The case for discussion boards

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In this post, Fiona Hartley discusses how to better engage students in online discussion boards, based on her action research and personal experience as an online learner.

Conference, Team, Office, Dining Tables
Image of empty chairs with speech bubbles

When I was teaching face to face, group and whole class discussions were an integral part of my lessons. As the social constructivist theory of learning underlies my teaching, providing opportunities for my students to share ideas and negotiate meanings so as to build their knowledge collaboratively were commonplace.  Learning is a dialogic process where students move from external interactions in their environment to the internal process of acquiring knowledge. Hattie (2012) carried out much research into what helps improve learning and he found ‘classroom discussion’ was one of the top 10 influencers of success.  Many other researchers have stressed the value of interaction in education, so why is there so little uptake of discussion boards in the online environment?

As a lifelong learner junkie, I have taken numerous online learning courses and am still currently enrolled on many. In most of these courses there is the ubiquitous discussion board where you are either recommended to make comments or are required to take part in discussions as part of the course completion.  These discussion boards are generally stagnant with the rare participant engaging in more than a one turn exchange.  Why is this?  I have heard people say that discussion boards are clunky and it is much easier to Tweet or post on Facebook, but is this where knowledge construction is taking place?  Are these platforms not just places where people feel comfortable airing their views, or are they in fact learning and building knowledge together?  This is something beyond the scope of this blog, but surely, in the educational context, if the VLE is set up as a learning community where there is trust and support, the discussion board is a more suitable place for students to engage in the exploration of academic ideas?

So how can we get students to engage more in discussion boards?  I believe the starting point to promote more engagement is at the entry point of the course.   The establishment of guidelines and goals of the course can maximise student engagement and participation in discussion boards. To this end, Salmon (2001) developed a five stage model of the steps students need to go through before they can fully engage in the online environment.  The model is a process of scaffolding the student experience to give them a chance to develop an online learning community, which is essential for deep and meaningful learning (Garrison, 2006). This step-by-step process helps students to build their online identity and form relationships with their peers and develop a sense of trust before they embark on collaborative knowledge construction.  Students are given opportunities to work through their cultural and social expectations of the online environment all of which can put them in a position to make the most of their online learning experience.  Even if students are familiar with using technology for social purposes, when it comes to online learning, certain parameters need to be made obvious and these can be negotiated with the group. Taking the time to establish this community of learning will potentially provide a stronger base for richer communication.

A strong social presence can be built up by moving though Salmon’s five stage model.  However, social presence alone will not lead to deep learning, other elements are needed to make online discussions more successful.  Garrison et al’s (1999) community of inquiry model includes the need for social presence, but also for teaching and cognitive presence in online teaching and learning.  It goes without saying that students need to feel the teacher is there to provide direction in the online discussion, if not they will not feel valued and will stop contributing or leave one-lined comments as I see so often in the courses I do.  However, there also needs to be more critical discourse for knowledge to be built and this will involve more cognitive presence where students are encouraged to follow threads and weave their responses into what has gone on before.  The discussion task needs to be a trigger to engage more cognitive presence and here it is worth considering Bloom’s taxonomy in our question design.  More in depth discussions will result if students are asked to analyse or evaluate an issue as opposed to them sharing knowledge.

A recent personal investigation involving action research indicated that asking students to solve a problem and come up with a solution that the group agreed on prompted more sustained and in depth discussion in the online discussion board. This appeared to elicit more evidence of negotiation of meaning as opposed to when I asked them to simply give their opinion about a topic, which usually elicits a far more restricted response.

A principled design of discussion triggers that promote cognitive presence, alongside teaching presence can add educational value to discussion boards by first developing an all-important sense of community which can drive collaborative knowledge building.  I would welcome any comments in your experiences of discussion boards.

Fiona is a Learning Technologist in the Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries and Education at the University of the West of England.
Email: Fiona2.Hartley@uwe.ac.uk

References

Garrison, D. R. (2006). Online collaboration principles. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks10(1), 25-34.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The internet and higher education2(2-3), 87-105.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Salmon, G. (2001). E-Moderating. London: Kogan Page

Creation of a Diagnostic Tool/Online Resource for Mathematics Support

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Each year UWE Bristol funds Pedagogic Projects across the University on a variety of themes. In this blog, Rhys Gwynllyw, Emily Walsh, Oliver Haslam, Karen Henderson, Patrick O’Flynn, Danny Elvidge, Kevin Golden discusses their 2018/19 project to develop an online maths tool.

Mathematics, Maths, Computer, Laptop, Business, Graphs
Image of a laptop with maths symbols

Why?

Data analysis from the Mathematics cluster’s espressoMaths service over many years has indicated a strong demand for additional Mathematics support from students across a broad spectrum of programmes. This demand spans all of UWE’s four faculties. This has been particularly the case for students in their first year at UWE on programmes that contains Mathematics but do not have Mathematics as a pre-requisite at A-level. In some cases students can be quite surprised as to the amount of Mathematics they will use; this can be quite challenging for students who have not done any Mathematics since GCSE level.

