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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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Homeworking workshop

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018, 15:16

On Monday 13 March 2017, I attended what I think was the first ‘home working workshop’. It was held at on the university campus in Milton Keynes. Since the regional centres have closed, many staff tutors and faculty managers have become ‘designated home workers’. I’m sharing this quick blog of the event for two reasons: (1) so I remember what kinds of things were covered, and (2) on the off chance that anyone else might find it of interest.

Workshop objectives

Before the workshop we were asked to reflect on a set of key questions (which I’ve briefly edited for brevity): (1) what boundaries do you currently set to separate work from other parts of your life (e.g. having a designated workspace at home to which working is limited)? (2) how we implemented these boundaries? (3) how effective do we find these boundaries?, (4) Have we experienced difficulties with setting boundaries, and what makes them challenging?

The objectives for the workshop were to: identify strategies for managing the potential adverse impacts associated with homeworking, to consider the importance of recovery and switch-off time, and the implications for setting boundaries when homeworking. Other objectives were to help us to reflect on our own patterns when using technology, with a view to setting up effective practices. In essence, it was all about finding a way forward.

Thoughts about home working

Home working isn’t a new thing. Over four thousand part-time associate lecturers are already home workers. It is, however, a new thing for full time staff (like myself) who used to be office based. 

I have to admit to being a bit grumpy about the whole thing: I miss my colleagues. A month or so into being a home worker, and I’m beginning to feel pretty isolated and ‘semi-detached’ from the university, and I'm spending a disproportionate amount of time looking at motorcycles on eBay.

On a more serious note I am, however, beginning to really appreciate the flexibility, but I haven’t yet fully started to take advantages of the flexibility that it affords. I do have a worry too: I can’t help but feel that there are some days that I seem to work too much; I know that I shouldn’t be still looking at email at nine o’clock at night (but I do justify this by talking to my inner ‘time guilt clock’ after taking a couple of hours off to go shopping).

I attended the workshop since I was curious: what could the facilitators in the workshop tell me? Also, were there any words of advice that would help me to settle into a new way of working?

Group discussion

The first activity was a group discussion, where we were asked to discuss the positives, negatives, and thoughts about anything that could be done to overcome issues that we might face. I made note that ‘switching off can be a problem’; that you could work all the time, but (as mentioned above) it gives you flexibility. A particular challenge might be if you’re new to the job: you might not be necessarily exposed to all the machinations of the university and have a reduced opportunity to ask questions.

A particular theme was the fear that we might become invisible; others might not know what we do. Also, because we’re not ‘in the office’ there is a fear that things that we do might not be valued.  Another theme related to support: ‘watercooler’ chats don’t happen anymore; you can’t just pop your head above a partition and talk over potentially difficult issues with colleagues.

There are some key points: HR, Faculty and School policies need to be clarified. Also, I can’t help but feel that the subject of home working will become more important if the discussions surrounding the new associate lecturer contract comes to pass.

Personas

The next activity was to have a chat about two hypothetical members of staff, or personas. One member of staff was very experienced, whereas another member of staff was new. We were asked two questions: what would you say to the people in the personas? And, what advice would you offer to someone who is about to become a home worker?

Our group came up with some good advice: agitate (positively, and within your school or department) as much as you can, do be cheeky (since that can get you recognised), and attend meetings that are relevant to you and your job (whether they are face to face or online). Other thoughts are: be visible; volunteer for things, tell other people what you’re doing (maybe have a blog?), and don’t be afraid of asking questions. 

Setting boundaries between work and private life

The next part of the workshop was a short talk by Svenja Schlachter, a PhD student at the University of Surrey. As Svenja talked, I made notes of points that jumped out at me. This bit of the blog is an edited transcript of the notes that I made.

A question is: ‘how do people recover from work?’ A point is: you need to be active in setting your own boundaries, and you need to be active in terms of planning your own recovery from work. If you don’t ‘recover’ properly, there are implications, such as: fatigue, mood, sleep problems, reduced performance, and risk of cardio-vascular death (I remember that Svenja supported this final point with some references).

We’re faced with a challenge: how was we properly recover from work when we’re surrounded by way to ‘get to’ work (such as, through our mobile devices and laptops)? The answer might lie in the concept of boundary management: there are different domains in our life, and we need to maintain mental fences for ourselves.

There is the idea of different boundary management styles. One idea is that there is a continuum: on one hand there are people who use segmentation (keep work and different domains separate), but on the other hand there might be people who integrate work with everything that they do. 

Segmentation means that it is easier to switch off from work and there might be less work-life conflict. Integration might mean longer hours but the possibility of work-life enrichment; the argument is that if you keep things apart, you prevent good things that happen in the work domain permeating to other aspects of your life (I’m guessing that the opposite is also true). Interesting, there is also the concept of ‘cyclers’ (or cycles), where you might move across the boundary continuum depending on what is happening at a particular point. A really important point is that it is important to feel in control of things; feelings of control influences well-being.

We were given some questions: how do you set your boundaries, and how do you separate your work from other things? Also, how do you implement your boundaries? An implicit point was that having an office or designated workspace was a natural way to manage work-life boundaries; we were now faced with the challenge of rethinking how to do things. These thoughts led onto a discussion about different types of boundaries.

Space-based boundaries: this could be a dedicated working space at home. A point was: avoid working in a living space (such as using a dining room table). This was a really good point; I have this habit of moving from my study to the dining room table simply to have a ‘change of scene’. On reflection, this might not be such a good idea.

Time-based boundaries: the thought behind time-based boundaries is to set firm work hours, and find ways to keep tags on the hours that you do (and establish working times with other). This was also thought provoking: I think I have an internal ‘work clock’, which means that if I stop working within my work hours to go do something else, I try to make those hours up a bit later on (or at another time). A reflection point is: I need to work on figuring out my time-based boundaries.

Technology-based boundaries: the idea here is ‘use different devices for different boundaries’, i.e. perhaps think of taking a non-smartphone on holidays so you’re not tempted to access your email. Other tips might be: turn off function, such as data connectivity, during ‘down times’. Use features such as out of office reply to tell others when you’re not working.

Psychological boundaries: the key point is ‘don’t spend the whole day in your pyjamas, even if you are able to do so’; consider ‘getting dressed for work’. Consider having a ‘wind down routine’, and take time to plan your non-work time (social gatherings, exercise, hobbies; whatever it is you like to do outside of work). A really important point was that this planning of non-work time is important; if you don’t plan and just end up watching nonsense on the television, your mind might wander back to work issues.

Reflections

A key point I took away was one about difference: everyone’s situation is different, and everyone chooses to work in different ways, and everyone places different emphasis about how work features in our lives. 

I, personally, found the discussion about different types of boundaries most useful. The discussion about the different ‘segmentation strategies’ within these boundary types was thought provoking. I have also concluded that I am a ‘cycler’, and this is down to what I need to do within my job at different times of the year.

The biggest take away point, for me, is that I need to work harder at planning my non-work time. I don’t think this is necessarily such a bad thing.

References

Kossek, E. E. (2016). Managing work-life boundaries in the digital age. Organizational Dynamics, 45, 258-270.

Zijlstra, F. R. H., & Sonnentag, S. (2006). After work is done: Psychological perspectives on recovery from work. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 15, 129-138. 

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eSTEeM annual conference: TEL in practice

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On 16 April, I went to the first day of the Open University’s eSTEeM conference.  eSTEeM is an Open University initiative to bring ‘together academics in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to promote innovation, scholarship and enterprise in open and distance learning’.  The eSTEeM website offers loads of information about the different projects that are funded through the initiative. Before trying to summarise my ‘take’ on the whole event, I should also add that TEL (which is in the title of the event) is an abbreviation for Technology Enhanced Learning.

Opening keynote

Due to travel timing, I missed the opening address, but I managed to get to the opening keynote, which had the title ‘Using technology in teaching and learning: it is scholarly?’ by Linda Price from the Institute of Educational Technology. My immediate instinct to this question was to say ‘yes’, but the point to Linda’s talk was to encourage us all to think about what scholarship means when it comes to TEL.

An interesting point was that educators and institutions used to be the gatekeepers of knowledge, but technology has enabled some information (and knowledge) to become open.  Two examples of this is with the availability of Open Educational Resources (or OERs), and the increase in the number of open access journals.

Linda’s talk offered us a useful caution, that ‘technology will never save us from poor teaching, it will make things worse’.   Another point was about the importance of learner motivation, and that if technology is not properly integrated into a module then there’s a likelihood that it isn’t to be used (or, used poorly).

Another thought is that technology might not be the problem, but pedagogy might be.  Or, in other words, we need to develop our understanding about how best to use new.  Three important questions are: How do we make choices (of what technology to use)?  What evidence is there? Are we looking at opinion based practice or evidence informed practice?

Connecting to the ‘scholarly’ part of her title, we were told about a number of scholarly principles.  These were: the importance of goals, preparation, methods, results, presentation and critique.  These can also be connected with different scholarly approaches, such as the need to thoroughly analyse a problem, understand the context, review the literature, setting aims and objectives, designing of teaching and learning interventions, evaluation methods, and sharing of findings.

A final point that I have made a note of was that we need to think about how theory can relate to and drive our research.  This left me with a question: which theories are important and relevant?  This, of course, connects back to the importance of being aware of current debates, issues and, of course, the literature that relates to a particular area of research.

Workshop: what do you mean by tuition?

The university is introducing something called the Group Tuition Policy which is to affect both on-line and face to face tuition.  The aim of this workshop (which was one of many different events I could have chosen) was to facilitate discussions about how we might begin to plan and implement the policy (which is something that I’ll have to do as a part of my day job).

The workshop was split into two different activities and related to two different perspectives.  The first was to discuss what is meant by the term tuition, from the tutor’s perspective.  The second activity was all about what students should expect from tuition.  For this second activity we were encouraged to draw a ‘rich picture’.

