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Widening Participation through Curriculum Conference (day 2 of 2)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Apr 2019, 17:29

The second day of the conference was to be slightly different to the first; there were fewer sessions, and there were a number of ‘talking circle’ workshop events to go to.  On the first day I arrived at the conference ridiculously early (I was used to the habit of travelling to Milton Keynes in time for meetings, and catching a scheduled bus to the campus).   On the second day, I was glad to discover that I wasn’t the first delegate to arrive.

Opening remarks

The second day was opened by Professor Musa Mihsein from the OU.  He presented an interesting story of how he became to work at the university as a PVC.  Musa talked about changes to funding, making the point that there has also been a change in the use of language.  There is more of a need to ‘maximise impact’.  The accompanying question is, of course, ‘how can we best evaluate projects and programs?’

A couple of points I noted down was that we haven’t got a full understanding of curriculum and its role within the institution, and that collaborations are important.  There is also a continual need to communicate in different ways to policy makers.

Keynote 4: Liberating the curriculum

The first keynote of the day was by Kelly Coate, Senior Lecturer in Higher Education, from Kings College, London.  Kelly’s talk was interesting since it spoke directly to the ‘curriculum’ part of conference title.  She has been researching about curriculum for the last 20 years and made the point that, ‘decisions about curriculum are decisions about what we can think’ (if I’ve taken that down correctly).

Here’s some of my notes: we’re accustomed to certain view of what ‘curriculum’.  The word derives from a Latin word that means to run/to proceed.  This makes a lot of sense: most participants make it to the finish line, there are often a couple of really high scorers and a couple who are, perhaps, left behind. 

If we dig around in history, the notion of curriculum used to be associated with the ‘liberal arts’.  This contains the disciplines of grammar, logic, rhetoric, music theory, astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry, with the word liberal being derived from libra, meaning ‘free’.

Kelly’s talk gave way an interesting twist.  Since she studies what people are studying, she was asked to comment on a story that Miley Cyrus was to be the subject of a university course.  If you’re interested, here’s a related news story: Back to twerk … Miley Cyrus to be studied on new university course (The Guardian).   Thinking about it for a moment, the subject of Miley can readily be used to facilitate discussions about femininity, power, exploitation, celebrity,sexuality…

A bit of theorising is always useful.  We could thing about curriculum in three different domains: knowing, acting and being. Importance of relating teaching to the now, which opens up the possibility of students considering suggesting their own curricula by performing research into how ‘the now’ relates to the broad subject area.

Another way of thinking about curriculum might be in terms of gravity and density.  Gravity is the extent to which a subject can be related to a particular context.  Density relates to how much theory there is (some subject can be incredibly theoretical).  I really like these metaphors: they’re a really good (and powerful) way to think about how a lecturer or teacher might be able to ‘ground’ a particular concept or idea.

We were briefly taken through a couple of ideas about learning and pedagogy.  The first one was the transmission model (which, I think, was described as being thoroughly discredited), where a lecturer or teacher stands in the front of the class and talks, and the students magically absorb everything. The second idea (which I really need to take some time out to look at) is actor-network theory (wikipedia).  Apparently it’s about thinking about systems and networks and how things are linked through objects and connections.  (This is all transcribed directly from my notes - I need to understand in a whole lot more than I do at the moment!)

I’ve also made a note about a researcher called Jan Nespor  who has applied actor-network theory to study physics and business studies classes.  The example was that lecturers can orchestrate totally different experiences, and these might be connected with the demands and needs of a particular discipline (if I’ve understood things correctly!)

I’ve made a note of some interesting points that were made by the delegates at the end of Kelly’s speech.  One point was that different subjects have different cultures of learning, i.e. some subjects might consider professional knowledge to be very important.  Musa mentioned the importance of problem-based learning, particularly in subjects such as engineering. 

Session 3: Innovation in design and pedagogy

There was only one presentation in the third session which was all about pedagogy.  This was entitled ‘Creating inclusive university curriculum: implementing universal design for learning in an enabling programme’, by Stuart Dinmore and Jennifer Stokes.  The presentation was all about how to make use of universal design principles within a module.  We were introduced to what UD is (that it emerges from developments in design and architecture), that it aims to create artefacts that are useful for everyone, regardless of disability.

Connecting their presentation to wider issues, there are two competing (yet complementary) accessibility approaches: individualised design and universal design.  There is also the way in which accessibility can be facilitated by the use of helpers, to enable learners to gain access to materials and learning experiences.

