Personal learning environments: what are they, and what should they do?

The below is an edited version of one of my PGCHE assignments.  I’ve removed institution-specific data and some of the ‘answering-the-question’ signposting.  I hope the joins don’t show too much!

The term ‘personal learning environment’ has been a significant presence in education theory for fewer than ten years (see Fiedler and Väljataga 2011 for a useful overview of the literature).  If we ask what a personal learning environment is and seek to answer that question in terms of the ‘content’ of a PLE, then our answer will be outdated by the time what we have written is a few weeks old.  An internet image search will reveal that the most popular (and the most elementary) way of visually conceptualising a PLE is as a thing that comprises a series of radial elements.  Sometimes these elements are conceptual, but just as often they are web-hosted applications (Twitter, YouTube, Skype…).  These observations might already begin to suggest a few important things about how the relationships between a student, the student’s personal learning environment, the student’s higher education institution, and the student’s module support might best be configured.  Universities probably need to provide both less (at the institutional level, in terms of expensive infrastructure projects) and more (at the module level, in terms of support and ‘scaffolding’ – see below) in order to work towards optimising students’ uses of their personal learning environments.

What the University should provide

[At the Association of Learning Technology’s 2006 conference,] there was a buzz around the idea of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). […]  Yet for all the talk there was no consensus on what a [PLE] might be.  The only thing most people seemed to agree on was that it was not a software application. (Attwell 2007: 1)

A powerful personal learning environment is not only driven by the innovativeness and quality of the software applications that help to constitute it.  Its power can also be measured according to the degree to which it promotes ‘connectivism’ (Siemens 2004).  As such, PLEs relate to the at least slightly longer history of ‘networked learning’ (see, for example, Steeples and Jones 2002, Siemens 2008, Drexler 2010).

In his discussion of ‘Learning networks in practice’, Stephen Downes (2007: 26-7) lists four factors that a good learning network ought to possess: diversity, autonomy, connectedness and openness.  Downes notes that ‘openness is what makes interactivity possible; barriers that make it difficult or impossible to communicate within the network limit the network’s capacity to learn’ (ibid).  Many university VLEs include significant barriers – most obviously, password-protected access, but equally importantly, barriers between module pages.  If a university curriculum ought to be designed to encourage students to think deeply and broadly across and beyond their subject, not to think in terms of discrete modules offering chunks of knowledge, and if the university experience ought to foster authentic and lifelong learning, then students’ PLEs should also facilitate these things.

In the introduction to an article based on their involvement in e-learning policy and implementation at the University of Southampton, ‘Making it Rich and Personal: Crafting an Institutional Personal Learning Environment’, White and Davis (2011: 24) observe:

While individuals can be agile in their response to technology changes, organisations are typically more constrained by the heritage of past decisions and previous investment. […] In a time of rapid technological development and adoption the gap between everyday practice and organisational provision tends to increase.

One of the diagrams in White and Davis’s paper (ibid: 35) displays the components of a ‘rich learning environment’.  The segment labelled ‘institutional space’ is conceptualised as providing ‘mainly admin and information’.  The ‘personal space’, on the other hand, is tagged ‘I choose, I use it’.

Clearly, there are some online services that a university will have to continue to provide by and for itself.  A secure database of students’ personal and registration data is perhaps the most obvious example.  It also makes sense for there to be a secure repository for the digital learning resources which the tutor chooses to share with the students.  However, this latter interface should not be confused or conflated with the VLE/PLE tout court, which, if it is to be rich and powerful, needs to be a much larger, diverse, open and connected entity.  Another thing that a university must also provide is excellent infrastructure: reliable, fast, wireless connection to the internet via whichever devices students choose to employ.  It is coming to look increasingly like a disastrous waste of resources, though, for universities to invest heavily in infrastructure projects designed to produce less good and more quickly outdated version of online learning environments than the ones that already exist ‘out there’ and which students actually use.

If the university’s facilitating role ended with the provision of technological infrastructure, then there would be little difference between an institute of higher education and an internet service provider.  However, there is a difference, and it is to be found in support and pedagogy.

Facilitating networked learning: the role of the subject tutor

Web 2.0 and all that goes with it is a threat to higher education if higher education is conceptualised as the transmission of bodies of knowledge to students.  If that is what education is, then it is just as effective, if not more so, to acquire the necessary information online as it is to attend lectures and so on.  (Siemens (2004) takes this argument one step further, arguing that Web 2.0 can act as a virtual and prosthetic memory, thus making the personal storehouse of knowledge of the expert less valuable, if ‘static’ knowledge is all that is offered.) Even using this limited, ‘transmission’ conceptualisation, there would still probably be a role for the university.  Of all the information out there, how would the student know which information was ‘necessary’?  Some training in digital/information literacy would still be required.  But what this immediately reveals is the broader point that learning is more than receiving information, and that students need to be helped to learn how to learn.

