Friday, 27 June 2008

a thought from the LTEA (Inquiry in a networked world) conference

A very short snippet from me:
The LTEA conference this week was a rich source of ideas for TASH. One that particularly struck me was how well the TASH resource will work with the "Student as Scholar" ethos, helping students to have the right skills to "seek out new knowledge", and developing student confidence in those skills. These were just two of the aspirations (there were many more) raised up by David Hodge in his Plenary talk.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Feedback from Faculty of Science and Medicine

Willy and I amalgamated our groups (primarily because there were no medics at the meeting). I'll pop down the points I recall but feel free to chip in, Willy!

  • As with the other faculties there appears to be a desire to embed the resource into the curriculum somehow.
  • Resources should be both specific and generic-i.e. as well as generic resources to help students develop good grammar and syntax there could also be resources such as a guide to writing a lab report.
  • For students and staff to value the resource there needs to be some clear discipline relevance-it was therefore proposed that perhaps each department should make a list of say 5 resources they would like their students to have available to them.
  • Chris Stokes and Julian Burton were highlighted as key staff to speak to in the Faculty of Medicine.
  • There was also a valuable suggestion that we should get the Medical Soceity on board for some student input.
  • The Learning Advocates in Pure Science are a group that meets regularly and has disseminated many excellent resources to develop independent learning in students and therefore are worth contacting.
  • Ed Warminski and Kath Linehan have offered several resources for the project which should be relevant to students/staff in Pure Science and Medicine.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Signposting image

Created by Jen Rowson. I think it's fab. She'll do a tidier version if we require it.

Feedback from the Engineering Group at the 24th June TASH event

Feedback from the Engineering Group:

Group membership: Plato Kapranos (Materials Eng), Juliet Wilson (plagiarism working group ) , Jen Rowson (Mech Eng), Tom O’Brien (student – Biomedical Engineering) , Alice Lawrence (ELTC), Linda Gray (ACSE)

Priorities/ what does Engineering need from TASH:

  • Lab reports – how to write. (Please note that Tom O’Brien is writing a guide. Also Jen Rowson (Mech Eng) has a guide - see below)
  • Observing that engineering students have lots of contact time early on, and that therefore engineering students appear to expect that all work must be done in contact time. Engineering departments want to move students on from much contact time/little independent work to little contact time/much independent work as their academic career progresses. To do this, one priority is to encourage student skill acquisition in information gathering and to get students to buy into doing this information gathering.
  • Referencing – with a real need for consistency within departments and across departments. At the moment students are either told to use one method for one piece of work and another method for another, or they aren’t given a specific system to use at all.
  • Helping students relate criteria used in assessment to examples of real work. Helping students understand how different assessment criteria reflect developmental stages.
  • Helping to show students how they are expected to develop through their academic careers.

Resources already available:

  • ELTC resources – online and face-to-face
  • Library’s ISR , in which there is a specific Engineering hub (which ACSE contributed to)
  • MATLAB tutorials – several available in University, and Tom is writing another MATLAB tutorial
  • JAR’s (Anthony Rossiter's) animations on MOLE for systems related to modelling electrical circuits. JAR’s simulations on MOLE for pendulum and particle3D.
  • MASH material – extensive support for Maths
  • MECH eng has guides to
    o Writing lab reports
    o Literature reviews
    o Referencing
    o Plagiarism
  • ACSE and AERO have material for educating about plagiarism and collusion, which has also been adopted by the Uni plagiarism working group
  • Peter Judd (EEE) has developed some animations to support teaching the C programming language

How could TASH be used in departments:

  • Linked to from student portal - with noticeable pop-up or other attention getting icon.
  • Buy-in by lecturing staff, to include mention of during lectures/assignment descriptions. If appropriate could also demonstrate interaction with TASH during lectures
  • Personal tutors – could devote personal tutorial session to showing tutees material on TASH
  • Perhaps don’t talk about TASH much in induction, because of the information overload problem.
  • “Foreground expectations” – repeatedly make it clear that lecturers intend students to use the TASH resource.
  • Weekly calendar reminding students of academic schedule (specific to department), with mention of relevant material in TASH for the current assignment/task

