Saturday, 2 August 2008

Inside Lynn Parker's head - learning from the Library

TASH continues to boldly go where angels fear to tread; mixing our metaphors, or should that be adages, at every opportunity. A week last Friday (apologies for the lateness of this post therefore), Tim and I met with Lynn Parker from the Library, chief curator of the voluminous and enormously helpful suite of Information Skills tutorials which are available, by default, to all students and staff via MOLE.

Lynn was able to share a wide range of insights into the challenges involved in trying to embed "reusable learning objects" such as the discrete MOLE tutorials she curates within individual courses and/or student consciousness more generally - but was also keen to stress that the strategy the library has adopted and refined over a number of years now of seeking to tailor and embed generic resources within specific disciplinary contexts was an increasingly successful one.

Key points to emerge from our discussions included:
  • students generally want to see immediate benefits in terms of tangible progress in their assessed work if they are to engage with more generic study skills materials;
  • the promotion of such resources by academic staff was crucial to ensure student buy-in, but it was still necessary to tailor examples to specific disciplinary areas wherever possible;
  • attention to the tone/feel of resources and exercises is important as hostility can quickly grow to a resource or approach if it is perceived as "too easy" or "too much like what I did at school" (this may be a particular challenge for TASH when trying to encourage a critical, self-aware and reflexive approach to the hub, and an attitude to learning which values revision and reassessment of the same skills in different contexts at different stages in the learning journey, from pre-entry to post-graduate and beyond);
  • there is enormous diversity across individual departments in terms of the nature of assessment tasks and the degree to which independent research, for example, is foregrounded in different disciplinary areas; this can make structuring a generic resource for all extremely challenging;
  • Lynn has commented to us before on the absence of Information Literacy as a specific named category for TASH, but is prepared to accept the justification that we have previously offered that IL cross-cuts most, perhaps all of our themes, and it is therefore appropriate for it sit outside the formal framework in the same way that we have argued this may also be necessary for attributes such as creativity and resourcefulness;
  • keeping links and resources up to date in large online products like the Info Skills tutorials - or TASH - is a real challenge and needs careful monitoring.
Lynn sees TASH as one important avenue through which to further publicise the existence and value of the MOLE tutorials to academics and students alike, to "give it a new push" and take its place more squarely alongside other resources available across the institution. She also emphasises the added-value of academic colleagues acting as advocates for such resources alongside professional service curators. These are things we are more than happy to help with, and Lynn has already agreed to contribute to the project by writing a number of tutor-facing guides, organised by reference to the 7 sk/hills framework (academic literacy and written communication being two of the more obvious places to start).

She has also agreed to produce a kind of mind or site map to the tutorials as a whole. We hope this will be of particular value as it became clear to us as the conversation progressed that the inside of Lynn Parker's head contains all sorts of treasures and a very detailed knowledge of the resource she curates. This allowed her to direct us very quickly to a whole host of relevant materials in all manner of different skills areas as the conversation turned from one topic to the next. The problem at present is that it is much harder for those of us on the outside of her head to make these connection as quickly, unless she's there in the room with us. We hope therefore that a map or index of some sort will mean that much of the good work currently being overlooked may be more easily accessed.

Finally, we are mindful of the need for case studies illustrating how close collaboration and embedding of library tutorials within specific disciplinary contexts is achieved in practice. To this end, we will shortly be hunting down Aidan While in Town and Regional Planning, who worked closely with Lynn on a strategy for embedding Information Literacy throughout the undergraduate programme for which he has responsibility. Indeed a brief case study already exists here, on the case studies wiki. Many thanks for your input, Lynn. We will be back.

Tutor-facing pro-forma perfect

The very first TASH pot of gold to the very first completer of a draft tutor-facing web page guide goes to Harriet Cameron of the Dyslexia Support Service who was our fourth and final discussant for the day. We met at the ELTC, and were delighted to take delivery of a draft which did exactly what we were hoping for, so many thanks to Harriet for that. We also had a very useful discussion about ways of signposting students through and beyond particular resources, and the possibility of Harriet sharing her experience with us at the design stage too. As some of you will already know, Harriet is now leading on the final phase of the online Dyslexia resources first developed by Lizzie Pine and taken forward by Frances Brindley and others, and which we were very happy to promote at the July 17 TASH meeting. Harriet has also offered:
  • to complete a second tutor-facing guide outlining how one-to-one dyslexia tutorial support can help individual students' academic skills development, and how this kind of support differs from online aspects of the service;
  • to liaise on our behalf with Claire Shanks, Sarah Armour and others in the Disability Support Team regarding the writing of one or more similar guides to the more general resources Claire's team can offer.
In addition to coming up with some tangible goods so quickly, Harriet's energy and enthusiasm for the project, as well as her coffee and vegetarian tea, was extremely welcome at the end of a day of meetings, and we look forward to working closely with her as the project progresses further.

