Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Success for All?

My blog posts have had a dry run of late: my excuse is that I have been heavily involved for the past 6 months in preparing for the re-validation of our course (in Health and Social Care) whilst my teaching has also been halved, so less to talk about.

I think too that I am going through something of a reshuffle in terms of where I stand on technology enhanced teaching and learning. For the first time in a while I haven't submitted any conference abstracts or even booked myself a place on anything remotely techy.

Don't think for a moment that I have reached a point where I believe I know everything (as if!) or that I am bored with the whole shebang. No  - I think it is simply that my focus has necessarily been shifted to new challenges.

Another issue which I have to recognise is that when I arrived as Course Leader, hot from having delivered a distance learning programme at another institution, I was the Tech Queen in a world of paper addicted Luddites (and that was their description, not mine!).

In the past 7 years I have seen the course move to 100% e-submission of assignments; greatly improved use of the VLE; widespread use of Socrative, Poll Everywhere and Padlet to enhance lectures; lecture capture as standard; more colleagues opting for Scale Up type delivery and several modules now requiring students to submit blog posts, build websites and create video documentaries.

Of course, this wasn't all my doing: we have a digital skills strategy in the University and a project aimed at developing interactive teaching methods, which, together with considerable capital investment in the infrastructure has made a huge impact on what it is now possible to do and I am no longer needed as the pathfinder, or even, too often, as a mentor.

Students too are different now: 7 years ago my intro to digital skills sessions took place in a computer lab where I had to start by teaching students how to switch on the PC. Now they arrive on the first day with their Lenovo Yogas and iPads having already formed social bonds through our course Facebook group.

So what are my new challenges? I think primarily it is about narrowing attainment gaps: between BTEC and A level students, BME and white students, disabled students and not, the mature and the young, men and women.

I don't know if this is even possible but I know there is a huge drive to attempt it and I am really interested in the debates. Widening participation in education is a Good Thing in and of itself, but making a success of University education does require skill, dedication, focus - and I am talking here about teaching staff. It takes effort and imagination to prepare students to succeed.

On our course we have tried a number of new approaches in the past year.

One such was the Undergraduate Research Conference aimed both at developing research skills in our own students and at raising awareness in prospective students currently studying BTEC courses.

Another, was a Welcome Week activity focused on Diversity and Equality. This was based on research suggesting, amongst other things, that opening up discussions about identity and values at an early stage helped to increase students' sense of belonging. To kick start the activity, we used an Open Learn module as pre-reading then simply got students engaged in conversations about what "identity" meant to them. The discussions were fascinating, uncomfortable, moving and hugely valued by the students.

Another recent event was based on the Human Library idea, with students volunteering to be human books for others to explore different experiences.

Obviously, there isn't a silver bullet: increasing the number of BME staff, developing more of a global focus on the course, individual tutor support, more inclusive teaching practices and a review of assessment practices are all part of the recipe for success. I think you will agree we have our work cut out.

And will technology enhanced teaching and learning have a role in all of this?

On the one hand, it can be a great leveller in terms of inclusive teaching - especially simple things like posting lecture notes to the VLE, lecture capture (ok - that's not all that simple) and using Padlet and polling software in lectures. Working in Scale Up with lap tops available also can help bridge the digital divide as I can sit with students and demonstrate, hands on, how they can achieve certain tasks. But our "widening participation" students are often the least confident, the least well equipped with technology, the least proficient in English, and so trying to create a digital artefact outside of class, navigating their way around online platforms, is often the biggest challenge.

So this year I have given my final year students a number of options for the completion of their reflective digital stories that allow them to use simpler technology or familiar formats. Not the end of my love affair with technology, by any means, just a pause for reflection.