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Windsor AL development conference, June 2018

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On Friday 1 June and Saturday 2 June 2018 I attended an AL development conference that took place in a hotel in Slough, not too far from Heathrow Airport. What follows is a quick blog summary of my take of the event.

There were two keynote speakers: Gail Emms, and Susie Smith. I first heard Susie’s talk at the Bristol AL development event and Gail’s talk during the Cambridge event that took place towards the end of last year. 

Susie shared something about what she gained from studying at the OU. These included: time management, independence, discipline, multi-tasking abilities, dedication, problem solving, motivation, determination, friends and pride. She also spoke of study as a way to demonstrate employability; students need to balance a lot of different things to succeed.

STEM Session

The first event of the day was open for all tutors who were members of the STEM faculty. I made a note that the session was introduced by my colleague Sue Truby, who then handed over to Holly Hedgeland, who introduced the Open STEM degree and the new Open Masters. It was then my turn to facilitate a discussion about student and retention and progression.

During this discussion activity, two questions were asked: what can we (as tutors) do, and what can the university do? In some respects, these two questions connect to what can sometimes seem to be an unhelpful division between central academics and associate lecturers. My point is, of course, we all work together to help our students.

This said, in answer to the question: ‘what can the OU do to help?’ I noted down the following points: the importance of effective marketing and recruitment and the setting of clear expectations about what is involved with OU study, ensuring that students are not studying too much at once, importance of the tutor-student relationship and emphasising face to face teaching, facilities to send text messages to students, short courses, providing each tutor with their own online Adobe Connect room, emphasising to students the importance of interacting and speaking during online tutorials, and the importance of trusting tutors and making sure they are happy.

In response to the question: ‘what can associate lecturers do to help?’ I noted down the following: talk to other tutors and offer guidance about study skills to students.

The discussions emphasised to me how important it is to balance my different roles and identities: I’m a tutor, a staff tutor, and half of my role is as a lecturer too. Another perspective to the two question is that we all have a role to play, and all our roles are important. Another question is: what can we collectively do to work together.

Understanding our teaching through critical incidents

The next conference session was a session about ‘critical incidents’. I first ran this session at the London AL development session earlier in the year. I left the first session feeling a little deflated since I felt that the session didn’t quite work but I didn’t really know why. This said, colleagues did seem to feel free to engage in discussions, but I felt it was a little flat without knowing quite why. I faced a dilemma: I could either change something, or I could do pretty much exactly what I did before to figure out more directly what I might be improved or changed.

The idea of a critical incident is a simple one: it is an incident or moment during teaching that might have been particularly thought provoking or challenging. It might be an incident that made you stop and think, or it might have changed the way you thought about something. 

Twenty tutors came along to this second version of the event. I set everyone the same task that I carried out in my PGCE: use a form to identify a critical incident. After six or so minutes, the discussions were widened out. First, amongst the table, and then back to the entire group. The idea, of course, was to try to uncover our own critical incidents. 

This session was very different to the first: there were so many discussions taking place amongst the various tables that it was difficult to direct everyone’s attention towards a plenary session. This, of course, reflected one of the main objectives of the session, which was to get everyone talking so everyone could learn from each other.

School of Computing and Communications session

The C&C school session was led by Sue Truby. It was split into two sections. The first was facilitated by Sue who talked all the Computing and Computing associate lecturers through the current school curriculum using a series of programme posters. Sue emphasised that the key qualification in the school had the magic code of Q62 Computing and IT (OU website).

I facilitated the second part of the session which was a short workshop about the staff development and training needs for computing associate lecturers. During the session I made notes of the different points that related to the question: ‘what does a computing associate lecturer need?’

  • Adobe Connect and teaching of programming sessions
  • Industry speakers to provide more subject specific training: London Java community, cloud computing talks and AWS, maybe people from the industrial advisory group
  • Computing continuing professional development: presentations about new technology
  • Discussions about curriculum: to identify gaps and to get input from tutors, to share information about the lifecycle of a module and to understand what the board of studies group is
  • Perhaps there could be more talks from module chairs and maybe from the researchers from the school (so tutors can more readily connect their teaching to the research that is taking place within the school)
  • A question: what can we do that is innovative? 

Unconscious Bias

The final session of the day was facilitated by Angela (Gella) Richards. I’ve met Gella a number of times at the former London regional centre which used to be in Camden.

