TOPAS meeting

Between 2 – 4 July 2018 I attended the Theoretical Orientated Practical Education in Agrarian Studies (TOPAS) meeting at the Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences in Poland.

Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences

This ERASMUS+ funded project is intended to improve the education of agriculture students in Armenia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan in partnership with several universities from within the EU including Writtle University College. One of the important parts of the project is that it has to result in change, so at the meeting although discussion was important it had to transform into definitive actions which would be completed by the universities in the non-EU partner countries.

The focus of the meeting was to develop policies and processes for placements and internships in both undergraduate and postgraduate agriculture-related courses. It got me thinking about the purpose of placements in higher education. Without thinking too deeply I came up with the following:

  • developing practical skills,
  • applying theory to practice,
  • developing employability skills including,
    • assessing data work related data,
    • making decisions,
    • solving problems
    • other aspects of management
  • and finally collecting data for use in academic work including dissertations.
Delegates standing in front of tractor
Learning about the self-driving tractor

It raises some interesting questions, the main one being can a placement meet all these objectives? Probably not, so any planning of placements needs to be very clear on what the objectives of the activity are. Once it has been decided what the placement is trying to achieve it is possible to start to think about the criteria that will determine if a provider is suitable or not. One of the challenges that we discussed at length is that even within agriculture there are many different possibilities for placement providers. It was fairly easy to decide on criteria for evaluating the quality of farm based providers, it was much harder when we started to talk about other providers for placements, such as comparing abattoirs, to seed producers, to agricultural engineers or other agri-businesses. Whilst trying to ensure quality we need to ensure that we are not too prescriptive to restrict the opportunities of students. Some of the other issues we discussed were what work the student has to produce from the placement, such as a diary of professional practice and final report and what should the placement provider provide in way of evidence?

What I got from the TOPAS meeting

I took a number of things away from the meeting myself. It was really useful to discuss what was happening at other EU universities as well as offering assistance to the non-EU partners as it provided an opportunity to critically reflect on what we do back at Writtle and compare that to other institutions. I made links with a number of universities regarding animal welfare and I hope these collaborations will help improve animal welfare in a number of countries.

Cows eating silage in barn
Polish red x Holstein dairy cows

Personally, attending the meeting also made me regret not spending more time learning languages. I studied French, German and Russian at school, dabbled in Welsh at university in Aberystwyth and learnt Spanish in South America but where I have not practiced I am not fluent and those I studied for shorter times (German, Russian and Welsh) I can only remember a few words. I feel frustrated I don’t understand more and embarrassed when everyone else speaks such good English. The outcome is the plan to make use of time in the car and travelling to practice my languages!

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Writtle Learning & Teaching Conference 2018

On Monday 25th June Writtle University College held it’s annual Learning and Teaching Conference. Last year Prof Mick Healy and Dr Ruth Healy provided the keynote sessions around active learning and students as partners. The event was well received by staff so it was with a little trepidation that I planned the 2018 event. I wanted to provide a day that met the needs of lecturers but also promoted the objectives of the Learning, Teaching and Assessment Enhancement Strategy and fulfilled the requirements of the senior management team who wanted a session on embedding equality and diversity in teaching included.

I ended up with four themes that overlapped in meeting all these objectives – improving academic resilience in students, including equality and diversity in teaching, technology enhanced learning and learning spaces. The sessions would be very different the first led by an external presenter, the second would be delivered by me and would also be a demonstration of active teaching techniques. The TEL sessions would be six short sessions delivered in parallel sets of three delivered by a variety of staff. Finally the learning spaces would be delivered as a workshop with the staff investigating how we can improve learning by adapting/improving our learning spaces.

I am always a little nervous in the days before our annual Learning and Teaching Conference. Have I organised everything, speakers, room bookings, refreshments and so on? Will all the invited delegates attend? Are the sessions of interest and are they pitched at the right level? Luckily everything ran smoothly and the feedback from the day was very positive. I will address academic resilience in a separate post but what I want to tell you about here is the first time I have facilitated a session when the speaker is not there.

