OU blog

Personal Blogs

Page: 1 2
Picture of Christopher Douce

Milton Keynes AL development conference: April 2019

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 29 Apr 2019, 11:53

I usually go to the AL development conferences that take place in London and the South East of England. I’ve never been to on that has been held in Milton Keynes before, since they have always been held at locations that have been roughly connected to the former regions. It makes complete sense to have one at the university campus since it gives tutors the opportunity to visit the place where everything happens and it is reasonably easy to get to.

What follows is a quick summary of an AL development conference that took place on Thursday 4 April 2019. The conference had a series of opening presentations, followed by three parallel session. 

Unlike some of the other conferences, this conference had a particular focus that related to the university’s Mental Health Charter. Particular themes of the day included: promoting good mental health in the OU, the role of the student voice, student mental health, and mental health strategy and policy.

Opening session: careers services

I arrived just in time to attend the end of the opening session, which was presented by Claire Blanchard from the Enhanced Employability and Career Progression (EECP) group which has teams in Manchester, Nottingham and Milton Keynes. 

Students can also access something called the Career and Employability Services (CES). Claire commented that students might study for different reasons: a career starter, a career developer, or a career changer. Increasingly students study for career change and development. The EECP group has something called an employer engagement team, carry out research and scholarship regarding careers, and offer guidance about embedding employability into the curriculum. 

Echoing a recent employability conference I attended, I noted that “all employees of the university has a responsibility to help with student employability and career progression”. To offer practical help and guidance for students, the university also runs an online careers fair, where specialists offer guidance through webcasts and webchats.

More information is available through the university’s careers pages.

How can we best support our students with their mental health needs?

The first workshop I attended was by Deborah Peat, Head of Strategy and Quality Development. I understand that Deborah was responsible for mental health strategy and poliy.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as: “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. A point was made that we all have mental health.

In the university, 24k students have declared a disability. Out of that figure 10k have declared a mental health difficulty. An interesting statistic is that 1 in 4 of people are affected by a mental health difficulty in a year.

Importantly, mental health is also considered as a priority for the UK Government Office for Students, which has led to the creation of the University Mental Health Charter (studentminds.org.uk) A point that was noted that the proposal are more suited to face to face university than distance learning institutions like the OU.

So, what kinds of resources can students gain access to? 

There is a service called Nightline which is available through the student’s association (OUSA), which is supported by trained volunteers. There is also a pilot service called the BigWhiteWall which is a service used by 30 other HE institutions. BigWhiteWall is defined as “a safe online community of people, for anyone who is anxious, down or not coping, who support and help each other by sharing, guided by trained professionals”.

BigWhiteWall has four areas: talk chat, bricks, guided support and ‘useful stuff’. The talk chat section is a bit like forums. The guided support section offers short courses for things like coping with anxiety or stress. It isn’t, however, a service for students who are in immediate distress.

Towards the end of the session we were shown two different scenarios, and asked to discuss how, as tutors, we would respond to each of them. Actions included taking time to talk to students who were expressing concerns, but also taking time to tell our line managers about any significant issue that may have arisen. An important point is that tutors can also draw on the university employee assistance programme. 

As an aside, students (and associate lecturers) can also access the university booklet Studying and staying mentally healthy  (PDF). It’s quite a short booklet, but it’s certainly worth a read. 

Critical incidents: work and well-being, sharing best practice

I’ve run this session on critical incidents a number of times before, and every time it has been slightly different. 

A critical incident is described as a memorable or challenging situation that occurred during our teaching practice. The session began with a number of definitions from a number of different authors:

“The critical incident technique consists of a set of procedures for collecting direct observations of human behaviour in such a way as to facilitate their potential usefulness in solving practical problems and developing broad psychological principles.” Flanagan, cited by Spencer-Oatey, H. (2013) Critical incidents. A compilation of quotations for the intercultural field. GlobalPAD Core Concepts.

“For an incident to be defined as critical, the requirement is that it can be described in detail and that it deviates significantly, either positively or negatively, from what is normal or expected”. Edvardsson, cited by Spencer-Oatey, 2013.

“A critical incident is an interpretation of a significant episode in a particular context rather than a routine occurrence.” Bruster, B. G. & Peterson, B. R. (2012) Using critical incidents in teaching to promote reflective practice, Reflective Practice, 14:2, 170-182.

I began by asking everyone who came along to the session to think about their own tutoring practice to identify a critical incident. When they had done this, I asked them to discuss them all within a group, and then choose one to share with the whole of the workshop session.

I really enjoyed the discussions that emerged. We shared experiences and strategies that we used to respond to some of the difficult situations that we had been collectively faced with. 

Reimagining our teacher identifies in the virtual learning environment

The final session I attended was facilitated by Sara Clayson, Staff Tutor from the School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport. 

Sara asked us all a question: “what does it feel like to move from face to face to online teaching?”

The answer was: it can be emotional since we’re moving from interacting with other humans to interacting via computers. We were asked further questions: why did you choose to become an associate lecturer? Did the perceptions (of the university, or of teaching) influence your decision to become an AL? What was it like when you started teaching?  

Reflection is, of course, an integral part of teaching. This means that there’s a question of how we reconstruct our identity when more of our teaching. In some respects, the university is providing tutors with training about how to teach online without explicitly acknowledging how this affects our identity as teachers.

We were given a short activity to complete. We were asked: how would you explain your teaching approach to a student?

Here’s what I wrote: “My role is to guide. Everything you need has been provided in the module materials, or on the university websites. You do your own learning, and what I do is facilitate your access to that learning. So, ask questions, send me updates, and treat me as a sounding board. I want to hear from you about what you’ve been studying, what you’ve found interesting, and what you’ve found challenging. Use assignments to show me what you have learnt, and if there are any gaps, I’ll do my best to tell you what they are”.

We were asked to think about how to answer further questions: what kind of tutor do you want to be in the VLE (virtual learning environment)? Also, how can you be the tutor you want to be in the VLE? And finally: what barriers do you need to overcome and what possibilities are there?

Sara left is with some resources, highlighting research by Anna Comas-Quinn, specifically a paper that has the title: Learning to teach online or learning to become an online teacher: an exploration of teachers' experiences in a blended learning course  (Open Research Online) and the website HybridPedagogy.

Reflections

There was a lot happening during this conference. There was a session about inclusive practice and understanding disability profiles, working online with students with hearing impairments, information a repository where tutors can share resources, how to best work with the student support team (SST), and how to provide excellent correspondence tuition. It was a shame that there were only three parallel sessions!

From my perspective, the reminder about mental health resources was really helpful. I also really enjoyed Sara’s session about teacher identity. This isn’t something that I think about very much. I feel that identity and professional practice are linked to other related ideas of respect and autonomy. 

The opportunity to discuss what our teaching identity means, and to be presented with a set of reflective questions that could help us untangle the idea further was really thought provoking.

In the middle of all this was the important question of: how can I get better? This, I feel, is what good professional development is all about.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

OU Employability conference - April 2019

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 26 Apr 2019, 12:43

I don’t think I’ve ever been to an employability conference before. The first I’ve been to took place on 3 April 2019 at the OU campus in Milton Keynes. 

Employability is a theme that crops up pretty regularly in Computing and IT. Employers, I understand, want graduates who know about certain bits of technology, know their way around a sets of subjects, and have a mastery of some important and necessary skills (such as problem solving, writing and team working). 

What follows is a quick blog summary of the event that has been taken from some notes and handouts I gathered from the event. I will add the usual blog disclaimers: these are entirely my own reflections, and I’ve probably missed a lot of really good stuff that was spoken about (especially since I had to leave the conference towards the end to attend another meeting). My apologies to any speaker if I have failed to adequately represent your work and research.

Nations perspective

I managed to miss the welcome address and the first presentation called ‘external perspective on employability’, but managed to catch the ‘nations perspective’ talk by Darren Jones who was from the OU in Wales. I was interested to hear that 48% of students in Wales are from widening participation (WP) backgrounds.

Darren talked about the types of service the OU careers service in Wales offered. Apparently this included the provision of 12 internship placements with employee partners. Darren also referred to something called Go Wales, a student focussed employability skills programme.

Building career focussed online discussions

The next talk was by Leigh Fowkes. The full title of Leigh’s talk was: Building career focussed online discussions forums for OU students in a social media age. Leigh revealed that before joining the university he worked in career service in school. This was very much a research talk, where he was exploring how and why students use forums for careers development.

His talk began with a brief literature review, which featured terms such as: career learning theory, career construction, career identity, and community interaction theory. Some interesting point was that ‘career’ is a contested topic, and there were an ‘ecology of communities’ that related to career and career studies (or advice).

I felt that this talk really addressed what the conference was all about: studying the notion and concept of career, career studies and career advice as a subject that could be studied academically. To give good advice and to understand the needs of students, it’s important to know the domain, and understand the terms, and appreciate what terms might be contested.

Assessing a student conference: S350 evaluating contemporary science

Next up was a presentation by Simon Collinson and Rachel McMullan who talked about developing an embedding employability skills within a science module: S350 Evaluating Contemporary Science (OU website).

S350 uses a tool called OpenStudio which is used in U101 Design Thinking, and a number of other OU computing and engineering modules. OpenStudio is used to share poster presentations (which are sometimes an important part of academic conferences) which have been designed by students. Student activities in the module feed into Personal Develop Plans (PDP) and the identification of SMART goals.

Students are offered a choice of topics from which they can create their poster presentations. As a part of the assessment process, students are required to offer feedback on two posters: one poster that is from their own discipline, and another one that is from a different discipline.

One of the problems that were faced is that sometimes student don’t follow instructions as closely as they should do. One way the module team responded to this is to create a set of frequently asked questions (FAQs).

I really liked this approach; it reminded me of a presentation at a HEA conference that I attended which described a module where students had to make submissions to an institutional student journal which had the look and feel of a proper peer reviewed journal. I also liked that students were asked to offer feedback to each other. 

Emotional and social aspects of career adaptability

This presentation was made by Matt Haigh from the Faculty of Business and Law. The full title of Matt’s presentation was: Career vulnerabilities in light of the UKs decision to leave the European Union. 

Matt’s presentation was very topical, given the never ending political crisis that seems to be taking place at the time of the conference. Matt introduced a term: career adaptability. Career adaptability is the ability of adapt to career change, and handle that change. It is considered to be a subjective experience and a social experience.

Another term was adaptive capabilities: curiosity, confidence, concern and control. Armed with these people can cope with change, which is also a social process. I also noted down that career adaptability was a social skill.

Matt’s presentation was also about his research. He spoke about carrying out interviews with bankers, both insiders and outsiders to the industry, asking them the question: “how has Brexit affected your career plans?” I can’t summarise the whole of Matt’s presentation, but I did also note down the words ‘there is a mixture of hope and frustration’.

Workshop: reframing digital literacies in the language of employers

Just before the lunch break, I attended an interactive workshop, facilitated by Cheryl Coveney, which was about understanding the role of different frameworks. There is something called the employability framework (HEA website), the digital and information literacy (DIL) framework (Open University) that has been created by the OU library, and the JISC learner profile. Interestingly, the old MCT faculty tried to weave DIL skills into their module designs.

We were provided with a big poster that was, essentially, a person spec for a job, and 3 sets of cards from each of these different framework tools. We had to put the cards next to each of the points on the person spec to see how each card related to the role. Soon became clear that each framework described the skills slightly differently; some fitted more easily than others.

It was a fun activity and a fun way to be introduced to these different frameworks. I was surprised to learn about how much similarity between each of them.

Developing employability through open educational resources

The first afternoon session was presented by Terry O’Sullivan’s who spoke about OERs that could offer guidance about business networking. 

A point was made that MOOCs can have a role to play in skills development. Two resources were compared: an effective networking MOOC from FutureLearn versus a short course that was run through Google Digital Garage (which was something I had never heard of before).  The digital garage led to something that was called a certificate in the fundamentals of digital marketing. The FutureLearn course MOOC had the title: Business fundamentals - effective networking. Each OER used different pedagogic approaches.

A personal reflection is that I’ve directed students to different OpenLearn OERs, and I know that there are a lot of other resources that can be used in combination with other aspects of study. (I also need to study some of them too, if only to appreciate more of the contents that they contain).

Supporting DD102 students to articulate skills, behaviour and values

This presentation was by Leman Hassan, from the Faculty of the Arts and Social Science. During this talk I noted down the use of an employability framework. The focus was on research using mixed methods action research which aimed to understand employability skills.

PDP and employability: comfortable bedfellows in postgraduate study?

The final presentation of the conference that I attended was by Gill Clifton and Alison Fox. Both presenters spoke about a couple of modules that make up the MA in Education. PDP planning is assessed during the end of module assessment (EMA) and has a focus on academic learning, professional learning and professional skills. One of the modules, EE812 Educational Leadership - exploring strategy employs ‘peer PDP coaches’ who are former students.

Students are asked to carry out a skills audit, and these are mapped against learning outcomes. Students were also told about a reflection cycle, where they had to identify, plan, act, record and review.

One of the important question that was asked was: how do you encourage students to engage with PDP planning and reflection? Also, a question that module team members who are considering using this approach need to consider how students demonstrate their skills through module activities.

Reflections

There are, of course, different view about the role of education; some view that it should be for the common good, others hold the view that it should be instrumental, in the sense that it should help the individual to get a job. The importance of employability skills as a subject (and within a subject) may well, of course, depend on your view of education.

One of the stand out things from this conference was that there were colleagues who were doing some serious academic research into the subject. All this makes sense, since there is a direct connection to the subject of careers, both in terms of research, and in terms of that there are roles where people provide careers advice.

Two other stand out points was that it was interesting to hear about different employability and skills frameworks, also the range of services that are actually offered by the university. I didn’t realise that the university worked with external organisations to provide internships.

A final comment was that I was surprised at how well attended the conference was. I estimate that there were in excess of around 60 delegates from across the university.

Links and resources

The university has an employability hub site which is open to OU students and staff. It is described as “a repository of information for OU staff to help support students to achieve their career and personal development goals”.

There is also an OU employability and scholarship Twitter feed, @OUemployscholar. The conference had an accompanying hashtag: #ouempconf19.

Permalink
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

STUC conference: SOAS University of London

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 18 Feb 2019, 13:37

Looking back to when I was a teenager, had I sat down and thought really hard about all of the different challenges that I would face as an undergraduate student, I might not have decided to go to university.

The reason for this is that I had a severe stammer; I had a real difficulty saying my own name, or ordering anything at a restaurant or shop. These simple facts have profound implications: communication is a human necessity, and its importance during education cannot be understated.

Some of those challenges I would face at university were obvious: making presentations so I could complete assessments and participating in group work. There were less obvious challenges, such as meeting new people and participating in clubs and societies. If truth be told, there were these days that I just wanted to hide away from the world, but for whatever reason, I didn’t. I just got on with it. I got on with it, since there were no other choices.

On 19 January 2019 I attended a conference at SOAS in London by a charity called STUC, an abbreviation of ‘Stammerers through university consultancy’. STUC has a tagline, which reads: ‘supporting university students and staff who stammer’. 

STUC was formed by Claire Norman, a languages graduate. As a student Claire was struck by the lack of constructive advice that her university gave her when she was required to complete a French oral examination. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the advice was something like ‘slow down’, or ‘breathe’ (bits of advice that others have, indeed, been given me over the years). Her idea was to create an organisation that could offer help and guidance to universities with a view to (ultimately) helping their students.

The conference was the first of its kind, and was sponsored by Professor Deborah Johnston, PVC of Teaching and Learning at SOAS. It featured a series of half hour talks, and then was followed by a panel discussion. What follows is a short summary of each of the talks, followed by a quick summary of some of the points during the panel discussion, and then a set of closing thoughts and reflections.

Presentations

After a short presentation by Rachel Everard (BSA website), who is the service director of the British Stammering Association, it was onto Iain Wilkie. Iain is a former partner of the consultancy E&Y. He spoke about ‘thriving at work with a stammer’, and made an interesting point about leadership. Leadership not only involves leading, it also means addressing and discussing potential, actual or perceived weaknesses. This requires us to have courageous conversations with others, with a view to connecting and informing. Implicit in these points was the importance of understanding (and embracing) the social model of disability.

Abed Ahamed (BSA website) is a secondary school teacher, and is a PWS (person who stammers). Abed shared some phrases that resonated with me, such as ‘speak to thrive rather than survive’ and ‘talk and connect with others’. What struck me was Abed’s determination to become a teacher. I remember him saying teaching was a ‘second option’ for some of his peers, whereas for Abed, it was a primary motivator and objective. A personal reflection is that when I was his age, I had completely ruled out teaching as a career choice (only to embrace it years later when I became appointed as a part time tutor for The Open University).

Next up was Lindsey Pike from the University of Bristol. Lindsey spoke about the importance of staff networks (Bristol University) within a university that can offer support for different groups of staff. I was interested to hear that there was also a network for staff who stammer at Bristol. For a brief period of time (before other commitments needed to take precedence) I was a member of an OU network called EnablingStaff@OU (OU equality and diversity resources page). A further personal reflection was that the power of the network (of course) comes from its members, and the personal contacts that each member has. A further thought is a wider set of networks can also be gained by joining a trade union, which can help with institutional and national issues regarding accessibility and disability.

Grant Meredith gave the first talk after the lunch break. I’ve met grant a couple of times: one at a BSA conference (where he talked about being a dean at the university where he worked), and briefly during a trip to Melbourne. Since we last met, Grant has been carrying out his doctoral research that is exploring the experiences of Australian students who stutter. One of the points I noted down included the idea of ‘concessional bargaining’, which is where students might trade off potential grades against speech avoidance activities.

After Grant was Claire Tupling, Senior Lecturer in Postgraduate Studies at the University of Derby. Claire's presentation complemented Grant’s very well. Through her university, Claire gained a small amount of funding to carry out research into the experiences of university staff who stammer. Claire’s research fits into a subject that can be called Disability Studies ‘which sits between social sciences and the humanities’, and addresses themes such as how disability can be socially constructed. I noted down the phrase: “the academic workplace is frequently a key site in the construction of individuals’ disablement”. Some of the themes that I noted down from Claire’s talk included people becoming ‘accidental academics’ and there being ‘additional labour’ that accompanies (and may counter) the potentially disabling effects of stammering. 

The final talk was by Deborah Johnson who spoke about ‘stammering and inclusion in the rapidly changing context of universities’. Deborah referred to research by Boyle, Blood and Blood (2009) about the ‘Effects of perceived causality on perceptions of persons who stutter’, the challenges that accompany group-based assessment and the importance of inclusive learning and teaching. Another point to bear in mind is that, in some cases, potential pedagogic innovations may negatively affect people who stammer.

Panel discussion

The panel discussants included Claire Norman, myself, Beulah Samuel-Ogbu (SOAS Disabled students and carers’ officer), Mandy Taylor (trustee of the BSA) and Rory Sheridan (former UoA student, and visual artist).

Claire had prepared some questions for us to discuss, just in case there were silences from the audience: “(1) would any panellists like to share a university-related experiences? (2) what should students or staff do if the university’s Disability Support is not providing sufficient help? (3) why aren’t university Mental Health Support and Disability Support teams collaborating more? (4) In what ways can the Equality Act 2010 assist students and staff who stammer? (5) What would you advise if a student didn’t want to choose a preferred module because the assessment methods were heavily emphasised on speech?” Even though we all had questions, we need not have worried; there was a lot to talk about.

Some points that I noted down were: the importance of removing ‘fluency’ from assessment criteria (instead, this might be replaced by ‘effectiveness of communication’), that stammering can affect non assessed work (since students and tutors might have discussions to help with essays), and that inclusion relates to organisational culture, and thinking about inclusion for PWS can have a positive effect on all students.

Reflections

In some respects this was the first ‘academic’ conference that I’ve been to that has focussed on a single disability (I’ve put the term ‘academic’ in quotes, since although talks were given, papers were not presented, but everything that was said was linked to the academic context).

I sensed that although we had talked about many different issues and felt there was still a lot to talk about, and a lot of practice experience to share between the different groups of people who attended (parents, speech and language therapists, university staff and students). There’s a lot that can be said about assessment and how to help students become settled. Interestingly, the theme of mental health emerged a number of times (the link here is that people who stammer can sometimes be affected by mental health issues).

Attending this conference made me reflect on the good points and the challenging points of my own university experiences. Some suggestions and actions were thoughtful and appropriate: some reasonable adjustments were made without question or debate, and were very welcome. Other actions were thoughtless and inappropriate: one tutor suggested that his church might be able to offer ‘a cure’.

A personal opinion is that there may well be value in connecting up with other disability groups or organisations; I feel that more influence can be gained if different groups work together. This said, it’s important to find a way to ensure that the educators are educated and myths are dispelled. Organisations such as STUC can play an important role with both of these tasks.

For further information, do feel free to check out the STUC Twitter stream. Also, if anyone is interested, the following hashtags were used in the event: #silenceoncampus and #getSTUCin.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Computing education practice conference: Durham, January 2019

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 24 Jan 2019, 10:29

I first visited the Computing education practice (CEP) conference, held at the University of Durham, back in 2017 (OU blog). I felt that it was a really nice event, with a broad range of subjects and a particular focus on opportunities of chatting to computer science educators from a number of other universities. 

What follows is a quick blog summary of the second CEP conference that I attended on 8 January 2019 along with a set of accompanying thoughts, reflections and useful weblinks. I’ve written all this so I can remember what happened, and also on the off chance that anyone else doing research in computer science education might find this of interest. 

Welcome and keynote

The opening keynote was by Andrew McGettrick, emeritus professor from the University of Strathclyde. Andrew told us all about various reports; he mentioned the Committee on European Computing Education Map of Informatics in European Schools and the US Computer Science for All initiative (ACM). There is also something called the Informatics for All Strategy from ACM Europe which presents recommendations for teacher training. Returning to the UK, the Joint Mathematical Council of the UK has published Digital Technologies and Mathematics Education (2011, PDF)

I noted down a couple of themes that Andrew highlighted, namely, the changing face of computing and the increased perceived importance of subjects such as machine learning. An importance question that was asked was: how do you help (or pressure) countries to focus on the development of computer science education?

I don’t know whether I missed it in Andrew’s talk, but I did feel that there was an opportunity to talk about the more recent work of the Royal Society about Computing Education in Schools (Royal Society website) and the Shadbolt Review of Computer Sciences Degree Accreditation and Graduate Employability (PDF)

Session 1: Projects

The first presentation, Supervisor Recommendation Tool for Computer Science Projects was by Kasim Terzic, University of St Andrews. In essence, Kasim’s talk was about a computer science project that was used to manage the allocation of computer science projects. It worked by getting different bits of information from different sources: staff advertise dissertation topics and provide information about their research interests by submitting papers to the institutional research repository. The inputs to the system were keywords and project proposals and the outputs were supervisor recommendations. Whilst Kasim was speaking, I thought of the OU project module, TM470.

Next up was Laura Heels and Marie Devlin from Newcastle University who spoke about: Investigating the Role Choice of Female Students in a Software Engineering Team Project. This presentation began by emphasising that there is a big gender disparity in STEM and computing subjects. Their research asked a simple question: what roles do students take when doing some important computing group work? In their findings, for one year more females chose programming roles, but by and large the trend is (if I’ve noted this down properly) that the males tend to choose the programming role.

I especially enjoyed this second presentation since it made me reflect on my own experience of group work as an undergraduate. I remember being thrown together in a group, and having to choose our own roles and responsibilities. I remember some of the conflicts, and the need to make pragmatic decisions for the good of the project. I also remember how the team supported me when I came to give a group presentation. I certainly felt that role identity and choice was an interesting topic to be studying.

Session 2: Pedagogy

Stewart Powell from Swansea University talked about: Teaching Computing via a School Placement. The motivation for his talk and the work that accompanied it was compelling, and directly linked back to some of the themes introduced by the keynote, namely: CS grads might not see teaching as a career path; they may lack confidence and competence. Here there is a link to the importance of soft skills, and a further implicit link to the Shadbolt report. Stewart introduced the module: it took place during one semester in year 3, and allowed students to gain an understanding of what it means to be a teacher.

The next presentation in this session, by Tristan Henderson, University of St Andrews was all about Teaching Data Ethics, a new postgraduate module. Tristan described the motivation for the module: that there are always lots of controversies; every day there is something happening. A phrase I noted down was: ‘I’ve moved away from thinking that technology is a solution for everything’. A further point that ethics can be a topic that can be difficult to teach. Subjects in the module included: privacy, aspects of law, machine learning, ethics in practice and ethics in research. We were also told about the Royal Statistical Society Data Ethics Special Interest Group.

As Tristan was talking, I thought of a related OU postgraduate module called M811 Information Security (Open University), which touches upon some of the topics that Tristan highlighted, but with a more direct focus on security. All in all, a very engaging and thought provoking presentation. I really liked the focus on the fact that Data Ethics (and Information Security) are such important contemporary issues.

Alcwyn Parker from Falmouth University returned to the theme of group work with the presentation: Nurturing Collaboration in an Undergraduate Computing Course with Robot-themed Team Training and Team Building. I noted down that ‘group work is [an] integral part of the student’s education’. I also noted down the terms: communities of practice, and cognitive apprenticeship, where students are encouraged to observe, practice and reflect. One of the things that I liked about this presentation was a very explicit link between education theory and practice.

