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.
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.
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………
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.
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….
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
The first day of the University of Essex’s Teaching and Learning Conference focused on inclusive practice. I found the case study presented by Dave Lomas and Paddy Turner from Sheffield Hallam University raised many important points and also some interesting questions. They attempted to make a level 5 module more inclusive by using initiatives like writing learning outcomes and other module material in plain English, allowing all students to have extra time in the exam, by allowing all students to record lectures, making sure resources were accessible with appropriate background colours and fonts and being more flexible around time keeping. Some great ideas many of which I am already using in practice and some new ideas for me to try out. With the new semester about to start it is a great time to be reflecting on whether my module guide is really in plain English and what new resources will I provide to ensure that the content I am delivering this semester will be truly accessible.
Not everybody in the audience seemed convinced about all the changes suggested. Some of the questions that were raised and I think need further investigation included: If you give all students extra time what do you do with those entitled to extra time? If you plan an assessment that should take an hour then give all student 1 hour and 15 minutes do those with specific learning difficulties need extra time on top of this? If you make all resources accessible in a range of formats and available before sessions is that not fairer to all students and prevents those with learning plans due to disabilities being made to feel different to the rest of their cohort? Lots of food for thought and for the modules I am responsible for I will continue to try and make them as inclusive as possible for all students irrespective of disability, background or personal circumstances.
The afternoon was looking at student engagement and was led by the SU. One of the nice things that was highlighted was the SU collaborating with the University to improve student learning. Having talked to the three SU reps I am taking a few ideas back to my own institution. My colleague Nieky is going to trial replacing the term ‘Office Hours’ with ‘Academic Support Hours’. And I also like the idea of a ‘Question of the Week’ with three possible answers that the students vote on using counters when they buy something in the shop. These questions can relate to academic matters as well as other aspects of university life. Another topic that came up is the advantage of paying student reps. The SU employs a ‘convener’ in each of the four faculties at the University. As I understood it these work as super reps but in addition are also paid to sit on working groups, committees and so on. I am not sure that paying students to do this sits well with me, I would much rather it be like when I was a student, where you engaged with these things because you felt had a stake in the university and its future. Times have changed though and maybe this is the now the way forward….
I have a found a common theme coming out of work I have been doing over the last few weeks and that is networks. I think it started at the SEDA conference in Brighton. I attended the excellent workshop called ‘From Conundrum to Collaboration, Conversation to Connection: Using Networks to Innovate’. It was run by Andrew Middleton and Sue Moron-Garcia and Andrew has produced a Storify of the #SEDA_NETS tweetchat that was embedded into the workshop. I thought I was good at multi-tasking until I tried to participate in a tweetchat and face to face workshop simultaneously… This session naturally brought to mind two of the networks I value – the informal #LTHEchat and the more formal membership of a professional association such as SEDA, the latter going hand in hand with the SEDA JISCmail list. If I have time to follow some of the debates on the mail-list they can be quite thought provoking but I have also found it a fountain of information when I have been researching strategies, procedures and policies. And sometimes it is just nice to know others are having some of the same problems as me and sharing our different approaches to the current issues facing HE.
These are examples of external networks to my institution but I had also recently been asked to reflect on a Leadership and Management course that institution had put on. I was part of the first cohort that undertook the course that included managing yourself, managing teams and managing institutional strategy. We took part in 4 days of workshops as well as project work. When I thought about it one of the most useful aspects of the course was working with other managers from both academic and professional departments and the way a network had developed between us. I had a much better idea of who I needed to go and see to solve problems within the institution and we have actively sort each other out to share ideas. Of course there are also networks within departments and for many of us the important one is the network between staff and students.
I thought the title of Sue and Andrew’s workshop was great. To me developing networks is about connecting with people, once you have connected you have opportunity to collaborate and to form a community. I realised that where I have a well developed network it makes me feel part of a community. It got me to thinking about how the two are inter-related – so I looked it up in the dictionary.
According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (1995)
Network: ‘A group of people who exchange information, contacts and experience for professional or social purposes‘
Community: ‘A body of people having a religion, a profession etc. in common‘ or ‘afellowship of interest‘
It raises some interesting questions, can you have one without the other, is a community a more established or bonded group than a network? How do we encourage students to form networks and communities that will help them learn content, skills and gain employment. I think that is important from the prospective of promoting learning but for those of us expected to pay attention to student satisfaction it is also going to be topical with the community question within the NSS. All I know is that I will continue to work towards expanding my network and hopefully I will continue to feel part of a community, form some exciting collaborations and develop my practice along the way.