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)