Friday, 24 October 2008

Final student focus group, and meeting with Patrice Panella

Continuing the stepped-up pace of recent blogging, this is a short report on two good TASH meetings this week - the fourth focus group with more students from across the institution, and a helpful discussion with Patrice Panella of CiCS. The focus group first - thanks to the students who came out for this, and shared their views about study support, academic writing, and a whole host of other issues. One particular skill that drew plenty of comment was time management, again identified as a key skill that students need to quickly develop at university - as one participant explained, "If you don't manage the time well, your self-motivation goes, because you think there's too much for me to do, and I can't be bothered". Greater guidance on how to divide up your work time and meet the competing responsibilities all students face would be welcome, as would more of an acknowledgment that the practices of academic life are complex and not necessarily natural -
In your first year, you're literally sent off to a lecture theatre with a notepad and a pen, and told 'go and learn, go and learn, it'll be good', and you sort-of go, 'Right, ok'...It takes you a good three or four months to work something out.
This group of students in particular were keen on writing support, and offering more clear guidance about what is expected from university essays. Greater support early on would mean "a lot more effort would be available for people to do the beginning of their academic work if they weren't trying to get the nuts and bolts right". Yet at the same time, there was acknowledgement that maybe different disciplines required different things in essay writing - and maybe even different tutors within the same discipline. So (and I'm drawing heavily here on work by Mary Lea and Brian Street) the TASH resources on academic literacy need to equip students not just to determine and address the demands of different disciplines, but also to be comfortable switching between different disciplinary paradigms of knowledge. We all do this all the time, of course, but the academic world might offer an appearance of epistemological uniformity that belies its varied and complex nature.

The academic world has also passed through a strange historical moment, where learning, teaching, and research were seen to be done over here, in oak-panelled libraries and high-tech laboratories, while supporting the infrastructure for these activities was done over there, in open-plan offices and functional administration blocks. Thankfully, we're now coming out the other side of this, and at Sheffield, it's particularly welcome to see CiCS becoming explicitly recognised as playing a part in learning and teaching. They have always, of course, supported these activities (and much else of what goes on in the institution - Chris Sexton's blog does a nice job of spelling out how far their influence spreads), but through projects such as Clearspace, this role will become much more visible. Our meeting with Patrice talked through some of these developments, and how the peer communication facilitated by Clearspace and other Web 2.0 technologies relate to the TASH project. We're moving closer to responding to how students perceive the university as service-users, rather than how we see it as service-providers; and this can only be to the good.

A full report on all the focus groups, and how they've affected the developing TASH project, will follow shortly.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Faculty Librarians get there before us ...

We managed to keep Maria Mawson and Vic Grant waiting a good 15 minutes whilst I queued for our coffees in the City View Cafe yesterday - top tip to the uninitiated; in semester time, don't arrange to meet on the hour 'cos there's a healthy queue between lectures ...

But more importantly, we also learned that they've got there before us in a hub-like sense too. As two of the six new Faculty Librarians - Vic for Medicine, Maria for Social Sciences - they have their own web pages from which you can find handy links to a range of discipline specific library subject guides (amongst other things). In addition, Medicine, Dentistry, English and History have their very own librarian's blogs so if any of these are your bag, why not take a look? The first two can be accessed via Vic's web page, the latter via Clare Scott's, Faculty Librarian for the Arts and Humanities.

Thanks to Maria and Vic for making the time to meet with (and wait for) us. We look forward to working with them more closely as TASH moves towards its production phase.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Focussing on key issues

There have been two more focus groups this week - one with staff, one with students - and another is coming next week (Tuesday 21st, 12.30 - email me if you want to come). They, plus one we held back in September, all offered useful contributions to the resource, and helped clarify, and in a few cases fundamentally shift, the direction of the TASH project. Given that one of the grand, long-term aims of the project is to carry on inclusive dialogues about learning, teaching, and the structures we all inhabit and construct, it feels right to be working in this way, and the results are proving very instructive.

One student went to the heart of the project by suggesting that "being independent is asking someone to help you to find that information you need, not just finding it", and it's becoming apparent that the finished TASH resource needs to prioritise explaining why it is useful to staff and students, and that this isn't preparatory to using the resource, it's actually central to it. Another key point of reference is something equally diffuse about developmental frameworks. Everyone seems agreed that staff and students should expect different things from each other and the institution as study continues, whether that's from one module to another, or the higher order of across an academic programme. David Hodge talked very well about this at this year's Learning Through Enquiry Alliance conference, suggesting quite a strong framework for learners who move from being closely supported and monitored in their first year, to designing and leading independent projects in their final year; I don't know, with the diversity of learners and structures we have at Sheffield, whether this prescriptive route is helpful, but it's certainly helpful as a descriptive device.

Staff and students were agreed that there needed to be a range of routes to navigate the resource, and that it should be clear, easily-trackable (i.e. you need to know where you've been), and there should be plenty of opportunities to engage. There was a healthy scepticism about whether everyone would choose to perform the self-reflective exercises, or as one participant put it, "[TASH] needs to look interactive, even if you don't want to do the interactive bits", which means we will consider carefully how to structure these exercises within the resource as a whole. It's also true that "TASH has to last the lifetime of somebody's course so it [can't] get boring" - if we're encouraging learners to keep on coming back, we need to find ways to vary and develop the content to maintain their interest. In general, thumbs were up for our lists of skills, although all focus groups gave time-management greater prominence than it apparently holds within our current framework; this is fine, and if that's one hook for bringing people into the resource, then we'll foreground it as much as appropriate.