It was great that this presentation explicitly spoke to the accessibility and disability dimension of WP, also connecting to the importance of technology.  During Stuart and Jennifer’s presentation, I was continually trying to relate their experiences with my own experience of tutoring on the OU module, H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students (OU web page)

Talking circle

I chose to attend innovation in design and pedagogy.  I do admit that I did get a bit ‘ranty’ (in a gentle way) during this session.  This was a good opportunity to chat about some of the issues that were raised and to properly meet some of the fellow delegates.  Some of the views that I expressed within this session are featured in the reflection section that follows.

Closing keynote:  class, culture and access to higher education

The closing keynote was by John Storan from the University of East London.  John’s keynote was a welcome difference; it had a richly personal tone.  He introduced us to members of his family (who were projected onto a screen using PowerPoint), and talked us through the early years of his life, and his journey into teacher training college, whilst constantly reflecting on notions of difference.

He also spoke about a really interesting OU connection too.  John was a participant in a study that gave way to a book entitled, Family and kinship in East London (Wikipedia), by Michael Yong and Peter Willmott.  (This is one of those interesting looking books that I’m definitely going to be reading – again, further homework from this conference).  ‘We were the subject’, John told us.  He also went onto make the point about the connections between lived experience, research, policy and curriculum.

I’ve made a note in my notebook of the phrase, ‘not clever, able enough’.  I have also been subject to what I now know to be ‘imposter syndrome’.  In the question and answer session, I’ve made a note about that the codes of language can easily become barriers.

Reflections

One of the really unexpected things about this conference was the way that it accidentally encouraged me to think about my own journey to and through higher education.  Although for much of my early life I didn’t live in an area that would feature highly in any WP initiatives, higher education was an unfamiliar world to my immediate family.

Of course, my journey and my choices end up being quite nuanced when I start to pick apart the details of my biography, but I think there was one intervention that made a lasting impression.  This intervention was a single speech given by a member of staff at my former college about the opportunity that university study gave.  I remember coming away thinking, ‘I’m going to apply; I have nothing to lose, and everything to gain’.  A number of my peers thought the same.

The conference presented a number of different perspectives: the importance of assessing the effectiveness of interventions and the importance of theory, how to design WP curriculum, how to make curriculum accessible, and how to make materials engaging for different groups.  One aspect that I thought was lacking was that of the voices of the students.  It’s all very well discussing between ourselves what we think that we should be doing, but I felt it would be really valuable to hear the views of students. 

An area that would be particularly useful is to hear about instances of failure, or to hear about what went wrong when students tried university level study but couldn’t complete for some reason.  There are some really rich narratives that have the potential to tell researchers in WP and curriculum a lot about what institutions (and individuals) need to do.  The challenge, of course, is finding those people who would like to come forward and share their views.

In the sessions that I attended, there were clear discussions about class, socio-economic status and disability, but there seemed to be an opportunity to discuss more about ethnicity.  Quantitative research has shown that there is an attainment gap.   There was an opportunity for some qualitative discussions and more sharing of views regarding this subject.

Another thought relates to the number of keynote speeches.  Keynote speeches are really important, and it was great that they were varied – and they are very important in tone and agenda setting, but more paper sessions (and perhaps a plenary discussion?) might expose different issues and allow more contacts to be made.

I appreciate that these final reflections sound a bit ‘whingey’; they’re not intended to be.  WP is an important issue, and from the amount of follow-up homework I’ve got to do this clearly tells me that the conference was a great success. 

In some ways I guess the conference was slightly different to what I had expected (in terms of the debate and discussions).  I was expecting it to be slightly less ‘academic’ and slightly more practitioner focussed (or oriented to those who deal with WP issues on a day to day basis).   The unexpected difference, however, was very welcome; I’ve learnt some new stuff.

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Widening Participation through Curriculum Conference (day 1 of 2)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Apr 2019, 17:31

There are some days when I feel very lucky; lucky in the sense that my transition from school, to college and to university happened pretty painlessly.  Although my background has been far from privileged, I feel that I ended up making the right choices the exactly right time, all by accident rather than by design.

Some of these thoughts were going through my head as I walked towards the hotel where the Widening Participation through Curriculum conference was held.  Other thoughts were connected with my day job, which all about supporting the delivery of a range of undergraduate computing and ICT modules.  WP (as it seemed to be known within the conference), is something that I consider to be fundamentally important; it touches on my interactions with students, and the times that I work with members of a module team.  I also had a question, which was, ‘what more could I do [to help with WP]?’

This post is a summary of my own views of the Widening Participation through Curriculum conference that was held on two days from 30 April 2014 in Milton Keynes.  It’s intended as a rough bunch of notes for myself, and might be of distant interest to other delegates who were at the event (or anyone else who might find these ramblings remotely interesting).

