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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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Scholarship, CALRG and SST

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Going to three events in two days, between 15 and 16 June, was pretty intense but also pretty good fun.  The first event was all about the scholarship of teaching and learning.  A different way of understanding this is: how to go about figuring out how to best do teaching and learning?  It's important to do research into this area not because 'learning' has changed, but the ways in we learn (and the technologies we use) continually changes and evolves: we want to know that we're doing the right thing.

The second event had a similar theme.  It was the Computers And Learning Research Group (or CALRG, for short) conference.  CALRG is a long-running research group in the university's Institute of Educational Technology.

The final event was at the Birmingham regional office, where the MCT learner support staff are based.  During this event, I learnt about a range of different things - but more about this later.  Actually, there was a forth event, an associate lecturer staff development conference, which was organised by the Oxford regional centre (but there isn't the time to write about this!)

Scholarship event

Linda Price opened the event by presenting a definition of scholarship: it is a term that describes research and research action.  Scholarship regarding teaching and learning is activity that uses information relevant to our learning and teaching to inform and enhance our practice.  She also went on to emphasise the importance of evidence.  Linda told us that scholarship was a strategic priority to the university.  She spoke of an internal university project called SHARE, which is intended to help regional staff with the research activities.  An interesting and thought provoking line that Linda gave us was: 'doctors save lives, but we can change them'.

The next part of the event was a series of twelve five minute 'lightening talks' about different research project (I think there were around twelve!)  First up was my colleague Ann from Manchester who talked about 'perceptions, expectations and experience of group tuition'.  Her project was to explore different perceptions and opinions about tutorials.  This research then has the potential to inform a new Group Tuition Policy.   

Next up was a talk that had the title 'What drives scholarship?' I seem to recall that the research was looking at the use of language in assignments, tutor guidance and feedback.  A really important subject is, of course, retention.  I also remember references to Y031 Arts and Languages, Y032 People Work and Society, and Y033 Science Technology and Maths access modules (which help to prepare students for undergraduate level study).

This was followed by: 'A levels based approach to referencing and information management'.  Apparently, some students may drop out, or become demotivated due to the challenge of appropriate referencing.  The national student survey apparently said that different students are given different advice.  The following talk was all about investigating engagement with on-line library services.

An interesting question, from a colleague in the business school was: 'why do we keep failing our Japanese students?'  One of the reasons could be attributed to differences between HE in the UK and Japan.  Understanding and being aware of cultural differences can allow us to gain an understanding of how to support different groups.

Rob Parsons, an associate lecturer colleague from the South East region spoke about peer assessment.  He argued that the student-tutor relationship can be improved.  Themes that Rob's short talk addressed included active learning, learning communities and engagement and retention.

The university is, of course, a big consumer of technology, and there is a perpetual need to figure out how to use new technologies and whether a technology is appropriate for students.  One talk that explicitly explored this issue had the title: Going Live with Google hangouts.

It was then my turn.  I talked about a project that was about the gathering of tutor experiences of tutoring on a second level computing module, TT284 Web Technologies (I horrified to discover that, in front of over sixty people, all of my PowerPoint animations were messed up!)

The talk that went after mine had the title: 'how to get students to do your iCMA and why that is good' (An iCMA is an interactive computer marked assignment).  This was followed by 'investigating one to one tuition: initial findings'.  This project was from the faculty of health and social care.  The research involved interviewing students and carrying out focus groups with associate lecturers.

Sometimes low technology solutions and approaches can be really useful.  An interesting talk was 'an evaluation of the effectiveness of student buddies', which I think focussed on languages and business modules, specifically L185 English for academic purposes and LB160 Professional communication skills for business studies.  The presentation told us about student buddy training through OU Live and a shared 'student buddy forum' on L192 Bon départ: beginners' French.  This reminds me that some of the materials for these modules are available for free through the Open Learn website.

The final 'lightening' presentation of the morning had a slightly different flavour; it was entitled, 'smarter than the average ebook'.  It was given by a colleague from Learning and Teaching Solutions, part of the university that provides some of the technical infrastructure.  We were taken on a journey through different digital formats, ranging from PDFs, epub (Wikipedia) and epub2 files, and then onto OU anywhere.  Some experiments have been performed with ePub3.  These are becoming 'websites wrapped as an off-line experience'.

An interesting point was that 'students are frustrated about being sent away from the text'.  This is a comment that resonates strongly with me.  I found it difficult to study 'off line' even though I wanted to: I printed off lots of on-line materials, but I found myself being directed to various websites and on-line resources.  This is also a comment that arose during my own TT284 research.

One comment I noted was: 'ebook readers are tricky things'.  Different readers do different things.  To close this presentation, we were shown a demonstration entitled 'how to build a methane molecule'.

