Tag Archives: HEA

Pervasive Learning Activities workshop

PLA Academy11:30am, Thursday 11th July: a Registrar instructs the Head of the Press Office to send an urgent press release out, whilst the PVC (Students) phones a worried parent about their daughter, who has just had her money stolen in a distant airport. This might be a scenario which has played out during a high profile student fieldtrip in another institution, but in this case all of the above persons and events are fictional. Not that you could tell, looking in.

The PVC, Registrar etc. were in fact participants in a workshop I ran with Simon Brookes (University of Portsmouth) and Sarah Underwood (University of Leeds), in conjunction with the Higher Education Academy, at the University of Leicester. The day-long event focussed on Pervasive Learning Activities (PLAs) – an authentic/experiential approach to learning which we developed from the educational benefits of Alternate Reality Games (Brookes & Moseley, 2012; Moseley, 2012) and which Simon and Sarah have implemented in whole module designs for undergraduate Business students.

Arrivals Board

One of the artefacts we created: an arrivals board showing the flight arriving

We structured the workshop around the ‘why, what and how’ of PLAs. Simon opened the day with an excellent introduction to ‘why’ we recommend PLAs for effective teaching of domain knowledge and ‘professional competencies’ together. And then, because PLAs are focussed around creating authentic contexts – with the actions, events, roles and artefacts used in those contexts – at 11am prompt we asked our participants to open their name badges, and fold them over to reveal their new identities. On the screen, a plane touched down in a dusty landscape and an arrivals board showed Kenyan Airways flight RO354 touching down in Juba International Airport. One half of the group (the University Geography department) went to their office, whilst the Senior Management team gathered in their Operations Room.

For the next hour, each team had to quickly familiarise themselves with the Geography department fieldtrip they were overseeing (see the Geography Student Society blog), and cope with a variety of problems ranging from lost passports to an outbreak of rioting at their intended destination. Whilst the Geography dept were liaising by phone with the group leader on the ground (superbly played by our colleague Katie Piatt in Brighton by prior arrangement), the Senior Management Team could be found checking student Twitter feeds as they contacted the South Sudesia Embassy for latest travel advice (staffed by  bored jobsworth receptionist, ably delivered by Nic Whitton in Manchester).

Notes on PLA materials

Notes scribbled over the PLA materials during the live activity.

By the end of the hour, the teams had quickly dropped into their learning context, and successfully negotiated a number of events in (pretty much) the way a real University department and SMT team might have done.

After lunch, we revealed the preparation which had gone into their experience: the planning stages, the preprepared artefacts (including documents which had been posted out to participants in advance of the workshop, to set the scene), the scripts which Katie and Nic had been working to, and the live updates/responses we had been making during the hour. There was much fascinating discussion as participants considered their own discipline contexts and how a PLA, and the design process, might work for them. The design process, with worked examples, is available on our dedicated web site:

We would like to thank everyone who participated in the workshop, hope that it provided you with plenty to consider for your own context, and thank the HEA for their support and partnership in hosting and promoting the event.


Brookes, S. & Moseley, A. (2012) “Authentic Contextual Games for Learning”. In Whitton, N. & Moseley, A. (eds) Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching: A Beginner’s Guide. Routledge: New York, pp91-107.

Moseley, A. (2012) “An Alternate Reality for Education?: Lessons to be Learned from Online Immersive Games”, International Journal of Games Based Learning, Vol 2, No. 3, pp32-50.

Storyville – the HEA A&H Conference 2013

Image by musical photo man, http://www.flickr.com/photos/7622958@N04/6659134537/

I’d been looking forward to  Storyville 2013, the Higher Education Academy’s 2013 Arts and Humanities conference, for two reasons: firstly, the excellent title/theme of narratives and storytelling; secondly, the fact that the first combined HEA Arts & Humanities conference in 2012 had been one of the most rewarding I’d attended.

The theme ensured that many of the presenters had thought much harder about what they were proposing – and the range of flexible session types with an emphasis on interaction (short and long workshops, ‘wildcard’ sessions,  panels) meant that the usual sit-and-listen stance of an academic conference was very definitely not in evidence. This, combined with a very convivial setting in the large open plan ground floor of the Thistle Hotel in Brighton, ensured that there were always interesting stories, thoughts and chatter to be found.

