Starting a new learning experience

I’m about to start a new online course.  It’s called Facilitating Online and is run out of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Cape Town. The course is part of the e/Merge AFRICA programme.  It’s my first attempt at consolidating and relating to learning and teaching theory what I have learned about learning online as a student. I’m particularly lucky because I got a chance to pop in on a single session of the course last year, so I have some idea what I’m signing up for. I’ve also been privileged to “eavesdrop” on my colleagues doing the design work for the course – such an exciting position to be in!

facilitatingonline

The first thing we’ve been asked to do is start a learning journal.  I’m usually absolutely terrible at keeping a journal.  I’ll write for a couple of entries and then lose track of the process in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  I’m going to try to stick to this one though!  We’ve been given the following questions to guide our initial reflections:

  1. What are your feelings about the course before you start?
  2. What are your goals and expectations for the course?
  3. How will you know if you have met your goals?

So, let’s take them one at a time then…

How do I feel about the course? 

I find myself both quite excited about the course and oddly nervous. I’ve done more than a few MOOC’s but there’s a delicious anonymity to those –  thousands of people from all over the world, and no-one I know in sight.  As a “young” academic staff developer, having an anonymous space to practice my craft is priceless!  So the online space of this course –  populated by people I either do or should know or who are at best one degree of separation away is a nervous proposition.

What are your goals and expectations for the course?

I’m going to set my goals fairly low for the course.  This is looking like a stupidly busy semester and completing the course is better than dropping out! So, my goals:

  • Make my scheduled engagement/learning times.
  • Make the submission deadlines.
  • Try to understand how to create safe but challenging online spaces.
  • Try to understand the limits of facilitation as a teaching technique.
  • Meet some new people in the field in which I work.
  • Try to watch the course from a design/creation perspective with a view to creating an online version of my course.

How will you know if you have met your goals?

My goals range from the concrete and observable to the less easily measured.  It will be very easy to see if I make my scheduled engagement times and submission deadlines.I think it’ll be a trickier to tell if I understand how to create safe but challenging online spaces until I try with my own course. Similarly, I suspect that understanding the limits of facilitation will only be clear in the context of actually running a course on my own.

 

 

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A Brown Bag about the Brown Bags – evaluating informal, ground up staff development activities

One of my goals for this year is to think a lot more often and carefully about evaluating the informal teaching projects I work on.  Until now, as a fairly novice academic staff developer, evaluation has been a somewhat haphazard process:  feedback forms for workshops, conversations in the corridor with participants, chats with more senior colleagues about plans and screeds of departmental (government) paperwork. As a first step towards my goal, I decided to think more explicitly about evaluation in relation to a project I run in our unit called the Brown Bag series.

This series of meetings was suggested during a merger when two separate units needed to find as many ways as possible to communicate about the work different individuals were engaged with.  The sessions are very “easy going” – a staff member nominates a topic for the session and presents/ chairs/ guides the session.  Attendance in optional. There is no preset list of topics, and staff are typically alerted by email a couple of days before the session. The sessions are (given the variety of topics, and the voluntary attendance) fairly well attended. A loose interpretation of attendance suggests that all staff members have attended at least one session in the previous academic year, with some attending upwards of 75% of the sessions and most sessions attracting between 10 and 15 staff members.

Embarrassingly, I hadn’t really though much about how to evaluate the success of this type of learning event.  I can plan an evaluation for a formal class, but the “looseness” of the voluntary learning event seemed to stymie me, perhaps because I was trying to pair it with the more rigorous forms of evaluation I am more familiar with from the formal classroom context. I enlisted the help of a colleague who specialises in evaluation to help me think it through and together we designed four activities to elicit feedback on particular areas we were interested in.