Opening remarks

The opening address was by Martin Bean, Vice chancellor of the university.  He asked the question, ‘how do we ensure that widening participation is achieved?’  This is an easy question to ask, but a whole lot more difficult to answer.  Martin talked about moving from informal to formal learning, and the challenge of reaching out and connecting with adult learners in a sustainable way.  Other points included the importance of access curriculum (pre-university level study).  Access curriculum has the potential to encourage learners and to develop confidence.

Martin also touched upon the potential offered by MOOCs, or, massive open online course.   The OU has created a company called FutureLearn, which has collaborations with other UK and international universities.  A question is whether it might be possible to create level 0 (or access) courses in the form of MOOCs that could help to prepare learners for formal study (connecting back to the idea of transitions from informal to formal learning).  One thought that I did have is about the importance and use of technology.  Technology might not be the issue, but figuring out strategies to use it effectively might be.

Keynote 1: WP and disruption – global challenges

The first keynote of the conference was by Belinda Tynan, PVC for teaching and learning.  As she spoke, I made some rough notes, and I’ve scribbled down the following important points: models of partnerships, curriculum theory, impact of curriculum reform, and how students are being engaged.

Belinda touched upon a number of wide issues such as changing demographics, discrepancy between rich and poor, unemployment, and the relationship between technology and social inclusion; all really great points.

Another interesting point was about the digital spaces where the university does not have a formal presence.  We were told that there are in the order of 150 Facebook groups that students have set up to help themselves.  As an aside, I’ve often wondered about these spaces, and whether they can tell us something that the university could be doing better, in terms of either technology, interactive system design, or how to foster and develop collaboration.  Another thought relates to the research question: how much learning actually occurs within these spaces?   How much are we able to see?

A phrase that jumped out at me was, ‘designing curriculum that fits into people’s lives’.  Perhaps it is important that curriculum designers create small fragments of materials to allow students can manage the complexity of their studies.  Other key phrases include the importance of motivation, the role of on-line discussions, and the challenge of finding time.

We were shown a short video about learning analytics.  Learning analytics is a pretty simple concept.  Whenever we interact with a system, we leave a trace (often in the form of a web request).  The idea is the perhaps the sum total of traces will be able to tell us something about how students are getting along.  By using clever technology (such as machine learning algorithms), it might be possible to uncover and initiate targeted interventions, perhaps in collaboration with student support teams.

One thought that I had during this presentation was, ‘where is the tutor in this picture?’  Technology was mentioned a lot, but there was little mention about the personal support that OU tutors (or lecturers) offer.   There are many factors in helping students along their journey, and my own view is that tutors are a really important part of this.

The concluding points in Belinda’s keynote (if I’ve noted this down properly) return to the notion of challenges: the importance of the broader societal context, and the importance of connecting learning theory to student journeys.

Session 1: Measuring and demonstrating impact

Delegates could go to a number of parallel sessions about different topics.  The first paper session I dropped into was entitled ‘measuring and demonstrating impact’.  This session comprised of two presentation.

The first presentation was entitled, ‘Impact of a pre-access curriculum on attainment over 10 years’, and it was from representatives of an organisation called Asdan Education, which is a charity which grew out of research from the University of West of England.  I hadn’t heard of this organisation before, so all this was news to me.  Asdan have what is called Certificate of personal effectiveness (Asdan website).  The presentation contained a lot of data suggested that the curriculum (and the work by the charity) led to an improvement to some GCSE results.

The second presentation of the morning, given by Nichola Grayson and Johanna Delaney was entitled, ‘can the key principles of open skills training enhance the experience of prospective students’. Interestingly, Nichola and Johnanna were from the library services at the University of Manchester.  Their talk was all about revision of library resources called ‘my learning essentials’.

The university currently has something called a ‘Manchester access programme’, which includes visits from schools, and an ‘extended project qualification’ (which I think allows students to gather up some UCAS points, used for university entry).  The open new training programme (if I have understand it correctly) has an emphasis on skills, adopts a workshop format and makes use of online resources.

During this presentation, I was introduced to some new terms and WP debates.  I heard the concept of the ‘deficit model’ for the first time, and there were immediate comments about its appropriateness (but more of this problematic concept later).

Session 2: Theory revisited

I went to this session because I had no idea what ‘theory’ means in the context of Widening Participation; I was hoping to learn something!

The first presentation was by my colleague Jonathan Hughes who gave a presentation entitled, ‘developing a theoretical framework to explore what widening participation has done for ‘non-traditional students’ and what it has done to them.’  Jonathan and his colleague Alice Peasgood has been interviewing WP experts, which includes mostly professors who had been published.  Interviews recorded and transcribed, and then analysed.

Johnathan made an interesting comment (or quip) that this is a technique that can be considered to be a short-cut to a literature review.  This is an idea that I’m going to take away with me, and it has actually inspired some thinking about an idea about how to understand the teaching of programming.

