Category Archives: Learning thoughts

Personal Tutoring Framework

For two years with my colleague Alicia Prowse at Manchester Metropolitan University we have been running a Office for Students (formerly Hefce) funded project to develop a cross institutional Personal Tutoring Framework.

We used Soft Systems Methodology as our theory of change and at the heart of the approach was a university wide conversation to find out about and agree the purpose of personal tutoring (PT) for students and staff.

Through finding out about personal tutoring, we discovered that our students were very adept at spotting an insincere offer – if it can not be resourced as personal, don’t pretend that it is!

When conceptualising PT, our framework suggest splitting it into designing the system of PT and the activity of PT across three domains of activity, the three C’s, coursecommunity and career

Pain, gain – mission.

The debate around measuring learning gain is gathering momentum internationally, and in the UK context is connected to the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework that is applied to higher education institutions to identify them as either bronze, silver or gold providers.  In this special issue of Higher Education Pedagogies, we  argue (Gossman, Powell and Neame) that before we start to apply complicated measurements of learning gain,  we first need to identify the educational purpose of a particular institution as it is this that should determine the nature of the learning to be measured.

Pain, gain – mission.

Abstract “We present a short conceptual framework as an opinion piece for considering learning gain based on Biesta’s three domains of educational purpose: qualification, socialisation and subjectification. We invite readers to reflect on the perspectives given in relation to different institutions mission statements around teaching and learning, and consider if the focus on developing methods for measuring learning gain is premature, given the lack of consensus regarding the nature of the learning to be measured.”


Deconstructing Learning Gain

For a workshop at a recent SEDA conference, Peter Gossman, Charles Neame and myself ran a workshop exploring the concept of Learning Gain, a concept that is currently being promoted by Hefce with the aim of ‘developing and testing new ways of capturing educational outcomes and analysing how students benefit from higher education.’.  In a UK context, this is closely bound into the new Teaching Excellence Framework that will rank UK Universities on measures of the Student Experience – the Teaching part being something of a misnomer.

Our starting point for the workshop was that before we get to thinking about measures of Learning Gain (as being explored by the Hefce projects), we first need to understand something of the purpose or mission of an institution – a cursory consideration reveals that they will be very different for different institutions.

For the purpose of stimulating conversation, we invited participants to reflect on their own institutions using the thinking of Gert Biesta and his writing around the purpose of education (Good Education In An Age of Measurement: On The Need To Reconnect With The Question Of Purpose In Education – 2009) and the three functions he identifies as:

  • qualification “It lies in providing them with the knowledge, skills and understanding and often also with the dispositions and forms of judgement that allow them to „do something‟ – a “doing‟ which can range  from the very specific (such as in the case of training for a particular job or profession, or training for a particular skill or technique)”
  • socialisation “the many ways in which, through education, we become members of and part of particular social, cultural and political “orders‟…Through its socialising function education inserts individuals into existing ways of doing and being
  • subjectification “might perhaps best be understood as the opposite of the socialization function. It is precisely not about the insertion of “newcomers‟ into existing orders, but about ways of being that hint at independence from such orders”

To help participants think about these ideas we provided them with the triangular graph (Geographers will recognise it as soil texture triangle).  The approach allows for a plot of three variables adding up to 100% (sand silt & clay for soils), in our case the three purposes proposed by Biesta. Colleagues plotted their own institution and engaged in dialogue around the positioning and what kind of measure might best be used to capture learning gain.

As a tool for structuring discussions we think it worked well as it forced choices to be made that traded off one purpose against another – less ‘fence sitting’.

For me, one of the most interesting ideas to emerge is how I can use the technique to stimulate dialogue and reflection for academics about their teaching.  For example, where would we position ourselves as a teacher using the three constructs of student centred, teacher centred and discipline knowledge?

Personal Academic Tutoring (Viable Systems Model view)

Many institutions are pushing ahead with learning analytics and in so doing are identifying different use cases. In this example, the development of a Personal Academic Tutoring dashboard that uses the digital footprint of students across the university systems as a proxy for engagement. From a technical perspective, once data is accessible (held in a data warehouse for example) it becomes a relatively straightforward proposition to produce different presentations or visualisations for whatever purpose is identified.

In this Viable Systems Model (VSM, Stafford Beer) inspired diagram I have tried to capture the high level relationships between the key processes, organisational structures and their relationship to the external environment (pink).

Central to the VSM is the concept of variety management as achieved through amplification and attenuation between the manger and the managed. I think that the part of the system within the dotted line is relatively healthy in this respect, however elsewhere the flow of information and instructions are unidirectional which does not provide for a balanced and thus healthy system.