  1.       Brainstorm the aims of the brown bag sessions in pairs feed into a google doc. 
  2.       Personal highlights. Post it activity.
  3.       Advice for brown bag presenters. Five do’s and five don’ts.
  4.       Brown Bag “dreams”

But, as the idiom reminds us, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry].” In true Brown Bag fashion, my planned progression through the activities was quickly appropriated and reordered by the group. And I landed up with some very useful but terribly unstructured information! While the information about the Brown Bag series is very useful to me, of more use generally was what I learned about doing evaluations for informal learning experiences.

  1. Collaboratively, develop a purpose for the evaluation.
  2. Have a plan.  Don’t be wedded to it. Allow the needs (and mood) of the group to steer the session.
  3. Have an additional note taker / scribe. I just about got away with it  because our unit is used to working in google docs, so various folk kindly took additional notes.
  4. Gather the feedback somewhere communal, share it, and allow for additional comment.
  5. Feed folks 🙂 anyone who give time to evaluating something that won’t directly help them deserves a cookie!

 

Lessons from the dance floor: Brave spaces – Creating uncomfortable moments in safe spaces

Cha-Cha-Cha_Vodicar_Bychkova_0686 Courtesy of Ailura, Wikimedia

Professional dancers, chacha-ing (Ailura, n.d)

What does learning to dance have to do with teaching in a higher education classroom??? This is the first in a series of blog posts about how learning to dance as an adult is teaching me about learning to teach in a higher education context. 

I am not a showy person, and to be honest, I am very uncomfortable with anything that can be seen as overtly alluring*. Despite this, I take latin dance classes and, for anyone who’s missed it, Latin dancing is very showy and very alluring! My regular teacher, let’s call him Teacher 1, focuses, often very technically, on what I’m meant to be doing with my feet – position, pointing, weight and so on. But the other day, we had a different teacher.  Teacher 2, who is delightful, funny and very passionate about his dancing, is all about the hips and expression – the showiness and the allure.

I really struggled in that class. I didn’t laugh as much.  I stumbled a bit more. Teacher 1 gets me to do what I need to by focusing my attention in a place I am comfortable. He reduces the levels of discomfort to the point that they don’t inhibit my learning.  They’re still there but they’re manageable. Teacher 2 doesn’t know me as well and doesn’t understand quite how much I struggle with the showmanship of dance. In a dance space, for now, if I am not at least a little uncomfortable, I’m not learning. But I can’t be too uncomfortable or my fears and inhibitions get the better of me, I freeze up and can’t learn.

This experience has made me think a lot about how comfortable or uncomfortable students are or should be in learning spaces. I work in staff development with emerging and aspiring academics, and have always worked to make my classrooms feel like very safe spaces, to minimize the discomfort. My sessions are voluntary and I’ve feared that if participants don’t feel safe, they’ll drop out.  But there’s a distinct tension here – too much comfort and none of us will grow, too much discomfort and they’ll run for the hills.

So, how to create uncomfortable moments in safe spaces? At first glance I quite like the rules offered by Arao and Clemens (2013):

  • Rule 1: Agree to disagree
  • Rule 2: Don’t take things personally
  • Rule 3: Challenge by choice
  • Rule 4: Respect
  • Rule 5: No attacks

Not all of these rules are as obvious as they first seem, so I encourage you to read Arao and Clemen’s article, “From safe spaces to brave spaces”, referenced below.

Coming up in the Lessons from the Dance floor series: Speaking the unspeakable!

Further Reading

Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces. The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators, 135.

Boys, J. (2008). Between unsafe spaces and the comfort zone? Exploring the impact of learning environments on ‘doing’learning.

Hardwick, J. (2014). A Safe Space for Dangerous Ideas; a Dangerous Space for Safe Thinking. Hybrid Pedagogy.

Stengel, B. S. (2010). The complex case of fear and safe space. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29(6), 523-540.

