What do you like best at conferences? Catching up with friends, get away from the day-to-day routine? Some might say the canapés? For me, it’s definitely hearing a good speaker. Communicating your ideas effectively is an art in itself and I know when someone gives a good talk because it’s as if a little light bulb lights up in my head when I hear something that makes sense. Lindsay Jordan (University of the Arts), co-presenting with Mira Vogel (Goldsmiths) on the world of MOOCs and open education was one of those speakers. So many light bulbs lit up in my head that I must have looked like a Christmas tree (had you had the privilege to access my head, that is).
Leading on the PgCert course recommended to all staff teaching over 60 hours per year, she opted to introduce a range of digital-based learning and assessment components to the course. Her aims were to broaden teachers’ horizons through technology, use blogs as a truly key reflective tool and video as a means to assess.
Interestingly, the title of her presentation being ‘Engagement by stealth’ judiciously hinted at how there might be some resistance to use ‘new’ forms of assessment and learning.
On the one hand of the spectrum, some lecturers on the course spontaneously opted for video in their blogs to develop their point. Others could hardly bring themselves to publish content on the web and expose themselves. One student on the course (an experienced teacher) published a completely anonymous video assessment circumventing the exposure problem by creating a short animation and synthesising his voice to a female one.
So, clearly, the feeling of publishing one’s work ‘out there’ on the web for everyone to see is something not everyone is comfortable with.
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are about allowing information to be everywhere, just a click away, and some of us have an issue with that. As one member of the audience asked: “But who has control over these MOOCs? Who monitors content?”
MOOCs are about participation, collaboration and sharing but there is something inherently scary about not knowing who will use your learning and whether it will be digested effectively. If it’s out there on the loose, how can you gauge its validity? Some answers came from Mira Vogel who showed us that MOOCs can be time-framed and tightly-structured. Another member of the audience asked whether MOOCs may be an answer to soaring university fees in England. How could universities possibly reconcile with the relatively free-paying world of MOOCs? Of course, no-one yet knows the answer to this.
A personal highlight was when Lindsay Jordan talked about how learning outcomes had been negotiated by her students (by setting up learning contracts as a starting point) and were used as assessment guidelines. Having explored ways to help my students understand assessment criteria better in the past, and how this was something they were really interested in, a light bulb in my head flashed: there is probably no better way than this to engage your students with assessment. When it turned out peer assessment (up to 10% of the final grade) was also used for blogs on that course, I thought: definitely the way to go.
Other words I will go away with are the ‘tyranny of participation’: it had never occurred to me that some people do strongly resent discussion forums. And video as being ‘disruptive’: you should really not forget that videotaping does take some people out of their comfort zone, to say the least.
Now, this was not all dark. Lindsay Jordan shared with us student feedback which clearly indicated some students on the course felt that the process had helped them to get different perspectives on things, and that neatly takes me to another highlight of the day: the opening keynote entitled ‘the importance of stuff’, by Martin Conreen and Mark Miodownik, of Goldsmiths.
Two pleasant speakers, encouraging you to think outside the box, the keynote looked at how materials are a defining characteristic of society, and the related research projects carried out at Goldsmith. One such project titillated the audience no end, that of the spoons. Materials taste different, but why, was the starting point… The speakers took us through quiproquos and anecdotes, and the meanders of research processes and decisions. I won’t go into details but something will stay with me (maybe that was not the speakers’ point): if you stop to look at materials around you, you will see (well, taste) that they affect your perception of things.
And if you teach, or introduce new ways of teaching, then you need your participants to accept that there may be other ways to approach their learning or assessment.
A third and last favourite on the day for me was the 1 pm debate. The after-lunch timeslot is notoriously difficult as the audience digests its food, but the two well-experienced speakers, Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar rolled on with ‘Education and Equality?’ Melissa Benn started off with the remark that the question mark in the presentation’s title was highly relevant. The fact that we ask ourselves the question shows that it may not be the case.
In a nutshell, the debate pierced through raw facts: that education is not equal and that the class system in England (the audience insisted this was not the case across the UK) still permeates families’ decisions as to whether they should send their children to ‘normal’ schools (as someone in the audience put it) or to public schools. The discussion, it seemed to me, all came down to perceptions (that one again!).
Two striking examples were given: that better-off families felt compelled to send their children to public schools and that young people from modest backgrounds themselves thought that state schools, generally speaking, were failing them. The panel seemed to hint that the vast majority of people were still imbued with class-related stigmas. The question was: do comprehensive schools prevent social mobility? And the answer, as I understood it, was: yes, all of the layers in society seem to carry this message, like a virus, which turns this into a self prophesy.
So… the end note was slightly depressing but, at the same time, promising. No-one knows what the future holds, but the message behind such a conference title might have been it’s for us to influence it.
Engagement by stealth, PG Certs for a Digital Age, Lindsay Jordan, 21 May 2012, http://prezi.com/alsj8mbdjvbt/engagement-by-stealth/
Learning for free? MOOCs, Mira Vogel, 18 May 2012, http://prezi.com/telbnollfzx4/learning-for-free-moocs/
Future tense schedule: http://www.gold.ac.uk/gleu/futuretense/schedule/