06 August 2009

On Coffield's latest

Frank Coffield has done it again. All you ever wanted to know about learning and teaching but were too cool to ask is a counterpart to Just Suppose Teaching and Learning became the First Priority. As before it is available as a free download from Learning and Skills Network Publications. While the former pamphlet was addressed to college managers, this one is aimed at actual students, and based on conversations with a range of them on courses in further education.

It's arrived too late to go into the essential reading section of our course handbook, but we shall plug it hard.

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23 June 2009

On implicit values

There is no better opportunity than the enforced leisure of a ten-hour wait in an airport to reflect on the conference we (two collaborators and I) have just attended.

The theme of this year's STLHE conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick was "Between the Tides"; quite appropriate considering that it took place not far (by Canadian standards) from the Bay of Fundy, home to the "highest tides in the world" according to its website. So it looked at negotiating the countervailing influences and pressures to which higher education--particularly in Canada--is subject.

Generally speaking conference "themes" are meaningless. They are cast so widely and blandly as to say nothing which might possibly discourage any attendance or any papers, so they say nothing at all. This one was different, and was structured around four dilemmas, explored principally of course in the Canadian context, but of much wider applicability.

They were;

  • disciplinary education vs. liberal education

  • physical environment vs. virtual environment

  • curricular learning vs. extra-curricular learning

  • institutional/professional autonomy vs. public accountability

I'm not going to go into them directly, but simply to point out that once you start exploring constructs such as these it almost inevitably leads back to the values implicit in them (cf. the "laddering" method in personal construct theory), and the theme of making explicit what is already implicit--so that it can be explored and debated--cropped up time and again in the papers I attended.

It was even there in our own, on "Safe teaching, risky learning?" in which we encouraged participants (it is the tradition to be quite participatory) to explore risk-taking in teaching, in a risk-averse "quality"-obsessed HE culture. (It is even worse in FE.)

What was encouraging was the extent to which such discourses and debates were readily accepted by the conference membership. The hegemony of utilitarian and neo-liberal discourse is being challenged; at least in Canada, at the chalk-face. ("PowerPoint" [blah] -face does not have quite the same ring...)

But what was challenging was to realise that what I had thought of as my stock-in-trade for many years, having grown old teaching social work, is now being being taken up and explored in many more disciplines, via many more frameworks. Instead of people wanting to impose an ethical or political framework on what are seen as basically technical issues such as curriculum design and the adoption of models of learning or even of student attributes---instead of that, there is a new recognition that those issues were never merely technical. They always contained (in several senses) implicit values, and perhaps the choice of technical means ought to follow the value-based ends?

What are these values? What are the frameworks? Hey, work out some answers. There are lots of potential ones!

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25 May 2009

On re-launching the sites part 1

It's the big finale, folks!

The funding runs out at the end of this academic year, and so I have embarked on a real root-and-branch up-date of the sites, so I don't have as much to do when no-one is paying. I think I have dealt with the "learning" site, and I have up-loaded it back to the server in the last few minutes. I'm sure I have missed something; in that case please let me know.

I'll start on the "teaching" side in a day or two (given that I do have something which passes for a life, besides this). That site is bigger but less complicated. And then I'll move on to "Doceo", which has had a partial re-vamp already.

And of course I shall carry on without external funding (and my gratitude to the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme of the Higher Education Academy for supporting this for the last five years--it was not meant to go on so long, but they have been really supportive and understanding), although I may have to resort to carrying Adsence or similar. Hey, don't let Susi know, but I can probably afford it in any case---and she might even contribute to keep me out form under her feet...

I'll notify the next stages via the blog, too.

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15 May 2009

On disputing "constructive alignment"

An interesting discussion of the limitations of Biggs' "constructive alignment" model for university teaching—which is referenced and outlined in the post. Briefly, Jones suggests that it leads to big top-down quality enhancement/staff development initiatives which just do not work. He proposes a more modest encouragement of "reflective alignment" which in effect says that if university teachers will just think more about what they are doing, they will not be able to resist improving it. This is in line with the Strivens article I have often drawn attention to.

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29 January 2009

On-line learning (1)

My apologies for the heading! I somehow fell into the pattern of prefacing all the post titles with "on" from the very start...

I posted a link a week ago about a Canadian professor of tourism about to embark on his his first e-learning course as an instructor. Well, I'm doing the same thing as a student; I have previously designed, written and run two quite different blended learning modules through several iterations, but I have never before been at the "receiving" (if that is the right metaphor) end of such a course.

