International staff development in teaching and learning: Lessons learnt

cstaAt the end of another period of working with lecturers from overseas I thought it would be useful to pause for thought and identify lessons from working in the area of transnational staff development. I have just completed my third international staff development summer school, and here is what I found. These points come with the caveat that they are only my learning, and others may, of course, have different views of what works.

Be conscious of your assumptions.

Before meeting academics from other continents it’s easy to let assumptions about what they may or may not be doing in practice, or what they may or may not believe, creep in to your thinking and planning. By example with tutors from China a common belief is that they are always involved in a transmission modes of education; this is simply not my experience and the view relates to outdated assumptions. While some Anglicized techniques may be new to colleagues from other locations my experience tells me we have a shared passion for making learning better, and some overlap already in our methods such as employing a flipped classroom.

Explore biography.

It’s always useful to start any transnational academic staff development by exploring the experiences and biography of the individuals involved. Those involved in supporting transnational staff development can then be agile and responsive to the specific needs of the group. Things that I have tried are very simple: Starting the development programme with a list of questions and concerns that the group would like to address, shared via a post-it-note board, hosting a session with no plan and offering the hot seat format where we simply respond to the questions of the group in an effort to take stock and allow international colleagues to add context to their growing understanding, and walking together to listen more informally to the needs of the group.

Ensure that learning is always two way.

One directional international staff development appears like neo-colonial self-righteousness. We need to employ empathetic methods wherein we offer our own practices, identify some of the limitations of these approaches, and also invite teachers from other locations and nations to do the same. It feels disrespectful to do anything else.

Get the basic accessibility matters right

Take care of the basics to ensure provision is accessible. Particularly it’s important to make sure that delivery is slow enough to allow the digestion of material; if you’re not sure, keep checking with the group. Also, ensure that resources (slides, papers, etc.) are available before the class so that translation apps can be used to familiarise with any tricky words.

Team teach, always.

Team teaching allows a richness which is not possiblealone; I tend to work with people who can offer a very practical take on the theoretical ideas and research that I am exploring. As well as simply providing more experience in the room, teaching in pairs provides an opportunity to model professional differences, which are inevitable in teaching. So by example when working with a colleague in a session about teaching evaluation, my view was that it is okay to identify some of the areas upon which you specifically want feedback from teaching observation, but my colleague’s view was that this might limit the range of feedback and prevent previously unnoticed habits or issues from surfacing. Our nuanced differences were explored publicly as a model of divergent views; this raises the exposure of the group to detailed discussion. Team teaching also provided in the moment opportunities for peer observation and debrief; this should be routinely incorporated through the provision of collegial feedback on what worked well, and what less so.

Use staff development as a vehicle for the host organisation’s staff development.

By keeping international staff development locked within one or two people, there is limited benefit. Encouraging colleagues who may be outside of the usual staff development circuit to come and join in, can, I think, have a considerable impact, in growing capacity and confidence for this type of work. It can also provide experience for aspiring Senior Fellows within the UK Professional Standards Framework. It can also provide challenge and a refreshing set of ideas, for staff who often manage staff development.

 

Be confident about lessons on technology transferability

Within international staff development programmes we may wish to explore tools for learning and teaching. Things like Twitter, Padlett, Nearpod, Facebook and Kahoot. A first thought may be, well what’s the point as we have access to different apps, and some of our apps may not be appropriate in a different cultural context. However, our experiences are that sharing is still good, even when the tools are not immediately transferable, as we can learn by return about alternative apps. Most importantly, since technology and the way we use it reflects much about the underpinning power, beliefs and values in learning, then exploring technology is a much more valuable experience than just swapping ideas on apps we like.

Hold discussion using first language

Group work with international, especially Chinese staff, is always very productive, but it is incredible demanding and limiting to make that group work happen in a second language (e.g. English). Permitting sense-making in the first language allows rich debate and discussion to evolve, rather than slowing down the pace and adding another cognitive load. This approach loses the opportunity for input to the discussion from the session host, but in my experience this is a process worth paying to enable lively group discussion, and in any case group précis in English can give the headlines.

