Author Archives: Brian Irwin

Approaches to staff development

By Brian Irwin

Swansea HDR by matthewgriff (EmmGee) on Flickr

Swansea HDR by matthewgriff (EmmGee) on Flickr

I recently attended the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference in Swansea. One thing that I paid special attention to at the conference was the approaches to staff development in e-learning used at other institutions.

The University of Twente was migrating from one virtual learning environment (VLE) to Blackboard, and they wanted a staff development programme which would give lots of personal attention for academics and help them master the necessary skills. The solution they had was to employ part-time a group of 20+ students to meet individually with academics. These students taught them how to use the new software and helped them migrate content from the old VLE to the new one. This proved an effective strategy for their migration, but they had only 400 staff members that needed this level of support. This suggests there might be problems with scaling this approach to a larger university such as Sheffield Hallam. In addition the professional development tended to focus on technical matters. While this is important as a first step, advice on using the technology for effective teaching is probably beyond the natural intuition of most student employees.

The University of Alberta faced the challenge of low attendance at staff development events around e-learning. They tried many approaches to making them more attractive and convenient such as making sessions shorter and providing online resources. However, they decided to experiment recently with the opposite approach – making it a bigger commitment. By running an ‘e-learning academy’ for a week in the summer, with a required commitment to participate all week, they were able to get. Activities in the academy allowed staff to apply conceptual frameworks for e-learning to their own practice, then experiment hands-on with the tools in a supported environment towards the end of the week. Having this larger commitment which you got more out of was appealing to many staff, and they filled up all the places they offered. This sounds an interesting prospect, but I wonder about how transferable it is away from North America. In North American universities lecturers finish teaching responsibilities much earlier and as a result have more free time in the summer. Many actually aren’t employed officially all summer. In the UK there is a smaller period where staff have few scheduled responsibilities, and many will take annual leave during that time. However, there is a possibility worth exploring around a part-online academy concept to offer flexibility for staff members if they cannot commit to a whole week worth of staff development.

Another approach was taken by the Southwest Wales Partnership, which included three institutions. Each institution has only one or two staff members supporting e-learning. So they have a partnership and share some of their staff development programmes across the staff at all three institutions. At Sheffield Hallam the faculties employ their own staff to support e-learning. If they work together it could extend the opportunities for our staff beyond the resources of each faculty, but there are issues around cost and equity which would need to be resolved.

In the Southwest Wales Partnership the e-learning staff joined-up activities were paid for from a central fund rather than by each institution. One final approach that was highlighted was at Aberystwyth University. They have been pulling together case studies of various uses of e-learning. They are available at The case studies they have are in different formats, but we have been working on creating case studies with a consistent level of information. I’m not sure which is best, as it is probably quicker to get inconsistent case studies, but there is a question of if they provide all the information needed when inconsistent.

So this raises the question of if we should try any of these approaches or other new ones inspired by these at Hallam.


Encouraging innovation

By Brian Irwin, Academic Innovation

Recently I came across this article about innovation on CNN –

Though it focuses on business innovators and inventors, it made me think what can we take away from it and apply to our context in terms of innovation in teaching and learning practices.

Firstly it talks about innovators putting things together in new and different ways that other people have not thought about.  However, it strikes me that innovation in teaching practice is a much more personal and practical thing in terms of context.  For instance, if you do something that you have never done before but lots of other people have done, then that is still innovation for you.  I don’t think it should be every teacher’s goal to do things that no one has ever tried before, but instead to try things that make sense for their situation.

Later it says that innovators think outside the box and try to challenge themselves by learning new things from outside their area.  This seems counter to some beliefs that teaching ideas should be tailored to the specific needs of a subject group or course team.  Ideas that are tailored might receive the warmest welcome from a group, but other ideas which are from completely different areas might help spark creativity more.

Next in the article it discusses the idea that creativity is learned – if you practice being creative, you will be more creative.  How often do many of us do the sorts of activities they recommend, like writing lots of different questions about a particular problem over time to get the best questions about it?  This is something I am going to try soon.

Finally the article talks about the need for talking to different people outside of your usual circle.  They are the most likely people to help inspire new ideas as they may be doing different things or have another way of looking at problems.  This should help remind us that during events and workshops we need to encourage cross-fertilisation between areas instead of just focusing on one department or faculty.  Of course, there is a need for balance in the types of engagement that are held in order to help encourage relevance and participation.  It also highlights the need for discussion as part of whatever we do – encouraging folks to talk together and share ideas rather than having a one-to-many type of dissemination model.

I’d welcome others’ thoughts on how we can encourage this type of creative and innovative approach to working.

