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C&C research fiesta: getting research funding

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 29 Jan 2019, 08:39

This is the second in a short series of two posts that summarises some of the highlights of a ‘research fiesta’ that has held by the School of Computing and Communications. This post summarises some of the points that were made during a panel session about research funding.

The panel comprised of four professors (if I’ve counted correctly), a research manager from the STEM faculty, and was facilitated by our director of research, Robin Laney. Although the focus was about research funding, it could have also easily had another title: how to become a professor.

Here’s a list of some really useful tips that I noted down about gaining research funding: 

  1. Think about how you might go about forming a working relationship with a funding body. This might mean keeping an eye out for different research related events that they run. Networking is important. Take time to speak to them.
  2. To develop relationships with funders, join mailing lists, check their websites and respond to calls for advice and consultation activities.
  3. Take time to understand the motivations of a funding body and what their priorities are. Simply put, the closer a research proposal or bid fits the aims and objectives of a funding body, the higher the probability of success.
  4. As well as understanding their aims and objectives, take time to understand the processes that they use, both in terms of bid submission and also in terms of how bids are evaluated. A key tip here is: talk to colleagues who have been successful and know what the procedures are.
  5. Always try to play to the strength of the university. Each institution is unique.
  6. Consider projects or proposals that are a little ‘left field’; proposals that are slightly unusual or explores an unexpected area may cause interest and intrigue.
  7. Look for new funding programmes. Getting in early might benefit both the funder and the organisation (and project) that is funded, especially as the funding programme builds up experience and finds its distinct focus.
  8. Successful bids often have components of interdisciplinarity and collaboration. Unsuccessful bids don’t present a clear story.
  9. Find collaborators who are able to work between disciplines; these are rare people who can help with the writing of project bids and proposals.
  10. Find external stakeholders who have a lot to gain from their involvement in a project. When describing this, present a clear project narrative that others can easily understand.
  11. When working with collaborators and stakeholders, make sure that you give them plenty of time to create supporting documents, such as letters of support. 
  12. Think in terms of teams. Working with a team of people means that funders might see certain bids as being less risky. Use your team to read and review your bid.
  13. Learn how everything works. Become a bid reviewer and seek out opportunities to sit on funding panels. The experience of reviewing other bids is invaluable.
  14. Speak to your university ethics committee early (and show that you have done so).
  15. Think about creating what could be described as a portfolio of ideas to work on at any one time.
  16. Smaller grants can be important; small grants can lead to large ones. Small grants can help researchers and research groups to develop their experience and expertise.

Summary

There are lot of really helpful points here. The biggest points I took away from this session was: be strategic (consider your portfolio of interests), look at what funding bodies are doing and what they are doing, and network to find collaborators, and build a team around project bids. In essence, take a collaborative approach. 

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Introduction to the REF

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Oct 2018, 10:42

In November 2018, I had an opportunity to attend something that was called a ‘writing retreat’. The idea behind the event was simple; it was an opportunity to take a bit of time out from day to day activities and focus on writing up various bits of research that colleagues within the school had been working on. There was another reason for running the retreat: there would be a particular emphasis on writing papers that could be submitted to the 2021 REF (the Research Excellence Framework).

What follows is a brief summary of some of the points that were made during the introductory workshop which introduced the REF. Full acknowledgements are extended to Professor Jane Seale who facilitated this workshop. Many of the words here are directly from Jane’s presentation.

Introducing the REF

A key phrase that I’ve heard ever since I’ve been working at a university is: REF submission. A submission relates to particular subjects. Some universities may focus on some submission areas over others to play on their own strengths and weaknesses.

The OU makes a number of submissions, and one of the submission areas that I am connected with is education. This means that ‘education-like’ papers will be grouped together, submitted, and then assessed by an expert panel. The outcome will be a ‘research rating’, and this is directly linked to income that is received by the university. Simply put, the higher the rating, the more research income an institution receives. 

I asked the question: “what does ‘education-like’ actually mean?” These will be papers that more than just describe something, like a system or a tool that has been designed (which is what some computing papers can be). Education research papers need to be firmly linked to an education context. They should also present a critical perspective on the literature, the work that was carried out, or both.

When?

The 2021 REF assesses research that has been published in the public domain that has been carried out between 1 January 2014 and 31 December 2020. Papers that are to be included are typically included within a university repository. (The OU has a repository called ORO).

What?

Every academic whose contract which has a significant research component should submit at least one paper, and there should be a REF average of 2.5 papers per academic (as far as I understand things!)

Publications should be of a 3* or a 4* quality. Three star papers means that a piece of research is of ‘international significance’. The education REF panel will accept different kinds of submissions, including journal papers, conference proceedings and book chapters, but there has been a historic bias towards journal papers for two reasons: they are peer reviewed, and are more readily cited. Books or book chapters should present summaries of research and shouldn’t be student focussed or summarise what is within a field.

In education, some journals contain practice papers or case studies. I noted down that education papers don’t have to be empirical to be considered for the REF. A paper might present a new practice or an innovation or development of an existing practice. A suggestion is to preface it with what you’re doing and why you’re doing something, and offer a thorough criticism of how and why something fits in with existing work. This means that it’s necessary to consider comparisons and contrasts. Descriptions are also necessary to contextualise the research, but the balance needs to be right: practice papers need to be generalisable.

Where?

A question to ask is: where should you publish? It was interesting to hear that the REF panel for Education isn’t particularly concerned with the impact of the journal where research is published; what matters is the research itself. Given that education research tends to be descriptive, a suggestion is to choose journals that have a generous word count. One such journal is: Open Learning, which is thoroughly excellent. 

How?

How are submissions assessed? The submission chair will look at the title, abstract and reviewers and match a set of papers to an expert. Every paper will get read twice, and there will be some kind of process of random sampling. An interesting thought is: ‘don’t make the reviewers work too hard’, which is advice that I also give my students who are writing their end of module assessments or project dissertations. Institutions (including the OU) may having something called a ‘mock REF’, where they try to replicate the official REF submission to get a feel for the direction where the institution is heading.

REF criteria

Papers are judged on three key criteria: significance, originality and rigour; each of these criteria are equally important.

Significance: A paper or piece of research provides a valuable contribution to the field (this relates to the ‘so what?’ question about the purpose of the research). Also, how does the research moves the field forward. The contribution can be theoretical or empirical. A point to note is that a 3* paper contributes ideas that have a lasting influence. A 4* paper has a major influence on a field.

Originality: Is the research engaging with new or complex problems? Perhaps a paper might be using existing methods but in a new way, or challenging accepted wisdom. As a point of reference, a 2* paper contributes a small or incremental development, where as a 4* piece of research is something that is outstandingly novel in the development of concepts, techniques or outcomes.

Rigour: Papers and research offers intellectual precision or robustness of arguments. Some important questions are: is there rigour in the argument, the methods and the analysis? Also, can the readers trust the claims that are made when you ask the question, ‘how have you analysed your data?’ It is also important to include researcher reflexivity (question the role that the researcher had in the analysis of the research), and to critique the work, offering a summary of strengths and weaknesses. A 4* paper is one that is exceptionally rigorous, with the highest standards of intellectual precision.

Reflections

I only have a small amount of time in my staff tutor contract to carry research; I try to do what I can when I can, but I very often get entangled in tutor and student support issues which take me away from exploring really interesting questions and topics. Plus, increasingly, I’ve been playing a role in AL professional development. Carving out time for research is difficult balancing act due to all these competing demands.

When I started the retreat, I planned to write about some of the tutorial observation research that I’ve been doing and reacquaint myself with some of the papers that I had uncovered whilst doing this research. The introduction to the event gave me some really needed context, in terms of what a very good paper actually looks like. It also gave me a bit of direction in terms of what I actually needed to do.

One of the things that I did during the retreat was to consolidate different bits of research into a single document that forms the basis of a paper. I now have a clear and distinct structure. What I need to do now is to do some further close reading of the references to more directly position it within the literature, add a more critical twist to the analysis to broaden its appeal, and to do quite a bit more editing.

