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?

A change is gonna come, (or maybe it’s here)

Everything changes. After all evolution seems to be hard wired into us, yet for all sorts of reasons we cling to our old behaviours. This seems as true in education as it is in other parts of our lives. Some people, take a bow Mr Gove, fetishize the past to such an extent that the only explanation is that they must have been born in a previous century, accidentally frozen and then thawed out in time to visit misery on the rest of us.
Most academics are, and here’s a shocker, quite good at passing exams. For us, lectures, seminar papers and final exams worked. So, if they worked for us, they should work for everybody, right? Well, no actually. The notion that because something worked in the past, it is fit for the present is, frankly, a nonsense. That modern students should be forced to sit in rows listening to the sage on the sage says much about the sage and little about the needs of the student.
A recent paper in ELiSS (Enhanced Learning in the Social Sciences) argued that social tools, such as blogs or wikis, “allow the expression of learners’ thought, opinions, and ideas, enabling the construction of an online presence that arches over many spaces.” The authors, Monica Aresta, Luis Pedro, Antonio Moreira and Carlos Santos report on the use of what they call ‘personal learning environments’. These are online spaces where students can build and enhance their digital presence.
It is probably worth pointing out that their sample was 22 students taking a Masters in Multimedia Communication. One would, no doubt, expect such students to have a higher than average digital literacy, and to be open to this kind of experimentation. But, what of the rest of us? Indeed, for those of us teaching in the more ‘traditional’ social sciences or arts/humanities, what lessons?
I may be mistaken but I don’t think our students are as wedded to, so-called traditional pedagogies as many academics remain. But, and I believe this is a myth needing busting, neither are all young people digitally connected.
The key point about the Aresta et al study is a recognition that almost all of us now have an online identity, and that this has become as real as our other identities. By failing to acknowledge and nurture the online identities of our students, we do not just do them a disservice, but put ourselves into the position of evolutionary throwbacks.

What’s the Storify

I’ve always loved the use of moving images to bring a subject to life. In the past the skills and equipment necessary made this really difficult to achieve without hiring professional film makers. With the advent of cheap camcorders and the range of apps available, the game has changed. Using a combination of Flickr, You Tube, Twitter (follow me @OUSocSciCymru) and Storify. it is possible to create a permanent record of an event as it happens. And, throw in a video camera, and a digital camera (which could be an iPad or smartphone) and the ability to tell stories of all types is near endless.
What’s more the technical skills required are low to medium whilst you are in the experimental stage, rising to high only if you are concerned to maintain very high production values. In truth, for most web based work, the high production values aspired to are simply a legacy of a past when only a select few could engage in these activities at all.
Perhaps what we are seeing is the democratisation of what was once a very privileged activity. Whether that is a good thing likely depends which side of the divide you were on to start with. This makes me wonder why more people are not using the available technologies. I guess it is that like Sisyphus all they see stretching before them is a huge learning curve to climb.
Whilst I can tell you that the learning curve really isn’t that steep, you’ll only believe that if you never thought it was to start with. That is one reason why I am currently engaged in a project to develop some short videos aimed at tutors who want to use video, but are worried that they do not have the skills.
The story of our first day’s filming is here.

A Day In The Life (of an inspired academic)

This time last week I really had no idea what was about to happen. I knew that I was going to attend an event organised by @documentally in Cardiff. I knew it was called multimedia storymaking. I suspected that I might be a little inspired. Honestly, I had no idea.
I also knew that I was committed to a video film shoot in West Wales on Thursday. More of that in a future post.
The event on Monday has been documented on Storify. I think my picture is in there somewhere, not saying which one though! The Storify aspect gave me the idea to produce a Storify on the videos we are making, and which we started shooting on Thursday.
But, before that happened, I had what was something of a Damascan moment (is that the right word?) It occurred to me as I was listening to the brilliant @Documentally, that my online presence was really little more than a Twitter account (@OUSocSciCymru).

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For me, and I am primarily an educator, technology is good if it helps in the process of teaching and learning. So, as I wandered through Cardiff on Monday, my main concern was not creating a story there and then, but rather how to use all these apps to increase my ability to teach.
Now, a little confession. I have blogged before. In fact I blogged regularly for almost a year for tutors in Wales. That blog kinda died through inertia. So on Monday I thought why restrict the blog to a few people? Why not blog to the World?
And, with that thought and no more than a half hour spent, Thinking Socially was born.
My conclusions are: 1. Blogs are easy to set up 2. They are, relatively, easy to write, and 3. Why are they not more common amongst academics? After all, most (all?) academics have plenty to say, why not do so in the risk free environment of a blog?