School research fiesta: research funding

This post summarises some of the points that were made during a panel session about research funding held during a ‘research fiesta’ that has held by the School of Computing and Communications

The panel comprised of four professors (if I’ve counted correctly), a research manager from the STEM faculty, and was facilitated by our director of research, Robin Laney. Although the focus was about research funding, it could have also easily had another title: how to become a professor.

Here’s a list of some really useful tips that I noted down about gaining research funding:

  1. Think about how you might go about forming a working relationship with a funding body. This might mean keeping an eye out for different research related events that they run. Networking is important. Take time to speak to them.
  2. To develop relationships with funders, join mailing lists, check their websites and respond to calls for advice and consultation activities.
  3. Take time to understand the motivations of a funding body and what their priorities are. Simply put, the closer a research proposal or bid fits the aims and objectives of a funding body, the higher the probability of success.
  4. As well as understanding their aims and objectives, take time to understand the processes that they use, both in terms of bid submission and also in terms of how bids are evaluated. A key tip here is: talk to colleagues who have been successful and know what the procedures are.
  5. Always try to play to the strength of the university. Each institution is unique.
  6. Consider projects or proposals that are a little ‘left field’; proposals that are slightly unusual or explores an unexpected area may cause interest and intrigue.
  7. Look for new funding programmes. Getting in early might benefit both the funder and the organisation (and project) that is funded, especially as the funding programme builds up experience and finds its distinct focus.
  8. Successful bids often have components of interdisciplinarity and collaboration. Unsuccessful bids don’t present a clear story.
  9. Find collaborators who are able to work between disciplines; these are rare people who can help with the writing of project bids and proposals.
  10. Find external stakeholders who have a lot to gain from their involvement in a project. When describing this, present a clear project narrative that others can easily understand.
  11. When working with collaborators and stakeholders, make sure that you give them plenty of time to create supporting documents, such as letters of support.
  12. Think in terms of teams. Working with a team of people means that funders might see certain bids as being less risky. Use your team to read and review your bid.
  13. Learn how everything works. Become a bid reviewer and seek out opportunities to sit on funding panels. The experience of reviewing other bids is invaluable.
  14. Speak to your university ethics committee early (and show that you have done so).
  15. Think about creating what could be described as a portfolio of ideas to work on at any one time.
  16. Smaller grants can be important; small grants can lead to large ones. Small grants can help researchers and research groups to develop their experience and expertise.

Summary

There are lot of really helpful points here. The biggest points I took away from this session was: be strategic (consider your portfolio of interests), look at what funding bodies are doing and what they are doing, and network to find collaborators, and build a team around project bids. In essence, take a collaborative approach.

Acknowledgements

Thanks are extended to Robin Laney for running the event and for proofing an earlier version of this post. A version of this blog is also published on Chris Douce’s OU blog pages.

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Computing education practice conference: Durham, Jan 19

I first visited the Computing education practice (CEP) conference, held at the University of Durham, back in 2017 (OU blog). I felt that it was a really nice event, with a broad range of subjects and a particular focus on opportunities of chatting to computer science educators from a number of other universities.

What follows is a quick blog summary of the second CEP conference that I attended on 8 January 2019 along with a set of accompanying thoughts, reflections and useful weblinks. I’ve written all this so I can remember what happened, and also on the off chance that anyone else doing research in computer science education might find this of interest.

Welcome and keynote

The opening keynote was by Andrew McGettrick, emeritus professor from the University of Strathclyde. Andrew told us all about various reports; he mentioned the Committee on European Computing Education Map of Informatics in European Schools and the US Computer Science for All initiative (ACM). There is also something called the Informatics for All Strategy from ACM Europe which presents recommendations for teacher training. Returning to the UK, the Joint Mathematical Council of the UK has published Digital Technologies and Mathematics Education (2011, PDF)

I noted down a couple of themes that Andrew highlighted, namely, the changing face of computing and the increased perceived importance of subjects such as machine learning. An importance question that was asked was: how do you help (or pressure) countries to focus on the development of computer science education?

I don’t know whether I missed it in Andrew’s talk, but I did feel that there was an opportunity to talk about the more recent work of the Royal Society about Computing Education in Schools (Royal Society website) and the Shadbolt Review of Computer Sciences Degree Accreditation and Graduate Employability (PDF)

Session 1: Projects

The first presentation, Supervisor Recommendation Tool for Computer Science Projects was by Kasim Terzic, University of St Andrews. In essence, Kasim’s talk was about a computer science project that was used to manage the allocation of computer science projects. It worked by getting different bits of information from different sources: staff advertise dissertation topics and provide information about their research interests by submitting papers to the institutional research repository. The inputs to the system were keywords and project proposals and the outputs were supervisor recommendations. Whilst Kasim was speaking, I thought of the OU project module, TM470.

Next up was Laura Heels and Marie Devlin from Newcastle University who spoke about: Investigating the Role Choice of Female Students in a Software Engineering Team Project. This presentation began by emphasising that there is a big gender disparity in STEM and computing subjects. Their research asked a simple question: what roles do students take when doing some important computing group work? In their findings, for one year more females chose programming roles, but by and large the trend is (if I’ve noted this down properly) that the males tend to choose the programming role.

I especially enjoyed this second presentation since it made me reflect on my own experience of group work as an undergraduate. I remember being thrown together in a group, and having to choose our own roles and responsibilities. I remember some of the conflicts, and the need to make pragmatic decisions for the good of the project. I also remember how the team supported me when I came to give a group presentation. I certainly felt that role identity and choice was an interesting topic to be studying.

Session 2: Pedagogy

Stewart Powell from Swansea University talked about: Teaching Computing via a School Placement. The motivation for his talk and the work that accompanied it was compelling, and directly linked back to some of the themes introduced by the keynote, namely: CS grads might not see teaching as a career path; they may lack confidence and competence. Here there is a link to the importance of soft skills, and a further implicit link to the Shadbolt report. Stewart introduced the module: it took place during one semester in year 3, and allowed students to gain an understanding of what it means to be a teacher.

The next presentation in this session, by Tristan Henderson, University of St Andrews was all about Teaching Data Ethics, a new postgraduate module. Tristan described the motivation for the module: that there are always lots of controversies; every day there is something happening. A phrase I noted down was: ‘I’ve moved away from thinking that technology is a solution for everything’. A further point that ethics can be a topic that can be difficult to teach. Subjects in the module included: privacy, aspects of law, machine learning, ethics in practice and ethics in research. We were also told about the Royal Statistical Society Data Ethics Special Interest Group.

As Tristan was talking, I thought of a related OU postgraduate module called M811 Information Security (Open University), which touches upon some of the topics that Tristan highlighted, but with a more direct focus on security. All in all, a very engaging and thought provoking presentation. I really liked the focus on the fact that Data Ethics (and Information Security) are such important contemporary issues.

Alcwyn Parker from Falmouth University returned to the theme of group work with the presentation: Nurturing Collaboration in an Undergraduate Computing Course with Robot-themed Team Training and Team Building. I noted down that ‘group work is [an] integral part of the student’s education’. I also noted down the terms: communities of practice, and cognitive apprenticeship, where students are encouraged to observe, practice and reflect. One of the things that I liked about this presentation was a very explicit link between education theory and practice.

The final presentation had the title: Papertian Mathetics with Concept Map Stories and was given by  Amanda Banks Gatenby from the Manchester Institute of Education. I’m familiar with Papert through his book Mindstorms(Wikipedia). I was interested to hear that the word Mathetics was defined as the ‘art of learning’ (which is distinct from pedagogy, which is about the art of teaching). The presentation described how concept maps are created and described by students.

