Reflection in action: professional development study visits

How close to the moment can you get? “Be here now,”  urges 1960s psychologist Richard Alpert. A mythical Google aspires to a perfect concurrent rendering of this reality: in real-time, in software. How much rewinding can we do before anyone notices the pause for thought? Reflection in action often has the effect of: “Oops! Don’t do that again.” Have we all heard ourselves tell ourselves, “Don’t say that,” and then hear ourselves say it? The warning reverberates like a slow bell buoy. It fades until the next wave makes a ding! Good learning is sometimes referred to as “authentic”. What is this but being “in the moment”?

I have been invited to “Listen to and comment on” a number of presentations this morning. These presentations will be made by participants on a study tour for Chinese academics and higher education professional and student-support services staff.

I received the invitation yesterday morning in a hotel dining room in Cardiff, shortly before co-facilitating a workshop for newer academic staff at the University of Cardiff, who may be new to teaching and leading study modules.

So this is a note to myself, in the moment between. My colleagues at OCSLD and I use a phenomenographic approach to analysing learning events and the work of those who lead, teach or otherwise facilitate learning in higher education. Try to distinguish between event and judgement. There is data. And, there is analysis.

I have engaged with four one or two-day events organised by Oxford Prospects Programmes. Two events were for about 50 “senior academics” (n=100) from a number of Chinese Universities. One event was for about 45 professional and student-support services staff. One event was a symposium on “Education and Social Governance” jointly organised by Beijing Normal University and the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. At the symposium, academics from both institutions, eminent local government officers and representatives of the British Embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in London addressed contemporary socio-economic impacts of higher education and the role of education in social governance issues such as rural depopulation, industrial development and teacher education.

I am seeing these events all through a professional development eye as an authentic opportunity to consider where a globalising academy sees itself going next.

Beginning of term

Shamanic meso-american woman playing the earth as a computer keyboardSystems or people? We can model learning in order to develop ways for our machines to acquire, store, process and apply data: information gathered from the world around. Although I put it as a vague question of preference at the start of this essay, it has many ramifications. Are people not just quite complex systems? And is complexity simply a diversion? Is it not a more simple question? Where are the boundaries and limits?

I ask this at the beginning of term because this is hurricane season for university administration people and systems in general, and has been in particular for my university at this moment. We are building a new student record system. Well, we are acquiring, localising and implementing a student record system consisting of many new – and large – components. And, it is the system we use to manage relationships.

Which means, for the moment at least, we need to manage relationships in a different way: through people not systems. Or at least we have – for the moment – to act as though people are different to systems. Or, maybe that systems are people?

One thing we do know about people is that they feel things when they are under stress. They feel things like anger, anxiety and fear. Can I repeat that, please, using “I-statements”? I feel angry, anxious and fearful when I am under stress. While I want to be careful about projecting those feelings onto colleagues, I also want to attend to others with empathy for the possibility that they might also be angry, anxious and fearful.

One notebook warning

One notebook

One notebook

I write. Not as much or as well as I should. But I write. Two very broad forms interest me: poetry and philosophy of learning, knowledge, theory. What is true and good?

Do these concepts mean anything? I believe they do. My job, and much of this writing, here, has to do with trying to explain – to myself as much or more than anyone else – what it means to learn and do “well”, that which is “right to do”: Plato, Aristotle, Chuang Tzu, Lucretius, Karl Marx, Julia Kristeva, Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Bob Dylan, Paul Eluard, Alain Badiou, Bob Marley, Slavoj Žižek and Mikey Smith mashed up.

Žižek, late in this monologue, says the real artist does not add, but takes away.

I used to keep a separate notebook for work and a different one for poetry. I took it away  one and a half notebooks ago.

I am adopting that principle here in this blog. Over the next few weeks I will be on a rescue mission to a few old websites.

And the warning? You might come across some poems. You might come across some philosophy. You might come across some teaching. My honest intention is to make connections. To converse. It is all dialogue. And, a story.

How much of what kind of assessment?

Chris Rust and Mandy Jack initiated an exchange about assessment volume, kind and equivalence on the SEDA maillist.
Hours are most easily countable (and even that is not easy). There are also the number of assessment points and the “weight” given to each assessed point. Chris asserted that:
the only meaningful comparison is student hours and providing the total identified learning hours for the module (including the assessment activities) aren’t over 10 per unit credit there’s no problem.
I asked for clarification on the “total identified learning hours” per unit credit.
This is a slight diversion, but the question of equivalence is becoming increasingly important. So, too, is the question of “challenge”.
Toetenel and Rienties (2016) analysed 157 Open University course designs by all levels and activity types. Assessment (as designed or intended by those course teams) hovered around 25% of the time for all 3 UG “levels” and about 21% for PG. I do not know how much time the students actually did put in to each activity. Galvez-Bravo (2016), “… found that modules with more assessments had higher feedback (module appraisal) marks.” Simpson et al (2019) in a UK/US comparison found more assessment (both in number of assessment points and total volume) led to higher grades.
So a should a 15 credit course (150 hours) be expected (or designed) to have about 30-40 hours of assessment arranged over between one and as many as eight points in a semester? Two to four assessed tasks of 10-20 hours each? Where “exam revision” counts towards the total assessment load (two or three hours of exam and 10 hours of cramming the day before)?