The final presentation had the title: Papertian Mathetics with Concept Map Stories and was given by  Amanda Banks Gatenby from the Manchester Institute of Education. I’m familiar with Papert through his book Mindstorms (Wikipedia). I was interested to hear that the word Mathetics was defined as the ‘art of learning’ (which is distinct from pedagogy, which is about the art of teaching). The presentation described how concept maps are created and described by students.

Session 3: Data and data security

One of the challenges of teaching computing is that sometimes solutions to problems can be easily found through internet searches.  Rosanne English from the University of Strathclyde gave a number of suggestions about how to solve this challenge through her presentation: Designing Computer Security Assessments to Reduce Plagiarism. Two key points were: (1) create your own assessment resources (if you use photographs as data, take them yourself, since they won’t already exist on the internet), and (2) focus less on marking the code, and more on marking student reflections.

Charles Boisvert from Sheffield Hallam University gave us a ‘lack-of-progress report’ regarding the challenges of Teaching relational database fundamentals. I noted down the idea of Nifty Assignments (Stanford University) and SQLLite, which is a SQL engine that can be used within a web browser which is used within Charles’s TestSQL website.

Data Protection and Privacy Regulations as an Inter-Active-Constructive Practice was presented by Joseph Maguire from University of Glasgow. Joseph talked about active learning, the flipped classroom and ‘jigsaw learning design’. 

Session 4: Engagement

James Davenport from the University of Bath kicked off the first afternoon session. James introduced The Institute of Coding: Addressing the UK Digital Skills Crisis (Institute of Coding website). I noted down five themes, which are led by different partners and universities: (1) university learners, (2) the digital workforce, (3) digitising professions, (4) widening participation, and (5) underpinning digital skills. James’s presentation followed by a talk by an OU colleague called Patricia Charlton, who spoke about the OU’s involvement in the Institute of Coding (OU website).

James gave two presentation in this session. His second was entitled: Teaching of Computing to Mathematics Students. In some ways, this talk reminded me of my own experiences studying discrete maths as an undergraduate (which was something that I found pretty difficult). James made an interesting point, which was: ‘the debate isn’t whether the maths department should teach programming, but how it should be taught’. This phrase made me remember a blog I wrote, Teaching programming across STEM, about the different ways that programming is taught in different parts of the OU.

The final talk in this session, Improving professionalism in first year computer science students, related to a paper by Shelagh Keogh, Jill Bradnum and Emma Anderson from Northumbria University. Some key points I noted down were: professionalism is socially constructed, that it’s something that you can’t teach – instead, it’s something that students much adopt. We were told about a skills audit, students were given one to one sessions, and they were asked to rate themselves across professional competencies so students can consider (and be responsible for) their own professional development. 

Session 5: Programming

The first presentation in the final session was by Paul Piwek from the The Open University who spoke about Learning to program: from problems to code. Paul is a module chair for the module TM112 Introduction to Computing and Information Technology 2 (Open University website), and his paper (and accompanying presentation) was co-authored by Michel Wermelinger, Robin Laney and Richard Walker.

TM112 introduces students to text based programming using Python. He presented the rationale behind the module design, explaining that were was emphasis on abstraction, worked examples and patterns. Also, students were asked to use English to perform problem decomposition. Further information about the approach that is adopted has been shared through the Computing at School community site.

Neil Gordon from the University of Hull presented: A Flexible Approach to Introductory Programming. Some of the challenges that colleagues can face include the wide variety of background of students, the gender disparity in the subject, and attainment and progression. Neil directed us to Woodfield report, and I note that there is a HEA document, entitled Issues in retention and attainment in Computer Science (PDF).

The final presentation was by David Croft who spoke about Computing with Codio at Coventry University. Codio is a cloud based tool that can be used to help with the teaching of programming.

Final thoughts

As I mentioned in the introduction, this was the second CEP conference that I’ve been to. This one was slightly different than the first; rather than having a set of parallel sessions, all the presentations took place in a single lecture theatre. I also felt the event had a slightly more formal tone, since all papers presented during the conference were also published through the ACM digital library

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to formality. The tie up with the ACM provides a formal and official record of the conference, but the large lecture room takes away some of the intimacy and potential for informal debate and discussion that can be so useful for both presenters and delegates at these kind of debates.

When it comes to sharing of education practice, and talking about the challenges that teachers face when working with groups of students, I personally prefer the informal over the formal. This said, I fully appreciate the pressure that institutions and individuals face regarding publishing (which is something that I’ve alluded to in a previous blog).

These points made, I still think this is really nice conference, and even though the organisers have made a step towards formalising both the conference and the community, there is still space and opportunities to share and make connections with fellow practitioners. I also thought that the titles of the themes were well chosen.

A question I asked myself at the end of the conference was: what are the main themes or topics that are important at the moment. One thought is that there are certain areas of focus that are current and important. These include the subject of: cybersecurity (in all its various forms), data science and machine learning. Another important theme may lie in the subject of professionalisation and continuing professional development. There is an implicit links to the themes that are mentioned in the various pieces of research that were highlighted by our keynote: the significance of gender, the teaching in schools, and the development of soft skills. From a day conference, I can see that there is a lot that is going on, but I also see that there is a lot that needs to be done too.

Acknowledgements

Attendance at this event was made possible thanks to the OU Technology and Education Research Group (TERG blog). Many thanks to the group convener, Karen Kear.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

27th EDEN annual conference: Genoa, Italy

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 10 Dec 2018, 11:50

The blog shares some highlights from the EDEN Conference that I attended between 17 and 20 June 2018. (This post is a little bit delayed, since as soon as I returned from the conference, I entered into a very busy period of work) What follows is a brief summary of some of the sessions I attended. I haven’t summarised everything, just the sessions that struck me as being particularly interesting (given my own personal interests and experiences).

EDEN is an abbreviation for the European Distance Education Network and it attended by delegates from distance learning universities in Europe and further afield. My motivation for writing all this is to make a record of some of the themes that were discussed during the conference and have a resource that I can refer back to (plus, it might, incidentally, be of interest to someone).

Pre-conference workshop

The pre-conference workshop was all about an EU funded engineering education project that had the title: planning and implementing an action-based and transnational course in higher engineering education. The project has members from universities in Milan, Warsaw, Norway and Berlin. There was a focus on UN sustainable development goals and creating learning activities to help student work in international teams.

From what I remember, different universities have worked together set up engineering education university modules that taught subjects such as sustainability and entrepreneurship. One of the aims was to try to develop sustainability thinking in education and to develop an awareness of the importance of the notion of the circular economy and ‘sustainable value creation’.

Workshop participants were asked to create a tentative design of a transnational (or international) course that had a particular emphasis on sustainability, and to share the design with all the participants. 

I found this challenging, for two reasons: engineering isn’t my home discipline, and I’m not a student of design or sustainability. This said, our team, which comprised of delegates from Germany, London and Lithuania had a go. 

After the event, I remember my colleagues in the School of Design and Innovation who carry out research into sustainable design and innovation (OU website). I also remembered a module called U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world. Climate change, of course, won’t fix itself. It’s a wicked problem that requires an interdisciplinary and multi-national approach, and one of those disciplines that is very important is, of course, engineering. 

Introductory keynotes

The conference was opened with two keynotes. The first was from Georgi Dimitrov from the European Institute of Technology and Innovation. To get us thinking, a broad number of themes and topics were identified: that careers are changing, that access to higher education can be a challenge, and it is important to retain students and help them to succeed. Other topics included the use of mobile and MOOCs, digital skills and literacy.

The second keynote by Fabrizio Cardinali had the title ‘how the next industrial revolution will disrupt our workplace and skills’. Again, a broad range of themes were introduced, such as intelligent machines, ‘digital transformation’ and the need to ‘upskill vertically’. A personal perspective was that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. Plus, being a former student of artificial intelligence, I always raise an eyebrow whenever the notion of ‘conscious machines’ is suggested. Putting my views to one side, both keynotes certainly got everyone thinking.

New ICT and Media

The first presentation of the New ICT and Media session was by Margret Plank from the German National Library for Science and Technology. Margret’s presentation was entitled ‘Video artefacts for scientific education’ and began with an interesting comment, that “science isn’t finished until it’s communicated”. Scientists and researchers were asked to record video abstracts that are between 3 and 5 minutes which describe the background, methodology and results. The aim of these were to increase public awareness of science and to disseminate research. We were offered some practical tips: tools such as the Davinci video editor or iMove could be used. A popular science video workshop (filmjungle.eu) was also mentioned.

Another presentation from this first session that stood out was called ‘Assessing the Impact of Virtualizing Physical Labs’. Evgenia Paxinou from the Hellenic Open University explained that distance learning students have obvious practical difficulties accessing a science lab. To get around this challenge, Evgenia told us about Onlabs. I noted down that the lab system had three modes: an instruction mode, an evaluation mode a-nd an experimenter mode. Instructors used Skype used with live sessions and an evaluation found that students who used the lab were better prepared, gaining higher scores. Although I don’t know it at all well, this presentation reminded me of the OU's Open STEM Labs.

MOOCs: Latest Concepts and Cases

The MOOC session began with a case study of Open Digital Textbooks, which has been a topic that regularly features in the journal Open Learning (Taylor and Frances website). Mark Brown’s presentation began with a question: are traditional textbooks core to the student learning experience? The aim of the case study was to investigate current and future practice of textbooks in Irish educational practice, looking at advantages and disadvantages, enablers and barriers. Reference to something called the Irish National Digital Repository (NDLR). Another resource that might be of interest to some was called the UKOpenTextbooks case studies (ukopentextbooks.org)

Antonio Moreira Teixeira presented ‘Findings from the Global MOOQ Survey’. MOOQ is an abbreviation for ‘Mooc quality’ and is described as a European Alliance for Quality of Massive Open Online Courses. I also noted that MOOQ is also reference framework for the adoption, design and evaluation of MOOC providers.

The MOOQ survey studied 3 groups: learners, designers and facilitators. An important finding (that echoes other studies) is that the education level of MOOC users is high in comparison to the general population. The study also carried out semi-structured interviews and discovered that designers acknowledge the importance of interaction but also found that learners are more satisfied with their learning experiences than the designers were.

The final presentation I made notes on was called Assessing the Effect of Massive Online Open Courses as Remedial Courses in Higher Education and was by Tommaso Agasisti et al. An important point that was made is that MOOC can be used by students to fill gaps in their education.

Open Educational Resources

OERs is a regular, and an important topic. Les Pang from University of Maryland University College spoke about Effective Strategies for Incorporating Open Educational Resources into the Classroom. Les mentioned familiar topics, such as OER commons, MERLOT, MIT Open Courseware. The reason why OER is important is that it has the potential to save money for students, offers choices, enhances social reputation and enables students to gain a preview of the course materials. On the other hand, key challenges relate to their sustainability (whether they are maintained) and potential resistance in terms of their acceptance. A survey asked students and faculty members about benefits of using OERs. Positive comments (amongst others) included availability and cost. A concern related to the alignment with module objectives. 

Second day: opening keynotes

The first keynote was by, Alan Tait, emeritus Professor of distance learning and development from the OU. The title of Alan’s talk was: open universities: the need for innovation. Alan began with question, asking whether the open university model of the past 50 years was threatened in the next 50 years.

Alan told us that that there were now approximately 60 open universities across 50 countries. The UK OU had been innovative in its vision and mission, application of technologies and use of logistics but there was now increased competition from other universities and the social and political environment in which they exist are changing. He pointed towards new technologies: learning analytics offer promise rather than achievement, some organisations produce MOOCs, and others make use of OERs.

An important question was: how do we reinvent open universities? Embedding ICT and digital potential on a whole institutional basis, developing curriculum for sustainability in all programmes of study, since this is a subject that is relevant in all curriculum areas.

The second keynote was by Teemu Leinonen who spoke about ‘From Non- and Informal Learning to Documented Co-Learning’. I noted down a range of different terms, including an abbreviation called GLAMS, which means Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums, which can play a role in both formal and informal learning.

Anthony Camilleri talked about ‘A Blockchain Perspective to Educational Management’. Blockchain was defined as ‘a digital way for people to transfer assets without an intermediary’. Put another way, it is a public, secure, decentralised ledger. One idea is that it might be possible to use Blockchain to keep records of academic achievement, and this is something that is subject to an OU project called Open Blockchain (Open University). During Anthony’s talk, I noted down a mention of something called the Woolf University, which is described as a ‘the first blockchain university’. I’m very sceptical about this, since notions of community, belonging and brand are perhaps even more important than technology alone. Plus, there are issues of national and discipline based accreditation that need to be considered.

The final talk was by Joe Wilson, who presented: Open Education in Policy and Practice - a UK Perspective. Joe mentioned the Association of Learning Technology (ALT website) and its aim to ‘increase the impact of learning technology for public benefit’. Joe also mentioned an Open Educational Resources conference (OER18) and the JISC Digital Capabilities project, which I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog about associate lecturer professional development.

Learning Theory and Implementation Practice

Paul Prinsloo from the University of South Africa presented Organisational Factors on Implementing Learning Analytics. I noted down different types of data: descriptive, diagnostic, and predictive analytics. Paul mentioned that learner data can be incomplete and provisional, plus there are links to the theme of the conference: there are macro-societal factors that can influence the data, as well as institutional factors. I also noted that there was a reference to a paper that was written by some colleagues: Research Evidence on the Use of Learning Analytics: Implications for Education Policy.

Sue Watling from the University of Hull presented Connect or Disconnect: Academic Identity in a Digital Age. Key points of this talk included the importance of building confidence of users to create digital fluency. I noted down that there was a reference to the TPAC model of teaching and pedagogy.

The final session was by Paula Shaw who presented: A Practice Orientated Framework to Support Successful Higher Education Online Learning. During Paula’s talk I noted down a few references, including the OU innovating pedagogy report 2017, and the EDUCAUSE New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report

National Digital Education Cases

The first presentation of this session had the title ‘The French Thematic Digital Universities - A 360° Perspective on Open and Digital Learning’, and was presented by Deborah Arnold. The next presentation was by Willem van Valkenbur who presented: A Collaboration & Learning Environment to Enable to be a University Leader in Education Innovation. Willem spoke of moving to a blended learning provision, and a need for a new learning management system to enhance quality and to attempt to unburden teachers. There was a reference to university governance and educational innovation. Some key terms that were used included learning analytics, adaptive earning and peer learning.

Steffi Widera, from the Bavaria Virtual University (BVU) talked about ‘Best Practice for a Network of Higher Education Online’. Steffi described organisational structure, the use of blended learning (which I think were also known as self-contained learning units), and open courses. This session was concluded by Ana Rodriguez-Groba who presented ‘Blended Learning Teaching: The Story of a Social Network with a History’. 

Socio-cultural aspects of digital learning

Mengjie Jiang from the University of Leicester presented: ‘Boundary Crossing: International Students’ Negotiating Higher Education Learning with Digital Tools and Resources’. Mengjie used various methods to study how participants (international graduate students) become familiar with a new educational environment. I noted down the use of institutional VLE systems and social media tools. My understanding is that her research tries to understand a very specific and important moment in time and how perspectives (of learning and of identity) may change.

The next talk, ‘Supporting Learning in Traumatic Conflicts: Innovative Responses to Education in Refugee Camp Environments’ by Alan Bruce and Maria-Antonia Guardiola reminded me of presentations from the previous EDEN conference which also shared case studies of how technology can help migrants. This presentation outlined a case study of from the Greek island of Lesvos.

The final presentation that I will mention is by my OU colleague Lisa Bowers who spoke about a ‘Haptic Prototype Assembly Tool for Non-Sighted, Visually Impaired and Fully Sighted Design Students, Studying at a Distance’. Lisa introduced the subject of haptics by describing its connection to our tactile senses, such as touch (through our skin) and proprioception (an internal feedback to the body where we can instinctively know where their limbs are located). Looking beyond Lisa’s immediate research a big question is whether haptic systems might be useful for students with visual impairments to more directly participate in subjects such as design or architecture.

Training of Digital University Teachers

During this session, I presented: ‘Distance Learning and Teaching: Understanding the Importance of Tuition Observations’. I spoke about a series of focus groups that I had carried out (which are summarised within this blog) and summarised some of the key themes that had emerged from a literature review about teaching observations. I also spoke about the importance of sharing teaching practice; one thing that I learnt from this bit of research was the availability of a really since set of guidelines that had been produced by colleagues who work in the science schools.

Corrado Petrucco presented ‘Activity Theory as Design tool for Educational Projects and Digital Artifacts’. Corrado gave us an introduction to activity theory, describing it as a tool that is ‘able to represent complex relationships and processes’ before going onto describing how students used activity theory with respect to their own education design project. I found this final session especially interesting since activity theory had been used as a tool within a postgraduate education module that I used to teach. 

Closing session

There were a number of speakers who spoke during the closing session of the conference. The first speaker was Sarah-Guri Rosenblit from The Open University of Israel, who presented ‘Distance Education in the Digital Landscape: Navigating between Contrasting Trends’. Some of the trends (and tensions) were: national and international priorities, industrial and digital needs, the differences between competition and collaboration, and the use of open education resources and MOOCs. I noted that there some challenges: languages and academic cultures. An important phrase I noted down was: “distance education and e-learning are not the same thing”. Echoing Alan’s earlier keynote, I also wrote down the very true observation that campus universities are now offering distance education. 

The next session was about the future of technology enhanced learning. Topics that were mentioned included data analytics, the potential use of augmented reality, new formats such as SPOCs (a small private online course) and MOOCs, and the idea of microcredentials. The final presenter, the conference rapporteur, highlighted some of the subjects that were featured within the conference, such as migrant education, vocational education, the challenge of inclusion and how technology can be used to contribute to social mobility.

Reflections

This was my second EDEN conference (the first conference was in Jönköping, Sweden), and I was again struck by its scale: there were a lot of presentations and a lot of parallel sessions. Subsequently, there was a lot to take in. One of the things that I really liked about it was the searching questions that there implicit within the keynote talks, such as: if distance learning can be provided by institutions that also offer face to face teaching and learning, will the distance-only university survive? 

My personal opinion is: yes, for two simple reasons. The way that education programmes are designed in the two contexts are different, and the way that students are supported are different too.

Although technology is always likely to be a very important theme within conference such as EDEN, one thing, however, is common between the two different types of institution that I’ve mentioned, and that is the importance and role of people – or, specifically, the educators.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Lisa Bowers, Monday, 10 Dec 2018, 15:43)
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

London AL development conference, May 2018

Visible to anyone in the world

The 2018 London OU AL development conference took place on Saturday 19 May at the Wesley Centre, close to London Euston railway station. This blog was published after an earlier blog about the Windsor AL development conference; I seem to have got the order of the blogs mixed up!

What follows is a brief summary of the sessions that I attended, taken from the notes I made whilst I was at the conference. It represents a rough snapshot or sketch of what happened. These are entirely my views; other participants will have attended different sessions and come away with different views. 

Opening keynote: Zahra Alidina

The opening keynote was by Zahra Alidina. Zahra was the youngest person in the country to graduate with a law degree from The Open University at the age of 18, having started to study law at the age of 15.

Zahara said that distance learning provides an academic opportunity to study, but it also gives a great opportunity to become distracted; a reflection that resonated strongly with my own personal experience. There was another opportunity that was said to be important; Zahara was ‘lucky enough to go to face to face tutorials in London’ which led to further opportunities, including the opportunity to mix with other law students, who were all there for each other.

She offered an interesting reflection. I made a note that there was considered to be some stigma attached to distance learning. This stigma doesn’t make any sense, since successful distance learning students have to balance many different aspects and facets of their lives. 

Zahra’s undergraduate studies inspired further study. She said that she was currently studying for a masters and mentioned the bar professional training course at BPP University. Reflecting on her OU studies, I noted down the words: ‘I loved what I learnt and I don’t want it to end’.

Looking toward the future, her focus is on family law. I noted down another quotation: ‘42% marriages end in divorce; it’s important to get divorce right’. Zahra was asked a question about her opinion about the concept of a ‘no fault’ divorce; a topic that was being debated in the media several days before the AL development conference. It’s an interesting subject that leads to a personal reflection; the current categories can encourage divorcing partners to engineer destructive descriptions of ‘unreasonableness’ which may, in many cases, be unhelpful.

The final note that I’ll leave is her own advice for OU students. Again, I will try to quote and paraphrase Zahra: ‘the OU taught me [the importance of] breaks’; do develop a style of learning, and address the need to balance other aspects of life (and hobbies).

Session: understanding teaching through critical incidents

The first session that I attended, was also one that I facilitated. The event is described as follows:  “a critical incident is a memorable or challenging situation that occurred during our teaching practice; it is a useful tool that can help us to think of our own teaching and help us to reflect on how we might approach similar situations in different ways. Drawing on the ideas from Burgum and Bridge, this session presents the principle of the critical incident, shares a framework that enables tutors to further consider critical incidents and allows different tutors to discuss the different strategies they adopted to solve challenging tutoring situations. The resulting discussions will allow us to expose the ways in which tutors can approach problems and learn more about how the university can help address difficult and challenging situations. This is an interactive workshop that is designed to put the focus on sharing and learning about how to develop strategies and resilience amongst and between tutors.”

I first came across the idea of a critical incident when studying for my PGCE in Higher Education at Birkbeck College. I really liked the simplicity of the idea and the way that it helped everyone to talk about our teaching, specifically allowing us to uncover some of the more difficult situations that we might have gained some very useful experience from.

Only 4 tutors attended this session, which I was a bit disappointed with. The session began with a discussion of what is meant by the term ‘critical incident’ followed by a series of discussions. After the event, I had the sense that it didn’t quite work as planned, but all the participants were happy to share their incidents, thoughts and experiences. In some respects, given the lack of numbers, I felt that the session could have benefited from a simple case study (as a backup plan), which was something to bear in mind for future sessions.

Session: STEM faculty

The STEM session was similar to other STEM sessions that were run during other AL development conferences. The session began with an introduction of who is who in the faculty, followed with a discussion of some of terms used by the university: cluster manager, lead line manager, and tuition task manager. It was then onto an introduction of the OpenSTEM degree, and the new Open master’s programme.

The next bit was a discussion about retention and was similar to the session that was ran at the Windsor conference, everyone was asked two questions: what could the university do to help with student retention, and what can individual associate lecturers do? As everyone discussed these issues, I made some notes.

Some key points were: ensure that students are aware of the challenges of study when they are recruited, discourage students from studying a high number of points in situations where they’re not able to cope, reintroduce the concept of tutor councillors (a role that predates my joining of the university), the importance of managing student expectations, a suggestion that students can only register for more than 60 points of study if they speak to someone, create some kind of study plan tool, offer more advice at the beginning about issues such as fee liabilities.

Session: School of Computing and Communications

The final session that I attended was led by my colleague Sue Truby, who took all school participants through the various computing and IT qualifications that were offered by the school. Sue emphasised that the main qualification offered by the school had the magic code, Q62, and went by the title: BSc (Honours) Computing and IT (OU website).  Other notable programmes included a Joint Honours degree with Computing and a second subject (Q67) (OU website), such as Business, Design, Mathematics, Psychology and Statistics. A point was: it is important to choose modules carefully, since the later modules can require knowledge and experience from earlier levels. This is, of course, the Open STEM degree (R28) with offers students more of a free choice. 

Reflections

From my own perspective, the London conference was a very busy event; I played a role in three different sessions: my own, the STEM session and the school session. I would have liked to go to other sessions too, but time was limited.

I thought the keynote was very thought provoking; it emphasised what is possible to achieve, given both determination and opportunity. I felt a little disappointed by my own session about critical incidents, and felt that there was a lot more to be discussed during the STEM session. One thought was that I did feel that there is an opportunity to share more STEM specific stories within that session, but I think that can be integrated into STEM specific events that different schools will run during 2019.On this point, I’ll soon be turning my attention to planning and designing a School AL development conference which will focus on the teaching of computing and IT.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

HEA STEM Conference, Newcastle 2018 (part 2)

Visible to anyone in the world

This is the second part of a two part blog post about a HEA STEM conference (HEA website) that I attended during January and February 2018. This second post covers the second day of the conference, 1 February 2018. As before, this blog has been written from the notes I made during the various conference sessions that I’ve attended. 

Keynote: A journey into STEM

The opening keynote was by Floriane Fidegnon-Edoh who is currently an engineering student at University of Warwick. Floriane spoke about her journey into STEM, during which she emphasised the importance of creativity and design thinking, and the impact that school and early educational experience have in fostering and developing attitudes towards STEM. 

I noted down the phrase: ‘it was easy to buck the trend of my demographic’ and noted down the importance of taking studies outside of the classroom (I note down a site called Technology will save us), to move studies from a school to a different academic environment. 

Floriane offered me a reminder of something that I had heard of before, but had slipped my memory. She said that there opportunities to give back to the school sector whilst being in university, by teaching in a primary school and working as a STEM ambassador.

I noted down an interesting (and slightly challenging) quote: ‘statistically I shouldn’t be here’. We were given a challenge: higher education has an obligation to improve the pipeline (of students) from school to university. There was a reference to something called the Wise Campaign.

 and that academics who work within universities could become STEM ambassadors. Other notes I made were about the importance of targeting certain backgrounds, reaching out to families and engaging people through STEM clubs. We were presented with a final challenge: a lot of the responsibility [for engagement] rests on the shoulders of the HE establishment. This means that teaching and learning should be taken outside of the lab or lecture theatres; teaching should be connected to the real world, to make it applicable, and to make it engaging.

Creativity and Programming

Cathryn Peoples from Ulster University gave a talk entitled: Creative practical programming assignments on a Master of Science degree in Professional Software Development. Cathryn spoke about two modules: a module that taught students about the principles of concurrent systems and a module that introduced students to the concept of data structures.

