Canvas On-Boarding Webinars

Participated in a series of webinars delivered over three days which covered everything we needed to know to get started with our shiny new Canvas VLE.

The webinars were divided into three topics, admin, support and fundamentals. The admin session was an introduction to the administration of Canvas, something we haven’t really seen before, while the fundamentals sessions, the bulk of the training, covered pretty much every other aspect of the system. Together these sessions have given us a good grounding to get started with the deployment of Canvas, and will be followed up with more comprehensive onsite training in a few weeks.

Our contract with Instructure includes their Tier 1 support package which means that they will be taking all of the customer support queries from our staff and students. The support webinar was an introduction to this, covering how their systems and processes work, and how we will access their call logging system to pick up anything that can’t be resolved directly. Happily they are using JIRA, a system I know well.

PG Cert AP: Day 15

The final taught day on the PG Cert was for the assessment module, EDPM06, and was about how assessment reflects and can influence pedagogy. We were advised to set assessments which are inclusive of all rather than targeting perceived needs of particular groups, but be ready and flexible enough to meet any specific needs which may emerge. This led to a discussion about equality, especially of access to HE, and social justice. Burke’s book, The Right to Higher Education, was recommended for follow up reading in this area.

Finally, there was some discussion and clarification on the assessments for this module itself. These are to write a reflective report showing how your practice has been influenced by what has been taught on this module, and to write two critiques of assessments which you have set or been given, again based on what you have been taught here.

Canvas and VLE Market Share

I’m finally allowed to say that Sunderland have recently chosen Canvas as our new VLE to replace the terminally ill LearningStudio. I’ve known for a while of course, but have been gagged until formalities were met and contracts signed. It’s a good decision, very forward looking; really exiting times ahead for us here.

I was having a look for their market share and I came across the latest report from EduTechnica that shows that Canvas have now overtaken Moodle to become the second most widely used LMS / VLE in the US market place, behind Blackboard which is holding on. When you look at the trends and that graph though, I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before those lines pass each other.

PG Cert AP: Day 14

Final day of the core module began with a session delivered by a guest lecturer who talked about workplace literacy and how the non-academic writing we do on a day-to-day basis is as valuable as academic writing and teaching in forming our professional identities. This was based on a paper by Mary and Barry Stierer – Lecturers’ everyday writing as professional practice in the university as workplace: new insights into academic identities.

In the afternoon there was a catch-up for a few people who missed the peer teaching session, followed by another run of the nominal group feedback exercise to get our feedback on the module now that it has completed.

PG Cert AP: Day 13

Back to the core module, EDPM05, and another split day with guest lecturers – covering equality in the university in the morning, and how to handle difficult classroom situations in the afternoon.

I feel like I must have attended half a dozen equality and diversity training sessions over the years, so the content of the morning session was very familiar, covering our legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act of 1998, as well as emphasising our moral obligations to be inclusive, and the reasons why it is just good business practice. What was different about this session was the discussion we had on the uniqueness of the HE sector. Universities tend to have rich and diverse international student bodies – at Sunderland one third of our on-campus students are from overseas – and they tend to be young, still forming their own identities, and at university will be exposed to values and opinions that are likely to be new and potentially very different from anything they have experienced before. As staff, we have a responsibility towards these students and can help them by creating inclusive learning environments which includes flexibility of teaching and assessment methods, encouraging interaction between different groups, offering pastoral care as required, and being aware of culture shock which some students may suffer from, and any unconscious biases that we may hold ourselves.

The afternoon session on how to handle difficult classroom situations was very useful. It was noted that it’s a strange omission in HE academic education that classroom engagement isn’t taught, as it seems to be assumed that it won’t be necessary with students being adults. However, these are often young adults and behavioural issues can and do arise. To manage these we were advised to set clear rules and lines about what is tolerated, preferably as teaching teams, explain these to students early on, and then enforce the rules fairly and consistently. We were advised not to get into direct confrontations in classrooms, but to record the problem behaviour and address it afterwards in accordance with the university’s regulations.