Image attribution

Aluria, n.d. Austrian Open Championships Vienna, 2012 WDSF World Dancesport Championships Latin 16.-18. November 2012 Cha-Cha-Cha performed by Miha Vodicar and Nadiya Bychkova, Slovenia. Online: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Ailura#/media/File:Cha-Cha-Cha_Vodicar_Bychkova_0686.JPG

*Let’s be frank for a moment, and point out that by alluring I really just mean sexy.

why is this reading so hard? — WordPress.com

Source: wordpress.com

We’re thinking a lot right now on this campus about the ways that the work of the academy valorizes or marginalizes particular discourses, people, acts etc. In our context, we often attribute these acts of marginalization to race and class. I am starting to wonder if these are not "easy" (or at least easier) scapegoats and to what other factors that are less easy to displace these marginalizations might be attributed to. 

See on Scoop.itIn support of teaching and learning

When the writing gets in the way of the learning – Supporting the teaching aspirations and practices of emerging academics through vlogging

camera interview

Steph, a non-permanent, part-time staff member in the Commerce faculty, teaches both undergraduate and postgraduate courses in a department and in a service, soft-skills course. Having signed up for the six module, year-long version of the seaTEACH programme, she has successfully attended all the modules and has made concerted efforts to put her learning from these experiences to work in her classrooms.

Despite her obvious enthusiasm and commitment, Steph has really struggled to make the ePortfolio submissions.  In addition to struggling to find time to craft the submissions, Steph’s other work in the private commercial sector has strengthened her oral skills and encouraged her writing towards directness.  The kind of exploratory, reflective writing that the blog for the course requires is almost directly at odds with the other kinds of directed and directive writing she does elsewhere in her world.

One of the core principles of the programme is to meet academic participants where they are, responding to their strengths and opportunities, enabling their development as reflective practitioners in their classrooms and departmental contexts. This led me to think about how we could “tweak” the format so that Steph could begin to record the reflective work she is doing for herself and for others. Steph and I settled on trying to do her blogs as framed vlogs.

We had our first session recently –what a break through!  The woman who has struggled to submit anything for months became a vocal, highly reflective higher education practitioner.  The vlog took the form of a conversation. Steph loves to talk; she’s an inherently collaborative character who does her best thinking out loud with a peer and the vlogging process we designed tried to respond to this.  We had a loose plan for the session – a key focus and a trajectory from practice to theory and back. Rather than having Steph just talk to the camera, we did an interview, with me just off camera (doing the filming) and asking questions. Having walked some of Steph’s journey with her, I think I was able to provide the kinds of questions that led her to further insights into her own teaching and allowed her the opportunity to deepen her understanding and insight.

The next step is for Steph to choose little snippets of video she’d like to share publically on her blog and frame them with a little text. While I’m viewing vlogging as a kind of intermediate step to writing more comfortably about her practice, I’m quite excited about its affordances in its own right.  She unequivocally brings an energy and excitement to the vlogging process that is not as clear from her writing. Furthermore, vlogging allows for an immediate readjustment or fruitful redirecting of her ideas through the conversational element and immediacy of video. Finally, vlogging presents her ideas in a different mode, and present a more complete and nuanced version of herself to a wider audience.

Image courtesy of jsawkins. December 21, 2009. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Camera operator setting up the video camera

December 21, 2009

dissertation scholar: What is positionality in practitioner research?

Source: dissertationscholar.blogspot.com

In my paid work, I research and support the teaching experiences of non-permanent staff members.  In my other life, I work as a PhD student researching learning shifts through the lens of identity.  Both types of work are surprisingly gentle in some ways and my deep interest in both areas has been around working collaboratively in sustainable ways.

Boud and Brew (2013) raise the issue of the dilemma of the academic development professional in research. Referring to “provider-capture”, they locate the ADP at a point of tension between the demands of the client (the particular university that employs them) and the demands of the particular staff member being served.  I would ass an additional level of demand – that of the field.  In my (admittedly) limited experience thus far, the ADP works at the nexus of three powerful agents (?) –  the individual  the institution and the field of staff development.