At the end of each section, we shared different perspectives.  Points that I noted down were, ‘we need to up our game when it comes to on-line [tuition]’, ‘you can’t describe on-line as tutorials’ (which was an interesting perspective), and that there is ‘no difference between watching a recording and being on-line (or, participating in an on-line tutorial)’.  It was obvious there were a number of interesting, slightly conflicting, views.

How students learn in Massive Open Online Courses

The third session that I went to was all about MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses.  Allison Littlejohn, from the Centre for Learning and Teaching (and the Institute of Educational Technology) began by asking everyone how many had taught or learnt through a MOOC.  A good number of members of the audience put up their hands.

Allison spoke about a topology of learning.  This included dimensions of formal/informal, intentional/unintentional and recognised/unacknowledged.  She then went onto mention a study at Duke University which analysed 75 different MOOCs in terms of whether they adhered to good instructional design.  If I remember correctly, the results were not very positive.

 A key research question that was asked was: how do students learn in MOOCs?  A related question is: do people who are highly motivated behave differently?  To answer his question, a researcher called Barry Zimmermann was mentioned (with regards to his work on self-directed learning), and three case studies.

The first case study was about a ‘connectivist MOOC’ called SRL-MOOC (Glasgow Caledonian University) (I’m not sure what connectivist in this context means – I think I’ve made a note of the term correctly!)

The second case study was an introduction to the data sciences, and was from the University of Washington.  It ran using the Coursera platform, and had forty thousand learners.  We were introduced to an instrument called SQLMQ which was used to analyse learner behaviour, and could connect with factors such as student motivation.  (There was a lot of detail here that didn’t make a note of since this was all new to me!)

After this second case study there was an opportunity to discuss a question: how would we create a MOOC that could help self-regulated learners?  This was an interesting question that led onto quite a bit of debate, about the business models of MOOCs, how you might engage learners that were not ‘self-regulated’, and worries about their terrible completion rates.

 Allison found something interesting about self-regulated learners.  Low self-regulated learners sometimes engaged with MOOCs with the objective of getting a certificate, whereas high self-regulated learners took a more strategic approach, choosing to carry out learning that relates to a job, role or task.  Simplistically put, some high regulated learners tended to dip in and out of a MOOC, gain what they need, and then move on.

I can relate this finding with my own experience.  I have signed up to three different MOOCs, but I haven’t finished any of them.  The first one was about the history of the internet.  I completed the assessment, but then became a bit grumpy about the comments that were coming back from my ‘peer’.  Plus, I was finding there was a bit more reading to do than I expected (so I dropped out!)  My reasons to take the two other MOOCs were all about ‘checking to see what other institutions were up to’, and finding out whether I was missing anything in my teaching.  I dropped out of the first interaction design MOOC when I realised that the content was solid, and offered me some reassurance that my teaching was ‘on target’ with the overall aims of the discipline.  I dropped out of the final MOOC when I realised that the course was pretty baffling and didn’t seem to be teaching the subject in a very satisfactory way.  This relates, in part, to Allison’s opening comment about the importance of effective learning design.

The third case study was a module about clinical trials, and was hosted in the Edx platform.  I didn’t take any notes of this third case study, since I was probably still thinking about the distinction between ‘high self-directed learners’ and ‘low self-directed learners’.

A final activity of the day was to think about some form of recommendations about either MOOC design, or learning design.  Our table chose, instead, to discuss other issues, including the role and importance of face to face tuition.

Short paper session

The next session contained three short ‘paper’ presentations. 

The first was by Clem Herman, and her presentation was entitled ‘putting gender on the agenda: why gender should be a threshold concept for STEM educators’.  Clem spoke about the university’s involvement with an initiative called Athena Swan (Equality Challenge Unit).  

Two of the key objectives of the initiative is to ‘address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation’ and ‘to tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation’.  To be recognised by the initiative, institutions have to go through an audit process, enabling the university to gain an understanding of the state of gender representation in individual departments. 

It was interesting (and alarming) to hear that the number of women enrolling in the first level undergraduate computing module has been dropping (in comparison to Maths and Statistics, which was reported as being okay). Postgraduate registrations, apparently, have always been low.

During the question and answer session, questions were asked about engagement with external organisations (which have similar objectives), and there was a discussion about unconscious bias and the ‘stereotype threat’.  I think what is means being aware of gender related expectations when it comes to subject specific performance.

The next presentation of the day was by ‘yours truly’.  I briefly spoke about a university funded project that has been carrying out some research into the tutor experiences of teaching on a second level computing module called TT284 Web Technologies (Open University).  I won’t go into the fine detail, but a description of the project is available on the eSTEeM website, with an accompanying project poster (PDF).

The final talk of the day was from Martin Reynolds, who gave a talk entitled, ‘Designing a learning system for postgraduate recruitment and retention based on systemic enquiry’ (I may or may not have made a proper note of his title).  During his talk I remembered him telling us something about a university LinkedIn ‘systems thinking’ alumni forum, where students are continuing to share knowledge and experience beyond the boundaries of the postgraduate modules that they have been studying.

Closing keynote

 The closing keynote, entitled ‘getting data into your eye: live in the field, life in the lab, and augmented reality’ was by Peter Scott, who was from The Open University Knowledge Media Institute (KMI). 

Peter talked us through a series of EU funded projects that KMI had been involved with; I recognised the name of some projects, but not all, such as WeSpot (EU project website), The Open Science Laboratory (Open University website) and Engaging Science (EU project website) which might have been mentioned into an associate lecturer development event that I went to at the University of Sussex.  Another project was called the Field Network System (Open University website), which was about creating a portable network infrastructure for scientific fieldwork.

A big part of Peter’s talk was about applications of something called ‘augmented reality’; a topic that is featured in a module that I tutor called M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design (OU website).  Augmented reality is where digital technologies can add additional information to a digital scene.  An interesting point was made is that AR can become really useful if we use it in combination with people, which leads us to the term ‘socio-technical augmentation’.

An interesting example of this can be found in a project called TellMe (EU project), an abbreviation for Technology Enhanced Learning Living Lab for Manufacturing Environments.  We were shown a demo where a computer tool offered engineers visual guidance about how to assemble and work with components.   Another perspective is that you could potentially be guided by another engineer who is working at a distance.  During these demonstrations I thought about my own interests in teaching computer programming, and wondered about how these tools might be used in this somewhat different context.

Towards the end of his talk, we were shown a demonstration of a virtual volcano (that was spewing lava) that popped out of a text book.  We could only see the ‘virtual volcano’ is we viewed it through the screen of a smartphone, which hinted at the wide variety of different ways that technology can be used when it comes to teaching and learning.

Final thoughts

There was a lot going on during the day, and I felt that I missed out on quite a few things.  I like days like these, since they force you to sit down, listen and learn.  They are also opportunities to help you to understand what is going on, and to gather up gently clues as to how the teaching and learning of science and technology may be changing.  A connected challenge is to try to find the time to investigate what happened in the other sessions and continue to keep up with the various developments that you are introduced to.

During conference I became involved in a couple of conversations about research about introductory programming, and there was even some talk about organising what might become a mini conference.  The bulk of the talk was an objective for a couple of us (who were interested in similar topics) to try to get our heads together; to try to understand more about where the ‘state of the art’ was heading.  In some respects, this was an outcome that was as just as useful as learning about new projects.  The reason for this is that these new connections and discussions have given me a bit of much needed and welcome motivation.

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HEA new to teaching workshop

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On 19 February 2015, I went to something called the HEA new to teaching workshop which was a part of a larger HEA ‘transitions conference’.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not new to teaching, but there was a bit of the workshop that I was really interested in: a section that was about how to teach introductory programming.  The reason for my interest is that teaching programming is pretty difficult: some students excel, whereas other students struggle.

The session was facilitated by Karen Fraser from the HEA.  I’ve met Karen numerous times before, but I have never been to a session that Karen ran entirely on her own.  Instead, her role has been always to facilitate and introduce other speakers.

The aims of the day were to think about and reflect on our teaching practice, consider different ways of teaching, consider what things we are doing well, and share practice between each other.  This is a quick blog summary of the event.  I’ve written it for a number of reasons: it’s a set of notes that also contains links to useful resources, a way to tell my line managers what I’m getting up to, and to share some personal reflections about the event with Open University and other colleagues.

Professions

Karen opened the session by asking us a couple of questions: ‘is computing a profession?’ and ‘is academia a profession?’  My immediate response to the first question is: yes, because there’s a body called the British Computer Society (BCS.org) which aims to develop the professionalism of those working within the computing and IT industry.

I noted down that the purpose of the HEA is to enhance professionalism in higher education.  There are a number of issues that it addresses: reward and recognition, career progression, and continuing professional development.  In some respects, these areas can be connected to something called the Professional Standards Framework (PSF) where HE professionals can apply to gain different levels of professional recognition.  Karen briefly summarised the PSF, telling us that it contained six aspects of core knowledge, five areas of activity, and four professional values.

Returning to the original question, did we hold the view that higher education is a profession?  From memory, I believe the consensus was that higher education should be viewed as one.  It was also interesting to hear that the HEA has applied for a charter to become a professional society in the same way that the BCS is.

Teaching and learning

It might sound obvious, but one of the key aspects of professionalism in higher education is the need to foster and continually update knowledge and understanding about how students learn, both generally, and within their subject or disciplinary areas.

These key points led us to a discussion about the different types of teaching techniques that we could use in our discipline.  These ranged from the use of role play, applying a technique called action learning and demonstrating, such as showing students what code looks like in a debugger.  At this point I had a thought about the virtues of animations.  When I was industry I learnt a lot when I watched another more experienced programmer at work.  This short discussion was immediately making me think about what might help students to get to grips with the fundamentals of computing.

