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).


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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