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EdD residential weekend, June 2018

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 21 Nov 2019, 11:21

Between Friday 8 June and Sunday 10 June 2018 I attended an EdD residential weekend at the university campus in Milton Keynes. The EdD residential weekend was something that was new to me: I was attending in the capacity of a ‘co-supervisor’ (or ‘second supervisor’). 

The EdD qualification is a doctorate in education that is at the same level as a PhD, except for one fundamental difference: the research and contribution to knowledge carried out through an EdD is situated in the educational practice or context of the student who is carrying out the research. 

One of the things that I learnt from the weekend was that other institutions have their own EdD programmes. Since 1997 more than 370 students have been awarded an EdD through the OU’s EdD programme.

What follows is a transcription and summary of some of the notes that I made during the weekend. There are mostly from my perspective of a supervisor, but they might be of interest and use to EdD students or anyone who is interested in learning more about what EdD research and study entails.

Introduction

The event was introduced by Inma Alvarez, the university’s Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology EdD programme director. Inma emphasised that the EdD is a professional doctorate that enables students to gain skills in educational research and enquiry and be able to carry out a study that contributes to professional and practice knowledge.

The EdD takes at least 3 and a half years, with a maximum of 6 years. Students are provided with two supervisors; a lead supervisor and a co-supervisor. During the first year, students are required to design and carry out a preliminary study.

Progress on the EdD is not measured through tutor marked assignments (TMAs) but by a series of progress reports. At the end of the first year, students are required to produce a report which is assessed by an academic who is neither of their supervisors. Inma made an important point that a lot of the responsibility is down to the student; an EdD should take notes of their supervision meetings and actively manage their supervisors!

All the students were given a number of useful tips, including: treat the programme guide as your ‘bible’ and subscribe to the student forums, so students can get updates of when people post messages, updates and questions. 

The first year is all about becoming an independent researcher, which includes carrying out a literature review, carrying out that initial study, submitting 4 progress reports and the end of year progress report. The final report will contain an introduction to the project, a summary of the research questions, a literature review, a section about the methodology that is adopted, a description of an initial study, outcomes, and a detailed reference section.

In the second and third year students will ‘follow a more independent and individual programme supported by their supervisors’.

Students will have access to resources, which includes access to the OU graduate school network, the EdD programme website and online doctoral training resources. Another important message that was coming through was: ‘be responsible for your own development’, and a connected thought is to start a reflective diary. This diary can be used to keep notes about what is studied and what is learnt, help to develop academic writing and creativity.

Doctoral researchers and supervisors

The aim of this next session was to enable supervisors to meet their students and members of the EdD team. Some notes that I made from this session were about “gaining confidence in plans, getting used to critical feedback, getting some research training, understanding research ethics, talking to some EdD graduates and becoming a research professional”. 

I also made a note that there was a group discussion about the question: what is theory in education? I noted that there is the concept of ‘critical theory’, but there are other approaches and theoretical tools that could be used, such as critical pedagogy and activity theory. This said, I was also mindful that the educational research notion of ‘theory’ is slightly different to a scientific understanding of what a theory is.

Day 2: Doctorate in Education Literature Review

The second day began with a presentation by Ursula Stickler in a library seminar room. The aim of the session was to learn more about ‘how to approach a literature review, the criteria, and practical considerations, such as knowing when and where to stop’. 

We were given an activity, where we were asked the question: why are you doing a literature review? Answers included: looking at themes, examining ideas and methods, examining debates, learning about academic literacies and making sure you’re not duplicating your research. Other answers also included identifying key authors and researchers and uncovering your own view of the literature and what has been done before. I also noted down some key terms that were used in the REF, the Research Excellence Framework: originality, significance and rigour.

We were then guided to another activity, where we had to answer the question: how to best go about a literature review? Other questions that were asked included: where to start, where to finish, what to include and what to leave out. It was also important to ask the question: what are the key journals and writers? It’s also important to be clear about what the main argument (or arguments) are. Another note I made was: narrow your search, find your gap (within the research) and widen your implications (which I assume relates to the impact that your research can make).

The final activity asked the question: what are the strengths of a good literature review? I didn’t make too many notes during this part of the event, except that the discussions were focussed upon an article by Boote and Beile entitled ‘Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation’.

Session: Ethics

Ethics are important. The first session on ethics was facilitated by Alison Fox and Kris Stutchbury. I made a note that “your entire project is an ethical task” with an accompanying comment that how students choose their research projects, carry out research tasks and disseminate their research results are all ethical tasks. In this session I was introduced to an new acronym: CURD, which stands for Consequence, Ecological, Relational and Deontological.

The next ethical session was all about case studies. Duncan Banks gave a presentation that had the title: an introduction to research ethics (PDF). We were introduced to the BPS, British Psychological Society, code of ethics of human participants. Some of the key points I noted down were: respect for the autonomy and dignity of persons, that the research must have scientific value, quality and integrity, and that it must maximise benefit and minimise harm. Another dimension of ethics relate to risks, both to research participants and also to the researcher.

Day 3: Designing an initial case study

The third day of the event was organised slightly differently; we were all brought together for a plenary presentation, and then we were able to attend different parallel sessions. In some respects, the weekend turned into a mini conference! What follows is a polished and paraphrased version of the notes that I made during each of these sessions.

Opening plenary session

The opening session was presented by Felicity Fletcher-Campbell. 

Literature review

Felicity returned to one of the important topics of the weekend; the literature review. The literature review should take account of a theoretical position, the substantive area and a methodology. A literature review is ongoing, flexible, adaptable, malleable, reactive and proactive. During the literature review, students should add and remove papers, and also reconceptualise their work. It offers a means to inform your empirical work. A key phrase I noted down was “keep it slim and purposeful”, which I thought was great advice. 

The initial study

The initial study is important since students need to carry this out to complete an important assessment within the EdD. Students must write a report that must present a clearly structured framework for the whole study. In some ways, this initial study and accompanying report is used to ‘sort out’ any issues regarding theory or theoretical position. I noted that the “report shows your developing knowledge and experience of relevant theoretical traditions and literature”. It is used to critically assess where the different authors and researchers are coming from and their accompanying perspective. The report also allows students to relate the literature to their research questions. 

Felicity offered some really useful tips and pointers: “your theoretical position informs your methodology” and “buy yourself a very big box of quotation marks and inverted commas” and “be really boring and put quotes around everything and be obsessed with page numbers”. On the subject of ethics, students were told: “name your supervisors on consent forms, so they get blamed too”.

On the subject of time, “research time is different than normal time; time fills up, everything will take longer than you think they will take”. 

There’s also the need to balance everything; to balance the preparation and the doing, the data production and the data collection, and the analysis with the report writing. Also, when it comes to the writing, “the initial study will help you to explain the genesis of your main study”.

The main study

Some key points about main study were: “you need to tell a story” and to ask “what I need to tell the reader? What do they need to know? Why did you tell me this? Also, why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” From a personal perspective, I’ve internalised the point about the need to tell a story, and I’ve passed this message onto the TM470 Computing and IT project students that I help to support. The narrative that is presented to the examiner is really important. 

Parallel Session: Working with digital data

The first parallel session that I went to was by Carol Azumah who discussed the usage of digital data and resources, such as blogs and social media. Some resources, such as blogs, can be viewed as public documents. Two terms that I noted down were ‘discourse oriented online ethnography’ and ‘fast ethnography’. An important point is that ethics always need to be considered. We were directed to the Ethics pages of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR).

Parallel Session: Concept maps

Diane Harris’s session was about how to use concept maps in research. Concept maps were introduced as tools that can be used to hear the voice of participants and “for them to own what they have said to you”. Diane offered a specific example of how they were used to study music education in a school. Participants could own, add to and create maps. The resulting maps could then be analysed using thematic analysis or critical incident analysis. Regarding this second technique, Diane mentioned two researchers, Harrison and Lee (2011) (Taylor and Francis) who used the approach in medical education.