Challenges for the TASH project:

  • Making it specific enough for individual students
  • Every department will want different things from it
  • Finding material that is already available
  • Embedding into the subject discipline, because TASH type material is not of itself interesting. For this reason a large example set for subject specific tutors will be necessary.
  • Making resources available to allow students to catch up to already assumed levels. (This is a particular issue in the service-module oriented engineering faculty).
  • Overseas students (of which the engineering faculty has a large number) – may be overwhelmed by visual information if their English language skills are weak, so the design needs to carefully limit the information on the page without being too simplistic therefore patronising.
  • Overseas students’ previous experience of using IT will vary depending on country.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Feedback from the Arts focus group

The group discussing TASH from the Arts faculty was nothing if not eclectic, with only one bona fide academic from the faculty, and a range of other central services staff and fellow-travellers. However, what they said about TASH was extremely helpful, and a really good exploration of many of the key issues. Here is, in rough form, a report of their conversations.

  • Students are coming from a wide range of learning backgrounds, and A-level marks aren't always a good way of identifying their strengths and weaknesses. There is also the student perspective - they've done well to get this far, and aren't always (or initially) receptive to the message that they need to change what they do. The consequent need to recognise the diversity of their backgrounds and skills was therefore emphasised, especially given the pluralisation of post-16 routes. It was also underscored that the skills they have been rewarded for in secondary education may not be the same as those they'll need in higher education, and that this could be one of the moments of difficult identity transition that Alice Lawrence referred to in the first discussion.
  • It was strongly suggested that TASH should be a standard route for all students, without identification of special needs or shortcomings. However, one incidental good of TASH could be to provide a way to support students currently slipping between the cracks in current support provision - for example, students who display characteristics of dyslexia, but who have not received a diagnosis. This is particularly common with ESOL learners, where the distinction between second language difficulties and other learning difficulties is technically impossible to make.
  • TASH needs to be promoted to students throughout their learning journeys. The key points this group identified were pre-arrival, helping them clarify their expectations of what HE will be about; and at the start of Level Two, where again there may be a shift in expectations, and other interfering sociological and cultural factors distracting them from study. It was also suggested that TASH should somehow be structured to promote recurrent engagement - it should be ok, and indeed positively encouraged, to go over the same thing several times. PGT students also need to be included within TASH, and thought given as to how material might need to be presented differently for them than to other groups.
  • One particular skills need of Arts students was around constructing a good essay, and this, as with the language of the earlier discussion, was cast in terms of recognising what skills were required, and how they might be different to what they've done in school (for example, critically engaging with material rather than repeating it by rote). It was also suggested (picking up on earlier discussions about modularisation) that the links between skills and modules needed to be emphasised, and how they could carry their learning from unit to unit, and ultimately into the big wide world.
  • It was recognised that TASH was ambitious, and the quite correct question was asked of are we trying to do too much? Working with our current timescale, what are the achievable outcomes? What is our fall-back plan if we don't achieve all of these? A very good question, and again something that should be borne in mind throughout the development process.

General feedback from the first TASH event

This is just to reflect back my experience of the event, and share some of the key points of the discussions. Overall impressions of the event were extremely positive - there was a lot of interest from staff and a high level of engagement throughout. A number of useful resources (in terms of people, materials, ideas, and general goodwill) were identified throughout the afternoon, and I am optimistic that these will be followed up by email and personal contacts in the next few weeks.

There were a number of issues that cut through the day, and questions that pertain to them, and I've tried to separate out some of them below. The big one I'm left with came up in several guises - namely, what is the relation between the staff- and student-facing sides of the project? We clearly need to say different things to each constituency, so how do we structure this, and ensure engagement on both sides? The image I stumbled on in discussion was of a Venn diagram, with an overlapping core but different edges, and by implication, ways into that core. It's right that the precise answer to the question won't emerge until later on in the design process, and it's also right that we keep it in mind throughout these early stages, shaping our response as we go along.

Picked out in rough order of importance (and too much detail - blog posts are meant to be short) are some themes that came up throughout the day, in small and whole group discussions.