In discussion with programme leaders across broad range of programmes at UWE, we identified a need for an automated Mathematics support resource targeted at transitioning students with the two primary aims of (a) providing targeted support with dynamic feedback and (b) to aim to reduce the students’ anxiety levels at what is a particularly stressful time. We decided that this resource would be made available to students prior to the start of their studies, thus extending our Mathematics support.

How?

The project team had a large amount of experience in designing and building electronic learning resources. Our expertise in the Dewis [1] e-assessment system, together with extensive use of the Xerte [2] interactive learning resource resulted in the decision to produce a one-stop diagnostic tool that would use intelligent branching to dynamically direct students to targeted learning resources within the system. The presentation of this learning resource would be bespoke to individual programmes although, where possible and appropriate, learning units could be shared across programmes.

As part of the initial pedagogic project, two pilot programmes engaged with the project namely, Foundation Architecture and Health Science Apprenticeships. For these two programmes, a list of key mathematical topics were identified. This information was obtained by data mining the espressoMaths logs and also through discussions with the programme leaders. Each of these topics were further split into sub-topics to enable the learning resource to partition its support to the student. For each of these sub-topics the following were created:

  • a Dewis e-assessment, with intelligent marking and bespoke feedback;
  • a Xerte learning resource (XLR) supplying a coherent learning mechanism for the sub-topic. This XLR would typically contain instructional videos, additional e-assessments (Dewis or otherwise) and links to additional material. During the viewing of a video, Xerte can present key points at different stages in the viewing to add emphasis. Break points can also be used to present a mini e-test at appropriate stages.

The created learning resource facilitated Dewis and Xerte to communicate with each other and be able to monitor the student’s engagement with both resources. The Xerte resource made use of pre-existing maths instruction videos sourced from YouTube and this enabled the project to cover a greater number of topics than might otherwise have been possible as we did not need to spend time producing instructional videos ourselves.  The project augmented the videos in Xerte, providing students with additional notes and exercises at selected points while the videos were viewed.

Typically, the learning resource would present to the student the list of topics and sub-topics with the information as to which of these the student has already engaged with and/or obtained sufficient credit. The student would select a sub-topic and be presented with an initial diagnostic e-assessment (via Dewis). Based on the student’s performance in that e-assessment, the system would direct the student to the most appropriate Xerte resource for further study. The student is then invited to reattempt the Dewis e-assessment, with different numerical parameters, concentrating on the areas they previously struggled with. Once a student has gained credit for that sub-topic, the resource congratulates them and records their achievement. The displaying of appropriate icons by the resource allows the student to keep track of their progress.

It was a pre-requisite of the design of the resource that it be user-friendly. The interface had to allow for easy navigation and awareness of their progress in their learning. For any given e-assessment, consisting of a small number of questions, if a student had previously correctly answered part of a similar question, the student was informed of this. In such a case the student had the option of employing an ‘auto-answer’ feature.

For every programme utilising this feature, there are three mechanisms by which students can use the resource which depends on (typically) the amount of monitoring of engagement required by the programme leader. The three options are:

  • Self-registering. The student accesses the resource via a web address and self-registers. The programme leader can be aware of cohort performance in this situation but cannot monitor individual students.
  • Pre-registered. The system registers a list of student identities and allocates passwords to these identities – typically the identities are supplied to us by the programme leader. The programme leader then distributes these identities to the students. Using this mechanism the programme leader can monitor individual students’ engagement with the resource. This approach is suitable for students prior to them starting at UWE.
  • Blackboard. A web link (LTI) can be put on the programme’s Blackboard site through which student access the system without any additional authentication checks. With this approach, for students with a Blackboard account, students are automatically registered with this learning resource. As with the ‘pre-registered’ approach, the programme leader can monitor individual students’ engagement with the resource.

Below is a snap-shot of the resource. The image is of the front page of the resource for ‘Health Science Apprenticeship’ where the student has started the Algebra topic, gaining full credit in one topic and they are currently in the middle of two other sub-topics.

A guest link (non-monitored) to the resource is available here.

The front page of the resource for Health Science Apprenticeship

Feedback?

To date we have created five separate mathematics resources that have been delivered to ten programmes at UWE Bristol. Student feedback has been very positive:

“I’ve always struggled with rearranging formula so I thought it would be best to go back and study it more in depth and your professionally made video on it has finally allowed me to understand it and comprehend the different aspects of it. … having a teacher with your friendly and calm demeanour would motivate a lot more students to pursue the sciences.”

“I just want to thank you for the interactive video you put up on blackboard. I was really struggling with the trigonometry aspect when going over past papers and I can’t tell you how much this video helped. Breaking it down like this and giving us the option to interact – as well as the automatic pause feature – is just fantastic. Really has cleared things up! I will definitely be using it again to revise.”

