Smiling faces sometimes (are the one’s who learn most)

It’s been a while since I last put finger to screen to tap out a blog on here. But, I don’t want anybody to think I’ve been idle. Far from it! I write this having just been presented with my piece of paper that makes me a National Teaching Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. I was inducted along with 54 exceptionally talented people from across the UK in the awe inspiring surroundings of Liverpool Cathedral.

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What strikes me about these awards, apart from them making us dress up to receive them, is that when we started talking amongst ourselves there was a large amount of confusion about the role of pedagogy in what we do. We were all in Liverpool supposedly to celebrate our excellence in teaching and learning, yet we seemed to have little collective analysis of what motivates people to learn.

To be sure, there were confident people in the room who had their pet theories (which they were happy to regale us with) but I came away more confused than when I had gone in. This is not a criticism of the NTF Awards. Everybody there had been innovative in some way and over a sustained period. Having been turned down previously I am under no illusions that these awards are not easy to obtain. But, doing excellence and reflecting on it are not the same thing.

I was left wondering how I can translate my own journey into something more useful to the learning community. I certainly couldn’t say “do what I did” as some of the funding streams I have benefitted from over the years no longer exist. And, even if they did, what I did then would no longer fit what you would need to do today. Times change, after all.

So, here, in a couple of paragraphs is the sum total of what I have learned in my 20 or so years in higher education.

1. All students are different. That sounds obvious. So it should. But sometimes I worry about academics who claim “Students don’t like….” as if a casual conversation with a single student is representative of the entire student body.
2. There are lots of ways to teach. Lectures may have their place but so do debates, role plays, problem-based learning, board games etc. The only thing that constrains our teaching is our imaginations.
3. Teaching and learning are not the same thing. Just because we are teaching it doesn’t mean anybody is learning.
4. Students learn in different ways. See 1 and 3. Not all learning takes place in formal learning environments. In fact, it is highly likely that most learning takes place away from the classroom and teachers. Get over it. Students don’t need us as much as we need them.
5. There is no such thing as a weak student. I know, this one takes a bit of selling. There are students who struggle, but it is usually not because they are “weak” but because they were badly advised in their course choice or are having a life crisis of one sort or another.
6. Online learning does not mean the death of education. Just because you like standing in a room talking at people does not mean that they like listening to you. Face to face teaching retains its place, but any lecturer/academic worthy of the name should embrace technologies that help to bring education to those traditionally denied it.
7. Learning should be fun. If I have learned anything at all over my years in HE it is that too much education is pompous, dull and excruciatingly boring. Who decreed that this should be the case? If you can put a smile on your students’ faces then they will learn more. Trust me on this.
8. Student engagement is about more than retention targets. Too much student engagement is concerned either with finding ways to increase retention or in filling places on various governance committees. Neither of these are engagement. An engaged student is one who feels that they are part of a community. That community might consist only of students or of academics and students, but in some way it must be self-sustaining. The idea that we can engage with hundreds of students simultaneously is a misnomer. Relationships are not sustainable at that level, so we need to provide environments where students can connect with 5 or 6 others in an environment where they feel safe and able to do so. The massification of higher education has made this harder to achieve than previously. This does not mean it is impossible.

That’s it for now. I may return to this theme. In the meantime, I’m happy to debate these ideas if you are so minded.

