Losing my ALTc virginity

I have just returned from my first Association of Learning Technologists conference, so I thought I’d write a little blog about the experience. There was a lot of choice and I saw a lot of presentations so forgive some of the vague descriptions.

As an aside, I loved ALTc. I genuinely enjoyed it. Although the amount of choice was baffling and I can’t say I learnt anything ‘revolutionary’. I met lots of lovely people, saw some interesting practice and listened to thought-provoking keynotes.

In the Valley of the Trolls

Josie Fraser

Josie started us off with a timely keynote about trolling. There is an increasing amount in the news about incidents of trolling and having spoken to a few attendees the talk reflected a number of personal experiences.

Josie showed us some recent examples. Take for example Microsoft Tay, the artificial intelligence Twitter robot, who was targeted by internet users and descended swiftly in to posting vile racist, homophobic and outrageous views. Josie cited the book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips. Look at Tay and Boaty McBoatface, when we put stuff on the internet people love to ruin it. WE are the reason we can’t have nice things. The internet is not the problem. We are.

The media, Josie says, is part of the problem. They ‘feed the trolls’ by publishing articles about them, by paying them attention. They make light of something serious. They use it to fill their pages with sensationalism that makes, those of a certain generation, tut loudly at the ‘yoots’ (youths) of today. The media likes to make out that the internet or video games or music is the problem. It’s not. We are.

Josie talked about the motivations of the troll. Seemingly simple – power, notoriety and just plain old bigotry, but also somehow complex. A world of anonymity where lines are blurred and there are more shades of grey than black and white. James Clay asked whether there is a scale or spectrum of trolling. It’s definitely not simply you’re a troll or you’re not a troll. Like bullying and harassment it can be subtle, almost imperceptible. Who knows what is or isn’t trolling. I suppose it’s in the eye of the ‘trollee’.

When we use the word troll we legitimise bullying, harassment, threats, bigotry and racism and reduce it serious behaviours in to something seen as acceptable. It’s not as bad because it’s on the internet. It’s what you deserve if you put stuff on the internet. No. No-one deserves to be trolled. But let’s start calling it what it really is. Trolling is bullying and harassment and it should not be trivialised.

Open and flexible learning opportunities for all? Findings from the 2016 UCISA TEL Survey on learning technology developments across the UK higher education sector

Richard Walker, Julie Voce, Martin Jenkins, Jebar Ahmed, Elaine Swift, and Phil Vincent

UCISA released the findings from their 2016 Technology Enhanced Learning Survey to which 110 UK HEIs responded. The full report can be found here:

UCISA 2016 Survey of Technology Enhanced Learning for higher education in the UK

From the discussion we had in the room uptake of open and flexible practices seem low, with limited increase in MOOCs and open badges, but I haven’t read the full report yet to fully understand the results.

Disruptive Technology Enhanced Learning

Michael Flavin

This was a fascinating talk. I wish it was recorded because I’d like to go over it again. Michael talked about disruptive innovation amongst other theories. To poorly paraphrase, sustaining technologies are those that improve the performance of existing technologies. Disruptive technologies bring something not seen before. Michaels talk showed how few disruptive technologies have, in reality, existed in educational technology. The VLE wasn’t despite what everyone said at the time. To be honest I think we’re using much the same technolgy as we always have done just lsightly differently or more than before.

Disruption is a feature of practice not product. So essentially, the reason educational technologies have not been disruptive is because, the underlying practuce of teaching, has not changed. Or at least that was my interpretation.

Can WordPress function as a VLE?

David Read

Short answer is yes it can. There are lots of things that can be used as a VLE. However, each comes with a list of challenges and limitations, just like our current VLEs. They are none of them perfect.

Some time ago we haled the death of the VLE. But oh look, they’re still alive and kicking. I’m going to do some work around ‘Why won’t the VLE die’.

Education and Neuroscience: Issues and Opportunities

Lia Commissar

Another brilliant end to the day. Lia talked about the fascinating field of neuroscience and, to everyones delight, blew apart some of the myths that surround how we learn. So you know how people will tell you your brain shrinks without enough water, well, nope that’s wrong. Only using 90% of our brains? Nope. Learning styles? Nope.