Foundation Engineering applicants who had accepted offers at UWE were emailed to congratulate them on their offer (prior to registration) and sent details of the bespoke Mathematics Support resource.  The uptake was very encouraging with 175 out of 182 applicants requesting access. Positives identified by the programme leader included:

“Students felt part of the UWE family very early on and encouraged them not only to complete registration but gave them a positive work ethic and tapped into their early enthusiasm.’’

“As a PL it gave me an initial, individual rapport with the students and demonstrated that our aims on the foundation year is to enable them to succeed, something that some of these students may not have felt in their previous academic year.’’

“Students were conversant with the Dewis format and this helped them with their early assessments in two of their foundation modules.” “The students who completed the online material were very positive about it and said it was useful and some stated that it was just what they needed at that point, to refresh their maths knowledge after a very long summer with no academic work.”

Interested?

If you think your students would find it beneficial to have access to a similar mathematics resource, then please get in touch with rhys.gwynllyw@uwe.ac.uk

We can quite quickly produce a tailor-made mathematics resource using existing content that is relevant to your students.

Why do Students Plagiarise & Purchase Essays?

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Each year UWE Bristol funds Pedagogic Projects across the University on a variety of themes. In this blog, Jackie Chelin discusses her 2020/21 project on academic integrity.

Why this project?

Long standing issues with plagiarism are being compounded by students’ use of essay mills. There is a real need to help students to understand and embrace the value of academic integrity in their studies. This includes helping them to understand what is and what is not academic misconduct, what is collaboration and what is collusion, as well as how plagiarism might impact their academic progress and future employment.

Crucially, we wanted to hear from the students themselves about the terminology and the activities that would engage them in raising their awareness and understanding, particularly in relation to the merits of good academic, and professional, practice.

What were we trying to do?

  • Understand better student attitudes to plagiarism and cheating and then to work in partnership with them to develop more comprehensive and meaningful guidance and resources.
  • Address the increasing number of assessment offences by taking a student-centred approach and tackling the causes of the problem, e.g., by developing approaches / co-creating resources with students that will help to prevent plagiarism.
  • Complement, extend, and feed into the work of other projects and initiatives across the university.

What actions did we take?

We administered a Qualtrics survey which attracted 323 (anonymous) responses over a three-month period, followed by a focus group with students from all four faculties in which we used case studies to discuss scenarios relating to different types of assessment offence.

We are now working with a group of level 2 film-making students to create an interactive “branched scenario” online resource using H5P technology. Students will be able to travel through this, making decisions at various points that lead them to a better understanding about the consequences of the interactive choices they made, and which they can go back and rectify.

What did we discover?

Students have a wide range of opinions and these are not that different from ours! They are fairly au fait with notions of plagiarism but much less clear on collusion and contract cheating – which might well reflect the relative emphasis we place on these aspects in our guidance and web-based information. Indeed, they want more discussion of essay mills.

Students know quite a lot about the assessment offences process, although not all this knowledge is accurate. They want more training, guidance, and information because they want to do the “right thing”.

Lack of time is a key factor in plagiarism – both in blatant and inadvertent plagiarism. The nature of the assessments that students are asked to undertake also has a bearing, i.e., many students would like assignments that are more meaningful, personal, and interesting to them (which arguably reflects current discussions around inclusivity and decolonisation of the curriculum).

What are we recommending from this project?

There are three categories of recommendations, as outlined below, which could fit into a wider, collaboratively created, university assessment strategy.

In relation to education and guidance, we recommend that:

  • the online interactive resource being created with the film-making students be used, as appropriate, in inductions, embedded into programmes, modules and workshops. This would take the best aspects reported elsewhere and combine this with a more integrated, attractive, and flexible approach (Sefcik, 2020)
  • More support for reading, note taking, paraphrasing, group work, citation and referencing is produced in a range of formats, e.g., online bite-sized resources, for integration into the virtual learning environment, and face to face bookable workshops (both online and on campus)
  • the university develops a repository of sample students’ work to help them to understand what is expected in terms of academic writing and referencing
  • links are included in assessment briefs to relevant guidance and support, particularly to provide clarity about exactly which aspects of referencing and citation (for example) are being assessed, and how.

In relation to assessment, we recommend that:

  • formative assessments be included in the first six weeks of term to provide students with more confidence about incorporating published sources in their work
  • consideration be given not just to the timing but also to the number of assessments students are asked to undertake
  • alternatives, or a choice of assessments, are developed for each module (Bretag, 2019)
  • more advice on assessment design is developed, combined with a review of the coding mechanisms for assessment offences, to be able to trace assessment types that are susceptible to assessment offences.

In relation to communications, we recommend:

  • developing a stronger values-led rather than sanctions-led approach to assessment offences, e.g.
    • the co-creation of an academic integrity policy along with students,
    • the use of relevant social media and student-facing communications to promote the benefits of good academic practice, e.g., deeper learning, personal satisfaction and to support future career (Amigud, 2020).