Closing session: the way ahead

After the parallel sessions, we returned to the plenary room, where we were offered some closing advice from Inma Alvarez. From what I remember and from what I’ve noted down, students were encouraged to work as and think of themselves as independent researchers. They should also think of their supervisors as critical friends. Students were encouraged to identify what skills are needed, reflecting earlier attention that was given to the importance of continuing professional development.

The concluding bits of advice were: “be open to the unexpected; you can modify the title of your study [if you need to]; work to deadlines and use frameworks to guide what you do, and be sure to manage your supervisors”.

Reflections

What really impressed me was how well the EdD weekend was planned. There were ample opportunities to speak with supervisors and fellow students between more formal events and activities. It struck me as being a really nice mix.

There were a couple of highlights. The first one was a presentation by a former EdD student who spoke of some of the challenges of doctoral study. The second was the talk by Felicity Fletcher-Campbell, which was packed filled with useful and practical advice and delivered in a thoroughly engaging way.

I never took place in a formal induction session when I embarked on my own doctoral studies. What really impressed me with the weekend was its emphasis on structure; the importance of the literature review, the importance of the initial study, the main study and how everything connects together. I think the weekend has also positively impacted on my own practice; only by writing this blog have I realised that I have started to pass on some of the tips mentioned during this weekend to some of the undergraduate project students that I support. 

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7th eSTEeM Conference: 25 and 26 April 2018

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 25 May 2018, 09:57

The Open University runs a centre called eSTEeM which funds research and scholarship to enhance and develop STEM education. For the last few years, the centre has run a conference that serves a number of purposes: to showcase research, to create a space to get people talking (and potentially collaborating) with each other, and to offer an opportunity for academic professional development.

What follows is my own personal summary the two days of the conference. There were a number of parallel sessions to choose from. My approach to choose them was very simple: I chose the sessions that packed a lot in. This meant that I chose the paper sessions rather than the various workshop sessions were on offer. At the end of the blog I offer some very short reflections based on my experience of the session.

Opening keynote

The conference was opened by Diane Butler, who introduced the introductory keynote speaker, Tony Bates who used to work at the OU and also the University of British Columbia. Tony has recently written an Open Text Book called Teaching in a Digital Age. I made a note that Tony opened with the observation that there is ‘a lot of change’ and this has direct implications for teaching and learning at the university. One of the key forces of change is the need for skills, i.e. IT skills that are embedded within a subject area; knowing skills that are specific to a discipline. An accompanying question was: what are employers looking for? Certain skills are really important, such as active listening, speaking and critical thinking. 

Learners need to practice and develop skills and to do this they need regular feedback from experts. I made a note about that technology isn’t perhaps the most appropriate way to develop the soft skills that Tony mentioned earlier. An interesting question was posed: what does an advanced course design look like? There were some suggestions (if my notes serve me well): perhaps there might be student generated multimedia content and assessment by e-portfolios.

Tony also spoke about trends: there are new models of delivery; there is face to face teaching on one side, and fully distance learning on the other (and everything in between). An interesting point was that every university in Canada had fully online courses, with 16% of all course enrolment being to online courses and programmes. Traditional universities are moving into the space where distance learning institutions used to dominate.

An interesting new trend was the notion of hybrid learning: looking at what is best done in the classroom and what is best done online. I made a note that Tony said there was ‘no theory about what is done face to face versus online’, which strikes me as surprising.

A significant trend is, of course, MOOCs, but it was reported that there was no MOOC mania in Canada. Other trends included open educational resources and open text books. The point is that we’re now at a point where university professors offer learning support and not content and this has implications for teaching and learning. 

Tony concluded by leaving some points for the university: that technology is continually changing, that there needs to be flexible accreditation for life-long learning, and perhaps there needs to be an agile approach to course (or module) development. Also, all universities will be or are going to be digital (in some way or another). 

Paper session: Supporting students

Lessons in retention success: using video media to influence students

Jessica Bartlett spoke about her experiences working on S282 Astronomy. There are some immediate and obvious challenges: students numbers are falling and the module contains a lot of maths. An interesting point is that 50% of the students studying this module were not from the STEM faculty (which is where all the maths is studied).

The aim of the project was retain more students and help more students to pass exams. The module uses formative tutor marked assessments (TMAs) which means that the module team can reuse questions but can’t (of course) provide model answers to students. I recognised an interesting comment: ‘students don’t often look at their mark, ignoring their feedback’. The module team made videos about how to deconstruct and approach the TMA questions. I made a note of something called ‘reviewing your TMA’ activities, which encourage students to look back at what they’ve done (which sounds like a great idea). There were also weekly videos, where the filming and editing was done by the module team.

Evidence that bootcamps can help student retention and progression

Tom Wilks also spoke about S282 Astronomy but within the context of a ‘bootcamp’ that was designed to offer addition student support. Tom recorded short tutorial sessions that covered a range of topics: basic maths and physics, general OU study skills, how to use the VLE and how to use the Adobe Connect conferencing tool. 28 Adobe Connect sessions were recorded, each lasting between 2 and 10 minutes in length. These sessions were advertised to all students, who could access a forum and an Adobe connect room. Other resources include something called an ‘are you ready for quiz’ which is also used with some computing. Tom commented that tutors can refer students to his recordings if some students were struggling with certain concepts, and he also found that students did re-engage with materials when they were approaching their TMA. 

Flexible/early start M140

Carol Calvert gave a talk on her work on introducing a Flexible or Early start to M140 Introducing Statistics. I’ve heard Carol speak about this subject before, and she always delivers a great talk. Her research is based on an earlier study where she looked at students who succeed despite the odds that are stacked against them. One of the key findings of this research that one thing can really make a difference, and that is: starting early. 

Carol’s intention was to create an ‘early start’ experience that was close to a student’s experience when it officially begins. This means they have access to materials, can access the VLE site, have access to tutors, and can access to resources such screen casts and software. 400 students were sent a message offering them an invite to start early, and 200 responded saying that they would. Tutors offered sessions on study skills and tutorials on content. Another advantage is that if students do start early, they will know sooner whether they are on the wrong module, which can be really useful, since there are significant fee implications if someone finds themselves on the wrong module. If you’re interested, more information about Carole’s scholarship is available on the eSTEeM website

Improving retention amongst marginal students

Anactorial Clarke and Carlton Wood spoke about an access module: Y033 Science Technology and Maths. Access modules are important due to the university’s commitment to widening participation. Y033 is studied by 1K students per year and students who have successfully studied this module (as far as I understand things) can apply for a fee waiver. 25% of students declare a disability and access students are offered 1 to 1 telephone tutorials since previous research has suggested that sympathetic and supportive tutoring is crucial to student success. The study that Anactoria and Carlton introduced use a mixed method. They looked at the completion of S111 Questions in Science and Y033. Students who have taken the access module are more likely to stay with the module; the point being that access level study builds confidence (and emphasises the importance of access).

Paper session: online delivery, tuition and international curriculum

Synchronous online tuition: differences between student and teacher

Lynda Cook and a number of other colleagues asked a really important question: what are online tutorials really like? An accompanying question is: do we meet our student’s expectations? Students on 2nd level modules were surveyed, recorded tutorials were studied, and students and tutors were interviewed. Students reported that very few were using microphones (which isn’t a surprise to anyone who had attended an Adobe Connect session) and an analysis of recorded tutorials suggested that lots of features were not used, with the exception of the chat box.

The interviews with tutors revealed that when the recording button goes on, students are reluctant to talk. One conclusion is that students’ value tutorial recordings but students don’t like to interact. A personal note is that there is a conflict between interactive and recorded lectures and I don’t think the university has quite some way to uncovering the pedagogic opportunities afforded by online tools such as Adobe Connect (and, in some ways, this links back to some of the themes mentioned in Tony’s keynote). 

Understanding tutorial observation practice

It was time for my session. I spoke about a short project that aimed to ask the question: ‘what is the best way to observe tutorials?’ I approached this question by doing three things: carrying out a literature review (with help from a brilliant tutor colleague), and conducting two sets of focus groups: one with tutors, and another with staff tutors (the members of the university who usually carry out tuition observations).