If incorrect beliefs were ice cream then this picture sums up Lias presentation nicely:

nope

Code Create Collaborate

Ian Livingstone

Another brilliant keynote. If you don’t know Ian he founded Games Workshop, had European distribution rights for Dungeon and Dragons, wrote the Fighting Fantasy role play book series and even founded the company that created Lara Croft. That is to name but a few of his accomplishments. There was lots of nostalgia watching old video games and remembering the fun we had as children.

Children should be enjoying themselves while they are learning – Ian Livingston

Ian’s keynote showed the power of games. Games are his passion and he champions them whenever he can. Video games get a lot of bad press but he espoused so many of their virtues in education. The problem solving, continuous assessment and contextualises the real world. He also talked about his horror at the marginalisation of the arts and creative industries. We should not underestimate their power he says, I couldn’t agree more.

Building digital capability through mapping and collaboration 

James Clay, and Lawrie Phipps

I could be described as a James and Lawrie groupie, for which I am not ashamed. James and Lawrie are incredibly generous with their time, expertise and advice in support of our work at Lincoln and I always feel I should return the favour. If I can contribute to their sessions then I will.

We began with their usual double act, explaining the work Jisc has been doing around digital capability. The framework,  discovery tool and their online offer. They talked about the importance of digital capability and how it underpins everything that we do. We all completed visitor and residents exercises that helps us to map, and better understand, our digital practice. There wasn’t really time in an hour to do that properly, which was a real shame. Here’s our V and R.

vandr

I will write a post about my digital capabilities journey soon.

Flipping heck! Be careful what you wish for

Andrew Raistrick, and Steven Bentley

Andrew and Steven talked about their approach to CPD. They flipped the classroom by asking participants to watch a video before attending the CPD session. By doing this they were able to shorten their sessions to an hour and run them over lunch time. The videos detailed the pedagogy of the TEL tool whilst the face to face session did all the ‘where to click stuff’.

I would suggest this is the wrong way round. Andrew said doing the clicking training was both boring and tiring because the most interesting part was the pedagogical conversations. I would argue you should do the pedagogical exploration face to face and the click training via video. The pedagogy is, after all, the most important bit.

ALT Learning Technologist of the Year Awards

We were highly commended in the ALT Learning Technologist of the Year Team Awards. We were very touched and honoured to have been recognised. There were very worthy winners and I was honoured to stand on the same stage us as.

Copyright and e-learning: understanding our privileges and freedoms

Jane Secker

Jane talked to us about copyright. Yawn I hear you say? Well Jane made it very interesting. Copyright is important. It’s the law. It’s our responsibility to stick to it. Jane talked about its origins and the various types of copyright laws and exceptions. A very complex subject.

Technology causes us a problem as breaking copyright has become very easy. She described the sense of injustice that surrounds copyright, the feeling that we are somehow being limited by it. But at its essence copyright is about respect. Respecting other people’s ideas and hard work. Copyright is seen as someone elses problem.

Jane tells us to look at copyright from an emotional perspective. Consider the owners feelings. Imagine yourself in that position. Put yourself in their shoes. No-one likes to have their ideas stolen. So why is it OK just because you go it from the internet?

We insist students reference work in their assignments. Why should staff be the exception?

How best should a VLE be designed to enhance learners’ experience? 

Emmanuel Isibor

In short the research shows that students want to be able to adapt the VLE to their needs. Do VLEs allow that? Not really. They are controlled by the tutor and content is consumed as they see fit rather than how it will work best for the student.

Evaluating Webinars as a Tool for Delivering Lectures and Seminars at Distance in a Healthcare Setting 

Daniel Metcalfe

Some very useful tips here from Daniels research on students feelings on webinars as replacements for lectures and seminars. Students on the whole reacted positively and surprisingly, felt the level of interaction with staff was much the same as in face to face sessions. His advice on running online sessions:

  • Don’t run lectures as traditional lectures
  • Be interactive
  • Add activities
  • Familiarise the students with the technology as early as possible
  • Have a colleague to help

Designing for Flow

Leonard Houx

Clutter is a barrier to learning. Clutter makes your learning less attractive, less credible, and more difficult to engage. Clutter is a disruption to flow. Poor flow leads to students feeling distraction, discontinuation, disengagement, dissatisfaction, dislike, distrust & disputation. It leads to staff site hacking, jazzing up (poorly), tragic resignation and antagonism with IT. Leonard has rebuilt parts of his VLE and it looks fab. A shame we didn’t get to see more really.