Before proceeding to the level of philosophies of pedagogy and the learning environments that best match them, it will be instructive to start at a smaller level, with a brief summary of an illuminating piece of research into the use of ‘wikis’ (websites or pages which can be easily edited by large numbers of people) in an undergraduate curriculum.  Judd et al (2010) tracked the behaviour of students who were set a task involving a wiki.  The intention was to develop skills of collaboration.  However, the result was rather different:

The timing and distribution of students’ contributions […] revealed a great deal about their capacity and willingness to cooperate and collaborate with other members of their group.  The two major findings from our analysis in this area were that (i) the majority of contributions were made late in the activity, which is not surprising given many students’ tendency toward last minute study […], and (ii) most students contributed to the wiki on a single day.  Both findings suggest that students would have had limited opportunities to interact, via the wiki, with other members or [sic] their groups. (Ibid: 350)

Technology is not a magic bullet.  Spector (2002: xiii), in the foreword to an anthology addressing networked learning, describes ‘the history of educational technology’ as one ‘filled with broken promises’.  ‘Many have implicit faith that technology will make education better’, Spector writes (ibid: xiv): ‘Such faith is ill-founded.’  What he means here is technology alone.  ‘While wikis include features that are designed to facilitate collaboration’, Judd et al (2010: 341) reflect in their abstract, ‘it does not necessarily follow that their use will ensure or even encourage collaborative learning behaviour.’  What is missing from the learning environment that might further encourage such behaviour?

In a subsequent piece of research addressing student use of wikis, Manion and Selfe (2012: 25) stress the importance of supplementing the technological with the disciplinary and the social.  They stipulate that tasks using wikis need to be ‘grounded in habits of thought appropriate for the field’, and also that ‘assessment should be distributed among a range of stakeholders and should be contextualized to give value to students’ work beyond the classroom.’

Writing in more general terms about networked learning and PLEs, Drexler (2010: 369) speaks of the need to strike a balance between ‘teacher control and student autonomy’.  She seeks to explain ‘how a teacher can scaffold a networked learning approach while providing a foundation on which students take more control of the learning process.’  By placing ‘the networked student’ at the centre of her approach, Drexler avoids the risk of abstracting or fetishising technology, of seeing it as an end rather than a means.  Drexler’s (ibid: 372) model of ‘the networked student’ offers an image of a smiling student sitting at a desktop computer, but the nodes that radiate from this student are not exclusively pieces of software (although there are these: blogs, podcasts, wikis, etc), but also human contacts (running from friends and family to classmates, teachers and experts).  As we have already seen Downes argue, a learning environment is powerful to the extent that it permits connections and communication – not only with static knowledge, but also with others one can enter into dialogue with.  Indeed, such is the basis of ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger 1998).

Drexler’s reference to ‘scaffolding’ points in the direction of ideas developed more thoroughly by Van B. Weigel.  Weigel (2002: 9), adopting a constructivist perspective, argues that ‘cognitive apprenticeship is the learning methodology best suited to achieve the aims of deep learning’.  He highlights ‘six teaching methods that facilitate cognitive apprenticeship: modeling, coaching, scaffolding [cf. Drexler], articulating, reflecting, and exploring’ (ibid: 10-11).  These activities, which involve a constant stream of mutual feedback between tutor and student(s), cannot be delivered as effectively or as fully by any piece of software yet developed as they can be by a human (with the requisite expertise). (These reflections also chime with a fascinating article by Johnson and Liber (2008), who in support of their arguments about ‘The Personal Learning Environment and the human condition’ adduce philosophy running from ancient Greece (Socrates) through to the twentieth century (chiefly, phenomenology and existentialism), and demonstrate that alongside ‘technological interventions’ there will continue to be ‘a deep need for teaching and learning’ (ibid: 10) provided by humans.)

Weigel’s ideal of ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ leads him to propose that classrooms ought to be reconceptualised as ‘knowledge rooms’.  He offers five models (2002: 18-23): ‘The Research Center’; ‘The Skill Workplace’; ‘The Conference Center’; ‘The Debate Hall’ and ‘The Portfolio Gallery’.  There is not the space here to describe each set-up; the names are evocative enough for my purposes.  What these names should make clear is that the environments Weigel envisages do not much resemble VLEs used as repositories for powerpoint presentations.  Nor do they resemble a search engine, or a piece of software.  (A contemporary parenthesis: It is worth pondering the extent to which the still-shifting idea of a ‘MOOC’ fits any of Weigel’s models.)  What the names should also make clear is that is that in each case, what is being placed front and centre is the exchange of ideas (often, also, with a community of practice).  This can take us back to Downes, and his prescriptions for powerful PLEs, whose words can serve as a fitting conclusion.

