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An interview with...

An interview with… Bruce Macfarlane

Bruce Macfarlane is Head of the School of Education and author of ‘Freedom to Learn at University’. He delivered a BILT Education Excellence Seminar in May 2019 that can be watched here.

What motivated you to write Freedom to Learn?

It is a case of mea culpa. Earlier in my career I worked as a business and management lecturer and later as an academic developer. In these roles I advocated several learning and teaching practices I criticise in the book. I now believe that many of these things undermine student rights as learners, or their ‘freedom to learn’. This includes enforced participation in class, group assessment, and trying to assess students on the basis of confessional style reflective writing. I am concerned that the student engagement movement has placed too much emphasis on assessing students based on their ‘time and effort’. This mantra has corrupted university assessment making it acceptable to give grades for attendance and ‘class contribution’. This is about not about real learning. It is about rewarding academic non-achievement.

While there are plenty of publications about academic freedom these mainly focus on freedom for academics, not students. There have been few serious attempts to understand student academic freedom. This phrase is largely associated with student protest but I argue that it also needs to be thought in terms of learner rights – to non-indoctrination, reticence, in choosing how to learn, and in being treated like an adult.

Why do you think this performative culture persists?

Performativity is a term synonymous with the demands of being an academic or, indeed, virtually any modern day public sector worker. However, a performative culture also exists for university students too. Three forms of student performativity affect their lives: ‘bodily’ performativity through the way that compulsory attendance requirements are creating a culture of presenteeism at university; ‘participative’ performativity that forces students to take part ‘actively’ in classroom learning and is often assessed on a highly superficial basis through impressionistic grading; and ‘emotional’ performativity requiring compliance with normative political agendas, such as global citizenship and often monitored via reflective writing assignments.

Student performativity has developed, and persists, partly because academics are increasingly burdened by demands to meet their own performative targets such as publishing in high impact journals and winning large research grants. Rewarding students for their ‘time and effort’ is a cheap and cheerful way to reduce the time hungry demands of teaching and assessment. This, sadly, is a big reason why grading attendance and group assessment goes largely unchallenged.

What are the long-term benefits of adopting the changes outlined in the book?

There are important long-term benefits in giving students the freedom to learn. The coercive and authoritarian culture of learning at university promoted by many student engagement initiatives infantilises students and fails to prepare them for life as an adult. In ‘real life’ you are not rewarded for just turning up. Releasing students from compulsory attendance rules would help to re-focus students – and their teachers – on learning rather than rituals of compliance. If students are going to really benefit from a ‘higher’ education they need to be allowed to make up their own minds about the issues that matter to them, not get rewarded for simply being compliant.

What is the one message readers will take away from it?

Well, here are two messages (if I may!). There is a lot of talk in higher education about the ‘effectiveness’ of learning but we need to question practices that are coercive and abuse a student’s right to be treated as an adult taking part in what is meant to be a voluntary phase of education. The means do not always justify the ends.

My second message concerns the meaning of ‘student-centred’ . This phrase has become a hurrah word but its original and true meaning has been lost and distorted. As academics, we need to start questioning practices that are really about creating a presenteeist culture, enforcing forms of participation, and assessing students on the basis of a confessional discourse. In short, we need to put the freedom to learn at the heart of student learning. This is what Carl Rogers called freedom from pressure and is what ‘student-centred’ really means.

News, Teaching Stories

This is why I teach

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

Every year I give a lecture on the Civil Engineering unit ‘Engineering For International Development’. I love giving the lecture. It’s possible my favourite lecture of my entire year, I think of it as my ‘This is why I teach’ lecture. And I talk about this weird thing called love.

Photo taken from the train from Nairobi to Mombasa in 1998

Now, anyone that knows me knows that I love concrete. I absolutely flipping love it. I just adore the stuff. I think it’s amazing. Incredible. You can build almost anything from it and many of my favourite projects include it. I spent years obsessing over it. From the exposed concrete on Oxford Brookes which is cast against timber boarding and reflects the grain of the timber, to the existing concrete on the Tate modern in those huge, awe inspiring oil tanks under the extension. And I try and inject my lectures on the subject with the same sense of joy and excitement (I have been known to try and get students to whoop with joy at the very thought of concrete). But I don’t teach because I love concrete. I designed buildings out of concrete because I love concrete.

