Lecturers: Find your rockstar!

Much has been written about the value of lectures: It is not clear whether they will endure, or if instead they are dated and doomed. Either way though I don’t see them going away any time soon. While the lecture has remained core in many universities, we know that lecture content (i.e. higher level knowledge) has gone from being underpinned by privileged information locked down within the academic community, to in many cases nothing more than ‘stuff’ that might be gleaned in a decent web search. How many colleagues Google source at least some of their content (be honest now!)?

The nature of knowledge has changed rapidly, but still the main mode of operation for ‘oh so many’ courses is transmission. When I hear others say ‘why would students come to lectures if there is … no assessment incentive … when there is lecture capture …or, when there are full notes on the virtual learning environment’, I can’t help feeling it’s the wrong question. We don’t want to dupe students in to coming to lectures by denying these beneficial actions just to sustain the status quo; this is a defensive approach, which devalues the time of students and the professionalism of lecturers. Instead it is perhaps better to ask ‘why would students come to class at all?’ What are we offering that is good enough and useful enough for students to want come along and engage?

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There are clear synergies between higher education and contemporary trends in music. Commercial music, like knowledge, has gone from a prized product, to being cheap and accessible, and then to being free and abundant. Artists are succeeding by not holding on the old modes of distributing, but by making their product open and available, to whet the appetite of fans who will then travel, pay and commit time to go to the live event; to share an experience and share in something which cannot be consumed by other means. Often the benefits of live events lie in the way they make you feel rather than in a quantifiable outcome.

I am advising colleagues who are new to teaching to ‘find their rockstar’. This doesn’t mean becoming an edutainer; which I take issue with as it trivializes scholarship. It rather means locating the reasons that make the live coming together of people to learn, a valuable and meaningful experience. If the transmission mode is used, then what extra does the live performance add? When I watch a band the value for me is ‘feeling’ the bass, making memories and being part of an audience. When I watch a speaker, I enjoy the focus, the interaction and the stories, which feel like they are told for the specific audience.

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When asked by a researcher, who is new to teaching, what is my ‘rockstar’ and how do I find it? My answer … you already have it …

‘your unpublished and ongoing research’

‘your empathy with the students you truly appreciate their angst because a similar experience is not so far in your own past’

‘your calm and considered outlook coupled with boundless enthusiasm that makes your content far richer than any download’ (your newness means your passion is undiminished). This can be felt by those around you; it can’t be measured’.

If I think about brilliant lecturers they all have their own attributes that make attendance worthwhile – these are always not displays of radical teaching or ‘fizz-bomb’ personalities; but there is always something more than transmission. Examples include anecdotes, stories, empathy, humour, and enthusiasm, and research. Rather than assume students are disengaged we should make sure when they come to class they have something more than a download… it’s potentially a useful, confidence generating staff development reflection to #FindYourRockstar.



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Living scholarship

During a workshop on teaching recognition at Harper Adams University, I was involved in discussion with colleagues about ‘what is scholarship in the context of teaching and supporting learning?’ This discussion is not new of course. Boyer’s four types of scholarship provide a common reference point to answer this recurring question. Locating types of scholarship seemed not to fully capture our group’s perceptions of their own scholarship though; what about the informal, the discursive, the self-review and inquiring mind? What about the underpinning, hard to quantify, desire to enhance and learn? What about growing and using social capital or networks to respond to events emerging (something akin to collective reflection in action)? What about scholarship as routine, habit or modus operandi? What about scholarship as critical and thoughtful engagement. All of this is very tricky to measure or locate. It is more wrapped together as a package we called ‘living scholarship’. Although with some danger of being self congratulatory about finding a label for scholarship as being, I rather liked it :-)

Living Scholarship: Combining aspects of scholarship, with a persistent, passionate and committed search for enhanced practice; Scholarship which can be sensed as well as seen; Scholarship which is private as well as public, natural rather than additional, not always necessarily explicit, and which is underpinned by thoughtfulness and self awareness.