Just one final thought on the ELTC. I have little doubt that the department will have certain reservations about their building, and particularly perhaps the rather foreboding entry by impersonal grey-box intercom which has to be negotiated to gain access, but they don't half make the most of what they've got. The atmosphere in the reception area - however cramped - is always extremely welcoming; and you will invariably find students and tutors engaged in genuine and lively conversation. This quiet but careful attention to getting the tone right is carried through all of the offices and rooms I've been in - including the Gents' toilets - where the specific needs of international students have clearly been considered wherever possible. Thinking more generally about the design of the TASH resource itself, the Inclusive Learning and Teaching project, as well as the aspiration to improve accessibility and the quality of the student experience for all, I think the organised chaos that is ELTC's reception should be a model of best practice for us all - and something TASH can hope to emulate online and, in time, in a (hopefully slightly less crammed) physical space in Jessop's Edwardian Wing or elsewhere!

Seeing double: when TASH met Tash (Semmens, that is)

The third of four very successful meetings yesterday was a "working lunch" with Tash Semmens from Law. It was a little galling, on Yorkshire Day, to find the University Arms all sold out of Yorkshire puddings by 1pm, but your correspondent allowed himself a bitter shandy to celebrate instead (strictly in the interests of modelling real world Friday-lunchtime graduate professionalism, you understand).

Like Chetna and Elena beforehand, it was really encouraging to find Tash also full of enthusiam for the project, and offering a series of perspectives and suggestions which clearly complemented those previously put forward by Zoe Ollerenshaw, some of which were previously blogged here. In this earlier posting, we've already flagged up the valuable insights Law can offer in relation to scale, international taught PG students and graduate professionalism (through the LPC) amongst other things. In addition, Tash points up the distinctive aspects that the department's BA in Social Policy and Criminology (shared with Sociological Studies) brings to the mix, and the broader range of social science research skills which these UG students are encouraged to develop alongside the common focus upon problem-solving and analytical skills which they encounter in the law modules which they take. One area in which this manifests itself is the analysis of crime statistics - both quantitative measures of reported crime and more qualitative measures of perceived exposure to crime - and plans are afoot to twist Tash's arm just enough to help us develop a little exercise for the hub looking at some of the issues involved in relation to Sheffield post-code areas, for example, and which can be used as one way of getting students to think about visiting the MASH and other resources if the process of translating figures into words and arguments, and back again, is an uncomfortable one for them ... I'm pleased to report she seems very willing at present.

Other more concrete outcomes from yesterday:
  • Tash is keen to explore the possibilities of embedding aspects of the TASH resource within the core first year UG module Understanding Law 1, which has already benefitted from close collaboration with the Library and their Information Skills Tutorials, and we will be very happy to keep this dialogue open;
  • As reported by Tim below, Tash will be contacting second and third year UG mentors who may be willing to help us with a student focus group, tentatively timetabled for Friday 5th September; we hope to haul along some Medics, Dentists and SAN reps too - if you know of any students at a loose end in early September who may have a view on what TASH should contain, please do let us know or encourage them to get in touch;
  • Tash is also looking to conduct a small piece of research as part of her CILASS academic fellowship looking at (something like) student perceptions of self and their developing status as learners/professionals, which may very well tally with our academic literacy and personal/inter-personal skills categories (and indeed ideas around self-efficacy too, perhaps?) - the idea is likely to involve holding a series of student focus groups which TASH may be able to help facilitate/learn from.
Finally, it is worth noting perhaps that, not for the first time, discussions also touched upon the possibilities of TASH becoming a useful vehicle for embedding elements of skills enhancement exercises into (newly revamped?) PDP strategies - another way in which TASH can serve in time to assist academic colleagues' efforts to support student's individual academic and personal development; and something else to add to the list of cross-institutional initiatives to bring to a project cross-pollination and resourse sharing/pooling meeting?

The MASH/TASH meeting

The second of yesterday's meetings was with Chetna Patel of the Maths and Statistics Help Service, which supports students across the institution with their maths and stats needs.  There are obvious parallels (beyond the chiming names) with TASH, and it was really helpful to get Chetna's perspective on how the two projects might link together.  It was also helpful to learn more about Chetna's experience in managing the maths and stats support service, and in working across the university with staff and students.