Strategies for supporting effective student engagement with lecture recordings

Matt Cornock

Matt talked about his research in to the ways students connect live lectures with lecture capture content. Matt suggested one of the biggest barriers to the effective use of captures is the timetable. That students do not have the time between lectures to use the captures. He said students in lectures thought they were supposed to take notes, whilst staff felt they should listen and get a holistic overview of the content then use the capture to explore the detail. He questioned whether we should continue to see the lecture as central to everything. Another barrier to students embedding captures in their practice is that not all lecturers use captures, let alone use them in the same way.

An experiment in open-access, micro-learning for educational technology training

Kate Soper, Catherine Wasiuk, Colin Mcallister-Gibson, and Christopher Meadows

If you don’t follow @1minutcpd on Twitter or haven’t visited their website, then you should. Their approach to CPD is so refreshing. 1 minute  CPD videos tweeted out and hosted on their blog. It’s beauty is its simplicity. The number of participants, views etc.

Using Microlearning to Drive the Adoption and Mainstreaming of Technology Enhanced Learning Tools in Higher Education

Shane Cronin, Darragh Coakley, Roisin Garvey, and Gearóid Ó Súilleabháin

Here is another brilliant CPD resource you should check out: telu.me

TELU is a high quality collection of free online micro-courses designed to help staff use technology to support their teaching and learning.

Keynote: Donna Lanclos and David White – Being Human is Your Problem

I always love to see Donna and Dave present. (Although Dave wears awful shoes) I find their partnership very refreshing as they don’t always agree, so often we see presenters who, to borrow a phrase from Donna, spend the entire presentation blowing smoke up each others arses. Donna and Dave do not do that. In fact they quite openly bicker, disagree and argue with each other on stage. They are yet to draw blood but we all wait with bated breath.

What I love most about their talks is that they always challenge me,they always say something that blows my mind and yesterday was no exception.

Digital technologies will no more solve the ‘crisis in education’ than airbags will stop drivers from having accidents. David Price – OPEN

In a sense I feel ALTc can sometimes support the kind of thinking described above. Let’s be frank here, ALTc is full of people whose jobs rely on such nonsensical thinking. I am going to write a blog post on what will happen to us when the technology bubble bursts. Donna and Dave do not believe in this rhetoric and I am so glad they don’t. Technology will not fix anything. It can support, it can create efficiency and it can sometimes enhance but it is not a panacea for all ills. It is not a sticky plaster to cover the cracks. As Peter Bryant says:

There simply isn’t a single out of the box solution for the challenges we face. We can’t rely on growth through systems support and development. There are significant and intractable tensions between the dynamic epistemological shifts that are fundamentally changing the way media is consumed, knowledge is constructed and learning engaged with. Peter Bryant ‘I don’t want to change the world’ – a call for a personal revolution’

They talked about responsibility. It is EVERYONE’S responsibility to talk and think about teaching and learning. I still find it ridiculous that teaching and learning is at the bottom of priority lists in HEIs. It is fundamental to what we do.

Digital is people. Digital is not a salvation from our problems as humans. Donna Lanclos

There was a strong link to the earlier trolling keynote. In that our behaviours online are simply an amplification of offline behaviours. We need to fix people. Technology won’t fix anything.

They won’t let us is not legitimate. Donna Lanclos

That sentence came like a metaphorical kick in the balls. We find it easier, to channel all of our challenges in to an ‘other’, a shadowy figure who stops us from doing all the things we want to do. ALTc was full of lamentations along these lines. As Dave and Donna said, there’s nothing stopping us really. We can do what we need to do, and as a community, should stop making excuses. It was a wonderful call to arms to end the day on.