Backpacks, badges and epistemology: an interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after

Grant (2014) asks in the title to her book about digital badges, “What Counts as Learning?” This succinctly expresses the question of higher education and explains the continuing interest in badges, and in learning technologies in general. The fact this is less explored, gives me an opportunity to explore both learning technology and epistemology.

I have developed a new MA Education course module, “Philosophy and policy of higher education”. In this 20 credit level 7 module the question: “What counts as learning?” will be explored. That is the seductive game higher education plays: a chance at determining or being among the determiners of meaning – what counts as learning – for a generation or so. To extend the “play” metaphor to a stage on which higher education acts, higher education as an institution and its practitioners as individuals seek to occupy the limen, the space on the edge between consensual suspension of belief in order to “live the dream”, and the world as it is, explained. More critically for those in the game it poses the question about one’s own underpinnings, one own “will to power”, or academic identity or even life.

Badges are something like brand propositions and to some extent depend on other similar propositions. Like many brand propositions their link to truth is explicitly unattested. The badge can only serve as a conversation starter. Like travel badges on a backpack seen on an overnight Eurail while sleeping in the vestibule: “So when did you go to Sweden?” Most universities have a t-shirt and sports kit with a name and often a crest or logo. Some might serve the question: “Were you at Malmo?” To which an answer might be “No, it is a good hoodie.” But could also be, “Yes, for ice-hockey in 2009.”

Possibly the internet will work like the cold vestibule of a Eurail under an ex army coat, and when we see badges on a site we may start that interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after: life, love, career, changing the world? Or same as it ever was. That conversation about changing the world? Because as it is now, the foundations of meaning sometimes appear both unsound and cruel, not just one or the other.


Grant, Sheryl. 2014. What Counts as Learning: Open Badges for New Opportunities. Kindle. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Academic multimedia is where TEL becomes real

Plates by condesign (cc0)
Plates by condesign (cc0)

Learning technologies and technology enhanced learning are not quite the same thing. The position and semantic force of the words is different. Learning as adjective and learning as noun; technology as nominal object and technology as agent of change: learning enhanced by technology.

There is a greater degree of abstraction in TEL, somewhat more particularity in learning technology, especially when pluralised as learning technologies.

Learning technologies are things: tools, software, applications like Moodle and GradeMark or in older days Authorware.

Technology is all these things and more. Continue reading “Academic multimedia is where TEL becomes real”

FSLT16 Week 1

Week one has flown by like a simile. There are 58 participants on the course of whom 22 are doing the module for academic credit (10 credits, level 7) towards a PG Cert in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (PCTHE). Sixteen (16) of the assessed participants are from Brookes and six are from other places. So far 20 people have claimed the “Scholar” badge for contributing to the collaborative annotated bibliography. The most distant participant is in Central America, but this year the participants are largely based in the UK.

I am not sure what these numbers tell us. In many ways FSLT is now quite an “ordinary” online course. That doesn’t mean it isn’t engaging. It might mean the mooc buzz, such as it was five years ago has vanished into the maw of Coursera and Future Learn.  FSLT justifies itself because of the internal members of staff who take it as part of their mandatory PCTHE. We used to run our introductory module twice a year, once in each semester. No we run “Learning and Teaching in Higher Education” (P70405) face to face in the first semester and offer people the opportunity of taking 20 credits online in the second semester. Opening the course up to the world for free allows us to widen our audience and expose ourselves to a wider community of teachers in the expanding tertiary education sector. That is, as well as being good for what it teaches, it should be beneficial to our teachers because of the wider community they might meet. And for those from beyond Brookes, we trust it isn’t too bound up with local jargon.

FSLT16 Kicking off

It has been a lot of work this year getting FSLT ready to go. Partly this is because as ever, I start too late. We also pulled the starting date forward from last year by two weeks so not only am I late the course is early. There were several reasons to do this, but mainly we hoped to be able to engage with teachers before (most of) their own teaching started.

But the main reason for the load of work was because the course had become over complicated and a lot of the internal links had broken or degraded. It needed a lot of patching up and this led me to do a root and branch overhaul. We have simplified the assessment scheme, tidied up the activities and are rebuilding the resources. We hope to stay at least a week ahead of the timetable! It is still not perfect, but it is a lot better than it was (in my eyes).

I hope you who are participating agree.

FSLT16 Joining Instructions

First Steps into Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (#fslt16)
20 January – 26 February 2016

Hello all

Thank you for your interest in First Steps into Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (#fslt16). Welcome to the course.

These “Joining instructions” should help you to get started. Continue reading “FSLT16 Joining Instructions”

Countdown to FSLT16: Crazy fun grown up?

There have been and still are some challenges in getting FSLT16 ready to run. The course has grown in complexity since it was first run in early 2012. I have spent a lot of time trying to recover some of the earlier simplicity. Continue reading “Countdown to FSLT16: Crazy fun grown up?”