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I Can See For Miles

I’ve mentioned Cardiff Parkrun before. This is a weekly, free 5k run organised entirely by volunteers. Running is something that I do on a fairly regular basis, and like studying it can be a very frustrating business.
When studying it is obvious that over a period of 3-6 years, that there will be highs and lows. Deadlines missed, disappointing grades, work that is not up to your own standards, other students that annoy you, lecturers that annoy you, and, of course, life events that get in the way of our study. But, counterbalancing these lows will be unexpectedly good grades or complementary feedback, fabulous lectures/seminars/tutorials, sudden realisation that something is easier than you thought, new friends made, old friends rediscovered and, of course, exams passed.
In running too there are highs – personal bests, new distances conquered, new friends, new courses. And, of course lows – poor times, injuries, lack of motivation. In both studying and running landmarks are passed and highs are achieved. That’s the point, isn’t it?
So I was really pleased last Saturday to reach my fiftieth Parkrun. It wasn’t a PB, and I certainly came nowhere close to winning, but nevertheless it was a milestone that, during a year of minor injuries, I never thought I’d make.
Reflecting on the run later I started to think what bigger lessons were there. If I’m honest, I never really struggled as a student, so I can’t think of an essay or seminar that was analogous. Perhaps the day I submitted my PhD thesis to the University of London is the closest. Unlike, the PhD, however, I don’t feel that the Parkrun is the end of a journey, but rather simply a point on a continuing journey.
Which made me think that perhaps, after all, so was the PhD. I have always been an advocate of life long learning. This is where running and learning connect for me. Life long learning implies a lifetime commitment to learning, not necessarily a life long commitment to passing exams. Since my PhD I have tended to avoid exams in which I am the participant. As a lecturer I set and mark exams for others, of course.
In my running ‘career’, I have completed a marathon, a couple of half marathons, a couple of 10k’s and, of course 50 5k’s. It has not been a straight line, gradually doing longer and longer distances, but rather characterised by sudden bursts, unexpected faster times, followed by a diminishing of motivation or punctuated by injuries of one sort or another.
Life long learning is a process by which, over time, we come to realise that the knowledge ‘out there’ is far greater than the knowledge in our own heads. Sometimes, being a life long learner means taking formal courses and exams. More often it is about retaining a sense of wonder about the World we live in. It is often a case of being prepared to learn, rather than being prepared to be taught. Students often set up a hierarchical expectation where for them to learn, ‘we’ must teach. In reality, that makes learning a function of teaching and whilst some knowledge may pass from one person to another, it is unlikely that much real learning will take place. Lecturers often like the relationship simply because it flatters their ego.
Life long running is also a process. It does not have to be about winning, going faster, or going further. Every time I lace up my shoes and step out for a run, I have, in effect, won. Likewise, every time I ask a question, check something on the internet, read a book or simply wonder ‘what would happen if….’ I am improving my mind, and learning.
I would like to thank all the people who organise and turn up on every Saturday morning. It is an incredibly friendly and supportive environment. But, I’d also like to thank all my lecturers, tutors and especially students, past, present and future, for being co-passengers on my journey.
I know that I have more runs and more learning inside me. At the moment, I feel that I am on a hilltop from where I can see for miles. I also know that in that landscape are highs and lows. In the lows it is sometimes difficult to imagine the highs that lay ahead, but, trust me on this, both running and education are really no more than an endurance test..

Back To The Future (for teaching and learning)

I don’t normally go out of my way to praise Senior Management. This is partly because they seem aloof and often irrelevant to the day to day activities that consume me. And, also because they really don’t need me to blow their trumpet – they manage to do that quite well on their own!
But, two events at the Open University this week inspired me. On the basis, that I am sometimes too quick to criticise, I also think I should be quick to praise.
The first event was the announcement by our Vice Chancellor, Martin Bean about the appointment of Martha Lane-Fox as our new Chancellor. This was handled particularly well with a message sent round encouraging staff to log on to this You Tube video. I just thought this was very well handled, and it reminded me that the Open University can be a very slick organisation.
The bigger event for me however was organised by Belinda Tynan, our Pro-Vice Chancellor (Learning and Teaching). This was a 2-day residential which brought together around 50 people from across the OU to discuss future learning and teaching.
I was impressed by Belinda’s open and inclusive approach but also her passion for teaching and learning. We ought to be able to take these things for granted, but as she pointed out senior management often operate at a level of strategy that is divorced from what actually happens on the ground. It was great to see Belinda simply being one of the participants, listening to what people had to say, making useful and practical suggestions and never pulling rank to get her own agenda accepted. I’m not sure I’d be that self-disciplined!
With this culture of openness established the event allowed the rest of us to articulate our passion for learning (and it was learning rather than teaching that people seemed passionate about). Through a series of increasingly focussed group activities we thought about where we are now, where we fit in the wider socio-economic system and where we might be in the future.
Of course, crystal ball gazing is always fraught with danger, but I have to say I was impressed with how practical most of the future thinking actually was. A commitment to capture what the OU is in terms of its shared values and to use those values to orient us in our journey into the future. Naturally, 50 people in a room many of whom have never met previously and from a variety of backgrounds could never hope to agree on every finer point. What was noticeable was that even where disagreement emerged there seemed to be a desire to find common ground.
The event was interesting as well because it brought together academics, technicians and administrators on an equal footing. It gave me pause to think as I had a debate with another delegate over breakfast about how hopeless our IT systems were, when he introduced himself as a member of the IT department! More importantly, after our discussion I realised that it was not the people in IT who are the problem, nor the systems but the fact that whilst we all believe, at the strategic level, that we are committed to enriching the student experience; at the practical level we are often overly focussed on what we personally require in the here and now. Presenting other departments as the culprits of everything that doesn’t work is a way of ensuring that we never work together to overcome the challenges we sometimes have to solve (note: I was going to write problems, but changed my mind).
It is always easier to be critical of others than to work with them to find solutions to what is, after all, a shared commitment to our students. In future, I certainly will be less quick to criticise and much quicker to open a dialogue.
Another observation was that as we discussed our vision of teaching and learning, there was a strong sense amongst many of the educational technologists present that any improvement would involve building something. For many of the academics improvement was about improving processes (for which the ed techs wanted to build a new app!) In all this, however, something else became apparent and that was something almost everybody agreed on: at some level education is about relationships. There are relationships that students have with their institution, with their tutors and with each other. Of course, technology can assist and processes can help mediate those relationships but education is all about people connecting, and supporting each other. Whilst individual motivation can help, it is important to have a supportive network of friends, tutors, administrators etc. In some way creating an environment where students can feel confident, where they can overcome personal and educational challenges and where they can obtain their personal goals remains integral to the Open University. That is an exciting challenge and it is taking us back to the future.

