Flexible and inclusive learning – notes from reading group

Amy read: Why are we still using LMSs, which discusses the reasons LMS systems have not advanced dramatically since they came onto the market. The key points were:

  • There are five core features that all major LMS systems have: they’re convenient; they offer a one-stop-shop for all University materials, assessments and grades; they have many accessibility features built in; they’re well integrated into other institutional systems and there is a great deal of training available for them.
  • Until a new system with all these features comes onto the market, the status quo with regard to LMS systems will prevail.
  • Instructors should look to use their current LMS system in a more creative way.

Mike read: Flexible pedagogies: technology-enhanced learning HEA report

This paper provided a useful overview of flexible learning, including explanations of what it might mean, dilemmas and challenges for HE. The paper is interesting to consider alongside Bristol’s Flexible and Inclusive learning paper. For the authors, Flexible learning gives students choice in the pace, place and mode of their learning. This is achieved through application of pedagogical practice, with TEL positioned as an enable or way of enhancing this practice. Pace is about schedules (faster or slower), or allowing students to work at their own pace. Place is about  physical location and distance. Mode includes notions of distance and blended learning.

Pedagogies covered include personalised learning, flexible learning – (suggesting it is similar to adaptive learning in which materials adapt to individual progress), gamification, fully online and blended approaches. The paper considers the implications of offering choice to students for example, over what kind of assessment. An idealised form would offer a very individualised choice of learning pathway, but with huge implications on stakeholders.

In the reading, group, we had an interesting discussion as to whether students are always best equipped to understand and make such choices. We also wondered how we would resource the provision of numerous pathways.  Other  risks include potential for information overload for students, ensuring systems and approaches work with quality assurance processes. Barriers include interpretations of KIS data which favours contact time.

We would have a long way to go in achieving the idealised model set out here. Would a first step be to change the overall diet of learning approaches across a programme, rather than offering choice at each stage? Could we then introduce some elements of flexibility in certain areas of programmes, perhaps a bit like the Medical School’s Self Selected Components, giving students choice in a more manageable space within the curriculum?

Suzanne read:  Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. The main points were:

  • Self-regulated learning is something which happens naturally in HE, as students will assess their own work and give themselves feedback internally. This paper suggests this should be harnessed and built on in feedback strategies in HE.
  • Shift in focus to see students having a proactive rather than reactive role in feedback practices, particularly focused on deciphering, negotiating and acting on feedback.
  • The paper suggests 7 principles for good feedback practice, which encourages this self-regulation: 1. clarifying what good performance is; 2. facilitating self-assessment; 3. delivering high quality feedback information; 4. encouraging dialogue; encouraging self-esteem and motivation; 6. giving opportunities to close the gap between where the student is now and where they need/want to be; 7. using feedback to improve teaching.
  • For our context, this gives some food for thought in terms of the limitations of a MOOC environment for establishing effective feedback practices (dialogue with every student is difficult if not impossible, for example), and emphasises the importance of scaffolding or training effective peer and self-assessment, to give students the confidence and ability to ‘close the gap’ for themselves.

Suzanne also read: Professional Development Through MOOCs in Higher Education Institutions: Challenges and Opportunities for PhD Students Working as Mentors

This paper reports on a small-scale (20 participants), qualitative study into the challenges and opportunities for PhD students acting as mentors in the FutureLearn MOOC environment. As a follow-on from the above reading, using mentors can be a way to help students with the peer and self-assessment practices, which is why I decided to read it in parallel. However, it also focuses on the learning experiences of the PhD student themselves as they perform the mentor role, also giving these students a different (potentially more flexible and inclusive) platform to develop skills.

Overall, the paper is positive about the experiences of PhD MOOC mentors, claiming that they can develop skills in various areas, including:

  • confidence in sharing their knowledge and interacting with people outside their own field (especially for early career researchers, who may not yet have established themselves as ‘expert’ in their field);
  • teaching skills, particularly related to online communication, the need for empathy and patience, and tailoring the message to a diverse audience of learners. It’s noteworthy here that many of these mentors had little or no teaching experience, so this is also about giving them teaching experience generally, not teaching in MOOCs specifically;
  • subject knowledge, as having to discuss with the diverse learning community (of expert and not expert learners) helped them consolidate their understanding, and in some cases pushed them to find answers to questions they had not previously considered.

