NERAC Training Day

NERAC, the North East Regional Assessment Centre, is based within the University’s Disability Support Service and provides study needs assessments for students at the University and from other universities and colleges in the North East. This training day was to provide an overview of the latest versions of software and hardware which can be made available to assist students with specific needs, and was very helpful in raising my awareness of what is available and which I will cascade to my team.

For literacy support two software packages were discussed, Read&Write and ClaroRead Pro. Both have functionality for converting text to speech, highlighting, conversation to other formats including MP3, and scanning tools. Read&Write tends to be the preferred software with students, partly for its better spell checker which can check as you type and pick up on phonetical spelling errors, e.g. suggesting ‘enough’ for ‘anuf’.

There was an excellent presentation on hearing impairment which discussed the different types of hearing aids which are available and how these can be complimented by technology such as induction loops and the Roger Pen. Two software packages for audio note taking were introduced, Sonocent Audio Notetaker and Notetalker. Both packages allow students to annotate presentations, e.g. PowerPoint files, with audio recorded notes, and have text to speech functionality for the conversation of recorded presentations, though it was noted that these rarely work as well as intended in real world scenarios due to background noise.

Next, two tools for mind mapping were discussed, MindView and Inspiration. MindView was noted as being the generally preferred package at this time, as it has a familiar Office style ribbon toolbar and some nice features such as being able to add multiple notes and attachments to each branch, collaborative working, a citation tool, and a Gantt chart tool. Inspiration offers a word guide which can suggest synonyms and definitions, a presentation tool, and mobile apps, though it was noted that these were fairly basic.

Finally, software for screen reading and magnification were presented – Supernova and ZoomText. Both tools can do screen magnification, and ZoomText is able to apply different colour schemes to open windows and applications, as well as to the mouse cursor and pointer. It also has a feature called AppReader which can convert text to speech and can reflow the text in a magnified window as it is reading it out. Also demonstrated was Readit which can scan images and convert to text using optical character recognition. This also works with PDF files in which the pages are image files rather than text, useful for older journals which have only had simple scans. Readit can export to various formats, including Word and MP3.

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.

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 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 8

First day of my optional module, Assessment and Feedback for Learning, began with a discussion of how assessment can be used for learning, rather than as a tool to measure learning. The module has this concept at its core and, as such, the main assessment of this module is to critically analyse two assessments that you have used or written previously. There is also a second assessment, to write a personal reflective report on how you have found the problem based learning approach taken in this module, and how what you have learned impacts on your own academic practice. Very meta.

After setting out the learning objectives and the assessments of the modules, the remainder of the day was spent discussing the various factors and contexts which influence how assessments are set and marked. These included how student expectations have changed as a result of the marketisation of the sector, the university’s generic assessment criteria and how that relates to the learning outcomes on individual modules, and the cascading down of risk onto lecturers, e.g. pressures around graduate employability and how that influences the assessments which are set.

We also discussed the difference between formative and summative assessment, and how and why students often see formative assessments as options. There was a little about Foucault’s ‘regimes of truth’ (got to love a bit of Foucault!), and the concepts of the hidden curriculum and expectations – that everyone has a certain baseline IT literacy for example.

Session 1: Induction and Academic Skills

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This first session of Leading from the Middle provided us with background and context of the course, including how the course has been designed and developed from what has gone before and the experience the CaPE team have gained in providing leadership and change courses for private enterprise over the last few years. Also covered were academic skills and writing conventions, resources available from the Library and HR, and what is expected from us as students, particularly around assessment.

The course has a single, two part assessment which comprises a 5,000 word narrative report which demonstrates personal transformation throughout the course, built around a work-based project, and a separate portfolio of evidence, around 1,000 words, which backs up the narrative report and is mapped to the learning outcomes.

Given the reflective nature of the assessment, a large part of the session was devoted to reflective practice and introduced us to concepts including Dweck’s growth and fixed mindsets, and Kolb’s learning cycle. The image above shows Snook and Nohria’s ‘Knowing, Doing, Being’ model where ‘Knowing’ is your education and experience, ‘Doing’ is your skills and competencies, and ‘Being’, a commonly neglected area which describes your beliefs and values. Also discussed were some common management styles – the seagull, the mushroom and the plate spinner – and the place of middle managers which we identified as both the most difficult position to be in, having to keep different layers happy, but also possibly the most influential.

The specified aims of the programme, as quoted from the module guide, are:

  1. Personal development of students;
  2. Develop transformational leadership;
  3. Lead and manage change;
  4. Transfer learning into the workplace.