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Journal club for lecturer development

One of the ways in which we have been sharing practice on the PgC Teaching & Supporting Learning in Higher Education is through a series of journal clubs. These sessions are optional, and individuals are encouraged to attend sessions that they find relevant and interesting. Participation can contribute to the individual continuing professional development component of the programme (a portion of the second module is devoted to self-determined professional development).  The journal club is ‘hosted’ by a ‘facilitator’ who comes from the university’s academic or learner support staff. Colleagues are invited to facilitate, or may request to host, a session. As programme leader, I do not pre-determine the topic to be addressed. Allowing freedom for the facilitator to choose the paper for review enables the programme to benefit from a range of expertise and to achieve unplanned outcomes. It adds unthought-of variety. Last year we covered the effectiveness of Powerpoint in classes, clickers in classes, space management, and ‘the second year slump’. These specific topics are not in the formal curriculum and thus the facilitators own choices add breadth. The PgC participants get the benefit of encountering a range of practitioners, who have different experiences and perspectives, and in this way the experience helps with professional networking. For the facilitators, this is an opportunity to actively read and seek out current research, or in some cases, to present their own research. It also provides an activity which can link in to a Senior Fellowship claim as the facilitation of these sessions is one way to demonstrate pedagogic leadership and influence. The sessions are open to all staff and not just PgC students. I am a little bias, but the format works well and participants report that they benefit from seeing what others are interested in.

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Curriculum design checklist

In considering course design, the 2015 PgC Teaching & Supporting Learning in Higher Education group have compiled a list of factors that should be considered when designing HE learning programmes. I thought it was useful to share as a checklist for reflection.

Factor affecting learning design choices
1.     Level of study
2.     Professional body requirements
3.     Volume of Study
4.     Sequence of learning
5.     Space in the curriculum for reflection
6.     Space in the curriculum for responsiveness (to current events)
7.     Constructive alignment
8.     Link to programme level learning aims and outcomes  (including graduate outcomes)
9.     Link to previously experienced pedagogies (is the learning approach novel? Do students need to adapt to new learning approaches?)
10.   Facilities / resources available
11.   Health and safety
12.   Time available for learning
13.   Active learning and student engagement opportunities
14.   Repetition and reinforcement where needed
15.   Links to prior knowledge and experiences
16.   Opportunities for feedback (to help students to manage their learning)
17.   Digital literacies – is there a need to develop these as well as subject knowledge?
18.   Academic literacies – is there a need to develop these as well as subject knowledge?
19.   The nature of the knowledge that we will work with (is it fixed? How quickly can learning happen?)
20.   Quality assurance and university requirements
21.   Relevance and purpose of learning (made explicit)
22.   Transition points
23.   Currency of knowledge
24.   Research informed teaching
25.   Student motivation variety
26.   Time available for planning
27.   Learner preferences
28.   Feedback from students
29.   Exposing students to alternative perspectives (teaching beyond your own comfort zone)
30.   Teacher interest and expertise
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Research seminar resources: Using technology for student feedback: Lecturer perspectives

After presenting some of my doctoral research to colleagues at the Harper Research Forum here are the slides, a link to the thesis from which the presentation was derived and a copy of the poster shared at the internal Learning & Teaching Conference earlier in September.

Link to the research thesis available at http://repository.liv.ac.uk/2014121/

Summary poster shared at the Harper Adams Learning & Teaching Conference 2015

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Course level assessment – nice idea, but what does it really mean?

It is increasingly clear that thinking about curriculum in the unit of ‘the course’ rather than the unit of ‘the module is conducive to cohesive course design. It avoids repetition, ensures the assessment journey makes sense to the student and can make feedback meaningful as one task is designed to link to the next. I have not found much  in the literature on course level assessment; while it is advocated in principle amongst educational development communities, it is perhaps less clear what course level assessment actually looks like.

I can see three possibilities, though there may be more. These conceptions are described as if delivered through the modular frameworks which remain the dominant framework for programmes. Any comments on other approaches would be very welcome.

Type 1: Compound assessment

Imagine two modules being taught on entirely discrete themes. Within them might be learning about terminology, key theories, processes, and calculations. Within the modular framework they may be taught entirely independently. In such a model there is nowhere in the curriculum where these skills can be overtly combined. A third module could be introduced which draws upon learning from module one and module two. Of course in reality it may be five modules drawn upon in a sixth compound module.

