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South East of England Associate lecturer conference: Kent College

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 24 Mar 2014, 14:14

Twice a year Open University associate lecturers have an opportunity to attend regional development events.  These conferences offer tutors a number of different training sessions about a range of different topics, ranging from change in university policies, through to the best way to use technology.

Each event is different and has a slightly different character.  This blog is a really simple overview of an event that I recently attended at Kent College.  In fact, I think I remember visiting Kent College to attend my first ever tutorial, which was run by my then mentor, not long after starting as an associate lecturer.  I remember getting quite lost amongst a number of different buildings and being in quite a gloomy room.  Things have changed: Kent College was unrecognisable.  Old buildings had been demolished to make way for new modern ones.  This, however, wasn't the only surprise.

Teaching through drama

Not long after arriving, we were all gently ushered into a large theatre.  We could see a number of tables set out at the front and I immediately expected to endure a series of formal presentations about changes to the structure of the university, or an update about student registrations, for example.   Thankfully, I was disappointed. 

From stage left and right, actors suddenly appeared and started to scream and shout.  It immediately became apparent that we were all in the middle of a theatre production which was all about teaching and learning.  We all watched a short twenty minute play of a tutorial, in which we were presented with some fundamentally challenging situations.  The tutorial, needless to say, was a disaster.  Things didn't go at all well, and everyone seemed to be very unhappy.  Our hapless tutor was left in tears!

When the play had finished and we were collectively shocked by the trauma of it all, we were told that it would be restarted.  We were then told that we should 'jump in' and intervene to help correct the pedagogic disaster that we were all confronted with.  Every five or so minutes, colleagues put up their hands to indicate that they would like to take control of the wayward situation.  It was astonishing to watch for two different reasons.  Firstly, the willingness that people took on the situation, and secondly the extensive discussions that emerged from each of the interventions.

Towards the end of the modified (and much more measured) play, I could resist no longer.  I too put up my hand to take on the role of the hapless tutor 'Rosie'.  My role, in that instant, was about communicating the details surrounding an important part of university policy and ensuring that the student (played by an actor) had sufficient information to make a decision about what to do.   It was an experience that felt strangely empowering, and the debates that emerged from the intervention were very useful; you could backtrack and run through a tricky situation time and time again.  The extensive audience, sitting just a few meters away, were there to offer friendly situations.

If an outsider peered around the door and saw what was going on, it might be tempting to view all this activity as some form of strange self-reflective light entertainment.  My own view is very different: there is a big distance between talking about educational practice in the third person, i.e. discussing between ourselves what we might do, and actually going ahead and actually doing the things that could immediately make a difference.   A really nice aspect of the play was that all the students (as played by actors) were all very different.  I'm personally very happy that I'm not tutoring on the fictional module 'comparative studies'!  This first session of the AL development conference was entertaining, enjoyable, difficult and insightful all at the same time.

Sessions

After the theatre production, we (meaning: conference delegates) went to various parallel sessions.  I had opted for a session that was part about the students and part about gaining more familiarity with the various information systems that tutors have access to (through a page called TutorHome).  I've heard it said time again that the only constant in technology is change.  Since the OU makes extensive use of technology, the on-line portal that tutors use on a day to day basis is occasionally updated.  A face to face training session is an opportunity to get to know parts of our on-line world that we might not have otherwise discovered, and to chat with other tutors to understand more about the challenges that each of us face.

The second session that I attended was also very different.  Three research students from the University of Surrey presented some of their research on the subject of motivation in higher education.  There is, of course, quite a difference between the face to face study context and the Open University study context.  A presentation on methods and conclusions gave way to an extended (and quite useful) discussion on the notion of motivation.

One memory of this session is the question of how it might potentially move from being strategic learners (completing assignments just to gain credit for a module or degree), to motivation that is connected with a deep fascination and enthusiasm for a subject.  There are a number of factors at play: the importance of materials, the way in which support is given and the role that a tutor can play in terms of inspiring learners.

I made a note about the importance of feedback (in response to assessments that had been completed and returned).  A really important point was that negative feedback can be difficult to apply, especially if there is no guidance about what could be done to improve.  (This whole subject of feedback represents a tip of a much larger discussion, which I'm not going to write about in this blog).

In terms of inspiration, one useful tip that I took away from this final session was that the relevance and importance of a module if a module can be connected to debates, stories and discussions that can be found in the media.  Although this is something that is really simple (and obvious), it sometimes takes conferences such as these to remind us of the really important and useful things that we can do.