The knowledge produced by a network should be the product of an interaction between the members, not a mere aggregation of the members’ perspectives.  A different type of knowledge is produced one way as opposed to the other.  Comparing two points of view, for example, allows us to see what they have in common, while merely counting or aggregating views forces us to pick one or the other.  Web 2.0 software is about much more than listing connections or tallying memberships.  It is about the conversation that happens between individuals.  And so, too, the personal learning environment supports not just content consumption but interaction and communication. (2007: 26, original emphasis)

References

Attwell, Graham (2007), ‘Personal Learning Environments – the future of eLearning?’, eLearning Papers 2: 1, pp. 1-8. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Downes, Stephen (2007), ‘Learning networks in practice’, Emerging Technologies for Learning 2. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Drexler, Wendy (2010), ‘The networked student model for construction of personal learning environments: Balancing teacher control and student autonomy’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 26: 3, pp. 369-85.

Fiedler, Sebastian H. D. and Terje Väljataga (2011), ‘Personal Learning Environments: Concept or Technology?’, International Journal of Virtual and Personal Learning Environments 2: 4, pp. 1-11.

Johnson, Mark and Oleg Liber (2008), ‘The Personal Learning Environment and the human condition: from theory to teaching practice’, Interactive Learning Environments 16: 1, pp. 3-15.

Judd, Terry, Gregor Kennedy and Simon Cropper (2010), ‘Using wikis for collaborative learning: Assessing collaboration through contribution’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 26: 3, pp. 341-54.

Manion, Christopher E. and Richard ‘Dickie’ Selfe (2012), ‘Sharing an Assessment Ecology: Digital Media, Wikis, and the Social Work of Knowledge’, Technical Communication Quarterly 21: pp. 25-45.

Siemens, George (2004), ‘Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age’, elearnspace. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Siemens, George (2008), ‘A brief history of networked learning’, elearnspace. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Spector, J. Michael (2002), ‘Foreword’, in Steeples and Jones (2002), pp. xiii-xvii.

Steeples, Christine and Chris Jones (2002), eds., Networked Learning: Perspectives and Issues, London: Springer.

Weigel, Van B. (2002), Deep Learning for a Digital Age: Technology’s Untapped Potential to Enrich Higher Education, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wenger, Etienne (1998), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

White, Su and Hugh Davis (2011), ‘Making it Rich and Personal: Crafting an Institutional Personal Learning Environment’, International Journal of Virtual and Personal Learning Environments 2: 4, pp. 23-39.

Close reading; or, my teaching timeline

On the module of my PGCHE focused on classroom practice, one of the first activities we were invited to participate in was to draw up a ‘teaching timeline’.  We had to cast our minds back as far as we could remember, and map a chronology of our experiences of being taught, highlighting particular memorable moments, periods, or teachers.  It was a great activity, which I would recommend to anyone.  The first response it provoked in me, besides nostalgia, was immense gratitude.  My feeling is that I’ve been particularly lucky to have encountered so many great teachers, of so many different kinds.  (The first learning experience I remember in any detail is Mrs Reed, a semi-retired and quite elderly woman – or so she seemed at the time! – coming into one of my classes in perhaps my second year at primary school and teaching us some of the basics of grammar.  Those lessons have never left me.)

The main thing that I soon came to recognise, though, was the primary importance within what I might somewhat loftily call my ‘intellectual formation’ of one method of inquiry: close reading.

The apex of my experience of this method during my days of being taught was my two years studying A-level English literature at Ridge Danyers College (now Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College), principally by two truly great teachers: Julia Wilde and Tony Cassidy.  We spent two years studying only a handful of texts: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Color Purple, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Othello, The Tempest, and some Ted Hughes poetry (there may have been one or two others, but I don’t think there were).  That works out at just over one text per term (although in practice there were overlaps – meaning, in fact, that we spent longer than a term on each text!).  We were not given lectures, and I don’t remember much in the way of secondary critical literature (a point I shall return to later), though I do remember being chastised in the feedback to one of my essays for parroting a reading that I had found in a ‘Critical Guide to…’.  What we did, for two and a half hours, twice a week, was sit in a circle with the teacher, read passages of the set texts together line by line, and talk about what they meant.  It was amazing, and I still (that is to say in part, after a subsequent first degree in film and literature) count Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Othello and The Tempest as amongst the texts I know best of all, and admire the most (these two things of course being closely related).