Lead by self-exposure on the difficult discussions.

Asking questions, or discussing topics, which require some exposure of personal fragilities, can be tricky to get started. Working with my colleague, Jane Headley, we found that by sharing something of ourselves before we ask others to do the same was helpful in creating an open forum. So for example, when discussing technology, I shared some adverse feedback that I had received on my own approach; I then told the story of what happened next, and I identified the decisions I made that lead to a less than perfect learner experience. This lighthearted ‘fessing up’ made others comfortable to share their own critical incidents and learning from it. As well as showing openness, this deconstruction of practice also models reflection in action.

Use many examples and stories

Using real examples of situations, challenges and successes can really aid understanding, though remembering that some political context may be important to explain why one or another decision was taken at the time, e.g. we had funding for this type of work, or we are preparing for TEF.

Encourage journal writing

Finally, by encouraging some reflective writing after each topic or session, international staff can form their own ‘take away’ record of i) what were the key learning points and ii) what next to research, extent or apply aspects of learning? A simplified, structured formal of learning journals can promote consolidation and impact from learning.

This list is no doubt incomplete, so please do add any other points that you might have.

Creative commons image sources:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Globe_terrestre_Orange_te_Bleu.svg

 

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Senior Fellowship (SFHEA) readiness assessment

To help colleagues assess whether they are ‘really good’ Fellows, or instead ‘Senior Fellows’ I have created a three step self assessment exercise. This tries to encourage teaching and learning practitioners to think about the scholarly or evidence based approaches that they use, the values that underpin their own practice and critically the ways in which they exert leadership and influence over others. Please feel free to use it if useful.

Download the SFHEA readiness exercise

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(My) Lessons from the flipped classroom

In September 2015 I committed to deliver a thirty-credit module, called The Teaching Practitioner, using A flipped classroom pedagogy. The module is the first of two in a PgC Teaching and Supporting Learning in HE; it is associated with Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy.

My motivation for flipping the classroom was three fold:

  1. My contact time was limited and therefore moving ‘delivery of content’ outside of the classroom was an answer to a specific timetable challenge.
  2. In learning and teaching provision of this type I wanted to actively avoid ‘preaching’ or appearing as the ‘authority’. Everyone, without exception, on a work-based programme brings experience and the class dynamic is much more about guiding equals and facilitating mutual learning.
  3. I would rather place my energies in to discursive, challenging and unexpected contact time, rather than repeat sessions of transmitting content, which can be accessed in other ways.

The pattern of delivery was simply that each week I shared materials to work through, including narrated presentations, videos (commissioned and existent), reading, reflective tasks and then we would gather to discuss. The discussions varied in formality, structure and style as the module progressed. Over the course of the module I learnt a great deal, the key points from my mental list of lessons are shared below.

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To do list example (click to view)

Essential to do list: Each week I published what needed to be done in advance of the face-to-face class. Importantly the list split out what was essential and what was optional. Participants reported that this was a helpful organizing distinction and allowed better management of their activity. This is something that I would definitely adopt in future modules of any type to act as a pacesetter. Simple, perhaps obvious, but actively encouraging participants to make choices about the level of engagement they can make is a pragmatic way of supporting work based practitioners who have so many competing demands on their time.

Slides not videos: I experimented with the media format of presentational material (pre-class content). The staple across most weeks was the narrated PowerPoint. I found more editing control by using Audacity to record the audio and then drag and drop in to PowerPoint, compared to recording direct in to PowerPoint. Audacity gave me opportunity to edit out any major interruptions with ease (phone calls, door knocks etc). I included some video lectures of studio production quality however participants found them relatively less engaging, with a preference for visuals and audios mixed in together with the ability to more easily navigate the presentation. I was surprised by this preference, but there is no doubt narrated presentations are easier to create.