Some of the themes that emerged from the focus groups directly echoed some of the themes in the literature. An important issue is to understand what tuition observations are for: are they for development, or are they for management? (The answer is: they should be used, in the first instance, for development; the observers can learn a lot just by observing). An outcome from the project was to uncover a set of really useful tuition guidelines that have been used and developed by colleagues in Science. The next step in the project is to formally write everything up. 

An international comparative study of tuition models in open and distance learning universities

Ann Walshe, a colleague from the school of Computing and Communications, spoke about her visit to Shanghai Open University (SOU) where she was a part of a group of visiting scholars. Ann reported that SOU emphasises vocational and life-long learning. Whilst it does offer bachelor degrees, it doesn’t offer postgrad qualifications. It was interesting to hear that SOU ‘does its own thing’ and tries not to compete with other local and national universities. It has a particular emphasis on blended learning and face to face teaching, having 41 branch schools for both full time and part time students. Interestingly, students have to attend a mandatory F2F induction.

The visiting scholar group were from a range of different institutions, including Chongqing radio and TV university, University of South Africa, the National Open University of Nigeria, Cavendish University, Zambia, Jose Rizal University, Phillipines, and the Netaji Subhas Open University, India (which apparently has 120 study centres, with more opening). Ann’s talk emphasised the importance of distance learning and its global reach.

Unpacking the STEM students’ experiences and behaviours

Jenna Mittelmeier’s presentation was about the challenges of Online Intercultural group work. I enjoyed Jenna’s talk, since it was a very research focussed talk that asked a very specific question: are students more motivated when they study materials related to their own cultural background? In other words, what are the benefits of matching content and activities to the membership of a multi-cultural group? Jenna described a randomised control trial in the context of a Dutch business school. In an activity, students were asked to look at something called the World Bank statistics dashboard and it was found that students participated more when using content from their own background. A qualitative survey suggested that internationalisation (of a study context) did improve participation but did expose tensions. There was an important point, which is that content needs to be made relevant to student’s lives and experiences.

Paper session: supporting students - STEM practice and engagement

Using a dedicated website in the continuing evolution of a statistics community of learners

Rachel Hilliam and Gaynor Arrowsmith introduced us to something called the Maths and Stats Subject Site. Before the university restructured and closed regional centres, students could attend course choice events where they could look at module materials from the regional centre library and talk to academic support colleagues and speak with other students. In an environment that is increasingly digital, an important question is: can we recreate that in an online environment? I made the note that it is (of course) important that students feel a part of a community.  There is a Maths and Stats advice forum, maths education forum, and information about professional and subject societies. There is also advice about preparing to study, revise and refresh resources, are you ready for quizzes, and early units from some modules.

Implementing additional maths support for Health Science students

Nicola McIntyre, Linda Thomson and Gerry Golding spoke about their experiences on SDK100 Science and health: an evidence based approach. An important aspect of the talk was that a maths tutorial was replaced with 18 short videos covering mathematical concepts, such as decimals, percentages, scientific notation and powers. There were also two workshops which were advertised students by email, and two tutors selected and briefed on format of the workshop. I noted an important point: it’s not enough to only provide videos, the workshops are considered to be an essential component.

Two mathematicians and a ukulele

Hayley Ryder and Toby O’Neil are module team members for M208 Pure Mathematics. The module is run through a single ‘cluster’, which means that there is only one group of tutors who teach on the module, and it has 25 hours of tuition sessions. From what I remember, there was a view that students wanted more contact with module team. 

One way to address this is to record a series of informal online tutorial sessions where Hayley and Toby talk through different mathematical concepts and also discuss what is discussed on the module forum. The idea is to convey a sense of ‘what mathematicians do’ and to build ‘mathematical resilience’, a concept that has a number of aspects: (1) the fostering of a growth mindset, (2) that maths has personal value, (3) knowing how to learn maths, (4) knowing how to find appropriate support. The sessions focussed on the first three of these aspects. 

An important point was that the presenters can easily make mistakes when doing things ‘live’ and this shows that real mathematicians can get stuck, just like everyone else. As for the ukulele, this also connects to the concept of learning; this is an instrument that Toby is learning to play (and I understand that he plays it during sessions!)

A secondary analysis of SEAM responses for programming and non-programming modules by gender

Joseph Osunde from the school of Computing and Communication studies the issue of gender disparity in computing and IT. Joseph offered an important comment during the start of his talk: ‘reasons [for gender disparity] may include learning environment[s] that convey gender stereotypes on interests and anticipated success’. To learn more, Joseph has been looking at university Student Experience on a Module (SEaM) survey results.

As a staff tutor, I regularly get to see SEaM survey results and I have my own views about their usefulness as personal development tools and sources of useful research data. This said, Joseph found that there were no significant differences in achievements between gender for modules that required students to learn about programming and those that didn’t. Joseph (with Anton Dil) looked at M250 Object-oriented Java Programming. It turned out that for modules that contained programming, like M250, men seem to be more satisfied with them. When these were again compared with non-programming modules, the result is a bit more mixed. 

Whilst this is an interesting finding, this does suggest that there is some more research to be done. A related question is: to what extend are different people motivated by modules that contain programming? Also, just as our colleague, Gerry Golding has carried out research (which I mention later on) into ‘mathematics life histories’, I do feel that there might be an opportunity to study something that might be called ‘computing life histories’ to understand the qualitative reasons for differences in satisfaction.

Closing keynote for day 1

The closing keynote by Bart Rientes was entitled a ‘critical discussion of student evaluation scores and academic performance at the OU’. Bart began by telling us that he used to be an economics teacher where his teaching performance was regularly evaluated. Drawing on this experience, he asked a significant question: ‘did my increase in my [evaluation] score mean that I was a better teacher?’  He asked everyone who was attending a similar question: ‘are student evaluations a good proxy for teaching excellence?’ Bart directed us to an article, entitled:  Student satisfaction ‘unrelated’ to academic performance – study  that was featured in the Times Higher.

We were given another reference to some published research that was carried out on behalf of the QAA. Digging into the QAA website later took me to two reports that are both connected to the themes of learning, student satisfaction and quality assurance. The first report, entitled Modelling and Managing Student Satisfaction: Use of Student Feedback to Enhance Learning Experience was by Rienties, Li and Marsh. The second report has the title: The Role of Student Satisfaction Data in Quality Assurance and Enhancement: How Providers Use Data to Improve the Student Experience was by Williams and Mindano.

Onto a personal reflection about this (keynote presentations are, of course, intended to get us thinking!) As mentioned earlier I’m very aware of the OU SEaM surveys. In my experience as a tutor line manager, tutors only tend to receive a couple of responses for a group of twenty students, and the students who do respond often have a particular cause to do so. This observation connects back to Bart’s opening point, which is: what can these measure of performance (or satisfaction) tell us? The fact is that education can be difficult and frustrating, but it can also be transformative. Sometimes we only can truly judge an experience (or feel satisfied with it) when the effects of our experience have become clearer over an extended period of time.

Paper session: Supporting students and technologies for STEM learning 

Using student analytics with ALs to increate retention

Gerry Golding spoke about some of his own research into Maths life histories, an idea that, as far as I remember from Gerry’s talk, originated from a researcher called Cobden. Gerry interviewed people to understand how adults coped when studying advanced maths topics and touched on the importance of high school experiences and maths anxiety. Maths life histories can students help to understand the cause of their anxieties and help them to think about what affected them. In turn, these reflections can be used to build and develop self-efficacy to help them through the hard times and facilitate the development of a growth mindset. In terms of this bit of scholarship, initial contact with students is important. Also, the university virtual learning environment (VLE) is not a big deal, because students are studying using books. I have to confess, that I didn’t pick up on the main outcomes of this bit of research, since I started to think about Gerry’s idea of ‘life histories’.

Analytics for tracking student engagement: TM355 Communications Technology

Allan Jones spoke about TM355 Communications Technology, an important module in the computing and IT undergraduate programme. The module has three 10 point blocks, printed books, 3 TMAs and a final exam. It is also a module that makes extensive use of the VLE. 