Session 3: Data and data security

One of the challenges of teaching computing is that sometimes solutions to problems can be easily found through internet searches.  Rosanne English from the University of Strathclyde gave a number of suggestions about how to solve this challenge through her presentation: Designing Computer Security Assessments to Reduce Plagiarism. Two key points were: (1) create your own assessment resources (if you use photographs as data, take them yourself, since they won’t already exist on the internet), and (2) focus less on marking the code, and more on marking student reflections.

Charles Boisvert from Sheffield Hallam University gave us a ‘lack-of-progress report’ regarding the challenges of Teaching relational database fundamentals. I noted down the idea of Nifty Assignments (Stanford University) and SQLLite, which is a SQL engine that can be used within a web browser which is used within Charles’s TestSQL website.

Data Protection and Privacy Regulations as an Inter-Active-Constructive Practice was presented by Joseph Maguire from University of Glasgow. Joseph talked about active learning, the flipped classroom and ‘jigsaw learning design’.

Session 4: Engagement

James Davenport from the University of Bath kicked off the first afternoon session. James introduced The Institute of Coding: Addressing the UK Digital Skills Crisis (Institute of Coding website). I noted down five themes, which are led by different partners and universities: (1) university learners, (2) the digital workforce, (3) digitising professions, (4) widening participation, and (5) underpinning digital skills. James’s presentation followed by a talk by an OU colleague called Patricia Charlton, who spoke about the OU’s involvement in the Institute of Coding(OU website).

James gave two presentation in this session. His second was entitled: Teaching of Computing to Mathematics Students. In some ways, this talk reminded me of my own experiences studying discrete maths as an undergraduate (which was something that I found pretty difficult). James made an interesting point, which was: ‘the debate isn’t whether the maths department should teach programming, but how it should be taught’. This phrase made me remember a blog I wrote, Teaching programming across STEM, about the different ways that programming is taught in different parts of the OU.

The final talk in this session, Improving professionalism in first year computer science students, related to a paper by Shelagh Keogh, Jill Bradnum and Emma Anderson from Northumbria University. Some key points I noted down were: professionalism is socially constructed, that it’s something that you can’t teach – instead, it’s something that students much adopt. We were told about a skills audit, students were given one to one sessions, and they were asked to rate themselves across professional competencies so students can consider (and be responsible for) their own professional development.

Session 5: Programming

The first presentation in the final session was by Paul Piwek from the The Open University who spoke about Learning to program: from problems to code. Paul is a module chair for the module TM112 Introduction to Computing and Information Technology 2 (Open University website), and his paper (and accompanying presentation) was co-authored by Michel Wermelinger, Robin Laney and Richard Walker.

TM112 introduces students to text based programming using Python. He presented the rationale behind the module design, explaining that were was emphasis on abstraction, worked examples and patterns. Also, students were asked to use English to perform problem decomposition. Further information about the approach that is adopted has been shared through the Computing at School community site.

Neil Gordon from the University of Hull presented: A Flexible Approach to Introductory Programming. Some of the challenges that colleagues can face include the wide variety of background of students, the gender disparity in the subject, and attainment and progression. Neil directed us to Woodfield report, and I note that there is a HEA document, entitled Issues in retention and attainment in Computer Science (PDF).

The final presentation was by David Croft who spoke about Computing with Codio at Coventry University. Codiois a cloud based tool that can be used to help with the teaching of programming.

Final thoughts

As I mentioned in the introduction, this was the second CEP conference that I’ve been to. This one was slightly different than the first; rather than having a set of parallel sessions, all the presentations took place in a single lecture theatre. I also felt the event had a slightly more formal tone, since all papers presented during the conference were also published through the ACM digital library.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to formality. The tie up with the ACM provides a formal and official record of the conference, but the large lecture room takes away some of the intimacy and potential for informal debate and discussion that can be so useful for both presenters and delegates at these kind of debates.

When it comes to sharing of education practice, and talking about the challenges that teachers face when working with groups of students, I personally prefer the informal over the formal. This said, I fully appreciate the pressure that institutions and individuals face regarding publishing (which is something that I’ve alluded to in a previous blog).

These points made, I still think this is really nice conference, and even though the organisers have made a step towards formalising both the conference and the community, there is still space and opportunities to share and make connections with fellow practitioners. I also thought that the titles of the themes were well chosen.

A question I asked myself at the end of the conference was: what are the main themes or topics that are important at the moment. One thought is that there are certain areas of focus that are current and important. These include the subject of: cybersecurity (in all its various forms), data science and machine learning. Another important theme may lie in the subject of professionalisation and continuing professional development. There is an implicit links to the themes that are mentioned in the various pieces of research that were highlighted by our keynote: the significance of gender, the teaching in schools, and the development of soft skills. From a day conference, I can see that there is a lot that is going on, but I also see that there is a lot that needs to be done too.

Acknowledgements

Attendance at this event was made possible thanks to the OU Technology and Education Research Group(TERG blog). Many thanks to the group convener, Karen Kear. A version of this blog has been published on Chris Douce’s OU blog page.

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27th EDEN annual conference: Genoa, Italy

The blog shares some highlights from the EDEN Conference that I attended between 17 and 20 June 2018. (This post is a little bit delayed, since as soon as I returned from the conference, I entered into a very busy period of work) What follows is a brief summary of some of the sessions I attended. I haven’t summarised everything, just the sessions that struck me as being particularly interesting (given my own personal interests and experiences).

EDEN is an abbreviation for the European Distance Education Network and it attended by delegates from distance learning universities in Europe and further afield. My motivation for writing all this is to make a record of some of the themes that were discussed during the conference and have a resource that I can refer back to (plus, it might, incidentally, be of interest to someone).

Pre-conference workshop

The pre-conference workshop was all about an EU funded engineering education project that had the title: planning and implementing an action-based and transnational course in higher engineering education. The project has members from universities in Milan, Warsaw, Norway and Berlin. There was a focus on UN sustainable development goals and creating learning activities to help student work in international teams.

From what I remember, different universities have worked together set up engineering education university modules that taught subjects such as sustainability and entrepreneurship. One of the aims was to try to develop sustainability thinking in education and to develop an awareness of the importance of the notion of the circular economy and ‘sustainable value creation’.

Workshop participants were asked to create a tentative design of a transnational (or international) course that had a particular emphasis on sustainability, and to share the design with all the participants.

I found this challenging, for two reasons: engineering isn’t my home discipline, and I’m not a student of design or sustainability. This said, our team, which comprised of delegates from Germany, London and Lithuania had a go.

After the event, I remember my colleagues in the School of Design and Innovation who carry out research into sustainable design and innovation (OU website). I also remembered a module called U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world. Climate change, of course, won’t fix itself. It’s a wicked problem that requires an interdisciplinary and multi-national approach, and one of those disciplines that is very important is, of course, engineering.

Introductory keynotes

The conference was opened with two keynotes. The first was from Georgi Dimitrov from the European Institute of Technology and Innovation. To get us thinking, a broad number of themes and topics were identified: that careers are changing, that access to higher education can be a challenge, and it is important to retain students and help them to succeed. Other topics included the use of mobile and MOOCs, digital skills and literacy.

The second keynote by Fabrizio Cardinali had the title ‘how the next industrial revolution will disrupt our workplace and skills’. Again, a broad range of themes were introduced, such as intelligent machines, ‘digital transformation’ and the need to ‘upskill vertically’. A personal perspective was that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. Plus, being a former student of artificial intelligence, I always raise an eyebrow whenever the notion of ‘conscious machines’ is suggested. Putting my views to one side, both keynotes certainly got everyone thinking.

New ICT and Media

The first presentation of the New ICT and Media session was by Margret Plank from the German National Library for Science and Technology. Margret’s presentation was entitled ‘Video artefacts for scientific education’ and began with an interesting comment, that “science isn’t finished until it’s communicated”. Scientists and researchers were asked to record video abstracts that are between 3 and 5 minutes which describe the background, methodology and results. The aim of these were to increase public awareness of science and to disseminate research. We were offered some practical tips: tools such as the Davinci video editor or iMove could be used. A popular science video workshop (filmjungle.eu) was also mentioned.

