I usually go to the AL development conferences that take place in London and the South East of England. I’ve never been to on that has been held in Milton Keynes before, since they have always been held at locations that have been roughly connected to the former regions. It makes complete sense to have one at the university campus since it gives tutors the opportunity to visit the place where everything happens and it is reasonably easy to get to.
What follows is a quick summary of an AL development conference that took place on Thursday 4 April 2019. The conference had a series of opening presentations, followed by three parallel session.
Unlike some of the other conferences, this conference had a particular focus that related to the university’s Mental Health Charter. Particular themes of the day included: promoting good mental health in the OU, the role of the student voice, student mental health, and mental health strategy and policy.
Opening session: careers services
I arrived just in time to attend the end of the opening session, which was presented by Claire Blanchard from the Enhanced Employability and Career Progression (EECP) group which has teams in Manchester, Nottingham and Milton Keynes.
Students can also access something called the Career and Employability Services (CES). Claire commented that students might study for different reasons: a career starter, a career developer, or a career changer. Increasingly students study for career change and development. The EECP group has something called an employer engagement team, carry out research and scholarship regarding careers, and offer guidance about embedding employability into the curriculum.
Echoing a recent employability conference I attended, I noted that “all employees of the university has a responsibility to help with student employability and career progression”. To offer practical help and guidance for students, the university also runs an online careers fair, where specialists offer guidance through webcasts and webchats.
More information is available through the university’s careers pages.
How can we best support our students with their mental health needs?
The first workshop I attended was by Deborah Peat, Head of Strategy and Quality Development. I understand that Deborah was responsible for mental health strategy and poliy.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as: “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. A point was made that we all have mental health.
In the university, 24k students have declared a disability. Out of that figure 10k have declared a mental health difficulty. An interesting statistic is that 1 in 4 of people are affected by a mental health difficulty in a year.
Importantly, mental health is also considered as a priority for the UK Government Office for Students, which has led to the creation of the University Mental Health Charter (studentminds.org.uk) A point that was noted that the proposal are more suited to face to face university than distance learning institutions like the OU.
So, what kinds of resources can students gain access to?
There is a service called Nightline which is available through the student’s association (OUSA), which is supported by trained volunteers. There is also a pilot service called the BigWhiteWall which is a service used by 30 other HE institutions. BigWhiteWall is defined as “a safe online community of people, for anyone who is anxious, down or not coping, who support and help each other by sharing, guided by trained professionals”.
BigWhiteWall has four areas: talk chat, bricks, guided support and ‘useful stuff’. The talk chat section is a bit like forums. The guided support section offers short courses for things like coping with anxiety or stress. It isn’t, however, a service for students who are in immediate distress.
Towards the end of the session we were shown two different scenarios, and asked to discuss how, as tutors, we would respond to each of them. Actions included taking time to talk to students who were expressing concerns, but also taking time to tell our line managers about any significant issue that may have arisen. An important point is that tutors can also draw on the university employee assistance programme.
As an aside, students (and associate lecturers) can also access the university booklet Studying and staying mentally healthy (PDF). It’s quite a short booklet, but it’s certainly worth a read.
Critical incidents: work and well-being, sharing best practice
I’ve run this session on critical incidents a number of times before, and every time it has been slightly different.
A critical incident is described as a memorable or challenging situation that occurred during our teaching practice. The session began with a number of definitions from a number of different authors:
“The critical incident technique consists of a set of procedures for collecting direct observations of human behaviour in such a way as to facilitate their potential usefulness in solving practical problems and developing broad psychological principles.” Flanagan, cited by Spencer-Oatey, H. (2013) Critical incidents. A compilation of quotations for the intercultural field. GlobalPAD Core Concepts.
“For an incident to be defined as critical, the requirement is that it can be described in detail and that it deviates significantly, either positively or negatively, from what is normal or expected”. Edvardsson, cited by Spencer-Oatey, 2013.
“A critical incident is an interpretation of a significant episode in a particular context rather than a routine occurrence.” Bruster, B. G. & Peterson, B. R. (2012) Using critical incidents in teaching to promote reflective practice, Reflective Practice, 14:2, 170-182.
I began by asking everyone who came along to the session to think about their own tutoring practice to identify a critical incident. When they had done this, I asked them to discuss them all within a group, and then choose one to share with the whole of the workshop session.
I really enjoyed the discussions that emerged. We shared experiences and strategies that we used to respond to some of the difficult situations that we had been collectively faced with.
Reimagining our teacher identifies in the virtual learning environment
The final session I attended was facilitated by Sara Clayson, Staff Tutor from the School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport.
Sara asked us all a question: “what does it feel like to move from face to face to online teaching?”
The answer was: it can be emotional since we’re moving from interacting with other humans to interacting via computers. We were asked further questions: why did you choose to become an associate lecturer? Did the perceptions (of the university, or of teaching) influence your decision to become an AL? What was it like when you started teaching?
Reflection is, of course, an integral part of teaching. This means that there’s a question of how we reconstruct our identity when more of our teaching. In some respects, the university is providing tutors with training about how to teach online without explicitly acknowledging how this affects our identity as teachers.
We were given a short activity to complete. We were asked: how would you explain your teaching approach to a student?
Here’s what I wrote: “My role is to guide. Everything you need has been provided in the module materials, or on the university websites. You do your own learning, and what I do is facilitate your access to that learning. So, ask questions, send me updates, and treat me as a sounding board. I want to hear from you about what you’ve been studying, what you’ve found interesting, and what you’ve found challenging. Use assignments to show me what you have learnt, and if there are any gaps, I’ll do my best to tell you what they are”.
We were asked to think about how to answer further questions: what kind of tutor do you want to be in the VLE (virtual learning environment)? Also, how can you be the tutor you want to be in the VLE? And finally: what barriers do you need to overcome and what possibilities are there?
Sara left is with some resources, highlighting research by Anna Comas-Quinn, specifically a paper that has the title: Learning to teach online or learning to become an online teacher: an exploration of teachers' experiences in a blended learning course (Open Research Online) and the website HybridPedagogy.
There was a lot happening during this conference. There was a session about inclusive practice and understanding disability profiles, working online with students with hearing impairments, information a repository where tutors can share resources, how to best work with the student support team (SST), and how to provide excellent correspondence tuition. It was a shame that there were only three parallel sessions!
From my perspective, the reminder about mental health resources was really helpful. I also really enjoyed Sara’s session about teacher identity. This isn’t something that I think about very much. I feel that identity and professional practice are linked to other related ideas of respect and autonomy.
The opportunity to discuss what our teaching identity means, and to be presented with a set of reflective questions that could help us untangle the idea further was really thought provoking.
In the middle of all this was the important question of: how can I get better? This, I feel, is what good professional development is all about.