Put your trust in me (better still, trust your students)

It’s a strange thing the relationship between lecturers and their students. We all know that students are adults. However, apart from the occasional maths prodigy they are usually over 18 by the time they get to University. We also talk about developing them as ‘independent learners’. Yet, at the same time, and usually with the best intentions, we tend to treat them like small children who need to be constantly protected and who are incredibly naive about the ‘real’ world.
I’m constantly reminded of how little trust we have in our students when I listen to colleagues telling me what they can’t do. It’s not that these staff don’t care about the students, but that they are, in my opinion over protective of their charges. This zeal to protect students borders on what we might call mollycoddling.
This attitude often expresses itself in relation to the use of technology. In The Open Universty we use a version of Blackboard Collaborate called OU Live. It is a fairly easy to use system used in universities and businesses around the globe. I hear often from colleagues that “students will be scared” by it. Therefore, we should offer them training on this new system (new, in as much as it has only existed for 10 years). My main concern has always been that students would not be able to find their way into the system, hence my You Tube video, which has had over 1,000 views.
Once, in the system, however, students find it relatively easy to use and if truth be told are actually more comfortable with this type of communication than the staff who teach them.
But it is not just OU Live, I recently had a discussion with a well respected member of my own institution who thought that students would not be able to cope with social media, particularly Twitter. When I argued that Twitter was now ubiquitous at conferences, the question was posed, almost accusingly “are you a Twitter user?” So, in the interests of fairness I should describe myself as a self-confessed Twitter user (@OUSocSciCymru if you want to follow me).
The problem with Twitter, apparently, is that it is dominated by a handful of very persistent Tweeters who can be quite aggressive.
Now I’m not one to argue that some of what passes for comment on social media is sometimes written by people who probably shouldn’t be permitted to have fingers, let alone keyboards to tap with them, but to suggest that the behaviour of that minority is typical is rather like arguing that one loose cannon at a conference typifies the conference. It doesn’t.
But even if it did, my point is about our reaction to these things. Lets face it the general population is full of individuals, some of whom are not very nice. But should we shield students from these things? Whilst we may have a moral duty to our students, I started off by saying that they are adults. Many of my students are mature students with a considerable personal history and are juggling complex life situations with their study. It strikes me as mildly patronising to believe that they are incapable of dealing with fairly simple technologies or able to understand that social media can be a bit of a jungle.
So, this raises the issue of why lecturing staff think their students need to be protected from technologies? I rather suspect that the lack of trust is based partly on a hierarchical view of the student-lecturer relationship, but more importantly is lecturing staff projecting on to students their own insecurities. When colleagues say ” my students don’t like technology-led learning”, what they mean is that they don’t like it. Similarly when they say that students don’t like social media, or should be protected from it, what they mean is, “I don’t like social media”.
One thing I have discovered, and this has been reinforced at a number of student events over the past couple of weeks is that students are amazing. They have a zest for knowledge and innovation that is often not reciprocated by lecturing staff. They are not afraid of new challenges but often lack the confidence to do anything about them. My view is that we have to trust our students, build their confidence, support their potential, and be prepared to pick them up when they fail. In effect, we have to treat our students as partners in a joint learning enterprise, not just as a convenient audience on which to project our own ideas and insecurities.

