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South East region: Associate Lecturer Development Conference, March 2015

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On 2 March I went to the South East region associate lecturer development conference.  Although the regional office has been closed, it still exists as an important administrative unit within the university.  This time, the conference was held at The River Centre, in Tonbridge, which was a conference venue I had never been to before. 

This blog post aims to summarise the different sessions that I attended during the day, and has been written using notes that I made during the day.  I hope it is useful for those who came along to the event, and other colleagues within the university who might be seeking ideas for their own sessions.

A collaborative approach to teaching a level 1 module

The conference had two workshops; a morning workshop and an afternoon workshop.  The first workshop I went to was by Bill Adler, who tutors on L161 Exploring Languages and Cultures.  The aim of the workshop was just to share some experience of teaching as collaboration. 

L161is a compulsory level 1 (first year equivalent) language studies module that addresses intercultural skills and awareness.  It consists of four different books (one for each block) and a module web site.  Approximately one thousand students at any one time might be studying the module.  Interestingly, the module makes extensive use of on-line forums.  To make this work, tutors are allocated to a number of clusters (which is an idea which immediately made me think of the group tuition policy).  The reason for this is that one thousand students contributing to a single group of discussion forums is clearly too many; some students could be overwhelmed with posts.  A cluster that comprises of around 250 students is likely to be a lot more manageable, and there’s always something that is going on to make it sufficiently interesting.

Bill talked us through two different activities that can take place through his module.  The first was an autobiography of intercultural encounters (Council of Europe website).  We gave this a go, and this led to a reflection about our own cultural identity and what it meant.

The second was how to develop reading skills in a foreign language.  A challenge with this module is that everyone might be learning a different language (you might have students studying French, Spanish, or German, for instance).  A way around this was to choose and activity and a language that isn’t likely to be too familiar to students who are taking the module.  Our challenge (which we accepted) was to try our best to decipher a menu that was written in Welsh, without knowing anything about the language.  After having a go, we swapped strategies, and we discovered that, actually, we could figure out quite a lot!  Different participants used different strategies.

During the session, I made a couple of other notes.  One note was that: different students mean different backgrounds, which mean different skills and perspectives.  Diversity creates richness, and this is a point that is reflected in the module. 

Another note that I made was about the concept of peer monitoring.  Since tutors are working in clusters, there was an opportunity to allow tutors to work more closely together with each other.

The closing activity was to reflect on our own collaborative practice.  I remember the point that working together isn’t too difficult, but true in-depth collaboration takes time to facilitate and develop, since you have to know and trust the other people who you’re working with.

Also, collaboration can mean the sharing of materials.  If one tutor is particularly busy, another one can help to share the load. The broad point of the session was: there are quite a few opportunities for tutor collaboration.  It is, however, important that the staff tutor (or line manager) and module team work together to facilitate that collaboration.

Yet again on correspondence tuition: how do we teach through marking?

Correspondence is a perennial subject in AL development conferences, but I haven’t been to a session about it for quite a while.  In fact, the last one I went to could have been at an event for design ALs over two years ago.

This session was facilitated by Vicky Roupa, who spoke about the research that she carried out as a part of her OpenPAD project.  OpenPAD is a university ‘professional academic development’ programme, and leads to fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. 

Vicky mentioned the Supporting Open Learners reader, a book that I remember reading when I first joined the university.  Vicky made the point that correspondence tuition is, of course, the main form of teaching.  Other points that I noted was that it was important to engage in a dialogue with the student, and that correspondence tuition is an action that is student led.

We were asked a number of questions: what do we teach?  How do we encourage students to engage?  How do we develop writing so it becomes a major key to learning?

An important point was that students don’t always read (or, indeed, know about) the correspondence teaching that they have been given.  Also, students might not understand the feedback that they have been given, or be able to use the guidance.

To try to engage students, one approach is to choose the most important points to focus on.  Our challenge is to choose which comments are best placed to move a student along.  One other tip was to add links to useful resources within the script comments, such as a link to certain sections in the Skills for Study website.

Another point was that receiving feedback from a tutor can be sometimes tough and involves lots of different emotions.  Vicky’s research was all about trying to gather ‘feedback on feedback’.  Her point is that tutors often mark assignments, return them to students, and then never hear back from them.  Closing the feedback loop can have the potential of helping a tutor to learn more about how to improve their teaching practice.  This was connected to an earlier project (which was mentioned at an earlier South East conference), where students are encouraged to talk through their views about feedback.  Information about this project is available from the Languages Open Resource Online repository.

Towards the end of the session, I made a few final notes (and questions) which might resonate with fellow tutors.  These were: ‘are we assessing or are we teaching?’ (it does depend on the design of the module) and ‘avoid judging too much and too powerfully’ (so we can engage in a meaningful dialog with students).

Reflections

This AL development conference seemed to be smaller than other that I’ve been to.   For some reason, the autumn events seem to be a whole lot busier than the spring events.  I would have (personally) liked to have gone to one more session, to see what else was going on, but I do appreciate that timing is always going to be a challenge (tutors, of course, give up a lot of their Saturdays already!)

The biggest take away points of the day came from interactions with the other tutors in the sessions.  I found the activity in the morning session interesting (and fun!), and found the sharing of views about correspondence tuition useful and reassuring.

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