In her concurrent systems module, students were introduced to concepts such as threads and deadlock; in the data structures module, students were introduced to abstract datatypes such as a stacks, queues and arrays. Students were given a challenge: to develop a social network application.

Object-based learning

I attended Dave Smith’s session, entitled ‘Object-based learning in the classroom, to engage and enthuse’ because I mistakenly thought it might have something to do with object-oriented programming, but I quickly realised that I was mistaken. Object based learning was defined as ‘a student centred approach that uses objects to facilitate deep learning’. Object based learning was all about physically handling objects and ‘interrogating’ them. We had an opportunity to handle 3D printed models of DNA and discuss the objects with whoever was sat next to us.

During the session, I realised that I had used a form of object-based learning myself; on occasions I have taken my old (and very badly designed) clock radio into a class as something that is used as a part of a role play about interaction design. I could immediately understand Dave’s points that objects can directly and immediately facilitate learning.

Dave has also written a short blog post about object-based learning where he shares a number of different resources.

Synchronous online tuition

A number of Open University colleagues, Lynda Cook, Diane Butler, Vikki Haley-Mirnar, Catherine Halliwell and Louise MacBrayne delivered one of the final sessions of the conference: Synchronous online tuition: Differences between student and teacher expectations and experiences. The background to this session was that over the last 5 years, more science tutorials have been presented online. There are, of course some questions that relate to this change, such as: what do our students think about online tutorials, and do we achieve our expectations for good tutorials? Also, do students and tutors have the same expectations?

Students and tutors were interviewed and a survey was carried out. I made a note that 88% of students surveyed used the recordings, and ‘they would go back to the recordings multiple times’. They would listen to a presentation from their own tutor to check their understanding of module concepts.

My colleagues did some further research: they listened to 74 recordings and studied the extent to which interactive tools were used. A finding was that the tutors use only few of the features of the online environment that is available but both tutors and students do seem to make extensive use of a feature that is known as text chat. Two quotes I noted down were: ‘students feel really insecure in the online room’ and ‘when the recording button goes on, they don’t talk’.

The aim of the research was to ask the question: are we achieving our aims of delivering good online tutorials? A concluding comment was that: ‘we’re not getting what we used to have face to face’ and that social constructivist learning may not be taking place. This said, it was reported that students appear to be happy but there was a concern that they were just passive recipients of recordings and the very act of recording may affect student behaviour.

The research found that there were very few instances of real time online group work. In some respects, tutorials were becoming more didactic. This reflects to a challenge that many OU tutor faces: that it is difficult to get students to speak through their microphone or using their headsets. A personal reflection is that we may need to uncover pedagogic approaches to try to solve this problem.

Collaborating with impact

The final presentation I attended was called Collaborating with Impact: Increasing student attainment through higher order engagement and was by Matthew Watkins from Nottingham Trent University. Matthew talked about a collaboration with an industrial partner that had a very specific problem: to design a cycle safe system for existing construction vehicles that is aerodynamic, is commercially viable and is suitable for off-road and urban environment. The project is a significant one, since we were told that 40% of cycling fatalities were connected to construction vehicles.

In incentivise the students, the industrial sponsor offered students two thousand pounds in prize money. As a part of the experiential learning experience, student went on field trips, got to see a construction depot and climbed into the cab of a truck.

I noted down some important take away points: students were presented with learning that was relevant, learning that took place through discovery, and learning that occurred within a particular social environment. What I also remember is Matthew’s enthusiasm about the partnership that he has established with an employer. Whilst industrial collaborations are really useful and are important, it takes commitment from both sides to make things work.

Reflections

There were a number of different things that I enjoyed from this conference. I appreciate the fact that the keynotes were relevant and appropriate: we were presented with a number of different challenges. I also appreciated that so many of the presentations were specifically about sharing practice. Whilst the conference did have (perhaps unsurprisingly) a distinct academic flavour to it, there was a clear focus towards sharing taking experiences with one another.

From a personal perspective, one of the presentations changed my practice, and another presentation extended my understanding about something that I have been doing. I appreciated the talk on blended learning, since this changed how I delivered online tutorials for a module that I teach on. The presentation about object-based learning helped me to understand that the approach that I had taken was, as I suspected, a very useful technique!

I feel that these smaller STEM specific conferences work a lot better than the big multi-discipline conferences that the HEA also run. Whilst I’m a great proponent of interdisciplinary, I did welcome the ability to listen to talks about the teaching of topics within my own discipline that I know can sometimes be challenging. An example of this is the session about how music can be connected to programming languages.

A final thought about this conference was that it was good to meet with so many of my Open University colleagues who were also delivering presentations about their own research and scholarship. Normally, we’re so busy doing things, such as preparing timetables and travelling to meetings that we rarely have the opportunity to catch up with what we are all doing and what we’re working on. Conferences also give us an opportunity and the time to share, discuss and debate.

More information about the conference can be found by visiting the conference hashtag #HEASTEM18.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

HEA STEM Conference, Newcastle 2018 (part 1)

Visible to anyone in the world

At the end of January 2018 I had the opportunity to attend a Higher Education Academy STEM education conference at the Centre for Life in Newcastle. The aim of the conference was pretty simple: to enable lecturers and teachers to share experiences and practice.

What follows is my summary of the event. Although the words are my own and the choices of sessions that I have attended reflected my own personal interests, a number of colleagues have implicitly contributed to this blog post by sharing with me their thoughts and opinions: a thank you to all contributors!

Keynote: Design thinking

The opening keynote was by Gareth Loudon from Cardiff Metropolitan University. His presentation had the title ‘what is design thinking?’ Gareth emphasised three top skills: complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. The point of creativity is, of course, to solve complex problems. To illustrate its importance he mentioned a creativity test by George Land (Creativityatwork) before going onto talk about his LCD model of creativity (PDF, Cardiff Met). I made a note that different factors can influence creativity: the person, the place, the process and the product. His LCD model covers different activities, such as: listening, connecting and observing. 

One aspect of his talk was familiar, and this was the broad concept of design thinking and the notion of the double diamond (DesignCouncil.org) which links to the ideas of convergent and divergent thinking. I noted down a number of elements or steps that were important to creativity: 1) the need for inspiration, which is the need to observe, capture and observe, 2) synthesis, which relates to the finding of patterns and themes, 3) ideation and experimentation, 4) implementation and then reflection.

A question to answer is: what is the connection to creativity and education? I noted down some quotes that I think have been attributed to Ken Robinson: ‘creativity is itself a mode of learning’ and ‘students learn best when they are actively learning things’, along with the view that ‘learning comes from failure’.

Towards the end of Gareth’s talk there were points about the importance of collaboration, making, testing and the use of theory and the importance of the link to industry. I noted down a closing question: how should design and creative practice be integrated with the STEM curricula? Perhaps the answer lies with connecting art with science, redesigning learning spaces and developing collaborations between and within courses and subjects.

Supporting creativity and motivation in learning programming

Chris Nas, from the University of West of England introduced us to a tool called Manhattan, which is essentially a musical instrument in the form of a programming language. It is essentially a tool that that can be used to teach programming and computation thinking, but can also be ‘played’ in some senses. 

Chris mentioned an interesting point about the context in which computing is taught: at the time of the conference some students may have a low level of technical computer literacy. This said, the situation may change following the introduction of updates to the school computing literature.  

There is another issue that is important when it comes to the teaching of programming, and that it can be hard to motivate students. Music, it was said, can be a motivator and there are now a range of different tools that relate to the teaching of programming, such as max/msp, Supercollider, Openmusic and Sonic Pi.

By wat of background, Chris also mentioned music pedagogies, which is a subject I know next to nothing about. He referenced Orff Schulwerk (Wikpedia), the Kodály method and the Gordon music learning theory (Wikipedia). Chris argued that musical pedagogy and programming pedagogy have similar aims and share a common problem: there is a high threshold of theory. The goals of coding and using a musical programming language are similar: there is a connection to the concept of end user programming.

Manhattan is apparently a style of music editor called a tracker and was described as being similar to a spreadsheet and can be used to create music from algorithms.

I really liked Chris’s presentation because I was shown something entirely new and I immediately appreciate how music could be used as a powerful vehicle to teach programming. This led to another thought. One of my favourite subjects as an undergraduate computer science student was called ‘comparative programming languages’. In the class we looked at the differences between programming languages. My thought was: I wonder whether there could be any mileage in doing a ‘comparative programming languages’ class that featured different musical programming languages. If there was one, I would certainly come along.

Utilising Backchannel software to promote student engagement

Andrew McDowell from Queen's University Belfast asked a simple question: ‘how do you engage a community with very large cohorts?’ A possible answer to this is: use back channel communication. A back channel can be defined as a ‘complementary interaction that takes place alongside another activity or event’. The potential of a back channel is that it may encourage student interaction to outside the classroom.

Andrew introduced us to Todaysmeet which is an alternative to Microsoft teams, Slack or Padlet walls. Todaysmeet was applied in a first year Java course. It allows students to send anonymous messages and respond to questions during and after classes.

How to engage students with flipped classroom resources

Beverley Hale, from the University of Chichester, shared some experiences of preparing and running flipped classrooms using recorded lectures. During her talk, I made the note: plan and prep materials, integration of and between classes. In retrospect, what I think is meant is that recorded resources represent an important and integral part of the teaching and learning approach. A key idea was to give students a recorded lecture which presents theory so the students are given the tools and then can interact with them during the tutorials. 

A challenge is that recorded lectures can become too long and students can become put off. Beverley offered some practice advice: make them shorter, include breaks to encourage students to reflect on what they are being taught, and personalise recordings to a group of students. A significant tip I made a note of was: give the students something purposeful to do during the video, and consolidate the learning in the class. Beverley offered a really nice tip that I have remembered, which is: keep it real, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

I tried out some of these ideas during in my own teaching practice: I recorded an introductory tutorial for the project module that I tutor where I encouraged students to think of how to describe their project idea in two sentences. I then ran a ‘live’ online tutorial to try to use the words that students had prepared. What I discovered was that my students did like the introduction, but it was hard to get them to carry out the preparatory work. What I’ll do next year is present some examples, and also use a discussion forum to try to get students sharing their ideas.

The effects of different text presentation media and font types on adults’ reading comprehension

Next up was a paper written by Elizabeth Newton, James Smith-Spark and Duncan Hamilton from London South Bank University. I was really interested in this topic, since as a distance learner I’ve sometimes asked myself the question: ‘do I really need to print this out?’ It also connected to an interest in language processing I had as a doctoral student when I studied the comprehension and maintenance of computer software. An aspect of the research was about dyslexia. I made a note of individual differences in reading comprehension: encoding, working memory and inference making. There are differences between fonts, i.e. sans serif fonts are easier to read for people with dyslexia (the presenters referenced the British Dyslexia Association during their talk).

The authors described an experiment. A small sample of 10 participants who were not dyslexic were asked to complete something called the Nelson-Denny Reading test (Wikipedia). The participants were asked to read passages of equal complexity that were presented in different fonts (Arial, Times new roman, and the OpenDyslexic font) which were presented in different formats: on a computer screen, on a tablet screen, and on printed paper and were asked to complete multiple choice questions.

Although it is arguably very difficult to draw any conclusions given the small sample size, there was a suggestion that there was a significant difference between the OpenDyslexic and Times New Roman fonts, and there may be an interaction between the font and the delivery media, i.e. the results for Times New Roman read on a tablet seemed to be worse. I find research like this to be both interesting and important for the simple reason that I regularly hear about students asking for printed books in preference to digital on screen materials. This said, both have an important role to play when it comes to distance learning.

Students’ perceptions of what makes teaching interesting and intellectually stimulating

The National student survey (The Student Survey, 2018), which contributes to the Teaching Excellent Framework asks a question about whether the teaching that is performed on a course is intellectually stimulating. This begs the question of: what exactly does intellectually stimulating actually mean? Jamie Taylor, University of Central Lancashire attempts to answer this question.

A focus group of neuroscience and psychology students were asked: what does ‘intellectually stimulating’ mean to you? Newer students didn’t distinguish between interesting and intellectually stimulating, and stimulating could be connected to challenging. Simulating could also be linked to practical experiences. A strong outcome from the focus group was that passive lectures were not intellectually stimulating.

A connected term or definition that I noted down was: a teacher’s ability to challenge students to promote intellectual growth. Again, how do we do this? This might come down to the importance of doing our best to make a class interesting. This also might come down to the enthusiasm and energy of lecturers, their use of language and tone of voice, classes that tailored to individual degree paths, the use of quizzes, and seizing opportunities for interaction.

Student perception of online group work: Benefits, obstacles and interactions

Victoria Nicholas and Mark Hirst, both from the The Open University, asked the question: what do students think of line group work? I made a note of a key observation: that students like practical science when it is carried out online, but they dislike online group work.

In the science group work, students propose an investigation, carry out an investigation and submit a single piece of work. In this report, students were ask to reflect on the group work that took place and also to reflect on their own contributions. 

Another question is: what might get in the way? Forums get busy, and students may be reluctant to use their microphone when using online rooms. I also noted down other important factors that influence group work, such as: knowledge of team members, time management and availability, and sharing of workload.

A final note that I made was: ‘not knowing people’ was an issue, so keeping students in their discipline group is perhaps one approach to foster a sense of familiarity; students may be able to recognise the names of others. A thought I had when summarising this blog was that I remembered the work of Gilly Salmon, whose book about forums and online activities emphasised the importance of socialisation within the online environment. 

How do students construct the nature of motivation?

The final presentation of the first day that I attended was by Bryn Alexander Coles and Sophie Meakin from Newman University. Their presentation had the title: a discursive psychological exploration of what motivates students to study?

Their talk was about students as academic partners, i.e. working together and closely with university academics on aspects of research. I remember a discussion about the difference between intrinsic (learning for the sake of learning) and extrinsic motivation (learning to gain a promotion or increase in salary). Another note is that intrinsic motivation is directly affected by self-efficacy and that other people influence personal motivation, but motivation can be obviously affected by a desire to avoid undesirable outcomes, such as gaining bad scores.

A concluding thought is that I find motivation to be a really interesting topic, and one that is linked to different aspects of teaching and learning. Not only is student motivation important, but lecturer or tutor motivation is pretty important too.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

7th eSTEeM Conference: 25 and 26 April 2018

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 25 May 2018, 09:57

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

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

Opening keynote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paper session: Supporting students

Lessons in retention success: using video media to influence students

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

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

Evidence that bootcamps can help student retention and progression

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

Flexible/early start M140

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

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

Improving retention amongst marginal students

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

Paper session: online delivery, tuition and international curriculum

Synchronous online tuition: differences between student and teacher

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

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

Understanding tutorial observation practice

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

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

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

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

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

Unpacking the STEM students’ experiences and behaviours

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

Paper session: supporting students - STEM practice and engagement

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

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

Implementing additional maths support for Health Science students

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

Two mathematicians and a ukulele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing keynote for day 1

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

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

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

Paper session: Supporting students and technologies for STEM learning 

Using student analytics with ALs to increate retention

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

Analytics for tracking student engagement: TM355 Communications Technology

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

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

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

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

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

Java specification checking

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

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

Digital by Design: workshop

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly: Cambridge 2017

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 15 Jan 2018, 13:50

On Saturday 9 December, I facilitated a session at the Cambridge AL development conference that had the title: Delivering Excellent Correspondence Tuition Quickly: Is It Possible and How Do We Do It?

Here is a shortened version of the abstract that described the event:

Correspondence tuition takes a lot of time. Delivering excellent correspondence tuition is both an art and a challenge, but how can we try to deliver excellent correspondence quickly? This session is all about sharing experiences and uncovering correspondence tuition techniques to make things easier for ourselves. If you are a new tutor and would like to learn some useful tips and techniques, then do come along! If you are an experienced tutor and would like to share your experience with others, you will be especially welcome too! You will hopefully come away with an armoury of techniques that you can apply with your next TMA. An outcome of the session will be a useful resource that will be shared to everyone after the AL conference.

In some respects, this session trying to do two very important and seemingly opposing things: how to do excellent teaching as quickly as possible. I chose ‘speed’ as a focus since as a tutor I know how much time goes into preparing good correspondence tuition.

This blog post is intended to share a set of points that were created during the session; it is intended to the ‘that useful resource’ that might be useful for tutors.

Excellent correspondence tuition

  • TMA feedback should be, of course, useful!
  • Correspondence tuition should help students to move forward and to guide students towards improvements in their performance (and understanding)
  • Feedback should also guide students towards the next step of their studies.
  • Importantly, feedback should acknowledge what has been done well.
  • Correspondence tuition should include examples, potentially provide a concrete goal which students could aim for, it should be motivating and treat the student as a person. 
  • Comments on a TMA should provide explanations for the mark that has been given and also link back to learning outcomes that have been defined within a module; comments should have a purpose.
  • The tone that is used should be personal, conversational, engage with what a student has written and submitted, and offer encouragement.
  • It should help students to learn by broadening out or extending the context by applying existing knowledge.
  • For some modules, encourage students to use diagrams (which can be a way to efficiently share an understanding of key module concepts); some modules encourage the use of tables.
  • Enhance understanding of module materials by encouraging students to think about how module concepts relate to their own lives and their work.
  • Present feedforward (student guidance) in small increments; consider limiting advice to three things that can be improved or worked on.
  • When faced with a challenging TMA, suggest one thing that a student should continue to do for the next TMA.
  • Refer to forthcoming TMAs in the current TMA to show how assessments can be connected.
  • Refer student to skills for study website and other pages that might be helpful on their student home page.

Marking strategies

  • Take time to read through the tutor notes.
  • From a practical perspective, make sure that you have access to lots of tea.
  • Read through past TMAs as a guide.
  • Consider looking through all TMAs briefly to get an idea of the submissions.
  • Mark a good TMA first to build up confidence and understanding.
  • Return to students in batches and set student expectations in terms of when marks will be returned.

Biggest tips

Towards the end of the session, I asked everyone to share their biggest tips to a new tutor. This is (roughly) what everyone said:

  • Prepare a comment template which you can heavily customise for the needs of individual students.
  • Don’t agonise over individual marks, i.e. ‘should this get 3 marks or 4 marks?’; choose a mark (using your gut instinct, as informed by your knowledge of the module materials) and move on (since there are lots of marks to allocate!
  • Be friendly and approachable! 
  • Don’t get into the trap of spending 3 hours to mark every TMA; there lies madness.
  • Use a timer to see how long you’re spending on each script. 
  • Focus on three things that can be improved or developed.
  • Highlight important parts of scripts using green/yellow highlights.
  • Make sure that you spellcheck the PT3 summary.
  • Ask your mentor for advice.
  • Draw on a bank of handouts; sections can be copied into a script to provide feedback, or additional documents can be returned through the ETMA system.
  • Consider using a spreadsheet to keep track of student marks and your interaction with students.
  • Provide an action plan for students and offer a summary.
  • Print out a copy of the tutor notes so you have it to hand (and add your own comments to it!)
  • Provide references to the Good Study Guide book.
  • Ensure that correspondence tuition is always personalised to the needs of individual students. 

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

AL development conference: Moller Centre, Cambridge, 2017

Visible to anyone in the world

The keynote speech for the Cambridge AL development conference was given by Olympian Gail Emms  (Wikipedia), who I understand is also an OU honorary graduate. Gail was introduced by Toby Scott-Hughes, head of ALSPD (I think that is his title!)

Gail set the tone of the conference by telling us all about her story; a journey from playing badminton in dusty sports halls, to winning an Olympic medal in Athens. Although Gail’s talk didn’t directly connect to academic ambitions, but her words certainly did connect to important themes that will be familiar to many students and tutors: the temptation to put difficult challenges to one side, the importance of practice, and the subject of failure. 

A point that I noted down was: ‘losing is where we learn the most’.  A personal reflection is what I can apply this to a teaching situation: we can learn more when a lesson goes wrong than a lesson that is perfectly planned and executed. This, of course, is linked to that familiar notion of the ‘comfort zone’.

STEM Faculty Session

The STEM AL development group had organised a series of AL development sessions that were designed for all members of the STEM faculty. The aim of the session was to give tutors an update about changes that were happening within the faculty and across the university. During this session, I played a small role in a STEM faculty session, helping to facilitate a discussion that may have been about the subject of retention. C&C Session. Other staff tutors played different roles; offering information and update, and facilitating different discussions. I remember that there was a lot of talk about, since the university is currently considering how to approach further restructuring.

Computing and Communication School Session

The next session I was playing a part in was the School of Computing and Communications workshop. This session was open to all tutors who teach on computing and IT modules, but other tutors who were interested in tutoring for modules that were designed by this school were (of course) also very welcome to attend.

Sue Truby introduced the session by sharing some diagrams that neatly summarised the various Computing and IT degree programmes whilst also sharing information about forthcoming curriculum updates.

One area that is of particular interest is the subject of Cybersecurity. The university has made a strategic decision to invest in this area. Further investment exposes the question: what can tutors do to increase their knowledge, understanding and skills in a particular area. Sharon Dawes and I told tutors about a number of different resources that may them to understand the principles of the subject. They key resources that were shared are summarised on a short cybersecurity post that can be found in this blog.

If I remember correctly, the final part of the session was all about how to best apply for different modules. Sharon had selected a series of application forms for associate lecturer posts that had been submitted by tutors, along with a copy of a module person specification. The tutors had to make a decision as to whether each candidate should be shortlisted for interview. I felt this final activity was really useful. It helped to make a really important point: make things as clear as possible for the recruiter by ensuring that applicants offer compelling evidence against each point on the person specification. 

Correspondence Tuition Session

The third session I was involved with had the title ‘delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly’. I had previously delivered this session at the Leicester AL development conference and my overriding memory of that session was that although I ran a good session about what was meant by ‘excellent correspondence tuition’, I unfortunately ran out of time, which meant that I couldn’t explore the ‘quickly’ bit as much as I had hoped! I was certain that I would do better this time and not make the same mistake again.

This session attracted over twenty tutors and what struck me was that everyone was very willing to speak and contribute to the questions of ‘what do we mean by excellent correspondence tuition?’ and ‘how can we prepare correspondence tuition in a way that is efficient?’

One of the objectives of the session was to make a set of notes that I could share with our colleagues in ALSPD. During the discussions, I made use of a flip char and have attempted to summarise all contributions in a blog post that follows this one. The blog tag ‘correspondence tuition’ may also be useful, offering a number of useful resources.

Reflections

A personal reflection is that different parts of the conference had a very different tone. I found the STEM session to have a slightly negative tone, and one of the reasons might be due to the messages that we were sharing from the university are, in themselves, quite challenging. 

Everyone in the university has been subjected to a lot of changes; regional centres have closed, the group tuition policy has been introduced, higher fees has caused changes to the student population, and technology has changed too. Given all these changes, the message that there are going to be further changes perhaps (understandably) didn’t go down too well. One of our job as staff tutors and associate lecturer developers is to find ways to help associate lecturers understand and work with those changes. Clearly there is a lot more that we need to do to make things easier.

I found the school session fun and helpful. AL development conferences always used to be opportunities to allow staff tutors meet with the tutors that they support and line manage; the school session was clearly one of the highlights. Whilst the STEM session felt a little abstract and broad, the school session had a real positive sense of community about it. Tutors were sharing subject specific practice tips with each other, and the emphasis on the degree programmes helped tutors to understand how the module that they taught related to other modules.

My personal highlight of the conference was the session on correspondence tuition. Correspondence tuition sounds like a very dry (but important) topic, but this session was anything but. Everyone in the room seemed to have opinions; experienced tutors were sharing their experiences with tutors who had just joined the university three months earlier. An achievement was that I didn’t run out of time; there was enough time to talk about not just what is meant by correspondence tuition and to share tips about how to perform marking efficiently. A useful bit of feedback that I received was that it was helpful to share something about teaching research that had been performed into the subject. This is something that I will certainly take on board when I work on other presentations in the future.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Staff tutor conference, December 2017

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 14 Jan 2018, 11:58

This post is a personal summary of a two day staff tutor conference that took place at Horwood House, Little Horwood between 5 and 6 December 2017. I’m blogging it for three reasons (1) so I can remember what CPD I’ve done when I have to do my appraisal, (2) it will help me to remember some of the important discussions that took place, and (3) it might be randomly helpful to someone!

Introduction

The conference began with a session by the outgoing associate dean of regions and nations, Steve Walker, a fellow staff tutor from the School of Computing and Communications. Steve presented a sobering description of some of the challenges that had to be addressed over the previous three years: the closure of the university regional centres, the introduction of a new tuition approach called the group tuition strategy (GTP), and the merger of faculties to create a new set of schools. A further change on the horizon is, of course, the potential introduction of a new associate lecturer contract.

Since the last staff tutor conference, I am now a home worker, there is a new student support team (SST) which is based in Manchester, and there is a venue management team that is based in Wales, and a system called the Learning Event Management system (LEM) which is (I understand) less than ideal. Also, AL development has been reconfigured (or, should I say, centralised) to create an entirely new way of working. 

Looking back to when I started in this role back in 2010, geography isn’t as important as it used to be. Support for students is instead organised in terms of curriculum teams as opposed to regional support teams. This means that the connections within schools have been strengthened and that there are more opportunities for activities such as associate lecturer development.