You don’t know like I know (which is why I set the exams for you to fail)

Last week, I ended with a rhetorical question about the 2,000 word essay and its hold on the HE imagination. You may recall that my question concerned the use of an assessment of 144 characters. In effect, what I was arguing for was the bringing in to our World the world of social media. Rather than thinking of social media as an evil presence lurking on the periphery of HE it is time to embrace it.
So, you’d think I’d be delighted this week to attend a meeting on a new module at my own institution that proposed to replace the current Level One first assignment of 750 words with one of just 250 words. However, I found myself feeling that this shift down was a retrograde step.
On reflection I have to ask myself whether I am just being a big old hypocrite. It has been known to happen. Or, am I just miffed that it was not my idea? That’s been known to happen too!
In my defence, then, when I argue for the abandonment of the 2,000 word essay as the sole form of assessment it is because I have a view that students are capable of so much more. Most students arrive at university with stories of their own to tell. Many have highly relevant experiences which underpin their decision to study. More importantly, in my area social science, all the students are members of the society we are studying. It is right, and inevitable, that given that they have spent a few years in that society that they have opinions about it.
In arguing for more imaginative forms of assessment, I am keen that students should have the opportunity to express themselves in different, but also culturally relevant ways. Students use Facebook and Twitter already – often more confidently than their tutors. It would shift the power balance to them if we allowed them to use their existing skills as some part of their studies.
By contrast, those promoting the 250 word essay made great use of the term “weaker students”. The decision to reduce the word count is not motivated by a desire to harness the experiences and imagination of students, but rather a functional imperative linked by a concern that not enough students were passing the course.
I do not like to impute motives to my colleagues as I am sure that they think that what they are doing is ‘helping’ students. But, the emphasis on weaker students does worry me a little bit. Whilst I would not dispute that any cohort of students will have a range of abilities, it concerns me that we begin to devise assessment with the stated aim of ensuring, so-called, weaker students will pass.
I am not convinced that weaker students problems are actually helped by reducing the assessment to 250 words, when the things many students struggle with, grammar, spelling, sentence construction, presenting a coherent argument etc do not disappear because they have to do these things in less words. I rather feel that to present a coherent argument, in good prose, in so few words will be harder, especially for students who are struggling anyway.
More worryingly, is a tendency to continue to negate the experience and opinions of students. Many students tell me that the reason they are studying is that they have an interest in some aspect of society and what they want to do is find out how to understand things more effectively.
What they find when they arrive at university is that they are discouraged from drawing on their own experiences. They are discouraged from using their imagination, in favour of being filled with often abstract theories by academics who like to tell them things. Moreover, we like to tell them things in a language which is often deliberately obtuse. I do wonder whether this is part of the process of professionalisation where a specialist language is invented to create an elitist illusion.
I like to believe that students and lecturing staff are in a partnership. That sometimes I have knowledge that I am able to pass on, but that my students have knowledge of their own which can, and should, shape mine. Assessment, seen through this prism is not a way of simply testing whether students have listened to what I have said but a dialogue between partners.