In making the recommendations we applied an “inclusivity lens” to try to ensure that the outcomes would positively impact all students, allowing them to have access equally, and in an integrated way, to the learning, skills, and knowledge they require, irrespective of previous experience, background, culture, or nationality.

For further information please contact the author of this blog: Jacqueline Chelin, Deputy Director of Library Careers and Inclusivity, UWE Bristol

Visual Pedagogies Project

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Each year UWE Bristol funds Pedagogic Projects across the University on a variety of themes. In this blog, John Bird and Dave Green discuss their 2020 project on Visual Pedagogies.

Cartoon of an eye

Re-enchant your teaching by using visual materials – photos, film, YouTube, Instagram – in teaching and in assessment…………….make your own visual materials……use found materials……help students to develop their own visual materials

Dave Green and I had been interested in the use of visuals – still and moving images – in teaching and learning for several years before we did the APD project on visual assessment.  We had tried using visuals in a number of sociology and criminology modules, starting with the teaching and moving on to visual assessment. The students seemed to like using the use of visuals and, when we moved on to assessment, were keen to use visuals in traditional assessments – images in essays, for example – but also in some more radical forms of assessment – mindmaps, photo essays. This led to a Faculty of Health & Applied Sciences-funded project on the use of visuals in teaching and learning which culminated in a university-wide Pedagogic Project on visual assessment. This project included a university-wide questionnaire looking at the uses of visual pedagogies; student focus groups across a range of programmes; and a small number of interviews with staff covering undergraduate and postgraduate provision.

Why visuals?  It is increasingly, for students, a visual world and a world in which the majority have  ways of engaging with visual materials and producing their own materials.  We found that students have the basics of what might be called visual literacy which just needs refining.

The use of visuals?  A large proportion of staff use visuals – photos, videos, you tube and so on – in teaching and learning.  Of that proportion, most use visuals to make their teaching resources more engaging; in a sense, the visuals are not integrated and are just forms of illustration.  A smaller proportion integrate the visual and the textual and, in some cases, the visuals become more important than the text; visuals stand on their own as a resource.  The majority of staff do not use visuals in assessment so that even where visuals are fully integrated into teaching and learning, they don’t form a component of assessment regimes. There a philosophical point to this – can we move beyond a point where the visuals we use require a textual explanation! To quote the jazz pianist and composer Thelonius Monk, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. In this visual age – that which Otto Neurath termed “The Era of the Eye” – the visual stands on its own and is not reducible to text. The effects of visual pedagogy?  Student focus groups emphasised the positive effects of visual pedagogy on their attendance and engagement and some staff said these pedagogies enhance performance;  students found visual assessment enjoyable and creative; the technologies students use allowing them to become prosumers, that is, producers  and consumers of visual materials which gives them the potential to be co-creators of curricula.

The range of opportunities for visual pedagogy – some things you could try:

  • PowerPoints
  • Pecha Kucha presentations
  • Photos as part of an assessment (what do these photos tell us about ‘X’)
  • Students taking photos to illustrate a topic/theme           
  • Infographics
  • Videoscribe lectures
  • Podcasts          
  • Box of Broadcasts
  • Instagram storyboard/comic strip/graphic novella
  • Selfie – get students to discuss self identity/self concept
  • Street photography project
  • Vlogging/video/photo diary             
  • Visual ethnography of a group
  • Pinterest page or wiki/wordpress                            
  • Cartoons, posters
  • Drama (e.g., group work writing and acting out a case study – social realism)
  • Image analysis: use a methodology, e.g., semiotics/discourse/content analysis to interrogate an image or series of images

Many of these – and there is a lot more things you could try – can be used as basis for teaching/learning and assessment.

It is difficult to sum up what we think we have achieved. What is clear is that a lot of people in UWE are using visual pedagogies – many more than we thought; that students see the visual as an essential element in their learning; that they take very quickly to visual forms of assessment. There are problems: access to technologies; making sure that visual pedagogies are appropriate for a world where there are neuro-diverse students; ethical issues in the making and using of visual images; for staff the time it takes to turn a non-visual form of delivery to one which uses the visual.

Links

These links include a long film we used as a background during open days; some students’ views on visual pedagogy and some examples of visual work we do in sociology.

You can access our Twitter using #social_visual
Engagement with the Twitter account and the variety of Facebook posts, indicates an international interest in visual pedagogies; in addition, we have begun to use visual pedagogies in research, both in the carrying out of research and in its dissemination.  Our hope is that this will widen the public interest in and engagement with research

Contact us:
John Bird (john.bird@uwe.ac.uk) and Dave Green (david2.green@uwe.ac.uk)

The Learning University

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In this week’s blog post, Paul Redford discusses the importance of evaluating University-wide initiatives.