Venue

warwick

University of Warwick is beautiful, miles away from anywhere but full of lush green spaces. I was quite enamoured. Everything basic need you have is catered for there are banks, a cinema, hairdressers and eateries and cafés off all kinds. The accommodation, eatery’s and main venue were all in easy distance of one another. It all flowed really well and didn’t feel stilted or hard work moving around.

Food

The make or break of some conferences, the food, was not great. Fine if you like brown food, bad, if you like vegetation or green food. The Pimms at the drinks reception was fab though!

UCISA SSG16 Day 2: Boxes, Bees, Dance

UCISA SSG continues to surprise me on day two. There was a bit about shiny stuff, a word from our students, a bit about processes, a bit about bees and some fervent dancing.

Thinking outside the Box. How a little bit of box made a big difference

Chris Dixon, Head of Operations, Lancaster University and Valerie Focke, Head of Education, EMEA, Box.com

Today’s business showcase was a big improvement on yesterdays. Chris shared his experience of implementing Box for the storage, management and sharing of files at Lancaster University. He highlighted the reasons for their decision. Chiefly, staff found the existing file management and sharing services ineffective. Particularly, sharing files outside of the organisation.

Student Panel

I love a student panel. They are always fascinating and it’s nice to hear from them directly.

IT services need to keep up

They talked about the need to make emerging technologies available so that students are prepared for the tech world. By the time they finish their studies the technology has changed so we need to prepare them.

They were asked how they like to be contacted. One said social media as that’s where they get their news. A mature student (that’s how she described herself) preferred email. Most importantly they felt that their lecturers need to be informed about ICT issues/services/tools etc. As often their lecturers are the ones introducing them to the tools.

They were asked about our marketing materials or “communications guff” as it was described. They all said it was overwhelming in induction week. They were bombarded with too much information. It would end up on a shelf never to be looked at again. Their preference would be to search for the information WHEN they need it. Not have it forced on them at every turn.

There was a misinterpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, the one with Wi-Fi at the bottom, which meant students were asked whether Wi-Fi was at the bottom of their priorities. Wi-Fi is actually the most important in the hierarchy as it becomes more important than basic physiological needs like eating, drinking and sleeping. They all agreed it was very important but not the be all and end all.

The dreaded lecture capture reared its ugly head. Questions of value for money and other nonsense. The students all said they like the personal interaction of a lecture.

Attendance monitoring arose, described by one student as ‘Big Brother’. One argued they are adults, they pay for lectures and whether they turn up is their decision. This was met with staunch opposition in the audience. My argument would be if they’re not turning up then the lecture needs work. They shouldn’t have to choose whether a lecture is worth their time. It should be to begin with.

The students didn’t feel ICT was approachable. It was described as hidden away, intimidating and they were reticent to interrupt people at work.

Some said 24 hour contact with ICT is important to them. Another said they didn’t need 24/7 they just want to know when their issue will be resolved and dealt with. They liked the use of live chat and video support.

Use of social media was preferred to remain personal and some felt, or were told, it was not appropriate for their studies. I don’t agree but I can see why they wouldn’t want us in their social media.

What did I learn? Students aren’t homogeneous. Don’t treat them that way. Stop saying “our students want” instead go and ask them. Remember, you’re going to struggle to please everyone.

How big business, and a bee, started our customer service journey at Leeds Beckett

Eleanor Draycott, Help Services Manager, Leeds Beckett University

What an animated and passionate team they have at Leeds Beckett. Eleanor told us about their redevelopment of their Service Desk Environment. Old fashioned counters were removed to create an open, inviting, friendly zone for staff and students to drop in to. Eleanor talked about the old counters being barriers between the service desk staff and the users. The work they have done, despite some difficult times in the project, has removed those barriers.

They have open spaces where staff and students can stroll in to. They even have a genius bar. They have principles that all staff have to adhere to and they recognise that the attitudes of the people they employ are just as important as the environment.

Embracing Open Badges: Showcasing staff and student achievement at York St John University

Roisin Cassidy, Technology Enhanced Learning Advisor, York St John University

I have always been a sceptic about badges. It feels faddy. Like the stars McDonalds used to give their staff. A bit…insincere. Rosin has changed my mind. Eroded some of my scepticism.