A number of important external drivers were emphasised:  the part time student market is receding due to government policy and fees, the student demographic is changing (they are getting younger), there are new entrants into the HE market and this means increased competition, the government has introduced the degree apprenticeship and the apprenticeship levy. There is also the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and even talk about something called the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). There has been a lot going on!

Student’s first transformation

During this period the university has defined a ‘student’s first strategy’ and has realised that it needs to address a potential income deficit due to the fall in part time numbers. In response, the ‘student’s first transformation’ programme has been set up. The programme aims to achieve a number of things: increase student retention, increase student progression and increase student satisfaction scores, whilst at the same time saving 100 million pounds (a figure that has been chosen by senior management).

To make these changes faculties have been asked to review their curriculum and other divisions of the university will be asked to review their working practices. These practices will be defined in something called a new ‘university operating model’ and the university will create a new ‘teaching framework’. Members of the university will be asked to participate in project groups and teams. Change, of course, has its own costs.

One phrase I regularly hear that is connected to the transformation programme is ‘digital by design’. A personal view is that I’m not quite sure exactly what this means; I know that students study in different ways using different technologies. Whilst I’m technologist, I’m a great believer in the usefulness of printed materials. On the point of ‘being digital’, the JISC Building digital capability project was mentioned (JISC).

During this part of the conference another point that I noted down was the term ‘sustainable academic communities’. Again, I’m not quite sure exactly what this refers to, but I did make a note of the principle that perhaps associate lecturers should be more involved and connected to schools. This discussion about associate lecturers takes us to the next part of the conference, which was about debating the purpose of tutorials.

Purpose of tutorials

Three staff tutors were asked to present perspectives about tutorials. The perspectives were: face to face tutorials, online tutorials, the use of pre-recorded tutorials and peer tutorials. I began by talking about face to face tutorials.

Face to face tutorials

Face to face classes, in my opinion, are the best and most effective way to teach. Here are some reasons why:

  1. What really matters in education is, of course, people. Face to face tuition is all about putting student’s first for the simple reason that technology doesn’t get in the way.
  2. Face to face means that learning is personalised to individual students or the group of students who are attending a tutorial.
  3. Tutors can ‘see’ the effect of their actions; they can see the learning that takes place. To assess the effectiveness of their learning tutors can quickly ask questions, and this allows them to correct and develop understandings.
  4. In adult learning, students can themselves become teachers. Students can arrive at class with significant and relevant real-world experience that can be discussed within the class. In some ways, students are their own resources. A skilled tutor can help to make connections between different students and topics.
  5. Face to face gives tutors and teachers opportunities to innovate and to try new things out since they can more directly and readily understand what students feel comfortable with. Tutors can more easily facilitate role play events, facilitate discussions and create tasks that make use of the physical space of a tutorial room.
  6. In a face to face session, a tutor can easily see if something is wrong; they can pick up on blank expressions and uncomfortable body language.
  7. Face to face tutorials benefit all students, irrespective of whether students attend the sessions. The reason for this is simple: a tutor or teacher has to have a good command of their material. 
  8. Following on from the above point, students will more readily question or challenge tutors during face to face sessions, helping themselves to understand how the teaching materials can be understood from different perspectives.
  9. Face to face tutorials are real in a way that other methods are not; tutors can offer direct and personal encouragement to students.

I understand that there are some debates within the university about the cost of certain types of face to face tutorials, since they represent a significant proportion of the tuition budget. During this session I argued that, from an educational perspective, the university can’t afford not to provide face to face tuition.

Online tutorials

The second presentation about tuition events was by Diane Butler from the School of Health, Life and Chemical Sciences. Diane said that online tutorials, like face to face sessions, help students to understand module materials, allow students to interact socially with tutors and other students and to develop skills. Online sessions allow tutors to provide tailored support and, when travelling is difficult, help to alleviate a sense of isolation.

Diane also highlighted some of the challenges: online sessions can very lend themselves to be centred upon PowerPoint presentations, and given the complexity of driving online sessions, tutors can easily rely on the simplest tools. A common issue (and one that I regularly hear of when speaking to tutors) is that students are very reluctant to use microphones. It is a rare session that tutors present a series of activities; it can also be difficult to fully appreciate the learning needs of students.

An important point was that online tutorials don’t easily lend themselves to constructivist learning. During Diane’s presentation, I made the note: ‘we put our tutors in an environment where it makes it difficult’, and ‘[there may not be] much benefit to watching the recordings versus attending live’. A point was that perhaps the module team ought to spend more time creating recordings.

Another point was: ‘we place an unrealistic burden on our tutors to facilitate group work’, and that ‘we need to take online teaching to the next level’.

Pre-recorded tutorials

Hayley Ryder from the School of Mathematics and Statistics shared her experience of creating pre-recorded tutorials for a whole module cohort. An interesting point that Hayley made was ‘students like me to make mistakes’; this can share something about what really happens when people ‘do mathematics’. By exposing the challenges that accompanying studying maths, and demonstrating things that are ‘actually hard’ may encourage students to adopt a growth mindset: if the lecturers make mistakes, then it’s okay that I make them too!

My understanding was that the module team might have prepared a set of recordings once and then rolled them out for different presentations, but this wasn’t happens: new recordings are made every presentation; different people and different cohorts get stuck on different things. 

Hayley’s videos were fun and personable; her presentation got me thinking.

Peer tutorials

The final presentation was by Katherine Leys who is from the School of Life Health and Chemical Sciences. Peer tuition and peer support is mentioned in the new teaching framework. Peer tutorials is all about having students teach each other. Examples of these might be a group of students working together to plan an experiment in an online room or a forum. To facilitate these discussions, students might adopt roles, such as leader, deputy leader and so on, but tutors do need to mediate and some students will not be able to take part, perhaps due to the need to make reasonable adjustments to take account of disabilities or impairments.

Supporting staff tutor practice

Staff tutors offer support to associate lecturers, module teams and students. An interesting question to ask is: what can we do to help to support ourselves and fellow staff tutors? Maggie King, Staff Tutor in the School of Engineering and Innovation began this session by saying that the ‘changes to our jobs have been monumental’. In some respects, our job has changed from being a job that was primarily about people (and our academic discipline), to a job that is increasingly about administration.

We were asked a question: what could we do to make things better? Some suggestions included: the need for further staff tutor staff development, and opportunities for further sharing of practice, perhaps on a monthly basis or at different ‘regions’ or ‘regional areas’ (which could be, potentially, booked and organised through the venue management system). A personal reflection is that constant and effective communication between each other is the only way that we can continue to work well and understand the changes that are emerging through the university.

External Engagement

The title of this session was: ‘it’s good to get out’. It was facilitated by Matt Walkley, Staff Tutor from the School of Computing and Communications. Matt posed three questions that guided group discussions: what external engagement have you done? What external engagement should we be doing or be doing more of? And, what actions can we commit to?

A personal reflection was that I have always struggled to understand what was meant by the term ‘external engagement’; I was always under the impression that it had a more formal definition than it had. I was imagining external engagement as sets of targeted and strategic activities that can be used to help gain insights that could feed into module production, or to make contacts with individuals within organisations that could explicitly benefit from learning can be presented through OU programmes or modules. Although all these things do fall under the topic of external engagement, they are more directly aligned to the more formal concept of ‘knowledge exchange’.

External engagement can, as I understand it, broadly mean ‘getting out there’ to make contact with people to help us learn more about our subject and also to raise the profile of ourselves and the university. In some respects, being an external examiner and visiting the occasional British Computer Society event both represent different types of external engagement.

I learnt that external engagement is an official part of our contract. This means that we can allocate between 3 and 5 days into our work plan for external engagement activities (although there was some debate about exactly how many days we might have available). A point was if we can align our own personal and professional interests to that of our School and Faculty, then so much the better.

Another point I learnt was that each school has its own external engagement officer. I had to ask who the officer for my school was. This, in turn, made me realise that since staff tutors are scattered across the UK, the staff tutor body is at an advantage when it comes to engaging with national initiatives. A thought is that it is up to schools to develop and apply an interesting external engagement strategy; staff tutors are a resource that can be used, and used effectively (when we have the time, of course, and we’re generally pretty busy).

Improving retention and progression

The subtitle for this session that was held on the second day was: what can staff tutors do? Different staff tutors summarised different aspects of their experience. What follows is a very brief summary of each presentation.

U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world

Christine Pearson spoke about U116 and its ethos: the module assumes that students don’t know anything (that they are entirely new to the subject). I made a note that the students are changing, and also have a broad range of digital literacy skills. An interesting point was that some students were invited to take place in a focus group; a key point were that there was a need for induction or some kind of ‘fresher’s week’. Subsequently, a ‘getting started’ video was made, and students were sent a postcard to help them to get online. Another ‘bit’ was a numeracy podcast. An important point was that more and more students are doing concurrent study, which might be a side effect of the loan scheme.

Impact of presentation patterns

Bernie Clarke spoke about the impact of 22-week presentation patterns, where two modules are taught back to back (which is going to be the case for the new Computing modules TM111 and TM112). Using this presentation pattern, students gain credit at an earlier point in their studies. Another change is that in the engineering curriculum the teaching of mathematics is now done within the context of the subject, rather than students being asked to study a maths module that has been written by colleagues in a different school.

M140 early start initiative

Alison Bromley spoke about the effect of enabling students to start earlier on a module (another colleague, Carol Calvert gave a presentation about this same subject at a HEA Conference in April 2017). Over two hundred students accepted the opportunity to start M140 early. Those that started apparently really appreciated the opportunity for early tutor contact. I didn’t note down the detail of the impact, but I did note down that there was a difference between students who were studying for the very first time and students who had gained further experience through study.

Learning analytics and interventions

Nicolette Hapgood, chair of S111, reported that S111 applied an assessment approach that is known as ‘single component assessment’ (which is also going to be applied on TM111 and TM112), which means that the result is based on completing only assignments and not an end of module exam or assessment. Nicolette also described the availability of a data analytics tool that is now available to all module teams; this tool enables module teams to see differences in retention between different module presentations.

An important question to ask is: what is the main role of staff tutors when it comes to improving student retention and progression? An answer I’ve noted down is: our role is to support the associate lecturers who are closest to the students. We also represent an important link between the tutors and the module teams. Some other discussion points related to the knowledge management system that is used by the SST (which is used to offer study advice), the importance of reminding tutors about study support resources (there is an earlier blog about study skills resources), the importance of induction (which remains a mystery to me), and helping module teams to write and develop module materials. 

What will the REF mean to staff tutors?

I’ve forgotten who presented this final section of the conference, which was about the Research Excellence Framework.

There are some differences between the 2014 REF and the 2021 REF. One of the key differences lies in a statement that all staff who have significant time and resources to carry out research are to be submitted into the REF. There is a clear contractual difference between different categories of university staff: central academics are required to do research as a part of their contract, whereas staff tutors are ‘encouraged’. Subsequently, there is an ambiguity as to whether staff tutors will be included into the REF submission.

The reason why staff tutors are only ‘encouraged’ to do research is simple: workload. Time that we could have spent on research is spent supporting and developing associate lecturers and dealing with a whole host of administrative issues. Over the last year, it has more or less been a full time job keeping up with institutional changes, never mind doing institutional research.

My view is that there are two things that could be done to help to tick the research box: rather than doing discipline specific research, one possibility is to do scholarship and research into teaching and learning (since this fits closely with the role of a staff tutor), and secondly, if disciplinary research is important, another approach is to team up with central academic researchers. 

Reflections

This is the second or third staff tutor conference that I’ve attended. Typing everything up helped me to look back and to put a lot into perspective; a lot has changed. As mentioned at the start, the majority of the regional centres in England have closed and the way that tutorials are organised is now very different to how it was before. 

Put another way, I’m now doing a different job to what I was doing six years ago. I’m not going to pretend that homeworking is easy: it isn’t. 

This said, putting difficulties aside, there are some good things about this new way of working that many of us have had to embrace. A final thought is: it was really useful to spend time with so many colleagues; they are a pretty fabulous group of people to work with.

Permalink 3 comments (latest comment by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 6 Apr 2018, 22:25)
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

STEM Postgraduate AL development conference

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 28 Nov 2017, 14:08

I attended my first ever STEM AL development conference that took place at The Open University in Milton Keynes between 10 and 11 November 2017. 

At the time of writing, I have been helping to support a combination of networking and data security postgraduate modules for just under a year. I think I became involved in with these modules since I had been a former OU PG computing student, studying three modules: project management, data and information security and digital forensics. I briefly toyed with studying for a MSc, before I became distracted and studied a couple of social science modules which helped me to learn more about methods that were applied in the interaction design module that I used to tutor.

What follows is a brief summary of my own take on the conference. These notes, of course, reflect my own personal interests; I accept that there was a lot more going on within the conference than am able to describe here. 

Tour and talks

The conference began with a series of talks about the new OpenSTEM lab (OU centre for STEM pedagogy) which gained a Times Higher Education award (OU website). The OpenSTEM lab is a set of online digital resources that students can use as a part of their studies. A key aspect of the lab is that it enables students to access to real scientific and engineering equipment allowing them to gather data, work together and share experiences. In some respects, the OpenSTEM lab represents a development of a ‘home experiment kit’ that was once shipped out to OU students, but with the advantage that it facilitates collaboration.

We were introduced to different aspects of the lab; we were told about an electron microscope and told that students were introduced to the idea of robotics through the use of a humanoid like robot called Baxter, and that science students could use a mock-up of a mars rover. We were also shown experiments that used agitated pendulums. There were some obvious challenges that needed to be addressed, such as the effect of network latency when gathering results from experiments. I also expect that students were asked and encouraged to book time on these different instruments.

After the talks, we all wandered over to our accommodation at the nearby Kent’s Hill conference centre. After dinner, we were treated to a talk by Mark Brandon from the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences. Mark is a Reader in Polar Oceanography. He shared experiences of working on module teams, working with associate lecturers and working on Frozen Planet, a BBC/OU co-production. Mark also emphasised the importance of the role of associate lecturers and the contributions that they can and do make to module teams.

School of Computing and Communication Session

The following day was split into two sections: the first part was a school specific session (associate lecturers are now, of course, primarily affiliated to a school rather than to a region); the second part of the day was comprised of two parallel sessions that addressed topics that were relevant to associate lecturer practice.

During the school of computing and communications session, I made some notes of some topics that were discussed and points that were highlighted. One of the themes discussed was the concept of degree apprenticeships; as well as undergraduate degrees, there are also postgraduate degree apprenticeships. As well as having an associate lecturer, there is also the role of a practice tutor. There was a comment that students might have to create a portfolio, and there was a question of how this might be carried out or managed.

Discussion points included broadband and internet connectivity amongst tutors and students, and the use of teaching tools such as Adobe Connect. This led to a short discussion about tutorials and tutorial practice; one idea is to always try to have two tutors at every online tutorial – not only does this offer redundancy if the internet for the presenting tutor goes down, but it also takes load off the main presenters and opens up the possibility of using some interesting pedagogic approaches, such as debates.

Another point I noted was that for some students postgrad study can represent a step change. For some students, the expectations of postgraduate study might be unclear; there is an increased emphasis on reflection, the use and application of literature and critical practice. One area that I think is fundamentally important is the induction period for new students. Whilst there are some induction materials, the university also has a free Badged Open Learning (BOC) course called Succeeding in Postgraduate study (Open Learn website). In addition to this there are, of course, some more generic study skills resources that are available, including a set of useful Booklets, including one that is called Thinking Critically (pdf).

During the school session, we also has a discussion about ideas that could feed into the computing curriculum update (or ‘curriculum refresh’, as it is otherwise know). Some interesting comments were: perhaps there needs to be some modules about research methods, or perhaps more materials about academic writing. It was commented that the science curriculum had a research skills module, but the computing curriculum didn’t. Another thought was that perhaps there could be a series of short 10 point modules that could be used for continuing professional development.

Parallel sessions

Tutors could choose between four different sessions. I remember what three of these were: there was a session about using and working with Adobe connect, a session that I ran about dealing with challenging situations, and another session about efficient and effective correspondence tuition.

The session that I ran was, essentially, a structured discussion which drew upon university resources and guidelines. The main objective of the discussion section was to share stories and experiences. I ran the session twice and everyone who attended participated.  

Reflections

Despite being a staff tutor for six or seven years I was interested to hear that these AL development events for postgraduate tutors run every few years. I couldn’t help but feel that there was a lot of cross over between the national AL development events and the events like this one that has a clear and distinct focus. This said, many of the important themes are shared between different tutors: everyone has to use Adobe Connect, and everyone has to offer effective correspondence tuition.

I found the school specific approach really useful: this session (and the conference as a whole) represented a really useful opportunity to get together with colleagues who we regularly work with through online rooms and virtual forum spaces. I also really enjoyed running two sessions with the postgrad students. If I could change something, it would be to, perhaps, add a bit more emphasis on the sharing of stories and how we respond to difficult situations. In some ways, this links to an idea that I was recently introduced to when I was studying at Birkbeck: the notion of the critical incident.

A final point is a series of acknowledgements: Mark Slaymaker, staff tutor of Computing and Communications, put a huge amount of hard work into organising the conference. Thanks are also extended to Mark Brandon from the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences and the STEM AL services team for their support and assistance.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

HEA 2017 Annual conference: Generation TEF

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 14 Aug 2017, 10:56

A couple of weeks after attending the European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) conference, I attended a UK Higher Education Academy conference that took place in Manchester between 4 July and 6 July 2017. In some respects, it was good to attend both events so close together, since ideas from the first conference were still at the forefront of my mind when I attended the second.

What follows is a conference of report of the HEA event. Like all of these conference reports, they represent my own personal views of the event; different delegates, of course, would have very different experiences. I should add that I attended two of the days: one that concentrated on STEM education, and the other that was more general.

The second day of the conference was opened by HEA chief executive Stephanie Marshall. Stephanie noted that this was the first annual conference for three years. She also hinted at the scale of the HEA, reporting that there were now ninety thousand fellows. A key point was that ‘teaching excellence is a global ambition’ and that discussions about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been dominating recent debates within higher education. The notion of the fellowship was an attribute that can change university cultures to foreground the importance of teaching. Other issues that I noted were the importance of student engagement, student satisfaction, student retention and the idea of creating a ‘connected curriculum’.

Keynote: How digital engagement enhances the student experience

The opening keynote was by Eric Stoller. Eric has built a consultancy about using technology and social media to create digital engagement, with a particular emphasis on higher education.

I’ve noted that Eric said that there are social media skeptics and that social media is a subject that can be polarising. There was the suggestion that social media is all about learning, and the learning doesn’t stop when students leave the classroom. A point I noted was ‘life-long learning should be at the heart of the experience’; this is especially interesting since the life-long learning agenda within my own institution has been fundamentally impoverished due to government increases of tuition fees. It is now harder to study for an entirely different qualification, or to study a module or two with the intention of developing skills that are important in the workplace.

We were presented with a series of questions. One of them was: can social media be used for critical thinking? Perhaps it can. Information literacy is an important and necessary skill when we are faced with working out what news is fake, and what news isn’t. Other questions were: how do we use social media to build communities? Also, how do we connect to others when there’s one of ‘you’ and lots of ‘them’? In answer to ‘how’ you ‘do’ engagement through social media, I remembered that one of my colleagues, Andrew Smith gave a talk entitled ‘how our classroom has escaped’ at The Open University about how to use some social media tools (specifically Twitter) to reach out to computer networking students.

Another broad question was about digital literacy and capability. This immediately relates to another question: is there a benchmark for digital capabilities? A challenge about this perspective is one that Eric mentioned, which is: different people use social media in different ways. Another question was: how about addressing the subject of social media in staff appraisals?

A theme that appears regularly is that of employability. Perhaps lecturers should be ‘role modelling’ to students about how to use social media, since these can and do have implications for employability. Social media can be used to engage students as they become acclimatised to working within a particular institution, helping them through their first few weeks of study.

As Eric was speaking, I had my own thoughts: one way to see social media is a beginning point for further engagement with students; it can be used to expose issues and debates; it should, of course, be a beginning point and not be an end in itself. There are other issues: what are the motivations and incentives for the use of social media amongst different communities?

Day 2: Morning Sessions

The first session of the day was by Anna Hunter from the University of Central Lancashire. Anna’s talk was entitled: ‘What does teaching excellence look like? Exploring the concept of the ideal teacher through visual metaphor’. I was interested in attending this session since I have an interest in associate lecturer continuing professional development, and Anna was going to be talking about her work on a PGCE in HE module (which is a subject that has been on my mind recently). Some of the activities echoed my own experience as a PGCE student; activities to explore views and opinions about teaching and thinking about the notion of academic identity. I noted down a question that was about team teaching, but I didn’t note down the response; the issue of how to facilitate and develop team teaching practice remains both an interest and a question. 

Kath Botham from Manchester Metropolitan University gave a presentation that was also in the form of question: Is an institutional CPD scheme aligned to the UK PSF and HEA Fellowship an effective tool to influence teaching practice? Kath’s research was a mixed method approach that aimed to assess the impact of the various fellowship awards. Some practitioners wanted the ‘HEA badge’ to be seen and recognised as someone involved in teaching and learning’. It is viewed as something to validate practice. Also, gaining accreditation is something that can help lecturers and teachers overcome ‘imposter syndrome’. The question remains: does accreditation change practice? Accreditation can help people to engage with reflection, it can represent an important aspect of CPD and can stimulate personal skills and study development.

Day 2: Afternoon Sessions

After attending a series of short five minute ‘ignite’ sessions, I couldn’t help but attend: ‘Removing the elephant from the room: How to use observation to transform teaching’ by Matt O'Leary and Mark O'Hara who were both from Birmingham City University. This presentation directly linked to the theme of the conference and to a university funded project that is all about online and face to face tutorial observations. We were treated to a literature review, and introduced to a six stages of an observation cycle: (1) observe self-reflection, (2) a pre-observation meeting, (3) observation, (4) post-observation reflection, (5) post-observation dialog, and (6) observee and observed post-observation reflective write up. I also noted down that there was an observer training and development sessions. Another note (which I assume is about the feedback) was: ‘we chose a blank page approach; we don’t want to forms corrupting what we see’, which reflects observation reports that I have personally received. The closing points were important; they spoke about the importance of management buy-in, that there is anxiety in the process, and there needs to be time to have conversations. 

Rebecca Bushell from the University of South Wales asked: Can innovative teaching techniques effectively improve engagement, retention, progression and performance? Rebecca’s innovative technique was to ask her students to create businesses that are funded using micro-capital (student groups were given fifty pounds each). The points were that this was immersive problem based learning that allowed students to share experience. It also allowed to reflect on their experience, and it created learning situations for students on other modules; accounting students were asked to audit their accounts. For me, the take away point was: simulations can expose real challenges that can immediately relate to the development of employability skills. 

Day 3: Opening Keynote

The final day of the conference was opened by Giskin Day from Imperial College London. Giskin taught a Medical humanities course which was all about Putting medicine in a social and cultural context. It is a course that explores the connections between the arts and science, with an emphasis on creativity.

An interesting point that I noted was that much of science is about minimising risk and beating uncertainty. With this context in mind, how can we encourage students to tolerate and manage ambiguity? This, of course, is an important skill in higher education; it is something that is explicitly explored within the humanities, where students are encouraged to be ‘creatively critical and critically creative’.

Another point is that there is a change in student expectation: students are no longer willing to be ‘talked at’, which is something that was echoed within my recent blog summary from the recent EDEN conference that I attended. A question remains: how do we engage students in new ways? One approach is to consider ‘playful learning’ (the notion of games and gaming was, again, something that featured within EDEN). Games, Giskin argued, enable students to develop empathy; they allow students to enter into a safe imaginative space where failure is an option and a possibility.

We were introduced to a speed dating card exchange game that had a medical theme. As a part of her teaching, we were told about a field trip to the V&A museum that was connected to skin, sculpture and dermatology. Students had to find exhibits within the museum and had to decide whether the sculpture needed a medical diagnosis, developing student’s communication, sketching and observation skills. Other games involved role playing where students played the roles of doctor and consultants. There was talk of escape rooms and creative puzzle solving.

Giskin offered some tips about creating effective games: consider the audience, make sure that things are tested, and think about a balance of playfulness and usefulness whilst also asking questions about what would motivate the student players. Also, when planning a ‘game’, always consider a ‘plan B’, since things might change in the real world; a game-based field trip to a museum might become unstuck if a museum suddenly loans an artefact to another institution.

In some respects, Giskin’s presentation was in two parts: the first part was about games; the second part was about her research about the rhetoric of gratitude in healthcare (Imperial College). Her point was simple: grateful people want to express gratitude; it is a part of closure, and an acknowledgement of that expression. The language used with both patients, and with challenging students is very important. I noted down the importance of moving from a rhetoric of coercion to a rhetoric of collaboration.

During the question and answer session, I think Giskin referred to something called the Playful learning Special Interest group (Association for Learning Technology). I found this interesting, since the introduction to design module, U101 Design Thinking uses both the idea of play, and explores design through the development of a game. 

I enjoyed Giskin’s reference to different types of learning approaches; her references to field trips and role play echoes various teaching approaches that I have tried to adopt. During a moment of inspiration I once spontaneously ran a field trip to a university corridor to encourage a set of design students to look at a set of recycling bins! Hearing about other practitioners such as Giskin developing a systematic and more comprehensive approach to designing field trips offers real inspiration and insight into how to develop interesting and entertaining learning events. I remain wondering how to embed these different approaches into a distance learning context.