I’d been invited to begin the conference by attending one of the HEA’s policy breakfasts – this particular one on the multitude of pertinent issues changing the face of Higher Education currently. From a range of discipline bases we discussed the effect of fees, shifting socioeconomic student makeup, and the role of academic and transferrable skills. I was impressed by the level of discussion and range of responses offered, and it is pleasing to see the HEA taking a proactive yet communal role in considering such key issues.

The opening keynote, from Vicky Gunn (Director of the Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Glasgow), drew on her own subject base of early medieval philosophy, to question the “tall tales we tell about teaching”: which stories we inherit from our own experience as students or apprentices, and which ones we choose to pervade or reject when faced with new and changing narratives as lecturers. There was to be no soft anodyne start to this remarkable conference: Vicky both commanded and rewarded thoughtful attention, as she introduced her ideas through some engaging personal stories.

Photograph by Katie Piatt: http://www.flickr.com/photos/katiepiatt/8880808116/in/set-72157633789726964It was straight into my own session then, taking a room of participants through an energetic, mildly competitive game design workshop (using the model I developed with Nic Whitton, but this time ably delivered with Katie Piatt, who popped in from her local University of Brighton and also captured the session beautifully in photographs). A number of compelling stories, and very workable games, emerged 90 minutes later.

Sadly, I was only able to stay for the first of the two days, due to a conflicting invitation to another excellent event (report to follow); but even the one day was full to the brim of interesting and challenging sessions. Before a good lunch,  short papers covered the use of the Hunger Games as a metaphor for teacher training (in particular, equipping oneself effectively and creatively for particular challenges); and the use of abstracts as a peer discussion/reflection tool for students submitting essays – this latter paper gave rise to a really interesting discussion of the use of shorter summaries (abstracts, précis, even one line and 140 character forms) to encourage reflection on the main structure and arguments in an essay; and to provide peers with an easy way to compare approaches in a tutorial or seminar setting.

In the afternoon, I chose two longer workshops for their challenging natures. The first presented Keith Turvey’s narrative ecology heuristic as a way to make sense of professional (and personal) identities. Working with a colleague who runs the HE programmes at Circus Space (in itself an interesting challenge in mapping contexts) we struggled at first with the approach, thinking it to be over-dependent on technical determinism; but working with Keith we found it quite rewarding to use his ‘arch’ structure as a way to think about dependencies: aspects of persona which need other aspects to cement or grow them. By the end of the session we could see some use in using this with students to reflect on their own academic and professional development. The second workshop was way out of my comfort zone – the use of dance to investigate the state of ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi) as a measure of connectedness/engagement with a learning activity. Although my own attempts stopped fairly early and I retired to the sides to watch (and no, there is no video evidence), our observation/participation was used to great effect in the prolonged discussion afterwards (a good half an hour after the workshop was due to finish), covering a range of methods one might use to observe/measure flow in more traditional learning sessions – and why one might want to.

The day finished with the conference dinner, where more stories were shared over an excellent meal. By the end of a long day (8am to midnight), my head was spinning with the range of different tales I’d been part of. Although my own narrative shifted to Belfast the next day, I kept a close eye on the busy Twitter stream (collected here) which gave glimpses of further fascinating narratives.

As we discussed over dinner, it is hard to see how the Arts & Humanities team can top this next year: but with two excellent, thoroughly interesting/stimulating events to their belt, I’m sure they’ll have a good go.

HEA Arts & Humanities conference 2012: Pedagogies of Hope

The closure of the HEA Subject Centres last year left a yawning gap in discipline-level support for teachers in Higher Education, although the HEA have been working hard to rebuild support in a different way to match the new funding model they now work to. One positive piece of news which emerged earlier this year, though, was their plan to hold a number of larger conferences to cover the broad discipline bases. For Arts and Humanities, this was to take place in Glasgow over the (very sensible, as it allows easier transport there and back) 24-hour lunchtime to lunchtime model.

Central Station, Glasgow
It’s the third time I’ve been to Glasgow, and I’m always impressed by its dark brooding grandieur and cultural buzz: the central train station embodying this in its massive newly-cleaned roofspace, dark-wood booths and cultural melieau. The conference took place in the equally impressive (in a new shiny way) Radisson Blu hotel, mere steps from the Central Station: which provided a comfortable, well-catered home for us over the 24 hours.