In my notes, I made the comment: ‘pair programming: advantages and disadvantages’.  I’m not exactly sure what I meant by this, but gently picking apart this theme immediately suggests a broad range of different issues: the importance of continuous learning within the computing and IT industry, the question of what skills industry is looking for and what universities can do to help, and the importance of soft skills in subjects such as IT and computing.

Teaching introductory programming

The next part of the session moved from considering the academic as a profession to the specifics about teaching of introductory programming.

We discussed some of the problems and challenges: students need to know about different programming languages and tools, and there is also the necessity to develop problem solving skills and increase student’s awareness of strategies of programming design and implementation.  A key point was that programming is a creative exercise; it’s all about the solving of new problems.  A perpetual challenge is how to map (or translate) real world problems into code.

Karen showed us a slide that asked a single question: ‘where do students struggle and what do you think their problems are?’  During the resulting discussion, I made a note of the following points: as lecturers we can’t teach programming, we can only help students to learn it; students need to put ‘the hours in’ (since programming is like any skilled activity).  Also, the context for learning is important: we need to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Other key points were: the importance of expectations, inexperience and confidence; the importance of how to decompose problems, and asking students whether they are fundamentally interested in the subject.  An interesting question (to students) could be: ‘are you prepared to be confused?’ and asking students to reflect on their own experience with computing devices and their knowledge of hardware and software.

Some other interesting points related to the activity (or exercise) of ‘making a cup of tea’, to learn the idea of problem decomposition (this, incidentally, is an exercise that some of our Open University TU100 tutors use at a programming day school).  Other skills might include the ability to identify sequences, patterns and steps (along with understanding how to do, and translate into computer code basic arithmetic).  Finally, MOOCs (free on-line courses) were mentioned as possible way to allow students to acquire background knowledge.  One thought was that perhaps a MOOC might help students transition between A-level and degree level study.

Another question was introduced: why is teaching (or learning) programming so difficult?  Some tentative suggestions were that programming is a skill, and it is something that is learnt by doing, and also programming isn’t a prerequisite for computing modules.  There is also the challenge of dealing with the syntax (or structure) of programming languages, and that students might not have experience of important concepts, such as data typing.

We were taken through two other slides: thoughts about problems with students (a lack of analytical, reasoning and planning skills?), and thoughts about problems with lecturers (a disconnect in terms of communication and issues surrounding instructional materials, teaching methods and teaching strategies). These problems can have impacts.  These might be students becoming disillusioned and the waning of enthusiasm which could lead to a failure to attend practical classes.   But what could we (as lecturers or educators) do?  Some thoughts related to the importance of learning design, early identification when students get lost, the importance of fast feedback, and the encouragement of reflection.

All this led to a discussion that had the title: ‘what delivery techniques could we use to engage students and help them understand difficult concepts?’  The group came up with the following thoughts (amongst others):  Use of the institutional virtual learning environment and flipped classrooms (Wikipedia),  the use of small groups, facilitated debates, use of media stories, the creation of animation to demonstrate ideas, translation of algorithms into ‘physical theatre’ (pretending students are different values based on height), use of robots, the idea of ‘code as a performance’ (as something the lecturers, or students create front of others, potentially also demonstrating failure), application of peer assessment, use of in-class question and response systems, helping students to create their own resources, and inviting students to present different ideas to each other.

An important point was made: research (I’m not sure which research!) has shown that students have a hierarchy of pedagogical preferences when it comes to learning programming: students like programming lab sessions more than they like working on projects.  Lectures, it seems, isn’t viewed as an effective way to teach programming.  Thinking back to my own experience as an undergraduate (when I had to learn a programming language called Pascal), I can completely relate to this.

On the subject of peer assessment, we were introduced to a system called Peerwise (University of Auckland).   I hadn’t heard of this system before.  We were shown a brief introductory video about the system (Peerwise website).   I have heard of other peer assessment systems, such as WebPA which (I understand) used to be funded by JISC.  An idle thought is that it would be interesting to do a comprehensive review of these peer assessment systems (since I seem to think there are a few other systems out there).  

After lunch…

A provocative question was posed in the first session after lunch: should programming be taught in the first year of a degree?  An alternative perspective was that perhaps we ought to first teach other subjects, such as data structures and algorithms before moving onto programming.  This way, students get the opportunity to understand more about some of the fundamental concepts of software and computing.  My own view is one that connects back to earlier discussions, namely, that since programming is a fundamental skill, and it’s something that takes a long time to master, we need to give students the experience of what is meant by programming early on in the curriculum.

The next session was about sharing good practice in lecturers.  One of the biggest take away tips from the day was the idea of changing something every fourteen minutes: divide an hour lecture into different sections that are punctuated by videos, run discussion activities or question and answer sessions, get willing students to come to the front of the class, or change the entire tenor (or tone) of a lecture by telling a story or an anecdote, or take a bit of time to introduce other resources, such as MOOCs.   Another thought is to ask students to prepare something for a tutorial (but always remember that you’ve done this! On the subject of videos, we were offered an example: a clip entitled The Friendship Algorithm (YouTube) from the comedy series The Big Bang Theory.

The workshop ended with a chat about a range of different issues.  We chatted about the importance of reflection so we can understand more about our performance as lecturers, and also the importance of reflecting on what our students have learnt from our teaching practice.  Another topic was the importance of feedback, and how feedback is perceived by students. 

A final take away point was a reference to a paper by Chickering and Gamson entitled Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (Washington news centre, PDF).  Although there isn’t anything in this paper that struck me as substantially new (which was published around twenty five years ago), it does represent a neat set of principles that can be fairly easily remembered and internalised.  When I was looking through the paper, one thought was: ‘how might these principles be translated or adapted to the on-line distance education context?’ or ‘what attributes of a module design might adhere to these principles?’

Final thoughts

Not long after I joined this session, Karen said to me, ‘you’re not new to teaching, are you Chris?’ In some respects this question was a challenge.  It was also a challenge that immediately led to a reflection.  The answer was: ‘I’m not new to teaching, but I’m here to see if there is anything new I can learn’.  

I was there for two reasons.  The first reason is that one of my jobs is to help to induct new tutors to the university and to help to run associate lecturer development sessions, which means it would be useful to know how the HEA does things.  Secondly, as mentioned earlier, I have an interest in the teaching of introductory computing and programming.

The whole day turned out to be useful: Karen’s discussion about the professionalisation of higher education was interesting and informative, and the day turned out to be a useful opportunity to share teaching practice and to learn about new resources.  By the end of the day I ended up coming out of the session with more questions than I went in with.  This, of course, is a sign of a good day.

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Psychology of Programming Interest Group : work in progress meeting: Day 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 5 Jun 2018, 07:49

Teaching programming at a distance

The first presentation of the second day was by yours truly.  I gave a short talk about a university funded project that aims to understand more about the teaching experience of Open University associate lecturers who are tutoring on the TT284 Web Technologies  module.

One of the purposes of the project was to understand issues particular to the learning (and teaching) of programming.  An area of particular interest is the transition between the first level modules (which use some visual programming language) to the second level modules which require students to pay more attention to other issues, such as language syntax.

I wasn’t able to present any firm findings at this stage (since I keep getting sucked into the idiosyncrasies of my day job), except that three themes that were emerging were that some students can struggle with understanding what PHP is and how it works, confusion about Javascript, and the perpetual battle to understand regular expressions (which is, I believe, an issue that pretty all developers, expert or novice, seem to have)

The question and answer session was interesting.  There was some chat about a coding DoJos (group coding sessions), the use of MOOCs (FutureLearn and the Kahn Academy), and how get students talking to each other.

Holistic programming teaching at Middlesex

Franco Raimondi’s talk was rather different to all the others: he showed us some robots (real hardware!) that he used in his teaching.  They had an interesting design, using both Raspberry Pi devices that were connected to Arduino microcontrollers.

One question was: why use both?  The Arduinos are used to control analogue input, but the heart of the control is managed (as far as can understand it) by the Raspberry Pi devices.  Students then have the challenge of how to design and implement a communication protocol between the Pi and the sub-component.  I personally think this is a great approach: students are exposed to different devices and learn more about their purpose.  When I had a job in industry, one thing that I had to do is figure out how to get one embedded controller talking to another: Franco’s robots would have helped me a lot to figure out how to do this.  More information about the robots can be found by taking a look at the MIddlesex Robotic plaTfOrm: MIRTO website

Okay, so there is an interesting robot, but how are they used in practice?  Franco described a series of lectures, design workshops, programming workshops and physical computing workshops.  In the workshops (if my notes are correct!) students are asked to solve different problems, such as to write a line following algorithm where the robot has to cater for 90 degree turns, and to complete different line circuits as fast as possible.  Students could also implement control algorithms, such as PID controllers (Wikipedia) (which again takes me back to the days when I worked in industry for a while), remote control and managing the taking of cameras by controlling the Raspberry Pi.

What I found really interesting was that the platform (and the workshops) made use of a programming language called Racket (Wikipedia).  Racket is a language that I had not heard of before, but apparently it has roots in the Lisp language.  In some respects, I commend the choice (because it’s great to expose students to different programming paradigms), but on the other hand, there is something to be said for getting to grips with tools that are used in industry.  I guess this just goes to show that whenever you come along to workshop like these, you always learn new stuff.

Towards the end of Franco’s session, he spoke about a system to record Student Observable Behaviours, which then led onto a discussion about learning objectives.  Apparently, the use of ‘observable student behaviours’ is something that Middlesex use, perhaps as a part of their assessment strategy.  We were shown a web-based tool that lecturers can use to gather evidence of student engagement and activity.

I don’t know what this relates to, but I also made a note of a place called The Crystal  (Crystal website), which was also described as the Siemens technology centre.  As soon as I looked into it, I realise that I had once seen it before: on a cable car ride across the Thames.  I now know how to get to The Crystal if ever I need to visit it!

