The first day of the PCTHE

We must have been given the worst teaching room in the University (Gibbs 2.15). It was on the edge of a building site with fork lifts reversing all morning. The room was the only unrefurbished one on this floor of the building. The seating was really poor quality: ripped seats, gum on the floor. There was no wireless coverage or 3G in the room (some might consider this a positive feature?). Roy is looking into finding a different room for Wednesday.

But that was not the whole story. The participants were a buzzy group: very little evidence of reluctant participation and a real willingness to talk with each other.

Frances showed Mike Wesch’s excellent video, A vision of students today. This stimulated discussion: what are we preparing learners for? This opened up a discussion of transferable outcomes or “graduate competencies”: team working, communication, academic literacy and so on. Frances also referred to John Biggs, one of the theorists that we draw on. Biggs characterised the “academic” and the “non-academic” learner (deep and surface) and advocated constructive alignment as a means of creating or inducing the behaviours of the more academic student in the less academically inclined. Our challenge is as much how to involve less academic learners as it is to stimulate and challenge the more academically inclined. This reminds me of a discussion I recently had with a participant on a previous cohort whose background was from an ancient university in another country. Her observation was that Brookes students, compared to those she was used to, were less well motivated. I am cautious of such generalisations, but I do expect that we experience much greater diversity in all dimensions of learner difference here than in some other places; but, I also expect there are places where the diversity is even greater. This is a factor of British Higher education policy over the past 15 years or so. The great benefits of widening participation are matched with new challenges for teachers.

The VLE introduction session took place in a brand new pooled computer room. The room was locked when I arrived 15 minutes early to get set up. There was no projector. It appeared as if the computers had never been turned on. All took 15 minutes to boot while building the registry, updating applications and so on. at least five computers would not run at all. At least five others would not launch applications from the desktop – though they did run from the “Start menu”. These are the things sent to try us. But again, the participants this year are a very tolerant group. They coped probably better than me!

I wonder, indeed, if this is the last time we need to run this session in this way? Each year I observe that the participants are more and more computer literate. At least half the problems, if not more, were due to the Brookes LAN and the pooled room: the computers not booting correctly and logging into the Brookes network caused more difficulty than interacting with the applications. Even people who had never used the VLE were able to find their way around and use the forums. Categorically, only the use of the Wiki was problematic, and some of those problems were only down to the fact that not only our group of 30 people were accessing. Greg observed that at the same time across the university over 500 people were engaged in similarĀ  sessions. The load will be balanced by next week. Though the Wiki was a challenge for some to use, we probably picked the worst time and the worst place and the worst way to address the challenges.

Course Leader’s Blog

As we get ready for the academic year 2010-11, I am preparing our Post Graduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education.

This involves: updating the Handbook for this instance of the course for the last time. We will be revalidating a new PCTHE for 2011-12; updating the VLE (Brookes Virtual/Blackboard) and Wiki (Confluence).

There are a lot of new features on the VLE, particularly Voice Tools and related Wimba applications. I hope to start using these “for real” this year.

I am also resolving to keep a Course Leader’s blog here in my BrookesBlog site. A. J. Cann at University of Leicester has written a piece on “Why blog” ( on his excellent (for biologists) Microbiologybytes site. What he said …

I have to confess that I have become something of an on-line learning luddite. Fifteen years ago I was something of an Internet pioneer, developing Web-based support sites for professional development modules as part of a postgraduate certificate in in the management of the international energy industry. I did my MA in education by distance learning and wrote my PhD on community information technology centres. I am active in the social networking world (my Google Profile is here:

So, what gives? I feel an almost visceral antipathy to virtual learning environments (VLEs). OK, I know they are only sets of tools. James Clay keeps a wonderful blog on the virtues of using VLEs ( When Blackboard bought WebCT, the predecessor to the current BrookesVirtual, I wrote a few pieces on the political-economic implications as I saw them at the time (e.g. here: But, I don’t just feel an antipathy only to Blackboard. Moodle for all its open-source loveliness doesn’t do it for me any more, either.

I used to love VLEs. But as we all know, when you fall out of love it is really hard to re-ignite the flame. So, maybe me and the VLE need a little relationship counselling. I promise to listen more and sulk less, focus on the strengths and “accentuate the positive”. Maybe that is a lesson for my life in general!


Personal learning environments (PLEs), please

The term PLE is going to come into its own in 2009, because of the prominence of the digital literacy/academic literacy and lifelong learning debates. There has been much discussion of PLEs over the past four or five years (yes, that long). I was led to this reflection by Graham Attwell’s post, How my Personal Learning Environment is Changing.

Continue reading “Personal learning environments (PLEs), please”