Sustainable research in my PhD

One of the things that has been constantly on my mind throughout this project is the issue of relationships in ethnographic-ish research.  My research design operates at multiple levels.  In the one instance, my view is myopic as I am deeply interested in the stuff of texts, the things I can read off or on to the page.  But my access to these texts and the individuals who write and set them is assured and framed by an engagement with the department that is characterized by ongoing, institutionally, professionally and personally obligated relations.

I want to think explicitly about positionality as a possible tool/concept for teasing out and talking about these relations.

See on Scoop.itIn support of teaching and learning

Boud, D., & Brew, A. (2013). Reconceptualising academic work as professional practice: Implications for academic development. International Journal for Academic Development, 18(3), 208-221.

thesis know how – beware the quote dump

In the South African context, we tend to to attribute over-quoting and quote dumping to struggles with language and too often forget that these kinds of writing practices are seen in largely first language environments as well. I’ve noticed that while second language writers work is often described as plagiarised on grounds of lack of language competence, first language writers are described as having writers block or being poor writers.

Reading Patter’s “thesis know how – beware the quote dump”, I was reminded that looking more carefully at the causes of a behaviour, essentially, contextualising the practice, rather than simply focusing on the artefact of it, drives us to produce very different support mechanisms for students regardless of their language backgrounds. A first language student, as much as a second, may be struggling with taking ownership of the discourse of a discipline, with the confidence to “rewrite” the greats, and describing their work as writer’s block or poor writing misses the cause.

For a while now, my rule of thumb on quoting has been “If it doesn’t move you to tears, either of joy or anger, paraphrase!” While this is terribly easy to say, finding the courage to rewrite someone else’s words is a struggle for both first and second language writers and cannot be simply attributed to language difficulties.

patter

I very often see first drafts of theses – and sometimes completed ones – which suffer from quote dumping. A quote dump is when the writer inserts a very large extract of someone else’s words into a text and then does nothing with it. The quote sits there, highly visible in its indented and italicised state, inert, unyielding, impenetrable.

The quote dump often occurs in literature chapters and/or when the thesis writer is discussing theoretical literatures. It’s sometimes used when people are explaining their methodology. It can happen when people genuinely attempt to engage with other people’s words and ideas and either challenge them, evaluate them or make them into foundations for their own research.

While quote dumping might have been the way to get good marks in essays in undergraduate and Masters work, it is a learned strategy that doesn’t fly so well in a doctoral thesis. Yes, the…

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Some advice for choosing an academic editor

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Image by Nic McPhee on Flickr

Having worked at a Writing Centre in South Africa, I often receive requests from people either wanting me to edit their work or looking for advice about choosing editors. Postgraduate students, often with some sense of desperation due to looming deadlines, declare that they need an “editor”.  Here are seven key questions that can help you or your students identify what kind of help is needed to produce a closer to final version of the text.

1. Does your supervisor know you are looking for an editor? Many students contract the services of an editor without their supervisor’s knowledge.  Most South African universities do not have an explicit policy on the use of editors for postgraduate texts and opinions vary widely about whether the use of an editor is even ethical.  Check with your supervisor whether s/he would advise the use of an editor.  Failing to do this may result in major confrontations down the road.  Your supervisor may also be able to recommend someone they already work with (which is first prize!).  Alternatively, they may be able to help you create a “to do” list for your editor.