Flexibility in Assessment Design

By Brian Irwin, Academic Innovation

At a conference I attended earlier this year there was some discussion, led by Cath Ellis and Sue Foley from Huddersfield, around the concept of flexibility in the assessment process.  I thought this was an interesting discussion and worth contributing some thoughts about it to this wider forum.  There were five main parts of the process identified where flexibility could be integrated: topic, format, criteria, timescale and result.

With topic, students are given flexibility in terms of what the assessment content is. Topic is the part of the assessment process where the most flexibility exists in actual practice.  Students are often given a choice of topics for their assessments.  In some cases the topic can be anything relevant that the student wants, provided it is discussed with the tutor.

Flexibility in format is about allowing students to create their work in various styles or mediums.  For instance, students might have the choice between writing an essay or doing a practical report.  Format also includes whether something is a written piece, a web page or a video.  Students might have a choice of set tasks where they can choose which they prefer, or more open-ended flexibility could be given.  In a more open-ended situation, students could choose whatever format they preferred, provided they could satisfy the assessment criteria with them.  Flexibility in format provides the advantage of allowing students to choose the format that will best allow them to demonstrate their learning.  In the case of students with disabilities, such as dyslexia, studies have shown that a single format such as a fixed exam or essay can disadvantage them, despite having additional time.

Some lecturers have allowed students to negotiate assessment criteria for their own assessments, or at least specify some of them.  Engaging students in shaping assessment criteria has been suggested in the literature as a way of encouraging understanding of criteria, an area students often have trouble with.  Through engagement with construction of criteria, students can learn more about tutor-constructed criteria and how to meet them.  Many tutors may find adding flexibility to the process of setting assessment criteria challenging, as the setting of assessment criteria is normally part of the tutor’s role as assessor.

Typically assessments have set deadlines, with little flexibility around hand-in dates or timescales for completing work.  The exception to this is where extenuating circumstances arise, or where additional time is granted due to a learning contract. However this raises the question of why deadlines are necessary in the assessment process.  There is a general recognition that people do not all learn in the same way nor at the same speed for everything.  If our students are learning, is it important that they are learning within a specific time constraint?  One option besides having completely open hand-in dates, which could cause issues around scheduling marking time for tutors, is to have multiple hand-in dates which students can choose from.  Flexibility in timelines allows students to learn at their own pace, and encourages them to take responsibility for planning their own learning and assessments.  Problems where students face assessment overload at the end of a semester could be avoided, as students could schedule their assessments in a timeline that makes sense for their lives.

Lastly, there is an opportunity for increased flexibility in negotiating assessment results.  Peer and self assessment are already used at the University as a way to encourage students to engage with the assessment process and come to a better understanding of what is a good standard of work.  This process of getting students to engage with criteria can be extended to encouraging students to negotiate the result of their assessment.  If students can find evidence of how they met specific criteria to show to the lecturer, then grades could be reconsidered.  At the very least those students who engage in the process will have examined the criteria and reviewed their work in detail, which should help them learn for future assessments.

Technology has a role to play in the above processes and in providing the flexibility to do them.  For instance, flexibility in timescales could be facilitated by students specifying when they want to hand-in work, and electronic submission allows them to do so even if the university is shut.  Flexibility in selecting the assessment format would be much more difficult without recent technologies: imagine the effort and equipment needed to view a video cassette of student work compared to if that video is available online.  Electronic tools could also be used to facilitate the process of determining criteria and negotiating the results.

Flexibility in format is something Stuart Hepplestone and I are exploring in more depth in a paper. From my perspective this is the least challenging type of flexibility, in terms of challenging the traditional power model of tutor-student in the assessment process.  Adding flexibility to timescales present a challenge to the student lifespan and how we think about engagement in formal education.  Setting criteria and determining results flexibly is a challenge to the traditional roles of staff and students in the assessment process.  Students themselves may not be initially responsive to this type of flexibility.  In my personal experience as a student, when offered the chance to set my own additional criteria, I have not done so.  However, format flexibility is less of a challenge to this model as it (similarly to having flexibility in topic choice) involves changing student practice at the time of creating the assessment, which is already seen as the student’s role in the assessment process.  In this way format and topic flexibility can be seen as starting points for developing additional flexibility into the assessment process, as they do not challenge the power structures of assessment.

Of course there are concerns which should be addressed around adding flexibility in these ways.  For instance, is it acceptable for a student to leave University never having written a paper, but just having made videos for their assessments?  I’ll leave the concerns to be dealt with more fully elsewhere, but I think it is important to consider balance in assessments.  The true goal of increasing flexibility is really about increasing student engagement and power in the assessment process, which should help ensure the type of ideal, engaged learners we strive for.