Category Archives: Research

Q & A with Dr Gina May

This week we chatted with OU Classicist Gina May about her new book A Student’s Guide to Online Learning published by the Open University Press, which is due to go on sale on 12 August.

Hello Gina! Before we start talking about your book, could you introduce yourself to our readers? How did you get into Classics?

I have been an associate lecturer with the Open University since 2009 and have taught modules at stages 1, 2 and 3 as well as at postgraduate level.  Over the years I have also contributed to module content and TMA questions for a variety of Classical Studies modules – it is my dream job!  At the same time as teaching for the OU, I also taught in the Classical Studies department at the University of Kent for 10 years but left there 3 years ago to allow time to write and develop my own courses which I teach online as an independent educator.  I also do work as a consultant for universities and schools developing online teaching strategies and training staff to teach online.

I first discovered a love of Classics at school because our drama teacher had us reading Greek tragedies and our French teacher had us reading Racine’s versions of the same Greek tragedies, but in French.  I also did Latin at school which I loved but did not do any other ancient languages until I went to university as a mature student.  Although I had a long gap before starting a degree, I kept reading in the meantime and when my children were in their teens, I did a BA and PhD degree in Classical Studies and loved every single minute!  I am a lifelong learner and look enviously at OU modules wishing I could do them all.

What is your daily routine like, in your job as an OU associate lecturer in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences?

As associate lecturers we work from home and so I spend most of my days in a summer house at the end of my garden which is great!  I teach on 5 modules including A863 and A864 which are the first and second years of the Classical Studies MA.  My work includes writing and delivering tutorials, marking TMAs, talking to students via email and on the phone, as well as other general tasks such as monitoring and moderating forums.  There is a great feel of camaraderie between the members of the department and although ALs do not go onto the physical campus very often, we still feel very much a part of what goes on and have a great rapport with the central academics.

We are all excited about reading your new book A Student’s Guide to Online Learning!  How did you come to write the book?

The book came about because during the pandemic there was such a large shift towards online teaching for both universities and schools.  This made me realise that actually, the OU have been doing this really well for years so were well ahead of the game in terms of teaching.  However, there was nothing on the market that looked closely at the skills needed for learning online.  I started by talking to current and former students asking them what they wished they had known before they started and to tell me about some of the problems they encountered or were encountering along the way.  This, combined with the experience of teaching thousands of students both face to face and online, helped to decide on the content.

Who did you write it for? Is your target readership mainly OU students? Who else do you think will benefit from reading the book?

As an AL I had my own students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in mind a lot of the time, but the content works equally well for any student of an online course whether that is as part of a degree or for work as part of continuing professional development.  A lot of the issues are the same such as developing the right persona, conversing with tutors and peers and demonstrating employability skills.   The use of social media as a tool for learning and networking is something that is new to many students so this is also covered.

Could you give us a sneak preview of the contents? How is the book structured (and was it difficult to decide how to structure it?)

The chapter headings are: Online Identity and Personas; Learning Online Environments; Accessing Learning and Peer Support; Recognising Strengths and Overcoming Difficulties and Disabilities; Academic Integrity and Employability; Researching Online; Digital Technologies for Online Learning; Using Social Media for Learning Online and Trouble Shooting, Staying Safe Online.

To decide on the structure, I thought about the order in which a student might need to know how to do things and went from there.  The book can be used by starting from the beginning and working through to the end but works equally well for just dipping in and out of.  Each chapter has advice and practical exercises together with quotes from students who have experience of dealing with the particular issue being talked about.

Which chapter was hardest to write, and why?

The hardest chapter to write was ‘Trouble Shooting’.  Current and former students sent me lots of examples of things that had happened to them and how they had resolved the issues.  I then had to combine these together with my own experience as a tutor and online student into a format that worked well.  I wanted to provide clear advice that would be both helpful and reassuring.

Which is your favourite chapter, and why?

I have two favourite chapters.  The first is ‘Recognising Strengths and Overcoming Difficulties and Disabilities’.  This is because students tend to focus on the negative, the things that they have done ‘wrong’, cannot do because of a difficulty or disability, or do not know how to do.  I wanted to turn this completely on its head and look at how to discover what you can do well, how this is being done and how to enhance it going forward.  The chapter also deals with practical issues such as how to use assistive technologies such as screen readers and voice activated software.  For me, the important thing about this chapter is that it empowers all students.

My other favourite is ‘Researching Online’ simply because I love research.  In this chapter I show how to narrow and deepen a search to avoid falling down rabbit holes that might well provide hours of pleasant reading but that may not actually be very useful.  I look at using library catalogues and other data bases as well as what does not form academic content and so should be avoided.

The book is written together with Tim Bentley – could you tell us a bit about this collaborative writing process?

My co-author (and husband) is now a paramedic and paramedic educator but is a former learning technologist who developed and implemented online learning platforms at two large UK universities.   Using this expertise, he contributed towards the explanation of how technologies work and can be best used in order to learn online, and what to do when things go wrong.  Content includes everything from making sure that your internet connection is secure to how to use the tools in FB and Twitter to enhance learning and to become part of the wider learning community in your discipline.