Roger read Authentic and Differentiated Assessments

This is a guide aimed at School teachers. Differentiated assessment involves students being active in setting goals, including the topic, how and when they want to be evaluated. It also involves teachers continuously assessing student readiness in order to provide support and evaluate when students are ready to move on in the curriculum.

The first part of the article describes authentic assessment, which it defines as asking students to apply knowledge and skills to real world settings, which can be a powerful motivator for them. A four stage process to design authentic assessment is outlined.

The second part of the article focuses on differentiated assessment. We all have different strengths and weaknesses in how we best demonstrate our learning, and multiple and varied assessments can help accommodate these. The article stresses that choice is key, including of learning activity as well as assessment. Project and problem based learning are particularly useful.  Learning activities should always consider multiple intelligences and the range of students’ preferred ways of learning, and there should be opportunities for individual and group tasks as some students will perform better in one or the other.

Hannah read: Research into digital inclusion and learning helps empower people to make the best choices, a blog by the Association for Learning and Teaching about bridging the gap between digital inclusion and learning technology. The main points were:

  • Britain is failing to exploit opportunities to give everyone fair and equal access to learning technology through not doing enough research into identifying the best way to tackle the problem of digital exclusion
  • Learning technology will become much more inclusive a way of learning once the digital divide is addressed
  • More must be done to ensure effective intervention; lack of human support and lack of access to digital technology are cited as two main barriers to using learning technology in a meaningful way
  • We need to broaden understanding of the opportunities for inclusion, look into how to overcome obstacles, develop a better understanding of the experiences felt by the excluded and understand why technological opportunities are often not taken up

Suzi read:  Disabled Students in higher education: Experiences and outcomes which discusses the experience of disabled students, based on surveys, analysis of results, interviews, and case studies at four, relatively varied, UK universities. Key points for me were:

  • Disability covers a wide range of types and severity of issues but adjustments tend to be formulaic, particularly for assessment (25% extra time in exams)
  • Disability is a problematic label, not all students who could do will choose to identify as disabled
  • Universal design is the approach they would advocate where possible

Suzi also read: Creating Better Tests for Everyone Through Universally Designed Assessments a paper written for the context of large-scale tests for US school students, which nonetheless contains interesting background and advice useful (if not earth-shattering). The key messages are:

  • Be clear about what you want to assess
  • Only assess that – be careful not to include barriers (cognitive, sensory, emotional, or physical) in the assessment that mean other things are being measured
  • Apply basic good design and writing approaches – clear instructions, legible fonts, plain language


Assessment and Feedback: Transforming Curricula and Assessment in HE

On Thursday 2nd February I attended an event at the University of Bath entitled “Assessment and Feedback: Transforming Curricula and Assessment in HE.” There were many interesting sessions , of which the following were some of my personal highlights.

Dr Alex Buckley from the University of Strathclyde spoke about their use of the TESTA  approach to reviewing assessment at a Programme level. Funded by the HEA, the project, standing for Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessment,  originally involved four partner institutions, Bath Spa, Chichester, Winchester and Worcester.  It is now used in over 50 universities in an attempt to address deep challenges of assessment which Alex stressed need to be considered at Programme level. 

The TESTA website contains further information and resources on this approach, including a manual on how to implement it. Alex explained that it involves triangulating data from a programme audit, an assessment experience questionnaire for students and focus groups.  At Strathclyde those programmes who have engaged with TESTA have found it an extremely useful diagnostic tool as well as helping colleagues to think differently about assessment. After the process, programme teams have a workshop with educational developers where they consider practical changes that can be made which address the TESTA findings.   The TESTA website contains case studies and best practice guides with concrete suggestions. An example is reducing reliance on formal documentation to communicate standards, and putting greater effort into providing exemplars in order make explicit, and open to discussion, the meaning of assessment criteria and enable to students internalise these through marking exercises and self and peer assessment in relation to the exemplars.

Kay Sambell from Edinburgh Napier University expanded in the afternoon on Alex’s point that we need to facilitate student engagement with feedback rather than simply flagging up when feedback is being provided. However both Kay and Jane Rand recognised that this can be easier said than done. Literature provided evidence of the effectiveness of this a decade ago, Jane said, but much practice hasn’t changed.  

