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London AL development conference: April 2019

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On Saturday 27 April, I went to the London Associate Lecturer development conference which took place at the London School of Economics. What follows is a short blog summary of the event, where I highlight some of what I thought were the key take away points.

This conference was a busy event; there were six parallel sessions. Some of the sessions covered important themes, such as the new tutor contract, supporting students with English as a second language, using the OU library, and supporting students in secure environments (such as in prisons, or in care institutions) and more.

Keynote: polar science and engagement

The opening keynote was from Professor Mark Brandon, @icey_mark a polar oceanographer, who is responsible for co‐ordinating and leading free learning and broadcast across the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Faculty, as well as being an associate dean for Enterprise and External and Engagement. 

Before taking on these roles, he carried out almost three years of field work as a as a researcher in Antarctica for the British Antarctic Survey, and as part of the US Antarctic Program. Mark has also been a Principle Academic Advisor for the BBC Frozen Planet series and was a member of the Blue Planet II academic team, and is working on Frozen Planet II.

Mark’s presentation was rich with media clips, reflecting his position in the university, and the university’s 50th anniversary. On this point, he commented on a recent BBC 4 documentary that celebrated the university’s 50th birthday.

Mark played YouTube clips from S102, an introduction to science module, giving us examples of some of the very first OU productions where students were sent large home experiment kits. He took us on a journey from the past, to the present, sharing clips of OU/BBC co-productions such as Frozen Planet  (YouTube), Blue Planet II (YouTube). A notable comment was about the reach of the university. Following a TV series, 550,000 posters were sent across the country.

We were also given examples of how digital media and IT can be used to make learning accessible, explicitly drawing on S111 Questions in Science (Open University) where students could using Google Earth to look for evidence of Penguins from space. If I’ve noted this down properly, this has led to situations where students can now use real time satellite data.

Looking towards the future, we were told about some of the programmes that had connections to other faculties, or were currently under development, reflecting the breadth of the disciplines that are studied by OU students.

Throughout Mark’s talk, there were nods towards the importance of the associate lecturer (in fact, I think Mark also said that he used to be one!). There were two quotes that I noted down. These were: “associate lecturers are fundamentally important”, and “you are the difference”.

Enabling student employability and career progression

The second introductory presentation was by Marie Da Silva, from the university careers service. Marie’s talk connected to a number of university abbreviations. Two I noted down were, CES: Careers and employability services, and EECP: Enhanced employability and career progression.

An important point was that most students are motivated by career aims, which means that employability skills is something that the university takes seriously and addresses in a number of different ways.

In terms of curriculum, the university has a new employability framework which is being embedded within the curriculum with help from some associate lecturers who are mapping curriculum (qualifications) against the frameworks.

The university also has some student-employer connectivity projects, something called OU online talent connect, and even runs something called virtual career fairs. We were told about the university careers hub www.open.ac.uk/careers which can offer different types of services, such as one to one careers interview, something called a CV builder, and 100s of webinars, guides and workbooks. 

It’s important to remember that over 300k students and alumni can access the university careers service. It was interesting to hear that 25% of referrals were from ALs.

During Marie’s presentation, I remembered the recent OU careers conference (blog summary) that I went to a few weeks earlier. Another dimension was that research and scholarship was also another activity that was carried out in the university.

Session 1: Educating everyone: overcoming barriers to success

The first session that I attended (as a conference delegate) was by Rehana Awan who tutors on access modules, and Jay Rixon from LTI academic (which, I think, is an abbreviation from Learning and teaching innovation).

Rehana and Jay got us all playing a board game; a version of snakes and ladders. The snakes were learning barriers (a student might be struggling to understand the academic standards, dealing with exam nerves), and the ladders were learning enablers (such as speaking to a SST, or getting an additional support session from a tutor).

During this session, we were directed to different resources, such as a site called Can I do it? There was also an OpenLearn resource called Am I ready to be a distance learner? (OpenLearn).

Rehana is an ‘access’ tutor. Access courses help students to become familiar with what it means to become a learner again, and it represents a way to return back to study.

There are three different access courses, reflecting three different broad areas of study:

  • Arts and languages
  • People, work and society (law, business, psychology and childhood)
  • Science, technology and maths 

Each access course lasts for 30 weeks and requires students to study up to 9 hours per weeks. All students are provided with 1 to 1 telephone tutorials with a tutor. Fee waivers can be used with access modules, which means that two thirds of students will be eligible to study for free. 

