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Windsor AL development conference, June 2018

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

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

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

STEM Session

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding our teaching through critical incidents

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

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

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

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

School of Computing and Communications session

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

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

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

Unconscious Bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

Acknowledgements

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

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