Kay went on to show some practical strategies that can be used. Her work is based on the Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange at Oxford Brookes,  which provides a range of useful resources. She also referred to the work of Winstone, Nash, Parker & Rowntree (2016) entitled Supporting Learners’ Agentic Engagement With Feedback: A Systematic Review and a Taxonomy of Recipience Processes, which emphasises the importance of “proactive recipience” of feedback.

Kay talked about dialogic use of exemplars, which can take different forms; complete or part of an assignment, authentic or re-created, annotated with feedback or not. She went on to give an example of a peer review workshop from her own practice, the process for which is outlined in the photo on the right. Students really valued this opportunity for extended dialogue around assessment criteria.

Kay also referred to the work of Nicol, Thomas and Breslin on feedback production being recognised as just as valuable for learning as receipt of feedback. She recognised that students are sometimes reluctant to engage with engagement activities (such as peer review)! However, when they do engage they find them extremely useful, and she has found that exemplar assignments are highly effective as “vicarious peer assessment”. Kay mentioned the work of Carless and Chan on managing dialogic use of exemplars. This contains analysis of how teachers can orchestrate dialogue around exemplars. They suggest in the paper that ” the dialogic use of exemplars should be a core aspect of teachers’ repertoire of assessment for learning strategies, in that the development of student skills in making academic judgements is fundamental to the university experience.”  This is a point often made by D Royce Sadler, well known for his work on conditions necessary for students to benefit from feedback (Sadler, 1989) . In his own teaching Sadler makes use of a version of exemplars in the peer review of formative writing his students do. He puts his own attempt at the writing task in with his students’ which are distributed and peer reviewed. Sadler describes this in more detail in “‘Opening up feedback: Teaching learners to see“.


David Carless & Kennedy Kam Ho Chan (2016): Managing dialogic use of exemplars, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education

David Nicol, Avril Thomson & Caroline Breslin (2014) Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: a peer review perspective, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39:1, 102-122

Sadler, D. R. (2013) Opening up feedback: Teaching learners to see” ( In Merry, S., Price, M., Carless, D., & Taras, M. (Eds.) Reconceptualising Feedback in Higher Education: developing dialogue with students. (Ch. 5, 54-63). London: Routledge.

Sadler, D. R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science, 18, 119-144

Naomi E. Winstone, Robert A. Nash, Michael Parker & James Rowntree (2016): Supporting Learners’ Agentic Engagement With Feedback: A Systematic Review and a Taxonomy of Recipience Processes, Educational Psychologist


How can we use ‘unconferencing’ to enrich the Bristol Futures experience?

I went to ‘a conference on unconferencing’ (which actually turned out to be an unconference on unconferencing) in Birmingham on 20th January. Having no preconceptions as to what an unconference was, I went with the aim of gathering some ideas around enrichment activities for Bristol Futures Workstream 5.

The day started with a presentation from one of the organisers, Daniel King, on why conferences matter. He identified three main reasons:

  • Career development; networking; status
  • Field configuring; knowledge exchange; gaining a common perspective
  • Cultural management; learning how to act within a certain field

Conferences often work around a set agenda and hierarchy; the few talking to the many. The audiences take a passive role and the conference is a ‘man in suit’ affair, reinforcing existing power relations.

The idea of an unconference is to challenge visible hierarchies in conventional conferences, encouraging participation and inclusivity. The participants set the agenda, and little involvement or facilitation is needed from the organisers.

So how did it work?

We sat around in a circle, with post it notes and pens in the centre. There was an empty timetable on the wall, with locations on one side (‘middle bit’ ‘by the plant pot’ etc). Everyone was given the opportunity to ‘pitch’ an idea for a session, which involved writing a short description, question or discussion point on the paper, reading it out to the group and posting it onto the timetable (there was a bit of negotiation involved here, particularly where ideas crossed over and became one session rather than two). The person who suggested the session ‘owns’ it, and is responsible for kickstarting the discussion as well as typing up and sharing the notes afterwards. I pitched a session on how we can tackle the issue of invisible hierarchies within unconferences and how, despite the focus on inclusion, a lack of structure will invite certain forms of elite, such as those with social confidence taking over the discussion.

The sessions began, and everything went really smoothly! Before starting, the organisers had let us know that unconferences operate on a ‘rule of two feet’, which means that if you feel that you are no longer contributing or getting anything from a conversation, you’re entitled to leave it and join another session whenever you like.