Students study what is meant by communication technologies and how they work, such as how you modulate waves and signals, encode data and correct errors. The module also makes use of 30 computer aided learning packages. Data analytics are used to track the use of the online parts and comparisons are made between two presentations and students are interviewed to understand their motivations. 

It’s a bit more complicated than that: STEM OU analyse evaluation

Steve Walker asked a question that was implicitly linked to Allan’s presentation: can learning analytics help students to complete modules? The answer was: no… until something is done with the data. The reason for looking at this subject was both simple and important: retention is important and there is the need to figure out what works, for whom and in what context, and why. 

Steve introduced a term that I had never heard of: realist evaluation, and directed us towards a paper by Pawson and Tilley (PDF) which is (apparently) used in medical education. Points that I noted down that sounded important included: mechanisms, interventions, outcome and context. 7 associate lecturers (ALs) were interviewed by members of a module team using something called ‘intervention interviews’. An observation is that the term ‘analytics’ is used in different ways. I also made a note of a simple model, which has the components: identify, diagnose and intervene.

Java specification checking

Anton Dil spoke about the evaluation of a prototype tool for M250 object-oriented programming tutors. M250 students need to write some object-oriented software code. This includes creating something called ‘classes’. These classes have contain a number of ‘fields’ (or data stores) and are designed to carry out certain actions which are started (or invoked) using something called ‘methods’. Student code can be automatically evaluated in a couple of ways: you could write something called a ‘style checker’ to assess what code a student has written, or you could assess its functionality through using something called unit testing. The module team have written a tool called checkM250 that could be used by tutors.

Eight tutors were surveyed and 6 tutors were interviewed. Tutors didn’t use the tool because they didn’t know about it, didn’t have enough time, or didn’t think they needed it. If they did use it, they were likely to recommend it, but they were unsure whether it could highlight things that were missed. I made note of the quote: ‘if you asked me previously whether I missed things, I would say: of course not’. Tutors did report that it could be useful. My own take on tools for tutors is that any tool may be useful (and I write that in the context of being a tutor!) 

Digital by Design: workshop

The conference workshop was, interestingly, run by a theatre group. The key concept behind the workshop was an observation that the ‘coffee break’ discussions in conferences that can be just as useful as formal presentations. Instead of having further talks, the idea was to create a long session that is, in fact, one long coffee break where participants could move between different discussion groups.

Another important idea is that anyone can propose a topic for discussion. Whenever someone decides on a topic, a delegate chose a post-it note that indicates when the topic is going to be discussed, and where in the large room that discussion is taking place. Participants can see a summary of the topics that are being discussed at any one time and participants are, of course, encouraged to move between different groups, according to their own interests. It was a neat idea.

I proposed a topic: how do we develop and support our associate lecturers to do ‘digital’ in the best possible way?’ Examples of other topics included: how should we be using social media apps to communicate with students and each other, how do we become experts in advising students at how to study onscreen, and how do we decide when digital is appropriate and when is it not?

During our ‘coffee’ conversation, I was joined with two colleagues. I soon began to think about whether there might be something that could be very loosely called the ‘digital associate lecturer capability model’. I sketched out a model that had three levels: university systems and tools (such as Adobe Connect), module tools (such as module specific computer based learning products, like there is in TM355) and common IT systems and products (such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint).

During these discussions, I was reminded of a JISC project called Building digital capability that the OU library was connected to and involved with. This also provided a useful framework that could be used to guide AL development. In later discussions, I discovered that colleagues from the OU library were already using this framework in AL development sessions.

Reflections

Everyone’s experience at a conference is, of course, likely to be different. I had a simple objective when I was attending this eSTEeM conference, which was to attend as many presentations as I could to try to get a feel for the breadth of projects that were happening across the university. In some respects, there was one commonality that jumped out at me, and that was the use of videos or personalised recorded tutors that were customised to the needs of students. Underpinning this is, of course, the use of technology.

During the conference, I heard presentations from module teams and presentation from tutors. I also understand that some students were attending too, but I didn’t get to speak or hear from any of them. This links to an important reflection that it is really important to hear the student voice; we need to hear stories about what has worked and what hasn’t worked. This said, eSTEeM scholars are always asking students questions through surveys and module teams are always looking to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

A final thought is this: I’m still not sure is meant by ‘digital by design’ but I don’t think that really matters. We access materials, write materials, and carry out our scholarship using digital tools. What I think is really important is how we use these digital tools in combination with each other. Digital technologies in their various forms might new and seductive, but ‘digital’ tools cannot be transformative if you can’t see or understand how they might be used. There’s something else that is even more important: what really matters in education is people, not machines. It is people who can show us which digital tools can help our studies.

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Getting published in Open Learning

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Jun 2020, 10:05

It’s been a few months since I have taken over being the lead editor of a journal called Open Learning (Taylor and Francis website). I’m not on my own, though: there are two fabulous co-editors and an editorial assistant to help me out (thankfully!) The aim of this short blog post is to share some thoughts that might be helpful to anyone who is potentially considering making a submission to the journal. I hope this is useful!

Tip 1: Does your research fit?

The question: ‘does my research fit with the aims and objectives of the journal?’ is, perhaps, one of the most important questions that needs to be asked. This question should be applied to any kind of research that you want to share: some journals are more likely to publish your research if it is more in keeping with the aims and objectives of that journal. Another question is: who is the audience of the journal likely to be? Stop for a moment and imagine who they might be. If you can’t imagine them, or picture what kind of research they might be working on, then you need to consider whether you are looking at the right journal. 

Tip 2: Write a clear abstract

Put another way: clarity is important. Does your abstract clearly summaries the aims and objectives of the research. Also, does it present some clear research questions? I’ve seen papers that have been submitted that do not have an abstract, or have an abstract that just isn’t clear. Although academic papers sometimes be appropriately challenging to read, I’m a great believer in respecting the reader, and a way to show that an author is doing this is simple: take time to write a good abstract. 

Tip 3: Consider what has gone before

A really important tip is to be aware of the literature and debates that presented through the journal; reference earlier debates that have been published. This enables your article to be positioned amongst others. This is important, since as a researcher, as well as looking at the title, and abstract, I regularly look at the references before I even start to read a paper to see how it fits into the work of others. If I see that there are a few papers that have been published in Open Learning before, I view this as a very good thing.

Tip 4: Not too long please!

Make sure that the size of your paper is appropriate for the journal. Open Learning has a limit of seven thousand words. In my short time as editor, I have seen papers that are longer than this. Length is very important, since the publishers (and the editors) are working to a fixed number of pages per issue.

Tip 5: Practice papers are very welcome

Open Learning welcomes papers that present case studies or summaries of professional practice. Although practice papers may not be very theoretical, descriptions of teaching practice and accompanying challenges can inspire theoretical thinking and reflections amongst other researchers. As educational practitioners, always recognise what you’re doing is important and consider writing about it; this is an important aspect of your own professional development and contribution to a community.

Tip 6: Approach the editors

Don’t be afraid of the editors. They want to be helpful, so do ask them questions; they are approachable! If you are not sure whether a paper or research is appropriate, feel free to ask. Also, if you’re interested in getting more involved in a journal (it doesn’t have to be Open Learning) don’t be afraid about being cheeky. Ask to become a reviewer; introduce yourself. Any journal contributes to an academic community, so don’t be afraid to ask to become more involved in that community.

Tip 7: Be patient and engage with the process

This is a very big tip and one that I’m sharing from my own experience. Peer review sometimes feels like a brutal process. Treat the peer review as an opportunity to engage and develop, and again, do correspond with the editor if you have concerns that your own submission has been understood or interpreted by reviewers; dialogue is important. If you ever receive what you think is a negative review, try not to take things personally; they are not criticising you; they are only commenting on what they have read. After reflecting on their comments, do engage and work with the reviewers and the editors. Very often, this can lead to a much better submission than you had ever imagined. Plus, the more that you submit papers, the more experience you get.

