Thursday, 28 January 2016

HEA STEM 2016 - 28-29 January 2016 - Transforming teaching and learning in STEM

HEA STEM 2016 - 28-29 January 2016 East Midlands Conference Centre

Inspire to succeed:
Transforming teaching and learning in STEM
An exciting day of discussions on innovation, employability and engagement.  The landscape of teaching and learning is moving at such a fast pace - with new technological advances students can learn in more ways than ever now and our teaching needs to be responsive to this.  Keep the dialogue going on Twitter #HEASTEM16 

Simon Heath's incredible artistic skills bring teaching to life
Blogsquad team !

Lego Mindstorm Challenge

Thoughts on Day 1

What a fantastic first day! Many thanks to the HEA for inviting me to come up to Nottingham and blog at this fascinating conference.  I have a Psychology background, but I currently teach Statistics in a Criminology department, so there is so much for me to take in from all of these sessions. I am well aware that I have been able to capture just a small snapshot of all that has gone on this first day at the HEA STEM conference. I have been to a range of talks, seminars and workshops, engaged with some of the delegates face to face, and many more virtually.

Following a warm welcome from Professor Sean Ryan, (Head of STEM - HEA), Professor Stephanie Marshall (Chief Executive of the HEA) gave a keynote address to all delegates. Stephanie spoke of the four dimensions of teaching excellence (Planning and delivery, Assessment, Contributing to the Profession, and Evaluating & Reflecting).  Stephanie also spoke of how we need to consider student engagement  and what is the 'added value' students are getting at the end of their degree. For me this is something that is so important given today's competitive job market.

I have been a participant on one of the staff focus groups on the 'Learning Gain' project Stephanie mentioned. In the focus group we discussed exactly this issue - what are students getting from their degree, and similarly - what are students (and their future employers) expecting students to gain from their degree programmes.  There is no easy and quick answer to this - but certainly employability, transferable skills, flexibility, a willingness to learn and a professional attitude were some of the themes that arose in our single focus group (as well as subject knowledge of course!). Of course I am just speaking for our small group. I look forward to seeing the findings from this project.  There were many questions in Stephanie's Q & A session, and one particular question was regarding how we convince universities to be more innovative in their teaching. Stephanie said that staff need to 'gather evidence, be patient, don't be afraid to ask questions, be persistent'. Organisational change moves slowly, but things do change, and they will eventually if there is sufficient momentum, we can all be part of this.

Alecia Dunn & Dr Patrick Rosenkranz from Newcastle University did an engaging talk on their work with Psychology undergraduates showing that enterprise challenges really helped students empathise with veterans and put their psychological skills to good use. Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich then got us all thinking about how staff can further embed employability into the curriculum for maths students. The suggestion is that employability needs to integrated with core material, and not be stand alone units for it really have the most impact. Dr Helen Hooper from Northumbria University next spoke about her work looking at how volunteering has had an impact on students in STEM subjects. What was interesting here was that only 20% students who did volunteering from STEM subjects were male - this needs further exploration - i.e. is lack of engagement just related to volunteering, or is the lack of engagement more widespread?  Helen found that students reported that volunteering had wide impact including improving employability, transferable skills to name but a few.

I was lucky enough to get one of the 20 seats available in the Lego Mindstorms session presented by Dr Mark Zarb & Dr Angela Siegel from Robert Gordon University. This was a practical session, enjoyed by all participants including myself! Mark and Angela found that using a set of Lego Challenges over 6 weeks, 1st year computing students were able to transition into HE just that bit easier, and learn a whole load of skills along the way, including group working, communication skills, confidence and gaining a social support structure - inspirational stuff! The day for me conclude by listening to Neville Palmer of Southampton Solent University who showed us his prototype for feedback, which certainly looks very promising. Certainly if there is a way to improve the feedback that students get, given the limited time pressures academics have then this does seem like an exciting project, watch this space on this one!

Are you at the conference, if so, what have you enjoyed so far?

Wednesday, 1 May 2013


Course elements (so far) to foster and encourage learning and engagement on a MOOC

I am currently in the process of working my way through 4 MOOC courses which are all running pretty much simultaneously. I also completed a 5 week MOOC course earlier on this year.

I choose to sign up to them for a number of reasons, curiosity, desire to learn new information, and to gain a deeper understanding of how I can improve the learning experience for the distance students I currently support as a research tutor at the University of Portsmouth.  Research tutor support page.

I also finished my Ph.D in Psychology last year, and so had a 'gap' which I was keen to fill ... ever the student - don't think I will ever tire of learning!