How can this work for Bristol Futures?

The unconference format could work really well as a Bristol Futures Enrichment activity for all three of the online courses. The easy going, non hierarchical structure made for really interesting, balanced debates and conversations. Unconferences are designed to facilitate peer-to-peer learning, encourage less separation between different points of the hierarchy (from undergraduate through to academics), and have a focus on experience and views rather than status.

We could hold an unconference (maybe calling them something other than ‘unconference’) for each of the three pathways, encouraging students to pitch topics for discussion. This could be anything related to the content of a course (eg. ‘how can an individual make an impact on a global level?’), the course design (eg. ‘why I didn’t think week two worked well’), or something related to the overall theme that the course has not covered. The students would experience the unconference as an enrichment activity and opportunity to connect with each other and collaborate in a meaningful way. For us as lead educators and learning designers,  the unconference format could be used not only as an enrichment activity, but also as a way of using student insight to inform future iterations of the courses and make changes where needed.

An unconference would require little organisation outside booking a room and providing stationary and simple guidance, as well as little resource in terms of facilitation, as students become facilitators through the unconference format. These events could be held to kick off the course run, as a ‘touch base’ point during the middle of the course run, to round off the courses in a meaningful and useful way, or all three.

The aim of the Bristol Futures enrichment courses is to equip students with the skills they need to be happy, well rounded, resourceful adults. Through participating in an unconference, students will develop many of the Bristol Attributes including:

  • Intellectual risk, through participating in discussions potentially outside one’s comfort zone
  • Active and self aware learning, through pitching suggestions and taking ownership of a session
  • Inquisitiveness and initiative, through discussing a topic and trying to find a solution
  • Collaboration, through working with others in the group to define and run the unconference
  • Influence and leadership, through motivating and directing others to invite effective contributions
  • Responsibility, through managing the sessions without too much input from the organisers

Unconferencing encourages students to interact in a respectful, innovative and democratic way and could make a really effective enrichment activity across all three pathways.

Formative language activities using technology’, a free event organised by the School of Modern Languages and the Centre for English and Foundation Studies

As a language teacher I am always interested in what other colleagues do around assessment and feedback practice so on the 19th of January I attended a free seminar organised by CELFS (Centre for English and Foundation Studies) and SML (School of Modern Languages) on ‘Formative language activities using technology’.

The seminar focused on strategies for engaging students with formative and summative feedback using a range of technologies both in and outside the language classroom.

I took away lots of good ideas but also a couple of questions that remain unanswered. First, are we now more inclined to the idea that best practice may require the use of multiple technologies rather that one solution for all, and second, how can make the environment seamless to our students? and what about accessibility requirements?

my notes on the event

Engaging students with feedback. I know I did not come to our feedback appointment but could you tell me what my mark is?’ Emilie Poletto’s first slide showing a teacher snowed under a huge mountain of paper is a great illustration of the issue; most of the time students tend to concentrate on the end product rather than on their learning process but it is up to us to change this says Emilie ‘we need to change the role of the student from a consumer approach to a partnership’.
So the big question is ‘What strategies can we use to rethink the way we give students formative feedback? it clearly requires more than a new shiny piece of technology. Maggie Boswell says the change must be driven by the learning process not the means of delivery ‘Some might argue for the use of technology to mark student work while others might argue for traditional methodologies. How student engage with their feedback and make subsequent progress is at the heart of my student-driven ongoing enquiry.

Here are a few tips that teachers shared with the audience

  • work with students on assessment criteria and engage them in collaborative learning activities. Give them the opportunity to identify their strengths and weaknesses and to own a plan for improving their competences.
  • ask students to identify specific features for formative feedback so that you can target both the quality and the amount of feedback you provide
  • use personalised feedback, eg video through Mediasite or any screencasting solution
  • use a variety of feedback formats, written, audio and video
  • provide student support throughout the whole process, they may not need help with using the technology but with the orientation, for example finding where they have to go to look at the feedback 

a bit more from some of the individual presentations

Maggie Boswell uses a combination of different feedback formats such as drop in corrective written and voice comments, and a range of technologies like Turnitin Grademark and Mediasite. Turnitin Grademark allows her to annotate essays using both the a reusable comment bank and voice recording features, while Mediasite desktop recorder allows her to create screencast and add audio feedback.