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Tutorials and tutorial observations: what works and what helps tutors?

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 25 Oct 2017, 14:02

As a part of an OU funded eSTEeM research project about tuition and tutorial observations, I ran two short focus groups for associate lecturers at an Open University AL development conference which took place in Leeds between 5 and 6 May 2017. 

This blog post represents a set of notes that have been expanded from comments made on flipcharts during the focus groups. Follow on research is to run a focus group with staff tutor colleagues, and then to consolidate all findings by way of internal and external publications about educational practice.

I’m sharing a summary at this early stage, since I feel that it’s important to be open in terms of the research that has been carried out. Plus, through a blog, anyone who has any opinions about the subject or the session should be free to get in contact.

Introducing tutorial observations

A tutorial observation is, as it suggests, an observation of a university learning or teaching event. It can take place either face to face, or online. 

Ever since joining the university I have been aware that different colleagues (within different departments and faculties) have done observations in slightly different ways. One colleague in one school has used a complex form which was a bit like a questionnaire. Another colleague in my school has had a really very simple form to capture a free form description of what happened during a tutorial.

My research question is: what is the best practice that helps associate lecturers? Given that the university has recently completed a faculty merger, this seems like an ideal time to ask this question. 

Accompanying questions are, of course: what are tutorial observations for? An obvious answer is: to ensure that students are given good quality tuition. Although this may be true, a more detailed answer might be a bit more complicate and nuanced.

Introducing the focus group

In order to find out more, my AL support and professional development said that I could run a workshop that gently masqueraded as a focus group. The ‘focus shop’ had the title: Tutorials and tutorial observations: what works and what helps tutors?

The workshop had the accompanying abstract: do you remember when you last observed during a tutorial? If so, what happened, and were you happy with the feedback that you received? This session is all about the concept of a tutorial observations, both on-line and face to face. Chris Douce is leading a research project that aims to learn more about different observation practices, both inside and outside the university. The research project aims to ask two very important questions: (1) what do tutors need? And, (2) how should staff tutors and faculty managers run effective observations? Other questions include: what feedback would help you the most, and do you have any thoughts about how observations should be run when you do team teaching? All welcome and all feedback appreciated; this session can help to develop and (hopefully) enhance tuition observation and develop online and face to face teaching practices.

What follows is a set of notes gathered from both focus groups.

Points captured from the focus groups

Tutors were asking the important question of: what are observations for and what it its purpose? Is it something that is done to monitor the performance of tutors? There was a view that observations shouldn’t be done in a cursory way, or be paying lip service to an administrative process. 

There are a number of different dimensions to observations: they can range from being formal to being very informal. They can also vary in terms of their participants: they can be of an individual, or they can be of a group of tutors. There are further questions: what about recordings? The question about recordings helped us to start to consider other dimensions of observation: in addition to using discussion forums some tutors have, in the past, created their own podcasts, or used tools such as Jing. A suggestion from a tutor was to ask the question: ‘which recordings would you like me to look at?’ and ‘what would you like me to look for?’

There was an awareness that observations have the potential to be negative (or, as noted, be destructive); they can negatively impact on a tutor’s confidence. There was also the point that observations can be used as a way to facilitate a dialogue between a tutor and a tutor manager; after an observation and the receipt of an observation report, tutors may be invited to offer a ‘right to reply’. Another comment was that it should be ‘a two way thing’.

An important question was: how often should observations take place? Opinions about frequency ranged from every two years to every four years, and perhaps be connected with a tutor’s appraisal (which takes place every two years). One tutor reported that they had been observed twice in ten years; another tutor reported they had been observed two times in six months. This raises an accompanying question: now that tutor line management is a lot more complex, who is actually going to carry out an observation? (We now have tuition task managers, lead line managers and cluster managers). 

So, what about the practicalities of carrying out observation? Giving a warning, or notice, was considered to be important. There was also a practice of sending tuition plans to staff tutors in advance of a tutorial so they could see what is planned; some preparatory work needed to be done.

Accompanying the details of the tutorials and the plans, there are other important questions to negotiate; one of those challenges is the extent to which a tutor may wish a staff tutor to be involved in the actual tutorial. Staff tutors might ask the question: ‘what would you like me to do?’ as a way to being negotiation about the extent of involvement. The practicalities of engaging in a tutorial can, of course, depend on the subject and its level.

Feedback was a theme that recurred a number of times. To prepare for an observation, one tutor suggested the use of the question: ‘what would you like me to look at?’ There was also a suggestion that staff tutors should look at only a few things during a tutorial. There was also an emphasis on the importance of expectations. 

A further comment is that feedback should emphasise the good bits, and this is something that could be done immediately after a tutorial. A key phrase I noted down was: ‘how do you phrase things not to be critical?’ An immediate response was to use a ‘feedback sandwich’. 

As expected, the way in which feedback was presented to tutors differed: the school of health and social care used a form, whereas in the school of maths, tutors were sent a letter.

There were a number of other really interesting points that were raised. A question was: perhaps we should ask students what they want? Also, there are opportunities to share examples of practice, activities and reflections. This raises an interesting question about the importance and use of peer observations. This is, of course, connected to the important issue of trust between the observed and the observer. Other points were made about the connection to the importance of correspondence tuition and the role of mentoring.

There was an important acknowledgement that tutorials and tutorial observations can, of course, be stressful and a recognition that personalities play a fundamental role in shaping the teaching environment in which teaching takes place.

Summary

The two focus groups were very different in their composition, but there was a lot of crossover between the themes that emerged: both suggested, for example, the idea of focusing on a selected number of aspects, and there were different experiences in terms of how frequently observations were carried out.

These notes are influenced by one very big factor: myself. I am the researcher, but I am also a tutor, as well as a line manager of tutors. This means that I am the observer as well as being the observed. All this means is that my own views have necessarily affected how I have interpreted and presented the points that have arisen from the two focus groups. This closeness to the subject will, inevitably, cause me to emphasise some points over others.

As mentioned earlier, the next steps in this project is to run a series of focus groups for staff tutors. 

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Using the Kindle for research and studying

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Nov 2014, 15:03

I have to confess, that when it comes to some technologies, I am a bit of a laggard.  It was only very recently that decided to get to grips with understanding the mysterious world of eReaders.  I have two excuses: the first is that there’s just so much ‘tech’ to keep on top of, which means that it’s difficult to know what to do next (which is actually a pretty lame excuse), and secondly, I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the screen quality of eReaders.

About a month ago, I requested a new book from the University library to do some preparatory reading for a new course I’m involved with.  The library turned around my request pretty quickly, but they also sent me an email that suggested that I’ve got some figuring out to do.  It was: ‘we only supply that text book in eBook format’.  No dead tree variety?  No, apparently they don’t do that anymore.

Back at home, I searched around for a box that contained a discarded Christmas present that one of my relatives had received and had then given to me after a couple of months; it was an Amazon Kindle.  After figuring out how to give it some power, the first thing I did was connect it up to my Amazon account.  I was gradually finding my way into being a ‘contemporary reader’.

This blog might be useful for anyone who has to use these eReader devices for their studies.  It might also be useful for any of my colleagues who have to battle with the mixture of convenience and frustration that accompanies the use of eReaders. 

I say ‘eReaders’, what I actually mean is ‘Kindle’, for now.  And when I say ‘Kindle’, is actually the really old ones with keyboards and black and white screen, and not any those new-fangled colour models.

The first section is all about figuring out how to read a text book.  The second section is all about how to download Open University on-line materials to your device (so you can read it on the go).  Some of the OU courses are presented entirely on line.  Two examples of this are: TT284 Web technologies, and H810 Accessible on-line learning: supporting disabled students. I describe how you might (potentially) go about downloading an on-line course to your device, so you can get ahead with your studies.

The third part is a bit of useful fun.  I asked myself the question, ‘I wonder what books I can get hold of for free?’  The answer is, ‘actually, quite a few’.  In the final section I share a few tips about how to download books that are out of copyright.  I, for one, haven’t been a great reader of the classics (I’ve been too busy messing around with computers; another lame excuse), but there are loads that are clearly available.