Gella opened with a question: ‘what does unconscious mean to you?’ Some tutors reported that ‘unconscious’ relates to the speed and patterns of action and responding without thinking, or applying a learnt behaviour. Gella said that sometimes ‘blame’ is a term that is sometimes mentioned. What she meant was that unconscious actions can also mean that we may seek to avoid blame.

Gella asked us another question: ‘what do the PC users in the room think of Mac users?’ This question elicited a number of interesting responses. My own responses would be: individual, wealthy and artistic. I felt the question was simple yet interesting and compelling.

As Gella was talking I noted down the comment: “If we act on our unconscious bias without knowing, it will affect our students” and “there’s a lot of different ways it could appear; not just in marks and feedback”.  Gella told us that she used to be a neuroscientist, and introduced us to a subject called cultural neuroscience. I made a note of two references: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and Thinking fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. 

We were given another question: can or why unconscious bias be useful? Again, it comes back to speed: it helps to make decisions quickly. She also gave us another reference; a paper by the Equality Challenge Unit called Unconscious Bias and Higher Education (ECU, pdf). She also mentioned something called Project Implicit from Harvard University.

An important question to ask is how can one overcome our unconscious biases? We were offered some suggestions: by stopping those automatic thoughts, by reading case studies, and by not ignoring differences. A final comment I noted down was: be curious, and this means curious about our own responses.

I enjoyed Gella’s session. It wasn’t what I expected; I was expecting something a lot more formal, direct and serious (although the whole subject was indeed very serious). It was well structured and clearly presented session. She also left us with a series of thought provoking anecdotes which illustrated the importance of thinking things through.

Reflections

I heard from a colleague who works in the ALSPD team that this was the biggest AL development session they had run. I don’t know where I got this figure from, but someone must have mentioned there were 130 tutors attending the conference.  I found the STEM and schools sessions thought provoking and the notes that I made useful. I also found Gella’s final session on unconscious bias thought provoking and challenging. I really like the take home message, which I took to be: be curious, about others, and yourself. A further personal reflection was that I was pleased that the critical incidents session ran as I had hoped it would and I now hope to take it to an AL development conference that will take place in Brighton.

Acknowledgements

This AL development conference was run by the ALSPD team. Acknowledgements are also extended to Janet Haresnape and colleagues who helped to put together and organise the STEM session.

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The Developers Group

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 19 Feb 2017, 17:19

On 15 February 2017, I attended a meeting called ‘the developers group’ that was held in a hotel in Birmingham (since the Birmingham regional centre was just about to close). This blog post is intended as a set of notes for any of my colleagues who might be interested in AL development.

The meeting was a ‘reboot’ of an earlier group called ‘developing the developers’; an event that I had been to a couple of times. From memory I remember being pretty baffled as to what these meetings were all about and how they could help me in my job. Given all the constant organisational changes, I was curious about the shape of the new group that it replaced.

Introduction

The event was opened by Toby Scott-Hughes, who heads up the university ALSPD team. I think ALSPD is an abbreviation for Associate Lecturers Professional Development. His introduction had the title ‘what is ALSPD and what does it do for you and your ALs?’ Thankfully, Toby presented some pretty clear answers. 

I made a note of the following headline, which I have loosely paraphrased: ‘it is a group that provides an opportunity for AL managers and developers to meet with one another, to run a series of constructive workshops and to pass on skills to colleagues and to help with the development of associate lecturers’. 

The group also seems to have another remit, which is that it aims to provide some staff development for staff tutors and faculty managers. A number of questions were noted, including: ‘what would be useful to upskill you?’, ‘what do you need most support or help with?’ and ‘how can we help to help you to work with your ALs?’ The ‘the developers group’ is a vehicle that facilitates targeted staff development with a view to helping the associate lecturers that we support and line manage.

Here’s a bit more description: ALSPD has a broad remit, which includes the AL representative office. ALSPD consists of a group of educational developers, administrative and management staff, and it works closely with AL services. A key point was made that they ‘are responsible for running cross faculty AL development events in locations across the UK’ as well as working with faculty specific student support teams across the country. They also fund one-off development events. Toby mentioned there were 80 events that were held in the last financial year. A really important point was made: even though offices were closing, associate lecturer CPD was not being centralised; we can still run events across the country – the key point that tutors have to live somewhere does seem to have been accepted.