With this combination of methods she provides feedback during TB1 over a twelve-week period on essay redraft and final draft. A couple of tips from Maggie on voice feedback; first, students engage more with this type of feedback because they hear a familiar voice, second, it is important to use the right tone and elaborate on some of the negative comments so that students don’t worry too much about a mistake that may be less serious than they might think. ‘I really like the video feedback. At first when I saw ‘omit’ (grademark drop in written comment) I thought it was really bad, but when I watched the video, I realised it was not such a bad error because of the intonation’. (from student survey collected via Google forms).

Emilie Poletto’s presentation ‘Thanks for the feedback, but what is my mark?” How to help students engage with feedback, was the one I liked most as it goes straight to the point, we spend lots of time providing formative feedback and then realise that students completely ignore it and only focus on the final mark. What can we do about this?

Emilie’s approach, inspired by the work of Alex Forsythe & Sophie Johnson as well as the work of other colleagues in the SML, focuses on ‘feedback action plans’ and student motivation.  Each student gets an individual action plan  to record specific areas of their learning that are routinely discussed with the teacher during individual tutorial. The action plan puts the onus on the students to devise their own strategies, critically evaluate the feedback they are given, build on their strengths and address their weaknesses. Students may not be used to do all of this at first but that they are more likely to engage if they feel they are in charge of the process and get good support from their teacher. Grades are only discussed at a later stage, in fact Emilie doesn’t give students their marks until they have completed the action plan which means students really have to focus on their learning first.   

In terms of working with multiple technologies I liked Jana Nahodilová’s presentation about the use of Blackboard, Quizlet and Xerte: the best parts of all of them to support assessment and feedback. Her approach for providing formative assessment is built on three main areas; Ongoing multi-phase daily process that takes place through teacher-pupil interaction, providing feedback for immediate action (for student and teacher) and reflecting on how to modify teaching activities to improve learning (motivation) and results.
For each one of these tools Jana has identified both advantages and considerations from a teacher’s perspective. Advantages include ‘easy to use and interactive’, ‘great for monitoring’, and ‘wide range of possible activities’, while some consideration are ‘little flexibility’, ‘complex set up’ and ‘lack of the functionalities required’.

More on the range of technologies on show

Blackboard assessment engine available within Blackboard and fully supported at UoB

Xerte online tutorial tool with a range of functionalities for assessment and feedback and fully supported at UoB

Quizlet  free online learning tool particularly used for flashcards to support vocabulary learning

Mediasite fully supported UoB lecture capture tool with a range of functionalities for editing videos and screencasting  

Turniting Grademark, fully supported at UoB grading tool with a variety of functionalities for automated written feedback and voice feedback

Google forms free and easy to use quiz tool available from individual google accounts

Sonocent an audio note taking software with a wide array of functionalities for feedback and assessment such as visual annotations of text and audio

Many thanks to the presenters for sharing their work:

Maggie Boswell, English teacher (CELFS)
Emilie Poletto, French teacher (SML)
Jana Nahodilová, Czech teacher (SML)

Feedback: Encouraging Engagement and Dialogue – notes on a seminar

‘Feedback is good for you, like exercise and broccoli’, said Imogen Moore from the University of Bristol Law School in her seminar on 5th December, Feedback: Encouraging Engagement and Dialogue (quote from Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Douglas Stone, Sheila Heen). We know it’s good for us but, according to Moore, feedback receives a consistently low score in student satisfaction surveys. So why isn’t it working? Moore offered some really interesting insights that we can take forward when thinking about how to integrate good assessment and feedback opportunities into the Bristol Futures enrichment courses, as well as in the University more widely. Here are some of the main points the seminar covered:

Outdated attitudes
We’ve all had an older family member talk about how things were ‘back in their day’ (in my case, mostly when I’m moaning about my online shopping having not arrived on time). In that vein, Moore suggested that some lecturers are of the opinion that ‘we didn’t get any help at University, why should they?’

The fact that students are paying higher fees in recent years was offered as an explanation as to why feedback satisfaction rates are so low; students expect more help because they’re paying more money to be at University. But I think there’s more to it than that. The internet has changed the studying process unrecognisably, and students going to university in the digital age face different challenges to those who went earlier. With more ideas and information floating around in a global space, students are able to combine traditional book based research with online resources and improve their work as a result, but with an influx of information at their disposal, we need to recognise that students might need more direction as to which information is valuable.

