Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Using Virtual Learning Environments and their effect on attendance

Moving from Blackboard 8 to 9
At the HE institution where I work we have recently changed our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) from Blackboard 8 to Blackboard 9. Version 9 does have some features that are superior to those in 8 but it also has a few that are not so good – for instance, we can no longer easily see what the students see. We turned the move also into an opportunity to revamp our sites and make our students more reliant on the VLE than on paper-produced resources. Blackboard should be the default place that they got to find out information about their course.

The module template
We were provided with a template for the minimum requirements for our sites. Recently we have monitored how well these templates have been adhered to. The sites that were audited were given a score. Frankly, though, I could not see that much difference in quality between the lowest scoring and the highest scoring and the one I deemed the most useful to students did not score the most points. Nevertheless, the information was useful.

Some general good practice
Content areas should be clearly labelled and easy to navigate.
Each site should be generically similar though the content will be different.
Good use of the Announcement facility keeps students engaged.
The bottom line is the question “How will this empower the student to do what they need to do?”    
In the Learning Materials section, not only should there be a plethora of useful information, put is should be linked to week by week sessions. It should also be possible for any student who has missed a session to catch up by going to their VLE.
Students use the sites more if they are updated regularly.

The VLE and attendance
We don’t have compulsory attendance here for all sorts of reasons but we worry when attendance is poor. It may be a sign that students are not engaged. Also, more often than not, good attendance is reflected in better marks, though not always.
A problem might be if it’s all on Blackboard anyway, why would they attend? After all, if they work from home they don’t need to do battle with the snow or early morning traffic. The live class must bring some value-added.          
Is the VLE a step towards distance learning being the norm? I hardly think so. Even the veteran of this, The Open University, uses blended learning, providing several opportunities for face to face sessions. The VLE can do some things for us, taking that burden away from our live sessions which can then concentrate on what they do best.       

Friday, 15 February 2013

Do pictures increase popularity?

I recently gave the opening lecture in Popular Fictions, a new module being run for English Literature students. I talked about children’s literature and my main aim was to get the students to question critically what we mean by “popular” fiction.
We looked at some authors that children seem to love but that teachers are less easy with: Enid Blyton, Stephenie Meyer and J K Rowling.  We also looked at some writers that seemed popular with teachers but were still enjoyed by children: Neil Gaiman, Michael Morpurgo and Philip Pullman. And we looked at those books that had endured and asked ourselves why. These included Louis May Alcott’s Little Women, Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. There are, of course, many other examples we could use. We noted that when these first came out they were regarded as popular but had endured. This might be because they told very good stories and / or were well written. Yet Blyton has also lasted and I now understand why my teachers used to say that she wrote very badly.
In the seminar, one exercise involved asking students which books they’d encountered as a child they remembered the most vividly. The three most mentioned texts were: Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Notably, these are all texts that are heavy with pictures. I’m delighted also that they are three that appear on my reading list for a module entitled Intro to Children’s Literature. Why are these books so well remembered and why are they so special?  
One student cited the interactivity of Carle’s text. The book is at once a counting text and helps with the recognition of simple words. The holes in the fruit fascinated the student. Dramatic images made Sendak’s text memorable. Also in the latter the return home was important. Kerr’s text is full of cosy domestic images – though we are thrown by the presence of a tiger. There is a return home here, too, in that the tiger disappears and we return to normality.
The stories are fantastic. Children’s picture books traditionally also tell an extra story in the pictures. The child loves to have the story read over and over and then remembers it as it looks at the pictures. Perhaps therefore these books become imprinted on the consumer’s mind. Maybe they are also so memorable because they are the some of the first books the student encountered. I feel a whole Ph D topic coming on here …                  

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Critical Reflection

The old debate continues: can you teach creative writing and in particular can you teach it at university level? I think you can and I do. Every year we see several students achieve publication and many more writing at publishable level or beyond. They say it takes 10,000 hours working on your craft to get there. Our conscientious students will have spent about 3,000 as part of their course, though I suspect the more successful ones spend a good deal more on their writing. However, they probably do not achieve 10,000 hours whilst they’re with us, and except for a few mature students who have been writing for some time, they probably don’t even achieve this if one adds in what they do in their own time.
Our programme is a dual hons programme and the other half of the degree is English. It is perhaps here that they are introduced to critical rigour. They learn to use an appropriate tone in their writing and apply academic rigour to their arguments.
So, perhaps it is the critical reflection that we demand that makes all the difference. But what do we actually mean by critical reflection?   
All writers are reflective. There is no doubt about that. We all engage in a constant cycle of action research. We write and edit, the work goes out into the world, we get reactions from our readers, we evaluate our work with this added insight, we adapt the way we write and we write again. I’m suggesting, however, that it goes deeper at HE level. How does that work?
We demand critically reflective works from our students. On almost all of our creative modules they have to produce a writer’s reflection, a self-assessment, an annotated bibliography and drafts of their work. At least one of these added elements is required in every single module. Students are awarded marks for reflection and writerly research. Those who get the higher marks in these areas apply the same academic rigour to their observations as they would in any close reading or essay about literature. The writer’s reflection can discuss influences and writing process and may even argue against what has been taught. To get good marks the student must illustrate and extend the argument. The self-assessment allows the student to show how their own writing fits into the bigger picture and here the student identifies her own next steps. The annotated bibliography shows how the student understands texts she has read – both primary and secondary – and good marks are obtained when the student shows a critical understanding of them. The difference here between the English literature student and the creative wiring one is that the latter is reading as a writer not merely as a reader. The drafts show a creative process. As the student selects and annotates the drafts to submit they develop an awareness of their own process and can apply to that process a similar cycle of action research to that applied to writing.
The fees and accumulated debt probably also help. Even if the student spends a lot of her time in the bars and coffee shops and chats to her flat mates into the small hours, this writing is serious business and the focus remains on it. The student identifies herself with it. It defines her.