I wanted to share some of my thoughts so far with regards to the aspects of these 5 MOOC courses I have completed or are part way through so far - a collection really of the aspects of each (in my humble opinion) that have really worked well and are therefore are elements I would wish to consider including if was to Design my own MOOC in the future. In case you are interested; I am working on these 4 MOOC courses in my own time around a full time job, (as many many other MOOC learners are too). I would appreciate any feedback on these thoughts so far..... needless to say these elements are not exhaustive, or indeed particularly related to any one particular course, but rather are just my initial thoughts which are likely to change and develop as I process further through these courses.

  1. Frequency of email contact from the course leaders.  I think that with regards to emails, less can often be more. As has been seen with some courses, the frequency of emails can be a turn-off for some. For me personally a weekly email, with clear concise instructions on what is needed for the week ahead is more than enough to be going on with. These weekly emails are vital to enable planning, particular if there are imminent deadlines for exams that count towards the final grade. I have also found it useful to learn from the course leaders information about the number of participants enrolled - which is sometimes as much as 50,000 + for some courses - which is incredible really! but it means students on these very large courses often then start to learn and gain support from each other than waiting for the official line from the course leader (s)/tutors which is great to see.
  2. Amount of tasks for each week. As with the previous email, the number of essential tasks should be kept to a minimum, but with plenty of additional resources and activities for those interested students (with time on their hands) who wish develop their skills beyond those tasks. For example, essential tasks could be a summative weekly homework quiz or a reflective piece of work based on some set material. For me, having clear set tasks (that are automatically graded) really helps focus my time - and give me a sense of achievement when completed -  indeed in some courses progress is tracked in a bar chart which I do like to key an eye on. Of course though, it is hard to quantify all learning in such a quantitative way!
  3. Type of assessments. This relates back in part to section 2. I mentioned there that for me, quizes are a key motivator. I should also add that, the ones that I have really worked hard for are the ones that allow me 1 or 2 maximum tries to answer and are not multiple choice - i.e. you need to do the calculations manually and insert a number correct to 4 decimal places! - no place for guessing there then! On that course there are also summative quizes where you can practice first so you do get a trial run which is not added to your mark.  On another similar course, the summative homeworks are mostly multiple choice questions (which you can retake up to 100 times). This of course sounds a lot nicer- and easier?. The pass mark for that MOOC though is around 80% where as the one with the stricter quizes is only set at 40%. Another form of a MOOC assessment I have done recently is a peer marked assignment (up to 2,000 words) where you have to write a commentary and interpretation of some tables and figures that contain data. This is then peer marked by 5 other students on the course (and you mark 5 other students work). On that course we are still in the peer review stage, so I will come back to how that has gone later - but I really like this idea and can see it has merit for assessing learning that can not simply be reduced down to a numerical value or selection of a multiple choice question.
  4. Tracking engagement & performance. This also links into part 3. I think that in some cases it is helpful to have immediate feedback, but I am also happy to wait for more detailed feedback as in the peer review example in the previous point. With regards to tracking engagement, I really like the idea of having a place on your learning account that keeps tabs of all your postings, comments and other interactions. For me, this is a real motivating factor to want to do more.
  5. Discussion boards.  Discussion boards are a great place for students to ask and answer questions (anonymously if they wish), and as mentioned earlier, a good place to seek or give support. For some of the larger courses however, the discussion boards are a bit out of control - i.e. there are far too many comments to keep track off - and sometimes the comments can get a bit off topic in an unhelpful way. One way to combat this seems to be a regular staff presence (by the course leaders and/or tutors) who can keep an eye of this. e.g. any offensive comments that need to be removed, any errors within the course material, student queries that need a tutor response and so on. A well organised, searchable discussion board with posts organised by key topics seems to work well too.
  6. Social media.  Apologies for the plug, but here is my Twitter Account - Incorporating social media into a learning experience can be really helpful, particularly on courses when peer learning, sharing and discussion is encouraged. For me it just adds another dimension to the learning experience, allows me to make contact with like minded individuals and engage yet even further... I appreciate this is not the case for everyone.. so perhaps Social media engagement should be an optional extra for those who wish to communicate and learn in this way?
  7. Certification and passing grades. Yes I know that learning isn't all about getting the certificate - but it is a nice motivator for many and for me it really has been a driving force in making sure I watch the videos, read the material and achieve a passing mark on the assessments. The last few weeks I have ditched watching TV in the evenings in favour of passing my MOOC weekly assignments, or completing the required tasks ... and this is mainly because I had to do it to be able to pass the weekly course elements which lead to the certificate. I have also enjoyed this study, but I think without the carrot of a certificate, I probably would have done less study and more TV watching! Passing grades for the courses I am registered on range from 30% to 81% (with 1 unknown)  so very variable indeed

That is my comments for now, will update again!
Thanks for reading,