University study (in my experience of the courses I’ve been on or looked into), and not just that of literature, tends to be very different from this.  For an undergraduate, a more typical pace is to have one set text per week of term.  Often, there will only be two hours of contact time per text, and one of those hours will be a lecture.  And that is per module; depending on the institution, a student may be juggling between four and six modules per week.

Another key difference that I found (in my particular but I believe quite widely-applicable experience) between studying humanities at A-level and at undergraduate level was that in the case of the latter there was a much greater emphasis upon engaging, both in the classroom and in one’s essays, with existing academic material on the topics and/or texts one was studying.  Again, this is a point I shall return to towards the end, after offering some thoughts on the issue of speed and depth.

The virtues of taking a ‘deep and narrow’ approach

I have offered above a general sketch of the way university teaching will often be conducted: one text per week, one lecture, one seminar.  However, there are of course plenty of exceptions to this general trend, and plenty of eloquent and prestigious voices in favour of close reading.  I’m not going to talk here about contemporary voices in educational theory that argue (correctly) that the pursuit of coverage is often at the expense of the cultivation of the skills that would allow students to stand back from the rapid-fire tour of modular copses the better to see the woods of the discipline.  (This is one of the arguments of those who advocate ‘threshold concepts’ – the topic of a future blog, perhaps.)  I am also consciously eschewing the ‘contemporary information overload’ argument (which re-emerges every time a new communications technology is disseminated, and is at least as old as the invention of writing).  I find Nicholas Carr’s article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ interesting and provocative, but that line of argument is not the one I am pursuing here.  I take it that we live, as we always have, in a world where there is more information available than any one person can hope to become acquainted with, but that we also live, as we always have, in a world where there are a range of ways of responding to this fact.

In a previous blog entry I quoted a short passage from a great interview given by communications scholar John Durham Peters.  Here is Peters again, in the same interview, advocating reading in depth as a vital accompaniment to attempts to achieve breadth of coverage:

Truth is robust.  Though there is too much to read, many minds will light on common truths.  So instead of angsting about how to encompass it all, find an angle and start digging and you will soon discover roots and branches that connect you with other perspectives.  Dig into Weber far enough, and you’ll be able to figure out Marx and Durkheim.  This is the wormhole principle: the key thing is to figure out how to access the network.  So instead of dictating a canon of specific titles, I would encourage people to find their scripture, their text that can help interpret the world for them, and then read and reread it.

The main source of reflections upon this topic that I have been reading lately though, the one that prompted me to write this entry in the first place, is the introduction to Robert B Ray’s book The ABCs of Classic Hollywood Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2008).  One thing that Ray cites there as a way of introducing his own method is an interview with Carlo Ginzburg, an historian whose work I admire enormously.  Ginzburg is talking about the thing in his teaching timeline that led him down the professional path he chose:

I didn’t even consider history because I found it so boring.  What changed my mind was a seminar in which [I] was asked to spend an entire week analyzing only ten lines of a book written by a leading 19th-century historian.

It was the slowness that fascinated me.  Every phrase, every word had to be dissected for their possible implications.  I came to understand that texts can have hidden, invisible meanings.  It was not an easy lesson.  In my speech, my writing, my judgments about people, I tend to be very quick.  I learned the importance of reading and rereading one page, even a single passage, for days, weeks. (Qtd. in Ray, xviii)

Ray’s book itself abides strongly by the ethos of close reading.  Not only this: it arises from Ray’s experience of teaching film to undergraduates not by presenting them with a new film each week, but instead by spending fourteen weeks studying four movies (he describes his book, brilliantly, as ‘a kind of lab report concerning what can still be done with four famous movies and a few basic critical texts’ [xxv]).  His experience of this teaching was that, ‘[f]ar from wearing out the films under investigation, the intense scrutiny enhanced both my own and my students’ interest in them’ (xviii-xix), and that his students ‘produced the most consistently interesting work I have seen in my 25 years of teaching’ (xxv).  (I have, happily, experienced some measure of this closeness in my own university film education.  The University of Warwick’s Department of Film and Television Studies, as a rule, screens each module film twice to its students, and expects them to attend both screenings.  I found this to be a great discipline to cultivate, and looking back, I also see that it greatly enhanced the quality of discussion that occurred in the seminar room.  V F Perkins in particular would often spread the study of a single film across multiple weeks in his teaching.  One of my fellow Warwick alumni has since moved on to the University of Bristol, and has told me that there is a final year undergraduate module there on which students spend several weeks studying a single film from a range of perspectives.  I am sure this list could be extended further.)