I had asked a colleague, Dr Zoe Barker, if she would run a session on using Moodle forums as part of assessment. This is something that Zoe had introduced to assess a debate within a module titled Advances in Animal Science. There was a 20 minute slot with the idea there would be a 15 minute presentation and 5 minutes for questions. It turned out that Zoe would be sailing in the Outer Hebrides on the day of the conference so instead she provided me with a link to a 15 minute video made with Screencast-o-matic. She had widened the remit to focus on a variety of technology she had used to enhance her teaching.

The opening slide of the presentation titled 'A beginners considerations of technology enhanced learning'

I had checked the sound worked in the room before the session, but I had not realised the sound quality was not very good. With the video turned up loud enough so that everyone could hear there was some crackle and background noise (which hadn’t existed when I had played it at my desk). It did make me wish I had done a full sound check but with the speakers being fixed to the wall, I am not sure there would have been anything that I could do about it anyway! What it has done is make me raise the issue with these speakers with our Media team and also to check that a full media audit of all rooms is carried out over the summer.

My concerns over facilitating a presentation where the speaker had not been present had largely been around how the delegates would engage. Even with the sound issues everybody appeared to remain focused throughout the presentation. Luckily Zoe had used plenty of images and her presentation also told an interesting story, which I think always helps. She had used the presentation to reflect on her experiences in preparing for module 2 of the PG Cert in Higher Education Practice. She also talked about the pedagogic rationale of what she was trying to achieve in the activities using the technology. She provided detail on why for certain activities some applications appeared better than others. It was this richness in detail which I think contributed to the audience staying on task during the 15 minutes video.

Slide describing what technology Zoe has used

Overall I was pleased with the day and the level of engagement of staff. As ever the big challenge now is to see how it changes practice………

Progression and promotion in HE: Rewarding excellent educators

I recently attended my first Advance HE event since the merger of the HEA, the Leadership Foundation and the Equality Challenge Unit. The logo and CEO might have changed but the remit of promoting excellent learning and teaching has not. Although, interestingly one of my first take homes of the day is the shift from using ‘Learning and Teaching’ or ‘Teaching’ to ‘Education’. There seems to be a growing number of institutions doing it. The University of Essex have changed their awards from Excellence in Teaching Awards to Excellence in Education Awards this year and last week Claire Gordon was talking about ‘Educational Leaders’ and just like Essex suggesting that what HE provides goes beyond just teaching. Is this change in terminology important or is it just semantics? Does it reflect a change that the whole student experience is now being seen as important not just time in the classroom? I have been doing a lot of work recently around supporting transition to HE and a group tutorial programme to support academic skills development and promote employability related activities. The idea that the term ‘Education’ encompasses these areas appears to be, at least part of, the rationale for refreshing the name of the University of Essex. I still remain to be convinced about the key differences between ‘Education’  and ‘Learning and Teaching’; however, I welcome any change that encourages us to think holistically about the students learning experience to ensure that we provide an inclusive educational experience that allows every student to realise their aspirations and achieve their potential.

Educational leaders

One of the advantages to using education, not learning & teaching is that it works well when you talk about leadership. Claire Gordon talked about the work she did with Dilly Fung titled: Rewarding Educator and Education Leaders. One of the PVC’s interviewed for this project commented that there were not enough educational leaders within universities, with the emphasis being on leadership rather than management. Educational leaders are important for strategic development of learning and teaching, examining impact of education practices and adhering to the principle of evidence based teaching practice. If there are not enough of these educational leaders, why not? Is it because of lack of support, are academics not willing to put their heads above the parapet or is the reward for doing so lacking? What can we do to change this? One of the other things this has made me question is my own role, am I an educational leader? I like to lead by example – putting things into practice in my own teaching what I am telling other lecturers to introduce in their teaching. I try to measure the impact of the teaching interventions I use on student success and satisfaction and I like to think all my work is aligned to the institutions strategic mission. So maybe that does make me an educational leader – I might need a little more reflection on that one….