One of the things that I learnt from this session was that the language of assessment has recently changed to make it simpler and easier to understand, since the language of assessment can exclude non-traditional learners. I also learnt that students were sent a leaflet about IT: how can I get online?

The final part of the session had a slightly different feel to it. We were introduced to the idea of using of maps to explain and visualise ideas, and the use of storytelling to aid communication. There was a link to an organisation called Sea Salt Learning

Rehana and Jay gave us a challenge: draw a map of potential barriers to study. I draw a map of potential barriers and challenges that TM470 students could face. The idea was that map drawing and sketching might be an activity that could be used with our own students.

Session 2: Inclusive Practice

The second presentation of the day was facilitated by Jo Mapplebeck, one of the university’s SPLD advisor. (SPLD being an abbreviation for: specific learning difficulty, and this addresses things like dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and ADHD).  Jo’s session had the full title of: ‘making the most of your student’s disability profiles to better support your students’ but it was pretty informal, and represented a useful opportunity to share experiences with each other.

During the session, we discussed how we best support students who may have disclosed that they are on the autism spectrum. I remembered a phrase from a disabled student services conference that I attended some years ago, which went:  ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, which means you’ve met one person with autism’. This ultimately means that different students need different adjustments. This led to a discussion about the information that was presented on student profiles, and how that information could be a useful way to begin discussions.

A useful tip from one tutor was: ‘if I can’t get them on the phone, I text them’. Another important point was: if you encounter a challenging student call your line manager (staff tutor), do what you can to protect your boundaries, encourage the student to speak with a student support advisor.

An important message from Jo’s session was about the role that inclusive practice can play in the student experience. If the university (and tutors) mainstream the things that make the difference for all students, all students can potentially benefit from those adjustments. A simple example of this is that a video transcript might be useful for a student with a hearing impairment, but it could also be used as a searchable textual resources that can be used to introduce important module concepts.

Different colleagues within the university make different adjustments, i.e. module teams, the disability support team can guide students to different resources, and associate lecturers can work with each other (and university colleagues) to present resources (particularly tutorial resources) in different formats.

After the session, I picked up a couple of useful handouts that Jo had provided. One had the title: top tips for supporting students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs). Some of the top tips were: read the disability profile, use the student’s preferred mode of communication, make early proactive contact, read a document called ‘dyslexia marking guidelines’, check if students understand the TMA questions, use simple language, avoid asking the student questions in tutorials, allow students to record tutorials if they need to, and be empathetic. 

Session 3: The new basics of TutorHome

One of the final sessions of the day was facilitated by yours truly. The session, which was all about the TutorHome website, was advertised in the conference brochure in a really confusing way: it had the above title, but had an abstract that related to the subject of ‘critical incidents’. Thankfully, everyone who came to the session wanted to know about the TutorHome website (which was what I had planned for!)

The session was designed to be as interactive as possible: I was the driver of the computer that was used to make a presentation, and I asked all the participants to tell me where to go and where to click. During the session, I remember that we looked at following parts of the TutorHome website, amongst others:

  • How to customise the front screen by adding useful links
  • How to customise the tutor dashboard, by adding boxes and links
  • How to find different module websites
  • How to look at a summary of some of the communications between a student and the student support team
  • How to find a tool that lets tutors look at different stats that relate to different modules
  • How to look at the Associate Lecturer Activity review, and what the different parts were
  • How to find the study skills resource links to useful PDF booklets that we could pass onto students.

The session was an hour and a quarter long, but it felt as if we only had just got going and had started to scratch the surface of the TutorHome site. An interesting thing about this kind of session is that I usually learn quite a lot too.

Reflections

One of the real pleasures of this event was that the AL development team trusted me sufficiently to welcome everyone and introduce our keynote speaker, and our careers speaker, both of whom did a great job. If was going to change anything (to the bit that I did), I would have made a bit of space for a really short Q&A session, but since everything ran exactly (and perfectly!) to the schedule, there wasn’t the time for this.

In some respects, it’s hard to choose a highlight from this conference, since there were so many great parts to the day: there was Mark’s presentation which emphasised the role of broadcasting and the reach of the university, there was Rehana’s and Jay’s presentation about the importance of access courses and that they got us thinking about tutorial activities. Jo’s session about inclusive practice gave us a space to share experiences, and the TutorHome session was fun (since everyone used the TutorHome site in slightly different ways).

Putting the sessions to one side, one of the most important aspects of these conference is, simply, the opportunity to chat to each other. In doing so, there’s opportunities to share experiences, learn from each other, and find support. When everyone is working at a distance, these types of events are (in my view) really important.

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