As Toby was talking I was thinking of CPD topics that might really help me as a tutor. Two of which sprung to mind were: ‘how do we deliver tuition in larger groups when we’re working on line?’ and ‘how do we facilitate online team teaching, and what are the best practices?’

AL services: working with you and in the future

When I worked in the London office, the Computing and IT, Maths and Engineering staff tutors had access to two faculty assistants who did quite a bit of administrative work on our behalf. Things have changed in that we have to do slightly more admin than we used to do before, and administrative support is provided by a team that is based in one of the student support locations.

During this bit of the day we were asked the question: what is and isn’t working well?  I remember that there was some reference to an ‘operational blueprint’, but different staff tutors and faculty managers may well be working in a very different way. I asked for some training in to what this ‘blueprint’ was all about, so I could understand more about what I can expect from the new team, and what they can expect from me.

A key point was made that we need to feel a part of a larger team and there is a worry that a home worker might become ‘semi-detached’ from the university. My 'day in the life of a staff tutor' blog post, which relates to a trip to Manchester, reflects the point that steps have been taken to try to bridge the distance between academic line managers and associate lecturer services.

Support for AL management

Karen Hamilton, one of our ALSPD educational developers facilitated the penultimate session. Karen reiterated the emphasis of the group: ‘although the group is about developing the ALs, how can we do this if you’re not provided with the appropriate training and development yourself?’

We were given three cards. The first one had the title: ‘what can I offer to the developers group?’ This card had a subtitle that read: ‘skills, ideas or experience of AL development you would like to share’. The second card read: ‘what I would like to get from the developers group?’ Again, it had a subtitle: ‘things that would help me to be more involved with AL development or to line manage ALs more effectively’. The final card was slightly different: ‘something more creative’; this final card was asking us to recommend speakers and to say why the might be of interest.

We chatted in our groups and duly completed our cards. I recommended a number of speakers and wrote down titles of sessions that I had once helped to facilitate.

Introducing the replacement for OU Live: Adobe Connect

For anyone who is reading this from outside the university, OU Live is a badged version of a tool called Blackboard Collaborate that is used to deliver online tutorials. Due to Blackboard Collaborate reaching the end of its life, the procurement team has chosen to replace it with a popular conferencing tool called Adobe Connect. This final presentation of the day, made by Anne Campbell and John Slade, was my first bit of official university training about Adobe Connect.

We were swiftly taken through a set of features. We were told that it was possible to edit recorded sessions (or, specifically, cut sections of a session out). Recordings could be downloaded, and we could (at last) see how many students had seen the recording of a session (but not who had seen a recording).

There are some interesting differences; there are three types of users: host, presenter and attendee (as opposed to OU Live that had only two types: student and moderator). The concept of a panel has been replaced with the idea of a ‘pod’. Although there is the concept (as far as I know) of a whiteboard, they are a bit more limited in the sense that you can’t upload images to them. This said, Adobe Connect works better with PowerPoint files, and you can include slide transitions or animations (which means that you don’t have to create loads of extra slides if you wanted to do something similar in OU Live).

I was glad to hear that students will still be able to express themselves using emoticons (there is a compelling pedagogic argument why this is a good thing, despite this expression sounds a little strange!) Tutors can have up to 20 breakout rooms, and you can invite ‘external speakers’ into sessions.

Anne and John told us something about the training that will be offered to associate lecturers. Training will be provided by Adobe Connect people, and ALs will be given a training allowance to attend training sessions. The training will comprise of three hour long modules. These sessions will be run three times a day for five days a week. There will be a practice site and a supporting forum. I made a note that the first bit of training (for the early adopters) might take place between March and April.

Final thoughts

I left ‘the developers group’ feeling pretty encouraged. Whilst the remit of the earlier group wasn’t that clear, the remit of this new rebooted and reformed version seemed to be pretty well defined. I clearly got the message that it was about two things: (1) helping academic line managers to help tutors, with a view to (2) helping tutors to deliver excellent teaching and support to their students.

After the meeting, I felt confident enough to put my head over the parapet and agree to become (and I can’t quite believe I’m writing these words) an Adobe Connect ‘champion’.

More information about the pedagogy of using OU Live can be obtained by having a quick look through earlier blogs about OU Live. On a related note, more information about past AL development events is also available

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