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AL Development conference: Brighton, Saturday 10 November 2018

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Ever since I began as a part time tutor in 2006 I have been attending AL development events. A new ‘season’ of them (for me, at least) began in November 2018 when I attended an AL development conference that was held at the Hilton Metropole in Brighton.

What follows is a quick blog summary of the event so I can remember what happened. I’m sharing this just in case it’s of interest to anyone else. All the views expressed here are, of course, my own;  present my own ‘take’ on the things that I 'took away' from the conference.

Keynote: The Open Diaries

Unlike other conferences I had been to, this conference was opened by some colleagues who worked in the marketing department.

The university has recently produced 5 x 5 minute short documentaries about studying at the university as a part of a campaign called The Open Diaries (OU website). This is of wider interest to tutors, since the videos do try to present the tutor perspective. The keynote session also featured a short talk by Finlay Games who is an OU student ambassador, who is an undergraduate student who is coming towards the end of his studies.

The next part of the keynote was important, but also quite informal. It was a joint presentation by Lesly Kane who is from the UCU union and David Knight, director of academic services. Lesley and David have been involved with negotiating what is called a new tutor contract. They outlined the character of the new contract, but were unable to offer lots of the fine detail, since the negotiations are still continuing. A union vote to tutors about the new contract is due to take place soon.

The key takeaway point from the contract discussion was that the new tutor contract will (hopefully) offer tutors the possibility of greater job security; they will be employed for their skills and expertise, rather than employed to teach on a particular module.

Session 1: Dialogic feedback

The full title of this first session, facilitated by Alison Gilmour and Paul McGill was: “The end of feedback as we know it? Exploring recent developments in the literature and practical strategies we can use to develop dialogic feedback practice in a distance learning context”.

The session began with some quick fire questions, such as: What challenges do you face in feedback practice? What is good feedback? How do students want to receive feedback? And, what does dialogic feedback mean to you?

The aim of the session was to get us thinking about the dialogic feedback, not just in terms of correspondence feedback, but also with respects to tutorials and what can take place within them. The term ‘dialogic’ was described as interactive; it is a discussion, and was contrasted with uni-directional and the phrase ‘without expectation of student engagement’.

One point that I noted down was that it can be useful to consider feedback as a dialog, where both students and tutors arrive at a shared notion of understanding what the feedback is, and how it can be useful. I also noted down comments that related to good practice: the development of trust, the emphasis on social aspects of learning, and clarity around purpose of assignments.

We were given an activity. We were asked to brainstorm strategies, activities or approaches that we could use to develop our dialogic feedback practice and why we thought this would work with our students. We were asked to put our ideas on a matrix; the words ‘greater benefits for students’ and ‘more efficient for staff’ were written on the axes.

During the discussion part of the session, I noted down a few interesting ideas and suggestions. One idea was to ask students the question: ‘what are you working towards?’ to understand more about their aims and aspirations. Another comment was about the use of the telephone. Before the widespread acceptance of use of emails, tutors used to ‘ring round’ their students to remind them about their assessments. In my experience, students are always happy to speak to their tutor.

My own suggestion comes from a discussion I had with a tutor who told me about a ‘dialogic teaching approach’ to teaching, where two tutors would have a debate between themselves about a module issue during an online tutorial. Although this approach isn’t about directly understanding where the student’s understanding, it does relate to exposing discussions and debates that are a part of module materials. After trying this technique out in practice, students invariably to begin to join in with the discussions. 

Session 2: Critical Incidents

The second session, entitled “Understanding teaching through critical incidents” was facilitated by myself. Tutors were enticed to attend the session through the following abstract: A critical incident is a memorable or challenging situation that occurred during our teaching practice. In essence, 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.

After a round of introductions, I asked tutors to complete a form which helped them to think about their own critical incident, and then to share their incidents between themselves. Tutor were then asked to discuss their chosen incident with everyone in the session. The key questions that students were asked to complete were: “My ‘critical incident’ occurred when…, the incident happened because…, strategies that were/might have been helpful include…, and if a similar incident occurred again I would…”

A personal confession is that this activity has been directly inspired by an activity that I participated in whilst studying for a PGCE in Higher Education at Birkbeck. It was a memorable activity since it led to the exposure of so many interesting situations, circumstances and solutions.

Session 3: Digital Capabilities

The final chapter had the title: “Enhance your digital capabilities, enhance your practice” and was presented by Jo Parker. 

I was really interested in attending this session since I had informally asked the question of if we could have a session about this subject after becoming aware of a JISC project about developing and understanding personal digital capabilities (Jisc website).

The Jisc project proposes and defines a definition of what digital capability is, and also provides a framework that consists of a number of components: digital identity and well-being, digital learning and development, information and media literacies. Well-being is presented as an over-arching wrapper that is important to all these areas. Also, the notion of ICT proficiency sits at the centre of the framework.

I made a note that the aim of the project was to ensure that staff and students have digital skills for digital learning and working. The project has also created a diagnostic tool (which I understand is called a digital capabilities and discovery tool), and provides some resources and training courses.

During the session Jo led us to an activity where we were invited to map our own digital practice. We were asked to draw a triangle that had the sides: consumption, conversation and creation. We were asked to make a note of the different tools that we used, and were asked to annotate the triangle with emoticon stickers to signify how we felt. We were also asked a few questions: What do you want to change? What do you want to do more of? What do you want to do less of? And, what do you wish to do differently?

Towards the end of Jo’s session we were shown a slide that contained a set of links about digital capabilities. The slide had links to resources about the effective use of ICT, such how to best make use of Office 365 and some links about digital creation and communication. The two resources that stood out for me were: Digital wellbeing: staying safe online (OpenLearn), and the link to the OU PALS site (an abbreviation for the Peer Associate Lecturer Support).

Reflections

I always get something out of every AL development conference. For this event, there were a couple of things. Firstly, I really appreciated the opportunity to catch up with a group of Computing and IT associate lecturers over lunch. We had a lot to talk about; there were discussions about the new tutor contracts and discussions about how to effectively carry out tutorial recordings within tuition group clusters. It was interesting to learn that the South East of England TM112 cluster are considering having what could be described as ‘cluster group recordings’. This way, the interactive tutorial can be live interactive sessions which are not recorded. This way, students might be more inclined to speak and contribute to the different sessions.

The thing I got from the dialogic session was the simple reflection that discussions can lead students and tutors towards a joint understanding of feedback. I understand this in terms of the student needs (to move forward with their learning), and what explanations the tutor can offer. Also, through dialogue, tutors can actively learn about what explanations are helpful, thus helping to improve their teaching practice.

The critical incidents session that I ran had a very different feel to the other two times I had facilitated it. The reason for this lies with the fact that the session is very student led: different tutors arrive at the session with different incidents. What may be important for one tutor might not be important for another, and this is one of the really nice aspects of running a session that is quite open.

I was expecting something slightly different from the Digital Capabilities session, but being someone who studied computing as an undergraduate and postgraduate, I’m mindful that I might not be the intended audience. Although the Jisc project and tools that we were told about may well be useful, I was expecting to be presented with some case studies, or for the session to have a more direct practical focus.

All in all, an interesting AL development conference! The next one I’m due to attend is the London event in April 2019. 

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