Open badges are based on a shared standard and contain metadata. The metadata says what the badge was earned for, who issued it and where from. The metadata follows the badges. York St John have been giving badges for participation in their CPD and Roisin shared some examples of uses in the curriculum. Getting the – “what and the why” is important to get right from the start. What is it for, why would people want it, what are the criteria and how will it be evidenced. I can see badges working well if we get that part right from the start. I’m thinking of starting with our CPD offering and go on from there.

Agile tools and techniques

Colin Jones, Web and Applications Team Leader, Robert Gordon University

I must confess to not having concentrated fully during this presentation. Forgive me Colin, it wasn’t you. I had an academic in crisis who needed help. Agile is nothing new. The scrum meeting concept isn’t either. There’s lots online about it. Sorry I can’t say much on the subject.

Marmite: academics and a toast to the IT crowd?

Mark Schofield, Dean, Teaching and Learning Development, Edge Hill University

This was an amazing presentation. Clearly Mark is a veteran. Mark is an academic who has worked in a number of institutions at home and abroad. He had a very insightful (and brilliantly funny) presentation. Which illustrated, as so many have during this conference, that we need to work together to do anything well. He represented the problem as a humpback bridge with ICT professionals on one side and academics on the other unable to see one another. Mark used memes brilliantly. The featured image for this post is one he used to describe ICT Professionals. (Based on this conference, and the passion they demonstrate, they don’t all take that attitude) He acknowledged we are all difficult beasts. But with mutual respect and empathy we can do some brilliant things.

This has to be my favourite presentation. Everyone was transfixed. What a showman.

Process improvement partnerships: continuous improvement at Leeds Beckett University

Clare Wiggins, Continuous Improvement Manager, Leeds Beckett University

I ended the day with some play. Clare talked us through continuous improvement at Leeds Beckett and then let us run riot with the Mr Potato Heads (MPH). The idea was to form a plan then as a team try to construct MPH as quickly and accurately as possible. We recorded our time each go and our accuracy. We then talked about how we’d do it better and tried again. Long story short we had been continuously improving by reflecting on our work.

It was great fun, a nice interjection to the day, but what did I learn? Don’t try. Be rubbish and people will be amazed by the improvement. We had the fastest time but won nothing. I’m not bitter. (I am bitter)

How do you measure up

Sally Bogg, Head of End User Services, Leeds Beckett University

Sally finished the day by sharing the results of this years benchmarking survey. It was really useful to hear about the work other University’s are doing. It’s also useful to know where you stand in the wider community.

If you’d like to look at the report it’s available on the UCISA SSG website here.

Dinner

Dinner was a formal affair. Beautifully decorated with Alice in Wonderland themed tables. Dinner was followed by much dancing. The brilliant Ten Hail Marys played some serious funk, ska and indie classics. I lost my mind when Mr Brightside came on. The night was finished perfectly by the final song:

So throw those curtains wide
One day like this a year would see me right – One day like this, Elbow

We’ve got a lot of change to come. Education is being systematically ripped apart by people so far removed from it they may as well be on the International Space Station. Remember HE is a wonderful profession to work in. Remember why we do it and who we do it for. It will be OK. Keep calm. Carry on.

What did I learn? ICT Professionals + free wine = serious shapes thrown.

giphy

Links

UCISA SSG16 Day 1: People, Service, Duty

UCISA SSG16 Day 3: Thinking, Hacking, Brilliance

Matthew Saunders: Ucisa Support Services Conference 2016 – Learning and Listening

The Employability Misconception

There is a misconception amongst our students that a degree will guarantee a job. I realised this belief is probably a huge factor that contributes to the worrying behaviours I wrote about in my last post Students: I’m worried about you.

There is a belief, or misguided hope at least, that a degree will guarantee a job. Most worryingly there seems to be a feeling that if a student leaves without having got a job then it’s the university’s fault.

What is employability anyway?

a set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy

One would hope that we are teaching students the skills, understandings and personal attributes they need to be gainfully employed anyway. Surely this should be par for the course. Apparently it’s not so we go through endless initiatives that aim to increase employability. Lets develop the skills and values to make them better people. Not to massage our DLHE survey results but because we have a duty to.