Student engagement. This was the most commonly-identified issue. Nick Fox helpfully intervened with the suggestion that before we start engaging students with the development of specific skills, we need to first persuade them of the benefits - they need to recognise that there is a culture in higher education that they need to adapt to, and that their academic achievements will ultimately be closely linked to the level of success of their integration. This culture is, as Willy responded, embedded in practices and lived experiences, which is precisely where TASH needs to be - in induction processes, assessment feedback, Union links, Student Services support, and so on. The academic lifestyle is a performance, and TASH can help (1) foreground this performative element, and (2) support students in developing their own performance. Nick's useful phrasing was that we need to promote academic literacy, and this begins with spelling out that this will be different to what they've done and been good at in school (or other non-HE contexts). Nadine indicated the success of the Inclusive Learning and Teaching project, and how this had been attributed to its emphasis on student involvement; she even suggested student champions for the resource, embedded in departments, and perhaps financially rewarded (or maybe given credit through the Sheffield Graduate award) for actively promoting the resource amongst students.

Tutor engagement. Feelings on this were largely positive, with one participant reporting discussions at Faculty level, calling for exactly this kind of thing. There were, however, outstanding questions about engaging certain tutors who were so embedded in their disciplinary context that the value of generic material would be difficult to communicate.
This might shift the focus of the promotion of the resource onto what has worked thus far - local, personalised approaches, explaining the benefits and taking time to work through anxieties and misunderstandings. The second element to this was the fact that the deficit model of student skills is probably one of the more commonly-held ones for academics, so while we want to move away from that in all we say and do, we should still be prepared to address it amongst academic colleagues.

“Soft skills”. Alice Lawrence noted how HE study was a period of identity transition for students, and that we should be mindful and supportive of this frequently difficult process. This got me thinking about an issue that Debora Green raised, namely the generic skills materials that were on the fringes of TASH, and that she didn't want to be lost. Her example was the Counselling Service's Life Skills materials, which are indeed great, and would benefit all students coming to university. Another question on the already long list might be to what extent TASH wants to signpost resources for the personal development aspects of HE - it's not subject-specific, yet a different kind of generic skill to something like time management. The phrase “soft skills” was used by some Engineering and Science colleagues, and included many of the critical thinking, groupwork, communication, and motivational skills explored during the first exercise. Is this a phrase we want to add to the lexicon, and what would be some of the consequences of that? To come at this another way, is a clearer definition of “skills” required? In the first group exercise, there were clearly different levels being discussed, and how we define this term might help restrict or control the shape of the resource. There's doubtless an academic literature on this, and I'm becoming more and more aware (through a whole range of conversations at the event) that we might want to do this reading sooner rather than later.

Embedding the resource. The feeling of participants overall was that the resource would have greatest utility and force embedded in particular departmental structures, modules, and perhaps even assessment. Students and staff would both welcome (perhaps mainly at Level One) an immediate link with the subject area; they both might be willing to explore later on in their learning journeys, but there should be a familiar starting-point. The idea of centring the interactive self-reflection exercises around Sheffield received a double boost in the Arts group that I was facilitating. Firstly, Stephanie Pitts says she does something similar with new postgraduate students, asking them to produce an index of musical events across Sheffield - this sharpens their research skills, provides a useful product, and allows them to learn a little more about the city. Secondly, Claire Shanks showed our group some work the Generic Skills group had previously done (and which I wonder, Willy, if it's in the folder Margaret gave you). This consisted of “seven hills” of generic skills (can't remember what they were), which they'd considered as a possible basis for a generic skills website. This will be an excellent source when we come to considering in more detail the student-facing activities, and once again proves there's little new under the sun.

There are doubtless more to run with, but that's enough for now. A good discussion, and initial sharing of ideas and perspectives, and it bodes well for future project events.

Getting Started: introductory meeting - Social Sciences

This afternoon Tim and Willy hosted the launch event for the hub project. Some reflections on the event as a whole will follow soon, but for now I wanted to share some discussion points from our second activity. For this part of the session we split up into faculty groups and Alan Philips (Student Services), Richard Ward (LeTS) and I became honorary Social Science bods, along with Steve Wise (Geography) who is the ‘real thing’!