More recently I have been getting excited about wood. I am always looking for an excuse to move logs at my in-laws so that I can breathe in the smell of a wall of logs. I got an axe for my 40th birthday so that I can chop wood. Observe the grain. Feel the release of stresses locked in by years of growing as I drive the wood apart. I have a deep attachment to wood. I have written a book about wood, with another on the way. In fact, I love it. And if I went back into industry I would love to design more buildings out of wood. I think it is amazing. But I don’t teach because I love wood.

No – I teach for a different reason. I teach because I believe that teaching can make a positive difference in the world. I teach because I think that many of today’s challenges will be solved by engineers, by my future students. That reusing existing buildings will make a difference. That designing with wood will make a difference. That even concrete buildings, when designed right, can make a difference. And once a year I stand up and tell my students my story. I tell them that at age 18 I was going to make a difference. That I had a plan. That I have failed to do my plan! But I haven’t stopped caring and loving. I have tried and tried again. I talk about what drives me. I mention this weird, unquantifiable thing called love. I mention my personal faith as a Christian. I put up some quotes about love to make myself feel less foolish and make the experience feel more rigorous. Quotes like:

Seek:
You will find your way,
It is
In the
Same place
As
Your love.”

Nayyirah Waheed, Salt, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013

First I have to look hard at the landscape, at the woods and trees, the leaves, the grasses, the animated surface of the earth, and then develop a feeling of love for what I see – because we don’t hurt what we love. We treat what we love as well as we possibly can.”

Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, Birkhäuser GmBH, 2010

So, I tell them about my values, about this thing called love*, and about how I have tried to live these values out in all parts of my life. I tell them about where I live and why I live there. I tell them why I teach. And I explain to them that when we combine our values with what we do small beautiful things can happen.

Photos taken 2 minutes walk from my house. I have intentionally chosen provocative photos to make a point, but I love where I live, it is amazing, and whilst it has its challenges it also has so many great things about it

So why do you teach? And do your students know? Do they really know what gets you up every day?

* Note this is an intentional reference to the Frank Sinatra song .

Meet the BILT Associates

Meet the Associates… Ash Tierney

The following post was written by Ash Tierney, a Research Associate and Project Manager for Bristol Futures. Ash has been a BILT Associate since May 2019.

I’ve been working in curriculum development roles at the University of Bristol since 2012. My focus started with Education for Sustainable Development and saw me conduct curriculum reviews on this theme across all degree programmes. I represented higher education in the UK at the House of Commons discussions on “Enabling the future we want: Education for Sustainable Development in the UK”. Outside of the formal curriculum, our team collaborated with the Students Union, Bristol Hub, the National Union of Students and UWE. One of our biggest achievements in this time was the Bristol Green Capital project “Green Capital: Student Capital. The power of student sustainability engagement”. The effort resulted in over 100,000 hours of student volunteering for sustainability across both UoB and UWE.

I was delighted to be one of three academics who co-developed the “Bristol Futures: Sustainable Futures” open online blended course, hosted on FutureLearn. It was the first time I had collaborated pedagogically with such interdisciplinary peers, one from Chemistry, the other from Engineering. The result is a four-week course that is freely accessible to everyone globally and runs three times a year.

Since late 2017, I’ve become Project Manager for the University’s Bristol Futures project covering areas of the core and optional curriculum. In 2018/2019, we delivered four new interdisciplinary optional units. The units have challenged traditional teaching approaches, experimenting with new forms of assessment and blended learning delivery. This role includes typical project management responsibilities (budget, staffing, evaluation, etc.), but also encompasses dynamic elements of content development such as script-writing for documentaries.

While completing my PhD on Historical Archaeology, I ran public engagement activities within archaeological fieldwork. In the USA, I led engagement efforts for three seasons on “Embedding Sustainability Thinking into Fieldwork: placing student learning at the heart of community engagement”. This was divided into two foci: research-led outreach in the local high school; and co-produced research with the local community archaeology interest group. Within Bristol’s archaeology degree training fieldwork at Berkeley Castle, I led the engagement team to work with the community in novel ways, most notably “The Town Museum Project”. In this project, our Bristol students created displays of excavated material culture and placed them on display in the homes and businesses of Berkeley village. By bringing the archaeology into community-led temporary curatorship, we demonstrated trust in the community and allowed those unable to visit the excavations to feel more involved. My student-led public engagement efforts are noted by HEFCE as national best practice.