Final points

All in all, a fun day!  From my own personal perspective, I enjoyed all the sessions but I found the theatre session particularly thought provoking - not just in terms of the points that were covered, but also in terms of the approach that was used.

Since I have no idea who is going to be reading this particular blog post (not to mention all the others I've written!), I guess I'm primarily writing for other OU tutors who might accidentally discover these words.  If you are a tutor, my overriding message would be: 'do go along to your regional conferences if you can make it - they are really good fun!'

If you're a student with the university I guess my message is that there are many of us working behind the scenes.  We're always trying to do the best that we can to make sure that you're given the best possible learning experience.  Another point that I must emphasise is that the instances of interaction with tutors are really important and precious (for student and tutor alike).  So, if you're a student, my message is: 'do go along to any face to face tutorials or days schools that might be available as a part of your module - there is always going to be something that you'll be able to take away'.

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SD4ST: Drama for Staff Tutors

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 6 Mar 2014, 16:36

Whenever I visit a new place for the first time I'm always a little anxious about whether I'll be able to find it okay.  My first visit to the OU Cardiff centre was on 1 November.  I shouldn't have worried; the moment I left the train station and turned right I could see the Open University logo.  I even manage to find my destination without having to resort to a googlemap.

My reason to visit Cardiff was to attend what would be my second SD4ST event (staff development for staff tutors).  I blogged about my first SD4ST event a number of months ago which took me all the way to Gateshead where the focus of the two days was research (and how to fit it into the role of a staff tutor).  This event was all about motivation and inspiration.

I was particularly attracted to this event since I remember reading that it would involve some theatre.  A number of years ago (either three or four - I forget!)  I attended an associate lecturer development event that was held by the South East region.  I remember being ushered into a very large room where the chairs were arranged in a circle.  I have memories of being taken out of my comfort zone by being presented with drama workshop exercises which included words like zip and zap.  The overwhelming feeling that I left the East Grinstead workshop was being a little puzzled about how on earth I might be able to use some of the stuff I had just witnessed to add a little more 'zip' into my own tutorials.

The Cardiff SD4ST event was being partly organised by the same tutor who ran the associate lecturer staff development event, and I was looking forward to it.  Just like my last SD4ST post this one is intended to act as a simple record of what happened during the day, but it might be of interest to my fellow Open University staff tutors.

Good tutorials

The first session of the day was very traditional but it set the scene very well for the rest of the two days.  We were asked to split into equal groups and asked to consider the factors about what made up a good tutorial, writing our views on a big piece of paper.

Our group came up with a set of words and phrases which I managed to quickly scribble down, both on the flipchart page and in my notebook.  These were: student centred, friendliness, knowledge of module, good structure, enthusiasm, flexibility, ability to connect things together, personal approach, supportive atmosphere and clarity of expression.

After the groups returned, there was a quick plenary discussion and each sheet was blu-tacked to the wall to act as physical reminders of our discussion.

Forum theatre

After a short break we were led into a room that had a configuration that I remembered my AL development event several years ago: the chairs were arranged in a circle!  We were told that three actors would act out a scene from the start of a telephone tutorial that went badly wrong.  I have to admit, it was very bad... Not the acting, I mean; that was very good!  What we were shown certainly didn't create a very good impression and if I had been a student I would have been suitably bewildered.

When the scene had come to an end it was replayed where we were then asked to stop the scene and take over the scene to offer a correction.  An illustrious education staff tutor from the London region took up this challenge!  Other staff tutors were then encouraged to jump in to the tutoring seat to lead the tutorial to a successful conclusion whilst at the same time reflecting carefully on what was happening.

Towards the end of the first session we were given a further question (or challenge) to think about, which was: how to make a good tutorial better and generate a 'palpable buzz' (a phrase that generated quite a bit of debate towards the end of the two days).

Elluminate

The next session of the day was all about Elluminate.  It very soon became apparent that there was a big difference in how this asynchronous tool is used by different module teams.  For some modules it was compulsory, but on others it was not.  After a bit of discussion we were then treated to recordings of two different Elluminate sessions.

The first recording was from a sports and fitness module, and the second was from a languages module.  My own reflection on this was that there were very big differences in how the different sessions were run, and some of the differences come from the differences in the subject matter.

One of the most powerful elements of Elluminate is its whiteboard.  It enables you to create very visual activities and share concepts that would have taken a thousand words to explain.  The language activity that we were shown was truly multi-modal: learners could listen to other students speak to the words that were on the whiteboard and connect different words and phrases up using lines.