What Chetna is currently developing is a bank of diagnostic questions in all sorts of maths and stats areas, which will then be filtered and tailored to meet the needs of individual departments and modules.  This resource bank will be kept in MOLE, for ease of adaptability, and should be ready in an initial form for the next academic session.  The detail that the bulk of these diagnostic tests will examine is much greater than what TASH would aim for, as it is intended more to indicate general areas for student attention, rather than specific topics for detailed investigation.  So the main role of TASH here will be to help learners develop their awareness of what support mechanisms are available, and the importance of engaging with them, creating a positive mindset for engaging in more detailed diagnostic tests later in their studies.

Maths and stats - perhaps the latter in particular - cuts across many disciplines, and projects such as the Maths and Stats Teaching Circle are very good at supporting interdisciplinary discussions and exchanges of material.  We want to mirror this in TASH, by threading numeracy through the range of self-evaluation activities and materials we produce. and developing a more general form of number confidence in all our learners - and for that matter, our staff.  So while maths and stats clearly tick the biggest boxes under the "Research and data handling" and "Problem-solving and analytical skills" categories, we want to make sure they feature elsewhere, and that galouts like me, who have spent a lifetime hiding from quantitative data, are persuaded that it's really not so bad.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, and Inclusive Learning and Teaching

Willy and I have come from a day of TASH meetings, which we will blog separately over the coming days. The first was with Elena, who many of you will know from her work on the Inclusive Learning and Teaching project, her leadership role in Mechanical Engineering, or indeed her indefatigable energy for other projects and innovations. It was great to get her experience of developing an institutional project, especially one that's been so successful in engaging students, and to learn more about what's worked for her in terms of developing and sharing best practice. The main message I took away from the meeting was about the centrality of students, keeping them as the focus of developmental process and end product, and this led to several specific points to take forward.

If we are specifying skills that students should be developing, then we should simultaneously be providing tools for academic and support colleagues to facilitate this development. It's always been imagined that TASH will have a tutor-facing angle, and that this to some extent might overlap with the Case Studies project and other institutional developments. However, talking things through with Elena made it clear just how generous this overlap is, and how many of the institutional projects - ILT, Internationalisation, Graduate Professionalism, to name only the big hitters -are trying to achieve similar things. As Elena put it, we're all trying to improve the student experience, and it would be more effective both for those project teams, and for students, if we were pulling together in some areas. So we're now prioritising the exploration of links with other projects, and trying to identify areas where we might work most effectively together.

Another aspect to this is something I've banged on about before, namely getting a student focus group together at this early stage of the design process. We're now one step closer to making this happen, through another of today's meetings with Tash Semmens. Through the exciting work she does on Understanding Law, she has a team of student tutors, Level Two or Three students who lead tutorials with Level One students; this group have shown great enthusiasm for involvement in module design and consultation processes, and might well be up for sharing what they wish they'd known at the start of Level One. This cohort, plus the Medical and Dental students we've already talked to, and the CILASS student ambassador network (especially given the quality of their new webpages) would form a neat focus group, which we could run before the start of the next session. Today's meeting with Elena, given her success in getting over a hundred students involved in the Inclusive Learning and Teaching project, was instrumental in raising this as a priority; so our thanks to her for this and everything else.

English Language Skills

As reported earlier in this blog, and at the second TASH meeting, I am running a pilot project, as part of TASH, to make some of excellent material on English Language skills which already exists, available to undergraduates in Geography. Many of our home undergraduates have quite poor written English - reports in the press suggest that this is a widespread problem which seriously affects the employability of graduates. With help from Paul Wigfield and Claire Allam I have put together a selection of the materials from the ELTC teaching materials and the support site for dyslexic students and constructed a module called 'English Language Skills for Geography Students'. In the spirit of TASH, very little has been done to the existing materials - so there is no specific reference to Geography and the examples which are used are not geographical. One of the interesting things will be to see whether students regard this as a problem or not.

The plan is to
  • Let all staff in Geography know about it so that when they meet personal tutees to review the feedback on their assessed work, they can refer students to it if need be.
  • Let all students in Geography know about it. We hold a 'welcome back' meeting each semester, with each Level separately, which will be a good vehicle for this.
  • Build it into our Level 1 skills module, GEO163, which focuses on essay writing among other things.
If anybody would like to take a look at the material, just send me your Novell login (e.g. I am gg1smw).