LTA Workshop: Running up That Hill


Listening to this while reading this post will have no therapeutic value

This was the second Learning and Teaching Academy workshop I attended this semester, to give it it’s subtitle: Engaging Students to Learning Through Teaching and Assessment. (The big boss, who put the programme together, has a penchant for naming events with a musical theme.)

The workshop was given by Prof. Terry Young, Emeritus Professor of Healthcare Systems at Brunel University, who talked about his experience in academia over the past 15 or so years, having come from industry where he spent a similar length of time, giving him an interesting take on the academic world and conventional practice. On assessment, he asked us to consider what are the actual tangible benefits of, for example, spending time on decided on whether or not a given piece of work is worth 82% or 85%, and could this be time better spent elsewhere? Terry argues that there is little value in time spent this way, instead advocating for threshold based marking, first deciding whether a piece of work is a pass or a fail, and then asking either if it’s a fail, is it a good fail and can the student therefore be guided to a pass in future assignments, or if it’s a pass, is it just a pass or a good pass?

Terry also reflected on the nature of work academics are going to need to do over the next 20-30 years in the face of changes driven by automation and artificial intelligence. He concluded that there are three key tasks which will continue to be necessary: writing and specifying the requirements for programmes and assessments, curating and filtering content, and working closely with students to ensure their development and wellbeing.

LTA Workshop: Transitions into Higher Education

Attended the Learning and Teaching Academy’s workshop which was given by an external speaker, Dr Debbie Porteous from Northumbria University. The talk was around her research in how to support nursing students in their transitions first to students and then into professional practice, and how to maximise their potential for success.

She began by leading a discussion on how the student experience differs for new students in the 21st century – that study is often now only one of many commitments which can also include work and caring responsibilities, and that the relationship between students and institutions has changed as a result of funding changes which have resulted in students becoming customers, consumers and partners also.

From that position she moved on to how best to support students and ensure their success at University, which includes quality of teaching, clear career pathways, student support services, and, most importantly, the availability of staff at the key level 4 stage. This led to a discussion about how, in reality, that is often the point at which the core programme team are least directly involved with their students in favour of TAs and contract staff.

Debbie then talked about her research findings in which she has identified five themes in the journey of students’ first year of experience: uncertainty, the challenges of transition and developing coping strategies; expectations, how they match experience and, for us as educators, the need to set clear and realistic expectations of what support we can provide; learning to survive, in which resilience emerges and where peer support can be invaluable; seeking support, from academics, mentors and peers, as well as the student support services offered by the institution; and moving forward, at which point students have improved confidence, belief and efficacy. This was followed by an exercise in which we, in groups, tried to identify how students can be supported through each stage.

Finally, Debbie shared how at Northumbria they are using technology and learning analytics to engage with all students throughout their studies. This is going beyond targeting students who may be at risk to include positive message of support and encourage to students who seem to be doing well also.

No-Platforming and a Ridiculous Appointment

Happy New Year everyone!

Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, and that I’m back at work properly, it’s time to engage with the idiotic announcements made by our government concerning HE over the Christmas break.

First up, Jo Johnson made an announcement on Boxing Day stating that the new Office for Students could fine universities if their students’ unions are deemed to be no-platforming speakers. (Guardian) My instincts are, actually, broadly in alignment. I think universities should be places where anything and everything is open for discussion, and that students should be exposed to new ideas that challenge their existing thoughts and beliefs. I’ve always been particularly sympathetic to Mill’s ‘dead dogma’ argument on why freedom of thought and expression must be allowed, that if beliefs are not subject to challenge and defence, then the reasoning for the belief is lost and they come to be held as dead dogmas. (SEP) But that’s not quite what Jo Johnson is saying, and his statement is both malicious and his argument unsound.

It’s malicious because Johnson is proposing that universities are fined, but it is students’ unions, and particularly the National Union of Students, that have a policy of no-platforming particular organisations and individuals at their events. In so doing Johnson is forcing a particular opinion held by government onto universities, and threatening them with financial consequences if they in turn do not impose and police this policy on their students’ unions. But students’ unions and the NUS are independent organisations, democratically ran by students according to their own rules and regulations. Neither government or universities have, and nor should they have, any say on the policies of those independent bodies. Free speech and the challenging of beliefs is in no danger in universities, but it happens where is should – in the classroom where controversial arguments can be introduced in a safe and responsible manner.

It’s unsound because there is an unstated premise in his argument to the effect that there is either no harm in free speech, or that no-platforming is more harmful than allowing unfettered free speech, and this is not true. This takes us back to Mill, who argued that the only legitimate limit to freedom of expression was the likelihood of causing harm to someone. The example he gives in On Liberty is the difference between saying that corn dealers are responsible for starving the poor in a printed publication, and saying it to an angry mob outside the house of a corn dealer as an act of incitement. There are limits on free speech, there must be for civil society to function properly. The more contemporary example is that you can’t walk into a crowded movie theatre and shout ‘bomb!’. The question is, as it has always been, to define those limits.