Mentors

One of the recurrent themes of this session was mentors. Mentoring academics to support the development of their education practice and also mentoring them in their own career development. In my own experience the availability of mentoring has been much more limited to those on a research track career than those opting for the educational route. I was lucky enough to be supported by Prof. Illaria Bellantuono when I was at the University of Sheffield. Whilst still focusing on a research-orientated career she encouraged me to complete the PG Cert in Learning and Teaching, which was the turning point for me down the educational route of academic careers. The discussion around mentors also made me reflect on what we offer at Writtle University College. I mentor all new staff with respect to learning and teaching but is the process formal enough and should I be encouraging other staff to act as mentors – all though all staff also have a buddy who will be within their own department. I focus mainly on the practice of learning and teaching, do I need to encourage staff to think about their career paths a little more?  Some interesting questions to think about.

Academic Citizenship

Another idea that resonated with me was that academic citizenship was a requirement of recognition for promotion. UCL have included this as a compulsory criteria within their Academic Career Framework. I have worked with individuals at every institution I have worked at that see their own research as more important than anything else. These academics will not do anything extra to contribute to the department and leave other members of staff to pick these things up. Including academic citizenship within the promotion criteria ensures that those going the extra mile receive the recognition they deserve.

Career Framework for University Teaching

Spheres of impact from www.evaluatingteaching.com
http://www.evaluatingteaching.com

My final take home was the very useful resource developed by the Royal Academy of Engineering called ‘Career Framework for University Teaching‘. It shows how you develop through the levels of teaching to become more competent your sphere of influence might grow. I think it will be useful for reflecting on my own level of teaching but also provides an easy to use framework for staff to use during appraisal and applications for promotion. At present I have good evidence for my influence within the institution and I am increasing the amount of scholarly work I produced, although this is somewhat limited by the small size of the institution limiting cohort size. To work further on this I need to look at developing collaborations with other institutions to produce scholarly work that will impact at a national and global level.

Good Teaching Practice Conference at the University of Essex

University of Essex Good Teaching Practice Conference Proceedings

It is always nice to be invited to present at a conference and when I was asked to do a short presentation at the University of Essex’s Good Teaching Practice Conference, of course I said yes. I was asked to present on the learning community that had developed around staff who were completing, the PG Cert in Higher Education Practice. I found preparing the presentation a little challenging. Firstly, because at a good teaching practice conference you have to present or ‘teach’ using good, if not best practice. Secondly, I wanted the presentation to be relevant to everybody in the audience.

I decided to present using almost entirely pictures with little or no text and use questions and discussion with the audience to make it interactive. It was only a short session and there was not really time to be more ambitious. I presented what we had done at Writtle as a case study that could be used by any university department. The presentation went well although I was disappointed not to get any questions at the end. I did get positive feedback after the event on both content and delivery, which made up for the lack of questions. I was glad to be able to talk about the impact that this learning community had, with 25% more staff completing module 1 of the PG Cert in one year compared to previous years. My hope is that I will have inspired other lecturers in how they can support their peers, especially those new to teaching. If I have done that, even if it was just for a handful of lecturers, I will be pleased with my day’s work!

Screencasts: just do it!

On Monday I took part in the first webinar of a new series being offered by the HEA’s Assessment and Feedback Community of Practice. It was titled: Three ways in which screen capture technology is supporting the student assessment journey across the sector . Emma Mayhew summed up quite nicely why using screen casting can be so important when she highlighted the fact that we have a new generation of students that:

  • Enjoy learning through audio-visual material
  • Use social media as a communication tool
  • And come to university full of expectations about technology in education from their time at school.

I would just add to that being able to use the tools required for screen capture may also help them in their future employability too. In fact one of the reasons we have used screen casting as an assessment method is to help prepare students for future self-employment where they may want to use these skills on their business websites. Two out of the three methods described in the webinar I have already seen in my own institution with screen casts being produced about what is expected from assignments and secondly screen casts being used as an assessment method. We haven’t quite moved  on to video feedback although we have used audio feedback via Turnitin in some cases.