The relationship between students and their tutors is by far and away the most important contributor to an engaged student, and great carer needs taking to ensure that it is cultivated in a thoughtful way, and not transformed into a ‘policing’ activity. As institutions come under increasing external pressures (financial and reputational), their priorities around progression rates and destinations of students become sharpened. However, pushing targets down from the top without adequate feedback loops risks incurring unexpected consequences.



Pedagogical Patterns: Associate Fellow of the HEA

The ‘father’ of Pattern Languages is the architect Christopher Alexander. In the 1970’s he became concerned about the way in which the design process of living spaces had changed from one whereby those who live and use the buildings, streets, parks, etc. were primarily responsible for their design to one dominated by architects, town planners, and other professionals. He developed the idea of a structured template where:

Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice. (Alexander et al., 1977)

For Alexander, the process of writing patterns democratises decision making about buildings and spaces as it also communicates ideas clearly to non professionals about a design thereby allowing wider society to input int the decision making process.

These ideas have inspired the development of Pedagogical Patterns, although in this context there is little evidence of the aims of those capturing patterns to have learners as a part of the conversation.

The pattern below is a response to demand to develop an online module that can be mapped against the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) for Higher education.

a. Archetypal example of the pattern: an inquiry based approach to improving personal work practices and organisational performance.

b. Pattern context: this pattern fits within a larger collection of patterns around supporting online learning and in particular work focussed learning using inquiry based methods.

c. Essence of the problem: how to support academics in partner institutions around the world achieve Recognised Tutor Status which equates to Associate Fellow of the HEA.

d. Body of the problem: in order to assure the quality of teaching on franchised and accredited programmes, the host Higher Education Institution needs to have confidence that the teaching and resulting learner experience is comparable to that experienced by students on home delivered programmes. This applies to multiple different contexts and needs of academics, and is essentially about delivering sustainable CPD opportunities.

e. The solution: use inquiry based approaches where students find out about their own work context, identify opportunities and issues and devise individual plans to bring about improvements. To absorb the high variety of students and their work contexts, use portfolio assessment and learning outcomes & assessment criteria that are capability focussed rather than subject or discipline. As much as possible, design activities where students interact with and support each other sharing their ideas and approaches reducing the demand on the tutor. This approach is theoretical underpinned by the concept of variety as explain in the Viable Systems Model (Stafford Beer, 1985).

f. Diagram solution: the solution below is supported through a VLE with a specific learning design.


Handling Disruptive Innovations in HE : Lessons from Two Contrasting Case Studies

For a long time we have been thinking about why our curriculum innovations in higher education institutions (HEI) take off or not, and this is our attempt at an explanation; ‘Handling Disruptive Innovations in HE : Lessons from Two Contrasting Case Studies‘.

We examined our experiences in two different HEI of implementing the same curriculum innovation of the work-focussed model of learning, one successfully and the other, more recent, far less so. In brief, the work-focussed model is: an undergraduate degree; has curriculum focus determined by the student’s inquiry focus; uses action research as teaching/learning approach; is support through online communities of inquiry; and has academic tutors in the role of facilitators.

Clayton Christensen theory of disruptive innovation was used as an analytical framework, and we conclude that there was strong evidence for the proposition that institutions “have strong inbuilt filters that weed out any innovation proposals that do not directly enhance the current products or services they offer to their existing markets.”  In our first successful incarnation of the work-focussed model, we operated from a semi-autonomous sub-unit and has such had a high degree of flexibility and control over our business processes and functions (marketing, technology used, teaching practices, etc.), whilst in the second case these were far more geared towards institutional norms and we found that these severely hampered the development of the new provision as the existing products win the resource battle and seek to maintain established ways of working.

The take away lesson is that for curriculum innovations to be successful, institutions need to “put in place the appropriate structural and governance arrangements that will enable them to flourish rather than get killed off.”

In response to Chrissi’s 3 plus one #blimage challenge…

My choice from the 4 images offered and my thoughts around the question “What do your eyes and/or mind see? How do you connect with one of these pictures?”
14924253780_47eedc4faf_zI heard on the radio this morning that this weekend will be the busiest for channel ports of the year.  When I look at this picture I see nothing profound, but I do feel a strong sense of wanting to be on that warm beach in the warm sun doing nothing but messing around in the sea and the sand with my family.  With some imagination I can see the red chord and parasol as a flying stunt kite, something that we love to do when there is a strong enough breeze blowing. This is a quiet sea, but of course that can change quickly and there is nothing like dancing in the waves of a rough sea when they are smashing onto the beach – even the North Sea off the coast of Scarborough is fine with a 4mm wetsuit! I have a friend who swears by the value of the Learning on the Beach unconference.  I haven’t been to an unconference, but the next time I hear about one on a beach like this I think I might try it out!