I enjoyed Franco’s session: he covered a lot of ‘tech stuff’ in a very short time.  Students at Middlesex are clearly challenged and are clearly kept busy! 

One thought is that different computing courses and degrees cover different topics and perspectives.  When I was heading home from the workshop I remembered that The Open University covered a bit about robots too on a first year undergraduate module that has the code: TM129 Technologies in Practice (OU website).  Students are also presented with the challenge of creating a line following robot.  Rather than using real robots, a simulated one is used (but, students can get to see real ones if you come along to an engineering day school).

Measuring programming achievement after a first course

The next presentation was by Ed Currie who presented what were described as ‘thoughts and preliminary research’.  One of the key thoughts (and one that I found most interesting) was why some students find programming so difficult.  One note that I have made is that we can’t teach it, students can only learn programming.  It’s not up to us; it’s up to them, and our job (as lecturers and teachers) it to facilitate the learning.

Ed mentioned the idea of Threshold concepts (Wikipedia) by Meyer and Land.  I’ve made a note of the point that ‘sequence is a threshold concept’ (when it comes to programming).  I remembered hearing the phrase before from a colleague who was doing what I think was some research to see what happened when students grappled with key ‘threshold concepts’.

Two great phrases that I’ve noted down are ‘neo-piagetian stages’ and ‘flip classroom’ (Wikipedia).  In some respects the OU has always been doing ‘flipped classrooms’, i.e. students study some material and the go to a face to face tutorial to apply what has learnt, either in terms of solving a problem, or through facilitated discussions.

I don’t know what the context was or where this came from, but I also made the note ‘sharing of learning stories’.  This might have just been an idle idea during Ed’s talk, or something that Ed had said.  When it comes to learning how to do computer programming, I’ve got my own story (which might well be insufferably dull!), and I’m sure that other people have their stories.  Perhaps something could be gained (in terms of learning strategies and approaches) if we find the space to discuss and share how we know what we know.

Reflections on teaching design patterns

The final presentation of the day and final presentation of the workshop was by Carl Evans, who is a lecturer at Middlesex.  Carl talked about his work on an MSc module and his experience of creating and presenting a module about software design patterns.

In computer science and software engineering, Design Patterns is one of my favourite topics.  A couple of points that Carl made really resonated with me.  One was that ‘industry needs architects, not just programmers’.  Another great point (and one that I totally subscribe to) is that there is an increasing expectation (from industry) that graduates can work with frameworks as well as know how to use programming languages. In some ways, this point connected up with Thomas’s keynote.

Carl mentioned Sun/Oracle certifications, the use of layered architectures, and frameworks called Spring (Wikipedia) and Hibernate (Wikipedia) that I have heard of, but have never used in anger.  A quick look into these frameworks quickly shows that design patterns feature pretty prominently.

A really questions are: how do we best teach patterns, and where do we start?  Is there a pattern about how to teach patterns?  I noted down that a refresher about the object-oriented approach is useful, before taking students through different categories of patterns, such as object creation patterns, enterprise patterns, data access patterns, and compound patterns (I was writing everything down pretty quickly at this point, so I might not have managed to the nuances of everything that was said).

Carl also told us about a site called Design Patterns Library which I don’t think I’ve seen before.  One book that was referenced was Head First Design Patterns by O’Reilly.  There seems to be a claim going around that says that these ‘head first’ books are based on ‘neuroscience’ (but I’ve yet to find out exactly what exactly this means: claims like that immediately make me sceptical!)  Either way, anything that helps to make important technical concepts understandable is a good thing.

Final thoughts

I don’t know how many Psychology of Programming Work In Progress events I’ve been to, but it’s been quite a few.  This might have been my fourth or fifth.   I have enjoyed every single one, and I enjoyed this one at Middlesex University too.  It was well organised, friendly and thought provoking.  The talks were really interesting, covering distance learning, errors, notation, robots, challenge of teaching object-oriented programming and a whole load of other subjects too.  The great thing about these events is that you never know what you’re going to get, which means that you never really know what you’re going to learn (and this can be, invariably, a very good thing too).

From my perspective, the event helped to strengthen an opinion I have, which is that we need to figure out how to help students (and practicing programmers) how to best understand and work with software frameworks.  This issue is not only a computing education issue, but also, significantly, a psychology of programming issue.  The first subject that I studied when I discovered this subfield of computing (or of psychology, depending on your ‘home’ discipline) was the topic of program (or software) comprehension.  It’s clear from this short workshop that this continues to be (for me) an important topic. 

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Psychology of Programming Interest Group : work in progress meeting: Day 1

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 10 Feb 2015, 10:26

On 8 January 2015 I went to a mini-workshop: the Psychology of Programming Interest Group (PPIG) Work in Progress meeting.  I’ve had an affiliation with PPIG for what must be at least fifteen years and I try to visit their meetings whenever I can.  In some sense, returning to the PPIG meetings is like returning to a comfortable academic home: you regain enthusiasm for the research interests that you once held (and have an opportunity to say hello some familiar faces too).

This 2015 WIP event (as it is colloquially known) was held at the University of Middlesex in Hendon Town Hall and skilfully organised by Richard Bornat, who is a PPIG community regular.   This short series of two blog post aims to summarise what were my own highlights.

Keynote talk: Thomas Green

The opening keynote was by Thomas Green, who is one of the founders of the group.  Thomas told us what the group was about and emphasised the point that the group doesn’t just discuss research into programming, but also the activities that surround programming (and psychology too).  Subjects for investigation have involved pair programming and explorations into the sociological and anthropological.  Other research subjects have included computer science education and pedagogy, and studies into the relationship between personality and programming.

Thomas is known for creating (or discovering) the cognitive dimensions of notations framework (Wikipedia).  His framework can be used to help us think about programming language design and user interfaces.  Thomas described it as ‘ambitious in scope, [and a framework that] addresses any kind of information artefact’.  Simply put, Cognitive Dimensions is a set of principles that helps us to think about stuff.

To explain, Thomas gave us a couple of examples.  One of the dimensions is viscosity (which is my personal favourite!)  Viscosity is, of course, an attribute of liquids: the higher the viscosity, the harder it is to push you hand through a liquid (for example) – I think I’ve got that the right way round!   When it comes to the dimensions, this can be understood in terms of ‘changes’ to something (or, to move a system from one state to another).  To make one change (to an information artefact), you might have to do a whole bunch of smaller changes before you get to your desired outcome.

Another dimension is: hidden dependencies.  An example of this is the links or connections that might exist between the different cells of spreadsheets.  You can’t immediately see what the connections between different cells might be, but you need to understand them if you’re going to understand and work with a spreadsheet.

This is all very well and good, but how does this relate to programming that we find in the real world?  Thomas gave us a number of examples of computer code used with a content management system (CMS).  Why study content management systems?  Thomas had some good answers: they were widely used, often are pretty difficulty to get your head around (which is certainly true!), and they haven’t been studied very much.

If you’re interested in content management systems, this Wikipedia page presents an amazing list of different content management systems (Wikipedia).  On the same subject of geek lists, this is another favourite of mine: comparison of web application frameworks (Wikipedia).  You can spend hours looking though these different pages.  These two summary links clearly show how big the ‘CMS space’ is.  (As an aside, if you have too much time on your hands, there’s also a List of Cakes and a List of Lists)

An interesting point that Thomas made (which is one that resonates with my own experience), is that they all claim they are ‘easy to use’.  Two examples that were spoken about were Wordpress (Wikipedia) and Drupal (Wikipedia).  For the purposes of Thomas’s presentation, we looked at the Perch (CMS website), a CMS that I had never heard of before.  The point was clear: Thomas’s framework can be used applied to study CMS’s and web frameworks.

After being mildly baffled with screens filled with code that used lots of angle brackets, there was a brief question and answer session.  I think I made a comment that I chose a CMS based on the quality of the on-line tuition videos.  My decisions were not based on language efficiency, but how easily I could see how to create something that similar to what I wanted to do.  (I’ve often wondered about whether we could look to the murky world of media studies to learn about why some tools become more popular than others: there’s a whole other dimension of CMS systems that could be explored).  There was also brief discussion about design patterns, since many of them make use of the model-view controller pattern.

It was pretty thought provoking stuff.  When it comes to content management systems, I can’t help but think there’s an opportunity to use them as a vehicle to conduct research into the creation, development and sustainability of software communities.

Active error: examining error detection and recovery in software development

Tamara Lopez gave the first talk of the day, and within minutes of starting her talk, I had started to remember some research I looked at over fifteen years ago.  Tamara’s research was all about human error and programming.  As Tamara was speaking, I thought to myself, ‘I wonder whether she has heard of a researcher called James Reason.  The answer came within minutes: of course she had.

Reason wrote a book called Human Error and carried out research into active errors (mistakes that happen in ‘real time’) and latent errors (which remain undetected within a system or product for considerable time).  Have you ever bought a chocolate bar, unwrapped it from its wrapper and then thrown the chocolate bar away?  Have you ever walked into a room and immediately thought, ‘why am I here?’  I recently put my keys in my fridge for no apparent reason.  These, I guess, are examples of active errors.

The aim of Tamara’s research was to perform a naturalistic observation of error in programming, and gather reports of error occurrence.  Understanding the characteristics of error can, of course, allow us to understand more about it and why error arises.

Tamara used a great method.  She was studying pair programming data videos that had been published on the internet through a website called Pairwith.us (website).  The developers were working on a project to adapt some kind of testing tool.  Tamara analysed the errors in terms of incidents and themes.  Some keywords that I picked up from Tamara’s talk were temporal, material and social.  A good talk and interesting research.

Visual Analytics as End-User Programming

The second research talk was by Advait Sarkar who had travelled from the University of Cambridge.  Advait gave a demonstration of some software that he had put together.  The focus of his prototype appeared to relate to the area of data analytics, specifically, how the area of machine learning might be connected to a spreadsheet environment.