The (secondary?) place of ‘secondary’ literature

I agree with Peters that it is not worth having a passing acquaintance with a huge number of texts if one does not also possess intimate knowledge of at least a handful of favourites; indeed, that a lack of experience in close reading of some texts will condemn one to a superficial grasp of all texts.

I mentioned that as well as not being diluted by greater coverage of a larger corpus of literature, my primary focus upon a small number of texts during my A-level literary study also largely eschewed any engagement with secondary literature on those texts, or on literature more broadly.  Looking back, do I believe that my engagements with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Tempest would have been deepened with the help of other critical voices, or that being taught, at that stage, how to stage a dialogue with existing sources would have made for sounder ‘training’ for the further studies in the humanities that I was about to embark upon?

I would answer each of those questions with a confident ‘no’.  I should immediately add that I believe that engaging with other voices, among them existing academic literature, some of which sometimes goes under the name of ‘theory’, is a fundamental element of study from the undergraduate level onwards.

There was a stage in my university studies where I was a close reading ‘purist’.  What I mean is that I, semi-unconsciously, measured the closeness of my reading by the extent to which I excluded references to ‘theory’.  Theory dealt with the abstract; I was dealing with the particular.  (I’m caricaturing slightly for the sake of clarity: my work was never ‘theory’-free; it was only during particular passages and for particular purposes that I would eschew secondary material.  I still believe there are occasions where this is justified.)  However, I do not see things this way any more.  I still think that ‘theory’, when used badly, can lead to what Kristin Thompson (I think) called ‘cookie-cutter’ criticism: every text that the theory comes into contact with comes out looking the same.  But not all theoretical writing offers its readers a reductive procedure for pigeonholing texts and their components, reducing them to deathly sameness.  As Terry Eagleton puts it in After Theory (Penguin, 2004),

At their most useful, critical concepts are what allow us access to works of art, not what block them off from us.  They are ways of getting a handle on them.  Some of them may be more effective handles than others, but that distinction does not map on to the difference between theory and non-theory.  A critical concept, even a useless or obfuscatory one, is not a screen which slams down between ourselves and the work of art.  It is a way of trying to do things with it, some of which work and some of which do not.  At its best, it picks out certain features of the work so that we can situate it within a significant context.  And different concepts will disclose different features. (94/5)

I still think that offering alive, detailed, sensuous descriptions of individual texts and the experiences they offer is one of the most important and valuable tasks of work in the humanities, but I now have no residual guilt or qualms about using ‘theoretical’ material to help me achieve that goal.

We are what we read, and as Carr suggests in his article (quoting Maryanne Wolf), we are also how we read.  I would go one further: we are the order in which we read.  I believe there is a big difference between, on the one hand, watching Vertigo and then reading ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, and, on the other, reading ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ and then watching Vertigo.  (The example is hardly random or innocent, but there are plenty of others I could offer, and I invite the reader to think of her or his own.)

I think, though (I recognise the possibility that I could be wrong about this), that without that crucial formative period of closely studying literature, largely untroubled by what others (beyond those others in the room discussing it with me) thought about it, I would not have the same respect for aesthetic texts and their autonomy (and what I am even tempted to call ‘rights’ in the face of hermeneutic endeavours directed at them), nor the same taste for losing myself in details and close analysis, nor the same primary reliance upon my own engagement with the text, as a first step, at least (to briefly invoke once again the ‘second screening’ system at Warwick: another part of its logic was that one would have the opportunity to watch a film once with only one’s own preconceptions, before hearing a lecture about it, and then again afterwards to allow one to measure the evidence of the text against the words of the lecturer, and to do so in light of one’s own initial response).  This is why, although one of the leitmotifs of my life is to find myself saying ‘I wish I’d known that sooner’, and although there have been darker moments in my university life where I have cursed my greenness in the face of certain types of academic cut and thrust, when I look back at my teaching timeline I am glad that the encouragements to adopt particular approaches to my objects of study came at the times and in the order that they did.