The conference was topped and tailed by two keynote speeches – with a number of parallel sessions and workshops in between. There were some discipline-focussed strands (eg. all papers dealing with English, or Psychology) and some interdisciplinary, but in practice all sessions had relevence for everyone, as they featured broad themes resonant to us all, regardless of discipline: employability, research skills, assessment, course design, the Key Information Set, and others. More useful still, throughout all the sessions I attended – and in the coffee and lunch breaks – there was a genuine collegiate feel across questions, discussions and conversations: regardless of discipline base, we were all keen to help each other come to terms with key issues and collectively arrive at possible solutions and models.

The two keynotes were each interesting in their own way. Opening, Giovanni Schiuma brought a colourful Italian flair to the proceedings, and made the case for creative arts within business. He exposed the current MBA programmes as focussing on neat systems and processes, which businesses need in calm times, but in turbulent times as now, creativity and humanistic aspects are required. Slightly disappointingly, Schiuma focussed on the creative arts almost exclusively, sidestepping the benefits of Humanities skill bases and approaches. As I asked in a question, many of the problems could be solved by returning to the case where students of any discipline could enter business and be trained on the job, rather than the MBA route taking precedence. As Schiuma answered wryly, sadly we have (powerful) business schools…
The second keynote was a beautifully presented history of art and design education by Linda Drew. Whilst also focussing on creative arts (it would have been nice to have one keynote on the literary or historical humanities), Linda provided a fascinating narrative, and urged us to focus on the needs of the future, where students should be allowed to think for themselves, teachers should become learners, and we all move forward together.

No right answers

This message carried on a fascinating theme from one of the parallel sessions earlier in the conference: allowing students to create work which cannot be wrong, or alternatively: freeing them from the pressure of wanting to be right. Lesley Coote, from the University of Hull, had asked her medieval literature students to create top trumps cards for the main characters in Chaucer: giving them numerical ratings on various ‘skills’, and then justifying them with a paragraph or two. Elizabeth English and Robert Eaglestone (Royal Holloway), with their literary theory students, had asked them to create journals – encouraging them to link their experiences on the (difficult) course topics to real life elements such as films or television. The journals were not marked, but encouraging or interested comments were added by the tutors. In a creative workshop on the final day with Nicholas Monk (University of Warwick) we were asked in teams to organise a set of images, quotes and statistics around capitol punishment in any way we felt meaningful: all three of the groups produced very different narratives within their layouts from the same materials.
In all of these cases, students were provided with an activity which had no right or wrong answers – each was allowed to choose and develop their own take on the activity. And in each case, the students were highly engaged, and appreciative, of the courses.

Employability and Effective Group Work

A number of sessions focussed on integrating employability skills within humanities disciplines, which produced a lengthy and interesting discussion around the benefits and difficulties of arranging large-scale placements (sparked by Jo Robinson’s ambitious work at the University of Nottingham). Rachel Carroll (Teeside University) provided an extremely well thought alternative to the problem however: asking her English Literature students both to create a proposal for a literary event, and to form the panel of judges awarding funding to the same events. She used some very clever devices to encourage effective (and highly transferrable) group work, avoiding many of the problems students usually complain about:

  • all group-produced material was assessed formatively, by peers; only individual (reflective) material was assessed summatively – thus removing the usual complaints that some group members weren’t pulling their weight;
  • students were given project development workshops, where key group working (and professional) skills were taught
  • each group created their own group work contracts, which bound each member to particular requirements and avoided individuals letting down a team.

Julie Raby (York St. John) presented some very useful data on patterns of online and offline ‘attendence’ (/access). Contrary to the usual accepted belief, Julie found that exactly the same students who attended and engaged in face to face sessions were those who also engaged with the online materials/activities; conversely those who failed to attend face-to-face sessions also ignored the online resources. She also found that her students much preferred a flat, linear structure to the online materials on the institution’s VLE: organised by session, and including clearly labelled lists of readings, resources and activities in order of importance. Any use of folders or alternative organisation was rejected as more confusing.

For my own part, I enjoyed a thoroughly responsive and engaged audience for my workshop on the use of puzzles to set authentic contexts and teach research and other core skills/concepts.

Overall, this was an excellent first combined conference. Any disciplinary differences were laid aside for 24 hours of collegiate, engaged discussion and shared problem-solving. Helped by the vibrant Glasgow surroundings, we all went our separate ways at the end buzzing with new approaches and a sense of hope in an increasingly challenging environment.