1. Topics that would like MASH to cover
The top priority (for Geography) is writing skills for ‘home’ students, from grammar through to how to structure and present a coherent argument (no pressure on me then for the rest of this posting).

In terms of existing resources, the department has looked at materials produced by the ELTC. Whilst these are excellent, they have largely been produced for an ESL audience, so they require some modification to make them suitable. The Royal Literary Fund (RLF) has also produced material designed for HE level study that we should explore further. In addition, the RLF writing fellow based in Animal and Plant Sciences has highlighted the benefits of 1-1 support and advice. With this in mind, we agreed that it will be worth exploring peer support, e.g. level 3 students working with level 1, as part of the TASH project.

There was a consensus in the group that in order to be effective, the resources need to be contextual. Therefore role of TASH should be to provide generic material and examples that departments can adapt to meet their own requirements.

2. Challenges
Student expectations and engagement -the student survey highlighted a gap between what departments offer/deliver and what students recognise has been provided. We discussed how this relates to the process of learning and reflection – how can we better support students in developing the critical self reflection skills that can help them to process and evaluate what they have learned and translate this into what they need to do next?

Related to this, we also considered what motivates students to engage with academic skills development. Whilst ‘getting a better degree’ has some appeal, we also agreed that employability and transferable skills are often of equal, or higher, significance. In both instances, we agreed that peer perspectives can be as or more powerful than those of tutors, and it could be useful to have some level 3 or recent graduate perspectives on ‘what I wish I’d known’. In addition, whatever the format or mode we use to provide skills development, we need to recognise that the relevance and importance attached will vary from student to student, and with this in mind, it is important that there is a resource /resources that enable students to revisit things at a time that works for them.

Designing materials that suit student and tutor requirements – it would be great to have parallel access points for tutors and students, but given the previous points it will be a challenge to design generic materials for students that can augment or serve as a prompt to go back to any materials or activities that were provided by their department/s. However, if (or should that be when) we can get this right , it will be a real strength.

In terms of contributing to the TASH project, Steve noted that he would like to work on 'writing skills' in collaboration with the ELTC and LeTS, with a view to sharing materials via the Hub.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Learning Hub in Jessop's Edwardian Wing?

Last Tuesday 17 June, together with colleagues from ELTC, MASH, MLTC, LeTS and Estates, I attended a meeting chaired by Paul White at which he outlined the back-history and proposed future of the Learning Hub Project. Originally conceived as a new build, the present plan is now to pitch for money and space in the Edwardian Wing of Jessops hospital (the bit sandwiched between Broad Lane and the original Victorian hospital building on Leavygreave Rd which is destined to be inhabited by the Music Dept).

If the funds are secured, the renovation of the Grade 2 listed building and addition of a smaller new build to the east/north-east is proposed to result in the creation of at least four key spaces (working from memory as my notes are presently elsewhere):
  1. A fancy new build entrance and executive teaching area for CPD and other industry-standard events off to the right (more specifically, a "Harvard style lecture theatre"; though I'm yet to establish exactly what that might mean);
  2. On the ground floor of the Edwardian Wing, one or two large open access areas currently conceived as communal spaces for students and others to gather, work individually or in groups, have access to certain specialist IT packages etc. which cannot be provided across campus for licencing reasons (e.g. some of the mindmapping, maths & stats software, and perhaps some more specific software required by PG students in partic. disciplines - may be fancy GIS packages for example?); this could be an ideal space for the development of self-help study groups, and for projects like TASH, MASH and the Sheffield Graduate Award to have permanent display areas in which to provide physical access to study and support materials and resources of one form or another;
  3. On the middle floor, 4-6 seminar rooms (min. capacity 24), plus a few small breakout rooms for one-2-one tutorials etc., plus specialist language labs; the teaching rooms would be pooled, probably with first dibs for MASH, ELTC and MLTC, and the possibility that they could also be open to TILL classes in the evenings;
  4. On the top (attic) floor, office space for MASH, ELTC and MLTC staff.
Volunteers for an "advisory group" were sought, and I have now put my name forward as the TASH link person for the time being. If this development comes off, it will provide an important and much more coherent physical presence for many of the face-to-face skills enhancement services already offered across the institution ... and it also has the potential to provide a physical form to the TASH self-help, self-analysis, easy-access philosophy. In terms of time-frames, if we are very lucky and the money doesn't go elsewhere then we'd be looking at a facility opening on the site in autumn 2010.