Another presentation from this first session that stood out was called ‘Assessing the Impact of Virtualizing Physical Labs’. Evgenia Paxinou from the Hellenic Open University explained that distance learning students have obvious practical difficulties accessing a science lab. To get around this challenge, Evgenia told us about Onlabs. I noted down that the lab system had three modes: an instruction mode, an evaluation mode a-nd an experimenter mode. Instructors used Skype used with live sessions and an evaluation found that students who used the lab were better prepared, gaining higher scores. Although I don’t know it at all well, this presentation reminded me of the OU’s Open STEM Labs.

MOOCs: Latest Concepts and Cases

The MOOC session began with a case study of Open Digital Textbooks, which has been a topic that regularly features in the journal Open Learning (Taylor and Frances website). Mark Brown’s presentation began with a question: are traditional textbooks core to the student learning experience? The aim of the case study was to investigate current and future practice of textbooks in Irish educational practice, looking at advantages and disadvantages, enablers and barriers. Reference to something called the Irish National Digital Repository (NDLR). Another resource that might be of interest to some was called the UKOpenTextbooks case studies (ukopentextbooks.org)

Antonio Moreira Teixeira presented ‘Findings from the Global MOOQ Survey’. MOOQ is an abbreviation for ‘Mooc quality’ and is described as a European Alliance for Quality of Massive Open Online Courses. I also noted that MOOQ is also reference framework for the adoption, design and evaluation of MOOC providers.

The MOOQ survey studied 3 groups: learners, designers and facilitators. An important finding (that echoes other studies) is that the education level of MOOC users is high in comparison to the general population. The study also carried out semi-structured interviews and discovered that designers acknowledge the importance of interaction but also found that learners are more satisfied with their learning experiences than the designers were.

The final presentation I made notes on was called Assessing the Effect of Massive Online Open Courses as Remedial Courses in Higher Education and was by Tommaso Agasisti et al. An important point that was made is that MOOC can be used by students to fill gaps in their education.

Open Educational Resources

OERs is a regular, and an important topic. Les Pang from University of Maryland University College spoke about Effective Strategies for Incorporating Open Educational Resources into the Classroom. Les mentioned familiar topics, such as OER commons, MERLOT, MIT Open Courseware. The reason why OER is important is that it has the potential to save money for students, offers choices, enhances social reputation and enables students to gain a preview of the course materials. On the other hand, key challenges relate to their sustainability (whether they are maintained) and potential resistance in terms of their acceptance. A survey asked students and faculty members about benefits of using OERs. Positive comments (amongst others) included availability and cost. A concern related to the alignment with module objectives.

Second day: opening keynotes

The first keynote was by, Alan Tait, emeritus Professor of distance learning and development from the OU. The title of Alan’s talk was: open universities: the need for innovation. Alan began with question, asking whether the open university model of the past 50 years was threatened in the next 50 years.

Alan told us that that there were now approximately 60 open universities across 50 countries. The UK OU had been innovative in its vision and mission, application of technologies and use of logistics but there was now increased competition from other universities and the social and political environment in which they exist are changing. He pointed towards new technologies: learning analytics offer promise rather than achievement, some organisations produce MOOCs, and others make use of OERs.

An important question was: how do we reinvent open universities? Embedding ICT and digital potential on a whole institutional basis, developing curriculum for sustainability in all programmes of study, since this is a subject that is relevant in all curriculum areas.

The second keynote was by Teemu Leinonen who spoke about ‘From Non- and Informal Learning to Documented Co-Learning’. I noted down a range of different terms, including an abbreviation called GLAMS, which means Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums, which can play a role in both formal and informal learning.

Anthony Camilleri talked about ‘A Blockchain Perspective to Educational Management’. Blockchain was defined as ‘a digital way for people to transfer assets without an intermediary’. Put another way, it is a public, secure, decentralised ledger. One idea is that it might be possible to use Blockchain to keep records of academic achievement, and this is something that is subject to an OU project called Open Blockchain (Open University). During Anthony’s talk, I noted down a mention of something called the Woolf University, which is described as a ‘the first blockchain university’. I’m very sceptical about this, since notions of community, belonging and brand are perhaps even more important than technology alone. Plus, there are issues of national and discipline based accreditation that need to be considered.

The final talk was by Joe Wilson, who presented: Open Education in Policy and Practice – a UK Perspective. Joe mentioned the Association of Learning Technology (ALT website) and its aim to ‘increase the impact of learning technology for public benefit’. Joe also mentioned an Open Educational Resources conference (OER18) and the JISC Digital Capabilities project, which I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog about associate lecturer professional development.

Learning Theory and Implementation Practice

Paul Prinsloo from the University of South Africa presented Organisational Factors on Implementing Learning Analytics. I noted down different types of data: descriptive, diagnostic, and predictive analytics. Paul mentioned that learner data can be incomplete and provisional, plus there are links to the theme of the conference: there are macro-societal factors that can influence the data, as well as institutional factors. I also noted that there was a reference to a paper that was written by some colleagues: Research Evidence on the Use of Learning Analytics: Implications for Education Policy.

Sue Watling from the University of Hull presented Connect or Disconnect: Academic Identity in a Digital Age. Key points of this talk included the importance of building confidence of users to create digital fluency. I noted down that there was a reference to the TPAC model of teaching and pedagogy.

The final session was by Paula Shaw who presented: A Practice Orientated Framework to Support Successful Higher Education Online Learning. During Paula’s talk I noted down a few references, including the OU innovating pedagogy report 2017, and the EDUCAUSE New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report.

National Digital Education Cases

The first presentation of this session had the title ‘The French Thematic Digital Universities – A 360° Perspective on Open and Digital Learning’, and was presented by Deborah Arnold. The next presentation was by Willem van Valkenbur who presented: A Collaboration & Learning Environment to Enable to be a University Leader in Education Innovation. Willem spoke of moving to a blended learning provision, and a need for a new learning management system to enhance quality and to attempt to unburden teachers. There was a reference to university governance and educational innovation. Some key terms that were used included learning analytics, adaptive earning and peer learning.

Steffi Widera, from the Bavaria Virtual University (BVU) talked about ‘Best Practice for a Network of Higher Education Online’. Steffi described organisational structure, the use of blended learning (which I think were also known as self-contained learning units), and open courses. This session was concluded by Ana Rodriguez-Groba who presented ‘Blended Learning Teaching: The Story of a Social Network with a History’.

Socio-cultural aspects of digital learning

Mengjie Jiang from the University of Leicester presented: ‘Boundary Crossing: International Students’ Negotiating Higher Education Learning with Digital Tools and Resources’. Mengjie used various methods to study how participants (international graduate students) become familiar with a new educational environment. I noted down the use of institutional VLE systems and social media tools. My understanding is that her research tries to understand a very specific and important moment in time and how perspectives (of learning and of identity) may change.

The next talk, ‘Supporting Learning in Traumatic Conflicts: Innovative Responses to Education in Refugee Camp Environments’ by Alan Bruce and Maria-Antonia Guardiola reminded me of presentations from the previous EDEN conference which also shared case studies of how technology can help migrants. This presentation outlined a case study of from the Greek island of Lesvos.

The final presentation that I will mention is by my OU colleague Lisa Bowers who spoke about a ‘Haptic Prototype Assembly Tool for Non-Sighted, Visually Impaired and Fully Sighted Design Students, Studying at a Distance’. Lisa introduced the subject of haptics by describing its connection to our tactile senses, such as touch (through our skin) and proprioception (an internal feedback to the body where we can instinctively know where their limbs are located). Looking beyond Lisa’s immediate research a big question is whether haptic systems might be useful for students with visual impairments to more directly participate in subjects such as design or architecture.