‘More’ isn’t always ‘better’
One of the main questions raised during the seminar was how to make feedback engaging and worthwhile. Moore talked about feedback as a ‘dialogue’ rather than a one off, tutor led event, with the student taking an active, central role in the feedback. Here are some of her ideas and my thoughts on them:

  • Reducing the stakes
    • Moore suggested making formative assessments optional in order to encourage growth and dialogue, only putting formal weight on the summative assessment. Her idea is that this will encourage students to talk about how they can improve and see opportunities for growth, rather than give up and lose confidence at the sign of a bad grade
    • My worry here would be that, in the busy lives of students, ‘optional’ could quite easily be taken to mean ‘it doesn’t matter’. Although it’s ultimately the prerogative of the students to engage with their degree, this approach could actually end up disengaging students who have jobs or heavy involvement with societies, who will deprioritise non-compulsory work for something they consider more immediately worthwhile
  • Moving from ‘evaluation’ to ‘coaching’
    • When the focus is on evaluation, students tend to think of their rank or rating, triggering a defensive response. When the focus is on coaching, the student can learn and grown from their mistakes and past efforts. Moore suggested introducing developmental formal opportunities, for example submitting a plan for a summative assessment.
    • I think this is really valuable; sometimes the hardest thing about being a student is to organise your thoughts into a coherent answer, and so having the opportunity to run your thoughts past your tutor is always going to be a positive thing. However, we need to keep in mind that students want grades – would grading something like an assessment plan encourage or discourage engagement with the summative assessment itself?

Should we engage students in feedback policy and practice?
The co-creation of resources has become really popular in materials development over recent years. I found it really interesting to hear Moore talking about how, during her time at the University of Reading, they held student forums with the aim of influencing feedback policy and practice. She recognised the benefits of getting the students involved in the process, in that it increased a shared understanding between students and lecturers, but commented that a negative aspect of the exercise was the fact that students don’t want a direct involvement in actually writing the policies and prefer to take a consultative role. My thought was, why should they want a direct involvement? To me, this is a bit like saying ‘lecturers are happy to provide their opinion on my essay but they don’t want to write it for me’. Co-creation should be a combined effort with the responsibility for certain tasks or processes falling on the right shoulders; lecturers are essentially co-creating a student’s journey through university by providing feedback on their work and, in the case of the University of Reading, students are co-creating policies by providing feedback on the feedback process.

Overall, it became clear that students want specific advice on how to improve, as well as prompt feedback, guidance on how to use the feedback they are given and examples of good and bad practice. As one of Imogen Moore’s students has said, ‘if I knew what I was doing wrong, I wouldn’t have done it’. Online connectivity offers a number of possibilities for online guidance and feedback, and the TELED team are already managing some really useful methods, including audio and video feedback, iPad marking and TurnitIn Grademark. Hopefully we’ll see student satisfaction on feedback improve with more schools and departments, as well as the Bristol Futures enrichment courses, adopting online processes and thinking about how they can best deliver feedback to encourage maximum engagement and dialogue. 

‘Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become’: how can we encourage students to work towards a positive vision of their future selves?


Astronaut” by J M is licensed under CC Public Domain Mark 1.0

I recently read the biography of Chris Hadfield, the retired Canadian astronaut. In it, he tells readers, ‘don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become’, referencing his childhood vision of being an astronaut and how he refocused all of his daily activities including diet, school work and free time in the direction of that goal until he reached it.

On 28th November Alex Forsythe, an Occupational Psychologist at the University of Liverpool, led an Education Excellence seminar, Thanks But No Thanks for the Feedback, in the Wills Memorial Building. Alex Forsythe unwittingly channelled Chris Hadfield in her idea that students need to have an awareness of their future selves in order to accept feedback and set goals, touching also upon Carol Dweck’s theory of ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets. She recognised the theory’s obvious problems in terms of generalisation but used it as a useful way to understand basic student thinking:

  • A fixed mindset student is more likely to see their skills and talents as fixed and will work very hard to protect their self esteem, perhaps rejecting negative feedback where it needs to be taken
  • A student with a growth mindset is all about learning; nothing is set in stone and they’re open to being challenged and growing in areas they don’t believe to be their expertise