Towards the end of Giskin’s session, we were each given different postcards, and we were asked to write down the response to a simple question: ‘what teaching and learning tip were you grateful to receive?’ Our challenge was to find the same card as another delegate and swap tips. When I found another delegate that had the same card as mine, a card that had some drawings of some craft tools, I made a point of offering a grateful thank you, which was, I believe, graciously received.

Day 3 : Morning Sessions

During the morning, I moved between different sessions to catch various presentations. The first talk of the morning was by Nagamani Bora, University of Nottingham, who spoke about ‘Curriculum Design - Opportunities and Challenges’. There were references to employability, interdisciplinary and the notion of the spiral curriculum (which was recently mentioned during my PGCE in HE studies). Other points included the importance of involving students in curriculum design and introducing them to international and global perspectives. An interesting point was made about the question of programme level assessments.

Siobhan Devlin who was from the University of Sunderland spoke about ‘Engaging learners with authentic assessment scenarios in computing’. Interestingly, Siobhan spoke about the ‘demodularised curriculum’; bigger chunks of curriculum were considered to be the order of the day. A key point was that authentic assessment needs to reflect real world practices. Siobhan also referenced some of her earlier research that asked the question: what does inspiring teaching look like? Some key attributes I noted were: enthusiasm, passion, adaptability, empathy, friendliness and enjoyment. I also noted down a reference to Keller’s ARCS model of motivation (e-learning industry).

Day 3 : Afternoon Sessions

Christine Gausden, University of Greenwich, continued to touch on the authentic in her talk ‘Embedding Employability within the Curriculum’. Christine is a senior lecturer in the built environment and said that although students might have technical knowledge, they may lack the opportunity to apply that knowledge. To overcome this, practitioners were asked to talk to students, and students were asked to study real live construction project, which links to the earlier point of authenticity. 

After Christine’s talk, I switched sessions to listen to Dawn Theresa Nicholson and Kathryn Botham from the Manchester Metropolitan University talk about ‘Embedding Reasonable Adjustments in the Curriculum (ERAC): A Faculty-wide approach to inclusive teaching’, which relates to my own experience of tutoring on an Open University module called Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students (Open University website). The idea was to embed accessibility in the curriculum (MMU) to such an extent so that personal learning plans could be phased out completely. A solution was to look at what adjustments were being applied, provide a set of standard adjustment and to offer staff training. An important principle was to make sure that all learning materials were available online in advance of a session. 

Carol Calvert, a staff tutor colleague from The Open University talked about ‘Success against the odds’. A key driver the research was the principle of student retention; it was hoped that the project would suggest actions to help students to complete their studies. The key research question was: ‘what can students who we think may not succeed, who have been able to succeed, able to tell us?’ Factors that might suggest challenges include: previous study success, socio-economic status, and level of prior educational attainment. Students offered some pointers: (1) that it was important to start early, (2) that it is important to share and to get network (and to tell other people that you are studying), (3) use a study planner.

To conclude, students that do succeed have a can do attitude. The important question is: how can we foster this from a distance? There were some accompanying actions: the module team could take time to introduce the module and gives students some useful study tips. Another action is to ask students whether they wanted to start study early and then try to make this happen. When asked, it turned out that half of the students on Carol’s module said that they might want to do this.

The final presentation I attended was given by my colleague, David Morse. David talked about ‘Truly virtual teams: twelve years on’. It isn’t a surprise to hear that students don’t like team working, but David made the point that group working is an important element of the QAA computing subject benchmark statement. Twelve years earlier, things were different: students didn’t have broadband, but online collaboration is more about people than it is about the details that surround particular technologies. A question is: what must students do? They must set rules, roles and responsibilities. They must also identify knowledge and skills, make regular contributions to online discussions, give and receive criticism, and apply good netiquette. A tutor needs to be a facilitator and not a manager. A tutor also needs to know when to step forward and when to step back. In response to this, David presented an interesting helical model of team working (which reminded me of a spiral model that had been mentioned earlier during the conference). 

Reflections

I like HEA conferences; they’re always well run, they are interesting and relevant, and represent a great opportunity for networking. In comparison to other HEA events that I had attended this one had a slightly different feel. I think this difference is due to two reasons; the first is the sheer scale of the event. Secondly, due to the fact that it was very interdisciplinary. Whilst I always enjoy meeting people who work in other subjects, I did feel that the sheer scale of the conference made it a more difficult event to navigate and choose the sessions that looked to be the most relevant. These things said, I did feel that the keynotes were well chosen and well presented. The second keynote stood out as being particularly thought provoking, which is exactly what keynote sessions should be.

During the workshop, I also facilitated a session about module design with my colleague, Ann Walshe. We offered a space where delegates could be creative and design their ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ module. The resulting designs were fun and playful, and make significant use of different technologies that had been mentioned during the first keynote. 

I’m going to conclude with a more personal reflection. This conference took place in the grounds of the university that was once known as UMIST, which was where I studied as a doctoral student. Wandering around the campus brought back many memories; I remembered how challenging it was. I was trying to conduct research into what was a very specific aspect of computing: theoretical models of how programmers go about understanding software code. I remembered how difficult it was having a part time job whilst at the same time as being a full time student. I also remembered how alone I felt, and this underlined the importance of community, which was also a topic that had arisen during the various sessions.

It not only struck me that community was really important for researchers, but it is also really important as a way to facilitate excellent teaching too; teachers and lecturers need to talk to other teachers and lecturers. In some ways, this was, ultimately, what the conference was all about.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

26th EDEN annual conference: Jönköping, Sweden

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 14 Aug 2017, 10:47

The 26th Annual EDEN conference was held in Jönköping, Sweden between 13 and 16 June 2017. EDEN is an abbreviation for the European Distance Education Network and it is known as an important conference for those working at distance learning institutions.

What follows is a summary of my own experience of visiting EDEN for the first time. Since EDEN was a big conference and there were many different parallel sessions, different delegates have had very different experiences to my own. Also, what I report is likely to be influenced by my own personal interests and my own institutional perspective as an employee of The Open University. This summary has been created from a set of notes that I have made during the difference conference sessions I have attended.

Day 1: Pre-conference workshop

Since I arrived at the conference early, I was able to attend a pre-conference workshop. This workshop focussed on TEL, or Technology Enhanced Learning. An important challenge is that the term TEL is very broad and can be interpreted differently by different practitioners. It is also linked to other familiar terms such as computer assisted learning, networked learning and the principle that it can have a transformative effect on teaching and learning. TEL is also related to ideas about making learning possible through technology, and increasing the reach of education. As well as debates about how distance learning universities can promote, support and facilitate TEL, delegates were introduced to the EDEN network of academics and professionals.

Day 2: Welcome and Keynote

After a small number of welcome speeches, we were treated to three keynote presentations. The first keynote was by Stefan Hratinski from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. The title of Stefan’s presentation was: online learning in one-to-one relationships.

Stefan’s made the point that the traditional one-to-many lectures have been subject to necessary criticism, leading to the point that there are other pedagogic approaches, such as collaborative and connectivist models of learning. A fundamental challenge lies, of course, with how to put these approaches to practice. One argument is that that one-to-one learning can help to develop (or facilitate) collaborative or networked learning. Furthermore, one-to-one learning can be tailored to the needs of individual students.

We were presented with an example. MathCoach is a system where a large number of maths tutors are employed to offer one-to-one tuition for students through a web based platform. The teaching touches on a number of dimensions: the development of cognitive skills, social interaction relating to the math problems, and emotional support. One of the keys to effective tutoring is to ask good questions. Due to the scale, a large corpus of interactions between students and tutors was gathered, enabling the effects of teaching to be assessed.

The second keynote was very different. Manjula Srinivas spoke about ‘diversity and media education in the schools of Mumbi’. Manjula states that in her context, in India, one-to-one teaching is impossible, going on to state that ‘if I go to a class, I teach 150 students’. This comment also implicitly connects to Stefan’s comment about many-to-many teaching and learning. Direct opinions are offered to delegates: ‘the way education has been received has changed; they want to learn through apps; they want to learn through devices’. We were told of resource challenges: there is just not the time to do classroom teaching due to the number of students.

The final keynote of the morning was by Frans Mäyrä, Professor of Interactive Media. Frans is the head of a games research laboratory and a part of his research is to study games as an art form and its role in digital culture. He spoke about the history of games, play as a cultural tradition and the role of games in society. Games, he suggested, also have an important role to play in learning; a game can be a vehicle for ‘stealth learning’. He also introduced me to the term ‘ludic literacy’ which relates to what games are, how play operates, and understanding the diversity of gamers.

Session: Diversity and ICT Enhanced Education in Context

The first session I attended related to the broad but important subject of diversity in education. I chose this session since I teach on a postgraduate module about online accessible education and I felt that a summary of this session might be of interest to some of my students and also be directly relevant to my teaching practice.

The first presentation, by Mohammed Chaib  was entitled ‘ICT supported competence development - What difference does ICT make?’ This presentation was a great first session, since it was packed with familiar and unfamiliar terms that made me think about the direction that the conference was taking. A number of research themes were introduced: leadership, life-long and adult learning, gender, equality and inclusion. These themes were connected to something called the European Certificate in Intergenerational Learning (ECIL). There were direct pointers and connections to pedagogy, such as a reference to problem-based learning, the idea of co-creating knowledge and a clear reference to Vgotsky’s zone of proximal development.

The second presentation was by Henrik Hansson and colleagues from Stockholm University, Sweden, was quite different. Their paper had the title ‘Inclusion and Integration in Sweden: Using Video Chat for New Arrivals in Sweden’. It also had the subtitle: ‘How to Learn Swedish Live with Swedes Online - Easy, Flexible, Informal, Fast, Fun’. In 2016, Sweden accepted over one hundred and ten thousand migrants. Obvious challenges for those new migrants include learning a new language, becoming familiar with customs and navigating public services. An obvious solution is to speak with native Swedish people, but how do you find people who would be happy to chat in a language that is familiar? Drawing on an earlier idea of intergenerational communication, a technological solution is to provide a service that facilitates video discussions through computers and smartphones. One of the notes I made about future directions was about the potential of gamification; a point that reminded me about the importance of effective and well design interaction design. 

The next presentation, entitled ‘Setting the Tone: Developing Effective and Culturally Sensitive Learning Resources to Improve the Integration Process of Migrants in France’, was by Simon Carolan. This presentation echoed the earlier presentation by Hansson due to its emphasis on using technology to support migrants. Simon spoke of a MOOC that has the potential to help with integration by offering information about ‘the theoretical grounding of the French republic’, its society and its culture. Simon spoke about some of the issues and challenges: the politics of assimilation, multiculturalism and bi-culturalism. Also, the importance of the migrant’s point of view was emphasised. The MOOC was provided in both French and English, and the point was made that a MOOC is, of course, one part of a wider strategy. 

Session: Innovative e-Learning Concepts

It would be remiss of me if I didn’t attend a presentation about innovation and e-learning. The first presentation of this session was made by Anne-Marie Gallen with Gerald Evans, colleagues from The Open University. They presented a paper entitled Adaptive Learning as a Tool for Supporting Diverse Students with Threshold Concepts at a Distance.

The next presentation moved towards the subject of mobility. Timothy Read from Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia (UNED) presented Toward a Mobile Open and Social Language Learning Paradigm. Looking at apps for professional language learning. Mobile, Open, Social, Language, Learning MOSLL.

Christina Keller from Jönköping International Business School presented a paper entitled Teacher Roles in a Blended Learning Materials Engineering Master Program. A key point that I noted was ‘I believe we can stop having traditional lectures’ with an emphasis on importance of discussion and the notion of presence. Different types of presence, it was argued, was needed for learning: social presence, teaching presence and cognitive presence.

The final session was also from The Open University. Gerald Evans and Daphne Change presented Collaborative Online Learning at a Distance - a Case Study and Developing the Knowledge Base. Daphne emphasised the scale, mentioning cohorts of 500 students. Importance of effective learning design. Use of tutors to facilitate the discussion of complex issues. To overcome the difficulty of distance learning students being reticent to participate in group work, one approach is to offer direct and clear explanations: collaboration is a key employability skill.

Session: Empowering the Digital Teacher

I chose this session for very practical reasons; a very important aspect of my role is to offer continuing professional development for tutors who provide distance tuition. I felt this session had the potential to offer inspiration about the design of tutor development sessions.

The opening session was entitled ‘“I wish I Had More Time” Mentor Teacher Narratives of Reflective Practice: a Case for Online Mentoring’ was presented by Helen Dorner from the Central European University, Hungary. The presentation centred upon mentoring relationships to support novice teachers, offering a connection to familiar theory, such as Schon’s work about the reflective practitioner.

There were two other notable presentations during this session. Klaus Stiller from the University of Ragensburg, Germany presented ‘Dropout in an Online Training for In-service Teachers’. Factors that could influence drop-out include student background, experience and different perspectives of learning. Points included the importance of motivation, prior knowledge, attitude and levels of student anxiety. There wasn’t one single clear finding suggesting the issue of student drop out is one that is complex.

The final presentation, by Kwok-Wing Lai was about ‘Secondary Teaching at a Distance: a New Zealand Case Study’. Working in higher education, I found a presentation about distance education at another category of education was particularly interesting. Teachers were asked to complete a detailed questionnaire. Teachers were motivated by an opportunity for personal development and altruism but faced institutional pressures and agreed that there was the need for more support. A significant challenge was the building of a good student-teacher relationship, which is an issue that I recognise from my own personal practice.

Day 3: Opening Plenary Session

The plenary session that opened the third day had a very European focus. In addition to presentations about a project about diversity and social engagement and the relationships between patents and public knowledge, Georgi Dimitrov gave a short presentation about EU perspectives on digital education. Georgi emphasises a number of themes and subjects that were important to the conference: the existence of a digital divide, inclusivity and higher education, digital pedagogies and digital makers, the use of open educational resources and the challenge of developing soft skills amongst areas where there is a skills shortage. The audience was left with three points: the need to consolidate and appreciate what has been learnt, the need to build closer ties between researchers, and the need to go beyond rhetoric and to seek and use evidence.

From a personal perspective, I enjoyed Rosie Jones’s presentation. Rosie is the Director of Library Services at The Open University. Her presentation had the title ‘The Open Library’, which relates to the question: what is meant by ‘the library’ to students who are studying at a distance learning university? Rosie emphasised that the library is both a physical building and a digital portal that enables students to gain access to resources and literature that is necessary for effective study. I noted down a comment that there is a connection between more library access and higher student results.

The OU library is an actual physical space that has virtual tours; the physicality of the library is something that can also surprise some students. There is value of a physical space; a visit to a library can engender feelings, but a question is: how can we create similar feelings for distance learners? Amidst Rosie’s talk is the understanding that the roles of libraries are changing; they represent both important learning spaces and a provider of resources and services that facilitate learning. 

Session: E-Learning Policy and Strategy Issues

The first presentation of the strategy session was a synthesis of a set of interviews of vice-chancellors and rectors of European distance learning institutions. Written by former Open Learning editor, Simon Bell, this paper draws on a series of editorials that were presented during 2016 issues of Open Learning.

The other presentations within this session touched on formal decision making strategies, learner analytics, and an analysis of ICT policies in Canadian and Australian secondary education. Working within The Open University school of Computing and Communications, I found this final presentation particularly interesting since it touched on current debates about computing education. A question underpinning this presentation related to the extent to which computing education should relate to algorithmic thinking, problem solving and programming as opposed to practical IT skills. Taking a wider perspective, I can see how this relates to the tensions in the field that relate to professional education (knowing how to do things) and education (gaining the techniques and tools to know how to learn to do things). 

Session: International e-learning Development Cases

Since there was such a choice of sessions, I split my time between two different parallel sessions: the digital learners’ needs and motivation, and MOOC panorama, before moving onto the international e-learning development cases session. I was drawn to this international session since the international dimension of Open Learning is particular important; the sharing of international perspectives allows different institutions to learn from a wider range of experiences.

There were three presentations during this session. The first was by Edith Tapia-Rangel who presented E-Learning and Multiculturality in Mexico. Echoing an earlier session about MOOCs Edith introduced us to an open access module that introduced students a module entitled: what is cultural diversity? The module presented topics such as the history of Mexico and its indigenous people and literature. A key point was that students faced challenges that are familiar to distance learners: family commitments, work challenges, and approaching study from a wide variety of backgrounds. 

Dinara Tutaeva from the Faculty of Distance Learning at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics offered us a reminder that distance learning and education can take on different forms. Dinara spoke of different groups of learners; offering learning for both young people and for seniors. An approach was to open up the university on a Saturday, and I noted down the ideas of creative weeks, learning excursions and the provision of master classes.

The final talk of this session, ‘Diversity and Digitalization as Vital Key Success Factors for Individualisation of Learning’ was by Christian-Andreas Schumann from the West Saxon University of Zwickau, Germany. Christian-Andreas spoke the idea of how a semantic network might be used to drive a path through a set of digital learning objects. His talk made me think of a project that I used to work on when I worked in industry; my role was to create learning objects and tag the objects with searchable metadata. It was interesting to hear that the terminology I was familiar with was being used in a different context.

Day 4 : Session: Socio-cultural aspects of e-learning

The first presentation of the day was by Catherine Arden from the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Her presentation had the title ‘From Frontier Learning to Blended Community Learning: A Phenomenography of Informal Learning in Rural Community Informatics’. Catherine’s research used the tools of phenomenography and variation theory to uncover the experiences of a learner within a community. It was a presentation that contained a number of pedagogic and technical terms, such as: learning incentives, work-based learning theory and socio-technical systems.

The next presentation, ‘Diversity: A Blessing or a Curse for Online Collaboration?’ was by Gizeh Perez Tenorio. My instinctive answer to this question was: diversity is a blessing, since problems and issues can be understand more fully since different participants may have different perspectives. 

The final session was given by Kadir Kaya from Middle East Technical University, who studied ‘Research Trends of Instructional Technology Dissertations in Turkey’. Kadir studied the emergence of different topics in the broad field of technology enhanced learning. In some respects, this final presentation echoed the theme that was introduced in the pre-conference session.

Reflections

I enjoyed my first visit to EDEN. I was surprised by the number of delegates, the size of the conference and the breadth of the presentations which touched on very many different aspects of distance teaching and learning. Diversity, in all its different guises, is a really important subject and I’m really glad that the conference organisers chose this as a focus. The personal highlight for me was the contemporary importance of the first session presentations that I attended; they show the extent to which technology can have a very practical use when it comes to facilitating inclusion and understanding.

A criticism lies with some of the keynote presentations. Whilst some presentations clearly achieved the important purpose of tone setting and inspiring thoughts amongst the delegates, I did feel that some of the sessions could have been moved to some of the parallel sessions. I also felt that there was an opportunity to perhaps have a more panel discussions that involved a number of discussants who adopt different and contrasting perspectives.

These things said, EDEN is clearly an excellent conference in terms of getting to know colleagues from a range of different learning institutions. What struck me was the diversity of distance learning models and approaches are used across Europe. In terms of this perspective, the experience of attending EDEN was invaluable.

Note: this conference report was originally written for Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-learning. A different version of this article will be submitted to this journal as an official conference report.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

AL Development conference: Leeds, 6 May 2017

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 29 Jul 2017, 15:26

I’ve been busy this year; I’ve been to a fair number of AL development events up and down the country. The Leeds conference, which was run in May 2017, was a ‘residential’ which meant that the associate lecturers are given the opportunity to travel to the conference venue the night before. During the evening, everyone was given a simple activity about ice breakers, tutorials and running online sessions. I understand that our ALSPD colleagues will collate the results and share them with everyone when they get around to it. I look forward to reporting something via this blog!

Keynote: Josie Fraser, Executive Dean

The keynote presentation of the conference, which focused on the university redesign project and accompanying strategy, was given Josie Fraser who is the executive dean of STEM. Josie began with some personal reflections; she used to be an OU associate lecturer many year ago (which is something that is very heartening to hear), and she talked about how university study had touched members of her family.

When she started to speak about university strategy, she mentioned the funding challenges the Higher Education sector is faced with; an issue that isn’t unique to the OU. It was sobering to hear that there will be a curriculum review, and there will be emphasis on internal university processes. A message that I heard was that it is important to make things easier for ourselves (and I assume this means everyone in the university), with a view to simplifying and investing, where appropriate.

Another point was the reflection that curriculum production and development is costly, and this varies significantly across the institution. Underpinning this point is the acknowledgement that costs need to be reduced. A thought is that it might be a good idea to develop smaller chunks of curriculum (which is something that is already happening in the level 1 computing and IT programme). There will also be an emphasis on taking the cost out of non-student facing elements. The message was pretty clear: there will be change, and people and jobs are likely to be affected. 

Faculty session

After Josie’s keynote, everyone went out into our respective faculty groups. These being the faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS), The faculty of Art and Social Sciences (FASS), The Faculty of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and the OU Business School.

I went to the STEM session, where a colleague from the former Faculty of Science, Janet Haresnape, introduced an online associate lecturer programme she has helped to establish, called ByALsForALs. One of the greatest advantages of attending AL development sessions is that you have an opportunity to share practice and experience with fellow tutors. Janet’s programme has the same objective: to share experiences. Any STEM tutor can attend one of the ByALsForALs sessions, and any tutor can create a proposal to run session. I have to personally admit that I haven’t (yet) been to any of them, but all the sessions are recording, so there is a good set of resources that tutors can now draw upon – so, I shall be listing to one or more of them.

After the STEM session, we split into school groupings. During the Computing and IT school update, I talked through some slides that had been delivered at a school meeting. Some key points were recruitment for new modules was continuing, that the university is making progress in terms of its engagement with degree apprenticeships, and there will be some changes to the level 2 (and level 3) computer networking curriculum. During this session, I also remember some debate about the challenges that accompanied the introduction of the group tuition policy. 

Workshop sessions

I seem to make things difficult for myself. I seem to remember that the Leeds event may well have been the third AL development session I have given since the programme was announced, and every single session I seem to be doing something totally different!

During this session I ran two focus groups about the topic of tuition observations: I wanted to listen to tutors, and to ask them what they thought about them, and how they felt they could help their continuing professional development. The second of the two sessions was very well attended, and there were two very noisy discussion groups (and I write this meaning ‘noisy’ in a good way!) Opinions have been collected, and this will inform some university scholarship which will hopefully go some way to offering an updated set of institutional guidance about how to carry out effective observations.

My next step is to organise a focus group for staff tutors!

Final thoughts

The new ALSPD team are getting very good at running these events! From the presenter’s perspective, everything seemed to run very smoothly (but, of course, I didn’t do any of the rushing about behind the scenes). STEM session went very well; I do think it’s useful to have someone guiding the ‘all the schools from the faculty’ session, which is something that staff tutor colleagues have to work on. Also, from here I was sitting, I personally felt that the keynote speech went down very well, and the forthcoming challenges were made clear.

A final point returns to the thought that I should make things easier for myself: the next AL development session that I’m going to be running, which takes place in Windsor (or Slough, depending on your persuasion) is going to be all about delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly. I haven’t run this session before, but I’m hoping it’s going to be both useful and fun.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

eSTEeM Annual Conference: April 2017

Visible to anyone in the world

On 25 April I had the opportunity of attending a part of the Open University’s eSTEeM annual conference. eSTEeM is a university body that funds scholarship and research into STEM teaching and learning. More information about the projects that eSTEeM funds can be found by visiting the eSTEeM website.

What follows is a short summary of the conference, from my own perspective. I should add that all these views are my own, rather than those of the university. I’m sharing for two reasons (1) in case anyone who was at the conference might find it useful, and (2) I can remember what I’ve done at the end of the year.

Opening keynote

Due to travel connections I missed the opening address, which was given by eSTEeM director, Clem Herman. I did, however, make it in time to hear the opening keynote, which was given by Nicola Turner (blog), who works for HEFCE. 

As Nicola spoke, I made notes of key points that jumped out at me. One of the early notes I made was that 14 thousand teachers are needed. There is also a skills shortage in STEM. Apparently, 1 in 4 jobs relate to a role that is in a skills shortage area. But what skills are needed, and what skills are considered to be important. One answer is this: digital skills (in the loosest possible sense!) are considered to be important: tech, of course, is a fast growing and changing area.

Investment, of course, can benefit different parts of the country. A worrying point was that Nicola said was that there was no northern city that was a net GDP contributor (a disclaimer is that I don’t personally know where this bit of information comes from, or how you might define what ‘northern’ is). London, however, attracted a substantial amount of investment (but this isn’t much of a surprise), but there are ‘digital strengths’ in the regions. Another point I noted was that there is the need for 1.2 million skilled tech workers by 2022, and 93% of tech employers have reported a skills gap in 2016. The key question is: what can be done?

To show that I was really paying attention, some of the most sought after skills contained the keywords: developer, agile and SQL. There are also skills shortages in the area of cloud computing, big data and analytics. An important point is that workers need to be digitally literate, and this is something that links to that old education idea of ‘lifelong learning’.

If there is a skills shortage, an important question to ask is: why is the unemployment rates from computing graduates surprisingly high? This is something that is referenced in the Shadbolt review : Computer science degree accreditation and graduate employability (UK government website). There is also the Wakeham review into employability of STEM graduates (UK government website).

Nicola went onto talk about the Shadbolt review. As she spoke, I noted down a few points: that employment may come from a pool of students from elite universities and that there is low take up of work experience options (I have to confess, that this was offered to me as an undergraduate, and I didn’t take a year out in industry); this leads to a potential lack of soft skills and interpersonal skills. When it comes to computing and IT, the people side is just as important as the technology side.