Working with text books

Apparently, the OU has a website called Mobile Connections, which offers some guidance about the use of mobile devices (OU website) and pointers to mobile strategy documents.  This is all very well, but how do I get a text book onto my device.

After clicking around the university library and attempting to access the text book that I wanted to ‘take out’, I was presented with the following message: "Patrons using iPads, iPhones or Android devices can download and read EBL content via the free Bluefire reader app. "  Now, I don’t have an iPad or an iPhone, and I’ve explicitly made a decision not to read any textbooks on my Android phone simply because my eyes are not up to it.  I haven’t heard about the Bluefire app, but the Bluefire website may or not be useful.

Another part of the library message was that "Downloaded EBL ebooks can also be transferred to any portable ebook reader that supports Adobe Digital Editions (ADE). There's a list of these compatible devices on the ADE website"

I had never heard of Adobe Digital Editions before but I’ve managed to find an Adobe website that offers a bit of information.  I had a good look on the ‘compatible devices’ list and my Kindle device wasn’t listed, which was pretty frustrating (to put it mildly).

All this frustration highlighted a division between two different formats: one called ePub and another called mobi.  Apparently ePub is an open standard, whereas mobi is owned by Amazon.  I soon saw that you couldn’t put ePubs on my Kindle, which was a bit rubbish.

 I asked myself two inevitable questions: ‘is it possible to convert an ePub to a mobi, and if you can, how do you do it?’  Thankfully, the internet is a wonderful thing, and I soon found a product called Calibre (website).  Calibre is described as a ‘free and open source e-book library management application developed by users of e-books for users of e-books’.  It’s a tool that you can download onto your PC, put an ePub in one side, and get a Kindle mobi book out of the other (with a bit of clicking and messing around in between).

 One thing that Calibre can’t do is take account of DRM.  DRM, or digital rights management, is used to protect media from being copied between different devices (which is why you need software like the Amazon Digital Editions).  If your ePub is protected by DRM (or, someone has said that you can’t copy it), then you can’t convert from one format to another.

For sake of argument, let’s say you’ve got a freely available text book that is useful with your module.  How do you go about transferring it to your Kindle?  In my naivety, I thought I could use the ‘old school’ technique of plugging it into the USB port of my computer and dragging files around.  Unfortunately, due to local OU system policies, staff cannot to write data to external USB devices due to an information security management policy.   As soon as I connected up my Kindle, I was presented with a message that read, ‘do you want to encrypt your device?’  If you’re ever asked that question in response to any e-reader you have, say ‘no’ straight away.  Thankfully, I did have the foresight to say no, as otherwise my Kindle would have probably been rendered useless.

Since I was unable to transfer my mobi files directly from my PC to my Kindle, how should I do it?  The answer came from a colleague: you email the books or any files that you want to read through your device to your Kindle account.  When you’ve done this, and you turn on your Kindle, magic happens, your document is downloaded.  If you’re interested, Amazon have some helpful pages (Amazon website).

Working with OU resources

More and more OU resources are being made available in Kindle and ePub formats.  This, I believe, can only be described as a ‘very good thing’ since some of the OU books can be pretty bulky.  When you’re working with an eReader, you can sometimes put all your module materials on your device.  When I go to tutorials, I tend to bring all the OU books with me – but rather than carrying them, I have them all preloaded on a Kindle.  This said, I am a great fan of paper; you can do things on paper that you can’t do with electronic devices and visa-versa, i.e. you can search for a term in an eBook, and you can scribble in your books with different coloured pens (and stick things between pages).

Not long after starting to mess around with my Kindle I realised I could do exactly the same with the other module materials I need to work with from time to time. I quickly realised that there would be a problem: things would start to get pretty confusing if I had all the different eBooks in one place on my Kindle.  Thankfully, there is a concept of a category.

After emailing a load of different mobi books to my Kindle, I noticed that my ‘TT284 category’ (I thought it was a good idea to group resources based on module code) became quickly overloaded, and I noticed that the default display order was the order in which the books were downloaded in.  Although this was useful, I got myself into a bit of a muddle with the download sequence.  I soon realised that it’s possible to change the ordering according to the title which made for a really nice sequence of module materials.

I’ve now got categories for all of the different modules I have downloaded resources for: H810, TT284 and M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design.  For M364, I have a mobi version of the assignment booklet, and PDF copies of the four blocks.  I don’t, however, have a copy of the set text. 

The M364 set text is huge, and it’s a real pain to carry around, and students have regularly asked whether there are electronic versions that they could download.  Unfortunately, publishers are only just beginning to catch up with the new ways in which institutions and students consume their materials.  For now, we’ve got to battle on with a mixture of paper text books and OU materials which can be provided in a digital format.

Free books!

After months of it being in a box on my shelf, I’ve finally figured out how to use my Kindle.  Now that it’s jam packed with learning resources and I’m getting used to its screen (which isn’t too bad), I started to think about how I might use it to read stuff ‘for fun’, i.e. using it to read novels and non-fiction.

I quickly remembered Project Gutenberg which was a project dedicated to digitising books that were out of copyright.  I took another quick look at this and discovered that they now had books in eBook format, which was great news.  A quick look around took me to an interesting page called the Best Books Ever Listings (Project Gutenberg) I also discovered all these different ‘bookshelves’ organised by topic.  I really recommend that you have a good look around.

Another really good source of free (or really cheap) books is Amazon.  Within minutes of looking around I found a number of classics that I had never read before.  I clicked on a ‘buy’ button, and these new books were delivered to my device.  (Plus, since an eBook doesn’t have a cover, you can download some particularly racy books and read them when you’re on the train and no one would be any the wiser…!)

And finally…

As I said earlier, it sometimes takes me a while to get on top of a technology; I used to be someone who always wanted to mess around with the latest technologies and gadgets.

I don’t really know why it’s taken me so long to get to grips with eReaders.  I’m someone who likes the feel and smell, and flexibility of physical books.  This said, I’ve come to see that eReaders can give learners a flexibility that they never had before; an ability to carry everything around easily, and the ability to search for terms and phrases.  When a lot of material has moved ‘on-line’, eReaders can help us to access content in a convenient way without being always tied to a computer.  I think this is a really good thing.

I’m someone who loves to make notes.  One thing that you can’t do (very easily) is make scribbly notes on eBook pages, but that is okay: I’ll just have to figure out some new study strategies.

The more that you look at something, the more you think about different possibilities.  Looking at the Kindle has caused me to ask myself a further question, which is: how might you create an eBook from scratch?

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Scholarship for Staff Tutors

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 6 Mar 2014, 16:37

I haven't really blogged about 'internal events' before.  I think this is my first one.  Although I've written this post mainly for an internal audience, it might be useful for a wider audience too, although I'm not yet sure whether I'll click on the 'make available to the world' box in our VLE blogging tool.

About a week or so ago I was lucky enough to attend what is called a Staff Tutor Staff Development event that was all about scholarship.  It was all about how we (as staff tutors) might fit scholarship into our day job.

The SD4ST scholarship event was hosted by the Open University office in Gateshead, a part of the country I had never explicitly visited before (other than passing through either in the car or on the train).  The Gateshead office is fabulous (as is the architecture in Newcastle).  The office presented us with a glorious view of the millennium bridge and the imposing Baltic contemporary art gallery.  I'm digressing before I've even begun, so, without further ado, on to describing the event.

Introducing scholarship

The first day kicked off (in the early afternoon) by asking the question of, 'what exactly counts as scholarship?'  An underlying theme was how to contribute to research that might be used as a part of the university REF submission (which is, of course, used to assess how well universities compare to each other in terms of their research output).

A number of different types of scholarship were defined, drawing on a paper that had recently been circulated (or published) through senate.  The paper also included explicit examples, but I won't go through them here.  Here's my attempt at summarising the different types:

  • Institutional scholarship (about and for the institution)
  • Scholarship of teaching (the investigation of one's own, or teaching by others)
  • Scholarship for teaching, or outputs that contribute to teaching materials in its different forms
  • Research that relates to and can inform professional practice (in whatever form this might take)
  • Discipline based scholarship, investigative research which can be understood in terms of adding to the knowledge of a particular subject or area.