Following this session (and Advait’s demonstration) there was there quite a bit of discussion about different machine learning approaches such as decision trees and neural networks; subjects that I hadn’t really touched on or explored in any great depth since I was an undergraduate.  Advait’s presentation wasn’t really in my area of expertise but it’s good to be exposed to different areas.

SQ and EQ and programming, revisited

The next talk was by Melanie Coles from Bournemouth University.  I remember Melanie from other PPIG events, so it was great to see her again.  It was interesting to hear that her talk related to some earlier research that she presented at PPIG back in 2007 (if I’ve understood this correctly).

The title of her talk was: ‘SQ and EQ and programming’ So, what exactly does SQ and EQ mean?  I understand them as rough and broad measures of personality.  EQ is an abbreviation for Empathy Quotient.   Simply put, EQ is a measure of someone’s drive to identify with other peoples’ feelings and emotions.  SQ, on the other hand, means Systemising Quotient.  It is the extent to which people have a drive to understand rules governing things.

I’ve made a very rough note that Melanie related both measures to work carried out by Simon Baron-Cohen, who works in the area of autism research.  I’ve made another note in my notepad that there are tensions between these traits, along with the sentence, ‘scientists score higher in AQ than non-scientists’.

Some studies seem to suggest a correlation between the role of programming and these traits.  Other studies, on the other hand, don’t show anything.  The message coming through is that you don’t have to be high on the AQ scale to become a programmer.

I don’t know that this means, but I’ve made another note that reads ‘polite grumpiness about sterotypes’ which might have been scribbled down during the question and answer session.  I have no idea who was expressing polite grumpiness, or which stereotypes were being discussed.  I do, however, feel that this expression should still stand and has some validity.  A sensible rule is that if you’re going to take issue with stereotypes, you’ll go a lot further if you politely disagree rather than go around shouting about them.  I should also add, that I have no idea how this paragraph relates to Melanie’s very good (and very clear) presentation.  All this said, some really interesting ideas and (some exceedingly polite) discussions.

A great end to the first day!

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Accessibility training away-day

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This is quick blog post about an event that I went to in November 2014.  I know that this feels like a long way away, but I haven’t forgotten about this event: it was one that was pretty memorable (but more of that later).

The event was an away day for the Faculty of Arts; it was a training day, and the afternoon (which was the bit that I went to) had a very particular focus: accessibility and disability issues; specifically, what certain members of the university could practically do to help students.  Although some of the fine details are now a bit sketchy (due to the relentless passage of time), I did make some notes, so here’s a quick summary of the sessions that I (sort of) gate crashed.

Barriers and reasonable adjustments

The first afternoon session was by Heather Kelly and Laila Burton.  It began with some numbers: about 12% of students in the Open University have declared a disability (for the faculty of arts, this number is slightly higher, at 15%).  In terms of raw numbers, I think we’re looking at around ten thousand students.  To put things into perspective, other universities can have that same number of students across every faculty.

Every university is legally required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to educational materials to ensure that they can be consumed by students who have disabilities. 

The presenters asked us an important question: who is responsible for making these reasonable adjustments?  There were a number of answers: the module team, associate lecturers, the securing greater access team, and others too!  An important principle (from what I remember from another presentation) is that those people who are in a position to make an adjustment should just go ahead and do it.  This is a principle that relates to tutors, those who line manage tutors, and those support the delivery of a module, and members of a module team.

All this said, what actually does ‘reasonable adjustment’ actually mean and when we do we have to make one?  There are a number of things that need to be taken into consideration: is the student at a substantial disadvantage because of their disability? Is it practical and effective to provide an adjustment?  Is the adjustment something that could be provided as a part of the disabled student’s allowance?  If not, can an adjustment be provided that is reasonable in terms of costs and/or resources?

To understand the concept of reasonable adjustment further we were asked to discuss a number of scenarios in small groups.  Our group looked at two scenarios: the case of students using the library website, and the question of whether a different assignment question could be offered if a student objected on religious grounds.  By discussing these scenarios I learnt that the library can offer a service to help students with literature searches.  When it came to the assessment issue, an adjustment was not considered to be reasonable if it meant that a fundamental learning objective would not be assessed.

Towards the end of the session we were told about different sources of advice and support.  The university has a number of accessibility specialists (some of whom work within each faculty).  There is also the disability resources team, and a group called the accessibility referrals panel (ARP).  The ARP is a university body that comprises of a number of experts who can offer some advice on accessibility issues.  For instance, if anyone isn’t sure about whether an adjustment is appropriate, it can be referred to the panel, which can then form a judgement about the best course of action.

A final point was about the importance of recording decisions.  This is important during module production or module presentation, or put another way (in non-OU speak), when a module is being designed or written, or when it is being delivered to students.  Recording your decisions has two purposes.  Firstly, the university has a trail of what has been done should reasonable adjustment decisions ever be challenged.  Secondly, it allows experiences and cases to be shared with others.

Disability advisory service

After a short break, we had an option of choosing from a number of parallel sessions.  I went to the session that was facilitated by Julie Young, manager of the disability advisory service.  Julie spoke about the support for disabled students and the role of the service. We were told that the service can offer specialist advice for dyslexia, mental health issues, visual and hearing impairments.

During the session I made a note of the term ‘assessment’.  Assessment, in this context, isn’t an assignment that a student has to complete or any kind of exam.  Instead, an assessment is (as far as I understand it) is a discussion that enables a professionally trained assessor to understand the impact of one or more impairments on study.  Assessments can lead to recommendations of assistive technologies, and also the creation of a useful record (or disability ‘marker’) which can then offer information for tutors, helping them to understand what reasonable adjustments might be necessary.

Visit to the access bus

After another break, it was time to brave the elements and head outside to ‘the access bus’.  Despite this event being more than a few months ago, I have one overriding memory of this part of the day: it was bitterly cold.  A large van was parked in the hotel car park.  The van had been converted to what is, essentially, a mobile office that was is packed with different types of technology.  This mobile office can be used to carry out assessments: it is where students (and potential students) have opportunity to play with and learn about different types of assistive technologies.

During our short time on the bus we were shown different types of keyboards, different types of assistive software (such as screen readers and screen magnifiers), and some speech recognition software.  I have played with screen magnifiers and screen reader software before, and some other software called Read and Write that can be useful to some students who have dyslexia.  I was, however, quite fascinated by the speech recognition software and I was impressed by its performance.  (This said, it was demonstrated by a skilled operator, and had been pre-configured so that it could recognise a particular voice).  I left the session thinking, ‘I wonder whether I could ever use voice recognition software’.  I’ve never tried to.  I have deliberately avoided it.  But perhaps I ought to pluck up the courage to give it a go.

A personal tale

The final session of the day was by a member of the university who also does a bit of stand-up comedy on the London open mic circuit.  The comic started by confessing that he had a hidden disability: a speech impediment, a stammer.  He told a short story about how he started on the open-mic circuit, and he told us a little about who inspired him: a friend who is now eighty, and a professional comic who gave a performance at the Disabled Student Services conference three or four years ago.  This then led to a ten minute stand-up comedy routine that was about the day to day challenges of dealing with that particular hidden disability.  There is a huge risk with doing things like this: it could either go terribly, or it could go well; telling jokes in the workplace could get the presenter getting into all kinds of trouble.

My confession is that I was the comic. 

Had anyone told me four years ago I would be at that event, giving a talk to the arts faculty about my weird hobby, talking about my struggles with talking, I would have said they were delusional. 

The story and my performance connected to a point that I wanted to make: when given sufficient support and motivation by others we can surprise ourselves by doing things that we never thought we would be able to.  By considering issues relating to disability, the design of modules and what reasonable adjustments we might be able to make, we all collectively learning what needed to be done to make things easier for all learners. 

In some ways, the event was about what we could do, both individually and collectively, to help others to achieve.  In other respects, the away day was also about connecting to others, and getting a little bit of motivation too.  I was glad to be a part of it.

Final thoughts

There were a couple of key points that I took away from the day: a reminder about the principles of reasonable adjustment and a reminder about who to ask when you need help about something.  It was also a reminder about how seriously the university treats these issues.  It was also interesting to look around the access bus.  I remember from this session that the faculty staff that went along to this event had loads of questions about different bits of technology, what they did, and how they worked.

Another useful part of the day was, in essence, a reminder.  A reminder that if you don’t know how to tackle a particular problem, then there colleagues within the institution who might be able to offer some useful help and advice.

 

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Social media toolkit workshop: Milton Keynes

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 8 Apr 2014, 15:55

26 March was another busy day.  In the morning I had managed to get myself onto something called a ‘social media toolkit workshop’.  In the afternoon, I had to go to a M364 Interaction Design (Open University) module team meeting.  This is a quick summary (taken from my paper-based analogue notes) of the workshop.  I should mention that I had to bale out of it early due to the other meeting commitment, so I wasn’t able to benefit from some of the closing discussions.  Nevertheless, I hope what is here might be of use to someone (!)

Objective

The university has created something called a social media toolkit which could be used by any academic (or any other group within the university) who might have an interest in using social media to share stories about projects or outcomes from research.  It is designed to be useful for those who are new to social media, as well as those who have a bit more experience. 

If you’re reading this from internally within the university, you might be able to access an early version of the toolkit (OU Social Media Toolkit).  In essence, the toolkit contains resources about how to capture and use different types of digital media, such as audio recordings, geo locations (or geodata), photos, text or video. The kit also aims to (as far as I understand) to offer examples of how these different types of media could be used within an academic context.

The objective of the day was to introduce the toolkit to a group of interested participants to gather up some views about how it might be potentially enhanced, developed or improved.  Since I could only stick around for a part of the day, I was only able to attend the first part of the day, which comprised of a forceful and evangelical presentation by Christian Payne, who runs a website (or social media hub) called Documentally.