Training of Digital University Teachers

During this session, I presented: ‘Distance Learning and Teaching: Understanding the Importance of Tuition Observations’. I spoke about a series of focus groups that I had carried out (which are summarised within this blog) and summarised some of the key themes that had emerged from a literature review about teaching observations. I also spoke about the importance of sharing teaching practice; one thing that I learnt from this bit of research was the availability of a really since set of guidelines that had been produced by colleagues who work in the science schools.

Corrado Petrucco presented ‘Activity Theory as Design tool for Educational Projects and Digital Artifacts’. Corrado gave us an introduction to activity theory, describing it as a tool that is ‘able to represent complex relationships and processes’ before going onto describing how students used activity theory with respect to their own education design project. I found this final session especially interesting since activity theory had been used as a tool within a postgraduate education module that I used to teach.

Closing session

There were a number of speakers who spoke during the closing session of the conference. The first speaker was Sarah-Guri Rosenblit from The Open University of Israel, who presented ‘Distance Education in the Digital Landscape: Navigating between Contrasting Trends’. Some of the trends (and tensions) were: national and international priorities, industrial and digital needs, the differences between competition and collaboration, and the use of open education resources and MOOCs. I noted that there some challenges: languages and academic cultures. An important phrase I noted down was: “distance education and e-learning are not the same thing”. Echoing Alan’s earlier keynote, I also wrote down the very true observation that campus universities are now offering distance education.

The next session was about the future of technology enhanced learning. Topics that were mentioned included data analytics, the potential use of augmented reality, new formats such as SPOCs (a small private online course) and MOOCs, and the idea of microcredentials. The final presenter, the conference rapporteur, highlighted some of the subjects that were featured within the conference, such as migrant education, vocational education, the challenge of inclusion and how technology can be used to contribute to social mobility.

Reflections

This was my second EDEN conference (the first conference was in Jönköping, Sweden), and I was again struck by its scale: there were a lot of presentations and a lot of parallel sessions. Subsequently, there was a lot to take in. One of the things that I really liked about it was the searching questions that there implicit within the keynote talks, such as: if distance learning can be provided by institutions that also offer face to face teaching and learning, will the distance-only university survive?

My personal opinion is: yes, for two simple reasons. The way that education programmes are designed in the two contexts are different, and the way that students are supported are different too.

Although technology is always likely to be a very important theme within conference such as EDEN, one thing, however, is common between the two different types of institution that I’ve mentioned, and that is the importance and role of people – or, specifically, the educators.

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7th OU eSTEeM Conference: 25 and 26 April 2018

The Open University runs a centre called eSTEeM which funds research and scholarship to enhance and develop STEM education. For the last few years, the centre has run a conference that serves a number of purposes: to showcase research, to create a space to get people talking (and potentially collaborating) with each other, and to offer an opportunity for academic professional development.

What follows is my own personal summary the two days of the conference. There were a number of parallel sessions to choose from. My approach to choose them was very simple: I chose the sessions that packed a lot in. This meant that I chose the paper sessions rather than the various workshop sessions were on offer. At the end of the blog I offer some very short reflections based on my experience of the session.

Opening keynote

The conference was opened by Diane Butler, who introduced the introductory keynote speaker, Tony Bates who used to work at the OU and also the University of British Columbia. Tony has recently written an Open Text Book called Teaching in a Digital Age. I made a note that Tony opened with the observation that there is ‘a lot of change’ and this has direct implications for teaching and learning at the university. One of the key forces of change is the need for skills, i.e. IT skills that are embedded within a subject area; knowing skills that are specific to a discipline. An accompanying question was: what are employers looking for? Certain skills are really important, such as active listening, speaking and critical thinking.

Learners need to practice and develop skills and to do this they need regular feedback from experts. I made a note about that technology isn’t perhaps the most appropriate way to develop the soft skills that Tony mentioned earlier. An interesting question was posed: what does an advanced course design look like? There were some suggestions (if my notes serve me well): perhaps there might be student generated multimedia content and assessment by e-portfolios.

Tony also spoke about trends: there are new models of delivery; there is face to face teaching on one side, and fully distance learning on the other (and everything in between). An interesting point was that every university in Canada had fully online courses, with 16% of all course enrolment being to online courses and programmes. Traditional universities are moving into the space where distance learning institutions used to dominate.

An interesting new trend was the notion of hybrid learning: looking at what is best done in the classroom and what is best done online. I made a note that Tony said there was ‘no theory about what is done face to face versus online’, which strikes me as surprising.

A significant trend is, of course, MOOCs, but it was reported that there was no MOOC mania in Canada. Other trends included open educational resources and open text books. The point is that we’re now at a point where university professors offer learning support and not content and this has implications for teaching and learning.

Tony concluded by leaving some points for the university: that technology is continually changing, that there needs to be flexible accreditation for life-long learning, and perhaps there needs to be an agile approach to course (or module) development. Also, all universities will be or are going to be digital (in some way or another).

Paper session: Supporting students

Lessons in retention success: using video media to influence students

Jessica Bartlett spoke about her experiences working on S282 Astronomy. There are some immediate and obvious challenges: students numbers are falling and the module contains a lot of maths. An interesting point is that 50% of the students studying this module were not from the STEM faculty (which is where all the maths is studied).

The aim of the project was retain more students and help more students to pass exams. The module uses formative tutor marked assessments (TMAs) which means that the module team can reuse questions but can’t (of course) provide model answers to students. I recognised an interesting comment: ‘students don’t often look at their mark, ignoring their feedback’. The module team made videos about how to deconstruct and approach the TMA questions. I made a note of something called ‘reviewing your TMA’ activities, which encourage students to look back at what they’ve done (which sounds like a great idea). There were also weekly videos, where the filming and editing was done by the module team.

Evidence that bootcamps can help student retention and progression

Tom Wilks also spoke about S282 Astronomy but within the context of a ‘bootcamp’ that was designed to offer addition student support. Tom recorded short tutorial sessions that covered a range of topics: basic maths and physics, general OU study skills, how to use the VLE and how to use the Adobe Connect conferencing tool. 28 Adobe Connect sessions were recorded, each lasting between 2 and 10 minutes in length. These sessions were advertised to all students, who could access a forum and an Adobe connect room. Other resources include something called an ‘are you ready for quiz’ which is also used with some computing. Tom commented that tutors can refer students to his recordings if some students were struggling with certain concepts, and he also found that students did re-engage with materials when they were approaching their TMA.

Flexible/early start M140

Carol Calvert gave a talk on her work on introducing a Flexible or Early start to M140 Introducing Statistics. I’ve heard Carol speak about this subject before, and she always delivers a great talk. Her research is based on an earlier study where she looked at students who succeed despite the odds that are stacked against them. One of the key findings of this research that one thing can really make a difference, and that is: starting early.

Carol’s intention was to create an ‘early start’ experience that was close to a student’s experience when it officially begins. This means they have access to materials, can access the VLE site, have access to tutors, and can access to resources such screen casts and software. 400 students were sent a message offering them an invite to start early, and 200 responded saying that they would. Tutors offered sessions on study skills and tutorials on content. Another advantage is that if students do start early, they will know sooner whether they are on the wrong module, which can be really useful, since there are significant fee implications if someone finds themselves on the wrong module. If you’re interested, more information about Carole’s scholarship is available on the eSTEeM website.

Improving retention amongst marginal students

Anactorial Clarke and Carlton Wood spoke about an access module: Y033 Science Technology and Maths. Access modules are important due to the university’s commitment to widening participation. Y033 is studied by 1K students per year and students who have successfully studied this module (as far as I understand things) can apply for a fee waiver. 25% of students declare a disability and access students are offered 1 to 1 telephone tutorials since previous research has suggested that sympathetic and supportive tutoring is crucial to student success. The study that Anactoria and Carlton introduced use a mixed method. They looked at the completion of S111 Questions in Science and Y033. Students who have taken the access module are more likely to stay with the module; the point being that access level study builds confidence (and emphasises the importance of access).