I noted down some themes regarding employability. Industry is always after ‘work ready graduate’, but there is a contact challenge that industry is always changing (especially the tech industries). But what are the answers? There are things going on: there is the introduction of degree apprenticeships (of which the Open University is playing a part), ‘200 million in STEM teaching capital’, and government strategies.

There is something called the National Cybersecurity Strategy (UK government website), which is linked to degree apprenticeships, a digital skills strategy (UK government website), and an industrial skills strategy. 

The digital skills strategy was defined as a collaboration between employers, educators and government. There was also a reference to the creation of new institutes of technology, and a national college for digital skills (college webite), which is based in London. Interestingly, the focus appears to be at sixth form students. I have to confess to being perplexed. The website says things like: ‘We develop the mindsets, skillsets and character needed to be a pioneer’ and says that students will ‘join a cutting-edge community of digital-thinkers’.

Another point I noted was about something called the Institute of Coding (HEFCE). A key paragraph on the website appears to be the one that reads: ‘The Institute of Coding initiative aims to create and implement solutions that develop and grow digital skills to meet the current and future needs of the industry’.

One thing is very encouraging: the comment that ‘lifelong learning’ is becoming trendy again. A personal reflection, and one that is echoed in the presentation, is that lifelong learning is an idea comes in and goes out of fashion depending on the government. The OU is, of course, good at delivering supported lifelong learning, but much of its provision has been substantially eroded by the increase in fees.

A connected point is that other higher education institutions are investing in distance learning. There is competition within the sector. At the same time, there may be opportunities in terms of ‘new customers’, which has been something that has been touched on in the current OU strategy.

Paper session

I attended one of the short presentation paper sessions, which consisted of four presentations. 

ByALs-ForALs: an online staff development programme in the STEM faculty

This first presentation was by Janet Haresnape, Fiona Aiken and Nirvana Wynn. I made a note of a point that ‘staff development is often us (the university and its representatives) telling people about things, but it should be more about sharing practice’. I totally agree with this. A personal reflection is when I do staff development, I try to get a balance between the two, but I’m sure I don’t always get it right.

The idea is simple: create an environment where ALs can actively share their experience through a programme of online staff development events. If an AL wants to give a presentation or facilitate a session, they submit a proposal. If they are successful, they will be paid for running the session. Tutors can register to attend different sessions by registering using a simple Wiki, and this feeds into an official professional development record.

A total of 500 associate lecturers have been to the various sessions, with attendance varying between 5 and 54, depending on the topic and the time of day. Interestingly, day time appears to be more popular than evening sessions. Every session is recorded, which means that anyone who wasn’t able to attend can benefit.

Following the merger of the Science and MCT faculties, the programme has been extended to all undergraduate and postgraduate ALs in the new STEM faculty (which now consists of over 1500 tutors). I have to confess to not having been to any of these sessions, but I do know of them, and I always put them in my diary! Two questions were: could this approach be rolled out to other faculties, and secondly, would it be possible to do something similar for the school that I work in? Funding may come from the AL professional development and support team. This is certainly something to think about.

Understanding and supporting the career pathway of mathematics and statistics associate lecturers

This presentation was by Rachel Hilliam, Alison Bromley and Carol Calvert, and related to the Maths and Stats submission to Athena Swan (Equality Challenge Unit website). The presentation was looking at the gender differences between tutors, and asking the questions: do we support tutors in the right way, and what career development is necessary? A mixed method was used: a focus group and a survey.

Some interesting findings between men and women were shared. On average, men had more experience (in terms of tutoring years) than women, and were more likely to have a greater number of tutor contracts.

One area that has interested me for some time is tutor motivation, and this research touches on the reasons why tutors do what they do. Some interesting reasons included: career, challenge and family. A really interesting statistic is that 60% of ALs who responded viewed their AL work as their main job. I also noted down that there was concern about a lack of face to face possibility for staff development.

Success against the odds and the follow through

The presenter for this session was Carol Calvert, from Maths and Stats, but the other contributors to this presentation are: Rachel Hilliam, Linda Brown and Colin Fulford (if I’ve noted this down properly!) The subheading for this talk is: ‘the interesting routes student feedback can open up’.

The interesting aspect of this research is that it adopts the innovate approach of actually speaking to students. To do this, researchers have to find their way through a panel called SRPP, which protects students from being ‘over researched’.

I made a note of top tips and themes that all contributes towards success: the importance of a ‘can do’ attitude, the importance of getting organised, and the need to get ahead. I made a note of another reference: the RSA Animate video entitled How to help every child fulfil their potential (RSA).

Tutorial observations

During the final session I spoke about a project that has been set up to study different approaches to tutorial observations and to ask the important question of what kind of observation or tutorial report would help tutors to develop their teaching practice? At this stage of the project, I don’t have too much to report. So far, a literature review has been completed, and a two focus groups with tutors have been carried out. The next step in the project is to run a focus group for staff tutors (who are, of course, line managers for those tutors).

Workshop: bridge over troubled waters

After taking a bit of time out to attend a module team meeting, I attended an afternoon session that explored the concept of a ‘bridging course’.

A bridging course is a short course that helps student build up their skill and confidence levels before they undertake another module. A bridging course might run between or before modules. An example of a bridging course something called the ‘programming bootcamp’ which helps students to prepare for TU100 (which is to be soon replaced by TM111 and TM112).

The workshop began with a question: ‘would your students benefit from a bridging course to help them transition to the second year?’ There is, apparently, something that is known as a ‘second year slump’. The second year of a degree is where things start to get really serious. To convince us that this was an important issue, Frances Chetwynd presented some evidence, citing research by Douglas and Attewell (American Journal of Education).

So, what things are important, with regard to student progress? Key points include: time management, familiarity with written assessments, unrealistic expectations (which influence drop out), critical thinking skills, and understanding the need to conduct independent research. My notes tell me that Frances also referenced the work of Conley, who has written about college readiness (Education Policy Improvement Centre, PDF). Key points were: cognitive strategies, content knowledge, academic behaviours (which include time management and what it means to be a student), and college knowledge (understanding of how the institution works).

With the scene set, it was time for group discussions. We thought about what our bridging course might contain. An hour isn’t a lot of time. Key points that we chatted about were the importance of tutors and the use of digital materials (and the familiarity of digital materials). A theme that we kept returning to was that of ‘programming’. Another important issue is, of course, study skills.

Closing keynote

The closing keynote, which was entitled ‘is there a role for pedagogy in enhancing the STEM student experience?’ was by Michael Grove, a reader in STEM education. My instinct was to answer this question with a definitive ‘yes’, but to add to this perspective, Michael presented up with a definition of pedagogy from the Oxford English dictionary: pedagogy is ‘the art, occupation or practice of teaching, also the theories or principles of education; a method of teaching on such a theory’.

Underpinning this is definition are the ideas of: preparation, design, development, delivery, evaluation, reflection and dissemination. This helps us to consider other questions: how do you share good practice and encourage wider uptake?

Looking at pedagogy means that we also look at research. An interesting point was made that pedagogy, research and scholarship all blur together, and could all come under the title of ‘education enquiry’. But how does this work? There are approaches that are used, such as case studies, action research, studies that draw on theories and the use of quasi-experimental methods.

I noted an interesting use of terms. To be scholarly means that we inform ourselves, whereas scholarship means that we’re informing a group and using local knowledge. Research, on the other hand, is about disseminating findings to a wider audience. All this is, of course, linked with changes in the HE sector. A particular issue is the development of teaching only contracts, which separates out teaching activity from research activity.

Michael directed us to a document entitled Getting started in pedagogic research within the STEM disciplines (Mathcentre, PDF). It was a document that was mentioned at another presentation, and it looks pretty useful. It contains sections about writing for publication, and list of journals that can be used to disseminate STEM education research. (I also recommend a journal called Open Learning).

In some respects, the original question should have been: ‘is there a role of research in STEM pedagogy?’ I’m instinctively inclined to answer ‘yes’ to this alternative question too. Michael also asks a question about why we should do this. He also offers an answer: it represents an important aspect of our personal academic identify (and also our commitment to our discipline).

Reflections

Although I missed a couple of bits of the conference, I felt the opening and closing speeches worked very well in terms of contextualising the pedagogic research that is done within the university. It is also a reminder that there is a lot to do: not only do academics have to teach (and write module materials), many of them conduct research, and also conduct research into the effectiveness of their teaching strategies and approaches. 

This emphasises that we’re a busy lot: we’re busy reading, writing, thinking and talking pretty much all the time. The event also emphasised how much work is going on, and discussions with others helps us to set our own personal priorities, and learn how we can work with others too.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Computing Education Practice Conference

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 27 Feb 2017, 10:44

On 11 January 2017 I had the opportunity to attend a one day computer science education conference that was held at the University of Durham. It had been a long time since I had been to Durham. The last time had been in the late 1990s when I attended a workshop on program comprehension; other than the cathedral, I wondered whether I recognised any of the streets or landmarks. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to explore; it was a packed day.

What follows is a personal ‘take’ on the conference. It is, by its nature, selective; the conference attracted loads of submissions and had a number of parallel sessions. By the end of the day I was pretty tired and overwhelmed, but also inspired too.

Keynote: Sally Fincher

Sally Fincher’s keynote had the title ‘how can we talk about practice?’ Sally, who is a professor at the University of Kent, made the point that academics attribute value to abstract knowledge. She gave us an example of a chemistry paper, which communicated lots of detail in a very prescriptive and defined way. Teaching practice, Sally argued, is not like abstract knowledge; you cannot easily replicate it (and you’re not rewarded if you share it). She made the point that a paper is a terrible way to document teaching.

An accompanying question is: what would a good representation of practice look like? The challenge is that teaching is knowledge that is situated and embodied. There have been some attempts to describe or formalise learning designs but they don’t have an ‘experiential section’ and they rarely systematically described practice. 

Another question is: what does it mean to describe practice? It can include the rich description of detail, or the provision of narrative. Sally referenced the work of Elizabeth Shove, a sociologist who wrote a book entitled ‘every day practices’. A description might include the integration of different elements: meanings, skills and materials. Put another way, this could also be: stories, skills and stuff. 

An issue is that most of our documents about teaching and learning relate to skills, which can be embodied into learning objectives. An important element of practice, the stories and ‘stuff’ is very easily over looked. A thought that came to my mind as Sally was talking was: perhaps the stories are case studies? 

I made the note of the following phrase: abstractions detached from practice doesn’t help. An accompany thought is and the detail of stories represent the largest challenge; meanings of stories are implicit in the context in which they occur.

Are there any solutions to challenge of sharing our teaching expertise? Sally offers her own take on this through a textbook called Computer Science Project Work (Springer). The book presents a structure that contains a number of important sections, such as a section that can be called ‘what we did’; the structure aims to present something more than the stuff and skills. (I hope I’ve got this right!) Practice, I noted, is also about know how.

Towards the end of her keynote, I picked up on a number of themes that were especially relevant during the day: employability, engagement, curriculum design, and the importance and relevance of industrial placements.

What model versus how model: an effective way to teach computing and engineering programs

The first session I attended was by Muhammad Zeeshan Shakir from the University of the West of Scotland. The ‘how’ of teaching can be achieved by using show and tell activities. These can also be used to show students the benefit of what they’re learning. I’ve made a note of the phrases: workshops, the use of a research inspired seminar, practical implementation tasks and visits to industry. Flipped classrooms, it was argued, can be used to explain the ‘what’.

During this session I noted down a reference to something called Heterogeneous Ability-Centered Team Building (IEEE Xplore), or H-ACT-B. A key issue when it comes to groups is how to assess individual and team performance. As this was mentioned, I started to reminisce about my own undergraduate experiences of group work, where we had the challenge of working on a software maintenance project. It was an experience that still lives with me to this day.

Enhancing student engagement

This next presentation, by Ashil Ali and Raj Ramachandran spoke about the issue of student (dis)engagement, especially during long lectures. A point was made that students are wedded to their devices. A suggestion was to try to get students to engage through the devices that they are wedded to. A key phrase I noted was: ‘hijack the students’ distractions’.

A framework for CS educational research practice

Sue White, from the University of Southampton, mentioned an event that I had never heard of before, but should have done: the ACM International Computing Education Research (ICER) conference (ACM website). She also mentioned an academic that I had been told about whilst studying for my PGCE: Biggs. I noted questions about who the student is, a question about what the teacher does, and what the student does. This is, of course, linked to the important subject of the student voice (and that we need to listen to it, whilst at the same time balancing the need to support and further the discipline).

Some interesting pedagogical and computing terms that were mentioned, which included Ben-Ari and social constructivism (ACM digital library), Kolb’s learning cycle, and Laurillard’s conversational framework. I was also reminded of the ACM special interest group on Computer Science Education (ACM)

A bad analogy is like a pigeonhole

Stephen Doswell from Durham asked an interesting question: how can we assess the effectiveness of our [teaching] analogies? I noted down the phrase: analogies are only effective when properly used and the source domain is familiar to a learner. I remember that Stephen talked about a popular computer security text book and considered the way that analogies had aged (and the way that some older analogies might now be difficult to understand).

This presentation reminded me of a talk that I did over ten years ago at the Psychology of Programming Interest Groups called Metaphors we program by (PPIG). I remember it being a fun talk to do, and the accompanying paper was also pretty fun to write (although its analysis wasn’t very systematic!) I think the underlying point is the importance of considering where the learner is at, and how we can best try to convey difficult concepts.

Developing responsive personalised learning

The final session of the morning was by Samina Kawal from Oxford Brookes University. The focus of the presentation was an ebusiness module that used an approach called ‘integrative assessment’. I noted down that an idea was that coursework was used across different modules. Interestingly, there were programme level learning outcomes (whereas I am more familiar with understanding learning outcomes that are at the level of the module).

Afternoon keynote: understanding the TEF

The afternoon keynote had a really pragmatic feel to it. We were asked the question: ‘how can the HEA support the quest for teaching excellent?’ The teaching excellence is, ultimately, about making higher education into more of a market place, where students are consumers. Underpinning all this is the philosophy that education has economic benefit for the individual as opposed to being a public good that can help society as a whole. The TEF will lead to ‘badges’ that allow students to very simplistically compare one institution with another. An important point is that all institutions are different because of the environments in which they inhabit. From memory, I didn't come away from this session much the wiser.

Professional ethics in education: the need for radical change

Denise Oram, from Glyndwr University was a member of the ACM Committee of Professional Ethics. Her point was simple yet very compelling: professional attitudes and ethics is very important within computing and IT since the technologies that we create and implement have impact on people. Some interesting subjects include the internet of things, intelligent machines and eHealth. Students might, of course, ask: why do I need to know about this stuff? One approach to answer this question is to make use of debates to expose issues.

During this session I made a note of the BCS Computing at School website, a reference to something called models of ethical compliance and the way that the study of ethics (with respect to computing) connects to a wide range of subject, including: law, environment, philosophy, sociology and psychology.

Sketching design using the five design sheets methodology

Design, of course, is another subjects that is connected to and associated with computing and IT. Jonathan Roberts from Bangor university presents a design method that uses five different sheets of paper which encourages users to ‘think, design, build and evaluate’. There were references to related approaches and topics, such as the idea of using ‘6 thinking hats’, the importance of sketching and the distinction between convergent vs divergent thinking. A point was made that perhaps design should feature in the CS curriculum.

During this session, I thought of a number of OU modules that I know about and have looked at, such as U101 Design Thinking, T217 Design Essentials (its predecessor module taught about different design thinking approaches), and a higher level module T317 Innovation designing for change. I also thought about TM356 Interaction design and the user experience which touches upon design thinking. More information about TM356 can be found by looking at a series of accompanying blog posts (OU blog).

Embedding cybersecurity in the computer science curriculum

Alastair Irons from Northumbria university began by offering a bit of context: that cybersecurity it important, that it is a subject that is garnering a lot of attention, and there is the view that there is a significant skills gap; I made a note that two million posts are to be filled by 2020.

To solve this challenge, government and industry are looking to schools, colleges and universities for cybersecurity talent. I made a note of a statistic: 62% of employers couldn’t fill cybersecurity jobs.

An interesting reference is a document entitled: cybersecurity principles and learning outcomes for computer science and IT related degrees (PDF) Some accompanying questions were: (1) how will or could cybersecurity be embedded in your curriculum? (2) what support is needed or would be helpful? and (3) how might practioners engage in a community of practice (CoP)? I noted that this session led to some interesting debates: should cybersecurity be an undergraduate or a postgraduate subject? Also, to what extent are institutions developing degree apprenticeship qualifications?

Success in CS education: the challenge of keeping students

Neil Gordon, from the University of Hull, emphasised a number of important challenges. Computing and IT is a popular subject but some students are performing poorly. Neil referenced something called the Shadbolt review of computer sciences degree accreditation and graduate employability (PDF). I haven’t had time to read the report (since it is very long), but the executive summary points to higher than expected unemployment of new graduates, a point which ‘is at odds with significant demand from employers and the needs of the burgeoning digital economy’ (p.3). 

Neil touched on a number of different subjects and areas, including the known gender imbalance, the Computing at School Curriculum, streaming students by programming skills, the importance of attainment and retention, using innovative pedagogies (such as gamification) and improving community engagement.

Design and implementation of a web broadcasting learning platform

The final presentation that I attended was by John Busch. It took me a few minutes to understand what John’s presentation was all about, but as soon as I grasped it, I was very interested. In essence, John’s talk was about how to use and apply technology to help with the running of very large programming laboratories.

One of the most powerful approaches to learn programming has been to watch someone else at work, and to also copy what they’re doing, so you get ‘a feel’ for the instructions, commands and constructs that can be used. You shouldn’t just watch or listen: you need to ‘do’ and build.

If you’re delivering a session in a huge laboratory with one hundred and fifty students there are two fundamental problems (1) students can’t see what you’re doing if you’re projecting code on a big whiteboard at the front of the class, and (2) everyone learns at different speeds: some students might be lost, whereas others might be bored. One solution could be to run programming webcasts that each student in the lab can see how code is made, and also provide some functionality where a student can seek help at different times.

We were told about a number of different technologies, such as open cast, Fuze, Saba, Adobe Connect and something called Screenleap. I made note of other stuff, such as Open Broadcaster Software. Other bits of tech were mentioned, such as Nginx with RTMP (Wikipedia) A system called iLecture was created that allowed students to raise ‘support tickets’ to allow a student to ask a lecturer to look at the code that was being created.

I found all this fascinating; a home grown solution made up of bits of Open Source software that allowed lecturers to enable students and lecturers to share screens, to enable students to study the nuts and bolts of programming. It made me return to thoughts about ‘programming as performance’ and the need to find some kind of theoretical foundation.

Reflections

My own talk was about something called the Open University group tuition policy. Not only does this have the potential to allow students to access a wider range of learning events (if implemented well), it also gives associate lecturers the opportunity to work more closely together through creating something like a ‘community of practice’. In some ways, the conference was about creating that same community, but for a wider group of computer science educators. 

I only went to relatively small number of presentations, since there were three parallel sessions throughout the day. I was struck by the diversity of the presentations, and was given a welcome reminder about how exciting Computing and IT is as a subject. This excitement comes from the fact that it now touches so many other subjects and disciplines.

Permalink
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Horizons in STEM higher education conference 2016

Visible to anyone in the world

This blog has been taken from a set of notes I made when I visited the Horizons in STEM conference at the University of Leicester on 30 June 2016. Attending an event like this, to do ‘something academic’, made me feel weirdly guilty since I had been spending so much of my time doing ‘admin stuff’.

The aim of the conference was all about developing teaching and learning in the STEM disciplines, and sharing practice about what works and what doesn’t. Two speakers gave an opening address: there was the head of STEM from the HEA, and Nick Braithwaite from The Open University. Comments were made about the student voice, commitment to the discipline and the constant importance of professional integrity. I also noted down the words, ‘we want to improve our critical pedagogy; encourage everyone to be critical’. The second keynote speech was especially interesting because it was pretty distant from my know experience and knowledge: it was about how shared laboratory and learning spaces could be used to create an interdisciplinary subject centre.

Day one: first session

The first presentation I attended had the title ‘the educational value of student generated videos’. The idea was to replace a static poster with a five minute videos. As I listened, I thought of the Open University T215 module which requires students to create a short presentation.

One of the presentations that I particularly liked had the title: ‘undergraduate eJournals’. An eJournal is an official university publication for undergraduate studies that was linked to a ten point module. Interestingly, the articles published in an eJournal can be picked up by Google Scholar and the national media. Students could adopt the roles of author, referee and play a role on an editorial board. A new term that I’ve learnt was: synoptic learning. A key point for students was: try to create a paper that links science and fun topics; wacky can be good.

Discussion session

The next session was about discussion. I made notes about issues relating to ‘normative practice’ (without really understanding that this meant), social justice and inclusion.

An interesting question that was posed was: ‘are you aware of attainment gaps [in your programmes and modules]?’ Accompanying questions were: ‘are they discussed in your module team meetings, and do you know why they happen?’ and ‘do you discuss potential solutions?’ There were a series of related points: the importance of transition between levels of study, the importance of data, and the importance of critical reflection. Inclusion was discussed in terms of inclusive curriculum; making a subject relevant to individual students.

Flexibility and Personalisation

Neil Gordon from the University of Hull spoke about two pieces of work: flexible pedagogy and attainment. Flexible pedagogy was defined as giving students more choice about when to learn, where to learn and how to learn (mode, pace and place). Some interesting points that relate to computer science: it is a popular subject, but there appears to be a mismatch between expectations, i.e. computer science does not equal information technology. There are some clear challenges: computer science was noted to be the second worse subject for awarding good degrees (I should add that I’m not sure whether this was a national perspective or an institutional perspective), and 83% of students are male (again, I’m not sure on where this figure was taken from). Are there solutions? Some ideas were: to develop interactive tutorials, to create automated assessment, and look at the transition between school and colleague, and look to community engagement.

The next presentation was by Derek Raine from the University of Leicester. My notes read: ‘personalise the content to match with the aims and objectives for students – usual approach: core, options and a capstone project’.  Other points were: ‘drivers of change include finance, non-standard providers, media, and MOOCs’. The following question could be asked in classes: ‘what would you like to be discussed in the sessions?’

Final session

The final session that I attended was opened by Simon Grey from the University of Hull who spoke about ‘Games, learning and engagement’. Simon presented a brief history of gaming followed by a summary of the concept of gamification and game based learning. I learnt that there were eight different types of fun: sensation, fantasy, narrative, challenge, fellowship, discover, expression and submission (these terms reminded me of usability and user experience goals that are found in interaction design). Other points include the importance of mechanics (rules), dynamics (the system), and aesthetics (the look and feel), before Simon spoke about the concept of flow, and that we needed to give students clear goals, immediate feedback, and challenges that match their skill.

I think it was then my turn to do a bit of speaking. I spoke about a university funded project to study the teaching of a second level module about web technologies. My key points were that students differed significantly in terms of their backgrounds and abilities, and tutors differed significantly in terms of their online teaching practice.

The next session, entitled ‘teaching programming and data analysis with a MOOC’ was given by my colleague Michel Wermelinger. Michel talked about his experience of teaching on a MOOC entitled ‘learn to code for data analysis’ which has been presented through FutureLearn. Michel mentioned some software that students could use: a Python distribution called Anaconda (Wikipedia), something called SageMathCloud (Wikipedia), and Jupyter notebooks (Jupyter website). We were also told of a blog post that Michel had written called the First Principles of Instruction (blog post). The post which presents a very brief summary of five principles of instructional design that promotes learning and engagement. These are: problem centred, activation (of past experience), demonstration (to show new knowledge), application, and integration (of new knowledge into existing knowledge or practice).

It was a good talk. I have one other memory, which was that Michel was pretty robust in his views about much workload running a MOOC actually entails from a lecturer’s perspective.

Day two: first session

The first session had the title ‘development of digital information literacy’ by Eleanor Crabb who was also from the OU. I noted down the terms ‘understanding digital practices, finding information and critical evaluation’. There was a mention of an online pinboard tool, which was a bit like Pinterest, and a presentation about different activities: an icebreaker activity and a collaborative activity where students had to summarise a chemistry paper.

The next session had the title ‘encouraging students’ reflection through online progress files’. All students were required to make comments every week on each module, which in turn, acquire marks – which is an interesting parallel with a scientist’s notebook.  Key challenges included engagement with students and staff and students knowing what to write (which was ameliorated by a set of more detailed guidelines).

A session that I found especially interesting was entitled ‘maths advice and revision for chemistry’.  A key term that I noted down was: ‘the maths problem’; some students didn’t have mathematics as a prerequisite when they started to study chemistry as an undergraduate at Glasgow University. I also noted down bit of research that one of the best indicators of success in chemistry wasn’t having studied chemistry in the past, but instead, having an existing maths qualification. As I listened I started to think about (and remember) my own experience as a computer science student where I had to attend remedial maths classes (since I didn’t study A-level). I had to attend these classes where we were given maths puzzles printed on yellow paper. In Glasgow University, students could attend voluntary labs, workshops and group tutorials. Subjects included complex numbers, vectors, matrices, differentiation and integration. I couldn’t help but feel that such an approach would have been really useful during my own undergraduate studies.

The final session had the title: ‘understanding the process by which students manage their employability’. Employability was defined as ‘personal assets, how they are deployed, how they are presented to employers, and the wider context (such as economic conditions and personal circumstances). Another thought I had was that employability also relates the information that employers might find easily discover about potential employees if they do a quick internet search (which was a theme I think I was introduced to at another HEA workshop). Much food for thought.