What I feel we miss is the part that talks about their benefit to the workforce, community and economy. That it’s not all about getting a job. That it’s actually about so much more than that.

Employability is a misnomer

I  know we like to put names on things. Chiefly because they are words by which we are measured but I wonder is employability really the right word? Have we created a rod for our own backs?

Emplyability is not something that can be taught. It’s not a clear list of skills that we can tick off. It’s about wide ranging skills, personal values and attributes that vary for each individual.

Employability as a term implies a degree will teach you everything you need to know to be employed. The higher the level of employability the better chance you’ll have of getting a job. Nope. Remember you have a degree like the majority of other applicants. Yes yours might be from a slightly ‘better’ university but you need more than that to stand out.

I agree we should be making sure our students are ready to leave university and be effective members of the community. What I disagree with is the wealth that learning offers being boiled down to their getting a job. It’s about so much more than that. If I could do one thing it would be to convince students of that.

Fees, monetisation and expectations

Let’s face it. Students have this view because they are paying a lot of money to study. I wrote about it in detail in my previous post. They want (and deserve) it to be worth something eventually. Students, please trust me. It is worth it. It may take you a few years to realise it but it’s worth so much more than you think.

Degree=Job

I thought I’d go to University and be Stephen Spielberg. I’m not. I’m sat in an office, above a launderette, on my own, in the dark because it’s raining and I don’t want to turn the lights on. I am not Stephen Spielberg. Has my degree contributed to my being where I am now? Of course. Could I have got here without it? Yes I could. It might have taken longer but I could have.

Students need to understand that a degree is not an automatic job guarantee. They need to think about the transferable skills they gain from a degree and their involvement in wider university activities. I’m sure I’ve heard someone say that most jobs won’t exist in 20 years time. Don’t pigeon hole yourselves.

Be brave, work hard and walk your own path.

Students: I’m worried about you

I’m worried about students and I’m worried about education. There has been a move over the past few years that has seen students lose site of the reason they attend University. Perhaps I’m just an idealist.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. Nelson Mandela

Learning to Pass the Assessment

This is the shift that frightens me most. I have heard a number of students, undergraduates and postgraduates, question why they are asked to complete assignments and work that do not contribute to their final marks. For example, a student was quite affronted that they had been asked to create a blog when they only needed to pass the dissertation to complete the course. There seemed to be no understanding of the skills that a blog develops. Particularly those of reflection.

Another student stated that they could only be tested on the content delivered in their lectures. Therefore, there is no point doing the extra reading and activities suggested by their tutors.

We can find the roots of this attitude in secondary and further education. I remember being told we’ll learn about this today because that will be something that may come up in your GCSE exam. We have been conditioned to learn to pass tests that assess very narrow, specific knowledge.

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. Michelangelo

Independent Learning

The amount of work students are supposed to do independently seems to affront them. “Why am I paying 9k a year to not be taught by someone”. The idea that they should not be spoon-fed is seemingly new to them. Yes, all independent learning should be guided. Students shouldn’t just be left but they must develop the skills to learn independently. Maybe we need to make that clearer to them on application to manage expectations.

We are supposedly developing people to be productive members of society and in their employment. A big part of that is independence and initiative.

Tuition Fees

The introduction of Tuition Fees saw a change in the approach of students to their studies. I have heard many times “is that what my 9k a year is paying for”. I started university in 2007 and was one of the first cohorts of students to pay tuition fees. Granted mine were a more reasonable 3k a year with the additional grant repayments.

Tuition fees have introduced the idea of education being value for money. That University is better because with that course I get an extra hour of contact time, a free coffee and a hug once a week. Yes I’m being facetious. What happened to learning for learning’s sake?

I have always enjoyed the gym analogy. You don’t become Arnold Schwarzenegger simply by having a gym membership card in your wallet. You join the gym, work hard, put the effort in and you might become Arnold Schwarzenegger. It won’t be quick and it certainly won’t be easy.

You get what you put in to education. If you work hard, you’ll see results.

NSS and League Table culture

The NSS and the multitude of league tables have compounded the tuition fee effect. Students are now balancing their course choices with the overall position of the university. When you look at the numbers there is often a hairs breadth between universities on the table.