The heading links to the course description, and since one of the requirements is to keep a reflective journal or blog (surprise!), I thought a bit about whether to create a blog solely for the purpose or to use this existing one. There is of course the danger that I will simply bore stiff those of you who for whatever reason read this in the real world, and those of you kind enough to sunscribe via RSS may well not be pleased to have esoteric ramblings pushed at you... On the other hand, the knowledge that I am not writing purely for myself or to be read only by "insiders" should impose some constraint on my self-indulgent ramblings. I promise not to post too frequently.

On the other hand... This blog's "manifesto" (pardon the grandiosity) is about modelling reflection, or at least producing samples of it for illustration or critique, so I have to share my thoughts to live up to that.

For those of you less interested in this, I'll keep to the same heading for related posts with updated index numbers and possibly sub-heads.

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06 January 2009

On "brain-based" education

Not only is this a beautifully clear exposition and an exemplary simple video, it is also an important corrective to a lot of rubbish!

And, of course, see this one about "learning styles" (which just happens to coincide with my own view here!) Willingham's site also has a lot of material well worth reading.

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27 March 2008

On books and blogs (roughly)

You may have noticed that the blog has had a re-design. Frankly, I managed to break the previous template with a tweak too far, so I had to choose another but then I couldn't resist messing with it a bit...

So, being self-referential, that coincides with a message from a correspondent enquiring whether I have written or am going to write, the book of the site. I get such emails every other week or so, which is gratifying, but I usually respond very briefly; "No!" or words to that effect. Perhaps because I have been working on (grandiose term! I have been messing about with...) the re-design, on this occasion I decided to explain myself a little. And the more I got into it, the more interesting the issue became. (And of course, now I have a ready-made explanation to refer other correspondents to in future.)
I hear [an author my correspondent mentioned rather unflatteringly] is doing well out of his books and his consultancy; good for him and others (some of them friends of mine) in the same business. But in business terms his "offering" is really rather different from mine. People pay up-front for his expertise. Either they buy books (or more likely, libraries buy books), or they engage him for staff development sessions and pay for it. They do this because they have reasonable expectations of the quality of what he will offer, and he doubtless takes considerable care to deliver to meet those expectations. It's a traditional model, and it does tend to lead to slightly staid and conventional material.

The web is an entirely different medium; it is far more casual. People only have to click on a link to come to my site, and they can leave just as easily. They can glance at a page for six seconds (I read that somewhere, but this is not a topic I reference punctiliously); if it is not what they are looking for they can move on at no cost.

I get over a million unique visitors a year (as you may know, web hosting companies provide incredibly detailed statistics). But over a quarter of those visitors (28% at the latest count) only look at one page; presumably they then decide it is not for them and they move on. I get appreciative notes from people like you who stick around—and many thanks for them—but all I know about the others is that they did not stick around, because visiting a web-page is not like picking up (still less, buying) a book.

And for me that means that I can mess about a bit. I'm not constrained by much of a contract with the reader, and certainly no financial one. I can do my "heterodoxy" stuff, without taking it too seriously; see http://www.doceo.co.uk/heterodoxy/index.htm I can crack jokes, and if some people don't like them and move on, that is no big deal. I can take risks.

I could of course even misrepresent ideas and be sloppy or biassed or unfair about the material, and that is the risk you as a reader take if you decide to trust me. Even Wikipedia is monitored by editors; personal sites aren't. There is no peer review process, and no quality assurance mechanisms. (Actually, I did take the first steps to setting up an "advisory committee" in 2005. Several of the people I approached pointed out it was a bad idea—the Unique Selling Point of the "brand" was my distinctive voice. Of course they may just have been trying to get out of serving on it...) Certainly, no-one should trust just my site.

There is also another, quite different reason for choosing this medium. It is what accounts for its appearance in the first place: and although books can manage it quite well, readers rarely make use of the facility;

Hyperlinks, and non-linear reading. About half of the present material on the "learning" side of the site started life in the form of handouts in the mid-90s. I used to give handouts to support lectures. But they were only about one topic—the topic of the lecture. And it frustrated me that my students, even Master's level students, were not making the connections between the topics. They were not fitting individual ideas into a coherent (or even incoherent—even better) whole. I was impressed by how the "Help" files of various packages used hyperlinks to help create such connections, and I found a package which would build such .hlp files from word-processor files. So I distributed these things on floppy discs... Eventually, web access came along and I put them up there. (Fortunately before VLEs, or the whole thing might have got stuck in that dead-end, but that's another story...) But the hyperlink is critical; it enables readers to construct their own mental image of the topic, rather than being dragged along by an author.
That's the rationale behind the web-sites. The blog is different again.

The point, in terms of teaching? We use many media, and often treat them as interchangeable. They're not. Often the differences don't matter much, but sometimes they do, and they go quite deep.

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