The following sections have been edited together from the notes that I made on the day.

Social media and stories

Our presenter was very good at sharing pithy phrases.  One of the first that I’ve noted down is the phrase: ‘your story is your strategy about what you want to share’.  In retrospect, this phrase is a tricky to unpack, but your strategy might well be connected to the tools that you use, and the tools might well connect to the types of media that you are able (or willing) to produce.

During the first session we were told about different tools.  Some tools were immediately familiar, such as Twitter and YouTube, but there were others that were more niche and less familiar, such as Flickr, FourSquare, Audioboo and Bamboozer.  (A point was made that that YouTube can now be considered to be the webs second biggest search engine).  Another interesting point (or strategy, or technique) was that all tools should be focused towards a hub, perhaps a website (or a blog).  This isn't a new idea: this blog connects up to my OU website, which also had a feed of recent publications.

Here are some more phrases I've noted.  It’s important to get stories seen, heard and interacted with, and ‘a social network is the interaction between a group of people who share a common interest’. 

A really interesting phrase is ‘engineering serendipity’; ‘serendipity lives in the possibility of others discovering your materials’.  The point is that it’s all about networks, and I can clearly sense that it takes time and effort to create and nurture those networks.

The power of audio

An area that was loosely emphasised was audio recordings.  Audio, it is stated, connects with the ‘theatre of the mind’ (which reminded me of a quote or a saying that goes, ‘radio has much better pictures than television’).  Audio also has a number of other advantages: it is intimate, and you can be getting along with other things at the same time on your device whilst you listen to an audio stream.  Christian held the view that ‘photoslide sharing can create better engagement than videos’.

There was a short section of the morning about interview techniques: start easy and then probe deeply, be interested, take time to create rapport and take the listener on a journey.  Editing tools such as GarageBand and Audacity were touched upon, and a number of apps were mentioned, such as Hokusai and SoundCloud (that allows you to top and tail a recording).

Audio recordings can be rough and ready (providing that you do them reasonably well).  Another point was: ‘give me wobbly video, or professional video, but nothing in between’.  I made a note that perhaps there is something authentic about the analogue world being especially compelling (and real) if it is presented in a digital way.  In a similar vein, I’ve also noted (in my analogue notebook) ‘if you throw out a sketch, people are drawn to it’ (and I immediately start thinking about a TEDTalk that I once saw that comprised of just talking and sketching – but I can’t seem to find it again!)

Here are two other phrases: ‘good content always finds an audience, but without context it’s just more noise’, and, ‘you can control your content, but not how people react to it’.  Whilst this second quote is certainly true, this connects to an important connected point about using the technology carefully and responsibly.

A diversion into technology

During the middle of the presentation part of the workshop, we were taken on a number of diversions into technology.  We were told about battery backups, solar powered mobile chargers and the importance of having set of sim cards (if you’re going to be travelling in different countries).  Your choice of devices (to capture and manipulate your media) is important.  Whilst you can do most things on a mobile phone, a laptop gives you that little bit more power and flexibility to collate and edit content.

We were also told about networking tools, such as PirateBox, which is a bit like a self-contained public WiFi internet in a box, which can allow other people (and devices) to connect to one another and share files without having to rely on other communications networks.

The structure of stories

Putting the fascinating technology aside, we return to the objective of creating stories through social media.  So, what are stories?  Stories, it is argued, have a reveal; they grab your attention.  It’s also useful to say something about the background, to contextualise a setting.  A story is something that we can relate to.  It can be a tale that inspires or makes us feel emotional.

We were told that a story, in its simplest form, is an anecdote, or it’s a journey.  An important element is about the asking of questions (who, what, when, when, how), followed by a pay-off or resolution.  But when we are using many different tools to create different types of media, how do we make sense of it all?  We’re again back to the idea of a hub website.  A blog can operate as a curation tool.  It can become an on-line repository for useful links, notes and resources.

Reflections

The workshop turned out to be pretty interesting, and our facilitator was clearly a very enthusiastic about sharing a huge amount of his life online.  There, I feel, lies an issue that needs to be explored further: the distinction between using these tools to share stories about your research (or projects), and how much of yourself you feel comfortable sharing.  I feel that, in some occasions, two can become intertwined (since I personally identify myself with the research that I do).

On one hand, I clearly can see the purpose and the benefits of both producing and consuming social media.  On the other hand, I continue to hold a number of reservations. During the presentation, I raised some questions about security, particularly regarding geo-location data.  (I have generally tried to avoid explicitly releasing my GPS co-ordinates to all and sundry, but I’m painfully aware that my phone might well be automatically doing this for me).  An interesting comment from our facilitator was, ‘I didn’t realise that there would be so much interest in security’.  This, to me, was surprising, since it was one of the concerns that I had in forefront my mind.

Although I did mention that I left the workshop early, I did feel that there was still perhaps more of an opportunity to talk about instance of good practice, i.e. examples of projects that made good use of social media to get their message out.  Our presenter gave many personal examples about reporting from war-torn countries and how he interviewed famous people, but I felt that these anecdotes were rather removed from the challenge of communicating about academic projects.

I can see there is clear value in knowing how to use different social media tools: they can be very useful way to get your message across, and when your main job is about education and generating new knowledge, there’s almost an institutional responsibility to share.  Doing so, it is argued, has the potential to allow others to discover your work (in the different forms it might take), and to ‘engineer serendipity’.

I came away with a couple of thoughts.  Firstly: would I be brave enough to ever create my own wobbly video or short audio podcasts about my research interests?  This would, in some way, mean exposing myself in a rough and ready and unedited way.  I’m comfortable within the world of text and blogs (since I can pretty much edit what I say), but I feel I need a new dimension of confidence to embrace a new dimension of multimedia. 

Two fundamental challenges to overcome include: getting used to seeing myself on video and getting used to my own voice on audio recordings.  I can figure out how to use technology without too many problems (I have no problems with using any type of gadget; after all, I can just do some searches on YouTube).  The bigger challenge is addressing the dimension of performance and delivery.  I’m also remember the phrase, ‘just because everyone can [make videos or audio recordings], doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should’.

I’m also painfully aware that research stories need to be interesting and engaging if they are to have impact.  I’m assuming that because I’m thinking of this from the outset, this is a good thing, right?

I’ll certainly be looking at the toolkit again, but in the meantime, I’ll continue to think about (and play with) some of the tools I’ve been introduced (and reintroduced) to.  Much food for thought.

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First Open University Sense Programming Workshop

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 8 Oct 2013, 12:23

The first Open University Sense Workshop was held at the London School of Economics on Saturday 11 November 2012.

Sense is a computer programming language that has been derived from Scratch, a language that was developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.   The aim of the Sense workshop was to allow TU100 My Digital Life students to become more familiar with the Sense environment helping them to learn some of the fundamental principles of computer programming.

This blog post is intended as a summary of the first ever Sense workshop.  It has been written for both students and tutors. If you feel that anyone might find this summary useful, please don't hesitate to distribute widely.

Introductions

The phase 'computer programming' is one that can easily elicit an anxious response.  Programming is sometimes seen as something that is done through a set of mysterious tools.  The good news is that once you have gained some understanding of the fundamental principles of programming (and how to tackle problems and debug programs), the skills that you learn in one language can be transferred between other languages.

Sense is a programming language that uses the same fundamental concepts of languages that are used in industry (such as C++ and Java) but Sense makes the process of writing computer programs (or code) easier by allowing programs to be created from sets of visual building blocks. In some ways, Sense is a visual programming language that is completely analogous to many other languages.  The fundamental difference between Sense and other languages is that it helps students to focus on the fundamental bits of programming by shielding new programmers from the difficulty of writing program instructions in a language that can be quite cryptic and difficult to understand.

The overarching intention of the Sense workshop day (that is described here) was to demystify Sense and encourage everyone to have fun.  The Sense environment allows programming instructions to be manipulated as a series of lego-like blocks.  These snap together to form 'clumps' of instructions which can be attached to either a background (or stage, where things can more about on), or sprites (which are, in essence, graphical objects).  Through Sense it is (relatively) straightforward to create sets of instructions to build simple animations and games.

The workshop is divided up into three different sections.  The first is a broad overview of some of the ideas about programming, followed by a demonstration about how to use the Sense environment.  The second section was a presentation which contained some useful guidance about how to complete an assignment.  The third section was more open... but more of this later.

The lecture bit - stepping towards programming...

The workshop kicked off by a talk by one of our Open University tutors, Tammy.  Tammy made a really good point that 'we can't teach you programming'.  The implication is that only a student can learn how to do it.  The best way to learn how to do it is, of course, to find the time to play with a programming environment and to tackle, head on, the challenge of grappling with a problem.

Tammy asked a couple of people to come up and draw some shapes on the whiteboard.  Different participants drew very different shapes despite being given exactly the same instructions.  The point of the exercise was clear: that it is absolutely essential to provide sets of instructions that are both completely clear and unambiguous (as otherwise you may well be surprised with the results that you come back with).

Tammy talked about the different categories of program instruction, which were: sequence instructions, selection instructions and iteration instructions.  Pretty much all programs are composed of these three different types of operations.  Put simply, a sequence of instructions is where you do one thing after another.  A selection operation is where you make a choice to do something depending upon the status of a condition (for example, if you are cold, you might turn the heating on).  An iteration operation is where you do something either a number of times.

These sets of operations can be used to describe every day actions, such as making a cup of coffee, for instance.  This simple activity can be split into a sequence of steps, which can include iterations where we check to see if the kettle is boiling.  (We might also do some parallel processing, such as making some toast whilst the kettle is boiling, but multi-threading is a whole other issue!)

The main points were (1) programming cannot be taught, it can only be learnt by those who do it, (2) there are some fundamental building blocks that can be combined together and nested within each other; you can have a sequence of steps within an iteration, for instance, and (3) programming requires things to be defined and described unambiguously.

