Resilience – notes from reading group

These seems to be a lot of interest in resilience in higher education at the moment. For myself, while I know we can all learn how to better cope with the stuff life throws at us, my initial reaction to the topic with was along these lines:

My impression from these papers is that resilience is not well-defined and interventions, although often very plausible, are not evidence-based. Putting that concern aside, the techniques which seemed most suited to be incorporated in university education were:

  • building nurturing social networks,
  • fostering a sense of purpose, and
  • encouraging reflection.

I read Resilience: how to train a tougher mind (BBC Future) and Jackson, D., Firtko, A. and Edenborough, M. (2007) ‘Personal resilience as a strategy for surviving and thriving in the face of workplace adversity: a literature review’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 60, 1: 1-9.

Resilience is broadly: the ability to keep going in face of adversity and to get back to normal functioning afterwards. It can mean different things in different situations and might not always be wholly positive. For example, one study looked at at-risk youths for whom self-reported resilience meant disconnection and the ability to go-it-alone – not necessarily something to foster.

Both papers talked predominantly about quite extreme situations: children whose schools were close to the twin towers on 9/11, and nurses who work in high-pressure and traumatic environments. In both a lot of the conclusions seem to be based on self-report, for example how people say that they coped under extreme stress.

There are lots of traits, attitudes, and techniques mentioned as helpful for resilience and most of these are thought to be things which can be learned or developed. They include:

  • social support, especially nurturing relationships (including mentoring)
  • faith, spirituality, sense of purpose
  • positive outlook, optimism, humour, seeking the positive
  • emotional insight, for example through reflective journaling
  • life balance

There are several programmes seeking to develop these traits in school children through mindfulness, sometimes mixed with other techniques. These programmes include: Mindfulness in Schools Project (UK), Inner Resilience Programme (US), Penn Resiliency Training (US). The nursing paper does not mention mindfulness, focusing more on hardiness, optimism, repressive coping, and journaling (more stereotypical activities for middle-aged women, perhaps?).

Both papers touch on the idea that you can’t help others to be calm and resilient if you are not resilient yourself, and so on the importance of promoting resilience in those with caring responsibilities (nurses, teachers).

There are no magic bullets though and nobody claiming large or long-lasting effects for any intervention (once it’s finished). What we have is a bag of techniques and ideas.

Learning design cross institutional network

On Wednesday 6th July I attended my first meeting of the Learning Design Cross Institutional Network, kindly organised by Lisette Toetenel of the Learning Design team at the Open University, and hosted by UCL.  The network has only been going for a year, but with an ever growing focus on systematic enhancement of teaching and the student experience across the HE sector, learning design is becoming a field of great interest to many institutions, and this was reflected in the attendance at the event, which was double the number of the previous meeting. Participants came from a range of organisations, including Liverpool, Edinburgh, UCL, Oxford, Greenwich, Northampton and the Open University.

So what exactly is learning design and why is it of such interest?

Fiona Hale from the University of Edinburgh has recently carried out a review of relevant literature and resources as well as interviews with practitioners across the sector, and opened the day with a summary of her work which is informing developments of the Edinburgh Learning Design roadmap (ELDeR) at her institution.  Fiona acknowledges the importance of learning design research but prioritises learning design practice which she defines as

the process of designing learning experiences (planning, structuring, sequencing) through facilitated activities that are pedagogically informed, explicit and make better use of technologies in teaching

(Learning Design Scoping: Final Report)

It is a creative process and distinct from development of courses, although it may involve prototyping of activities and getting feedback on these.

Why is this sort of process seen as so valuable? Firstly, research by Fiona and others has shown that traditionally course design often “just happens”. When there is an explicit design process this tends to be focussed more on content than thinking about the activities students will be undertaking in their  learning. Learning design foregrounds activity as opposed to content, on the basis that it is the activities which help students to engage with content. Content alone is not learning. 

Secondly traditional design practice often happens in silos, with individual academics working in isolation. Sometimes the person designing is not necessarily the person teaching, which can lead to a lack of coordination. The facilitated process Fiona and others use is a collaborative endeavour, involving as many colleagues from the unit and/or programme team as possible working together with library staff and learning technologists. Collaborative design has been shown to be effective, for example through the success of Gilly Salmon’s long-established Carpe Diem approach. ( )

Thirdly use of a structured process is easier to evaluate and scale as well as being easily shareable.  In Fiona’s case her team have been facilitating the workshops initially, but because there is a standard model and resources, they are now being cascaded down to facilitators in Schools, which has increased capacity and spread effective practice.

So what sort of approaches are other institutions taking?

At Edinburgh the process involves a workshop which takes place over two days, similar to the Northampton CaIeRO approach, both of which are based on Gilly Salmon’s Carpe Diem model.  Others use shorter interventions such as UCL’s one and a half hour ABC workshops. These do not provide an opportunity for any actual activity prototyping  though, in contrast to the approaches used at Edinburgh and Northampton.

All of the approaches are very active, with participants able to make use of visual resources such as activity cards to try out different sequences of types of activities in their designs. This hands on approach is quite different from other purely discursive review processes, and feedback from participants illustrates that they find this very effective in helping engagement and productive outcomes. 