Following completion of my PhD in 2017, I have taken on the role of Project Director of Archaeology within Project Nivica, in the Kurvelesh mountains of Albania. The project sits within eco-tourism domestic initiatives, with the overall ambition to compile a detailed understanding of the history, archaeology and ecology of the village of Nivica and its environs. The aims of the project are: to understand how the inhabitants of Nivica shaped their identity in relation to Epirus, Illyria and Rome; and to situate heritage practice and participatory engagement within the principles of the Sustainable Development Goals. I am working in collaboration with the Municipality of Tepelenë, the National Coastline Agency, and the Institute of Archaeology.

Within my BiLT Associate role, I am looking to focus on outputs that cross both my interests in sustainability and heritage. Over the next two years, I will engage at sustainability conferences in the HE sector, disseminating our innovative work at Bristol, including the operational and logistic aspects that make pedagogic ambitions possible. I’d like to create podcasts with other educators on topics of professional practice and ethics within teaching, exploring methodological approaches, and how to embed the Sustainable Development Goals into student-led discussions and action. Given my Arts background and involvement in the Cadbury fiasco, I would also like to work with others to create a brief for international corporations on why Arts graduates are integral to their success.

500 Words, News

Learning Games #3

The third Learning Games event took place against a backdrop of thundery showers in the Victoria Rooms on Wednesday 8th May. In attendance were colleagues from both professional and academic backgrounds, ranging in discipline and service but all with one common interest – the use of games in learning.

The session started with a throwback to the previous Learning Games event, in which we discussed the barriers to implementing game-based learning in our roles. The main issues we found were (in order of most common) – time and resource, resistance to change and knowing where to start. This time we were asked to come up with solutions to these problems, but in true academia style, we ended up conjuring up more problems than we started with, with a number of groups highlighting the issue of games not being viewed as ‘serious’ or ‘academic’ enough – the solution to which would be to demonstrate the learning that had happened as a consequence of the game shortly afterwards.

The main part of the session was delivered by Neil Carhart from the Department of Civil Engineering, who shared his ‘Gone Fishing’ game with the group. The game, which combines sustainability, fishing and economics into a strategic ocean-based venture, was originally played on a board, but has taken a 21st century twist and is now played online. Neil wanted to highlight these changes and demonstrate how the game was played differently through the two mediums.

Players in the game (in which the cohort are split into teams) each take on a role but work together to ‘beat’ the other teams to have the highest net profit at the end of the game. Interestingly, although the game was designed to highlight and teach sustainable systems, it always ends with students creating an unsustainable environment – the game always ends with the ecosystem being destroyed through over-fishing (and a desperation for profit – not too unlike the world we actually live in). What is even more interesting, however, is the way that playing the game online has changed how the students interact with it.

When played as a board game, the average time to complete it took three hours. When played online (still in the classroom but using a shared laptop to do calculations and move the ships), the game takes an average of 90 minutes. The fact students do not have to physically move their ships around a big shared board anymore may count for some of those saved minutes, but not 50% of them. Students playing online, Neil notes, are more likely to make quick, less thought-through decisions and don’t discuss with each other or with other teams too much. In a way, students are more focused on getting the highest profit than they are on working together to fish sustainably (so to speak).

Suzi and Chrysanthi then talked about their game, which aims to help people consider accessibility and inclusivity issues when designing learning games. They are looking for volunteers to test out or provide feedback – get in touch with them if you are interested.

The session ended with a game about thinking about games for learning (if you can manage to decipher that!). In our groups, we were given a piece of A2 paper, split into four rows and four columns (see image below). We were tasked with thinking of four ‘subjects’ (as wide-ranging as we wanted them to be- ours were French, science, sewing and dogs) which were used as the column headers, and then the four rows needed to be populated with different types of games for each (see image below). The idea for this game was taken from this blog post, and is a quick way for coming up with new ideas or approaches to a solution.  

Email Suzi Wells and/or Chrysanthi Tseloudi if you are interested in testing our their new game, which looks at inclusivity and accessibility when designing learning games.

