Tag Archives: Teaching and Learning

Denmark Research/Teaching Trip

Over nine days at the end of March, I was honoured to be invited over to Denmark to work on two projects connected to my research and teaching.

Monumental statues by Thomas Kadziola on Lolland island

The first was the HistBattles project, being developed at the wonderful Lolland-Falster museum in Nykøbing Falster (on one of the two southern-most islands of Denmark). Erik Kristiansen, who I had worked with on the Transforming Thresholds project, is leading a project to create twelve alternate reality games (ARGs) to teach the local history of the islands to 13-18 year olds.

A rune stone

A rune stone at a church on Lolland island; one of the sites for the game.

Each ARG will cover a period of Danish history, and will be connected to one of the sites covered by the museum across the two islands. I was there to help scope out a framework for the game, and to help local staff start to design the puzzles and meta game. No further spoilers, but I’ll post more details as the project develops. The aim is to launch the first game in the Summer.

The second project was a guest teaching role at Aarhus University, firstly for the Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media (CUDiM) – where I talked about online learning and curriculum design for the digital age; and then as a guest speaker for the House of Game//Play and Game Design Masters course, I ran a talk/workshop around Alternate reality and pervasive games. Both days were really interesting, with engaged students and staff entering into some deep discussions around both areas. The organisers,  Rikke Toft Nørgård and Claus Toft-Nielsen, then introduced me to their Coding Pirate workshops, where younger students (9-16) were creating their own computer games, and building mazes for robots and LEGO models. My thanks to Rikke, Claus and all the students and staff at the Centre for such an interesting and welcoming two days.

Students playing game

Students playing my ARG-cards game.

All of this playful activity was the perfect precursor to Counterplay 2017, which I’ll be reporting on in a following post.

International Reflections: HETL 2014

Alaskan mountains reflected in lake

It’s not often one gets a chance to visit far-flung parts of the world for work when you’re in higher education;  so as part of the development funds I received for my National Teaching Fellowship, I decided to earmark a couple of international conferences. The Higher Education Teaching and Learning conference was the first of these: organised by the US-based HETL Portal, this year’s conference was taking place in Anchorage, Alaska.

Bear statue on shopfront, AnchorageTwo things were immediately attractive: the location (I’d never visited Alaska but am a big fan of mountains, snow and lakes – and Northern Exposure*), but more importantly, that very location meant that it was attracting participants from every continent: access being easy for Asia and Australasia as much as North and South America. What better chance to get an overview of current issues in higher education across the world?

And so it proved. The attendees were a fascinating mix of senior learning and teaching staff (pro-VCs and equivalent) with innovative and highly engaged ‘regular’ teachers: so whilst one of the spacious, discursive sessions might present 3-4 fascinating case studies of innovative teaching; the next would feature a prolonged discussion around organisational strategy: a perfect professional development experience, on all levels.

Highlights were many, and aided by the edict that there could be no powerpoint (or digital) materials: it was voice and handouts only. This shifted many sessions into very thoughtful narratives or interactive events; with a handful spoiling this by discovering a rogue projector and reverting to reading off their slides. Those who thought about this ‘limitation’, though, delivered. Colin Potts (Georgia Tech., USA) started the conference with a bang by calling HE a ‘blip’ on the lifelong learning landscape: noting that this is the first generation who can’t say “I don’t know” (Google being constantly to hand), and that students are forced by HE to study a narrow subject path, when they are naturally more widely interested. John Doherty and Walter Nolan (Northern Arizona, USA) then guided us in a lively and discursive workshop around engaging colleagues in creative curriculum  design: a conversation from which led to a more relaxed discussion of institution-level curriculum planning with Frank Coton (Vice-Principle Learning & Teaching at Glasgow) over a beer and looking out at the Alaskan mountains from the venue’s 15th-floor “chart room”.

Anchorage street with mountains in distance

A view of snowy mountains in every direction

The following day saw a number of examples of the use of video to engage and support students – in ‘flipped classroom’ approaches and as co-created artefacts for peer support. I presented as part of a session focussed on games-based learning, which drew a large group and resulted in an excellent discussion after the four different, but all interesting, papers (aided, perhaps, by my imported Cadbury’s prizes). iPad use featured heavily in other sessions: my research colleague Claire Hamshire (Manchester Metropolitan) describing her use of iPads for medical teaching; Carrie Moore and Vicki Stieha (Boise State, USA) assigning group roles to students using iPads in a research exercise – and finding that students, when given a clear role, self-policed the group much more effectively; and Kriya Dunlap (Alaska Fairbanks) gave out iPads to his students with initial guidance, but then left them to work out the most effective use for their studies – they ended up co-publishing a paper together on the processes. This latter example is a similar approach to that we’re using with our Medicine first years, to similar positive effect.