Keynote summary:  Future directions in teaching and learning

The second conference keynote was by Derek Raine (who spoke during an earlier session) from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Science from the University of Leicester. Derek mentioned something called the New Directions in the teaching of Physics which presents opinion pieces, pedagogic research and reviews.

Before considering the future, Raine looked to the past to consider the historic and contemporary roles of universities. As well as being centres of study for the sciences and humanities, they can also be considered to be an ‘engine of social mobility, a driver of economic growth, and a cornerstone of our cultural landscape. Points were drawn from the 2016 white paper (THES explanation), and the 1963 Robins Report in Higher Education  (Education England) which states that higher education should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue it (page 9).  

According to Raine (and my notes), the 2016 white paper cites problems: that courses are inflexible, that students are dissatisfied, and there are national skills shortages. An important point is that there is increased competition from different types of education providers which is connected with an important change in perspective. Historically, higher education has been viewed as being a public good (the view that an educated and skilled workforce helps all members of society) whereas it is now being presented as a private good (that an education helps the individual to earn money). My view, and those of others that I work with is that the first perspective needs to be protected.

Another point was that there is research that tells us something about what works in higher education teaching. Key points include: time on task, trained teaching staff, the importance and use of collaborative learning, class sizes, quality of feedback, and the sense of community (Gibbs, Dimensions of Quality, Higher Education Academy PDF).

I made a note of some pedagogies (approaches to teaching) that were mentioned: personalised lecturers (that are based on student questions), flipped classrooms (where students listen to lectures before attending a tutorial), problem-based learning, MOOCs (which I’m very cynical about), gamificiation, extension tasks and student journals. As our speaker was speaking, I made a note that I felt important: ‘an alternative division of labour where pedagogic research or scholarship plays a part’.

Another interesting idea was the importance of sustainability (of higher education, and education per se) as a fundamental idea or principle. I also noted that it is important that ‘history is linked with the present, science linked with society, and economies with social justice, and this is achieved through interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary’. I agree: connections are important since they offer us perspective.

These final thoughts inspired an interesting point during the concluding question and answer session: ‘it isn’t just about what a university is for, but also what is an economy for; it’s not just about money, it’s about culture and our place within it’. 

Final session

The first of three sessions was from three of my OU colleagues, Ann Walshe, Anne-Marie Gallen, and Anne Campbell who were studying ‘associate lecturer perspectives on supporting students through tuition in groups’. They were asking: ‘what is tuition?’, ‘what can we learn from tutors?’ and ‘are there some common understandings across stakeholders?’ The research is being carried out through workshops and telephone interviews.

The next talk had the title ‘a student monitoring and remedial action system for improving retention of computer science programmes’ by Stewart Green from the University of West of England. I noted that there was a role of a retention co-ordinator. This is someone who gets different sources of data, such as attendance data, VLE logins, and assessment results. A key task is to periodically review the data, and to choose actions supported by student support advisors. Interventions might include email messages, face to face chats, and referrals to advisors. Students may, of course, be affected by a whole range of different issues, including illness, family issues and caring responsibilities.

In some ways Stewart’s role represents a human equivalent of various learning analytics project that I have heard rumours about in the OU. I really like the human element that underlies the looking of reports about attendance and attainment; this backs up my opinion that what really matters in education isn’t technology, but people.

I also noted down a couple of useful reports. The first that I noted had the title: Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change by Liz Thomas (HEA website). The second was entitled Undergraduate retention and attainment across the disciplines (HEA website).

The final session was called ‘visualising student progress: identifying patterns in the behaviour of students learning databases’. It was given by Andrew Cumming from Edinburgh Napier. Andrew spoke about tutorial exercises, where students had to perform SQL database searches across a number of live databases. I also have made the note ‘can we tell the difference between formal and informal learners?’ but I have no idea what this means.

Concluding thoughts

By the end of the two days at Leicester, I was pretty tired: there had been loads of presentations, and a lot of take in. Even though several months have now passed since the event, I can still remember some highlights. I was particularly interested in three things: the idea of an official ‘student journal’ as a learning tool (it was an interesting pedagogic approach), the idea of a ‘retention tutor’ (retention is a theme which crops up at almost every meeting I attend), and a welcome dose of perspective given to everyone during the second keynote.

There was one theme that seemed to go through every session: the importance of connecting teaching and research. Even though some of us might work in a discipline that doesn’t change very much (such as mathematics), the context and environment in which a subject or discipline sits is, of course, always changing. This means that we must always think about, study and explore ways to engage our students.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Open University eSTEeM 2016 conference, 14 April 2016

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 May 2016, 15:57

eSTEeM is the Open University centre for STEM pedagogy. I think this was the second or third eSTEeM conference I’ve been to, and they’ve always been pretty interesting. This blog post is a quick summary of the different talks that I went to. I’m blogging this, so I can remember what happened, and also just in case it might be useful for anyone else who was there.

Opening keynote

Andrew Smith, Senior Lecturer in networking, gave a thought provoking keynote speech entitled ‘our classroom has escaped’. He began by asking everyone who was users of different social media tools: twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Pretty much everyone put up their hands, showing how popular these tools are.

Andrew said ‘we suffer from the paradigm of monolithic learning; what happens in my classroom doesn’t leak out’, and that we are protective of our content.  His point was: things have been ‘escaping’ for some time. As soon as Andrew mentioned this, I thought of the session about Facebook that was held in the most recent associate lecturer development session (OU blog). A question is: how do people outside our classroom see what is going on?

A challenge is that social media exposes us amongst our peers, but it also offers us a way to engage our audience beyond the classroom. But how might we use these tools to teach? One approach is to automate our social media content. For instance, if you know what your content is you can ‘schedule it and plan it’. There is also the potential to engage students when modules are not running, or students are between presentations.

This is all very well, but how do we great engagement? One approach is to ask open questions. The idea is to create a community of practice, where both learners and tutors participate. There is also the importance of relevance. Social media engagement can also connect current studies to current and changing media stories. One of the roles of an educator is to create ‘sparks of interest’, to inspire, and to facilitate learning.

Would the way that you approach social media be different depending upon the subject that you teach? Perhaps. The thing with networking, is that many things are cut and dried; the situation might be very different with subjects from the humanities, for instance.

(In case you’re interested, Andrew told us about two of his Twitter streams: @OUCisco and @OUCyberSec)

Session C: Online practices

There was a lot going on, so I had to choose from one of many different parallel sessions. The first talk in the ‘online practices’ session, by Vic Nicholas, was all about student perceptions of online group work as they studied a ‘classical science module’. One finding (that was, in retrospect, not particularly surprising) was that students appear to have negative views about group work. One thing that I took away from this session was the use of email to prompt students at certain points throughout the module. (This reminded me that tutors have been requesting a ‘send text message to students’ feature for quite a while now).

The next talk took a very different tone: rather than focussing on the students, it was all about how to use technology to empower academic authors. Angela Coe told us about how a tool called OpenEdx (OpenEdx site) was used to create materials for S309 Earth Processes (OU website). OpenEdx was described as a tool that has been created by STEM developers for STEM developers.

Some interesting points were that the tool exposed more about the author and who they are. The use of the tool also encouraged an informal chatty writing style, and supported ‘in content’ discussions. I seem to remember that Angela also spoke about animations and the sharing of data sets using Google Docs. 

The final presentation in this session was entitled, ‘the trials and tribulations of S217’ (which is entitled Physics: from classical to quantum). This is a module that appears to cover some pretty hard (yet fundamental) stuff, such as thermodynamics, optics and quantum physics. An important issue that needed to be addressed in this module was the accessibility of the mathematical materials. I’ve made a note that they authors had to move Tex content to the virtual learning environment (which is a theme that was mentioned in my previous blog about a BCS accessibility conference). 

Session F: MOOCs

The first presentation of this session, entitled ‘Evaluating the design and delivery of a Smart Cities MOOC for an international audience’ was given by Lorraine Hudson from the department of Computing and Communications. The OU is a central partner in an EU funded project that is all about Smart Cities, or how the operation of cities can be supported by the use of different types of IT systems. In some senses the MOOC seems to be about how to tackle ‘wicked problems’ (problems that don’t have an immediately apparent solution). The subject is also necessarily interdisciplinary. 

Michel Wermelinger and Tony Hirst spoke about their experience of designing a MOOC about using the programming language Python for data analysis. In some respects, Michel’s presentation was a ‘warts and all’ take on designing and running a MOOC. The main point that I took away from his presentation was that MOOCs are a lot of hard work for the academics who have to run them, and there is the perpetual question of whether this is time well spent, especially when we bear in mind the fact that around three quarters of the participants already have degrees (which was a point also mentioned in Lorraine’s talk).

The final presentation was by Kris Stutchbury, who spoke about ‘Supporting the teaching of Science in development contexts: OpenScience Lab and TESSA’. TESSA is an abbreviation of Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kris’s project represented a case study, of a snap shot of what is happening within the TESSA project, which can be thought of as an important aspect to the university’s wider social mission. 

Workshop: Listening to graphs

This session was hosted by Chris Hughes and Karen Vines. Their session opened with the observation that graphs are (obviously) a really effective way of communicating a lot numerical data really easily, but how do we communicate the same information for students who have visual impairments?

There are a number of different ways: figure descriptions, the use of tactile diagrams, and the use of sonification, which means converting a visual representation to an audible one. The challenge is, of course, how do we do it? Chris mentioned that sonification has been around for quite a long time; at least one hundred years. One common example of sonification is the Geiger counter, which translates measurements of radiation of audible clicks.

There are a bunch of ‘sound parameters’ that can be manipulated. These are: pitch, timbre, time, loudness and repetition. By way of a simple introduction we were asked to draw a graph based on an equivalent auditory representation. This is all well and good, but there is a compelling research question which needs to be answered, which is: do sonifications actually work during study? Do they help students to learn?

To try to answer this question Chris, Karen and colleagues designed a study. In their study, they gave five visually impaired students and five sighted six learning scenarios: two were from science, one was from mathematics, and the remaining three were from statistics. Of course, since there was such a small sample size, the study was qualitative and (as I interpreted it) exploratory.

The workshop raised some really interesting questions, such as: how do we best teach through figure descriptions? This also emphasised the extent to which existing student knowledge can influence the interpretation of certain descriptions. The final point that I noted was: ‘we need to think of a blended approach, to use different representations; sonifications, descriptions and tactile diagrams’.

Closing Keynote

The closing keynote was by Helen Beetham, and had the title, ‘supporting lifelong learner’s resilience and care in a digital age’.  Helen began with a definition of ‘learning literacies in a digital age’: capabilities that allow an individual to thrive (to live, to learn, to work) in a digital society. There is a JISC funded project called Learning Literacies for the Digital Age (LLiDA) that accompanies this description; an associated project is the JISC Digital Student project (JISC). But what does it mean to be a ‘digital’ student? (If this is a term can ever be defined?) Perhaps it could be able developing effective study habits and specialist practices, using technology to create relationships with peers. 

A connected idea is the notion of ‘digital literacy’. To help us with definitions, there is a JISC information page called Developing students’ Digital Literacy (JISC) that offers a bit of guidance. Another thought is that perhaps ‘the digital divide might be narrower, and deeper’ with respect to how we use digital tools and consume digital learning media. There is also the notion of ‘digital well-being’, and Helen offers a number of digital well-being references (Google Doc). An accompanying idea is ‘digital resilience’.

An interesting point, and one I’ve come across before, is the importance of ‘career and identity management’ (I think I might have come across this term at a HEA event about employability): our different digital identities have the potential to blur, and knowing how we are presented ‘on-line’ is important.

Helen gave us with two other interesting phrases to consider: the notion of our ‘quantified selves’, which points to the question of how much control we have over what data is collected about us, and whether this might connect to our ‘digital capital’.

Reflections

What surprised me about this conference was how much research and scholarship was going on across the university. The poster session was especially memorable. I don’t know how many posters there were, but there were at least twenty, each relating to a different aspect of teaching and learning. Some posters focussed on teaching practice, others focussed on technology.

To get more of a view about what is going on (and what was happening in the other parallel sessions), I really need to find the time to sit down with a cup of tea and work through the conference proceedings.

More information about eSTEeM funded research can also be found by visiting the Open University eSTEeM website (Open University).

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Digital accessibility in higher and further education conference, April 2016

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 May 2016, 12:06

I’ve been to a couple of events at the British Computer Society (BCS) before. This one was especially interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are over ten thousand students with disabilities studying at the Open University, and it’s important to know what is going on in the field. Secondly, accessibility in higher education is central to a module that I tutor (H810 accessible on-line learning). Another reason, of course, was to catch up with colleagues in other institutions who work in the digital accessibility sector.

This blog post is intended for internal (and external) colleagues, and students who are studying this area. What follows is a quick summary of all the talks I attended. I also hope this summary might be useful for anyone who was at the conference.

Introductions and opening talks

The conference had the subheading: ‘meeting the needs of the increasing number of students with disabilities’. Lord Addington, spokesman for Special Educational Needs (SEN) at the House of Lords, introduced the event. He spoke about the political context, highlighting the importance of employers. A really important point was: ‘please make sure everyone knows what you can do, to make someone’s life slightly easier; let them know you have practical solutions when you talk to people outside this room’.

Accessibility for students with disabilities

The first speaker was Majid Kahn, who spoke about his experience as an undergraduate student who has a visual impairment. An early point that directly resonated with my own knowledge was the difficulties that can surround acquiring assistive technology through the UK Disability Support Allowance (DSA). Due to delays that are inherent in the process, Majid had to obtain a ‘loan’ computer from the RNIB, which arrived one month after the start of a course.

Majid said (according to my notes) that some software not was accessible through a screen reader. An accompanying challenge was accessing text books (and some books that published in PDF format are not accessible). A practical solution was to directly email the author, who could send a Word version (which would then be accessible). Since many documents and resources are accessed through institutional learning environments, Majid commented that ‘Moodle seems to be inaccessible at the moment’. This was a point that I found interesting, since I know the OU has been putting a work into trying to make Moodle accessible. Perhaps there might be differences between how Moodle is set up and used by different institutions.

Another key point was that the training available at university (in terms of how to use systems, products and assistive technologies) is not adequate. This was connected with the view that although things are heading in the right direction, there is a long way to go, and there is a lack of awareness. Awareness is connected to the importance of communication, and the acceptance that every student is different. In some situations, students may be reluctant to ask for help and advice, and some lecturers might be unwilling to offer additional support. To help to facilitate understanding it was considered important to share information; to help university staff to become more aware of the needs of students. 

An industry perspective on what to teach and how

David Sloan is an ‘accessible user experience engineer’. I know David through his publication on the notion of holistic web accessibility (Word doc, University of Bath). David’s job is to provide advice on how to develop and support digital accessibility, which is something that is often thought of ‘very late in the day’, or is considered as an afterthought.  Put another way: ‘organisations pay us to give bad news’. Rather than reporting on what doesn’t work, organisations and universities shouldn’t really focus on ‘evaluating and repairing’, but should instead focus on ‘improving practices and processes from the beginning’.

Some key problems include the lack of web development skills, understanding that not everyone uses a mouse for access, the use of colour, and media accessibility, i.e. offering alternative (useful) descriptions for graphics.

A fundamental problem can relate to the organisational perspective; accessibility not being connected to good experience design, or accessibility being ‘hived off’ into another part of interaction design. The key point is that accessibility needs to be built into development processes, and this relates to the idea of an ‘accessibility design maturity continuum’ http://uxfor.us/mature-it (Paciello group); accessibility shouldn’t be added as an afterthought.

There are a number of challenges for educators: the importance of integrating accessibility into the curriculum, that digital literacy and accessibility communication should be embedded into all subjects (and not just information technology or computing sciences), and that it should be integrated into learning activities, experiences and assessment. It is also important to include accessibility as a core professional skill.  David went on to suggest that there might be increased professionalization of accessibility, and mentioned something called TeachAccess.org (TeachAccess website).

As David was talking, I had a thought which relates to the complexities that are inherent in accessibility. Whilst it is possible to create accessible resources and accessible software, every learner is different in terms of their personal needs and their learning strategies. Learners need to develop expertise and mastery over their tools. This is, of course, something that takes time.

Accessible STEM: Anticipating and resolving barriers

Emma Cliffe works in the accessibility resource centre in the University of Bath. Emma helps to provide accessible solutions for maths, computing, and subjects that present a lot of diagrams.

When it comes to maths, a really important point is that students are expected to produce assignments that their lecturers can read; students invariably need to show their working to demonstrate their understanding of mathematical concepts. One of the issues is that some digital formats (such as PDFs, for example) are ‘lossy’, which means that they lose some of their important semantic information when PDF documents are created.

Lecturers need to provide materials in a format that retains the ‘semantic structure’ (or meaning) of the maths that they aim to teach. Emma mentioned a range of tools and formats: structured Word documents, structured HTML documents, MathML, or Tex plus something called MathJax, Markdown, or ePub3. 

As a brief aside, Tex is a typesetting language which is used with Latex, which mathematicians often use to write technical papers. I’ve used Latex in anger only once, and found it very difficult! I hadn’t heard of something called MathJax before.

 A key question is: how do you author mathematics? The answer is: it is a skill that needs to be learnt (and, of course, takes time to master). This area is one that is rapidly changing, and is difficult for disabled support allowance (DSA) assessors to keep up.

Emma moved onto looking at a subject that that cropped up in my undergraduate studies: finite state automata, which are usually represented through diagrams (using circles and arrows). A finite stage machine is an abstract machine that moves between different states of operation. The thing is, it’s pretty difficult to describe them. To emphasise this point, we were shown different types of descriptions, some more descriptive and wordy than others.

Reflecting on David’s session, I noted that we need to help students to find a choice of tools that work for them. We also need to embed accessibility into procurement processes, and figure out how to integrate accessibility in our teaching (since non accessible students can also benefit from any adjustments that we make). Collaboration is, of course, important too.

Accessibility and MOOCs

EA Draffan from the University of Southampton spoke of a range of different issues that related to accessibility. One point (and I don’t know whether this is true) is that the majority of learners are either middle aged, or elderly.

EA made the really important point that all technologies can be assistive. Some important questions to ask those working in the academic context are: why are we using certain types of multimedia? What are its barriers for use? Do all learners need it? Is personalisation possible?

Rather than presenting research findings, the main point of EA’s presentation seemed to be: MOOC designers and developers need to be mindful about the importance of accessibility. EA went onto talk about different types of accessibility checkers. (There is, of course, the accompanying issue that it can be sometimes difficult to understand and interpret the results from these checkers).

On the subject of MOOCs, I have a couple of research questions (one of which was touched on by EA). The first one is: what do MOOCs about accessibility actually teach? And, secondly, are MOOCs themselves accessible? What are the practical barriers that learners face, and what do they do to get around them?

Parallel session: accessible and adaptable materials and content

The afternoon parallel session consisted of three presentations. The first talk was about ‘how to make PDF documents accessible in virtual environments’, and was given by colleagues from AbilityNet (AbilityNet website). The advice was simple, familiar and effective: create documents using accessible tools, know your audience, don’t use long paragraphs, use headings, use bullet points to break up text, avoid graphics of text, don’t use colours to provide information, and use alternative text for images. Importantly: always consider the semantic structure of a document.

Next up, was an accessibility consultant called Ted Page, who said there were differences between technical accessibility and content accessibility. I think this means that event though something might be accessible through assistive technology, the corresponding content, if read out by a screen reader, might not make any sense at all. PDFs are, apparently, a reasonable solution, but I was interested to hear that MathML is coming to PDF documents (which should add more semantic structure to documents). This echoes Emma’s point that this is a fast moving area.

The third presentation from this session was by Joanna Hunt, from Blackboard. Joanna spoke about a new on-line real-time conferencing system that may replace Elluminate (which is the basis of OU Live, the OU’s real-time tutorial system), which relies on a Java plug-in. This additional bit of Java software can sometimes be a barrier for users. This connects to a wider point that usability and accessibility are intrinsically connected. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a feel for how the new Blackboard system may work (and its accessibility) since it is still under development.

Closing Keynote: Employment prospects of STEM graduates with Disabilities

Peter Looms, from the Technical University of Demark addressed a range of wider issues. Not only is accessibility important in terms of learning resources and classroom activities, but equal access to social activities (of course) is also important. This point is related to the social model of disability. There should be a movement away from solving problems, to removing barriers.

Other points related to the costs of exclusion: there are societal and economic impacts. Assistive technology and digital tools can often be expensive. There are also benefits to inclusion. Peter mentioned Kyle Schwanke, a Microsoft Xbox engineer who has ASD, and touched on the importance of diversity and recruitment. (More information about Kyle Schwanke can be found in a Microsoft People article). The point is that diversity should be viewed as an asset, not a burden. 

Discussion and reflections

During each of the two parallel sessions, each group was asked to consider what might be four points (or steps) to digital accessibility.

Here is a list of the combined points: the importance of consultation (with students), professionalise good teaching practice, improve access to information, put skills before disability (and use the social model of disability), consider using game technology for educating tutors, the importance of doing things the right way, the importance of standards, the importance of involving users, training tutors, and working together.

The final discussions centred upon whether the BCS could embed more accessibility into its core mission, and the extent to which the Teaching Excellent Framework (Times Higher article) may influence practice.

My main concluding thought is that there was one aspect to the conference that wasn’t a surprise, and another aspect that was a surprise. In some respects, all of the subjects and issues that were discussed were quite familiar to me: I am aware of the challenges that surround mathematics, and that we should not be ‘retrofitting’ accessibility to digital materials (but should, instead, think about accessibility from the outset). The surprise was the feeling that there is still a long way to go when it came to educating people about the importance of accessibility.

There are (at least) two reasons why it is important. Firstly, making something accessible, makes things easier for everyone. Secondly, we a moral and a legal responsibility to do something about it. 

For those who are interested, resources from the conference have been made available on the BCS website.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Associate Lecturer Conference: London School of Economics, 19 March 2016

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 18 Apr 2016, 12:20

This blog is a quick summary of an Associate Lecturer development conference that was held at the London School of Economics on 19 March 2016.

There are three parts to this post: a summary of a keynote by vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks, a summary of research into the use of Facebook by students, and a summary of a session that was for Computing, Engineering and Technology students. This final session has led to the creation of a resource that could be useful for all OU associate lecturers (which has also been included).

Before going any further, one thing that I should say is that these are my own notes and reflections. Other attendees might well have viewed proceedings from a slightly different perspectives (or, understood things slightly differently). 

Keynote: Peter Horrocks

Peter began his keynote by introducing himself, saying that he was very familiar with the part of London where the AL development conference was located; it was, of course, just around the corner from the BBC World Service, where he used to be a director.

Peter talked about the OU emerging strategy and the ‘vital role that associate lecturers can play’, whilst acknowledging the contribution that the AL community makes to the success of the university.

Interestingly, Peter said that there had been improvements to the ‘political language’ that was being used in relation to part-time learning. I also made a note of some kind of review in lifelong learning that might take place, and a possible expansion of the student loan book, which was something that Peter would mention later on during his talk.

After his introduction, Peter played a video clip of Geoffrey Crowther, the founding chancellor of the university. I noted down the following quote, which relates to the university objective to ‘to cater for many thousands of people who do not get higher education’.

Peter reported that when the university was formed, higher education participation was under 15%. It is now, however, close to 50%. He went on to say it was important to understand that there had been a substantial decline in OU student numbers in recent years and this has had a significant knock on effect on the overall income to the university. A challenge was that as the university shrunk, it becomes harder for the university to continue to have a positive impact on wider society.

Peter did, however, say that there was the intention to get the university growing again. The number of students studying for diplomas and certificates had fallen, and these qualifications had not been replaced. He also reported that there was a movement towards certificates and diplomas being ‘loanable’ qualifications. A degree was considered to a ‘big’ (or ‘high’?) ‘hurdle’ to get over, and there might be the need to adjust the ‘university offer’.

Another interesting point that that profile of OU students has changed. When the university started in the 1970s, 25% of the original students were women. Women now account for 57% of the student body. (I also remember hearing anecdotal evidence that the student body is getting younger too, but I don’t have the stats to back this up).

Peter then went on to talk about his ‘students first’ strategy, which was presented through a ‘graphical device’. Key points included the importance of ‘student success’ and ‘innovation for impact’. University ‘people’ were presented as a layer at the bottom of the graphic. My own view is that the university ‘people’ should occupy a more central place in the strategy: it is people who offer students tuition, it is people who support those tutors, and it is people who write the modules and people who carry out world leading research.

Another sentence that I noted was that ‘[we have] an enormous challenge to turn around [a] steep decline in students’ and everyone is to be involved with this. There were, however, have some suggestions. A thought was to give more pastoral support for students, perhaps ‘a named personal tutor for the duration of the student’s time with the OU’. (This is an idea that reminds me to the role of the ‘tutor councillor’; a role that had disappeared by the time I joined the university in 2006). Other thoughts included having associate lecturers more involved in module and content creation (which implicitly connects to current AL contract negotiations). All these points took us to a university vision statement, which was: ‘to reach more students with life-changing learning that meets their needs and enriches society’.

After his keynote, Peter ran a short question and answer session. The first question was very direct, and addressed many concerns that were held by many of the full time staff those who were attending the event. The question was: ‘if we are going to be putting students first, why are we closing seven regional centres, where over three hundred dedicated and experienced people will lose their jobs?’ His reply was that student support will be offered in terms of curriculum, and will not be constrained by geography, and there will be benefits by co-locating different functions together. Another benefit that has been cited has been increased opening hours for the student support workers.