What is your next project after this book?

I am currently working on a number of projects.

The first is a companion book to A Student’s Guide to Online Learning which is aimed at those who teach online.  It looks at the practical skills of online and blended teaching as well as how to write or convert material to do so.  This combines my experience of many years teaching online with the wealth of experience that current and former students, and colleagues, continue to share with me.

My other current projects include:

  • A book which takes all the vocabulary used for GCSE, AS and A Level Latin and sets out all the tenses of the verbs and the cases of the nouns in full. This is almost finished and will be on Amazon by the end of the summer.  I have not quite decided on a final title for this so any suggestions would be gratefully received!
  • Academic Practice for Classical and Archaeological Studies which looks at the specific study skills needed in Classical Studies and includes content on using data bases, archaeological reports, coins and standing culture as well as ancient texts. I also look at how to use online dictionaries as a non-linguist and how to work with fragmentary evidence when writing essays and dissertations.   As well as all this, the book includes study skills such as critical reading, referencing, structuring written work, constructing an argument and much more.
  • A novel for Falcon Books Publishing which is about a little girl who gets lost in the crowds at Epidaurus and grows up in the temple there. I was so inspired by the way that Pat Barker wrote Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy that I thought I would have a go myself!

I am on twitter @DrGinaMay and have a website: ginamay.co.uk which has details of all the courses that I teach as an Independent Course Provider outside of my work with the OU.

Congratulations, Gina – we can’t wait to read the book! 

 

The Battle for Latin: Reports from the front line of research into Latin teaching

This article was originally published over on the brand new ‘FASS Centre for Scholarship and Innovation’ blog. Visit that blog and follow @OU_FASSTEST on Twitter to find out more about how the Centre supports the critical, scholarly evaluation of approaches to teaching and learning in the Arts and Social Sciences.

Hiding behind any respectable project that seeks to improve the student experience is always an element of nerdiness – an obsessive love of stats and number-crunching – as well as a curtain-twitching urge to take a peek into the lives of others. What precisely do teachers and students get up to in their classrooms? How does it all go so right for students – and sometimes so wrong?

Well, that’s our experience anyway. We are James Robson (Professor of Classical Studies at the OU) and Dr Mair Lloyd (Associate Lecturer and former OU PhD student) and our story starts about seven years ago when we met up for the first time over multiple cups of tea, nursing the shared ambition of carrying out a bold project that hadn’t been attempted for a generation: a nuts-and-bolts survey of beginners’ Latin and Greek teaching in Classics departments across the UK. We carried out this survey in 2014 and as the data poured in and we feasted greedily on the diet of bar charts and pivot tables we were creating, one statistic kept jumping out at us: nearly one in four students who began studying Latin at university (23%) didn’t complete their module. Why was that? And how come the pass rates at different universities varied so greatly?

Image: Mair and James drinking tea in contrasting settings

Image: Mair and James drinking tea in contrasting settings

That is how The Battle for Latin was born, a project dedicated to examining the factors driving student success, failure and withdrawal amongst beginners’ Latin students. More in hope than expectation, we put together a bid for the British Academy small grants scheme, drawing on James’ long experience of classical language teaching at the Open University and Mair’s expertise in Modern Foreign Language and Latin pedagogy. Importantly for the bid, we were able to cite the statistically-rich research that we had already published. And crucially, too, we had a burning question that, to us at least, seemed so vital to answer: why were so many aspiring Latinists in UK universities unable to stay the distance?

A few months later, we learnt that our bid had been successful and when our spontaneous whooping and partying eventually subsided, we set to work. As stats fiends, one thing we felt we needed was more targeted, up-to-date data, so we ran a new survey of UK Latin instructors, who between them kindly furnished us with data on 30 different Latin modules covering 888 students nationwide. As our graph below shows, the variation in completion rates was striking once again. Remarkably, too, we also learnt that, while a greater number of students were completing and passing our own Latin module at the OU, this was not a picture reflected across the sector: nationwide the completion rate for beginners’ Latin modules was stuck at 76%.

Image: One of Mair’s and James’ signature graphs: Beginners’ Latin modules in UK universities listed by anonymized alphanumeric code, showing percentages of those starting the module who passed, failed and withdrew.

Image: One of Mair’s and James’ signature graphs: Beginners’ Latin modules in UK universities listed by anonymized alphanumeric code, showing percentages of those starting the module who passed, failed and withdrew.

So, what were the factors driving student success, withdrawal and failure? Our data allowed us to rule out elements such as module duration, credit value and even student contact hours to a large extent (the exception being a handful of particularly intensive modules which included five or more hours’ classroom time each week). Nor did the choice of textbook or assessment strategy appear to be determinative (although we did note a possible benefit of including substantial elements of assessed coursework). Ultimately, whatever hypothesis we investigated there always seemed to be modules that bucked the trend. Clearly, staring at the stats was only going to get us so far.