Paper session: online delivery, tuition and international curriculum

Synchronous online tuition: differences between student and teacher

Lynda Cook and other colleagues asked a really important question: what are online tutorials really like? An accompanying question is: do we meet our student’s expectations? Students on 2nd level modules were surveyed, recorded tutorials were studied, and students and tutors were interviewed. Students reported that very few were using microphones (which isn’t a surprise to anyone who had attended an Adobe Connect session) and an analysis of recorded tutorials suggested that lots of features were not used, with the exception of the chat box.

The interviews with tutors revealed that when the recording button goes on, students are reluctant to talk. One conclusion is that students’ value tutorial recordings but students don’t like to interact. A personal note is that there is a conflict between interactive and recorded lectures and I don’t think the university has quite some way to uncovering the pedagogic opportunities afforded by online tools such as Adobe Connect (and, in some ways, this links back to some of the themes mentioned in Tony’s keynote).

Understanding tutorial observation practice

It was time for my session. I spoke about a short project that aimed to ask the question: ‘what is the best way to observe tutorials?’ I approached this question by doing three things: carrying out a literature review (with help from a brilliant tutor colleague), and conducting two sets of focus groups: one with tutors, and another with staff tutors (the members of the university who usually carry out tuition observations).

Some of the themes that emerged from the focus groups directly echoed some of the themes in the literature. An important issue is to understand what tuition observations are for: are they for development, or are they for management? (The answer is: they should be used, in the first instance, for development; the observers can learn a lot just by observing). An outcome from the project was to uncover a set of really useful tuition guidelines that have been used and developed by colleagues in Science. The next step in the project is to formally write everything up.

An international comparative study of tuition models in open and distance learning universities

Ann Walshe, a colleague from the school of Computing and Communications, spoke about her visit to Shanghai Open University (SOU) where she was a part of a group of visiting scholars. Ann reported that SOU emphasises vocational and life-long learning. Whilst it does offer bachelor degrees, it doesn’t offer postgrad qualifications. It was interesting to hear that SOU ‘does its own thing’ and tries not to compete with other local and national universities. It has a particular emphasis on blended learning and face to face teaching, having 41 branch schools for both full time and part time students. Interestingly, students have to attend a mandatory F2F induction.

The visiting scholar group were from a range of different institutions, including Chongqing radio and TV university, University of South Africa, the National Open University of NigeriaCavendish University, ZambiaJose Rizal University, Phillipines, and the Netaji Subhas Open University, India (which apparently has 120 study centres, with more opening). Ann’s talk emphasised the importance of distance learning and its global reach.

Unpacking the STEM students’ experiences and behaviours

Jenna Mittelmeier’s presentation was about the challenges of Online Intercultural group work. I enjoyed Jenna’s talk, since it was a very research focussed talk that asked a very specific question: are students more motivated when they study materials related to their own cultural background? In other words, what are the benefits of matching content and activities to the membership of a multi-cultural group? Jenna described a randomised control trial in the context of a Dutch business school. In an activity, students were asked to look at something called the World Bank statistics dashboard and it was found that students participated more when using content from their own background. A qualitative survey suggested that internationalisation (of a study context) did improve participation but did expose tensions. There was an important point, which is that content needs to be made relevant to student’s lives and experiences.

Paper session: supporting students – STEM practice and engagement

Using a dedicated website in the continuing evolution of a statistics community of learners

Rachel Hilliam and Gaynor Arrowsmith introduced us to something called the Maths and Stats Subject Site. Before the university restructured and closed regional centres, students could attend course choice events where they could look at module materials from the regional centre library and talk to academic support colleagues and speak with other students. In an environment that is increasingly digital, an important question is: can we recreate that in an online environment? I made the note that it is (of course) important that students feel a part of a community.  There is a Maths and Stats advice forum, maths education forum, and information about professional and subject societies. There is also advice about preparing to study, revise and refresh resources, are you ready for quizzes, and early units from some modules.

Implementing additional maths support for Health Science students

Nicola McIntyre, Linda Thomson and Gerry Golding spoke about their experiences on SDK100 Science and health: an evidence based approach. An important aspect of the talk was that a maths tutorial was replaced with 18 short videos covering mathematical concepts, such as decimals, percentages, scientific notation and powers. There were also two workshops which were advertised students by email, and two tutors selected and briefed on format of the workshop. I noted an important point: it’s not enough to only provide videos, the workshops are considered to be an essential component.

Two mathematicians and a ukulele

Hayley Ryder and Toby O’Neil are module team members for M208 Pure Mathematics. The module is run through a single ‘cluster’, which means that there is only one group of tutors who teach on the module, and it has 25 hours of tuition sessions. From what I remember, there was a view that students wanted more contact with module team.

One way to address this is to record a series of informal online tutorial sessions where Hayley and Toby talk through different mathematical concepts and also discuss what is discussed on the module forum. The idea is to convey a sense of ‘what mathematicians do’ and to build ‘mathematical resilience’, a concept that has a number of aspects: (1) the fostering of a growth mindset, (2) that maths has personal value, (3) knowing how to learn maths, (4) knowing how to find appropriate support. The sessions focussed on the first three of these aspects.

An important point was that the presenters can easily make mistakes when doing things ‘live’ and this shows that real mathematicians can get stuck, just like everyone else. As for the ukulele, this also connects to the concept of learning; this is an instrument that Toby is learning to play (and I understand that he plays it during sessions!)

A secondary analysis of SEAM responses for programming and non-programming modules by gender

Joseph Osunde from the school of Computing and Communication studies the issue of gender disparity in computing and IT. Joseph offered an important comment during the start of his talk: ‘reasons [for gender disparity] may include learning environment[s] that convey gender stereotypes on interests and anticipated success’. To learn more, Joseph has been looking at university Student Experience on a Module (SEaM) survey results.

As a staff tutor, I regularly get to see SEaM survey results and I have my own views about their usefulness as personal development tools and sources of useful research data. This said, Joseph found that there were no significant differences in achievements between gender for modules that required students to learn about programming and those that didn’t. Joseph (with Anton Dil) looked at M250 Object-oriented Java Programming. It turned out that for modules that contained programming, like M250, men seem to be more satisfied with them. When these were again compared with non-programming modules, the result is a bit more mixed.

Whilst this is an interesting finding, this does suggest that there is some more research to be done. A related question is: to what extend are different people motivated by modules that contain programming? Also, just as our colleague, Gerry Golding has carried out research (which I mention later on) into ‘mathematics life histories’, I do feel that there might be an opportunity to study something that might be called ‘computing life histories’ to understand the qualitative reasons for differences in satisfaction.

Closing keynote for day 1

The closing keynote by Bart Rientes was entitled a ‘critical discussion of student evaluation scores and academic performance at the OU’. Bart began by telling us that he used to be an economics teacher where his teaching performance was regularly evaluated. Drawing on this experience, he asked a significant question: ‘did my increase in my [evaluation] score mean that I was a better teacher?’  He asked everyone who was attending a similar question: ‘are student evaluations a good proxy for teaching excellence?’ Bart directed us to an article, entitled:  Student satisfaction ‘unrelated’ to academic performance – study  that was featured in the Times Higher.

We were given another reference to some published research that was carried out on behalf of the QAA. Digging into the QAA website later took me to two reports that are both connected to the themes of learning, student satisfaction and quality assurance. The first report, entitled Modelling and Managing Student Satisfaction: Use of Student Feedback to Enhance Learning Experience was by Rienties, Li and Marsh. The second report has the title: The Role of Student Satisfaction Data in Quality Assurance and Enhancement: How Providers Use Data to Improve the Student Experience was by Williams and Mindano.