As staff at the University of Bristol, it’s our job to help encourage growth mindsets in students and support them in developing an awareness of their future selves. This doesn’t mean that each student has to be aware of the specific career path they will take, but rather that they are aware of the skills they’ll need for any workplace so that they can work towards becoming an employable, well rounded individual. Through Bristol Futures, we’re encouraging students to develop and recognise specific graduate skills so that they can set goals and react to feedback as positive steps towards developing these skills, rather than thinking of feedback as a negative thing. Most of us have heard about the ‘feedback sandwich’, where negative feedback is framed by positive feedback so that the student doesn’t self-reflect destructively. But framing things in positive language doesn’t challenge students to move forward; they need to be able to receive criticisms constructively and have difficult conversations in future, so why wrap them in cotton wool during education?

The main topic of discussion after the seminar was that, due to the increase in tuition fees, students tend to think of Universities as institutions of teaching rather than institutions of learning. They want more resources given to them upfront as well as tangible, easily evidenced results, with learning outcomes that are directly relevant to something they do or intend to do in their lives. Forsythe also told the seminar that ‘you’re more likely to make an effort towards applying for a job if you believe you’ll get it’. This leaves us with two main questions:

  • Do we need to make the learning of graduate skills explicit throughout the Bristol Futures courses in order to:
    • make the benefits clear to students concerned with dedicating time to something they’re not paying for?
    • allow students to recognise the skills they’re developing and improve their self confidence, encouraging them to set higher goals for themselves in future?

I went into the seminar expecting to get ideas on how we can provide feedback to students taking the Bristol Futures courses, but left thinking that the Bristol Futures courses should develop students’ ability to receive feedback in other areas. It seems to me as though the true measure of Bristol Futures’ success is to go back to the students in ten years time; if they are happy, well adjusted adults, we’ve succeeded.

Digital Literacy – An NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief

A new Horizon Project Report from NMC focuses on how classroom instruction/education can create digitally literate students (and by default staff).


“While institutions have become more adept at integrating emerging technologies, our survey data revealed that there is still a lot of work to be done around improving digital literacy for students and faculty,”

FutureLearn Academic Network 24th October

The FutureLearn Academic Network event at the University of Leicester  provided a chance to catch up with Futurelearn developments, including:

  • Intended audiences for courses: Several institutions are aiming FutureLearn courses at their own students and/or wanting to track impact of publically available courses on their students.  Professional CPD is another growth area. There are debates to be had about the relative merits of CPD courses being closed or open to a wider audience.
  • Course evaluation and analytics: There were some wonderful presentations on how data extracted from courses can be used to understand learning taking place in FutureLearn courses. Sylvia Gallagher’s research at Trinity College Dublin uses visualisations of FutureLearn discussion to identify discursive themes and analyse whether comments are ‘on task’ (related to the intended learning outcomes). Sylvia is also evaluating the impact of infographics summarising each week of the course. Ben Fields from FutureLearn is exploring time on task; the amount of time that elapses between a learner first starting a step and marking it as complete. This could appear as a report in the platform to aid educator in the future. Southampton University are using data to try to predict dropouts and comparing stated weekly learning time with the actual time learners spend on platform.
  • Futurelearn and relevant external tools: Futurelearn are ready for a further roll out the long awaited group tools. Early indications are they can work for courses where the design is heavily structured towards group work – food for thought for Bristol Futures course design. An external tool called  Georama may also have application for Bristol Futures. It is an  Immersive technology that could give a learner some feeling of engagement with a live event from a distance, for example a field trip. As with the group function, the purpose would need to be clearly thought through. Would a live experience be of enough benefit to enough learners to make using this worthwhile?
  • Methods of accrediting and verifying learning: Professor Mike Sharples (Open University) outlined some future looking research using ‘Blockchain’ technology. Blockchain was developed to verify bitcoins, but is now being piloted to verify learning achievement. Could this become a more mature version of Open badge technology? See The Blockchain and Kudos: A Distributed System for Educational Record, Reputation and Reward. OU experiments include using within an ePortfolio.

Play – notes from a PM Studios lunchtime talk

I attended October’s lunchtime talk at Pervasive Media Studio by Simon Johnson of Free Ice Cream and igfest – about working in real world games. His big hit was the city-based zombie chase game, 2.8 Hours Later (these were heavier with social commentary than I had realised at the time – second version was about becoming an asylum seeker).