Image of a light bulb resting on an open palm

It is clear that reflection and research evidence are key to effective practice. We encourage reflection in our students as we know it is related to academic success, and our staff as we know it is related to teaching & learning quality (Bolton & Delderfield, 2018). We also encourage both students and staff to be research informed and to critically evaluate evidence. But to what extent are we reflective about the policies and practices undertaken within our institutions, and are our decisions research evidence informed? As educators and educational developers we are interested in learning, but to what extent are the organisations we work in “learning organisations”? 

Often it is easy to fall into a trap of developing initiatives (often by informed people with good data), without spending sufficient time reflecting, evaluating and gathering research about the impact and effectiveness of these initiatives, policies and practices. Externally funded projects require evaluation of impact, but this is not always the case with internal practices such as university initiatives and changes in practice. At UWE (as at most universities in the current Covid Era) we recently undertook a large project to ensure that our students “started well”, were prepared for the uncertainties and unusual nature of learning during the forthcoming year (and beyond), were confident in their abilities, and were well connected to other students and staff through a sense of community and belonging. The project was university wide and involved all aspects of the institution including programme teams, timetabling, wellbeing services, library, learning technologists, communication and marketing, the Students Union and more. Of course, these services work together at the start of every academic year, but this year the project was more ambitious, aiming at a higher level of co-ordination and impact. The resulting outcome was an extended induction for all programmes across the institution, which impacted upon academic calendars, student start dates, and a delayed to return to campus. This was also a challenging time for most people at the institution, in particular programme teams who were managing a seismic and urgent shift to online learning. Alongside this new start to the year, the university also implemented an equally large evaluation of the project. A collective reflection. A research informed evaluation. 

The evaluation of this project was just as ambitious and involved as the “starting well” project had been. The evaluation took an evidence-based practice approach, identifying all the stakeholders who were impacted by the process and ensuring their voice was heard and included. This project was quite an undertaking particularly at a time when the “new start” project had come to an end and staff were facing unpredicted challenges of shifting to delivering online within a complex and volatile HE environment. Having said that, the engagement with the evaluation was excellent. The evaluation involved: 

Staff:

  • Interviews with all faculty leads at a senior level, headed by a senior team. 
  • A series of workshops available for all members of the institution. 
  • A series of focused workshops for targeted groups such as learning technologists and timetabling. 
  • A staff survey for all staff including programme teams experience as well as those delivering the project such as library and other central services. This was completed by over 350 staff members and included extensive quantitative and qualitative feedback. 

Students:

  • A series of focus groups for students of all levels to discuss their experiences. 
  • A student survey aimed at all students about their experience of the project as a whole and also of particular elements, such as programme sessions, independent learning sessions, central sessions etc. This was completed by over 3000 students across all faculties in the institution. 
  • Engagement data from different sources, such as viewing figures on videos, numbers of log-ons etc. 

The results of the workshops, focus groups and surveys were collated into a 40 + page evaluation document (not including the in excess of 100 pages of qualitative responses from the surveys of staff and students). The quantitative and qualitative results were analysed around core themes as well as examining specific experiences by key groups (such as faculties, professional services, etc). 

The student data gave us a valuable insight into the student experience of the initiative as well as whether it helped onboard our students. Importantly we were able to discuss and frame ideas about how we can better prepare students for entry into HE. This data also gave us an opportunity to understand our own students experiences against national surveys conducted at this time. The staff data allowed us to reflect on the staff experience of not only the outcome, but also the process. 

Overall, this evaluation gave us evidence of the impact of the ‘starting well’ project at an institutional level. The evaluation facilitated conversations which could be informed by evidence about the prevalence of student and staff experiences. Crucially, we were able to avoid the situation where the loudest voice can sound like a voice of truth rather than one experience among many. We could draw evidence informed conclusions about where our initiatives had worked and where they did not; who it worked for and what challenges there were for others; the extent to which the “starting well” project was successful, and particular areas of failure. The data was of course not homogenous, with variations in views and experiences, which is to be expected in such a complex and widespread undertaking.  However, we are now well informed about the key challenges and informed ideas around how to address these issues in future incarnations of the project. We can now implement an adapted system, informed about the key issues, understanding better who needs to be involved, and with evidence about what needs to be delivered. We know more about what students valued, and didn’t, where they engaged and didn’t. Overall, the evaluation of impact has given us a valuable opportunity to reflect, to understand the impact and to improve our offering going forward.  

Although the evaluation included lots of elements about the specifics of this year, the framing of the evaluation was about growth and development rather than performance. Using evaluation as a tool for reflection and development allows us to foster a sense of psychological safety where feedback is encouraged, engaged with and acted upon. The evaluation was not about trying to either blame nor necessarily praise, but to understand, develop and improve.

As it may be clear, I have said nothing about the results. The review was not about judging “success” or “failure” of the project. Instead, it was about what we can learn and how this shapes future actions. The results are important, but much more important is the learning.