Cultivating a community of reflective teaching practice

What if we assumed that learning is as much a part of our human nature as eating or sleeping, that it is both life-sustaining and inevitable, and that – given a chance – we are quite good at it?  And what if, in addition, we assumed that learning is, in essence, a fundamentally social phenomenon, reflecting our own deeply social nature as human beings capable of knowing?  What kind of understanding would such a perspective yield on how learning takes place and on what is required to support it? Etienne Wenger. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Most academics are extremely adept at talking about their research in a number of ways.  Several of the longstanding practices of the academy are designed to facilitate such exchange – most obviously, conferences and symposia.  We think nothing of travelling for two hours (or sometimes even two days!) each way, to give a twenty minute ‘paper’.  And this is, broadly speaking, as it should be.  The instantaneous and vigorous exchange of ideas and knowledge is one crucial way in which those things move forwards.  It is also one of the key ways in which academics recognise and honour the fact that they are part of a social ‘community of practice’, to use Wenger’s simple and powerful term.

What about our teaching practice?  Do we go to the same lengths, take the same care, in talking to our peers about that other activity that is supposed to command at least some (!) of our professional energy?  As well as travelling across countries, or continents, to discuss our research, do we travel across the corridor to discuss our teaching?  Not as much as or in the ways that we ideally ought to, I would suggest, and I invite every academic reader to ask whether the same is also true for her or him.

For the first time this year, HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) are collecting data from HE institutions concerning the formal teaching qualifications of staff involved in that activity.  How these data will be used and how they will feed into league table positions, prospective student decision-making, and so on, remains to be seen.  However, along with the Higher Education Academy and its Professional Standards Framework and National Teaching Fellowships (with related awards), it is another move designed to incentivise the formal professionalisation of teaching in the sector.

To be sure, professionalisation can be a mixed blessing, and one frequently hears horror stories from one’s colleagues across the UK about the type of provision that institutions develop in order to tick the relevant boxes.  Some of the blame too must reside with the academics who, when they reluctantly return to the classroom, adopt the behaviours that they rightly condemn in their own students, and adopt a surface or achieving approach to the material (even when that material is trying to help them to recognise deep learning, what facilitates it, and why it is better and ultimately easier than surface learning!).

It would be a real shame if ‘getting one’s teaching qualification’ simply became the latest in an already too-long row of bureaucratic hoops, because if it did, then individuals and institutions alike would be losing out on the real and deeply transformative benefits that can arise from undertaking to learn about teaching.  My own experience of studying towards a PGCHE has prompted me to embark upon what I expect will be a lifelong process of engaging with educational literature and my fellow teachers, not with the aim of becoming a scholar of education, but with the aim of becoming a better and a reflective practitioner.  (The literature on ‘reflective practice’ is vast and multi-disciplinary, and I am only beginning to dip my toe in it.  Schön (1991) is an important early reference point.  More recent publications that I have on my shelf are Ghaye (2011) and Tarrant (2013).)

Bringing together the ideas of communities of practice and reflective practice, it seems to me that a reflective community of teaching practice would be a good thing to cultivate and sustain at the programme or subject area level in higher education.  There are of course benefits in meeting and exchanging ideas with teachers who work in other disciplines.  However, when a group of people share responsibility for the overall learning experience of a group of students, there are obvious benefits to them engaging in ongoing reflection on their collective teaching practice.  Indeed, it would seem strange if this did not occur.

One place in the literature on higher education where this type of activity is examined and models are offered is in the literature relating to peer observation and alternatives to it.  David Gosling’s (2000: 5) seminal work in this area identifies various different potential models.  To briefly summarise just two: An ‘evaluation model’ seeks, as its name suggests, to confirm proficiency or ‘identify under-performance’.  The benefits mainly accrue to the institution, and the scope of the observation is narrow (‘teaching performance, usually within a single session).  By contrast, a ‘peer review model’ encourages ‘engagement in discussion about teaching’.  It focuses not only on teaching performance but other aspects of the learning environment, and the observer and the observed stand to benefit from the process.

In the Film Studies subject area at the University of Hull, we are about to embark on an exciting process of peer development.  In the run-up to a process of curriculum redesign, which will be occurring across the university, we are going to engage in a series of activities designed to develop our ‘reflective community of practice’.  We will be drawing initially upon a ‘Journal Club’ model that I used on the second module of my PGCHE (‘Evaluating and Improving Practice’).  The members of the club read two or three pieces of academic literature on a given topic.  Then an online discussion wiki is open for a pre-agreed period (on the PGCHE we found that a fortnight worked quite well).  The ground rules for participation are that each member must make at least three decent contributions to the forum, at least one of which must me the creation of a new discussion thread, and at least one of which must be a response to a thread started by someone else.  This way, a combination of initiating and engaging in discussion is ensured for all members.  Such a set-up allows one time to reflect and formulate, and also allows participants to contribute at times suitable to themselves (summer is of course the key time in the academic calendar where sustained research and writing is possible).  The idea is that by the end of the summer, we will be primed to turn our informed, collective attention to the delicate matter of curriculum design.