I loved his thought that playing a game is like running on a different operating system. And that it can help you see features of the existing operating system – say of a city – that would not otherwise be apparent. Creating a game was also described not as storytelling, but as creating a context in which people build their own stories.

This seems very relevant to thinking about teaching in the digital era, where dissemination of information is no longer such a key concern. We should be designing experiences which shake people out of their set patterns of thinking and allow them to explore new ones, helping them to try out new operating systems, creating rich environments in which they build their own stories.

Misc details

  • Simon emphasised the idea of fun – not “serious gaming”. Similar to Nic Whitton’s emphasis on playfulness?
  • His Cargo game, a city escape game focussed on how to build/undermine trust in a group, was designed to create a chaotic environment to test disaster relief principles.
  • igfest – a festival of interesting games that ran for several years. I think there were more frequent meet ups too. This gave game developers a play-testing community by regular events and some regular participants even became game designers.
  • Hat game – gps tracked bowler hat, whoever kept it longest would win (but there were unintended consequences… the hat-wearer ran away – the prize was too big)
  • theTweeture – such an advanced bot that people thought it was a puppet
  • A couple of the games were intended to help people conceptualise complex ideas: a hoop-rolling game set in a quantum computer; Calibration which puts the scale of the solar system in human terms.
  • He’s developing a conference-based game for the ODI to be played at the UN conference in March.

Teaching at scale: engagement, assessment and feedback – notes from reading group

Chris read #53ideas 27 – Making feedback work involves more than giving feedback – Part 1 the assessment context. A great little paper full of epithets that perfectly describe the situation I find myself in. ‘You can write perfect feedback and it still be an almost complete waste of time’. ‘University policies to ensure all feedback is provided within three weeks seem feeble’.’On many courses no thought has been given to the purpose of the learning other than that there is some subject matter that the teacher knows about’. ‘Part time teachers are seldom briefed properly about the course and its aims and rationale, and often ignore criteria’. The take home message, for me, was that the OU is an exemplar in the area of giving good, useful, consistent feedback even when the marking load is spread over a number of people: ‘If a course is going to hire part-time markers then it had better adopt some of the Open University’s practices or suffer the consequences.’

Jane recommended: Sea monsters& whirlpools: Navigating between examination and reflection in medical education. Hodges, D. (2015). Medical Teacher 37: 3, 261-266. Interesting paper around how diverse forms of reflective practice employed by medical educators are compatible with assessment. She also mentioned “They liked it if you said you cried”: how medical students perceive the teaching of professionalism

Suzi read E-portfolios enhancing students’ self-directed learning: a systematic review of influencing factors

This 2016 paper is based on a systematic literature review of the use of online portfolios, with most of the studies taking place in an HE context. They looked at what was required for portfolio use to foster self-directed learning. Their conclusions were that students need the time and motivation to use them, and also that portfolios must:

  • Be seamlessly-integrated into teaching
  • Use appropriate technology
  • Be supported by coaching from staff (this is “important if not essential”)

Useful classification: purpose (selection vs learning) and volition (voluntary vs mandated) from Smith and Tillema (2003). Useful “Practical implications” section towards the end.

Suzi read How & Why to Use Social Media to Create Meaningful Learning Assignments

A nice example of a hypothetical (but well thought-through) Instagram assignment for a history of art course, using hashtags and light gamification. Included good instructions and motivation for students.

Has some provocative claims about the use of social media:
“It’s inevitable if we want to make learning relevant, practical and effective.”
“social media, by the behaviours it generates, lends itself to involving students in learning”
Also an interesting further reading section.

Suzi read #53ideas 40 – Self assessment is central to intrinsic motivation

Feeling a sense of control over learning leads to higher levels of engagement and persistence. If possible this would be the what, how, where and when. But “taking responsibility for judgements about their own learning” – so good self & peer assessment – may be enough. Goes through an example of self & peer assessment at Oxford Polytechnic. Challenging to our context, as this was highly scaffolded, with the students practicing structured self-assessment for a year before engaging in peer assessment. Draws on Carl Rogers principles for significant learning. Interesting wrt the need to create a nurturing, emotionally supportive space for learning.

Suggested reading

Engagement and motivation

Social media and online communities

Assessment and feedback

More general, learning at scale