac.uk.

You can also find David and Bonnie on Twitter. Scroll through #TeachComUAL to read more comments about Teaching Complexity and follow the Teaching and Learning Exchange to keep up to date with news and events and connect with colleagues across UAL.

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