Don’t force theory: We took a discursive approach to our face-to-face time (which was usually two hours per week). I provided questions and starters and then tried to guide the discussion. At first the conversation was loose, multi-directional, on and off-topic. I worried that we were not being ‘very level seven’ and the participants shared some of these concerns. However an under the surface, a process of sense making was going on; each person, in their own language and terms, through sharing and reflecting on their own experience got chance to reconceive, affirm and evaluate their practice. The explicit linking to theory was a more private activity, which seemed to occur in response to assessment. It was only obvious that this had taken place at the end of the module as discussion and theory were fused. Perhaps the discussions were a shared liminal space in which we muddled through difficult issues, then we went away to individually reflect and make clear.

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A conception of flipped learning as a three stage process

 Facilitation skills matter more than online production skills: My role can be linked to all the activities of a facilitator, including:

  • Summarizing

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    A discussion summary in progress

  • Questioning
  • Providing occasional expertise
  • Sharing anecdotes
  • Signposting
  • Collating the issues that we couldn’t solve and referring them to other forums, or mentally ‘parking them’ as knowingly messy
  • Archiving ideas (e.g. photographing shared lists and posting them online for future reference)
  • Providing clarity as needed
  • Providing confidence
  • Managing the group dynamics
  • Modeling active listening

As we progressed through the weeks, methods for each of these aspects became more developed e.g. creating graphics for summaries, defining the discussion purpose to keep us mainly on task. One thing I did from time to time was add a summary of the discussion as a resource for reference so that everyone had opportunity to revisit key points. This involved simply using my mobile phone and talking through the diagrams that we had created in class such that everyone had a record. This was not onerous at all if done straight after the session while fresh in memory.

Quick and dirty production process: If the model of delivery is going to be sustainable then resources need to be produced within a realistic time frame. By taking a quick and dirty approach to development, those on the programme see the approach as achievable and replicable; it provides accessible modeled practice. For me there is also a really clear sign in this approach that the value of the learning experience is the interaction and not a resource. To avoid perfectionism I never listened to my own presentations after they were recorded other than for a quick sound check.

Shared endeavor: While new roles were not formally defined, we fell in to a more even relationship. I sensed that we were co-researchers (in to the effectiveness of the pedagogy) and co-learners (about all aspects of the programme). We were facilitators and facilitated, rather than ‘teacher and student’. To reinforce this role equality, I tried to be very open about when I was learning too.

Allow choice about levels of engagement: As grown ups, participants face a simple rational choice about whether to engage or attend; sometime this choice is made in light of personal life and professional workload. In the weeks where individuals had not done the preparation for class, no action was taken or penalty applied. This approach relies on a commitment to engage and the rewards are implicit in the design. It also reflects the idea of running a community of equals. The group dynamic needs to be honest about the need for preparation, but pragmatic when this slips. If the facilitation works well then even those who have not prepared should be invited and able to contribute experience, and hopefully then inspired to retrospectively visit the online class.

A human process not a technical one: Flipped classroom may evoke thoughts about complex online tools and an unfathomable methodology of teaching promoted by centres of e-learning and academic development, but for me the experience of flipped classroom is a fundamentally human process which involves a respect the opportunity to explore individual experience and knowledge. It allows social learning and creates space for the discussion of any issues arising that matter to the group. I hope the language around this practice, and the identity of the learning model as slightly exotic, does not take away from the collegial simplicity, which resonates with traditional seminar based learning.

Support for the flipped approach from participants was demonstrated in three distinct ways: i) the adoption of flipped classroom by some group members ii) protest when classes are not flipped iii) outstanding, highly personalized, deeply connected assignments to demonstrate the culmination of meaningful engagement (though I am a little bias on the last point).

If I had a point nine on my list, it would be to keep faith that the approach will pay off, even when there is angst about its effectiveness. That said, when I saw in the module assessments that we had reached our destination (albeit a fleeting one on the way to the next module) I was very relieved!

 

 

Posted in Academic Practice (PgC Teaching & Supporting Learning), Facilitation, HE, Technology, Uncategorized, Work-based learning | Tagged | 2 Comments

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 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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