Isn’t it time (to abandon the 2000 word essay)

I’ve taken to asking a question at seminars and conferences lately, that usually elicits a room full of laughter. Now, like most people, I like the sound of laughter. It’s even better when people are laughing with you, rather than at you. I’m not entirely sure whether my question is an occasion for laughing with or at me.
So here’s my question: can you envisage a time when students will be asked to submit an assignment in 144 characters?
It’s a serious question, but thus far without a serious answer. A qualified ‘yes, possibly’ followed by a nervous laugh is the best that anybody has managed.
But, I think this question goes to the heart of two inter-linked debates in higher education. The first debate is around the use of social media in teaching and learning; and the second is the role of assessment.
I’ll return to assessment in a later post, but for now I just want to think about social media. It is obvious that students, particularly younger students, are very keen on social media. Whilst Facebook is probably the ‘market leader’ here, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest etc are all in the mix.
Higher education is into social media. Every university has its own Facebook page these days, most can be found on Twitter too, but these are not seen as places where learning takes place but rather as marketing opportunities. I suspect that university marketing departments are simply following what they perceive as a trend. A bit like buying a new car just because your neighbours have!
But, if the social media presence is a marketing tool, it is also a place where individual academics are able to say things that are on their mind. This is often also motivated by a desire to be seen in the places everybody else seems to be. Lets not pretend that academics are not capable of narcissism. So that the presence of many academics is, like the institutions of which they are a part, a form of marketing. In this case, it is self-promotion.
Some people, however, are more imaginative, seeing social media not just as an opportunity to engage a, still, relatively passive audience, but as a genuine opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue with their students. Some have even incorporated social media into their assessment strategies. But, as far as I know, nobody has yet taken the bold step of offering the chance to submit an assignment in 144 characters.
Could they? Should they? Would the world of higher education collapse if we abandoned, even temporarily, the 2000 word essay or report?

You Can Do It (be a student online presenter, that is!)

“Let’s have an online conference,” I said
“Okay,” said my friendly Associate Dean
“Let’s make it really big,” I said
“Good idea,” came the reply
That was in September. We set a date – June 30th, and decided that it would take place over a week. Now it is only six months away and we have started work in earnest. Unusually, this is not aimed primarily at giving academics a chance to talk to each other, or even postgraduate students, but rather is aimed at our 30,000 or so undergraduates. Quite an undertaking?
Let me give you some background. As I have spoken about previously studying at The Open University can be an isolating experience. Our students have to dig in for a six year haul. A few do get to the end more quickly, many do not, and can take up to 10 or more years to complete. The major problem for our students (which I assume is true for all distance learners and many part-time students) is motivation. It’s not that our students lack motivation, but rather that they have to sustain it for a long time and for the most part, in isolation.
I think all of us know how demoralising it can be to feel that everybody is doing better than you are. These feelings of inadequacy are particularly acute amongst students making them very susceptible to stories from other students who are finding the course easier, completing their assignments more efficiently and getting better grades than any lecturer awards. I can well remember sitting in coffee bars of Cardiff Students Union (where I did my degree) and listening to students who claimed to be better read, better informed and better marked than the rest. Perhaps they were but if I’m honest few of those people got Firsts!
The more astute amongst us labelled these people for what they were: bull-shitters. But, I wasn’t aware until much later what an insidious effect these people could have.
Now, imagine that your only source of information is a forum where you are a little scared to post in case your ‘stupidity’ is exposed. Imagine the effect of reading posts by students who claim to be weeks ahead, and getting grades in the 90%’s. In the coffee bar situation, it is easy to find people that are doing worse than you, or to find people to tell you not to worry even if you are a bit behind. It’s also relatively easy to find somebody, often a fellow student or one in the year above, to explain the bits you don’t get.
For distance students the b-s effect is to increase your paranoia, to convince you that you are incapable of studying and eventually to convince you that you are a fraud. Once you internalise the idea that you are not capable of study, then it is a short step to passively withdrawing. In effect, you simply stop studying. Initially nobody will notice, why should they?
This is the background to our online conference. Called Student Connections, its aim is to bring students together in an environment where they can meet and talk about any topic that takes their fancy. However, this is to be a proper academic conference, and my Faculty colleagues have been generous in agreeing to be keynote speakers. So, yes, students can be presenters but they can also hear about some of our most ground-breaking research.
In order to make the most of the online environment we are in the process of putting together a multimedia programme that will be innovative and interactive. We will encourage students and our academic colleagues to think beyond the rather stale and predictable formats of most conferences to embrace audio-visual multimedia techniques which will make the conference both a great conference and a showcase for what, with a little imagination, e-learning might look like.