As with the discussion of labels below, however, it is essential that this building is seen as a hub for all, at all stages of their learning careers, and not a triage station for learners who don't quite fit the norm ... I'm confident that this is an obstacle that can be surmounted - but that the key is likely to be getting the ground floor right. The fact that Paul White has pulled TASH in at such an early stage in our existence is also very welcome and indicative of the role we may be able to play in helping to lend a little more coherence to the many very valuable services and resources that currently exist scattered across campus, not just online but in the real world too.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Magic muffins

Thanks, Kath, for your post here, and your participation in the numerous other bits of technology thrown your way today - your enthusiasm is much appreciated! I also welcome your role as "devil's advocate" in some of today's discussions, especially as it is grounded in your own experience, given the need we will have to justify TASH as different to the other university resources and schemes. We are, as I think came out of today's discussion, operating in a crowded market, with a superfluity of demands on staff and student time. If TASH is to succeed, it needs to be clearly established as something that will make everyone's life easier, and that the time-cost of engaging with it will be rapidly outweighed by the benefits.

There were some other specific bits of learning about the project that I wanted to ensure we kept hold of. In no particular order these are:

  • We need to promote the resource at various points of the academic year - for example, before and during Intro Week; before key assessment points and after feedback; at transition points, where the student may be moving into unfamiliar territory, and might be unclear of the changed rules of the game. All of this will require (1) subtle and variegated design, and (2) an embedding of the resource in staff and student consciousness so that it becomes the natural place to go in moments of dislocation.
  • The transferability of skills or indeed knowledge is a particularly pertinent issue under a modularised system, and something that could be worth highlighting in the resource. Much as Linda described in the ACSE Level One curriculum, we would do well to highlight the moments where students need to pick up the stuff they did in a previous place, and apply it somewhere new. After all (and this is my particular hobby-horse) as wide-awake intelligent independent adults, they can already do loads of stuff that will help them in academic life. They just need to be enabled to do this, and given the time and space to carry out the often difficult personal work it requires.
  • One potential vehicle to achieve both these points is to make readily-available connections between TASH and PDP. We're trying to jump between moving vehicles here, as both projects are in various states of change, but PDP is an already-existing structure for staff-student conversations about skills, and as such, could be an excellent moment to engage with TASH.
  • There might well be resources within the Research Training Programme that would benefit L3 learners engaged on independent study. The more generic point to draw from this is that appropriate resources for supporting learning might exist in surprising places across the institution.
Some time ago, Willy posed the question of whether inquiry-based learning was a treasure hunt or a voyage of discovery - are the students finding what you've already planted there, or genuinely discovering new things for everyone (even if they're initially mis-identified, etc.)? This TASH project would seem firmly to be a voyage of discovery, and as such, is likely to be thrilling, disappointing, frustrating, and, erm, splashy by turns. We know what we'd like to find, but we don't know quite where it is; and we're expecting to find other things along the way. The trick will be, to tie together what is rapidly becoming a ramble, to balance this open-ended discovery ethos, with the time-efficiency driver I indicated at the start. Whatever it is we end up with, we need to know that it works, and be able to persuade others of this fact. Given the general goodwill shown towards the project thus far, and the commitment and enthusiasm of the core team evident today, I think we're well-placed to achieve this.

Bouncing bean!