As always it was useful to pick up some ideas about new apps and websites to work with and I am just about to have a look at http://www.videoscribe.co. One of the other things that was discussed was the process of making the screen cast. It was suggested not to over edit and maybe it helps for students to know that we are only humans so don’t cut out all those ums and pauses. It was interesting timing for me as I had started a screen cast the week before on how to access feedback in the new Turnitin Feedback Studio. Taking part in the webinar encouraged me to get it finished and I emailed the link out to students. The interesting thing was that my email prompted two responses from students wanting help with doing peer reviews in PeerMark. So what did I do, I made a rough and ready screen cast, I set up an example PeerMark, captured the process using Camtasia with audio instructions, minimal editing and sent the link out to the students. Yes I could have spent longer on my story boarding in preparation and yes, I could have done more editing and there was more that could have been included but it met the students’ needs and was produced in a timely fashion. So if there was one way in which the webinar changed my behaviour, it was giving me the confidence to just get on with it!

Student engagement: the use and abuse of the student voice

On Friday 20th October I attended a national workshop looking at the use and abuse of the student voice organised by the Student Engagement, Evaluation and Research at Sheffield Hallam University. One of the great things about workshops is to share ideas with others from outside your organisation. Setting up the workshops so that we discussed each scenario with a different group of people provided the opportunity to learn about practices at a far greater number of other institutions than is often the case at conferences. Dr Neil McKay welcomed us to the day and raised the point that the student voice has evolved from something we react to and moved much more towards student engagement. Probably my take home message of the day would be is that the student voice is not something that should just be listened to but should form part of a dialogue.

Although three different scenarios were discussed there were a number of common themes. One was the use of mid-semester module evaluations. These were often quick and dirty methods such as Stop-Start-Continue using post it notes. I have already decided to do this with my students after they have returned from study week. It gives us chance to respond to student feedback before the end of the module so the student’s voice has an impact on their own student journey.

One of the challenges of responding to the student voice is that the voice is not always consistent. Students have many different learning preferences, backgrounds and interests so they will not all be saying the same things. I have seen this first hand in the past where some students liked my handouts whereas others complained about them. In that instance we had a vote and went with the majority. This highlights the issue of managing expectations so that students understand what is happening during their time as a student. This might range from why we use different types of learning activities to when they can expect replies to emails.

Another thing that got me thinking was partly relating to developing a culture of listening and ensuring students use the formal channels for the student voice so their ideas can be acted upon. This only works if students trust the institution and the staff. An issue in many universities seemed to be students were worried about providing critical feedback in case it affected their mark. The second part of this is that something needs to happen in response to the student voice. This might just be a conversation with the students and further investigation or it might be a set of actions that are taken as an outcome. Irrespective of what happens it is important that we close the loop to keep students engaged with the process.

For more information about the event and the work of STEER at Sheffield Hallam see their blog.

Long time no reflection

Well it has been a while since I have posted here. There have been a number of contributing factors. I have been busy volunteering, developing new online materials, completing the SEDA course – Supporting and Leading Educational Change (SLEC) and submitting my application to become a Senior Fellow of the HEA. It does not mean I have not reflected but more my notes have not translated to a more coherent digital form!

Certificate for Supporting and Leading Educational Change course

There is another reason I have delayed posting; I wanted to understand more about some of the longer term implications of the staff development and other activities I reflect on. In the past I have often reflected just after something has happened and I make conclusions about how I think it will change my practice in future. Completing the portfolio for SLEC made me think about the longer term implications of the activities I undertake and do I make all those changes that I intended to when it is all fresh in my mind?

In essence I think I do make the changes I set out to, or at least some of them and of them adapt and change as I try them out. From the point of view of recording my reflections in future I think I need to continue with my immediate reflections but return to these to ensure that I have put the changes into practice or at least tried them out. Watch this space to see how it all works out….

Reflections on Learning and Teaching