The output of scholarship may be presented within journal or conference papers, chapters in books or be in reports.  Blogs can also be considered as scholarship too, but this is a rather difficult category, since it has to be a 'rated blog'.  In essence, an output should be something that can be judged as excellent by a peer, capable of use by others and have impact.

I thought about which of these categories I could most readily contribute to.  I came up with a couple of answers.   The first was that I might be able to carry out some discipline based scholarship, perhaps building on some of the accessibility or computing research I have been previously involved with.  Another idea might be to do some research that might inform the different course teams I'm involved on.  An example of this might have been an earlier blog post on mobile technologies that fed into course team discussions.  Also, given my current duties of supporting course presentations I could also see how I might be able to (potentially) contribute to the scholarship of teaching in a number of different ways.

How to find the time

Although I'm relatively new to the role of a staff tutor (or regional academic), I am beginning to feel that we have to be not only good at juggling different things, but also be able to put on a good balancing act too! 

The reason for this is that our time is split down the middle.  On one hand we have regional responsibilities (helping our tutors to do their job as effectively and as efficiently as possible, and doing a lot of other mysterious stuff, like marketing) which accounts for fifty percent of our time.  The other fifty percent of our time is spent on 'faculty' work.  This means that we are able to contribute to course teams, offering useful academic input and ensuring that our associate lecturers are fully taken into consideration during the course design phases.  We can also use this fifty percent slice to carry out scholarship in its different forms.

Given the different pulls from course teams and regional responsibility there is a significant question which needs to be asked, namely: 'how is it possible to do scholarship when we've got all this other stuff to do?'  The second section in the day aimed to answer this exact question through presentations by two staff tutors who seem to be successfully balancing all their different responsibilities.

The first presentation was by Dave McGarvie, Science Staff Tutor in Scotland.  Dave gave a cracking presentation about his research, which was all about volcanoes (I'm sure he will be able to provide you with a better description!)  What struck me about Dave's presentation was that he was also came across as being a bit of a 'dab hand' at media stuff too, being called upon as an 'expert' to talk about Icelandic volcano eruptions.  Dave talked about how he used his study leave (he uses all of it), and said that it is possible to ask for research leave too (which was something that I hadn't heard about).

The second presentation was by Gareth Williams, Maths and Stats Staff Tutor (or MCT), in Manchester.  Gareth told us about how he managed to carve out (and protect) a 'research day' which he used to speak (and work with) with other academics in his subject area.

I noted down a really important part of Gareth's presentation which summarised the reasons for doing research: that it is something that we're passionate about, that it's fun, it can help us to maintain knowledge, it can be exciting, it can help with networking (and recruitment of good ALs), and help to introduce and advertise the work of the university to a wider audience.

One fundamental point was echoed by both presenters, namely, that research can take a lot of time, can (and probably will) eat into our personal time.  Gareth offers some practical advice, urging us to be realistic, develop multiple strategies (or routes to publication), prioritise workload carefully and, importantly, to have fun.

The final talk of the day was by Ian Cook, who spoke about the universities eSTeEM initiative which replaces earlier funding mechanisms.  eSTeEM lets individuals or group of researchers to bid for funding for projects that may able to benefit the university or help to further understand and promote teaching and learning.

Designing a scholarship project

The next part of the day (and a part of the following day) was spent 'in the deep end'.  We were put into groups and asked to work towards creating cross faculty scholarship project which could help us to collectively understand our knowledge of Open University teaching and learning (perhaps through the use of technology).  Following the group discussions, we then had to devise an eight minute presentation to everyone in the room to try to 'win' a pot of imaginary funding.  Here's a rough list of the titles of the various projects that were proposed:

  • Group 1: Can on-line forums enhance students learning?
  • Group 2: What constitutes useful monitoring for associate lecturers?
  • Group 3: Investigate if text messaging can improve TMA (assignment) submission and retention
  • Group 4: Why do students attend (or not attend) synchronous on-line tuition?
  • Group 5: A system for the sharing of media resources between tutors

I have to confess I was involved in group five.

This activity reminded me that different people can understand research (and, subsequently, scholarship) in different ways.   In my 'home discipline' of computer science, research can be considered in terms of 'building stuff'.  This 'stuff' might be a new software system, tool or environment.  The 'stuff' might even be a demonstration of how different technologies may be connected together in a new or novel ways.   I also must confess that my discipline background emerged through our brainstorming activities.

In the end, there were two winners, and it interesting to learn that one of the winning project ideas (the use of text messaging) was the subject of an existing project.  It just goes to show that old adage that good ideas can emerge independently from different (independent) sources!

I enjoyed this activity.  I remember a lot of discussion about dissemination and how to evaluate whether a project had succeeded.  Referring back to the earlier notions of scholarship and Gareth's multiple routes to publication, dissemination can, of course, have a range of different forms, from internal presentations, workshops, focus groups, through to formal internal reports and REFable publications, such as conference and journal papers.

Final presentations

The event was rounded off by two presentations.  Celia Popovic gave a presentation about SEDA, which is an abbreviation for the 'Staff and Educational Development Association', which is a non-profit organisation which aims to facilitate networking and sharing of resources.  Celia begins by asking the question, 'what do you need [to enable you do to your scholarship and research stuff]?' and talked us through a set of different resources and the benefits of being a SEDA fellow.  The resources included books, a magazine, and a number of scholarly journals.

The final presentation, entitled 'Getting Started, Overcoming Obstacles' was by Karen Littleton.  Karen is currently the director of CREET which is a cross-faculty research grouping which comprises of Education and the Institute of Educational Technology (and some others too, I am sure!) 

A couple of things jumped out at me, namely, her advice to 'be pragmatic'.  I am personally guilty of 'thinking big' in terms of research ideas.  I once had this idea to perform some kind of comparison of different virtual learning environments, but it was something that I have never managed to get around to doing, perhaps because my heart sinks when I see all the obstacles that lay ahead of me.

Karen advises us to consider working on a series of smaller projects which have the potential to contribute towards a main goal.  She also mentions the important issue of time and the need to ring fence and guard it carefully, a point that was echoed throughout the two days of the event.

Summary

I'm only just starting to appreciate the different demands on my work time.  I have been wondering, for quite a while now, how to do 'research' within my role as a staff tutor.  What this event told me was that it is possible, but you need to do it with a high level of determination to succeed.

It strikes me that the best way to do research is to make sure that your research activities are aligned, as closely as possible, to some of the other duties of the role.  Of course, it might be possible to do other research, but if your 'job role dots' are not connected together, seeking permission and making cases to go ahead and do your own scholarship is likely to be so much harder.

A feeling that I have always had is that through research there are likely to be opportunities.  An example of this can be finding stuff out that can inform course production, or, connecting to Gareth's example, making contacts may help with recruitment of associate lecturers.  I've also come to the conclusion that network is important too.  Networking might be in the form of internal contacts within the university, or external contacts within either other higher education institutions or in industry.

A really important point that jumped out at me is that you really do need to be passionate about the stuff that you're finding out about.  The word 'fun' was mentioned a number of times too.

As a result of the event I've been thinking about my own scholarly aspirations.  Before changing roles I had some quite firm ideas about what I wanted to do, but this has changed.  As mentioned before, I think it's a good idea to try to align different pieces of my role together (to align the fifty percent of regional work with the fifty percent of 'other stuff').  I hope I'm making some progress in figuring out how to make the best contribution to both courses and research.  I hope to continue to blog about some of the stuff that I'm getting up to whilst on this journey.

I'm also hoping there is a follow up session next year which might ask the question of, 'how is your scholarship coming along, and what practical things could be done to help you do more of it?'

All in all, a really enjoyable event.  Many thanks to the organisers!  For those who can access internal OU sites (and might be staff tutors), some of the presentations have been uploaded to the VLE STLG workspace.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 1 Jul 2011, 18:15)
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