Paul Redford, Associate Director of Academic Practice, UWE Bristol

Contact: paul2.redford@uwe.ac.uk 

Reference

Bolton, G. with Delderfield, R. (2018). Reflective Practice: Writing & Professional Development (Fifth Edition). London: Sage. 

HE Policy Round-up of 2020

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Cartoon of colourful speech bubbles

Rather than write our own policy round-up of 2020, I’m taking this opportunity to plug WONKHE (pronounced ‘wonky’), an independent organisation that provides a commentary on the latest developments in the higher education sector for those who work in universities and anyone interested and engaged in higher education policy, people and politics.

WONKHE offers daily and weekly updates on HE policy straight into your email inbox, with additional material via their website and podcast. UWE Bristol is currently a subscriber so you if you are a member of staff here you can sign up for free.

Today’s recommended read is Debby McVity’s review of 2020: Seven things the HE sector learned in 2020 – and what universities should prepare for in 2021. Enjoy!

HEPPP Featured Researcher – Nicky Turnbull

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Photo of Nicky

The HEPPP research network is principally for colleagues at UWE but we are pleased to connect and collaborate with researchers from elsewhere. This week we welcome Nicky Turnbull from Newcastle College as our Featured Researcher.

Hello – I’m Nicky Turnbull and I’m Director of Higher Education at Newcastle College Group (NCG), which one of the largest providers of HE in FE in the UK. I’m currently a doctoral candidate at Newcastle University, and researching and writing a thesis on pedagogical praxis, particularly exploring the philosophical basis of caring teaching and its practical implications.  After graduating with a degree in Sports Science I worked in local government providing leisure opportunities for individuals from deprived communities and in my spare time I was a fitness instructor, outdoor enthusiast and sports coach.  My obsession with activity and fitness led to me becoming a sports teacher, in 1995 I moved into the FE sector teaching adults, increasingly specialising in teaching HE in FE. On the way, I studied for and gained a PGCE, a DMS (Diploma in Management Studies), a PGDip in Sociology, an MA in Lifelong Learning and I was a national finalist in the prestigious FE STAR awards for excellence in teaching.  After a number of curriculum management and leadership roles, I became Director of Higher Education at Newcastle College in 2018.

I’m passionate about the remedial role that further education colleges play in ameliorating disadvantage and levelling up opportunity and access, and my doctoral thesis is a phenomenological study that investigates the relationship between HE students and teachers (in HE and FE). Most specifically I’m exploring how pedagogies of care enacted and modelled by teachers resonate with students and whether this has implications for teaching, student outcomes and the institution.  

This research interest grew out of a professional concern for the comparatively low levels of student retention within low-tariff institutions (like HE in FE) and a search for a ‘holy grail’, where more students, specifically those from disadvantaged backgrounds, would persist with their studies in order to benefit from the transformative effects of higher education. I’m especially interested in exploring the nature of teaching within HE in FE, and how the ‘dogma of skills’ with the focus on training for a specific job has arguably led to transmission models of teaching and the ‘passing on’ of skills or professional competencies by dual professionals (teacher-trained industry experts) rather than the development of the student as a whole person.  My study has already raised questions about notions of ‘good teaching’ in vocational contexts, the disposition and values of the teachers and, also how relational care as a reciprocal ethic of care benefits the students and the teachers. As a phenomenological study, my research explores the experiences of those HE in FE vocational teachers who identify as caring and inclusive, and it asks how their students conceptualise this. 

Contextually, the study is complex and quite controversial: in Higher Education teaching, the concept of ‘care’ is certainly problematic.  It is under-theorized and under-researched (particularly outside compulsory schooling).  It is also not easily defined and whilst no teacher wants to identify as ‘uncaring’, there are those who believe that the deontological duty to care is complete at the end of compulsory education, and therefore caring has no place or purpose in HE.  In this framing of care, students are expected to develop individual autonomy, resilience, and be exposed to ‘tough love’ in preparation for the world beyond HE, which therefore necessarily precludes a deeply relational experience of teaching, such as care.  This extends even to those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are seen as more fragile and must be quickly ‘levelled up’ using scaffolding from adjunct support rather than subject, discipline or even vocational experts. Also, there is a view that the affective and cognitive domains are immiscible and that by showing concern, paying attention, listening to students or even providing safe spaces, there is somehow a view that this constitutes adjunct pastoral support and that in doing so, such students can’t be challenged and intellectually stretched. There is therefore an implicit assumption that students have individual differences that are somehow fixed, and that if a student is fragile, then they are always fragile, and their abilities must be immutable, and they must therefore be handled with care, as if they were permanently on a hard shoulder of pedagogic frailty, rather than being scaffolded back into the main highway of academic expectation. In some ways, the construction of the fragile learner is similar to the ways in which inclusive education has been constructed within schools as a result of educational ‘statements’ after the Warnock Report: it was never intended that accommodations were to be fixed and lifelong, yet the possibility of withdrawing them has become conflated with being less supportive, and less accommodating, and arguably, less caring. But in higher education, there are other seemingly contradictory pressures:  this resistance to caring is also borne out of the rampant commodification of higher education.  Now, the focus is on institutional customer care and the requirement to provide value for money as a transactional ‘having’ or ‘getting’ relationship between the student and the institution, rather than a nurturing, fulfilling, ‘becoming’ relationship between teachers (who understand the benefits and obligations of teaching as a ‘people business’) and students (who all feel like they really matter and are able to flourish and indeed are expected to flourish).  As a senior leader within higher education, I believe that it is critical that my research benefits the students, the institution and particularly the staff.  Teachers have cited a lack of time due to intensive teaching commitments or large class sizes as the reason why they are unable to ‘pay attention’ to students in HE in the way they want.  I hope that my research will illuminate practice which shows that enacting pedagogies of care is not about going ‘above and beyond’ and risking the teacher-burnout that sometimes ensues, but teaching in a caring way to benefit the students, the people they become and the communities in which they live. 