There are detailed learning outcomes broken down into knowledge and skills, but there is also a more concise summary in the module guide which is it also worth quoting:

  1. Increased confidence in undertaking management responsibilities;
  2. Self awareness of preferred leadership style and preferences when communicating with, and influencing others;
  3. Understanding leadership theory and the principles of leadership, particularly within an HE environment;
  4. How to work with your staff to create a high performing team;
  5. Be equipped with skills and knowledge to hold conversations with a purpose such as providing feedback and communicating during times of change.

With regards to the work-based project, some initial thoughts I have are the implementation of a call logging system for the team, something I’ve wanted from day one but which could be difficult for political reasons, as the university does actually have a system in place but it is just not suited to our needs and so doesn’t get used; something around making improvements in accessibility of the VLE and learning materials, something I am already involved with but it could be firmed up to become a proper project with definitive outcomes; or developing some bespoke learning materials for our Oculus Rift, something I would like to do but it would need an academic partner and have some real pedagogic benefit to warrant the development time that would be required. HR will be approaching line managers during January to discuss possibilities and scope as it is a desirable aim of the project to get some concrete benefit for the university out of it, though from the perspective of the course the outcome of the project is secondary to how it is managed and how we change and use what we are learning in the delivery of the project.

A very positive session on the whole, and I hope that the more I learn the more I will be able to resolve the tension I have between being a developer and wanting to make things and help people, and being a manager with a duty to lead my team and take responsibility for all of our work collectively.

Finally, as a piece of ‘fun homework’, we were asked to think of a song that describes our management style. I think I have failed in this exercise, but I do think that Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ does a great job of describing the position of middle managers in general!

Preparing to Teach

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This was an extremely dense two day course which “introduced key concepts, tools and issues which are important to teachers in higher education” (from the welcome document). The primary target audience for the course, which is delivered by our Academic Development Unit regularly, was PGR students who are starting to do some teaching as part of their work, but who may not have had any formal teacher training yet.

One of the course objectives was for itself to deploy some of the techniques under discussion, and the first such example of this was a ‘signature search’ icebreaker exercise, something which was completely new to me and most of the others there. This was followed by a reflection on the purposes on HE which employed the snowballing technique (more than learning, we concluded, also to develop students, at least potentially, into researchers and citizens who contribute to the advancement of society), how students learn in HE, techniques for reflective practice (including models of reflective practice from Schön, Gibbs and Rolfe, of which most of us preferred Rolfe’s model), key pedagogies (including scaffolding, repetition, cognitive load and chunking), planning your teaching (which included advice on how to plan, the difference between planning for a programme, session or individual learning activity, and a broadly applicable session template), and finally assessment and feedback strategies, e.g. how to select the appropriate assessment strategy for a given activity. The photograph is of the results of an exercise to complete a guidance and feedback loop based on Hounsell’s model. A joint exercise, my partner kept the original, hence my photo, which also explains why you can read the handwriting!

This was an extremely useful course for me which will help inform my development and, I hope, the quality of the sessions I deliver as I transition from a trainer, as I have previously characterised myself, to a teacher. An immediate impact will be on the fact that I will, from now, create proper sessions plans which go into a lot more detail than the notes I have previously prepared and which will include more thought on contingency measures and alternative activities which can be deployed depending on the nature of the group on the day. Some other things which will have an impact are that I now have an increased awareness of attention spans and the need to change activities at appropriate intervals to keep people awake, and the benefit of embedding informal assessment throughout a session to reinforce learning.

There were also some parts of the course which were not immediately applicable to my work and exercises which were harder for me to complete as they had in mind people delivering entire modules and programmes, not something I do at the moment, but I’m sure it will come in useful in the future as I look forwards to doing a PGCert in learning and teaching. That’s not going to be this year due to prior commitments, but possibly the presentation starting in September 2016.

I would have liked to have seen TEL being used to greater effect on the course. From a technological standpoint the course was a very tradition ‘PowerPoint plus handouts’ model which left plenty of room for improvement. I believe a small forest in South America must have been destroyed to furnish us with the enormous amounts of paperwork we were given; many of us, myself included, requested digital copies of the materials but there hasn’t been any follow-up on this yet, perhaps it is too soon. A lot of the paperwork was forms which we had to complete, the templates for the reflective feedback models for example, how much better to have delivered these via Mahara? Ideally in advance and that way we would also have had time to consider questions and points for discussion in order to get more out of the course (the flipped classroom approach). I work with Academic Development quite closely on a number of areas so I will have plenty of opportunity to feed this back to them.