In the second installment of his guest post, Open University Staff Tutor Chris Douce reflects on Day 2 of the ‘Widening Participation through Curriculum’ Conference.

The second day of the conference was to be slightly different to the first; there were fewer sessions, and there were a number of ‘talking circle’ workshop events to go to.  On the first day I arrived at the conference ridiculously early (I was used to the habit of travelling to Milton Keynes in time for meetings, and catching a scheduled bus to the campus).   On the second day, I was glad to discover that I wasn’t the first delegate to arrive.

Opening remarks

The second day was opened by Professor Musa Mihsein from the OU.  He presented an interesting story of how he became to work at the university as a PVC.  Musa talked about changes to funding, making the point that there has also been a change in the use of language.  There is more of a need to ‘maximise impact’.  The accompanying question is, of course, ‘how can we best evaluate projects and programs?’

A couple of points I noted down was that we haven’t got a full understanding of curriculum and its role within the institution, and that collaborations are important.  There is also a continual need to communicate in different ways to policy makers.

Keynote 4: Liberating the curriculum

The first keynote of the day was by Kelly Coate, Senior Lecturer in Higher Education, from Kings College, London.  Kelly’s talk was interesting since it spoke directly to the ‘curriculum’ part of conference title.  She has been researching about curriculum for the last 20 years and made the point that, ‘decisions about curriculum are decisions about what we can think’ (if I’ve taken that down correctly).

Here’s some of my notes: we’re accustomed to certain view of what ‘curriculum’.  The word derives from a Latin word that means to run/to proceed.  This makes a lot of sense: most participants make it to the finish line, there are often a couple of really high scorers and a couple who are, perhaps, left behind.

If we dig around in history, the notion of curriculum used to be associated with the ‘liberal arts’.  This contains the disciplines of grammar, logic, rhetoric, music theory, astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry, with the word liberal being derived from libra, meaning ‘free’.

Kelly’s talk gave way an interesting twist.  Since she studies what people are studying, she was asked to comment on a story that Miley Cyrus was to be the subject of a university course.  If you’re interested, here’s a related news story: Back to twerk … Miley Cyrus to be studied on new university course (The Guardian).   Thinking about it for a moment, the subject of Miley can readily be used to facilitate discussions about femininity, power, exploitation, celebrity,sexuality…

A bit of theorising is always useful.  We could thing about curriculum in three different domains: knowing, acting and being. Importance of relating teaching to the now, which opens up the possibility of students considering suggesting their own curricula by performing research into how ‘the now’ relates to the broad subject area.

Another way of thinking about curriculum might be in terms of gravity and density.  Gravity is the extent to which a subject can be related to a particular context.  Density relates to how much theory there is (some subject can be incredibly theoretical).  I really like these metaphors: they’re a really good (and powerful) way to think about how a lecturer or teacher might be able to ‘ground’ a particular concept or idea.

We were briefly taken through a couple of ideas about learning and pedagogy.  The first one was the transmission model (which, I think, was described as being thoroughly discredited), where a lecturer or teacher stands in the front of the class and talks, and the students magically absorb everything. The second idea (which I really need to take some time out to look at) is actor-network theory (wikipedia).  Apparently it’s about thinking about systems and networks and how things are linked through objects and connections.  (This is all transcribed directly from my notes – I need to understand in a whole lot more than I do at the moment!)

I’ve also made a note about a researcher called Jan Nespor  who has applied actor-network theory to study physics and business studies classes.  The example was that lecturers can orchestrate totally different experiences, and these might be connected with the demands and needs of a particular discipline (if I’ve understood things correctly!)

I’ve made a note of some interesting points that were made by the delegates at the end of Kelly’s speech.  One point was that different subjects have different cultures of learning, i.e. some subjects might consider professional knowledge to be very important.  Musa mentioned the importance of problem-based learning, particularly in subjects such as engineering.

Session 3: Innovation in design and pedagogy

There was only one presentation in the third session which was all about pedagogy.  This was entitled ‘Creating inclusive university curriculum: implementing universal design for learning in an enabling programme’, by Stuart Dinmore and Jennifer Stokes.  The presentation was all about how to make use of universal design principles within a module.  We were introduced to what UD is (that it emerges from developments in design and architecture), that it aims to create artefacts that are useful for everyone, regardless of disability.