Learning design as product

In addition to the process, learning design can generate a product, for which Dalziel uses the analogy of musical notation.  In the same way that musical notation attempts to capture the energy and complexity of music, a learning design representation tries to capture “the great ideas of teaching to be shared so that we can build that community knowledge”.

“Learning Design – conceptualising a framework for teaching and learning online” (2016) ed Dalziel 2016 )

Different attempts have been made to represent learning designs, including through use of tools like LAMS and the Learning Designer.   Helen Walmsley-Smith from Staffordshire University is one of those who are looking at challenges of categorising learning designs. In order to demonstrate this point Helen invited participants to have a go at analysing and categorising a series of descriptions  of learning activities. This revealed that the different ways that colleagues talk about teaching and learning can present challenges, as can the way teachers describe activities in their instructions for students. 

One of the frameworks that has proven widely useful in helping to categorise learning activities and thereby help with achieving balanced learning design is Diana Laurillard’s:


Laurillard types of learning

(Adapted from: Laurillard, D. (2012) Teaching as a design science: building pedagogical patterns for learning and technology )

We have used both this and the eight learning events model in a number of contexts including workshops and the TEL essentials online course, as ways of helping colleagues think about different ways in which TEL can effectively support learning.


(Leclerc and Poumay (2005) The 8 Learning Events Model and its principles

Diana’s framework is used in the Learning Designer tool, which allows colleagues to visualise through a pie chart the proportion of each different type of  activity in their course. This can then prompt reflection, for example if there appears to be a dominance of “Acquisition” type activity , this may lead to consideration of balancing this more with discussion or practice. 

Future of learning design

Diana provided the final presentation of the day, which looked to the future of learning design. She sees it as an essential to enable scaling up of engagement with learning technology, and to help good pedagogies to cross to different subject areas and contexts, for example between online and blended courses. She ended by suggesting some ways in which MOOCs could help, for example in sharing ideas and designs, and taking advantage of analytics to further research evidence of effectiveness.

(Slides and audio from presentation by Diana Laurillard)

This was an extremely useful day, and provided a great opportunity to meet colleagues who are both starting out on the learning design journey and others who have significant experience and for whom this process is really gaining traction and leading to better designed courses.  Many thanks to all of the contributors. 

We are very keen to trial one or more of these approaches at Bristol, and would love to hear from any colleagues who may be interested.  To find out more please email:

Schools and eLearning – Education ICT 2016 and visit to Microsoft

Last week I attended two events in London that gave a flavour of eLearning and the school sector. The first event was a conference entitled Education ICT 2016, the second was a visit to see education experts at Microsoft, who are doing a lot with schools and increasingly with Universities. Things are changing fast in schools, particularly with the use of tablets by students. We can learn from what is happening in the sector, and there is interest from schools in what we are doing in HE.

Education ICT Conference 2016

Pete Herbert and I presented at the Education ICT Conference in Westminster On Wednesday 29th June. We had the tough job of following an excellent presentation from  Dr Neelam Parmar, Director of Elearning at Ashford School. Neelam described her engagement in with staff to identify pedagogic approaches and develop workflows for a variety of apps used in class on tablet devices. Many of these apps are free and could be of use in HE.

Pete and I spoke about scaling up the digitisation of content through Mediasite and our aspirations to move beyond simply capturing content to doing something more transformative. Pete illustrated the scale of use of Mediasite at Bristol, which has had over a million views, and also described how academics here are:

  • using analytic data to determine the areas students return to in the recordings to ask questions about why students might focus on those elements, eg is there a concept they are trying to better understand?
  • using flipped techniques and video feedback. In other words, changing teaching practice through the technology.

We alluded to aspirations to partner with students in areas of course and material design and how we are learning from MOOCs to change what we deliver to our own students. I was then on a panel session with some challenging questions from the floor about how we engage staff and students in change, and how students can partner with us in making change happen. Coincidentally, one of the other panel members, Kevin Sait, Head of IT Strategy at Wymondham High Academy Trust, delivered part of the session I attended at Microsoft on Friday.

Visit to Microsoft

This was an opportunity to see what Microsoft are developing for the education market. The visit was arranged and attended by colleagues from IT Services. Colleagues from the Faculty of Health Sciences.

We enjoyed a demonstration of the Microsoft Surface Hub. In effect, this is a very advanced electronic whiteboard with powerful video conference functionality built in. The responsiveness of the touch screens in particular was impressive. This has been the main disadvantage of screens I have used in the past. The video conferencing (built on Skype) included Xbox technology that tracks the user to determine which camera to use. You can see that in the right sized classroom, and with the right use cases, this could be an extremely effective tool. They could, for example, support those teaching across the clinical academies.

Kevin Sait demonstrated a range of Microsoft collaboration tools built into Office 365 and Sharepoint. Of particular interest to one colleague was Sway (part of Office 365) billed as a digital storytelling tool. Much of the collaboration with students in Microsoft schools centres on Onenote, through which students can build and share content. Other colleagues could see huge potential of the cloud for collaborative staff activity eg collaboration on exam papers.

There are some differences between Schools and Universities (for example, class size and types of teaching space) but there is much we can learn from what they are doing in schools. University student expectations will evolve as a result of what they are seeing in schools. We can start experimenting with tools like Onenote and the office 365 package, which, like Google apps, have great potential for both staff and student collaborative activity.