Onto a personal reflection about this (keynote presentations are, of course, intended to get us thinking!) As mentioned earlier I’m very aware of the OU SEaM surveys. In my experience as a tutor line manager, tutors only tend to receive a couple of responses for a group of twenty students, and the students who do respond often have a particular cause to do so. This observation connects back to Bart’s opening point, which is: what can these measure of performance (or satisfaction) tell us? The fact is that education can be difficult and frustrating, but it can also be transformative. Sometimes we only can truly judge an experience (or feel satisfied with it) when the effects of our experience have become clearer over an extended period of time.

Paper session: Supporting students and technologies for STEM learning

Using student analytics with ALs to increate retention

Gerry Golding spoke about some of his own research into Maths life histories, an idea that, as far as I remember from Gerry’s talk, originated from a researcher called Cobden. Gerry interviewed people to understand how adults coped when studying advanced maths topics and touched on the importance of high school experiences and maths anxiety. Maths life histories can students help to understand the cause of their anxieties and help them to think about what affected them. In turn, these reflections can be used to build and develop self-efficacy to help them through the hard times and facilitate the development of a growth mindset. In terms of this bit of scholarship, initial contact with students is important. Also, the university virtual learning environment (VLE) is not a big deal, because students are studying using books. I have to confess, that I didn’t pick up on the main outcomes of this bit of research, since I started to think about Gerry’s idea of ‘life histories’.

Analytics for tracking student engagement: TM355 Communications Technology

Allan Jones spoke about TM355 Communications Technology, an important module in the computing and IT undergraduate programme. The module has three 10 point blocks, printed books, 3 TMAs and a final exam. It is also a module that makes extensive use of the VLE.

Students study what is meant by communication technologies and how they work, such as how you modulate waves and signals, encode data and correct errors. The module also makes use of 30 computer aided learning packages. Data analytics are used to track the use of the online parts and comparisons are made between two presentations and students are interviewed to understand their motivations.

It’s a bit more complicated than that: STEM OU analyse evaluation

Steve Walker asked a question that was implicitly linked to Allan’s presentation: can learning analytics help students to complete modules? The answer was: no… until something is done with the data. The reason for looking at this subject was both simple and important: retention is important and there is the need to figure out what works, for whom and in what context, and why.

Steve introduced a term that I had never heard of: realist evaluation, and directed us towards a paper by Pawson and Tilley (PDF) which is (apparently) used in medical education. Points that I noted down that sounded important included: mechanisms, interventions, outcome and context. 7 associate lecturers (ALs) were interviewed by members of a module team using something called ‘intervention interviews’. An observation is that the term ‘analytics’ is used in different ways. I also made a note of a simple model, which has the components: identify, diagnose and intervene.

Java specification checking

Anton Dil spoke about the evaluation of a prototype tool for M250 object-oriented programming tutors. M250 students need to write some object-oriented software code. This includes creating something called ‘classes’. These classes have contain a number of ‘fields’ (or data stores) and are designed to carry out certain actions which are started (or invoked) using something called ‘methods’. Student code can be automatically evaluated in a couple of ways: you could write something called a ‘style checker’ to assess what code a student has written, or you could assess its functionality through using something called unit testing. The module team have written a tool called checkM250 that could be used by tutors.

Eight tutors were surveyed and 6 tutors were interviewed. Tutors didn’t use the tool because they didn’t know about it, didn’t have enough time, or didn’t think they needed it. If they did use it, they were likely to recommend it, but they were unsure whether it could highlight things that were missed. I made note of the quote: ‘if you asked me previously whether I missed things, I would say: of course not’. Tutors did report that it could be useful. My own take on tools for tutors is that any tool may be useful (and I write that in the context of being a tutor!)

Digital by Design: workshop

The conference workshop was, interestingly, run by a theatre group. The key concept behind the workshop was an observation that the ‘coffee break’ discussions in conferences that can be just as useful as formal presentations. Instead of having further talks, the idea was to create a long session that is, in fact, one long coffee break where participants could move between different discussion groups.

Another important idea is that anyone can propose a topic for discussion. Whenever someone decides on a topic, a delegate chose a post-it note that indicates when the topic is going to be discussed, and where in the large room that discussion is taking place. Participants can see a summary of the topics that are being discussed at any one time and participants are, of course, encouraged to move between different groups, according to their own interests. It was a neat idea.

I proposed a topic: how do we develop and support our associate lecturers to do ‘digital’ in the best possible way?’ Examples of other topics included: how should we be using social media apps to communicate with students and each other, how do we become experts in advising students at how to study onscreen, and how do we decide when digital is appropriate and when is it not?

During our ‘coffee’ conversation, I was joined with two colleagues. I soon began to think about whether there might be something that could be very loosely called the ‘digital associate lecturer capability model’. I sketched out a model that had three levels: university systems and tools (such as Adobe Connect), module tools (such as module specific computer based learning products, like there is in TM355) and common IT systems and products (such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint).

During these discussions, I was reminded of a JISC project called Building digital capability that the OU library was connected to and involved with. This also provided a useful framework that could be used to guide AL development. In later discussions, I discovered that colleagues from the OU library were already using this framework in AL development sessions.

Reflections

Everyone’s experience at a conference is, of course, likely to be different. I had a simple objective when I was attending this eSTEeM conference, which was to attend as many presentations as I could to try to get a feel for the breadth of projects that were happening across the university. In some respects, there was one commonality that jumped out at me, and that was the use of videos or personalised recorded tutors that were customised to the needs of students. Underpinning this is, of course, the use of technology.

During the conference, I heard presentations from module teams and presentation from tutors. I also understand that some students were attending too, but I didn’t get to speak or hear from any of them. This links to an important reflection that it is really important to hear the student voice; we need to hear stories about what has worked and what hasn’t worked. This said, eSTEeM scholars are always asking students questions through surveys and module teams are always looking to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

A final thought is this: I’m still not sure is meant by ‘digital by design’ but I don’t think that really matters. We access materials, write materials, and carry out our scholarship using digital tools. What I think is really important is how we use these digital tools in combination with each other. Digital technologies in their various forms might new and seductive, but ‘digital’ tools cannot be transformative if you can’t see or understand how they might be used. There’s something else that is even more important: what really matters in education is people, not machines. It is people who can show us which digital tools can help our studies.

Note: A version of this blog was also published on Chris Douce’s personal blog on 25 May 2018. Slight editorial differences may exist between the two version.

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HEA 2017 Annual conference: Generation TEF

A couple of weeks after attending the European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) conference, I attended a UK Higher Education Academy conference that took place in Manchester between 4 July and 6 July 2017. In some respects, it was good to attend both events so close together, since ideas from the first conference were still at the forefront of my mind when I attended the second.

What follows is a conference of report of the HEA event. Like all of these conference reports, they represent my own personal views of the event; different delegates, of course, would have very different experiences. I should add that I attended two of the days: one that concentrated on STEM education, and the other that was more general.

The second day of the conference was opened by HEA chief executive Stephanie Marshall. Stephanie noted that this was the first annual conference for three years. She also hinted at the scale of the HEA, reporting that there were now ninety thousand fellows. A key point was that ‘teaching excellence is a global ambition’ and that discussions about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been dominating recent debates within higher education. The notion of the fellowship was an attribute that can change university cultures to foreground the importance of teaching. Other issues that I noted were the importance of student engagement, student satisfaction, student retention and the idea of creating a ‘connected curriculum’.

Keynote: How digital engagement enhances the student experience

The opening keynote was by Eric Stoller. Eric has built a consultancy about using technology and social media to create digital engagement, with a particular emphasis on higher education.

I’ve noted that Eric said that there are social media skeptics and that social media is a subject that can be polarising. There was the suggestion that social media is all about learning, and the learning doesn’t stop when students leave the classroom. A point I noted was ‘life-long learning should be at the heart of the experience’; this is especially interesting since the life-long learning agenda within my own institution has been fundamentally impoverished due to government increases of tuition fees. It is now harder to study for an entirely different qualification, or to study a module or two with the intention of developing skills that are important in the workplace.