His analysis is to use a technique called thematic analysis (Wikipedia) drawing on the work of Braun and Clarke.  This was also interesting: in terms of qualitative research, I’m more familiar with grounded theory (Wikipedia).  This alerted me to one of the dangers of going to conferences: that you can easily give yourself lots of homework to do.

Jonathan highlighted three main themes: the policy context (tuition fees in higher education), wider context of marketised higher education, and how policies are interpreted and operationalised.  (He has written more about these in his paper).  I’ve made a note of a comment that there are different theoretical frameworks to understand WP: one is to enable the gifted and talented to study, another is how best to meet the needs of employers, and how to transform the university rather than the students.

The second talk by Jayne Clapton, was entitled, ‘seeing a ‘complex’ conceptual understanding of WP and social inclusion in HE’.  Jane presented a graphic of a metaphor of a complex mechanism which had a number of interlocking parts (which, I believe, represent various drivers and influences).

The discussion section was really interesting, particularly since the deficit model was attacked pretty comprehensively.  To add a bit more detail, the ‘model’ is where potential students have some kind of deficit, perhaps in terms of socio-economic background, for instance.  To overcome this there is the idea of having some kind of intervention done to them to help prepare them for higher education.  An alternative perspective is to view students in terms of ‘assets’; development opportunities can represent investments in individuals.

A concluding discussion centred upon the importance of research.  Research always has the potential to inform and guide government policy.  The point was that ‘we need effective research to back up any arguments that we make, and we need to know about the effectiveness about projects or interventions’.

Keynote 2: The ‘academic challenge’ in HE: intersectional dimensions and unintended affects on pedagogic encounters

The second keynote was by Professor Gill Crozier from Roehampton University.  I’ve made a note that Gill was talking about transition; that the transition to higher education is more difficult for working class, and black and ethnic minority students.  Some students can be unsure what university was all about (I certainly place myself in that category).  Studying at university can expose students to unequal power relations between class, gender and race.

A really interesting point that I’ve noted down is one that relates to attitude.  In some cases, some lecturers are not happy giving additional support, since this requires them to ‘become nurturing’ in some senses, and some might consider it to beyond the remit of their core ‘academic’ duties.  I personally found this view surprising.  I personally view those moments of additional support as real opportunities to help learners find the heart of a discipline, or get to the root of a problem that might be troublesome.  These moments allow you to reflect on and understand core ideas within your own discipline.  In comparison to lecturing in front of a room, you need to be dynamic; you need to get to the heart of the problem, and try your best to be as engaging as possible.   I also made a note about the importance of creating a ‘learner identity’.

There was a lot in terms of content in this presentation.  Two interesting notes that I made in my notebook are, ‘social identifies profoundly shape dispositions’ (I’m not quite sure what context I’ve written this), and ‘little attention given to the experience of students at university’ (which is something that I’ll come back to in the final part of this blog).

Keynote 3: Widening success through curriculum: innovation in design and pedagogy

Stephanie Marshall, CEO of the Higher Education Academy (HEA website) gave the third keynote speech.  Stephanie began with an interesting anecdote, and one that I really appreciated.  Stephanie spoke about her early days of being a lecturer at (I think) the University of York.  She spoke to a colleague who apparently told her that ‘the OU had taught me to do all this’, meaning, how to become a lecturer by running training sessions that allows associate lecturers to understand how to run group sessions, and how to choose and design effective activities.

My ears pricked up when Stephanie mentioned the HEA’s Professional Standards Framework (HEA website).  The UKPSF relates to the HEA’s accreditation process where lecturers have to submit cases to demonstrate their teaching and learning skills in higher education.

Like so many HE institutions, the HEA has also been through a period of substantial change, which has recently included a substantial reduction in funding.  This said, the HEA continues to run projects that aim to influence the whole of the sector.  Work streams currently include curriculum design, innovative pedagogies, transitions, and staff transitions (helping staff to do the things that they need to do).

There are also projects that relate to widening participation.  One that I’ve explicitly taken a note of is the retention and success project (HEA website) (it appears that there’s a whole bunch of interesting looking resources, which I didn’t know existed).  Other projects I’ve noted connect to themes such as attainment and progression, learning analytics and employability.

On the subject of WP, Stephanie gave a really interesting example.  During the presentation of a module, students studying English at one university expressed concerns about the relevance of particular set text to the students who were studying them.   This challenge led to the co-development of curriculum, a collaboration between students and lecturers to choose text that were more representative (in terms of the ethnicity of the student body), thus allowing the module to be more engaging.  This strikes me as one of the fundamental advantages of face to face teaching; lecturers can learn, and challenging (and important) debates can emerge.

A final resource (or reference) that I wasn’t aware of was something called the Graduate attributes framework (University of Edinburgh).  Again, further homework!

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