It has led to a number of knee jerk initiatives, often ill-conceived, with the aim of driving universities up the table. Yes there is the desire there to increase quality, never a bad thing, but it has a worrying dark side. The Guardian has suggested that  University staff will be held to ransom by student consumers.

We’ll do what they want, however unreasonable, so we don’t upset NSS.

Monetisation and the “Knowledge Economy”

The current government is hell-bent on monetising education. Creating what they describe as ‘choice’ for students. Given there are 127 institutions listed on the Complete University Guide do we really need more choice?

We’ve seen some of the controversy surrounding private providers with University awards statuses. If you didn’t see it watch the dispatches investigation on YouTube.

Choice does not denote quality. Will it force universities to up their game. Definitely. It may even result in more specialised courses and widened participation. Though a serious question mark still hangs over how they plan to ‘police’ and measure the quality of Higher Education institutions.

I spent an hour at one of our open days talking to a student about which university they should go to. I’m not a career councillor so I talked from my experience of choosing a university and the sort of things she should consider in her decision-making.

I don’t think more choice will lead to quality and I don’t think it will make students decisions any easier.

My worst teaching experience (so far)

I have had a number of bad experiences in teaching, difficult students, technical failures, a students nodding off, but this blog is an account of my worst experience in teaching. I emphasise the so far part. Teaching is a fickle mistress possessed of mood swings envied by even the most hormonal teens. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how much you plan, sometimes it just goes badly.

I’ve been writing an essay on student support this weekend and it reminded me of an episode in my teaching that I will not soon forget. the reason I describe this episode as the worst experience was because it was an emotionally challenging event. I have never before, or since, had a student cry in one of my sessions.

I was delivering a 3.5 hour long session on using Gmail. 3.5 hours?! you say. I know, that’s a long time but you left knowing everything you needed to know about Gmail. Incidentally this puts me in mind of the time a member of ICT attended one of our sessions and told my colleague that what was taught could be done in an hour. It’s safe to assume we ignored their advice. Anyway, a student, lets call the student Anne, attended this session and was profoundly deaf choosing not to use hearing aids. So I couldn’t rely on technology to save me.

Anne and I spoke before the session began about what she needed me to do. Face her at all times and speak slowly so she could read my lips. Easy enough I thought and began with gusto. I had no idea how hard it is to modify behaviour that has become completely unconscious. I realised I had delivered that session so many times every gesture and phrase was so natural I barely thought about it. At the end of the session I noticed she looked upset.

Once alone I approached her, at which point she cried, and told me she had found the whole session overwhelming. Trying to read my lips and perform the tasks on the computer was too much for her. This was the point at which I wanted the ground to open and swallow me whole.

In retrospect I should have slowed my delivery, ensured she was looking at me before speaking and avoided speaking whilst asking them to perform a task.

I should have checked on her during the break, I could have intervened earlier and modified my behaviour. I also didn’t want her to feel that I was checking up on her, that I was treating her differently to everyone else.

I should have talked more slowly, ensured I didn’t ask her to do something on the computer whilst I was talking and that I had her eye contact whilst I was speaking. It’s very difficult. Teaching had become so unconscious it was hard to get out of old habits.

I tried to reassure her that it was not admitting defeat and that she should do whatever helped her learn. We discussed what we should do at length and decided that in future she would learn best when taught by me on her own.

It was by far my worst experience. I felt so guilty. She had come on my course and left feeling awful. I’ve never been under the illusion that people left like this:

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But to have a student leave having been so upset was devastating.

What is inclusive practice?

Inclusive practice is an approach to teaching that seeks to ensure that all students are able to participate in learning and demonstrate their abilities in assessment. Students should not be disadvantaged by culture, religion, disability or previous educational background.

Reflecting on your teaching practice You can increase the effectiveness of your teaching practice by reflecting on diversity, being aware of how your own background and identity are expressed in course design and teaching style, and understanding your reactions to particular individuals and communities to recognise your affinities and prejudices and consider how they affect students’ experiences of your course.

