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The Office – Summer Special

Back in the Autumn term of 2019 I ran a unit on Timber Engineering. Rather than give lectures I decided to make the unit more authentic by inviting students to come and work for my pretend engineering practice Just Timber. Every week they would turn up to work, be given projects to work on in teams, and drink coffee in the breakout space.

I decided to share the entire experience as an 11 part serialised blog called The Office[1]. A few months back I was speaking to Emilie Poletto-Lawson, who had asked me to organise a future walk. Sadly, only one person attended, so we had lots of time to chat. She mentioned how she was using The Office when talking about authentic learning and said people often asked her what happened next.

So, like many great sitcoms, I thought I would create a one off “The Office Summer Special” (I know it’s normally a Christmas Special, but Christmas is always so busy, I figured I have time in the summer).

The Office – three years on.

So, what happened to The Office?

Well it ended. Dead. Never to return. That is what happened.

Moving online

Following the Autumn term of 2019 was the spring term of 2020. Anyone else block that term from their memories? It’s hard to imagine now, but that was the term covid hit. It was the term when we had to re-write and reimagine assessment.

The following year was all about on-line learning. This had two impacts on The Office. Firstly, to run an in person unit where people come to work would have been impossible. Maybe we could have done it on-line buuuut, we also had to make some changes to reduce staff workload and create capacity for re-writing all our degrees. And so my unit was one of the units that had to go. This was particularly challenging for me because, as School Education Director, I wanted to lead by example and so stopped teaching non-essential units but I had also put my heart and soul into that unit. And I had big plans to carry out a lot more pedagogic research having run a pilot programme which sadly never happened.

The year after that was hybrid, and by then we had simplified our course into all 20cr units. This made it harder to run a 10cr quirky unit which was like nothing else.

And so, sadly, that was the end of that.

But, like all good sitcoms and especially the seasonal specials, the story doesn’t end there.

Rather than keep running the unit there have been a whole load of spinoffs.

Firstly, to make the unit happen I wrote two books[2]. Those books are now published and one is a best seller (at approx. 1,500 copies, not exactly Harry Potter, but good for my field).

Secondly, to enable me to run the office students needed to learn before they attended sessions. I had created short lecture videos, recorded worked examples, and a whole host of other content to enable them to attend The Office and learn. This experience was invaluable when the pandemic hit. We moved to a predominantly online delivery model (although, again as SED, I came in once a week in the Autumn term of 2020 to teach design whilst trying to see through a misted up visor and staying two meters from anything that breathed) where the teaching was flipped. The contact time became a space for problem classes, Q&A, group challenges, with a short lectorial at the start. Having delivered “The Office” in much the same way, we were able to create how to guides, run workshops for staff, and advise on Blackboard templates.

Authentic learning and assessment

But the point of “The Office” was all about authentic learning and assessment. It wasn’t about publishing books or flipping doing flipped teaching.

I think it is fair to say that “The Office” was not my first time working authentically, and it won’t be my last. Having worked in industry for 15 years before jumping into academia (it’s not that simple, but for brevity it will do) authentic learning has been at the heart of my thinking because it simply made sense. The Office was a chance to really explore this space more fully, be more creative, take risks, use ideas that I had been considering for a while. But The Office is not the culmination of that process it is just how I think about all teaching.

So I moved away from teaching a fourth year optional timber unit and became Unit Director for a 40 credit third year unit called Civil Engineering Practice. And this unit also had its own branded company (in the same Just Timber orange). Its own employee guide. It had templates for drawings, reports, reviews. It had industry experts who came and gave lunch time talks every week. It had 4 authentic projects for students to work on, 3 formative[3] and one summative. It had external experts who came in and reviewed the students work. In fact it had everything that The Office had, with one exception, students didn’t come in for a day at a time, but for 1-3 hour blocks of time. Actually two exceptions, there were no branded mugs 🙁

Action Plans and interviews

However the unit also went further. In industry, to become a chartered engineer you need to plan learning through a development action plan (DAP), keep a record of learning not just from reading and attending talks (Continuing Professional Development record), but by doing (ILO record, where students capture the doing that demonstrates ability). Once you have collected this data, to become a chartered engineer, you need to write a reflective report which demonstrates how you have fulfilled the requirements of chartership through your learning and doing. So our students had to do the same, using the DAP, CPD and ILO they constructed reflective reports capturing their learning. You also need to attend an interview where your expertise is challenged by more senior engineers. So we had a (much friendlier) interview assessment.

All of these elements are authentic to becoming a chartered engineer. But they have other benefits. Many students confirmed this was the first interview they had ever had, and so it helped prepare them for job interviews. Students created a catalogued portfolio of work that they could talk to in interviews. The reflective element prepared them both for self-development, but also enabled a number of them to excel in applying for studentships and prizes.

So whilst The Office is dead, it’s spirit lives on. This year I am no longer teaching on the 40cr third year unit, instead I am introducing 600 first years to the wonderful world of design. Whilst I will be tailoring my approach to the level they are at there will still be authentic projects, team work, even portfolios. And the theme of authentic learning and assessment will be ever present.


[1] https://bilt.online/the-office-authentic-learning-in-civil-engineering/

[2] https://www.istructe.org/resources/guidance/conceptual-design-of-buildings/ and https://bookshop.bmtrada.com/bookshop/view/a0736913-7859-4c72-817f-446044d3d5a0

[3] One of the formative assessments involved the planning, costing and construction of a stadium out of Lego, which I should blog about some time!

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