The demonstration bit - creating an animation...

The second part of the morning was hosted by Leslie.  Building on Tammy's summary of programming Leslie showed us what it meant to actually 'write' a program using the Sense environment.

In some respects, you can create anything within the Sense environment.  It provides a set of tools and it is up to you to come up with an idea and figure out how to combine the pieces together to do what you want to do.  In some respects (and getting slightly philosophical for a moment), you can define a whole universe or a world in software.  You can, in effect, define your own laws of physics.  I can't remember who said it, but I have always remembered the phase, 'the universe is mathematical'.  Given that computers only understand numbers, the Sense environment allows you to create and represent your own universe (and interact with it in some way).

Leslie's universe was a fishtank.  She began by drawing the tank, including water weeds.  She then went onto draw a set of different fish characters.  Script was then added to move the fish around the screen (in the tank), first in one direction (from left to right), and then in both directions (from side to side).  Leslie then added more characters and defined interactions between them using something called the 'broadcast' feature to alert some of the virtual fish that a bigger and more dangerous fish had arrived in the tank.

What was really great was how she demonstrated how to connect different instructions together (to create sequences), to have sequences of instructions operate when certain conditions are met (which represent selections), and introduce repeat loops (which represent iterations; carrying out the same instructions over and over again).

The bit about the assignment...

The final 'lecture' part of the day was by Open University tutor Dave, who took everyone through the structure of the forthcoming assignment (without giving any of the answers).  Dave talked about the use of the on-line discussion forums and this gave way to an interesting discussion about the importance of referencing.  Other points that were mentioned included the importance of things such as including word counts (on the TMA), and the learning objectives that are used by the module.

The programming bit...

During the afternoon, we all split into two different groups and got together into small groups of between two and four people.  The intention of the second part of the day was to try to create a small Sense project by huddling around a single laptop on which the Sense environment had been installed. We would then work on something for an hour, and then we would present what we had done to the other groups, describing some of the problems and challenges that we had encountered along the way.

Not having had much experience at using Sense, I was very happy to play an active role within one of the groups.  One of my main intentions at coming along for the day was to learn more about how to use the language and discover more about what it was capable of.  Our group came up with two different ideas: a representation of a car race track and some kind of athletic game or animation.  We settled on the athletic theme and decided we would try to animate a man running around a very simple athletics track.  (Our track became a square as opposed to an oval shape since we decided that re-discovering the mathematics of the circle was probably going to be quite tricky to master in about an hour!)

Within an hour we had drawn some stick figures, got our character doing a really simple 'run' animation and had our figure run around a really simple athletics track.  From memory, one of the challenges was figuring out how to represent program state and have it shared between different scripts that were running within the same sprite (apologies for immediately going into Sense-speak!)  Another challenge was to figure out how to represent state with Boolean variables and have those embedded within a continuous loop (but given enough time, I'm sure that we would have cracked it!)  A final challenge (and surprise) was to understand that the Sense environment automatically 'remembered' how much a character had been rotated between the different times that we 'ran' our scripts.  (We had instances where our running character ran off the side of the screen, much to our surprise!)

After our time was up, we were all asked to demonstrate and talk through our various projects.  I can remember a simple etch-a-sketch game, a demonstration of some bouncing balls (which bounced at different speeds), a space invader game (where the invader was a cat), a Tom and Jerry animation where Tom chased Jerry across a screen, and an animation that involved a balloon and a plane.   It was great to see very different projects since when we were coding our own, we can easily get into the mindset of just solving our own problem; seeing the work of others is something that is very refreshing.  It was inspiring to see what could be created after an hours of programming.

Reflections

The whole day reminded me of the time when I first tried to learn computer programming and I still remember that it was a pretty difficult challenge (in my day!)  I always wanted to rush ahead and solve the bigger more exciting problems but I was often tripped up because I needed to understand the operation of the fundamental instructions and operators (and the way a language worked).  In my own experience the only way to really understand how things work is to find the time to play, to explore the various operators and instructions, but finding both the time and the confidence to do this is perhaps a challenge itself.

All in all, the first Sense Workshop was a fun day.  I certainly got a lot out of it and I hope that everyone did too.  I certainly hope this is going to become a bi-annual event for all our TU100 students.  From my 'I've never really used Sense before to do anything other than to run a demo program' perspective, I certainly came out learning a lot more than I did when I started.  Large parts of Sense was demystified, and I certainly had a lot fun attending.

Additional resources

After sharing a link to this post my colleague Arosha (who also came along to the Sense workshop) has written a short blog post.  Arosha is loads more skilled when it comes to Sense programming and has re-created one of the projects that were demonstrated on the day.  Thanks Arosha!

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HEA workshop announcement: User experience and usability for devices and the web

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 13 Feb 2017, 12:40

A HEA sponsored workshop that is to focus on the teaching of interaction design, usability and user experience is to take place at the Open University in Milton Keynes on 27 June 2012.

The workshop aimed to bring together academics and teachers with the view to sharing experience and best practice.  More information is available from the HEA website but the key themes and principles behind the workshop is described below.

Interaction design, usability and user experience

Human-computer interaction (or interaction design, as it is now known) is a subject that touches upon so many different areas of computing; it impacts on areas such as web design, the design of mobile applications, the creation of video games, educational technology and so many others. There are also very obvious connections to industry and commerce, not to mention engineering, where system designers need to create usable interactive systems and interfaces for a range of different users.

Two of the key terms which are often spoken about when discussing interaction design are that of usability and user experience. Usability refers to the attributes or features of a product that enables the users to achieve an intended outcome. User experience, on the other hand, relates to the feelings or sense of accomplishment that might accompany an interaction with a device.

This interdisciplinary workshop aims to bring together technologists and educators from institutions throughout the UK who teach interaction design and related subject areas. Its overall intention is to share experiences and expose challenges, such as how to address complex issues such as the design of products for diverse users.

Topics can include, but are not limited to:

  • Approaches and techniques used to teach interaction design
  • Approaches and techniques used to teach the development of web technologies and any other interactive systems
  • Development of mobile applications and tools
  • Understanding usability and user experience
  • Teaching of accessibility and interaction design
  • New and novel pedagogic approaches for the teaching of usability and user experience
  • Practitioner reports (education and industry)

Format

Those who are interested in sharing something about their teaching practice or their research are invited to submit short abstracts.  The abstracts will then be reviewed and those that are successful will be invited to submit papers that are 4-5 pages long which are to be connected to a presentation of 20 minutes.  It is envisaged that there will be a panel session at the end of the day to allow common themes to be identified and to expose some of the challenges that educators face regarding the teaching of interaction design and related subject.

If you are interested in attending, please submit a 300-500 word abstract to c.douce (at) open.ac.uk, using the subject heading 'HEA workshop'.

Key dates

Below is the list of the key dates to bear in mind:

13 May 2012 - Deadline for the submission of abstracts

18 May 2012 - Notification of acceptance

17 June 2012 - Deadline for final papers

Registration information for the event will be made available at least two weeks before the date of the workshop.

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eTeaching and Learning workshop

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 1 Feb 2015, 13:37

I attended a HEA eTeaching and Learning workshop at the University of Greenwich on 1st June 2011.  It is always a pleasure visiting the Greenwich University campus; it is probably (in my humble opinion) the most dramatic of all university campuses in London - certainly the only one that is situated within a World Heritage site.

My challenge was to find the King William building (if I remember correctly), which turned out to be a Wren designed neo-classical building that sat adjacent to one of the main roads.  Looking towards the river, all visitors were treated to a spectacular view of the Canary Wharf district.  Visitors were also treated to notes emanating from a nearby music school. 

I first went to the eTeaching and Learning workshop back in 2008 where I presented some preliminary work about an accessibility project I was working on.  This time I was attending as an interested observer.  It was a packed day, comprising of two keynotes and eight presentations.

Opening Keynote

The opening keynote was given by Deryn Graham (University of Greenwich).  Deryn's main focus was the evaluation of e-delivery (e-delivery was a term that I had not heard of before, so I listened very intently).  The context for her presentation was a postgraduate course on academic practice (which reminded me of a two year Open University course sounds to have a similar objective).  Some of the students took the course through a blended learning approach, whereas others studied entirely from a distance. 

The most significant question that sprung to my mind was: how should one conduct such an evaluation?  What should we measure, and what may constitute success (or difference).  Deryn mentioned a number of useful points, such as Salmond's e-moderating model (and the difficulty that the first stages may present to learners), and also considered wider economic and political factors.  Deryn presented her own framework which could be used to consider the effectiveness of e-delivery (or e-learning).

This first presentation inspired a range of different questions from the participants and made me wonder how Laurillard's conversational framework (see earlier blog post) might be applied to the same challenge of evaluation.  By way of a keynote, Deryn's presentation certainly hit the spot.

General Issues

The first main presentation was by Simon Walker, from the University of Greenwich.  The title of his paper was, 'impact of metacognitive awareness on learning in technology enhanced learning environments'.

I really liked the idea of metacognition (wikipedia) and I can directly relate it back to some computer programming research I used to stidy.  I can remember myself asking different questions whilst writing computer software, from 'I need to find information about these particular aspects...' through to, 'hmm... this isn't working at all, I need to do something totally different for a while'.  The research within cognitive is pretty rich, and it was great to hear that Simon was aware of the work by Flavell, who defines metacognition as, simply, 'knowledge and cognition about cognitive phenomena'.

Andrew spoke about some research that himself and his colleagues carried out using LAMS (learning activity management system), which is a well known learning design tool and accompanying runtime environment.  An exploratory experiment was described: one group were given 'computer selected' tools to use (though LAMS), whereas the other group were permitted a free choice.  Following the presentation of the experiment, the notion of learning styles (and whether or not they exist, and how they might relate to tool choice - such as blogs, wikis or forums) was discussed in some detail.