  • Plan teaching to include opportunities to encouraging interaction between students of different backgrounds. This could be done by allocating groups for tasks.
  • Use accessible language. Try to avoid colloquialisms that may not be understood by all.
  • Use examples that speak to the diversity of the student group. By acknowledging as many voices as possible you will engage more of the student group.
  • Use a variety of teaching and assessment methods. As long as the learning objectives are met you can be flexible about how students are assessed.
  • Try to open dialogue with disable students, they know best what adjustments they may need to learn effectively.
  • Be flexible about how you teach, the materials you use and the formats you provide.
  • Be open to the use of assistive technologies.

Another Bell Tolls for the Lecture

We have, for a long time, been questioning the role and effectiveness of the lecture in university teaching. The format of the lecture has changed little from its inception in ancient Greece and yet we continue to rely on this as the core teaching method. So, my interest was piqued when I saw an article titled “Is missing lectures harming my studies?” in the Guardian.

Teuta Hoxha, a student from Kings College London, stopped attending his lectures after a few weeks.

 

Student Expectations

 

“The anticipation of passionate words bouncing off and beyond the podium”. Tueta Hoxha 2015

 

I think it’s important to consider what students expect when attending university. Teuta, I fear, had watched The Dead Poets Society (1989) a few too many times. I think all teachers would like to think they are the embodiment of Mr Keating, inspiring students to think differently to have them stood on their tables at the end of every lecture giving us rapturous applause.

That is not the reality. I think students forget that we are not automatons. We are human beings as nervous as they are to stand in front of other people. They forget that in lecturing we are vulnerable, that we are giving away a little piece of ourselves each time.

We don’t all teach interesting subjects and what is interesting to one student will bore the next. If we want to give our students the contextual understanding of their field we have to teach the ‘boring’ stuff. We can’t always be blowing stuff up in the lab, creating the next Turner prize winning submission or solving the unanswered questions of the universe. We can make our subjects interesting by employing activities that keep students active. By asking challenging questions and involving them in discussion. Are these activities easy to do in a lecture theatre? No, they take a lot of careful planning and students who are willing and able to be involved.

 

“I expected enthusiastic speakers whose hunger for Chaucer could be seen in their uncontrollably moving hands. Instead, lecturers read off their notes, blazing through piles of information in the most monotone and disengaging voice.” Tueta Hoxha 2015

 

We are not all great orators. There are courses on confidence, presentation techniques but essentially confidence comes from practice. We are not all teaching subjects that excite us, that is more the fault of the institution than the lecturer. Lack of staff means it’s hard to enthuse on a subject if you’re not fully confident in your knowledge or if you don’t find it that interesting.

Learning Environments, the Timetable, the Curriculum and Cohort Size

We are also bound by a number of things that students don’t see. In the race for student numbers, small flexible learning spaces are becoming a premium. Our timetables mean we often end up getting what we’re given, not what we asked for. Yes there’s an element of interaction that can be injected in to a lecture but we can’t give students the kind of individual attention they desire, especially as cohort sizes reach several hundred.

We are also expected to deliver a curriculum. We have outcomes we must meet. I often wonder what students would prefer, less content but more interactive teaching or, more content but less interaction? I’m not sure. Of course there is a balance, but would students really be happy if the onus was as much on them, to seek learning, as it is on us to deliver it?

Is this the death of the lecture?

Long, long, long term, yes; short term, no.

The University of Northampton has taken the plunge and is building a campus without lecture theatres. I wait with baited breath to hear how well that goes.

Some would argue that the lecture itself is not the problem; it’s the way it’s taught. I can agree with that to some degree. We as teachers have a responsibility to make sure that our teaching methods and activities are effective in supporting students to learn. If part of that is making sure they stay awake; we should be doing what we can.

To bury the lecture everyone, students, staff and the institution, must reach the fifth stage of grief, acceptance. We know lectures are not the best way to learn, they are the best way to provide lots of information. Whether students take that in, or learn anything, has for some reason been seen as inconsequential. Teuta is yet to suffer any ill effects from missing his lectures but perhaps Teuta is in the minority of students who have the discipline to self-direct their learning. Would that approach work for everyone? I’m not convinced.

If we are to give up on the lecture, we must do as Northampton has, and take the plunge.

Let me know what you think tweet @KerryPinny.