PG Cert AP: Day 12

Second day of the Assessment and Feedback for Learning module began with a discussion on the purpose of assessment which is at least partly about gatekeeping and assessing fitness to practice, especially in subjects such as medicine. Expanding out from there we discussed how assessment reflects the needs and demands of wider society and how this has been changing in response to the marketisation of higher education.

There was an interesting side discussion at one point about implicit assessment and how this can distract students. One person talked about how this had manifested on their module, with students believing that there was a hidden quota on the number of students who were supposed to pass and fail. Rather than concentrating on the assessment task at hand they spend a great deal of time in discussions amongst themselves trying to work out this non-existent pass-fail ratio.

In the afternoon we discussed the differences between formative and summative assessment, and how to use assessment to achieve effective learning and learner gain. That, we concluded, comes best from formative assessments, but these take a lot of time and effort and exist in tension with students preference for summative assessment and preoccupation with grades, a possible result of the changing culture which marketisation has brought about.

PG Cert AP: Day 11


And so we come to the infamous peer teach session! In which we were each given seven minutes to teach on anything we wanted by whatever means we desired, followed by seven minutes of questions and answers, not about the content so much as observations about our teaching style.

Some interesting topics and techniques as you can imagine, from the health benefits of juicing with taste testing, to a presentation on everything you would ever want to know about the Fender Stratocaster. I taught some philosophy, in a session I called ‘Something Nietzsche Couldn’t Teach Ya: A potted history of Western philosophy from 470 BCE to (almost) the present day … Via the medium of song!’

I created a presentation using Storyline that took Monty Python’s Bruces’ Philosophers’ Song and added breaks after each philosopher was introduced in which to talk about their key contributions. In the presentation itself I had some bullet points fly in along with displaying some basic biographical information. It was well received, and I was able to field all the questions I got, though sometimes with reference to the notes I had prepared as there are things in the song which I haven’t studied.

One little thing I did struggle with was time management. The seven minute format was chosen for a reason, to see how well you can manage your topic into the available space. Though the song is very short, I had about a minute of content for each philosopher which took me over. Anticipating this, when I received my six minute warning I was ready to skip to the end and the final slide which I wanted to leave people with – about Socrates decrying modern technology! Watch the full presentation here if you wish.

ArtWorks Scotland Forum for Practice Development


Following on from the Interface Symposium held here at Sunderland last September, I was asked to attend the ArtWorks Scotland Forum for Practice Development at the National Theatre of Scotland to raise awareness of the pending launch of our MOOC, by networking and delivering a session on the MOOC, showing the development that has been made to date.

With the materials still being built out on the MOOC platform itself, Canvas Network, I ran my demonstration from the SunSpace development site again, after updating it with some of the latest materials, and devising an interactive activity for the attendees of the forum. Lacking time and resources to have people complete an activity within the sample MOOC itself, I embedded an automatically updating word cloud using Tagul and then, during the networking lunch before my session, I interviewed all of the participants asking them to define what participatory arts means to them in three words – this mimicked the assessment we ran at the Interface Symposium. As they gave me their answers I was inputting them into Tagul on my tablet, then during my demonstration, when I came to this page the word cloud was complete with their responses which you can see in the image above. I’m pleased to be able to note that this all went without a hitch, and there was a lot of interest in the MOOC in terms of both providing content (which was one of the aims of attending the forum), and in participating when it goes live later this year.

The rest of the forum was, for me, an opportunity to learn more about the field of participatory arts which, as someone made a point of in their presentation, is possibly the majority of art produced, in contrast to the perception of art as something produced by talented individuals for the enjoyment or consumption of others. Particularly interesting was Simon Sharkey of the National Theatre of Scotland’s presentation about their involvement with the Gulbenkian Foundation to produce Sharing the Stage and Home Away.