Connecting their presentation to wider issues, there are two competing (yet complementary) accessibility approaches: individualised design and universal design.  There is also the way in which accessibility can be facilitated by the use of helpers, to enable learners to gain access to materials and learning experiences.

It was great that this presentation explicitly spoke to the accessibility and disability dimension of WP, also connecting to the importance of technology.  During Stuart and Jennifer’s presentation, I was continually trying to relate their experiences with my own experience of tutoring on the OU module, H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students (OU web page)

Talking circle

I chose to attend innovation in design and pedagogy.  I do admit that I did get a bit ‘ranty’ (in a gentle way) during this session.  This was a good opportunity to chat about some of the issues that were raised and to properly meet some of the fellow delegates.  Some of the views that I expressed within this session are featured in the reflection section that follows.

Closing keynote:  class, culture and access to higher education

The closing keynote was by John Storan from the University of East London.  John’s keynote was a welcome difference; it had a richly personal tone.  He introduced us to members of his family (who were projected onto a screen using PowerPoint), and talked us through the early years of his life, and his journey into teacher training college, whilst constantly reflecting on notions of difference.

He also spoke about a really interesting OU connection too.  John was a participant in a study that gave way to a book entitled, Family and kinship in East London (Wikipedia), by Michael Yong and Peter Willmott.  (This is one of those interesting looking books that I’m definitely going to be reading – again, further homework from this conference).  ‘We were the subject’, John told us.  He also went onto make the point about the connections between lived experience, research, policy and curriculum.

I’ve made a note in my notebook of the phrase, ‘not clever, able enough’.  I have also been subject to what I now know to be ‘imposter syndrome’.  In the question and answer session, I’ve made a note about that the codes of language can easily become barriers.


One of the really unexpected things about this conference was the way that it accidentally encouraged me to think about my own journey to and through higher education.  Although for much of my early life I didn’t live in an area that would feature highly in any WP initiatives, higher education was an unfamiliar world to my immediate family.

Of course, my journey and my choices end up being quite nuanced when I start to pick apart the details of my biography, but I think there was one intervention that made a lasting impression.  This intervention was a single speech given by a member of staff at my former college about the opportunity that university study gave.  I remember coming away thinking, ‘I’m going to apply; I have nothing to lose, and everything to gain’.  A number of my peers thought the same.

The conference presented a number of different perspectives: the importance of assessing the effectiveness of interventions and the importance of theory, how to design WP curriculum, how to make curriculum accessible, and how to make materials engaging for different groups.  One aspect that I thought was lacking was that of the voices of the students.  It’s all very well discussing between ourselves what we think that we should be doing, but I felt it would be really valuable to hear the views of students.

An area that would be particularly useful is to hear about instances of failure, or to hear about what went wrong when students tried university level study but couldn’t complete for some reason.  There are some really rich narratives that have the potential to tell researchers in WP and curriculum a lot about what institutions (and individuals) need to do.  The challenge, of course, is finding those people who would like to come forward and share their views.

In the sessions that I attended, there were clear discussions about class, socio-economic status and disability, but there seemed to be an opportunity to discuss more about ethnicity.  Quantitative research has shown that there is an attainment gap.   There was an opportunity for some qualitative discussions and more sharing of views regarding this subject.

Another thought relates to the number of keynote speeches.  Keynote speeches are really important, and it was great that they were varied – and they are very important in tone and agenda setting, but more paper sessions (and perhaps a plenary discussion?) might expose different issues and allow more contacts to be made.

I appreciate that these final reflections sound a bit ‘whingey’; they’re not intended to be.  WP is an important issue, and from the amount of follow-up homework I’ve got to do this clearly tells me that the conference was a great success.

In some ways I guess the conference was slightly different to what I had expected (in terms of the debate and discussions).  I was expecting it to be slightly less ‘academic’ and slightly more practitioner focussed (or oriented to those who deal with WP issues on a day to day basis).   The unexpected difference, however, was very welcome; I’ve learnt some new stuff.

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