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.

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?

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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.