Thought the meeting this morning was very inspiring. Bounced back to my office full of beans and a list of things to do (Tim what did you put in the muffins again?) Forgive my perchant for playing devil's advocate regarding the project. I'm just very keen to see it succeed and therefore like to make sure 'we' are prepared for any obstacles we are likely to face. My experience of previous instituitional initiatives is that they are excellent but can quickly get lost in the day-to-day teaching in departments. My 'negative' perspectives are only a consequence of some of the rebuffs I've faced trying to incorporate independent learning into teaching in my department. I don't want the same ill fate to befall TASH.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Responses from announce message

Having successfully emailed the whole university, without any Ronald Reagan-style gaffes, it's nice to sit back now and think a little about the responses we've had. Let's start with the fact there's been a lot of interest - at close of play today, 22 positive responses, from 15 different departments. What's been particularly nice is the spread of interest, from students to early-career academics to bigwigs to support staff and learning development colleagues; it seems that everyone's interested in this, and has something to contribute. Secondly, there's been an offering-up of ideas, materials, prospective projects, and talents already, which is pleasing, given the collaborative intention of the project. And thirdly, those who have responded have often emphasised the things Willy and I have talked about between ourselves, such as the importance of ensuring key skills, the language of enhancement and development rather than deficiency and remedy, and the necessity of the overall project. No matter how many people email in response, and/or come along on June 24th, the announce email has helped launch the project publicly, and foster a certain degree of awareness. This may make knocking on doors to find out what people are doing, and what they want to do - almost certainly one of the next steps in the project development - easier, and even more rewarding.

And lastly, two other great things have happened this week, namely the confirmation of Kath Linehan and Linda Gray as members of the core project team. TASH will be all the better for your contribution, and I look forward very much to working with you!

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Brief feedback from CiCS session on new technologies in learning and teaching

This was a session organised by Chris Attwell, of the Innovative Communications group, to bring together people interested in using new technologies to support learning and teaching. The primary focus was on blogs and wikis, although clearly went much further, and there was a good range of opinion represented. While I was, by a country mile, the least geeky person in the room, it was great to hear exchanges of knowledge and experiences, and picking up of useful tips; for example, that you can get RSS feeds from blogs into MOLE (through the Media Library, maybe; it seemed such an obvious thing that no-one else required detailed explanation). There were also debates about aligning the technology not just with forms of assessment, but with assessment criteria within that; one thing that has proved successful in some contexts is having participation as a criterion, rather than explicitly judging the content of their contributions. This creates a good atmosphere for sharing ideas and getting discussion going, which in turn leads to higher-level contributions elsewhere in the teaching.

The thing that wasn't quite the elephant in the room - it was mentioned, but not explored in anywhere enough detail - was finding the why of these technologies. What would they add to teaching and learning that couldn't be achieved by other means? This is certainly a question to address with TASH, and maybe foreground in early project team discussions. We're not looking at technologies anywhere near as fancy as some of those discussed today, but to ensure the widest possible engagement from staff (in particular) and students, we need to explain why the technology is necessary, not just what it will do.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Class and learning skills labels

I just wanted to record and ponder on one of the observations made by Harriet and Frances in today's very productive meeting - namely, the role of social background in students' interpretations of being identified as dyslexic. It has been noted that students from a middle-class background may welcome this term, and emphasise the positive aspects (being creative, being "a bit different") and incorporate it within their overall student identity, other students may resist it, and see it as a definition of disability or impairment. If there was a simple solution to overcoming this resistance to the term, I suspect someone else would have found it by now; and I'd welcome thoughts prompted by literature such as that referenced below. The extent of my pondering on the subject is that it could be worth highlighting this range of reactions in any phrasing that we use around dyslexia - "Some people find that being diagnosed with dyslexia is very dispiriting, and seems to label them as inadequate. Others find it a helpful explanation for difficulties they've experienced throughout their life, and a positive influence on their identity as a learner", or somesuch. Riding my particular hobby-horse, it might be that some of the student input into the design of the resource could be gathering testimony on this issue of being identified as having specific learning needs - how has it affected their studies? The rest of their student life? What has the impact been on their sense of personal identity? etc. etc. This might be opening up the concept of student input somewhat more broadly than we've previously discussed, so it's only a suggestion; but potentially, it could provide a helpful means to facilitate student engagement with the resource.