The initial plan is to hold three discussions over the summer.

1 The broad and fundamental issue of teaching philosophies

This forum will not quite fit the template format in the respect that there will be no academic literature to read.  Instead, each member will be invited to complete an online Teaching Perspectives Inventory and report their results to the group, reflecting upon whether the survey is in line with what they thought they thought about teaching, or whether it held any surprises.  Each member will also be asked to respond to the question ‘What are the key things that a student ought to have learned upon leaving our programme?’

2 Designing teaching at the modular level

Readings relating to Biggs’s notion of ‘constructive alignment’ and the notion of ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ (Brown, Collins and Duguid 1989) should prompt interesting discussions about the principles that ought to underpin module design.

3 Assessment and feedback

Finally (for the summer session), we will turn our attention to these crucial areas.  Readings will be decided at a later date, perhaps taking into account discussions that have occurred during earlier forums.

I will report back on how our experiment (which I am resisting giving an official title to!) progresses, and I hope that my colleagues will too.

References

Brown, John Seely, Alan Collins and Paul Duguid (1989), ‘Situation Cognition and the Culture of Learning’, Educational Researcher 18: 1, pp. 32-42.

Ghaye, Tony (2011), Teaching and Learning Through Reflective Practice: A Practical Guide for Positive Action, 2nd edition, London: Routledge.

Schön, Donald A (1991), Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions, Oxford: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Tarrant, Peter (2013), Reflective Practice and Professional Development, London: Sage.

Wenger, Etienne (1989), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The farther you aim, the more an initial error matters.  As we become more ambitious in attempts to organize our lives and our environment, the implications of our perspectives, theories, and beliefs extend further.  As we take more responsibility for our future on larger and larger scales, it becomes more imperative that we reflect on the perspectives that inform our enterprises.  A key implication of our attempts to organize learning is that we must become more reflective with regard to our own discourses of learning and to their effects on the ways we design for learning.

Etienne Wenger. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Curriculum design

Today I attended the University of Hull’s summer University Learning and Teaching symposium on ‘The Lost Art of Curriculum Design’.  Symposia and conferences often leave me feeling tired and cynical, so I’m delighted to report that this one has left me brimming with enthusiasm and a desire to implement and share ideas.

My university is planning a far-reaching process of curriculum overhaul.  One of the pieces of educational theory that figures in the process is that of ‘threshold concepts’.  It was good, then, to have Professor Ray Land – who, along with his colleague Jan Meyer, came up with the notion – present at the first speaker.  Land, with the help of a series of lovely images and metaphors, gave a vivid exposition and defense of threshold concepts and their potential power.  Such concepts are fundamental and transformative ideas which alter the perspective of those who obtain them, allowing them to think like, say, an historian, an economist, a literary scholar, and so on.  It has been suggested, for example, that ‘opportunity cost’ is a threshold concept within economics, and ‘signification’ is one for literary studies.

To make threshold concepts a key part of curriculum reform is a canny move in the respect that it appeals (in both senses) to the discipline-specific expertise of the teaching staff whose job it will be to teach the revised curricula.  They are the people best-placed to thrash out, as a subject team, what the fundamental and transformative concepts of their discipline are – what it means to think (in my case) like a film and television studies academic. (And a media and cultural studies academic… – threshold concepts, although they emphasise ‘disciplinarity’, are not an enemy to interdisciplinarity; Land has suggested that interdisciplinarity may be a threshold concept, and perhaps interdisciplinarity is a threshold concept within film studies.)  The process of thinking and discussion that this will entail will be positive in itself, as most reflection is, and is likely to have two salutary effects on the curriculum: it will probably become more focused on concepts rather than coverage, thus promoting deep learning and thinking, and it will become more joined-up, with individual module tutors having a heightened awareness of the programme as a whole.

Threshold concepts are powerful, but they are not everything.  To know that you want your students to attain these concepts is one thing.  Coming up with the learning activities, the broader learning environment and the modes of assessment that best facilitate the acquisition and the demonstration of the possession of such concepts is the real challenge.  Here, the work of scholars such as John Biggs, Noel Entwistle and Paul Ramsden, with their focus on ‘what the student does’ (the subtitle of Biggs and Tang’s seminal work), is absolutely essential.