We were presented with a series of questions. One of them was: can social media be used for critical thinking? Perhaps it can. Information literacy is an important and necessary skill when we are faced with working out what news is fake, and what news isn’t. Other questions were: how do we use social media to build communities? Also, how do we connect to others when there’s one of ‘you’ and lots of ‘them’? In answer to ‘how’ you ‘do’ engagement through social media, I remembered that one of my colleagues, Andrew Smith gave a talk entitled ‘how our classroom has escaped’ at The Open University about how to use some social media tools (specifically Twitter) to reach out to computer networking students.

Another broad question was about digital literacy and capability. This immediately relates to another question: is there a benchmark for digital capabilities? A challenge about this perspective is one that Eric mentioned, which is: different people use social media in different ways. Another question was: how about addressing the subject of social media in staff appraisals?

A theme that appears regularly is that of employability. Perhaps lecturers should be ‘role modelling’ to students about how to use social media, since these can and do have implications for employability. Social media can be used to engage students as they become acclimatised to working within a particular institution, helping them through their first few weeks of study.

As Eric was speaking, I had my own thoughts: one way to see social media is a beginning point for further engagement with students; it can be used to expose issues and debates; it should, of course, be a beginning point and not be an end in itself. There are other issues: what are the motivations and incentives for the use of social media amongst different communities?

Day 2: Morning Sessions

The first session of the day was by Anna Hunter from the University of Central Lancashire. Anna’s talk was entitled: ‘What does teaching excellence look like? Exploring the concept of the ideal teacher through visual metaphor’. I was interested in attending this session since I have an interest in associate lecturer continuing professional development, and Anna was going to be talking about her work on a PGCE in HE module (which is a subject that has been on my mind recently). Some of the activities echoed my own experience as a PGCE student; activities to explore views and opinions about teaching and thinking about the notion of academic identity. I noted down a question that was about team teaching, but I didn’t note down the response; the issue of how to facilitate and develop team teaching practice remains both an interest and a question.

Kath Botham from Manchester Metropolitan University gave a presentation that was also in the form of question: Is an institutional CPD scheme aligned to the UK PSF and HEA Fellowship an effective tool to influence teaching practice? Kath’s research was a mixed method approach that aimed to assess the impact of the various fellowship awards. Some practitioners wanted the ‘HEA badge’ to be seen and recognised as someone involved in teaching and learning’. It is viewed as something to validate practice. Also, gaining accreditation is something that can help lecturers and teachers overcome ‘imposter syndrome’. The question remains: does accreditation change practice? Accreditation can help people to engage with reflection, it can represent an important aspect of CPD and can stimulate personal skills and study development.

Day 2: Afternoon Sessions

After attending a series of short five minute ‘ignite’ sessions, I couldn’t help but attend: ‘Removing the elephant from the room: How to use observation to transform teaching’ by Matt O’Leary and Mark O’Hara who were both from Birmingham City University. This presentation directly linked to the theme of the conference and to a university funded project that is all about online and face to face tutorial observations. We were treated to a literature review, and introduced to a six stages of an observation cycle: (1) observe self-reflection, (2) a pre-observation meeting, (3) observation, (4) post-observation reflection, (5) post-observation dialog, and (6) observee and observed post-observation reflective write up. I also noted down that there was an observer training and development sessions. Another note (which I assume is about the feedback) was: ‘we chose a blank page approach; we don’t want to forms corrupting what we see’, which reflects observation reports that I have personally received. The closing points were important; they spoke about the importance of management buy-in, that there is anxiety in the process, and there needs to be time to have conversations.

Rebecca Bushell from the University of South Wales asked: Can innovative teaching techniques effectively improve engagement, retention, progression and performance? Rebecca’s innovative technique was to ask her students to create businesses that are funded using micro-capital (student groups were given fifty pounds each). The points were that this was immersive problem based learning that allowed students to share experience. It also allowed to reflect on their experience, and it created learning situations for students on other modules; accounting students were asked to audit their accounts. For me, the take away point was: simulations can expose real challenges that can immediately relate to the development of employability skills.

Day 3: Opening Keynote

The final day of the conference was opened by Giskin Day from Imperial College London. Giskin taught a Medical humanities course which was all about Putting medicine in a social and cultural context. It is a course that explores the connections between the arts and science, with an emphasis on creativity.

An interesting point that I noted was that much of science is about minimising risk and beating uncertainty. With this context in mind, how can we encourage students to tolerate and manage ambiguity? This, of course, is an important skill in higher education; it is something that is explicitly explored within the humanities, where students are encouraged to be ‘creatively critical and critically creative’.

Another point is that there is a change in student expectation: students are no longer willing to be ‘talked at’, which is something that was echoed within my recent blog summary from the recent EDEN conference that I attended. A question remains: how do we engage students in new ways? One approach is to consider ‘playful learning’ (the notion of games and gaming was, again, something that featured within EDEN). Games, Giskin argued, enable students to develop empathy; they allow students to enter into a safe imaginative space where failure is an option and a possibility.

We were introduced to a speed dating card exchange game that had a medical theme. As a part of her teaching, we were told about a field trip to the V&A museum that was connected to skin, sculpture and dermatology. Students had to find exhibits within the museum and had to decide whether the sculpture needed a medical diagnosis, developing student’s communication, sketching and observation skills. Other games involved role playing where students played the roles of doctor and consultants. There was talk of escape rooms and creative puzzle solving.

Giskin offered some tips about creating effective games: consider the audience, make sure that things are tested, and think about a balance of playfulness and usefulness whilst also asking questions about what would motivate the student players. Also, when planning a ‘game’, always consider a ‘plan B’, since things might change in the real world; a game-based field trip to a museum might become unstuck if a museum suddenly loans an artefact to another institution.

In some respects, Giskin’s presentation was in two parts: the first part was about games; the second part was about her research about the rhetoric of gratitude in healthcare (Imperial College). Her point was simple: grateful people want to express gratitude; it is a part of closure, and an acknowledgement of that expression. The language used with both patients, and with challenging students is very important. I noted down the importance of moving from a rhetoric of coercion to a rhetoric of collaboration.

During the question and answer session, I think Giskin referred to something called the Playful learning Special Interest group(Association for Learning Technology). I found this interesting, since the introduction to design module, U101 Design Thinking uses both the idea of play, and explores design through the development of a game.

I enjoyed Giskin’s reference to different types of learning approaches; her references to field trips and role play echoes various teaching approaches that I have tried to adopt. During a moment of inspiration I once spontaneously ran a field trip to a university corridor to encourage a set of design students to look at a set of recycling bins! Hearing about other practitioners such as Giskin developing a systematic and more comprehensive approach to designing field trips offers real inspiration and insight into how to develop interesting and entertaining learning events. I remain wondering how to embed these different approaches into a distance learning context.

Towards the end of Giskin’s session, we were each given different postcards, and we were asked to write down the response to a simple question: ‘what teaching and learning tip were you grateful to receive?’ Our challenge was to find the same card as another delegate and swap tips. When I found another delegate that had the same card as mine, a card that had some drawings of some craft tools, I made a point of offering a grateful thank you, which was, I believe, graciously received.

Day 3 : Morning Sessions

During the morning, I moved between different sessions to catch various presentations. The first talk of the morning was by Nagamani Bora, University of Nottingham, who spoke about ‘Curriculum Design – Opportunities and Challenges’. There were references to employability, interdisciplinary and the notion of the spiral curriculum (which was recently mentioned during my PGCE in HE studies). Other points included the importance of involving students in curriculum design and introducing them to international and global perspectives. An interesting point was made about the question of programme level assessments.