By example, a module focused upon business strategy may be taught entirely separately from a module on economics. Under such a scenario students may never get to consider how changes in the economy influence strategy, the associated tactics and the need for responsive planning. It is these compound skills, abilities and levels of professional judgment that the course (not the modules) seek to develop. One way of addressing this limitation is to provide a third module which draws together real business scenarios and concentrates on encouraging students to combine their knowledge. A ‘compound’ module could be based around case studies and real world scenarios, it may be limited in its ‘indicative content’ and leave a degree of openness to draw more flexibly on what is happening in the current external environment. Open modules can be uncomfortable and liberating in equal measure for the tutor, as there is a less familiar script. It might concentrate on the development of professional behaviours rather than additional content.The module might have timetabled slots, or could take the form of a one off exercise, field trip or inquiry. Teaching would be more facilitative rather than content/delivery led.

One of the challenges with such a module is that many tutors may be reluctant to give over credits to what seems to be a content free or light module. Going back to basics though, graduates are necessarily more than empty vessels filled with ‘stuff’. If we look at the course level and identify what we want to produce in our outcomes, and what the aims of our programmes actually are, then the flexible compound module fits well as an opportunity for fusing knowledge and developing competent, confident, early professionals. When knowledge is free and ubiquitous online, acting as a global external hard disk, we need to look at the graduates we build and challenge any view that higher education is primarily about the transfer of what the lecturer knows to the student. Surely the compound skills of researching the unfamiliar, combining knowledge from different areas, and making decisions with incomplete data in a moving environment are much more important. The compound module is an opportunity to facilitate learning which alights with the course level outcomes sought.

This type of course level learning and assessment undoubtedly requires an appreciation of the skills, attitudes, values and behaviours that we wish to foster in students and it needs confidence in the tutor to facilitate rather than transmit.

Type 2: Shared  assessment

The next way that I can conceive a form of course level assessment is more mechanistic. Take two modules (module one and module two, taught separately); to bring about efficiencies, the assessment of each module is undertaken within the same assignment, activity or exam. It may be an exam with two parts one for each module; it may be a presentation which is viewed by two assessors, each reviewing a separate aspect of content or it could be an assignment which has areas of attention clearly marked for each module. The education benefits of this are, in my view, much less obvious than for type 1, nevertheless students may see some links between the parts of modules in taking such an approach. The shared assessment must be designed to make clear which aspect relates to which module or else a student could be penalised or rewarded twice for the same points. Under such an approach it is conceivable to pass one element and fail the other. I remain to be convinced of the real benefits of this approach which feels like surface level ‘joined up-ness’.

Type 3: Combined assessment 

The term combined assessment is used here to describe an approach which assesses two modules through a single meaningful strategy. If there are two fifteen credit modules, one on mathematics for engineers and one on product design, an assessment which uses knowledge from each taught unit can be drawn upon to pass a single assessment – for example via a design and build exercise. The assessment subsumes both modules, the two elements are integrated (in contrast to the shared assessment approach) and there are potential marking efficiencies. Without clear attribution of marks to one or the other module it may be tricky when a student fails; what do they restudy? But presumably a tutor would be able to advise where the limitations of the performance are and which unit would be usefully revisited. In some cases it may be both. In reality this approach may be little different than having a large module with two themes contained within it.

So they were my three ideas for programme level assessment but I am convinced that there are other ways of achieving this in a meaningful way. The suitability of each approach will depend on what the course team want to achieve, but clearly the benefits of the compound assessment approach are very different from a shared or combined strategy.

permalink jigsaw header image courtesy of Yoel Ben-Avraham under Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/epublicist/3545249463

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Children, parents and social media use

Recently I have been involved in developing learning objects which offer practical advice on how students can manage their digital footprint . The resources encourage students to build a positive online identity (known as ‘brand ‘me’). Such a positive presence typically contains artifacts and interactions that tell a personal story but which, publicly at least, don’t include debaucherous highlights for all the world to see.
 My interest in social media and how children/students use it is not solely a professional one. Over the last two or three years we have had a turbulent relationship with the web and social media in our own home, but it finally appears that we have reached a point of online equilibrium. Many friends and colleagues have had the routine updates of this conscious journey and asked that I share what has been learnt. I won’t share every detail – but here are some things that we learned that helped us:

  • There is really no point banning children’s web access; this is a sure way to create a battleground and is really unnecessary. No matter how tempting it seems, it will create a form of isolation from friends. Social media has replaced phone communication, so any threats of withdrawal have to be seen in this light. Ultimately we’re going to have to self regulate, so denying access is not really helping to build those self-management skills.
  • Start early – any pre-teen can understand that ‘saying anything online is like standing in the town square and shouting at the top of your voice!’
  • The idea that the web is educational and children need access for homework is fine, but any belief that each child should have total control over web-enabled devices is misplaced. Shared devices work just as well, and if anything they encourage file discipline and sound data management. Too many ‘owned’ devices create territorial behaviours; sharing creates tolerance. It also acts as a further safeguard in making sure information coming in and out is not locked away.
  • Try to talk about web use as a routine point, and encourage honesty. With a hint of comedy we routinely ask ‘what’s happened in social media land today?’ :-) Who said what to whom? Who is having a hard time? etc. Web safety sites only seem to encourage us to only discuss undesirable behavior (advising us to ‘report any weirdos’, ‘press the red button’ if you want to report content etc.), but such responses are largely not appropriate for the situations that children need to navigate. Through pro-active discussion children can reach more informed positions about what they see and how they interact. They need to know how to respond to peers posting walls of selfies and encouraging others to vote out the ugliest (awful isn’t it?), and not just the situations of ‘stranger danger’ that adults often conceive as being the biggest issue. .
  • Look out for physical symptoms of anxiety, which might be linked to social media use. These devices allow us to be ‘always on’ and alert; for teens/pre-teens this can mean no down time.  When always connected, a sense that something may be missed never goes away; in itself this creates stress. Until children have the wherewithal to make positive choices and understand that they do not need to be on call, this facility is very damaging.
    • Discuss why down time is important (Eating dinner with a child who has a vibrating smartphone in their pocket is like trying to eat dinner while fifty people throw snowballs at your window and heckle);
    • Show that choosing when to communicate is empowering and not weak;
    • Constructively challenge the need to ‘hear’ all communications (in the same way that all crisps in the house do not need to be consumed, moderation is good);
    • Discuss which devices and features can help manage the noise (there are phones that bridge the ‘first phone’ to a super smart phone).
  • Encourage children to filter unwanted drivel. 20-second clips of pointless stuff on Snapchat may be OK between close friends (developmental, even), but trying to keep up with everyone’s everyday is meaningless. 100 friends, posting two twenty second clips per day is a whole lot of lost time.
  • Measure the benefit of real activities explicitly against the benefits of ‘spent’ online time. Discuss the opportunity-cost of online activities. By example, after cycling ten miles on a sunny day and fitting in a nice lunch, make a comparison to how many YouTube videos, Snap Chat communications or Instagram pictures might have been otherwise chewed through– then recognize which is better!
  • Don’t be the fun police – some time watching YouTube and flicking through content is just fine. Watching ‘How animal’s eat their food’ for the twentieth time can be mildly amusing.
  • Recognise different behaviours in others (and discuss). Did you notice how that person spent their entire visit texting others? Is that OK?  Did you notice how filming a concert through a phone device caused a disconnect and created a whole load of footage never to be watched again?
  • Practice (and practise) being fully present. It’s hard to pedal moderate online approaches unless we do it ourselves!
  • Don’t resign to the idea that kids are all consumed by gadgetry and apps. There is balance to be found.
  • Recognise that all of the variables in online usage are changing (child’s age, peer behavior, the tools themselves) and so the search for a balanced online pattern is going to be ongoing and shifting.

This post was co-produced with my own children (thank you). What you have here is our shared experience. Back to my professional interest, I believe there is a need for much more research about how children and young people can learn to become digitally resilient and capable; I’m sure this touches on parenting, formal education, confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy. More research and better advice (particularly more realistic advice) would, I’m sure help parents who are permanently exasperated and who feel unable to deal with this issue.

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