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HEA STEM Conference, Newcastle 2018 (part 1)

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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.

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