I see a lot of the hard work that goes on in the regional centres, and I fundamentally disagree with the way that the restructuring is taking place.  I have previously written in an earlier blog post about all the different functions that take place in the regional centres, and I seriously worry that the rate at which the centres to close creates serious operational risks for the university. One of the most important relationships that a student has is with their tutor, and regional centres, of course, play a fundamental role in helping to support our tutors.

Another question centred about why the university was investing in FutureLearn, its division that offers free on-line courses, or MOOCs (which are known as: massive open on-line courses). I’ve noted down two answers: firstly, that FutureLearn plans to be profitable by 2018 (I’m paraphrasing, since I can’t remember the entire reply). This was an interesting response, since I’m baffled by its business model. Secondly, MOOCs are in keeping with the university’s mission to be open to people, places and ideas. The availability of MOOCs is something to be applauded, but a perpetual worry is that MOOCs are very often studied by students who already have degree level qualifications. (One statistic that I’ve heard is that three quarters of MOOC students already have a degree).

If MOOCs play a role in the university’s widening participation agenda, another related worry is that the capacity to run national widening participation initiatives (perhaps supported by MOOCs?) will be diminished by dismantling the university regional network.

Other points related to the recognition of associate lecturers. One point was, ‘we’re not just vital; we’re core’. Another point was: ‘if you want success, you have got to value everyone here, and our commitment to students, society and equality’. These are all points I totally agree with. Associate lecturers are core: they are the people who offer our students one to one support.

From my own perspective, the staff in the regions play a fundamental role in the operation of the university, and it is more than ‘just a shame’ the dedicated staff in the various regions are being faced with the human trials of relocation or redundancy.

The Lure of Facebook

Every AL development conference offers tutors a choice of different events. For this conference, I attended ‘The Lure of Facebook’ by Leigh-Anne Perryman and Tony Coughlan.

The workshop opened with the suggestion that participation in VLE forums is falling, and perhaps there is a movement from formal learning space to informal spaces. There are, it seems, hundreds of student led study groups, and many of them are thriving.

Their study looked at ten groups, four disciplines, and three different degree levels. This accounted for 2600 participants. The research questions were simple: are the groups educational, do they facilitate learning, and what kinds of activities take place?

As with any kind of research that involves human participants, ethics are considered to be important. Only groups that were thoroughly open to the public were studied.

Findings

There were an ecosystem of groups. Each discipline area seems to have an umbrella group. People come and go between different groups. It is interesting that students from previous presentations pass on tips to the current generation of students. Students also belong to different life groups, such as textbook exchange groups, alumini groups, and regional groups.

Returning to the research questions, are they educational? Differences were observed between the different levels, in terms of the technical and academic content that was shared. The range of practices were interesting: there was evidence of peer guidance, emotional support, discussion of module context, and tips on how to become a student. The main conclusion was that these groups are complementary to other support that is offered by the university.

Discussion

One of the thoughts that was running through my mind was the relevance of some JISC research (or a JISC meeting) that seemed to emphasise the differences between online spaces: spaces that are provided by the university, and those that are facilitated by students. I seem to recall the view that the university shouldn’t intrude on these student created spaces

This thought connected to an interesting discussion around the issue of on-line behaviours, such as trolling and bullying. Whilst the university cannot police private or external groups, students still need to adhere to policies about student conduct.

It was really interesting to hear that groups seems to have a lifecycle: groups come and go. I’m sure that this was discussed, but I was left wondering about what exactly characterised the lifecycle of a Facebook group.

Faculty session

These conferences represent useful opportunities for tutors in a particular faculty to get together and share practices and experiences (and this, of course, is one of the greatest advantages of being ‘physically rooted’ in a location). I attended the Computing, Technology and Engineering session. Rather than leading this time, I decided I would participate in my role of an associate lecturer.

The session opened by a brief update my Matthew Nelson, who is a staff tutor who works in the Computing and Communications department. Mathew shared what he knew about the group tuition policy, the associate lecturer contract, and the closure of the regional centres. 

The next part of the session was facilitated by my colleague Sue Truby. Our task was to ‘unpick’ and discuss the different aspects of the tutor role, which is a resource that is featured on the TutorHome website. In other words, we were asked to contribute to a resource that describes ‘what we all do’ as tutors.

We were put into three small groups. Each group sat at a table, and we were given between three and four sheets of paper. These sheets had a ‘headline’ activity which was taken from the TutorHome resource. During the session, we moved between different tables, adding comments to each of these pages. At the end of the session, all the sheets were collected, and a summary created. What follows is a lightly edited version of that summary which was sent to me by my colleague Sue (different tutors, of course, may well have presented slightly different answers):

Welcome students. Send a motivational group email telling them about the tutor group forum. Post a message on the tutor group forum and get them talking with an introductory question (eg say something unusual about themselves and the module). Give the students a ring, and certainly ring them if they don’t reply to the introductory email.

Identify students’ needs. Look at all the records that you have available, and look out for special circumstances (module history, age etc). Send a message to those identified, encouraging them to tell you if they need something. Other information that might be useful may include past TMA performance (and other flags).

Provide correspondence tuition. Send out reminders to students to find out if extensions are needed. Use the ETMA summary and comments on the script to offer custom advice with personalised and constructive remarks, whilst always remembering to be positive. Be sure to acknowledge the work students have done and comment on progress. Offer feedback by using a ‘praise’ sandwich.

Provide academic support. Tutors can do this by answering academic questions, referring students to the student support team, helping to develop key skills by offering direction to relevant materials, keeping on-line discussion forums focussed on the subject, and plan tutorials to include support on the most challenging parts of the module.

Provide proactive support. Contact a student if no assignments are submitted. If there is no contact, refer students to the student support team, and offer feedback on assignments for the whole group as well as individual students.

Develop students’ study skills. Tutors can help with this by encouraging students to reflect on learning. Suggest study skills resources to support development (based on individual needs). Ask students to do an activity before a tutorial. Offer exam advice and revision before the exam. During tutorials, offer advice about completing an assignment, and consider providing additional support sessions. Key skills: development of note taking, revision and examination preparation. Regarding exams, consider practice hand writing: it is physically demanding to write for three hours at a time.

Monitor student progress. Check student progress towards next TMA. Chase those students who have been awarded a long extension. Monitor which students attend on-line sessions and on-line tests (where appropriate). 

Provide study related advice. Answer student questions by email, forum, or telephone. Refer students to study skills website, and provide practical advice through correspondence tuition (ETMA summary comments, and on-script comments)

Provide feedback within the OU. Offer feedback about module units by communicating with the module team. Contribute to module forums by sharing views and experience with fellow tutors (tutor forums). Contribute to associate lecturer CDSA and staff tutor feedback. Contribute to AL development events, and ask questions that are important to be asked.

Work online. Monitor student activity by reviewing forum discussion threads. Make use of the eTMA system and other tools that are needed to support the module that you tutor on. Give students updates about how TMA marking is progressing by posting updates to marking threads.

Develop your knowledge and practice. Become a student by taking advantage of the OU fee waiver. Attend associate lecturer development events. Use associate lecturer development fund to keep in touch with developments in your field. Develop on-line skills with tools such as OU Live, by seeking out and completing training. 

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank all associate lecturers who contributed to creating this resource, and for Sue Truby for running this session and collating all the discussion points.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Tony Coughlan, Saturday, 23 Apr 2016, 18:50)
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Scholarship, CALRG and SST

Visible to anyone in the world

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

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

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

Scholarship event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CALRG event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SST event

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

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

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

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

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

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015 – day 2

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 5 Jun 2018, 11:56

This is the second in a series of two blog posts about the 2015 Open University Disability conference. 

Keynote: the disability delusion

The first keynote of the day was by Tom McAlpine OBE who is a chair of a charity called Moodswings (charity website). Tom’s talk began by taking us into the history of the current disability legislation, highlighting that there has been (and continues to be) a stark difference between attention given to physical and mental health disabilities. 

He presented the audience with an interesting yet important question which was: ‘who is disabled?’  This question was linked to two philosophies which are connected with the social model of disability; the view that ‘either everyone is disabled, or nobody is disabled’.  Another interesting point was about the link between welfare and disability, and extent to which ‘austerity’ is affecting the lives of people who have disabilities: ‘it’s going to be worse than everyone imagined’.  The point was made that there should be a ‘proper use of resources’.  Individuals, it was argued, should only take as little from the state as they need. 

During Tom’s talk, I made the following note: ‘if we’re going to be fair, we shouldn’t pretend that everyone is disabled’.   I don’t think this is what he said word for word, but instead, it might be more of my impression of the point that he was trying to get across.  It is a view that I, fundamentally, take issue with.  It is a view that equates disability with the consumption of resources, and I think that the whole subject is a whole lot more complex.  You can have a disability (or an impairment of some kind), and get on with living your day to day life, and may have no recourse to need additional resources.  All you might need to get by is a bit of respect and understanding from others who are around you.

Tom’s talk was pretty provocative, and led to quite a bit of debate amongst colleagues who I spoke to.  This, I felt, was a sign that the keynote had done its job (irrespective of whether or not I personally agreed with some of the views that were expressed).

Workshop: Student mental health – whose responsibility?

The first workshop I signed up for on the second day was also by Tom.  Tom opened by stating that mental health issues may manifest themselves during study, due to change of circumstances or due to things that happen during life. He also mentioned that it is important to consider the difference between pre-existing mental health issues, and that sometimes the pressures of studying may make some students (who may be predisposed to illness) unwell.

Another point I remember was the importance of appropriate boundary setting.  This is linked to the point that there are limits to what the university can do: it can only provide help and guidance regarding study and academic issues.

During the talk I made the note: ‘wellness is a continuum’.  This was a theme that was highlighted during the London region diversity day that was specifically about mental health issues.  This part of Tom’s workshop offered a reminder that everyone can move between and onto different parts of a mental health continuum.

During the workshop, Tom also offered some controversial opinions about certain illnesses and also the roles of some tutors.  It was clear that he had particularly strong opinions, and my own opinions (which were also pretty strong) were somewhat different.  Education can be difficult whilst at the same time being transformative.  My own view is that a positive relationship between a student and a tutor is important (if not essential) to facilitate the exploring of different perspectives and views that can lead to a transformation.  I doubt very much that Tom would disagree with this view.  Our difference of opinion relates to judgement as to whether a tutor is doing something wrong if a student feels compelled to contact a tutor for support for unexpected issues.  My role is then to support that tutor, and to do my best to work with other colleagues to communicate boundaries.

In some respects Tom’s session was more of a chat than a workshop.  It was different to what I had expected, but is no better for it; there were many colleagues who were very free to express their opinions about a range of different issues.

During the session, we were reminded of a useful resources, a OU published booklet that is entitled: Studying and staying mentally healthy (OU website).  I heard that this resource is going to be made available to all students, not just students who may have disclosed a mental health issues.

Workshop: Universal design for learning – built in accessibility

The final workshop of the conference was facilitated by Heather Mole, who I managed to have a good chat with during the conference.  Heather is currently working on a really interesting PhD, which she might have mentioned during her workshop.  She has been looking into the privilege of sign-language interpreters, since they cross the boundaries of two different cultures: the Deaf culture, and our hearing culture.  This made me reflect about the connections between disability studies, other subjects, and other civil rights areas.

Heather began by playing an excerpt from a short film by Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor called An Examined Life  (YouTube)  As the film played, I made notes of the terms ‘normalising standards of our movements’, ‘disability as a political issue’ and ‘talking of language’.

I then remember some discussions about the different models of disability: the social model and the medical model.  Heather also mentioned the work of Tom Shakespeare, who is both an activist and a scholar.  Another philosophical model that was mentioned was the interactional model, which is an acknowledgement that an actual impairment is important.  I understand this model to be a combination of the social and medical models.  As Heather was speaking, I realised that I needed to do some reading!

I made an interesting note that accessibility can be thought of in two different ways.  There’s the accommodation approach, where there might be the need for an alternative way of doing things.  This could be thought of a ‘consumable’ approach.  For instance, a module team or a teacher might make a resource that was specific to an individual learner.  Another approach is universal design, which can be considered, broadly, as more ‘sustainable’: accessibility is considered from the outset and is considered at the design level.

We were told that a chap called Ron Mace created what is known as seven principles that guide ‘universal’ architectural design.  These principles are: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, tolerance for error, low physical effort, size and space for approach and use, perceptual information (i.e. alarms that offer information through different modalities: they emit a sound and flash at the same time).  

These principles can be applied to an educational context; educators can consider both the universal accessibility of their learning resources, and the systems, products or devices which allow the learning resources to be consumed (we might think of ‘products’ in terms of a series of web pages, an ebook, or a physical paper based book).

During this final workshop, we were directed to a couple of websites.  One of them was called the Centre for applied special technology group (CAST website).  Another organisation that was mentioned was the National Centre on Universal Design for Learning (UDL website).

Final keynote: an accidental comedian

I’ll give a cheeky admission at this point: it was yours truly who gave the final keynote.  The keynote had two parts: a story, and then a performance.  My point was simple: we can achieve more than we ever thought possible if we offer other people encouragement.  In some respects, this is exactly what so many people within the university try to do: academic staff, support staff, and associate lecturers; we do our best to offer encouragement and support for those who are studying.

Final thoughts

One thing that always strikes me about these conferences is the range of different subjects, workshops and speakers.  This year there were keynotes that delivered different perspectives, and workshops that presented a broad range of topics.  I personally found the workshop about the ‘tech’ particularly interesting (I think because I’m a ‘tech’ sort of guy), and I also found the talk on autism interesting, if only to remind me that there is a wealth of advice and resources that I can draw upon. 

There was an implicit theme and an implicit concern that seemed to run throughout the conference: the sense that things have become more difficult for people who have disabilities, and things are going to continue to become even more challenging.  The underlying story that catalysed the expression of these concerns was, of course, the recent change in government.  Resources, it was argued, are limited, and it’s important to ensure that they are used as effectively and efficiently as possible.

After the conference, I asked myself a quick question, which was: ‘what else could there have been?’, or ‘what would I find really interesting?’  Over the last couple of years, I’ve been increasingly aware of an emerging academic subject called disability studies.  Whilst the objective of the conference has strong and really useful practical focus, I can’t help but feel that a more academic perspective might add something to aspects of the conference.  Disability studies connect to different civil rights movements, the role of the media, analysis of barriers, and how the situation for people with disabilities is different across the globe. 

One thing that was really great, and has always been great, is the presentation of personal perspectives: the student voice is, of course, really important.

Finally, PowerPoint and other resources from the conference (conference materials) are available to internal university people, but if you’re reading this from outside the university, if there’s anything that is of particular interest, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015 – day 1

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:38

Every year, the university runs an internal conference for staff who are directly involved with supporting students who have disabilities.  This is a series of two posts which aims to share my ‘take’ on the 2015 conference.

I think this must have been either the third or the fourth time I’ve been to this event.  In some respects my involvement (and attendance) is slightly accidental since the conference isn’t technically open to academic staff.  Instead, it’s open for those who help or advise students, or help academic module teams to make sure their modules are as accessible as they could be.

I’m very grateful that the conference organisers have allowed me to attend.  In doing so, I can not only share some of the conference themes to the tutors in the London region that I help to support, but also some of my students who study H810 accessible on-line learning (OU module summary).

Opening Keynotes

There were two opening keynotes: one by David Knight, and another by Tony O’Shea-Poon.  Unfortunately I missed David’s presentation, since I fell asleep on the train from London and ended up in Coventry.  I did, however, catch the end of Tony’s presentation.  One of the things that I took away from Tony’s presentation was that there are on-going changes to rules due to government policy.  Those that are affected by disablement can be the hardest hit by change.

Workshop: Improving accessibility for all

The first conference event I went to was facilitated by Adam Hyland, Atif Choudhury and Tim Blunt.  They all help to run an organisation called Diversity and Ability (website), or DNA for short.  DNA is a social enterprise created by and led by disabled and dyslexic learners for the sole purpose of providing support, strategies and assistance.

During the workshop we discussed how different apps could be useful and how students could gain an awareness of different study strategies.   We were directed to a resources page on the DNA website which presents a summary of different types of assistive technologies.   Students can uncover different ways of doing their research, composing text and answers, carrying out proof reading and taking notes during class. 

It isn’t all about technology – it is also getting people involved, and helping learners to make the best use of technology that is available to them.   It’s also about empowerment and building self-esteem.   It’s also important to connecting different aspects (or issues) together, such as the choice and use of assistive technologies and the development of study skills.  I made a note of an elephant in the room’: there are inherent anxieties that accompany working alone.

A significant part of the workshop was dedicated to looking at different tools such as Evernote and Zotero (which was recently highlighted by JISC, an organisation that supports universities).  Another tool mentioned was Calibre, which I think I might have mentioned in an earlier post that was about using the Kindle for studying.  There was also something called Orato,  an application that allows users to select a portion of text, which is then read out loud by your computer.

Different tools can be used to do different things.  Students are, of course, regularly asked to write assignments and compose essays.  To help with this there are a number of composition tools, such as iThoughts (toketaWare website) and XMind, which are tablet and Mac based.

Another important task, is proofreading.  One tool that could help with this is a product called Grammerly which can be built into Chrome or Firefox browsers.   You might also could also use Google Docs (since iOS devices have text to speech functionality), and CereProc Voices to listen to what you have written.  Apparently you can download two high quality voices: one male, another one female.

Writing and editing is all very well, but is there anything to help with the making of notes in class?  Apparently, there is.  We heard about Sonocent Audio Notetaker, which allows you to visualise different sections of a recording and add annotations sections, so you know where to find stuff.  (I can’t help but think that this might be a really useful research tool for social scientists).  Another tool is called Audionote (Luminant software).

You’ve made notes during your class and have completed all your assignments.  An inevitable part of study is, of course, the exam.  There are, apparently, tools that can help.  The presenters the workshop mentioned a number of flash card tools, such as Studyblue, Quizlet and Anki.  The one they talked most about was Quizlet, since apparently this has a text to speech feature.  Interestingly, some educators have been known to create StudyBlue decks.  As these products were described, I thought to myself, ‘why didn’t I think of creating these tools?’

Revision takes time, which means that time management is important.  To help with this Google calendar was recommended.  It was interesting to hear that Google Calendar could, apparently, be synchronised with Outlook calendars, but this isn’t anything that I have ever tried. 

Students also need to organise their files and records.  We were told of a tool called Alfred (Alfredapp website), a productivity tool for Macs.  Other tools that were mentioned included cloud storage tools, such as Google Drive, Drop Box and One Drive.

The remainder of the session was about the referencing tool Zotero. We looked at how to download a reference template (there is one for the OU Harvard format), and apply it to web links, books for which we had the ISBN number for, books that we found on Amazon, and papers from jstor.org, a ‘a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources’.

There was a lot to take in during this session.  I had heard of some of the tools and products before, but not all of them.  One really useful aspect of the session was to learn how Zotero could be used, and also to be talked through the different sets of tools that students could use.  A really important ‘take away’ point was that assistive technology, in whatever form it takes, is always changing.  There is also great value in the ‘free’ or low cost products that exist.  I began to realise that assessors (those people who offer advice for students with disabilities) have a tough job in terms of keeping up with what might be the best tools for learners.

Keynote: Autism and Asperger’s in Higher Education

The second keynote of the conference was given by Lyndsey Draper from the National Autistic Society.  Lynsdey kicked off by giving us an interesting and surprising statistic – that over the last 10 years, disclosure of autism increased by 100%.  Another interesting fact was that autism is the only disability in the UK that has its own specific legislation.

After briefly describing what autism and Asperger’s syndrome is, Lyndsey spoke about some different theories about it.  From what I remember, I understand that there is now a consensus that there is a genetic component. 

We were also given some interesting statistics: it affects 2.8 million families and 1.1% of the population.  The diagnosis of women is apparently increasing, but a diagnosis can also be masked by other conditions, such as the eating disorder anorexia, for example.  (I remember reading some research by Simon Baron-Cohen a couple of years ago about a potential link between anorexia and autism; the systematising and food obsession represents a behaviour trait that has parallels with some behaviours that can be observed in autism).

A further interesting point was that how differences can manifest themselves may depend very much on the environment.   Lyndsey made the point that the term Asperger’s syndrome was being replaced in favour of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, for short.

As Lyndey was talking, I remembered a phrase from a session that I went to the previous year.  It was: ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met only one person with autism’; the point being that everyone is very different.

So, what might the challenges be when it comes to higher education? Students may struggle with social communication, or, specifically, understanding the unwritten rules of communication.  Smalltalk, it was said, can be considered to be illogical or complicated.  Students also might find it difficult to understand the perspectives of others.

These things said, people who have ASD are known to have some key strengths: attention to detail, a methodical approach, good memory for factual information, problem solving skills, numerical skills, and are reliable and resourceful.  As well as having a different way of thinking to others, another strength can be deep specialist knowledge and skills.

From the academic perspective, we need to acknowledge the significance of the social perspective.  There is also an obvious necessity to provide clear unambiguous feedback (which should, of course, be offered to all students too!)  In terms of adjustment, an important activity could be to try to facilitate contact between students and staff, interpret academic speaking and writing, using of checklist and offer clarifications as to what is required.

Workshop: Supporting students with autism in higher education

In addition to the keynote, Lyndsey also facilitated a workshop (which I had signed up to go to).  Like her keynote presentation, it was also filled with really interesting facts.  Apparently, students who have a diagnosis of autism are less likely to drop out than other students, i.e. 6.9% versus 10%.

In terms of the disabled student’s allowance (which is funding from the government to help students to study), students who have ASD may not benefit from the use of technology than other groups of students with disabilities.   Instead, students with ASD benefit from mentors and study support.

In the workshop, we were again given a little bit of history.  We were told about Kanner or ‘classic’ Autism, and Asperger’s syndrome, and the differences between them.  We were then asked about our perceptions and understandings.   A key phrase I noted in my notebook was: ‘everyone is completely different’, and that what is ‘good practice for autism is good practice for everyone’.

In terms of training: clarify roles, such as turn taking and eye contact.  We were offered a challenge: ‘can you imagine how much effort it would be to continually control eye contact all day?’  There is also the challenge of metaphor and idiom.

Other issues that can emerge include anxiety, depression, perfectionism, single focus or attention on something.  Some students might need prompts on how best to manage their own time. 

It was time for an activity.  We were asked a question: what difficulties might students have and what strategies might be used to overcome them? On our table we chatted about getting students to talk to each other, the challenge of choosing a module, and the ambiguities of language.

A number of points were mentioned during a plenary discussion.  These were the importance of clear feedback and the need to be consistent and specific, the sharing of good practice, and how some students may need transition support between different institutions and levels of study. At the end of the session we were directed to the National Autistic Society website, should we need more information about anything.

Keynote: Education for a new me

Steve McNeice was once a triathlete.  He took us back to a day when everything in his life changed.  He was out on a swim when he realised that he wasn’t very well.  He told us that he had acquired a profoundly serious bacterial infection.  He went to hospital and fell into a coma.  He woke up seven weeks later, with both legs amputated above the knee.  Apparently 95% of double above knee amputees don’t walk.  Seventeen months later, Steve told us that he walked out of the hospital.

I won’t even try to do justice to Steve’s presentation and the effect that it had, both on myself and others who were in the room.  Here was someone who was talking about how his life had changed dramatically.  He went from being active and able bodied, to having to learn how to walk again.  Despite all this, and as he told us his story, he exuded positivity and good humour.

Apparently some people who use prostetic legs can use up to 300% more energy than able bodied people.  As he talked, he walked up and down at the front of the presentation room.  ‘I swim three times a week, and you see all kinds of people at the pool.’ Steve said.  ‘Some of them look and they think, ‘oh, what a shame’, and then I lap them’.

He told us about the seemingly innocuous challenges of going down stairs, navigating escalators and stepping over things.  All these activities that so many of us take for granted, Steve had to re-learn how to do them.  He shows us numerous video clips where he fell over, negotiating a hill.

‘While I was going through rehab, I was studying for a degree’, he told us.  He studied German.  A part of his illness meant that he became deaf in one ear, and partially lost hearing in another.  An adjustment was the request to sit on a certain side of a room.  One thing that he said he needed to work on was listening: so, he studied German.

‘I used the OU to learn about my condition.  I studied T307, designing for a sustainable future.  I designed some sockets for my prostetic limb’.  He told us that he took ownership of his lifelong condition by setting lots of educational goals.

Through these OU conferences, I’ve come to seen that having a disability can open doors to new experiences, rather than close them.  Steve told us that he has contributed to events at the house of commons and is a member of the all-party parliamentary limb loss group.

He told us that he is now studying Italian.  He also lectures at different universities to give something back to physiotherapists, the occupation that offered him so much help.  I also noted down the following words: ‘rehabilitation is an on-going process, and something could change at any point’.

Like so many of us at the talk, I was struck by his spirit of determination.  I also took away the thought that, perhaps, I ought to do slightly more to ‘give back’ to the profession that has tried to help me with my own condition or situation.   His talk also emphasised the transformative effect of education.  I couldn’t help but worry that the increase in higher fees this might potentially prevent or deter some students from studying modules and subject that may influence their lives for the better.

Permalink
Share post
Page: 1 2

This blog might contain posts that are only visible to logged-in users, or where only logged-in users can comment. If you have an account on the system, please log in for full access.

Total visits to this blog: 720765