Siobhan Devlin who was from the University of Sunderland spoke about ‘Engaging learners with authentic assessment scenarios in computing’. Interestingly, Siobhan spoke about the ‘demodularised curriculum’; bigger chunks of curriculum were considered to be the order of the day. A key point was that authentic assessment needs to reflect real world practices. Siobhan also referenced some of her earlier research that asked the question: what does inspiring teaching look like? Some key attributes I noted were: enthusiasm, passion, adaptability, empathy, friendliness and enjoyment. I also noted down a reference to Keller’s ARCS model of motivation (e-learning industry).

Day 3 : Afternoon Sessions

Christine Gausden, University of Greenwich, continued to touch on the authentic in her talk ‘Embedding Employability within the Curriculum’. Christine is a senior lecturer in the built environment and said that although students might have technical knowledge, they may lack the opportunity to apply that knowledge. To overcome this, practitioners were asked to talk to students, and students were asked to study real live construction project, which links to the earlier point of authenticity.

After Christine’s talk, I switched sessions to listen to Dawn Theresa Nicholson and Kathryn Botham from the Manchester Metropolitan University talk about ‘Embedding Reasonable Adjustments in the Curriculum (ERAC): A Faculty-wide approach to inclusive teaching’, which relates to my own experience of tutoring on an Open University module called Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students(Open University website). The idea was to embed accessibility in the curriculum (MMU) to such an extent so that personal learning plans could be phased out completely. A solution was to look at what adjustments were being applied, provide a set of standard adjustment and to offer staff training. An important principle was to make sure that all learning materials were available online in advance of a session.

Carol Calvert, a staff tutor colleague from The Open University talked about ‘Success against the odds’. A key driver the research was the principle of student retention; it was hoped that the project would suggest actions to help students to complete their studies. The key research question was: ‘what can students who we think may not succeed, who have been able to succeed, able to tell us?’ Factors that might suggest challenges include: previous study success, socio-economic status, and level of prior educational attainment. Students offered some pointers: (1) that it was important to start early, (2) that it is important to share and to get network (and to tell other people that you are studying), (3) use a study planner.

To conclude, students that do succeed have a can do attitude. The important question is: how can we foster this from a distance? There were some accompanying actions: the module team could take time to introduce the module and gives students some useful study tips. Another action is to ask students whether they wanted to start study early and then try to make this happen. When asked, it turned out that half of the students on Carol’s module said that they might want to do this.

The final presentation I attended was given by my colleague, David Morse. David talked about ‘Truly virtual teams: twelve years on’. It isn’t a surprise to hear that students don’t like team working, but David made the point that group working is an important element of the QAA computing subject benchmark statement. Twelve years earlier, things were different: students didn’t have broadband, but online collaboration is more about people than it is about the details that surround particular technologies. A question is: what must students do? They must set rules, roles and responsibilities. They must also identify knowledge and skills, make regular contributions to online discussions, give and receive criticism, and apply good netiquette. A tutor needs to be a facilitator and not a manager. A tutor also needs to know when to step forward and when to step back. In response to this, David presented an interesting helical model of team working (which reminded me of a spiral model that had been mentioned earlier during the conference).

Reflections

I like HEA conferences; they’re always well run, they are interesting and relevant, and represent a great opportunity for networking. In comparison to other HEA events that I had attended this one had a slightly different feel. I think this difference is due to two reasons; the first is the sheer scale of the event. Secondly, due to the fact that it was very interdisciplinary. Whilst I always enjoy meeting people who work in other subjects, I did feel that the sheer scale of the conference made it a more difficult event to navigate and choose the sessions that looked to be the most relevant. These things said, I did feel that the keynotes were well chosen and well presented. The second keynote stood out as being particularly thought provoking, which is exactly what keynote sessions should be.

During the workshop, I also facilitated a session about module design with my colleague, Ann Walshe. We offered a space where delegates could be creative and design their ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ module. The resulting designs were fun and playful, and make significant use of different technologies that had been mentioned during the first keynote.

I’m going to conclude with a more personal reflection. This conference took place in the grounds of the university that was once known as UMIST, which was where I studied as a doctoral student. Wandering around the campus brought back many memories; I remembered how challenging it was. I was trying to conduct research into what was a very specific aspect of computing: theoretical models of how programmers go about understanding software code. I remembered how difficult it was having a part time job whilst at the same time as being a full time student. I also remembered how alone I felt, and this underlined the importance of community, which was also a topic that had arisen during the various sessions.

It not only struck me that community was really important for researchers, but it is also really important as a way to facilitate excellent teaching too; teachers and lecturers need to talk to other teachers and lecturers. In some ways, this was, ultimately, what the conference was all about.

(A version of this blog was published on Chris Douce’s personal Staff Tutor and OU work blog).

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SEAT member Ray Corrigan took part in a panel on the draft Investigatory Powers Bill at Cambridge University in February. Follow the link below for more information and to view the presentations.

Oversight or Theatre? Surveillance and Democratic Accountability – Panel 2: Internet Connection Records

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OU represented at JSEET 2015

In sunny Florence last May, ICSE 2015 saw the birth of JSEET 2015 (http://2015.icse-conferences.org/call-dates/call-for-contributions/jseet), a new Joint Program merging the ICSE Software Engineering Education and Training Track (SEET) and the Conference on Software Engineering Education and Training (CSEE&T) communities. The OU was well represented with two publications from the Computing and Communications department outlining recent innovations in our Software Engineering (SE) offering both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels:

  • Michel Wermelinger, Jon Hall, Lucia Rapanotti, Leonor Barroca, Magnus Ramage, and Arosha Bandara. Teaching software systems thinking at the Open University. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Software Engineering (Joint Software Engineering Education and Training track), Florence, Italy, May 2015. IEEE Press.

 

  • Jon Hall and Lucia Rapanotti. Masters-level software engineering education and the enriched student context. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Software Engineering (Joint Software Engineering Education and Training track), Florence, Italy, May 2015. IEEE Press.


Among the things which caught my interest was Barry Boehm and Supannika K. Mobasser’s work on “System Thinking: Educating T-Shaped Software Engineers,” which very much echoed our ethos of educating software engineers to be both technically competent and “prepared to participate in the increasing numbers of projects involving multi-discipline system thinking, and in strong need of software skills.” In fact, there was a distinctive systems flavour across the whole of ICSE, which, I must admit, was a lot less “nerdy” than I remembered from previous editions.

Another highlight was the panel discussion on Industry/University Collaboration in Software Engineering Education led by Nancy R. Mead (CMU), with much comparing of notes and reflecting on our strategies.

Also, for those among us with an interest in coding skills, Judith Bishop (Microsoft Research) presented Code Hunt (https://www.codehunt.com), a gaming platform which “enables players to program against the computer with clues provided as unit tests” and how it has been used to run coding context at scale, something the OU may well have an interest in.

Overall, it was great to see SE education on an equal footing with SE research and practice at ICSE this year and to be able to mingle with people who were equally passionated about both. I can also see so much more of our work being represented at this premier SE conference in the years to come.

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CfP: The Difference That Makes a Difference 2015, Vienna

Members of the group (David Chapman, Magnus Ramage and Mustafa Ali, along with colleagues from Engineering & Innovation and Religious Studies) are organising an international conference in June 2015. The conference, The Difference That Makes a Difference 2015, is the third in a series of biennial conferences on the nature of information. The theme of this event is Information and values: ethics, spirituality and religion. As well as leading to new insights into ethics, spirituality and religion, this work also acts as a further lens through which to explore the nature of information. It forms part of a larger summit on information organised by the International Society for Information Studies, held on the 3rd-7th June in Vienna. The call for papers is now open.

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Interpreting the Information Age Report

A report of the Science Museum’s Interpreting the Information Age conference, where Chris Bissell and Allan Jones, presented papers can be seen here: http://tinyurl.com/kpge34k

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