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.

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