Our understanding of what constitutes harm has advanced since Mill wrote On Liberty in 1859, and even if no-one is physically harmed in a stampede of people exiting the movie theatre, I think it is uncontentious to suggest that the fear, panic and distress caused to those people is unacceptable and reasonable steps should be taken to prevent such an incident from happening. This is what students’ unions are doing when they take the decision to refuse a platform for problematic figures, such as the misogynist no-platformed by Manchester’s Students Union who has a well-documented record of using such platforms to mock and degrade specific individuals as well as entire communities.

Speaking of odious individuals, the government on Monday announced the appointment of Toby Young to the board of the Office for Students, a man utterly unqualified and unsuitable for such a role. Young’s only experience in HE was as a teaching assistant while studying for a doctorate which he didn’t complete. At most this would have entailed a few hours teaching a week. His vociferous advocacy of the government’s free school policy ended in humiliation in 2016 when he resigned as CEO of the free school he helped to establish stating that he ‘hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better, and to bring about system-wide improvement.’ (Independent)

That he is wholly unsuited to the post is rooted principally in the very clear and unequivocal statements he has made against inclusivity and the widening participation agenda, part of government policy since the early naughties, and which he himself benefited from, gaining entry to Oxford with sub-standard BBC grades thanks to an access programme for children educated in comprehensive schools. He’s called students from working class background ‘stains’, decried the inclusion of wheelchair ramps for accessible access, and written dozens of Tweets that are homophobic, misogynistic, or just plain vile. He’s deleted most of those now, but you can’t erase history. Business Insider has helpfully archives some of his worst. Aren’t screenshots wonderful? Almost as wonderful as Kathy Burke who was more succinct than I have been:

burke_tweet

I’m not sure how effective these things are, but there is a petition for his appointment to be revoked on Change.org, and you could write to your local MP asking them to raise the issue in Parliament.

OMBEA Audience Response System

Attended a webinar demonstration of OMBEA, an audience response system similar to TurningPoint which can use both old-school ‘clickers’ or a browser based response. It seems good, but it didn’t ‘wow’ me. The best part of the system is the ability to upload responses to any quiz or survey to their cloud-based system which saves the results and gives you options to perform some analysis on the data.

I’m not convinced that these traditional audience response systems offer great value for money in the era of online tools such as Socrative, mQlicker and Poll Everywhere, and the ubiquity of smartphones.

At Sunderland we have SMART Response handsets which, for me, typify the problems with them and prove the need to move to entirely software driven solutions such as Poll Everywhere. The response handsets are expensive, the batteries run out (from personal experience, I would estimate that around 5-10% of handsets are not going to work at any given session due to faults like this) and the numbers of handsets we have is a mystery as they are spread out between different departments and faculties which guard them like Gollum. Getting enough together for a significantly sized session can be a nightmare.

Last year I was asked to advice on whether or not to use our SMART Response handsets or an online tool for a conference with an expected attendance of around 200. I recommended Poll Everywhere, but a senior manager was concerned that not all attendees would have a smartphone and thus some may be excluded. So I ran a poll to get some evidence and numbers, the results of which can be found on the team’s blog here. Only 2% of students said they didn’t have a smartphone or tablet, rising to 4% of staff, which I would argue is going to exclude less people than faulty audience response handsets. With Poll Everywhere, which allows people to respond via SMS, I think it’s fair to say you are doing your absolute best to accommodate the 2-4% of non-smartphone users as well. If you really felt the need to go further, well, we are also now in an era where £50 can buy you a pretty decent tablet.

Learning and Teaching Conference 2015

Inspired by the HEA’s ‘Framework for partnership in learning and teaching in higher education’ published in 2014, the theme and title of the University’s Learning and Teaching conference this year was ‘Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: The pedagogical case for learning and working as partners’.

The conference began with an Opening Address delivered by Professor Julie Mennell, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), and was followed by the Keynote ‘Learning as a Team: Education that connects students, lecturers and professionals’ which was given by a guest speaker, Dr Marjolein Wildwater, Scientific Manager at HAN University of Applied Sciences, Netherlands, who presented a case study on her experience with involving students directly in the ongoing development of a programme. Next was the Internal Plenary ‘Crossing Pedagogic Borders: Adventures with sketchbooks and stories’ led by Dr Diane Westwood, Principal Lecturer Learning and Teaching, with assistance from two of her students who shared their experience in changing the assessment model in a Psychology programme to one which was based on artefacts and portfolios, an approach which required them to cross the border into the unfamiliar world of the arts. The final session of the first part of the conference was a Question and Answer Panel ‘Talking About Working in Partnership’ where three chairs, Dr Colin Bryson, Director of Combined Honours Partnership, Newcastle University, Andi Albrecht, one of Colin’s students on the Combined Honours Partnership and Gareth Hughes from the University of Sunderland Students’ Union, each gave a short talk on their experience of working with students as partners before being joined by the other speakers from the morning to take questions from the audience.

