Facing up to transitions in HE

Great Learning and Teaching Conference at Brighton yesterday.

Excellent keynotes from Sally Brown and Phil Race, always pertinent, funny but also bringing a lifetime’s, well two lifetimes’, work to bear on the problems of the foggy terrain of September 2012 for universities.

Because I am currently focussed on preparing an e-assessment project with colleagues Alison Bone and Stephanos Avakian, Phil Race’s focus on assessment – pulling together all the great and simple lessons of past research on quality assessment practice was stimulating. Yes we do try really hard already, and we are innovating – using online review and peer review and self review increasingly, but we still need people like this to convince us it is worth the effort of changing long-held traditional assessment practices. Phil’s website is a treasure-store of useful material on student learning and assessment. His contention at the Brighton conference was that HE assessment was “broken”, and by the end of his session even the doubters were in agreement. Heavy staff assessment workloads and continuing poor achievement in NSS surveys should be convincing us by now to do this better. And if we do assessment better, we get potential for better learning because assessment drives learning.

I foresee a summer of assessment design ahead.

Sally Brown also gave us lots of food for thought. For me, designing a new UG honours course with colleagues this summer, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Her emphasis on continuing introduction over at least the first six weeks was exactly what we were planning – in fact the first semester for this course will be a journey into learning as a professional, rather than what you need to know as a student. And her stress on the need to view the course as a whole rather than a series of unrelated modules more geared to academic reputation than student experience was really well made. Our new BSc Business with Enterprise has a Problem Based Learning ethos, fairly strictly interpreted, which means the course is conceived not as a collection of modules but as a cumulative experience of collaborative learning from start to finish. By the end, learners will be skilled professional learners as well as entrepreneurs capable of leading projects and businesses. We cannot achieve this without a focus from the beginning and throughout all parts of the course on self-directed learning and the development of evaluative, analytical and creative as well as critical thinking practice. So thanks for the encouragement Sally and Phil.

Meanwhile, other highlights for me from the conference included learning about the Cloudbank app from Lyn Pemberton and Marcus Winter – lots of potential there for learning applications – including an idea Tracey Taylor and I had involving building a version, but perhaps more criteria based, to provide a mobile app for referencing.

And a lovely session from Kate Williamson on her findings when she talked to Education ITE students about their experiences of research supervision. The responses were so encouraging, it really did seem like a great idea to find a way to bring the one-to-one relationship of supervisor and student into first and second year as well as third. And that can be done with shorter projects and scaffolding, plus possibly the introduction of some group supervision and e-supervision. The point is attention to the student and the encouraging of the student to believe in their own work and their own ideas. That is best delivered one to one, and ideally face to face. In my early customer service training days, this was called “kissing the sleeping princess” – meaning a personal “stroke” which delivers the one thing we crave – attention to us as respected individuals.

My heroes in learning and teaching: Tom Bourner, Phil Race and Sally Brown