Congratulations to Dr. Fox

roz thesis coverA recommended read for any action researchers out there and those interested in communities and regeneration “Transformative Community Engagement for Sustainable Regeneration.

Selections from the abstract:

…The aim of this research is to provide a critical examination of community engagement through the development of practice and strategy of a UK housing association to deliver neighbourhood regeneration in a deprived neighbourhood in North West England.

…An action research approach using interlinked inquiry streams was undertaken with residents, senior managers and practitioners. The findings were used to develop community engagement strategy, articulate a model of engagement practice and enable the residents’ lived experience and views on service providers to be heard.

…The first contribution is the adaptation of Andrews and Turner’s (2006) Consumerist and Participatory Framework for the analysis of community engagement in a housing association context.

…The second contribution to knowledge is the creation of a model of transformative community engagement practice, based on an extended definition of neighbourhood sustainability, the literature review and research findings.

…Findings can be transferred to other housing providers or agencies looking to engage residents to achieve sustainable outcomes that will improve their lives and local neighbourhoods.

Revisiting our ‘MOOCs and Open Education Timeline’

MOOC evolutionIn 2012 we published a diagram that gave a view of the evolutionary process behind the development of MOOCs in our white paper (MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education, p.6).  Recently we revisited this diagram (I know you shouldn’t try to re-heat a Soufflée!) in a paper (Partnership Model for Entrepreneurial Innovation in Open Online Learning) where we made an analysis of what, if any, impact MOOCs have had over the past 3 years and what the trajectory of development might be in the future.

We identify four key ideas/trends:

  1. I. Most MOOC content is not openly licensed so it cannot be reused in different contexts. However, there is a trend for MOOC to be made available ‘on demand’ after the course has finished, where they in effect become another source of online content that is openly available for use to support blended learning courses or a flipped classroom approach in face-to-face teaching.
  2. New pedagogical experiments in online distance learning can be identified although It is likely that they will evolve to more closely resemble regular online courses with flexible learning pathways.  However, a range of paid-for services, including learning support on demand, qualitative feedback on assignments, and certification and credits will develop.
  3. The disruptive effect of MOOCs will be felt most significantly in the development of new forms of provision that go beyond the traditional HE market such as professional and corporate training that appeals to employers.  these will be backed by awards from recognised institutions.
  4. The development of online courses is an evolving model with the market re-working itself to offer a broader range of solutions to deliver services at a range of price levels to a range of student types. There is great potential for add-on content services and the creation of new revenue models through building partnerships with institutions and other educational service providers. As these trends continue to unfold, we can expect to see even more entrepreneurial innovation and change in the online learning landscape.

Deliverology: Assessment & Teaching Methods

deliverology diagrammeJohn Seddon is a UK based systems thinker working primarily in the public sector.  One of his core arguments is that when targets are imposed (a command and control managerial approach) on a system , it results in de facto purposes being created which, in turn, constrains the methods being used to undertake the work at hand (Seddon 2008, 82) – this is critique of Michael Barber’s Deliverology.  I think that there is a lot in this simple analysis for educators when trying to innovate teaching in educational institutions.

One example of this in a higher education context is the use of learning outcomes for management and to make uniform the way in which curriculum are described, offering the prospect of a common student experience and a way of standardising evaluative judgements about achievement.  This has lead to a way of authoring course/module specifications that severely restrict what and how students are assessed.  Successfully meeting learning outcomes (coupled with assessment criteria) has become the de facto purpose of the educational system.   As a consequence, educational methods (teaching practices) are severely constrained so that the purpose is met; learners and teachers work tirelessly towards successfully completing the assessments for a course.

Working this way severely distorts the students education in a direction imposed from the outside by what are often poorly constructed requirements in the first place.  Little attention is payed to the needs of the students and there is limited scope for teachers to innovate in their practice as the risks are too high of students failing to meet the targets.

It doesn’t have to be like this.  I would argue for putting the target setting back in the hands of the teachers and learners to identify their local needs (their purpose) and set their own targets thereby enabling teaching methods to be liberated.  This doesn’t have to be a free-for-all approach, but a redressing of the balance back towards the professionalism of the teacher and sharing responsibility for learning with the student will I think improve the outcomes.  In practical terms, there is a place for well crafted learning outcomes that focus on the capabilities we are seeking to develop in learners but that allow for significant negotiation of how to achieve and demonstrate this.