Our digital scholarship

By Andrew Middleton, Academic Innovation
Academic Innovation here at Sheffield Hallam is a team of nine people currently. Innovation is a subjective term: for many of us our job has not just been about horizon scanning for new and emerging technologies, but about living, working and learning with them. This has provided us with an immersive way of evaluating their potential to learning and teaching.
I decided it would be interesting to ask my colleagues, at the turn of the decade, to look back five years and reflect on how emerging technologies have changed the way they learn. Some of them are formally engaged as learners, or have been recently, whilst for most ‘learning’ is less formal, relating to working practice or leisure activities. I have decided to anonymise contributions so as not to embarrass anyone. Continue reading


Challenging the media curriculum

By Keith Radley
Keith is currently on a part-time secondment teaching Journalism

The 21st century continues to question new concepts and impose demands on the way higher education curricula is delivered. In 2001 Prensky wrote about how the needs of today’s student learner have radically changed, demanding more emphasis on the use of digital technology within the curriculum. Traditionally in media and journalism subjects, theory takes priority over practice, with the view that theory plays a fundamental role in underpinning the learning. However, in the developing world of digital communication for students to be successful in their future chosen subjects, as well as understanding the related theories, they must be able to master the technologies that enable the creation and publishing of digital formats. Continue reading

Learning about learning

Categorisation of survey responses

At an Ideas Exchange event on 25th Nov 09 in the Health and Wellbeing (HWB) Faculty, the Creative Development Team conducted an informal survey. We asked staff and students at the event to identify a memorably successful learning (or teaching) experience, and tell us why it was valuable. Continue reading

Encouraging innovation

By Brian Irwin, Academic Innovation

Recently I came across this article about innovation on CNN – http://edition.cnn.com/2009/BUSINESS/11/26/innovation.tips/index.html

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.

Do we want sustainability in education?

‘The main problem is not knowing what to do, it is mustering the desire to do it.’
(Jonathon Rowe, 2000)

responsible coffeeSustainability seems to crop up everywhere these days: sustainability of student recruitment; sustainability in digital curation; sustainability of economic growth. As the UK flounders in recession, and universities consider job cuts, the idea of sustainability suddenly seems appealing. Indeed, irrespective of economic factors, there is arguably more need than ever to change society to a more sustainable footing, and education is beginning to shape up to the challenge. Although momentum towards ‘greening’ of campus infrastructure and processes is evident (e.g. Green League Table and Transition Universities), progress towards embedding sustainability in the Higher Education (HE) curriculum and learning experience remains patchy and contentious. See for example, the article entitled Keep the green moral agenda off campus. I’ll return to Butcher’s opinions at various points, but first I’ll introduce some of the concepts and consider some of the factors affecting staff attitudes across the board. I’ll begin with myself though: Continue reading

Creating opportunities for professional development – a collaborative act [Part 1]

By Helen Rodger, Academic Innovation

Putting together tailored professional development opportunities for groups of staff is something I’ve been doing a fair bit of recently, and I’m expecting to be doing a lot more of in the future. Of late, they’ve fallen into two categories – the one that we’re looking at here involves a course pre-constructed around a particular theme, and modified to suit the needs of participants, it is then delivered collaboratively with faculty staff. The second involves working closely with a team (for example a subject group) to establish requirements and then collaborative construction of a bespoke course with the team and other appropriate specialists – I’ll cover that one in Part 2..

So back to the first: Over the last year I’ve run three instances of a four week course on Facilitating Online Learning – or in other words, using discussion boards effectively in learning & teaching.  The course is run completely online and is designed to model recommended practice, so that participants experience practice that may not be covered explicitly in the course, and hopefully will reflect this when running their own courses or modules. Participants are asked to engage with the course content – reading, discussion, activities – for three to four hours per week. The course ran once before this year and has evolved from an eight week course to one that feels more manageable for participants to engage with over time. Other smaller modifications occur as a result of feedback that we gather from participants – from the ways in which we communicate, materials covered, or the addition of a face to face session. While have always asked for participants to reflect on what they’ve gained from the course and how it has helped develop their practice, we’ve only recently offered a certificate of completion, and linked it to the Academic Standards Framework. Participants currently only need to make a considered reflection in order to pass and to have actively participated, there is no benchmarking of practice although this may be addressed in the future.

 In the last year, over 60 staff have registered for the three courses, with around 70% engaging to the level where we can say they have completed

That level of success on its own is pretty special and you could speculate that we just got lucky, or tapped into a real need – however when you add to the picture that all the staff are from one faculty; that attendance is for the most part voluntary, and there is a constant stream of interest, it starts to feel even more special. I think that this is largely down to the way we manage and deliver the course – and this is where the collaboration comes in:

 I work with David Eddy from Health and Wellbeing who has dual roles around LTA and Distance Learning. He advertises the course, partly through word of mouth and targeted emails, and gathers names; I set the course up, finalise content based on surveys of what the participants need and want to cover, and I handle the day to day running of the course. We both facilitate the discussion, while he keeps participants moving  with direct emails along the lines of “you’ve not been engaging, is everything ok?”. We jointly review the course and modify it for the next cohort. 

I’m not necessarily suggesting it’s the division of labour that makes it a success – however, it would probably have a very different dynamic if we didn’t work in together in this way, i.e. with the two different perspectives of faculty and central department. If I were to take on the role of advertising the opportunity may be seen as something different: unfamiliar, owned externally, centrally managed. Similarly, if I were to handle the pastoral side, the same things come into play- particularly in a voluntary course taking place over time. In short, I need David’s faculty position, experience and role, and he needs my neutrality, access to LTA specialists and practical input.

With current the absence of thorough evaluation I can’t say much more without it looking like conclusion jumping – but I do think this model is something we should be trying to replicate in other faculties and for other professional development courses. If you are interested in participating or helping to facilitate this course, or something similar in another faculty do let me know. The faculty link is crucial, the opportunity feels more viral than organised and seems to reach places that traditional models of delivery don’t.

 A final note – we’re hoping to get funding to thoroughly evaluate the impact of the course at faculty level later this year, so it would be good to squeeze in some analysis of the collaborative approach too.. perhaps there will be a Part 1 revisited in the not too distant future..

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.