Further reading

The board games turning science into playtime 

My nursing team created Poopology – a board game about diarrhoea 

News, Uncategorized

Teaching Space as a Teaching Lab

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and programme director for Civil Engineering.

Today I continue my physical journey into the research of space as I embark on my third road trip of the year. I am back in Winchester, where I spent so many hours, ten years ago, when working on the Oxford Brookes project I discussed in my previous blog.

The reason for my visit is to revisit the architecture practice I was collaborating with to ask them their views on pedagogy informed design in higher education. Before I go any further I need to come clean, I am a huge fan of what they do. I really enjoyed working with them on Oxford Brookes and I have a great respect for their work more generally. And I am not the only one, they have been short listed three times in the last four years as Education Architect of the Year.

Photo provided by Design Engine Architects

I was expecting our conversation to be simple, straight forward and pedagogy-focussed. Instead it was wide-ranging, chaotic, with ideas flying everywhere. I tried to keep up typing away. But my notes are so wide-ranging it’s hard to know what exactly to say. So, I will do my best to summarise two different overlapping conversations.

The first is around pedagogy informed design, at some point about one and a half hours into our conversation I asked, “When you design a building do you bring a pedagogy or do you respond to the clients pedagogy?” to which Richard Jobson, one of the directors, replied, “it’s a bit of both and we look for common meeting ground. Our job is to challenge people. You can learn and talk to people and move your own thoughts on”.

This led to a much richer discussion about not just pedagogy but all the different competing stakeholders on a university project and how each one comes with an agenda, each one has set requirements and also a vision for the future. And each one is constrained by time, money, but also the needs of other stakeholders. And that the challenge to these ideas by the architect was robust, sometimes fierce and charged with emotion. We discussed how, in our collective experience, pedagogy can be discussed and agreed before a project starts (which the literature suggests is ideal), as a project starts, or some point further down the process, even sometimes after the physical building has started to be constructed.

This led to the discussion that unlike for other stakeholders like library services there is often not a dedicated group of people who are already engaged in conversations around pedagogy and space waiting for the next large building project, that these groups need to be assembled ad hoc (or even post hoc) to try and engage with the design process. As a result, it is hard to have pedagogy before a project and too often the pedagogy comes at some later point in the projects development.

Which of course leads to a bigger discussion, and one we will hopefully be able to respond to in time. Why don’t we have a group who are interested in pedagogy and space who are constantly active? Not waiting for the next project but creating their own. Who are trialling and developing teaching methods in different spaces not as a one-off event but as an ongoing discourse in pedagogy. Maybe the BILT fellowships in space are the start of this. But it strikes me this needs to be a long-term question. Buildings takes years (Oxford Brookes took 7) from idea to completion and we need conversations which understand this and develop with both the buildings and pedagogy.

John Ridgett, the project architect on Oxford Brookes, thought aloud “why not have a teaching lab? A space dedicated to trialling new teaching, both physical and digital. It could be a large warehouse with internal partitions which is designed to be constantly reconfigured”. This strikes me as a fantastic idea which I would like to explore further.

I headed out of Design Engine to walk along the road to their neighbour Winchester University. Here I can see Design Engines work in action. I am currently sitting and typing in one of their spaces. The campus is compact and vibrant with a multitude of lovely design touches. As I am shown round campus by Mat Jane of estates I am introduced to a number of people including Dave Mason who is literally in the middle of looking at furniture layouts. He describes how they, at a smaller scale, do what Design Engine were just suggesting. They trial room layouts, they play and see what works. They notice which rooms are popular and which are not, and they carry out surveys with both staff and students on which spaces they enjoy learning in. The teaching spaces became teaching laboratories.

Take the example below. One of the many observations of a teaching space is that the front rows are often empty. So they have provided different furniture at the front. Comfy seats and sofas, and suddenly the front third of the room is more heavily utilised. Of course, if this hadn’t had the desired outcome a different arrangement can be tried, and another, and another.

And so, as I reflect on my day, I am left asking myself “why haven’t I thought to do this before?”. It seems so simple, with hundreds of rooms, there is no reason why we also shouldn’t experiment, prototype and explore a wide variety of teaching spaces with a view to exploring what works and what doesn’t. Rather than wait and then refurbish large swathes of rooms with untested approaches we should play, learn, reflect and improve.