After a lunch, it was time for the keynote speech.  The keynote was given by our PVC in learning and teaching, Belinda Tynan.  It began with a question: what does scholarship look like across the university.  There are, apparently 15 groups that 'play in the space' that is called scholarship, and that's just the research groups that belong to faculties (not to mention the research that takes place in the library, student services and other departments).  An important question is: 'how is the scholarship impacting the university, and how is it being focussed and directed?'

Moved on to talking about the different methods that can be used in education research. A related question is: how do we learn from each other, how do we share with each other, and how do we cross boundaries and disciplines?  Another really important question, from an institutional perspective is whether we are getting value for the effort that we institutionally put into scholarship.  It was a thought provoking keynote and it really set the scene for the afternoon session (but this was a session I had to duck out of because I had another commitment: to attend one of those fifteen scholarship groups that were mentioned about).

CALRG event

The CALRG conference is a three day conference, which means that I've missed loads of talks.  In case you're interested, the organisers have published a conference programme (CALRG website).

The first talk I attended was entitled: Building understanding of open education: an overview of OER on teaching and learning.  OER is an abbreviation for open educational resources.  The institute of educational technology hosts a research group that is known as an OER hub (website).

The second talk was all about mobility technology and had the title: Conducting a field trial in Milton Keynes: Lessons from the MApp.  I originally thought that MApp was some kind of mapping device, but it seemed to be something rather different.  It seemed to be about helping different people from different cultural backgrounds (or languages) to connect to each other.  I have to confess to being a bit lost at the start of the talk, but then I discovered that the research was using some really interesting methods to gather up some qualitative research.  (This reminded me about a 'diary study project' that I've been mulling over for quite some time, but I haven't managed to get around to doing anything about it yet!)

The third talk was a longer version of the same 'lightening' talk that I gave earlier in the day.  Talking at CALRG allowed me to talk a bit more about the methodology, and some really tentative findings since the analysis is still on-going!  (This, I think, is one the challenges of qualitative research: when do you stop!  One answer is: when you see the similar findings and themes emerging time and time again).

The next talk had the title: Improving language learning and transition into second language learning, through the language learning support dimensions (LLSD).  This talk used an instrument (also known as a survey) to help learners understand more about how they carry out language learning.  Since this wasn't my subject, I struggled to connect with this research, but I appreciated the idea of using a self-directed too to help learners to reflect on how they approach a problem.

The final talk of the CALRG session was 'diverse approaches to using online 'studio' based learning in Open University modules'.  In some respects, the 'studio' can be considered to be an in-house version of the photo sharing website Flickr.  I seem to have a memory that it was used with a digital photography module, to allow students to share examples of their work.  It was interesting to hear that this module was going to be re-launched as a non-credit bearing module (which will have the module code TG189).  Modules such as U101 use a version of this tool called Open Studio.  I learnt that it has now found its way into a total of thirteen different modules, and the Open Studio tool now goes by different names and has a range of different uses. There is also a blog about OpenStudio that is hosted by the university.

The talk led onto an interesting discussion about accessibility.  Whilst an on-line environment might itself be technically accessible, the materials that are transferred to an environment might be fundamentally inaccessible.  One thought about how to remedy this is to try to facilitate collaborations between students.

SST event

The final event I'll mention was held in Birmingham, which is the home of the Computing and IT student support team.  The SST comprises of associate lecturers, learner support staff, advisors and academics.  The purpose of the meeting was to allow the learner support people to meet academic colleagues (and visa-versa) to learn about how we can work more closely with teach other.

There were three rough parts of the day.  The first enabled staff tutors (the academic staff) to learn more about what was going on from the learner support perspective.  The second was a short talk about 'the day in the life' of a staff tutor.  The final section was an update from the faculty Media Fellow.

During this final session I learnt about a project called JIFL, also known as Journeys from Informal to Formal Learning (which remains a bit of a mystery).  There are also a number of FutureLearn MOOCs (Massively Open On-line Courses) that are either currently being delivered, or are in the process of being developed.  These have the titles: 'Introduction of Cybersecurity' and 'Programming one line at a time', which uses the Python programming language (which is used in M269 Algorithms Data Structures and Computability).  Other MOOCs will include one about smart cities and another about renewable energy.

In other news, there is going to be an update to the OpenLearn site, where potential students can gain access to samples of OU materials.  There is also going to be a new programming module, which is intended to help students transition from the first level modules, such as TU100 My Digital Life and TM129 Technologies in practice, to the second level modules, such as M250 Object-oriented Java programming and M269.  This transition module will draw upon materials from an earlier module, M150 Data Computing and Information, and have a focus on problem solving.

In terms of forthcoming media productions, there was a lot of exciting news: there is going to be a programme about Algorithms (and how they relate to our lives), a programme about the life of Ada Lovelace (which contains a bit about gambling), and a documentary called Game Changer, which is about the developers of the Playstation game, Grand Theft Auto.

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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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