A session on institutional change for learning technologies featured some fabulous methods and approaches, such as providing video booths for students to drop in and voice their needs and frustrations (e.g.. “I want my timetable on my smartphone”): which the senior management were so affected by that they implemented a major overhaul of all institutional systems – and staff development plans – to focus on student needs (Brian Webster, Edinburgh Napier). Frederic Fovet (McGill, Canada) described his institution’s application of Universal Design for Learning (UDF) which designs curricula from an inclusive base (so that the whole curriculum is naturally accessible to all). Another fascinating paper came from Jeffrey Schnepp (Bowling Green State, USA) and Christian Rogers (Indiana/Purdue, USA) who used a Professor Layton style method of trading hints for points in end of year exams: students could opt to trade a percentage of the available mark for a hint about the question, on a question by question basis. Their trial is ongoing, but initial results showed a small increase in the average grade, with around 70% of students opting for at least one hint.

There were too many other interesting sessions, discussions and informal chats to mention: in many ways it was a never-ending wave of engaging topics. Conversations went on long into the night, too, courtesy of the midnight sun (the sky looked as if it was noon, around 11pm) and some very good Anchorage restaurants: and even after the conference finished we were still discussing the topics over coffee (finishing with a fascinating chat to David Giles – Flinders, Australia – about focussing on playfulness and the ability to fail, in learning design).

To get the best flights, I was left with a day and half after the conference to explore some of the fantastic scenery around Alaska, and joined Claire and others on a jaw-droppingly-beautiful train journey down to the port at Seward, where we boarded a boat to view whales and other sea life. The following day, we hiked up one of Anchorages smaller mountains, Flattop Mountain, which was still quite a serious climb, rewarded with snow to trample at the top.

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Altogether, HETL 2014 and Alaska made for an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience: a fabulous conference, fascinating people, and stunning place. I feel both privileged and humbled to have been part of it.

*Northern Exposure, it turns out, was actually filmed in New York state; and contrary to the strap line, I saw no moose on any corner.

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.

Thriving in Difficult Times

Thus was the title of the 13th annual Teaching and Learning in History conference – poignant, as this will be the last arranged and funded by the History Subject Centre (one of the more proactive centres, run effectively for many years at Warwick by Sarah Richardson and team) after the news that the HEA will close the regional centres and provide subject support from a reduced central team in York.

The future of Higher Education? Oxford's Dodo contemplates its former self.

The conference focuses on teaching and learning issues within History teaching, and (based on my previous visit in 2009) is a fabulous, discursive conference with student needs and a passion for teaching History at its heart. This one proved to be no different, with the added feel of impending loss and yet a collective belief that these issues, and the community surrounding them, should continue and grow.

Lady Margaret Hall, OxfordHeld in the beautifully situated Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford, the conference opened with a discussion and workshop in which we proactively discussed the key activities of the subject centre, and how these might continue within – and in addition to – the new, cut-down, structure. The four key features were support for new teachers (the Centre’s most impressive work to date, with plans to link together a number of disparate schemes into a UK-wide network of training and support for new lecturers and postgraduates), community (a proposal to take this online and augment a continuing annual conference), publication (the proposal for a new journal to fill the current gap in T&L for History) and regional support (opinion was split on whether the new stringent times will allow for regional support to continue, or whether the three areas above should provide national support with local search/theme options).

The rest of the two-day conference covered some fascinating themes, all surrounded by lengthy post-presentation discussion. Highlights included:

  • The use of the Big Society as a theme to frame historical discussions around, by George Campbell Gosling (Oxford Brookes) – this was paired with my session on the Great History Conundrum and contextual training, and led to an interesting discussion around the use of modern/familiar contexts as a basis to work in related historical aspects and skills, with equal thinking around ways to counter the negative reception political hot potatoes (in George’s case) and games (in mine) get within higher education.
  • A heated discussion around the use of final essays for testing learning outcomes,  and rubrics around these. This merged into discussion around effective feedback (the It’s Good to Talk project based at DeMontfort University and presented by Sam McGinty – and one which an upcoming project on audio feedback at the University of Leicester will link in to) and work-based learning (Harvey Woolf and Richard Hawkins from Wolverhampton) – all of which opened up debate around the alignment of assessment and feedback to real activity, and useful outcomes for the student. A case study in personalised, peer-assisted feedback was given by Chris Szejnmann (Loughborough) who described his use of simple Flip cameras to provide reflection and feedback on student presentations.
  • A fascinating study around international and regional effects on student work and transition in first year undergraduate courses (Melodee Beals, from the report International Students in History)

Augmented by lengthy coffee-breaks and a chance to reflect on each topic with colleagues, all of the participants took something away which would impact on their own practice in one way or another. For me, five days on, my head is still buzzing with some of the ideas around assessment and feedback – but also, reflecting on the way that communities of practice can form and flourish around issues invoking such a keen interest as student learning in a subject close to one’s heart. I doubt very much if this will be the last time these participants will be gathered together and discussing the latest issues affecting students of History in higher education. Thank goodness.