My sincere thanks go to Richard Jobson and John Ridgett of Design Engine (designengine.co.uk) for giving up two hours of their time to have such a wide-ranging conversation about the design of space and to Mat Jane who showed me around Winchester University with such enthusiasm and pride and also for all his insights on sustainability around the campus (including my free cup made from recycled chewing gum).

500 Words, News

Should we go ‘The Whole Hog’ with programme-level assessment?

The following post was written by Amy Palmer, BILT Digital Resources Officer.

Since the launch of BILT in 2017, the implementation of programme-level assessment across the University has been a widely-discussed topic. But what do we really mean by programme-level assessment?

Tansy Jessop, while delivering her TESTA workshop in January, outlined her ‘Five Hogs of Programme-Level Assessment’, breaking down the term into five different ways this assessment framework could be implemented.

The first, ‘The Whole Hog’, advocates an integrated and connected assessment plan, running though entire programmes, using capstone and cornerstone assessments to bring together learning from different modules. Teaching is separated from the [summative] assessment, allowing students to make their own connections between content in different modules. This approach is the most widespread understanding of what ‘programme-level assessment’ is and is arguably the simplest implement and there is a clear split between teaching and summative assessment.

The next, ‘Half the Hog’, still has an assessment piece that runs throughout the entire programme, separate from individual modules, but it doesn’t require all assessments to be disconnected from teaching. This connective assessment could be a research project that runs from first to third (or fourth) year and draws on concepts from all of the individual modules. A benefit of this ‘Hog’ is that there is an overall reduction in summative assessments across the degree to make room for the programmatic assessment piece.

The ‘Other half of the Hog’ employs synoptic assessment from across a number of modules (i.e. 50% of the degree modules are assessment via a synoptic assessment while the other 50% have assessments that are directly related to their module’s content). Each module has a combination of formative and one summative assessment, and the synoptic assessment integrates concepts, makes connections between the modules and is challenging for students.

The next pig- or pigs- ‘Both the Hogs together’ (originally named ‘Eat the Hogs Together’, but we didn’t think that was appropriate for our plant-based friends 😊) is when both the curriculum and assessment design is done as a team, using TESTA (programme and student evidence to inform the assessments). Summative assessment is reduced across the entire degree so that students engage more with formative assessments. Teams are encouraged to integrate assessment in the shared process so that everyone has a shared understanding and practice.

The final hog, ‘The Warthog’, is the most radical of approaches. Instead of running parallel modules, students take one module at a time in blocks (for example, one module runs week 1-4, second module runs week 5 – 8, etc.). Assessments are joined up though shared units that weave across the programme. This method has been adopted to some extent at Plymouth University through their immersive induction module in first year.

Some of these ‘hogs’ would be easier to achieve than others, but we don’t know yet which one would create the best outcomes for students. With the amount of modular choice available across most degree programmes, a singular approach would have to be taken at least within a faculty, and potentially across the entire university – it wouldn’t be possible for one programme to undertake a ‘Warthog’ approach while another employed ‘Half the Hog’. But how do we decide which approach to take? And how would this one approach be implemented across the hundreds of programmes we have on offer with limited time for programme teams to sit down and redesign their assessments?

 There are examples of institutions where programme-level assessment has been successfully put into practice (Brunel’s IPA and Bradford’s PASS are two good examples), but we need to understand the impact it has had on student learning, outcomes, wellbeing (both staff and students) before deciding whether going the ‘Whole Hog’ is the right approach for Bristol.

Student Voice

Student Voices: Learning Analytics

The following post was written by Johannes Schmiedecker, a BILT Student Fellow.

In early April, the BILT Student Fellows conducted various workshops at the Bristol SU Education Network. Below are some findings from the workshop about learning analytics in the HE sector.

The Task

8 groups of students (maximum 7 people per group) had to decide if the University should or should not include various metrics when it processes student data to improve the university life. The metrics were written down on single index cards and included different data, ranging from academic data such as assessment grades, blackboard access or library usage to personal data like gender, religion or ethnicity. The groups had to decide collectively and only allocate a certain data metric to either “Yes” or “No” if all the members of the group agreed. After 10 minutes the time ended, and students were asked to reflect on the task. 