PG Cert AP: Day 10

Another split day, wearing my student hat in the morning for the core module, and in the afternoon teaching part of the digital technology module, this time with the added pressure of being formally assessed as part of one of the assessments for the core module. It does get rather circular.

The morning session was excellent, far and away the most useful couple of hours I’ve ever spent on assessment. A guest lecturer facilitated an extended and iterative exercise using the seemingly simple task of defining a biscuit as a metaphor for the problems of assessment marking. First we each had to write a definition of a biscuit in 180 characters or less, the length of a Tweet, then the room was split into two groups and each group had to agree a common definition. Then the fun part, a plate of ‘biscuits’ was given to each group and we were tasked with marking them against our definition, placing each within a four point rubric of ‘biscuity’, replicating the undergraduate degree classification system. I was expecting trouble with the Jaffa Cakes, but the viciousness and racism which came about as a result of the shortbread finger took my by surprise. Alas, we were forbidden from removing the more contentious ‘biscuits’ from the equation by eating them.

The afternoon session for EDPM08 covered digital communication and virtual reality technologies and tools. It was this part that was delivered by myself and I was given an hour. I spent the first 30 minutes going through a short presentation I created about the use of virtual, augmented and mixed reality systems in higher education which I based on the microsite I wrote, followed by another 30 minutes or so in which people were able to have a go with some hardware and software which the module leader and I supplied – phone based VR headsets using some VR and AR apps I had found which showcased educational uses such as Anatomyou VR.

There was a bit of pressure on me this time, as my teaching was being formally observed in accordance with university practices and as a requirement for part of one of the assessments in the core module. I felt nervous, feeling that I stumbled over my words a bit more often than I would have liked, and I completely forgot to talk about Google Glass during the AR section, but my observer thought I did fine. I was commended on subject knowledge and use of cultural references to make the presentation interesting, and given good advice which I will be able to use in the future. At one point I did go ‘off script’ and tried to open an external link which took some time to load – I should have been ready with that or else not tried it. I was also advised to end the session with an optional task that people could do afterwards to help embed their learning – a good point, and something I have done in the past.

PG Cert AP: Day 9

Back to the core module today, and in the morning session we discussed learning theories and how they are applied. One of my colleagues brought up research that people have a bias towards teaching in the way that best matches how they learn – something to be aware of. The learning theories we discussed can be grouped into four broad categories – behaviourist, cognitive, humanistic, and biological, and it was noted that while most of the work on learning theories has been done in the context of children’s learning, much of it also applies to adults.

The behaviourist school says that learning is built on previously learned behaviour, and should feature frequent and timely rewards and reinforcement. Notable theorists include Watson, Skinner and Pavlov. Cognitive theories argue that learning is a complex process that is constructed by the learner themselves, using new information to develop and transform existing knowledge. The work of Piaget was discussed, before moving on to social constructivism, the current hot trend. Building on previous cognitive theories, social constructivists argue that an individual’s learning takes place within their wider social and cultural group. Vygotsky’s concepts of scaffolding and the ‘zone of proximal development’ were discussed, followed by Kolb’s learning cycle. The humanistic category was discussed briefly, as a reaction against behaviourism and the need to encompass the whole of one’s life as a learning experience. Biological theories were not discussed at all as being outside the practical application of this course, and the morning ended with a brief debunking of the concept of learning styles, citing the work of Coffield and others.

The afternoon was about different approaches to learning – surface, deep, and strategic. Surface learning is superficial, with students learning only the minimum they need to complete the task at hand and often forgetting it straight away. For this reason surface learning is generally viewed as inappropriate. In my own work I see this all the time, with academics only interested in the bare minimum they need to do as they know they can, for example, call my team twice a year when they need to set up new assignments in Turnitin. What I would like to do is find a way to fully engage them so that their learning becomes embedded, just part of their knowledge and experience – deep learning. The new VLE should help with this by being more intuitive and user friendly. The strategic approach to learning is one that combines elements of both, choosing the best approach for the particular time and context. Perhaps our troublesome academics would argue that they are merely being strategic?