Ronald Macintyre, Janet Macdonald and Anne Campbell all attended the 10th issotl (International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) conference in Liverpool last week, and had a grand time. This was a 4 day event, starting on Tuesday 19th October, and running to Friday lunchtime 22nd October. On the first evening, we took a freezing walking tour of the attractively regenerated Liverpool docks and the town centre, but the warmth, humour and friendliness of our Liverpudlian guide certainly made up for the cold. On the last evening there was a fab conference dinner where the delegates danced and sang the night away to a super Beatles tribute band.
Of course, we also attended many fascinating presentations, and Ronald and Anne presented papers representing the OU in Scotland. Anne’s presentation was called ‘Experiential learning in online staff development’, and discussed recent data from the Tutor Moderators and VLE Choices course. Ronald’s talk was ‘Place [still] Matters’, about his research on remote rural students. There were quite a number of OU people there, and it was really interesting to meet them, as well as some of the 375 participants from 22 different countries who had come to talk, listen and share their research. There were many highlights in the presentations, workshops and round table sessions; Anne and Ronald share some of these below.
I found some of the plenary sessions really interesting. On the first day Prof Graham Gibbs (University of Winchester, but formerly of the OU) spoke in his opening keynote about the importance of understanding the context that you are researching, saying that we cannot use a ‘one size fits all’ model for pedagogy. A quote that I will long remember is ‘If you rely on only one theory, you will be wrong and irrelevant most of the time’: we need to know about different theories and models so that we can consider which one applies in a particular circumstance. Almost as an aside, he quoted research which says that learning outcomes for individual courses can actually discourage independent learning, because students focus only on the learning outcomes: this was something of an eye-opener for me, as a member of the science faculty which is heading more and more towards using learning outcomes!
The final plenary discussed the ‘in’ concepts of threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. As I had heard of these but not known exactly what they were, it was interesting to listen to this presentation, and watch all the imagery on-screen. The two presenters – Prof Ray Land (Strathclyde University) and Prof Jan Meyer (Durham University) use the concept of a portal to try to explain the idea, which is about transformation and also discomfiture in learning, the sort of transformation which means that as a learner, you are starting to take on a new view of the world, and think in the way of the field you are learning about. Of course the idea of transformational knowledge is not new to anyone in the OU, but the idea is that we should start with examining the subject discipline, rather than just do better what we have always done in teaching, to examine what really makes us ‘a physicist’ or a ‘social scientist’: this way we can guide students through these thresholds and then help them with the troublesome knowledge that inevitably is part of the transformational process.
To view abstracts for all the plenaries click here.
There were also several thought-provoking and fascinating talks. One that really sticks in my mind was a talk by Busayo Ige (University of Cape Town, South Africa). She presented a study of support programmes that she had devised at two different South African universities for students who had arrived without basic study skills (as South African schools are often under-resourced; for instance they might not actually study maths as a subject). She argued that even within this one country, understanding the context is all important when trying to work with teaching and learning. Ige found that she had to alter the type of support she gave and the way she interacted with students, as the student concept of ‘self’ actually was different in the two different universities she worked in – partly because of geographic differences and partly because of racial differences. For example, in one of the universities the students had much more of a ‘collective identity’. Her presentation put things in perspective for me regarding our students and our education system, even in these days of hugely reduced funding for HE teaching.
Ronald: Anne is right – Graham Gibbs really did set the scene for the 4 days. I do not think I went to a paper that did not mention the importance of context.
Overall the contexts that seem to dominate were the Chinese Learner and ongoing professional development for teaching staff in further and higher education. The former, well cynics might say we are talking about the Chinese Learner because we (in the minority world) see a Chinese market. However, following on from Jude Carroll’s plenary (Jude helped develop the OU plagiarism policy) I could not help thinking that creating a label called the Chinese Learner highlights the way we socially and culturally construct our own model of what good academic practice actually means. Some would even argue it is about our attempts to make the minority world model of good academic practice the global model of good academic practice. There is a longer rant, which I will spare you. The later plenary by Ray Land (taking over from Michele Lamont, who was stuck in France) clearly linked with debates in Scotland on Graduates for the 21st Century. That is what the economy needs, but what do the students need? Tutors for the 21st Century: this is going to run and run, I think, especially in light of Browne.
As Anne pointed out, just before I gave the paper that Janet and I wrote about remote rural students was a talk by Busayo Ige about a very different context. Looking at my notes from the session the phrase that stands out in terms of Widening Participation (WP) was “self is not the reason for performance, but the result of it”. A lot to think about, and it fitted with work on WP that I have been exploring recently about why some identities are deemed more suitable for WP than others. For example see the keynote at the OU’s June 2010 conference on Widening Participation by Penny Jane Burke called “Deconstructing Discourses of Widening Participation .
Education for Sustainable Development, a theme for the HE Academy was also something I picked up on, and after Land & Meyer’s closing plenary on threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge, I wondered what those thresholds are in relation to sustainability and our very own sustainability course T123, Sustainable Scotland. Something for the T123 team to work on over the coming months.
Anne Campbell & Ronald Macintyre