The Outcome

The groups engaged in active discussions and we saw that students had different opinions when it comes to finding an accurate balance between privacy rights and data analytics. Students were mostly open to providing their data for learning analytics as they saw that it can improve university life, however, they expect clear policies and strategies from the University before they would agree to such a thing.

The following bar chart provides a summary of how the students allocated the cards. For instance, all 8 groups said that attendance in classes or assessment grades data should definitely be included in learning analytics. However, when it came to more personal data like the current employment situation, gender or ethnicity, the results were mixed, and some groups could not agree to either Yes or No. Furthermore, all groups decided that facial recognition at campus or comments on social media should be excluded. In general, the groups could allocate academic data easier, agreeing on a usage of personal data was far more contentious.

Student Feedback

As the time of the workshop was limited, the findings do not provide a full picture of the issue of data analytics, but it was good to get some student feedback and listen to their approach to data usage at the HE level. After the workshop the students had the chance to express their thoughts on the workshop, and the responses varied. “We kind of mulled over each metric, it was hard to decide!” one student said. Some were generally critical towards data analytics, “The question is, how the University is going to use the data? What do they want to do with it and why? It really depends on how the Uni uses it!” was one response. Others had a more open attitude towards data analytics and were fine with the usage of their data if it was education based and the university processed the data in a transparent way. “It would be nice if the University had an opt-out policy, if there are tick boxes and we could decide which data we want to provide. This would be the best way to approach it because everyone has different opinions!” one student argued who advocated for more control of students over their own data.

It was great to hear so many different opinions on how the University should use data of students. It demonstrated that there are many perspectives on how to approach learning analytics and a University policy would need to consider many different aspects.

Thanks to all participants, we are looking forward to the next BILT workshops and activities!

Student Voice

In conversation with a fourth year Liberal Arts student

Check out this snippet of conversation our Student Fellow Zoe Backhouse recorded with a fellow fourth year Liberal Arts student on the topic of assessment.  Want to know why Europe’s doing HE better than the UK and why playing Donald Trump in class may not be a bad thing? Read on…

Z: How was your assessment on your year abroad?

A: Well, when I was in Amsterdam it was broken down so much into different areas. It wasn’t all reduced down to an essay because that isn’t the one mode of intelligence in the world.

One of my assessments was I became Federica Mogherini who’s the Foreign Minister for the EU and we played out a simulation of the Middle East. Everybody was a different country – someone was Donald Trump! – and literally I learned so much about applying the theory and the logic and actually putting in a practical sense. I think that’s just so important because university should be about teaching skills that can be transferred to employability.

I also loved how we did presentations abroad. At Utrecht you had to lead a seminar for 45 minutes after a 20 minute presentation. In your presentation you couldn’t just read from a piece of paper like everyone does at Bristol. You would stand and deliver a lesson, not looking down at notes, you’d talk to people and have eye contact. And then you had to lead a discussion amongst your peers.

I found it pretty nerve-wracking and I’m quite a confident public speaker. But that’s because the way we’ve always been indoctrinated here is… it’s just very insular. I don’t know, I just think there is a lack of discussion in general in all forms. Discussion only happens as an internal monologue that gets reproduced in an essay. People can’t have conversations in seminars because they get nervous, because they feel like they’d look stupid. I think you should take that away.

We used to be marked on class participation at Utrecht which was like 20% of the mark. I actually do think that’s really important? In the UK people are so scared of saying something because they think there’s only one right answer. In our education system we’re taught that there’s only one right answer and it’s at the back of the book and don’t look and don’t copy and don’t speak to anyone else about it. But it’s not that. Art is about taking things and reinterpreting them and making them better. So I think discussion has been lost from education.

I did another module called Digital Citizens. And literally, we were just coming in to talk about what was going on in the news that day, we’d all just sit around and have a discussion. One of the requirements of that course was to write a journalistic article which was liberating. And it wasn’t just GCSE journalism, it was like, can you write a legitimate article? So I wrote about how data analytics is perpetuating gender stereotypes.

You did have essays as well because that’s important. It’s just about diversifying assessment, and making people feel more comfortable and able in their abilities as opposed to constantly critiquing people and telling them they’re wrong all the time because they don’t fit one style of system.