Andrew Pyper from the University of Hertfordshire gave a rather different presentation.  Andrew teaches human-computer interaction, and briefly showed us a software tool that could be used to support the activity of computer interface evaluation though the application of heuristic evaluations. 

The bit of Andrew's talk that jumped out at me was the idea that instruction of one cohort might help to create materials that are used by another.  I seemed to have made a note that student-generated learning materials might be understood in terms of the teaching intent (or the subject), the context (or situation) in which the materials are generated, their completeness (which might relate to how useful the materials are), and their durability (whether or not they age over time).

The final talk of the general section returned to the issue of evaluation (and connects to other issues of design and delivery).  Peiyuan Pan, from the London Metropolitan University, draws extensively on the work of others, notably Kolb, Bloom, and Fry (who wrote a book entitled 'a handbook for teaching and learning in higher education - one that I am certainly going to look up).  I remember a quote (or a note) that is (roughly) along the lines of, '[the] environment determines what activities and interactions take place', which seems to also have echoes with the conversational framework that I mentioned earlier.

Peiyuan describes a systematic process to course and module planning.  His presentation is available on line and can be found by visiting his presentation website.  There was certainly lots of food for thought here.  Papers that consider either theory or process always have a potential to impact practice.

Technical Issues

The second main section comprised of three papers.  The first was by Mike Brayshaw and Neil Gordon from the University of Hull, who were presenting a paper entitled, 'in place of virtual strife - issues in teaching using collaborative technologies'.  We all know that on-line forums are spaces where confusion can reign and emotions can heighten.  There are also perpetual challenges, such as none participation within on-line activities.  To counter confusion it is necessary to have audit trails and supporting evidence.

During this presentation a couple of different technologies were mentioned (and demoed).   It was really interesting to an the application of Microsoft Sharepoint.  I had heard that it can be used in an educational context, but this was the first ever time I had witnessed a demonstration of a system that could permit groups of users to access different shared areas.  It was also interesting to hear that a system called WebPA was being used in Hull.  WebPA is a peer assessment system which originates from the University of Loughborough.

I had first heard about WebPA at an ALT conference a couple of years ago.  I consider peer assessment as a particularly useful approach since not only might it help to facilitate metacognition (linking back to the earlier presentation), but it may also help to develop professional practice.  Peer assessment is something that happens regularly (and rigorously) within software engineering communities.

The second paper entitled 'Increased question sharing between e-Learning systems' was presented by Bernadette-Marie Byrne on behalf of her student Ralph Attard.  I really liked this presentation since it took me back to my days as a software developer where I was first exposed to the world of IMS e-learning specifications.

Many VLE systems have tools that enable them to deliver multiple choice questions to students (and there are even projects that try to accept free text).  If institutions have a VLE that doesn't offer this functionality there are a number of commercial organisations that are more than willing to offer tools that will plug this gap.  One of the most successful organisations in this field is QuestionMark.

The problem is simple: one set of multiple choice questions cannot easily be transferred to another.  The solution is rather more difficult: each system defines a question (and question type) and correct answer (or answers) in a slightly different ways.  Developers for one tool may use horizontal sliders to choose numbers (whereas others might not support this type of question).  Other tools might enable question designers to code extensive feedback for use in formative tests (I'm going beyond what was covered in the presentation, but you get my point!)

Ralph's project was to take QuestionMark questions (in their own flavour of XML) at one end and output IMS QTI at the other.  The demo looked great, but due to the nature of the problem, not all question types could be converted. Bernadette pointed us to another project that predates Ralph's work, namely the JISC MCQFM (multiple-choice questions, five methods) project, which uses a somewhat different technical approach to solve a similar problem.  Whereas MCQFM is a web-service that uses the nightmare of XSLT (wikipedia) transforms, I believe that Ralph's software parses whole documents into an intermediate structure from where new XML structures can be created.

As a developer (some years ago now), one of the issues that I came up against was that different organisations used different IMS specifications in different ways.  I'm sure things have improved a lot now, but whilst standardisation has likely to have facilitated the development of new products, real interoperability was always a problem (in the world of computerised multiple-choice questions).

The final 'technical' presentation was by John Hamer, from the University of Glasgow.  John returns to the notion of peer assessment by presenting a system called Aropa and discussing 'educational philosophy and case studies' (more information about this tool can be found by visiting the project page).  Aropa is designed to support peer view in large classes.  Two case studies were briefly described: one about professional skills, and the other about web development.

One thing is certain: writing a review (or conducting an assessment of student work) is  most certainly a cognitively demanding task.  It both necessitates and encourages a deep level of reflection.  I noted down a number of concerns about peer assessment that were mentioned: fairness, consistency, competence (of assessors), bias, imbalance and practical concerns such as time.  A further challenge in the future might be to characterise which learning designs (or activities) might make best use of peer assessment.

Pedagogical Issues

The subjects of collusion and plagiarism are familiar tropes to most higher education lecturers.  A paper by Ken Fisher and Dafna Hardbattle (both from London Metropolitan University) asks the question of whether students might benefit it they work through a learning object which explains to learners what is and what is not collusion.  The presentation began with a description of a questionnaire study that attempts to uncover what academics understand collusion to be.

Ken's presentation inspired a lot of debate.  One of the challenges that we must face is the difference between assessment and learning.  Learning can occur through collaboration with others.  In some cases it should be encouraged, whereas in other situations it should not be condoned.  Students and lecturers alike have a tricky path to negotiate.

Some technical bits and pieces.  The learning object was created using a tool called Glomaker (generative learning object maker), which I had never heard of before.  This tool reminds me of another tool, such as Xerte, which hails from the University of Nottingham.  On the subject of code plagiarism, there is also a very interesting project called JPlag (demo report, found on HEA plagiarism pages).  The JPLAG on-line service now supports more languages than it's original Java.

The final paper presentation of the day was by Ed de Quincy and Avril Hocking, both from the University of Greenwich.  Their paper explored how students might make use of the social bookmarking tool, Delicious.  Here's a really short summary of Delicious: it allow you to record your web favourites to the web using a set of keywords that you choose, enabling you to easily find them again if you use different computers (it also allows you to share stuff with users of similar interest).  

One way it can be used in higher education is to use it in conjunction with course codes (which are often unique, or can be, if a code is combined with another tag). After introducing the tool to users, the researchers were interested in finding out about common patterns of use, which tags were used, and whether learners found it a useful tool.

I have to say that I found this presentation especially interesting since I've used Delicious when tutoring on a course entitled accessible online learning: supporting disabled students which has a course code of H810, which has been used as a Delicious tag.  Clicking on the previous link brings up some resources that relate to some of the subjects that feature within the course.

I agree with Ed's point that a crowdsourced set of links comprises of a really good learning resource.  His research indicates that 70% of students viewed resources tagged by other students.  More statistics are contained within his paper.

My own confession is that I am an infrequent user of Delicious, mainly due to being forced down one browser route as opposed to another at various times, but when I have use it, I've found browser plug-ins to be really useful.  My only concern about using Delicious tags is that the validity of links can age very quickly, and it's up to a student to determine the quality of the resource that is linked to (but metrics saying, 'n people have also tagged this page' is likely to be a useful indicator).

Closing Keynote

Malcolm Ryan from the University of Greenwich School of Education presented the final keynote entitled, 'Listening and responding to learners' experiences of technology enhanced learning'.  Malcolm asked a number of searching questions, including, 'do you believe that technology enhances or transforms practice?' and 'do you know what their experience is?'  Malcolm went on to mention something called the SEEL Project (student experience of e-learning laboratory) that was funded by the HEA.

The mention of this project (which I had not heard of before) reminded me of something called the LEX report (which Malcolm later went on to mention).  LEX is an abbreviation of: learner experience of e-learning.  Two other research projects were mentioned.  One was the JISC great expectations report, another was a HEFCE funded Student Perspectives on Technology report.  I have made a note of the finding that perhaps students may not want everything to be electronic (and there may be split views about mobile).  A final project that was mentioned was the SLIDA project which describes how UK FE and HE institutions are supporting effective learners in a digital age.

Towards the end of Malcolm's presentation I remember a number of key terms, and how these relate to individual project.  Firstly, there is hearing, which relates to how technology should be used (the LEX report).  Listening relates to SEEL.  Responding connects to the great expectations report, and finally engaging, which relates to a QAA report entitled 'Rethinking the values of higher education - students as change agents?' (pdf). 

Malcolm's presentation has directly pointed me towards a number of reports that perhaps I need to spend a bit of time studying whilst at the same time emphasising just how much research has already been done by different institutions.

Workshop Themes

At the end of these event blogs I always try to write something about what I think the different themes are (of course, my themes are likely to be different to those of other delegates!)

The first one that jumped out at me was the theme of theory and models, namely different approaches and ways to understand the e-learning landscape.

The second one was the familiar area of user generated content.  This theme featured within this workshop through creation of bookmarks and course materials.

Peer assessment was also an important theme (perhaps one of increasing importance?)  There is, however, a strong tension between peer assessment and plagiarism, but particularly the notion of collusion (and how to avoid it).

Keeping (loosely) with the subject of assessment, the final theme has to be evaluation, i.e. how can we best determine whether what we have designed (or the service that we are providing) are useful for our learners.

Conclusion

As mentioned earlier, this is the second e-learning workshop I have been to.  I enjoyed it!  It was great to hear so many presentations.  In my own eyes, e-learning is now firmly established.  I've heard it say that the pedagogy has still got to catch up with the technology (how to do the best with all of the things that are possible).

Meetings such as these enable practitioners to more directly understand the challenges that different people and institutions face.  Many thanks to Deryn Graham from the University of Greenwich and Karen Frazer from HEA.

Permalink 2 comments (latest comment by Chris Douce, Tuesday, 7 Jun 2011, 21:19)
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