A little coda: It is said time and again, and it is true, that teaching is not sufficiently recognised or incentivised in higher education.  Research, so the logic goes, is the key to career advancement.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is a real shame.  However, in my three years of being at Hull, I’ve found it to be a great place to teach, and to pursue professional development in teaching.  And although I recognise the following feeling as partly a function of my own particular personality, I nevertheless find it hard to understand how someone can start to reflect authentically on teaching and learning and not be seriously bitten by the bug.  Teaching is a large part of most of our professional lives.  Why would we not want to be as good at it as possible, and to approach it with the same thirst for knowledge, interest in what others are saying about it, and passionate enthusiasm as we do our research?  This (as Glenn Burgess, our PVC for learning and teaching, was kind of saying in his closing remarks) is surely the real meaning of that idea that is often paid lip service to: an integration of research and teaching (which can be ‘teaching what you research’, but should be so much more besides).  One of my colleagues (@DrAmyMDavis) is a Disney scholar, and she once told me that Walt Disney used to say that he was more interested in his theme parks than his films, because the former were always changing, whereas the latter, once completed, were relatively fixed.  If our books are our films (and our articles our shorts), then our modules and programmes are our theme parks: structured experiences which we offer to our students, and try to improve upon and update year after year.

I’ll end with a quote which Ray Land included in his presentation as a poetic way of thinking about threshold concepts (and really, the whole of learning, and of life):

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
(Tennyson, Ulysses. Full text available here.)

There is a kind of scholarly mind that is interested only in expert opinion and the sophisticated search for new discoveries.  Such a mind is bound to be contemptuous of student opinion and bored, or even pained, by having to listen to youthful efforts to think clearly and argue cogently.  But there are also, thank God, those who are fascinated by the gradual unfolding of a youthful mind and who revel in the everlasting opportunities and challenges of teaching.

Theodore M. Greene. ‘The Art of Responsible Conversation.’ The Journal of General Education 8.1 (1954). (Quotation transcribed as a reminder/warning to myself.)

Neil Patrick Harris: details in performance

Details matter.  If I had to summarise the common thread running through my thinking and writing about popular culture to date, and if I had to paraphrase the bulk of my written feedback to students, that is the phrase I would use.

One of the many areas of filmed fiction in which details matter a great deal is performance.  But because it is harder to point to or quantify elements of performance with the same certainty that one can point to a camera movement, a cut, or even a musical score, performance does not always receive the central place it deserves in discussions of how meaning is made.

On my ‘Analysing Television Drama’ module, which takes Joss Whedon’s work as its case study, I often try in my seminars to put performance at the centre of the sequence analyses we undertake.  Sometimes, I encourage students to replicate the gestures of the actors onscreen in an attempt to ‘feel their way’ into a performance.  Or I encourage other forms of perspective-taking (‘If I were to speak to you in that way, or touch your shoulder in that way, what would it reveal about my attitude towards you?’).  The Buffy episode ‘Doppelgangland’ is a particularly useful tool for thinking about performance, as it involves the wonderful Alyson Hannigan giving sharply differentiated performances.  There is her ‘regular’ Willow, a high school teenager who is all hesitations and nervousness, and there is Willow’s vampire doppelganger from an alternative dimension, all self-possession and stillness.  Thinking about Hannigan’s two performances beside one another brings out more clearly the choices (of posture, eyeline, vocal inflections, movement) in each that create character.  (Fans of the Buffyverse will know that there are several other episodes in the series that could also be used in this way.  ‘Who Are You’, ‘Intervention’, ‘The Wish’…  And there is, of course, the whole of Dollhouse too.)  Alex Clayton has written a brilliant article, which emerged from his teaching, that compares performances in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the film’s remake, directed by Gus Van Sant.  Early in his article Clayton stresses that ‘details matter, … they make all the difference’.

I have not yet taught Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog – a short film made on a slim budget during the 2007-8 Writers’ Guild of America strike and originally distributed for free via the internet – on ‘Analysing Television Drama’ (though it has made brief occasional guest appearances- and yes, I know it’s not strictly television ).  I am, though, a huge fan, so I thought I would mark Neil Patrick Harris’s fortieth birthday with a critical appreciation of his role as Billy/Dr Horrible.  Having watched and listened to Dr Horrible endlessly over the past several months, one of the main things I have come to appreciate is the level, and the depth, of detail in Neil Patrick Harris’s performance, which is at once consistent with the (admittedly few) other things I have seen him in (principally, How I Met Your Mother), and also of a piece with the broader achievements and sensibility of Joss Whedon, Dr Horrible‘s director and co-writer.  (The main body of my blog begins with a further brief digression, about the other Captain character Nathan Fillion has played for Whedon, but we get to Harris and Horrible soon enough!)

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