Other Elluminate tools, such as the polling function, can be used to quickly gather opinions and relate to materials that may be presented on a whiteboard slide.  One of the challenges lies with making activities interactive especially when the connection between the Elluminate moderator and the participant is distant and the emotional bandwidth afforded by tools such as Elluminate is lower.  I remember some discussions about barriers to participation and the use of the emoticons to assess 'happiness' (or should I say, whether participants are fully engaged).

One of the biggest 'take home' points of the day lies with how Elluminate might be used in a team teaching scenario.  One of the things I've heard about Elluminate it is it is very hard work to keep track of everything that is going on: there's voice, text chat and (potentially) stuff being drawn on the whiteboard.  If there are two moderators, one can be taking care of the text chat (or some of the other tools), whilst the other can be responding to the audio channel.

I remember from my own Elluminate training in the South East region that Elluminate moderators are more producers than tutors.  Moderators are producers in the sense that they produce a session by choosing an appropriate mix of the different tools that Elluminate offers.  The notion of a producer remains firmly stuck in my mind.  For me, it's an analogy that makes sense.

Creativity in face to face tutorials

On the second day David Heley gave a similar version of the workshop he prepared for regional associate lecturer development events.  I'm not going to describe it in a lot of detail since I won't be able to do it justice.

A couple of thing stood out for me.  The first was how the physical space of the room was used.  Space can be used to identify different opinions and present different characteristics.  The idea of a 'spectrum line' can be used to enable participants to think about where they stand on a particular opinion; two sides of the room being opposing views.  We were then asked to use our imagination by imagining a map of the world on the floor of the room, and then asked to stand at various locations.  It was very thought provoking: kinaesthetic learning is both fun and engaging (in my opinion, but perhaps that might be a reflection on my own learning style).

One thing that stood out for me was the idea of using 'broken powerpoint', i.e. you ask participants what is on a series of imaginary powerpoint slide as opposed to simply giving your own powerpoint.  This seemed to work really well and I've been wondering how I might be able to use it in my own interaction design tutorials.  Another related thought that can to my mind was to have a my tutor group create their own powerpoint which might be helpful for both revision purposes and also for those who may not be able to attend a particular session - I've not tried it out yet, but the 'broken powerpoint' activity has certainly got me thinking!

David made the point that the aim of his workshop isn't to encourage participants to use everything but instead to consider how to use parts of it, or even to use some of the ideas it contains as sources (or vectors) of inspiration.  That was exactly how I used it when I attended a couple of years ago.  As a result of attending David's session I gradually managed to incorporate a small amount of role play.  Doing this wasn't easy and certainly took me outside of my comfort zone, but I think that was a good thing.

Forum theatre

After some lunch and a preparatory discussion we returned to our drama room and were then presented with another semi-improvised vignette which seemed to be about poetry.  There was some discussion about the kind of feedback that might have been offered, after which the episode was then replayed.

Towards the end of the day we were paired off and given a role play challenge which related face to face tutorials. I won't say too much about this other that it was quite good fun: I certainly learnt a lot from that exercise. It was really interesting to see so many different topics of debate emerge from a series of short scenarios.

Summary

A couple of years ago I attended an accessibility and human computer interaction event (please bear with me with this: there is a connection!)  The aim of the event was to introduce a science council project to 'the public'.  I mostly expected to get more of an understanding of different technologies and how they might be applied, but I was surprised to see how drama was used to teach students to understand the perspective of users of interactive devices (such as phones and computers).  It was a really interesting approach. 

During the day, we were given a premier of a short film (just in case you might be interested, the video that is mentioned in this earlier post can be viewed through a YouTube link).  At the end of the film we were able to ask the actors some questions (who remained 'in character') about their experience of using technology.  All these goings on reminded me of some aspects of our SD4ST event.

For me, there were a couple of things I got out of the event.  The first was the principle that there are so many different ways of doing things.   I sometimes get into a habit of using technology to help to do stuff.  Whilst tools such as powerpoint and the digital resources that you can create using them can be useful in terms of sharing information with others (through digital spaces such as the VLE), a face to face tutorial offers a richer way to explore and engage with module material.

The other point was the use of drama emphasised the importance of considering and carefully thinking about different perspectives.  I like the connection that theatre encourages practice reflection, and at the same time can permit the exploration of different topics, themes and subjects.

I mentioned technology, and this is the third 'take away' point: the use and mastery of asynchronous tools such as Elluminate (and how to connect their use to module materials in an effective and engaging way) will undoubtedly continue to be a subject for further discussion and exploration.

Congrats to the organisers, Janet Hanna, Annette Duensing, Martin Rhys, David Heley and the three forum theatre actors. All in all, a fun (and useful) event!

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