For the second part of the conference attendees were broken up into strands to attend two workshops and one ‘ignite’ session. The ignite sessions were short, dynamic presentations lasting twenty minutes each with a five minute PowerPoint presentation with slides set to automatically advance every fifteen seconds. Unfortunately I was unable to attend any of the ignite sessions as I had to prepare for the first workshop where I was assisting a colleague, David Archer, with his workshop, ‘Using Mobile Polling to Develop Partnerships’, in which he talked about how he has used Poll Everywhere for real-time interaction with students during lectures. David borrowed a number of tablets and mobile devices that we keep in stock and I was also there for any technical assistance if required. The second workshop I attended was ‘Beyond Feedback: Rethinking the role of students in enhancing teaching practice’ delivered by Dan Derricott and Emily Parkin from the University of Lincoln who presented on their experience with involving students which contained some really interesting ideas such as having everyone on their Executive Board shadowed by a student.

Web and Learning Technology Services were there too. Instead of delivering a session we had a ‘pod’ to ourselves for the entire day where people could come for a break and chat to us about the latest developments with SunSpace and other learning technologies.

The conference was organised and delivered by Academic Development with whom I have a close working relationship and I was able to contribute some ideas for the day. For example, we were initially asked if we could record the morning sessions but instead I recommended the use of our new live streaming service which gave the conference another 50 or so virtual attendees and we received some very positive feedback from viewers. Recordings were subsequently added to the Sunderland Media Library. Also, with a little encouragement from me, Academic Development created a Twitter account and hashtag for the event to encourage audience engagement.

Introduction to SunSpace Storyline

intro_to_sunspace

Created a video-based presentation for new students which runs through all of the key features of SunSpace and includes a short surprise MCQ at the end to try and help reinforce their learning. Initially this was at the request of an academic who wanted something like this for some non-standard modules he has starting now, but it has wider potential so I made it generic to all SunSpace modules and then integrated it into the new module template we’ve been building for academic year 2015/16. It’s probably not complete yet, a voiceover on each slide would be nice for example, but it’s now in a state that’s good to go!

http://solar.sunderland.ac.uk/solar/file/29f3d246-59aa-4f60-9543-6c8577171de1/1/story.html

SLS Mini Conference

A short update from the Director and Assistant Directors of SLS on how we are progressing towards meeting our targets as a service which, as we are nearing the end of the three year service plan, has largely become a statement of fact. This was followed by group workshops where we discussed some examples of how we are meeting our shared behaviours: Teamwork, Customer Satisfaction, Continuous Improvement, Customer Focus and Information Sharing.

Enhancing the Student Experience with Microsoft Lync

polycom_and_kit

At an event at Durham University Business School, Waterstons provided three case studies of how Microsoft Lync can be used in a teaching and learning context, following by a hands-on demonstration of some of the equipment that had been used along with the client software running on a number of different platforms: a Windows PC and Surface tablet, an Apple MacBook and iPad, an Android tablet and a number of smartphones.

Lync is the latest version of what was Office Communicator and includes a number of enhancements, adding video, screen sharing and collaboration tools such as a whiteboard to instant messaging and VOIP functionality.

The first case study was a boardroom exercise, a simulated assessed committee meeting for MBA students which was recorded using a Polycom video recorder, with the recordings then exported and uploaded to Blackboard. The second case study was of a BSc Accounting Programme where students spent a significant amount of time on placement with KPMG. Lync was used to host regular meetings between the university, KPMG and the students. The third case study was on how the Business School had further rolled out Lync following these successes to conduct Viva examinations, overseas student reviews and for general meetings.

In all of the case studies Lync was chosen over the in-house Blackboard Collaborate tool as it was less problematic, not requiring Java to run, and easily available to partners who did not have access to the VLE. Feedback received citied the ease-of-use of the software and hardware, and the quality of the video and recordings.

The case studies were followed by a live hand-ons demonstration with the Polycom video recorder which was used for the MBA boardroom exercises and a large range of mobile devices to demonstrate the client software in action, including a web client which does not require any software to be installed.

Finally we were given a quick overview of how Waterstons are developing the software to find new use case scenarios to further enhance the experience for students, including full Outlook and university timetable integration, VLE integration, and use as a lecture capture tool.

http://products.office.com/en-GB/lync

http://www.polycom.co.uk/products-services/products-for-microsoft/lync-optimized/cx5000-unified-conference-station.html

http://www.waterstons.com

Positive PebblePad Feedback

From a student:

“Excellent, it’s there! thank you so so much for this! I’m so grateful honestly! Thank you so much for helping me :)”

She had lost some work from PebblePad which I was able to recover from the server, with some difficulty. Feedback like this reminds why I love my work; it’s wonderful to be able to help people.

After receiving confirmation that what I had done worked I did a little more experimentation and worked out exactly how and where the backups were being created and then wrote a short procedure on how to recover documents for future reference.