Connect with me via Email

HEPPP Featured Researcher – Fabia Jeddere-Fisher

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A Room of Voices

Now firmly into the first semester of blended learning, I realise how accustomed I’ve become to entering a virtual room of disembodied voices, and aurally recognising each student. These auditory interactions are now our primary method for the lecturer-student relationship and I’ve been fascinated by the role of our voice for online teaching in the specific context of higher education.

Since starting my current role, as Senior Lecturer in Building Services Engineering, I’ve always looked for opportunities to use digital learning tools to enhance the student’s experience, so, when we moved to online teaching, I quickly got to know my Menti from my Miro. However, I became alarmed by the growing obsession with the virtual learning technology and I wanted to provide a simple antidote. Something to hold on to for the times when technology fails.

The Voice: Tone, Pitch, Pace, Identity, and Authenticity.

The role of a lecturer is distinctively different from other forms of public speaking, as we must build long-term positive relationships with our audience: the students. Therefore, we should not aspire to be the slick public speaker, but rather we should feel comfortable to show our human side.  

So why not hone the skill of vocal confidence in mastering the techniques of online teaching. Looking back, I think I developed this interest, not in the workplace, but through my hobby of hosting radio shows on student, and later, community radio stations. Before online streaming and automatic “listen again” functions, it was a labour of love to hear my shows again. Before setting out to the studio to broadcast, I would tune my home radio, set my minidisc recording, and hope no-one in my house was going to re-tune to another station. After each show I would listen back, enjoying the music I loved to hear, and to see how I sounded to the listeners. It’s quite a shock the first few times, I didn’t sound like “me”, and I could hear my nervousness exposed through the airways. But show by show, my voice mellowed into the rhythm of it. My enjoyment and passion for the music could be heard.

In summer 2020, I led a peer-group CPD session, subsequently presenting the work at the HEPPP Expertise symposium: Developing Your Online Voice for Teaching [YouTube video]

The CPD 3-week programme was structured with short pre-recorded videos, and peer-group discussions to explore the concepts and share experiences. The group size was small, yet still representing a wide range of disciplines and teaching formats. The topics each week built on concepts of building relationships using voices.

  1. The Voice Forms the Relationship: The voice is the essence of someone’s personality, where the word itself comes from “persona” which is the Greek word for the mouthpiece of the face masks used by actors in ancient drama. As a group, we listened to a range of speakers and posed possible reasons why we build positive or negative relationships with them.
  2. Your Relationship with Your Voice:  The first time you hear your own voice played back, you confront a new version of yourself. Yet, our brains have never been programmed to hear that version, as physiologically, our ears receive vibrations transferred internally, as well as sound transferred through the air. This vocal confrontation has been explored by Rousey and Holzman (1967) and they showed that by hearing our primary emotions exposed in our voices, we respond with negative association. Ok fine, but how do we change that? I proposed that we can address this simply through practice of listening back to recordings, aiding the neural reassignment of what our voices sound like. In addition, this would be paired with a healthy self-esteem, allowing us to show our vulnerabilities through our voice, using this as a positive tool in relationship building, rather than a weakness.
  3. The Voice Creates the Learning Environment: If we’re now in agreement that our voices are powerful tools to build positive relationships, then we can now apply this to the higher education learning environment. I used the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, D, 2011) to define what a “learning environment” is: social, cognitive, and teaching presence. This framework helped to guide our discussions through the different styles of teaching. These broadly covered:
    – Size of cohort;
    – Student profile;
    – Session type;
    – Skills developed.
    For each of these, we discussed how the Voice sets the tone of the virtual room, and not necessarily the first slide. It that it is the Voice that will decide whether we keep, or lose, control in the virtual room.

4. Vocal Gymnastic Linguistic Acrobatics: We all can appreciate the toll that many hours of teaching takes on our voices. To ensure that we are in command of our Voice, we need to treat it kindly. Each week we ended with a few short exercises, which would keep the vocal muscles supple. This ranged from breathing exercises to tongue twisters!