Fortunately, our project also built in human contact: a series of whole-class observations, interviews with instructors and students, and even an online student survey to allow us to understand better the obstacles to student success. We learnt a lot from our activities, not least the need to ask a small number of very focused questions if you hope to finish the interview on time! But we were also delighted to discover the warmth, dedication and reflectiveness not only of Latin instructors, but also of the students they teach, who were generous with their time and hugely thoughtful and thought-provoking in their responses to our questions.

So, is there a magic bullet for improving student success on beginners’ Latin modules? Well, maybe not, but our research nevertheless provides some useful trends and pointers, we hope. Plus, our forthcoming paper also distils some of the top tips that Latin students would pass on to new starters – all the more useful, we hope, for being direct quotations in the students’ own voices. If we have an overarching conclusion, however, it is perhaps that the magic lies somewhere in the dynamic interactions between the teacher, students, textbook, teaching methods and class as a whole. Of course, these are factors that are challenging to quantify and pin down – but this merely convinces restless enthusiasts like us that another research project is needed to scrutinize these more closely.

A paper with further details will be published shortly, we will post a link here when the article is live.

For further details please contact James and Mair:

James Robson, Professor of Classical Studies

Dr Mair Lloyd (Associate Lecturer and former OU PhD student)

Herodotus Helpline

In this blog post, Dr Jan Haywood reflects on the first series of the newly instituted Herodotus Helpline – an online seminar series freely available to all.

Over the last few months, I have been working with Tom Harrison at St Andrews University on a weekly seminar series entitled Herodotus Helpline. The idea came about at the beginning of lockdown – as a way for colleagues to come together and share research ideas, but also to foster the sense of a scholarly community at what was a very difficult time for all! While the title of the series might suggest a narrow focus on Herodotean studies, our hope was that the figure of Herodotus would be read by all as a symbol of omnivorous intellectual discovery, thus attracting those with research interests in the wider Greek world, Near East, Egypt, etc.

Image by Karin Eremia. Please visit her website at www.karineremia.com

The series has since run every Wednesday, at 6pm GMT, and has attracted a huge variety of participants from across the globe (typically 40-60 individuals attend each week). So we have had people calling in from New Zealand, Ghana, South Africa, Brazil, Israel, USA, as well as across different parts of Europe (notably Italy, Greece and the UK). Topics have ranged from exploring individual chapters of Herodotus’ Histories to much broader assessments that encompass his understanding of the rule of law and the reception of his Histories in modern English-language poetry. All presentations have been followed by group discussion, which, as all attendees are encouraged in the strongest terms, should be purposeful, open and constructive.

I’m delighted to add that many of these presentations were also recorded, and are freely accessible on our YouTube channel. As you will see, all recordings have been accessed many times already (one more than 650 times!).

As we break for the summer recess, the first edition of the series has now come to a close. But rest assured: we have lined up a full suite of seminars, workshops, lectures and other events for the 2020-2021 academic year. There are also plans for publications taking shape – and talk is even afoot about a limited range of Herodotus Helpline merchandise!

Herodotus Helpline is and will always be for everyone. It is open to all.

Doctor Toga on Radio 1 – by Ursula Rothe

What to do when you get an email out of the blue from a BBC radio producer asking if you’re willing to be interviewed about the toga on a Radio 1 programme focusing on toga parties? You say yes, of course! I mean, you know it’s going to be silly, and you know you’re not going to be able to get much useful detail across. But on the other hand, everyone thinks they know what a toga looked like, when they rarely do: this was a golden opportunity for me as a Roman dress historian to challenge the misunderstanding surrounding Roman dress, and especially togas, and that to a large audience. After all, challenging misinformation and misconceptions about Roman dress is also the aim of my new website, Doctor Toga (www.drtoga.org ), a one-stop clinic for people from theatrical societies, re-enactment groups and the media to get expert advice on Roman dress for costumes.

The interview took place over the phone on Tuesday afternoon, and it involved Scott Mills and Chris Stark firing questions at me whilst also engaging in banter with each other. The line wasn’t brilliant, and it was not always easy, given the lack of visual cues, to know when to stop or start talking, but I think the result is pretty good nonetheless. It was clear they were trying to shock me with laddish innuendo at various stages, but Classical Studies scholars are not easy to offend – least of all Australian ones! I’m particularly pleased they left in my plug for my new website, although they did cut me talking about my upcoming book on the toga. Also, I was disappointed not to be able to tell them when they asked me when knickers were invented. (I must look that up.) But you can’t have it all!

It was interesting how much fun they made, at the beginning, of the idea that there might be someone who is an expert on the toga. Although perhaps somewhat confronting, it is always a healthy experience to be reminded of just how obscure the niche you inhabit is for some people. Let’s hope this kind of interview goes some way to convincing people that the classical world is still very much with us, and that it is a useful thing that there are people out there who spend their lives trying to understand it better. At the very least, let’s hope it will lead to a few more toga-like togas on the party circuit this freshers’ season!

You can find a link to the interview here (minutes 7.27-14.23): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p07p676x