After the next focus group, I'm planning to write a report summarising the discussions, and make this and all the notes publicly available online. My thanks to all who have participated in the groups thus far, and it seems fitting to end with one quotation that again captures neatly the mood TASH is building on and developing: "It's important that students know they're working with the lecturers and not against them". Absolutely.

Our man in the Arts Faculty

One of the several things I've conspicuously failed to report here on the blog is that Bob McKay, of the School of English, agreed a month or so back now to join the TASH core team as the key link within the Arts Faculty. We're delighted to have Bob on board, not least because he is already heavily involved in a number of projects which have more or less direct application to TASH's aims.
Bob and I have started working on small but concrete examples of how the TASH resource might frame student engagements with particular areas of the resource and, via different forms of feedback, be signposted out the other side to specific resources addressing different skills sets in more depth. We hope to have one or two preliminary examples ready for virtual comment by the end of the month.

Welcome, Bob ... and if you wanted someone with the Arts brief to pester, Bob's your man!

Group work presentation materials - Hispanic Studies

Tim and I had a very helpful meeting with David Wood today in the mid-riff of the Arts Tower (a geographical first for me). David has worked with CILASS to develop a range of resources to support his students with the preparation and delivery of group work presentations - you can read more here and download supporting resources too.

The approach David has taken closely mirrors some of our own thinking about possible ways of introducing students to the challenges involved with presentations of this sort - and what makes a good presentation or not (e.g. by providing short video clips of better and worse examples of presentations for students to assess using suggested criteria ... and compare with "model" examples of feedback on each).

We are hopeful that we will be able to draw directly upon his and his colleagues' experience of developing and embedding this material when we create the TASH sections on presentation skills. Regardless, we now know that a really useful body of materials already exist in Hispanic Studies to signpost out to from the hub. Our thanks to David for taking the time to share his experience with us.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Patchworks and frameworks: core team meeting

The TASH core team has met to catch up, exchange progress reports, and work out where we're going next; and it's all looking pretty positive. The biggest piece of news is that we've decided to cancel the October 31st meeting, although aim to have all the documents and ideas ready for that date, and release them through our ever-evolving website. The thinking is if we're going to do mostly front-led update stuff, we might as well save everyone's time, and do it virtually, rather than ask people to give up a couple of hours at a busy time of year. So, if it has been in your diary, thank you; and feel free to reclaim it for catching up with blogs / talking to colleagues / going fishing, or whatever.

It was really nice for everyone to get together and find out what's been going on. And it's a lot - Steve has been beavering away at the technical side, and exploring the best ways for our core team (growing like topsy) to communicate with one another; and his LeTS colleague, Louise, has been sorting out the finances, the website, and generally keeping us all pulling in the same direction. Chris has been talking with the Medical faculty, and organising a meeting where we can all sit round the same table to discuss TASH; and Jen and Linda have carried on their ferreting out of resources from Engineers, and putting them into some kind of coherent framework. Kath's been talking to the Science faculty and working on the design and feel of the site - her rather natty metaphor today was about a patchwork resource, stitching together disparate sources into something coherent, structured, and with little somethings for everyone. And Willy and myself haven't, contrary to appearances, just been scratching ourselves and drafting gargantuan emails; we've been organising focus groups, thinking about what we want in the resource, and working out how to do it. We've now divided up the different tasks going forward, and it's hoped by the end of October we'll have an outline map of the resource, some more concrete ideas about design, and maybe even some examples of how it might all work to publicise via the website. More details about events as they unfold will be posted here, and we'll carry on with this more public side of the conversation and debate throughout the project's lifespan.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

The Union's View

Rebecca Watson

Education Officer, Union of Students

One common goal that the Union and the University are working towards is making students conscious of academic skills. When a student enters University, the learning and teaching resources available to them are infinite: the problem is knowing the channels to access them and using them appropriately.

However, these academic skills are not extrapolated from books, or monotonous sheets of paper. Many academic skills are intangible; students acquire them when they are put into the appropriate environments, stimulated by ideas and tasks. These ideas are catalysts to student learning.

This is why TASH is a much needed navigational and promotional tool for those learning resources both for students and staff. It gives students an opportunity to identify with themselves what they need in their learning environment and more importantly how they get there. It will also appropriately disseminate the material in an accessible format, ensuring that as many students as possible receive it.

Furthermore, one of TASH's greatest assets is that it is tool open to any student of any year of study. There is a common consensus that first years are the only group of students that need to be guided along the learning journey but there is in fact a growing recognition of the need to develop academic skills at many different levels of study.

University Projects are expanding and developing all the time and therefore can benefit students at whatever stage they are in their academic development paths. TASH provides that accessibility – identifying paths for all levels of academic study. In addition, TASH will provide an interface for all existing university projects such as ELTC, MASH, Dyslexia Support, and Library Information Literacy tutorials, bringing together a wealth of learning resources 'under one roof'.

We are delighted as the student's union, to see that TASH is keen to involve students before its launch – putting a large emphasis on student contribution, participation and interestingly, student leadership in the project. This will ensure that the project stays up to date, student focused, and meeting the needs of all students. I urge you to forward your examples of best practice, which can be used institution wide and improve the learning experiences of all students.