In summary, the following key themes run throughout my work:
1. Vocal Confidence: Developing the mind’s relationship with the Voice, to deliver authentically.
2. Vocal Resilience: Ensuring the body is fit for the vocal workout, to avoid vocal fatigue.
3. Vocal Interactions: Honouring the dawn of communication as turn-taking, rather than one-sided, and assisting a conversation, rather than a performance.

Feedback from the participants was that these methods have helped them prepare and structure their sessions, as well as gave them a peer-support-group to reflect with as we entered this most challenging semester.

Thank you for listening.
Connect with me via Email, Twitter: @FabiaP or the UWE website

HEPPP Featured Researcher – Ciaran Burke

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When writing this piece, I undertook the slightly scary process of counting how many years it has been since graduating with my PhD; I am fast approaching my first decade of post-graduate life after graduating in 2012. A native of Belfast, I attended Queen’s University studying single hons Sociology, and, subsequently, I won a Northern Ireland Department of Employment and Learning PhD studentship which allowed me to pursue my doctoral research full-time. The focus of the thesis was examining the role of social class on graduate employment trajectories. Upon graduation, I was appointed as a lecturer in Sociology at Ulster University, a process that sounds quite straightforward but one which I will always feel very lucky to have gone through. It was at Ulster University that I started my teaching career, completed my Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education and Practice and gained my fellowship of the HEA. From Ulster, I made my way across to England, working initially as a lecturer in Plymouth University and then as an Associate Professor in University of Derby before finding my home at UWE.

At UWE, I am an Associate Professor of Higher Education within the Department of Education and Childhood. Like many of us, my role spans a whole range of topics, including teaching and supervising undergraduate, masters and doctoral students. In addition, I am heavily involved in curriculum development, and I sit on several committees and boards, including Faculty Board. Through my roles as UWE, I am fortunate to be able to pursue and apply my research interests into my teaching, supervision and wider University responsibilities. I have developed a broad range of research interests since graduating with my PhD which all sit within the broad remit of widening participation and social justice. I have continued to research issues around graduate employment including undergraduates’ understanding of the labour market and support required from universities, the graduate pathways of dancers and actors to think more broadly about the impact of the growing trend of portfolio careers and to conceptualize a critical understanding of “graduate resilience”. In addition, I have been lucky enough to be involved in pedagogical research on formative feedback and the impact of student peer review, research on post-16 education choices, widening participation in higher education, careers policy and support for service pupils in primary and secondary schools.

One research passion that sits outside of my main focus (what I get invited to talk about or what I get invited to examine a doctoral thesis on) is ableism and method within social sciences. In a non-book-plugging fashion … I have an edited book coming out at the end of this month with Dr. Bronagh Byrne (Queen’s University Belfast) entitled “Social Research and Disability: Developing Inclusive Research Spaces for Disabled Researchers”. In the book, we discuss what I’ve termed “epistemic ableism” – effectively, we argue that all social science methods, whether influenced by Positivism or Interpretivism, are inherently ableist due to the narrow concept of rigour. We suggest that social science has not really moved on since the establishment of the discipline in the late 19th Century in terms of its pre-occupation with rigour to demonstrate its scientific credentials. It is not to say that I or anyone else in the book does not see the merit of rigour; however, in its current form, this is a disabling and exclusionary set of criteria. I make the point in my own chapter that this issue is more acute for early researchers – in particular, doctoral research – in establishing the rules and expectations of social research. Instead, we advocate for a rethink on what constitutes rigour, and this starts with university departments approaching how we teach methods and, importantly, how we assess and examine research. 

I wanted to end this blog entry by talking a little bit about what I do outside of the office and in my spare time, but I’m not sure many of us have that at the minute! I do have aspirations to read more Philip Pullman, and I’m counting my four-year old’s early interest in Fantastic Mr. Fox as a major win. I’d be really happy to talk with anyone about my research and, in particular, ableism and method.

You can find me on my UWE profile page and on Twitter @ciaranburkesoc

HEPPP Research Network update

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The research network was launched at UWE’s Festival of Learning in June 2020. It’s purpose is to bring together colleagues across UWE, and beyond, who are interested in research related to higher education pedagogies, policy and practice, including the evaluation of teaching. Through providing opportunities for networking and collaboration, the HEPPP research network aims to support UWE’s Strategy 2030 in developing a practice-led, evidence-informed approach to its own higher education ambitions.

The network’s MS Teams space now has over 60 members. Funding opportunities, including UWE’s own Pedagogic Projects, are being promoted through the HEPPP website and a series of writing retreats have been set up. It’s first major event, the Expertise Symposium, was a resounding success, and more events and activities are being planned as the network gradually picks up momentum.

Contact the convenor, Helen King, for more information about the network, to join the Teams space or offer a contribution to the blog or series of activities.