2. What kind of work do you expect your “editor” will do on your text?

  • Do  you want a comment on structure of argument and document? Many editors will comment on this, but refuse to fix it for you.  In my opinion, pointing out “gaps” or “jumps” is closer to supervision work than the kind of text work that an external editor should do on academic texts. I would be very cautious about editors who make substantial changes to the structure of text or a document.  From the student-writer’s perspective, an editor who makes substantial structural changes weakens your ownership of the work.  From the readers’ (supervisors, examination committees etc) perspectives, an editor who makes substantial structural changes makes it difficult to judge the student’s voice and perspective.
  • Do you want someone to correct spelling and grammar errors? Correcting errors is unlikely to upset anyone but what happens when it’s not an error, but a “better” way to say something? Would you like your editor to change word choices and sentence structures if s/he thinks they should be said differently? A skilled and judicious editor can make discipline appropriate changes that enhance the text while maintaining the writer’s voice and meaning.  A less thoughtful edit risks a rewritten piece that sounds nothing like the writer and is inappropriate for the discipline.
  • Do you want your editor to check general academic conventions? An editor can check in-text references against reference lists, or check for consistent use of a referencing system fairly easily and with little likelihood of straying near any major ethical lines. However, if you want your editor to check that you haven’t failed to reference something that should be referenced, you’re straying into murky waters! In the first instance, they might not have the disciplinary background to make this kind of judgement call. In the second, accurate and consistent referencing is a hallmark of sound academic writing that graduate students should demonstrate and the absence of this is cause for concern.
  • Do you want the editor to work on the appearance of your document? Some editors will typeset your document – standardizing fonts, ensuring that visual structure matches content structure etc, making the document neat and visually appealing.  This often costs a bit extra especially if you have lots of figures and images.  Check with your editor whether they will be doing this.

3.  What kind of work do you think you will need to do on the text afterwards?

If all you’re expecting to do is hit print after an editor sends you back your document, think again! Budget at least a week or two after an edit to prepare a document for a final print.  You’ll need to look over all the changes, implement or reject them and check some of those changes with a supervisor.  All that takes time!

4. How do I choose an editor?

  • Check if they have experience with academic editing
  • Check if they have edited at this level (Masters, PhD etc) before
  • Check if they have a background in the the same or a cognate discipline
  • Ask them to edit a page or two of your text and return it to you
  • Decide if you like how they deal with your text
  • Confirm, in writing, work schedules, rates and payment schedules

5. Have you worked out a timeline and process with your editor?

Please be realistic about how much time you give your editor to edit. A good/ generous rule of thumb for an editor is a chapter every two days. Faster than this and your text will neither get their best attention nor the reread with a fresh mind that most editors like to give. Proofreaders can work faster than this.

In terms of editing process, some people like to send the whole document at once and have it returned at once.  I like to develop a bit of a relationship with the people I read for, so I am happy to receive a chapter at a time and return it a chapter at a time.  This way we can build in more feedback for each other.  So if I flag a change in the first chapter I receive but the writer really wants it that way, I don’t need to unnecessarily flag it through the rest of the document.  I like to get a methods chapter early, as soon as it is written. Methods are unlikely to change and this is often the easiest chapter for writer’s to produce so it gives me a good sense of what they might want to sound like. Any grammatical or syntactical idiosyncrasies that I pick up, I can flag and the writer can fix as they write the rest.

6. Have you thought about working on hardcopy vs e-copy and the consequences of this?

Check with your potential editors whether they work on hardcopy or e-copy. E-copy seems to lend itself to quicker turnaround times after editing, but doesn’t always produce as detailed a reading, so little errors (spelling etc) may creep through. Hardcopy means printing and dropping off or printing and scanning –  either way, a slight schlep.

7.  Are there any particular conventions/ breaking of conventions you might want your editor to know about?

Create (perhaps using google docs so you can both constantly add to it) a style sheet that lists these choices.  It might be something like opting for British spelling over American, or a space or lack of a space between numbers and units, or quotes in italics or something else fairly low level.  In some disciplines there is a fair amount of leeway given so that researchers can express particular experiences in the field and it’s best to make this clear to an editor up front so that they don’t, for example, “correct” to standard English the grammar of all your interviewees.

While working your way through these questions is likely to smooth out the worst of the hitches, few editing relationships are ever pain free! Successful conclusions seem to be a result of regular, explicit and honest communications between all parties involved.