Monday, 16 January 2012

Why am I here?

No, I know about the Mum & Dad thing, it's not that sort of 'why am I here?' I was just wondering out loud why I spend so much time on Google+ nowadays and used to spend similar vast numbers of hours on twitter, blogs and, rather longer ago now, Facebook.

Twitter I understand. Tweeting is like shouting at the television, except more people hear what I say. It's easy, just type a few words as I'm watching something and get a kick out of making someone laugh. It's also been a useful place to get great links to things that are going on in the worlds that interest me and, with careful choice of who to follow, provided a newsreel that was almost essential reading each morning and still is something I'll scroll through once or twice a week, especially for local news and where the people haven't started on Google+.

Facebook was once a place where I thought I would build a sort of virtual world of Me, with huge volumes of photo albums, blogs routed to its Notes pages and Facebook pages for this and that, events I could invite people to or write about and generally keep up-to-date with what friends were saying. I use the term 'friends' loosely - and Facebook friends almost deserves its own entry in the dictionary. The 150 or so who were in my list comprised a strange collection of family, socially-inclined relatives, ex-students needing help and geeky nice people I met at conferences. And a bundle of others I didn't really know very well or occasionally worked with but added as friends anyway. Now its only use is as the place to post an urgent message for one of my children and I genuinely can't remember when I last specifically visited the site or changed my status as Google+ and Twitter updates do that automatically. The funny thing is that most of my 'Facebook friends' probably still think I'm really active there.

Blogs are great for articles and I do love writing and publishing my thoughts and views. So instead of writing piles of notes and uploading them to VLEs or digging out Dreamweaver to edit my web sites I can simply type, add and publish. Job done. I don't think I've changed how or why I use blogs much at all over the last ten years. Apart from Blogger's recent misbehaviour with page links and the advent of Posterous making publishing almost anything delightfully simple being naughty and nice respectively, if I want to write more than 140 characters and also refer to it again in future then a blog has been the answer.

And then along comes Google+. I jumped in at the very start and now have the dubious honour of being ranked by CircleCount in the top 600 men in the UK. Quite what that actually means I'm not sure but, bearing in mind that there are fewer MPs than that, it can't stay long at that level and I'll surely be plunging before long to the ranks of those who ramble on about this and that and have an average number of followers. But I didn't join to get some rank anyway. Why do I write stuff there? I hardly know any of my followers. Or, for that matter, those I follow. I get a brief description of what they do for most and think they may be of interest in one or more areas of the world I inhabit and they go into one or other Circles. Occasionally someone will have a query so I feel that I can be of help and publish advice or even an answer. Equally, there are some damn fine minds there who can provide answers and inspiration.  But that's not the only reason I'm there. The news is good. Like the Twitter newsreel I mentioned above, the Google+ stream is something I'll scroll through several times a day. But even that's not what it was as I now have so many people in the stream from all walks of life and background that it's neither one thing nor the other. One moment I am reading about some fascinating new ideas about teaching and the next there's a video of Andorra's entry in Eurovision. Or a cat doing something cute.

So why am I here (or there, as this is mainly about the time I spend on Google+)?

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Level 4 Playing Field

I have been struggling with making sense of what I understand to be the requirements to pass university modules at level 4 compared to those issued for Edexcel HNC units at the same level.

Initially, having read through the indicative content and explanation of the learning outcomes for an HNC unit, I thought: "Fair enough. They're damn tough and will need the students to do a lot more research and examination of concepts in depth, as well as writing pretty well to provide evidence of their knowledge and understanding, and whilst I reckon that's going to be very difficult for them in some, if not all, cases, I guess that's life at this level. They scraped through level 3 but now really do have not only to think but actually put their thoughts together coherently on paper." And with that in mind I have been rather frightening most of them with indications of what I am expecting to see by way of assignments to be handed in shortly.

I was actually in the middle of being tedious on this topic when I remembered how several of their older colleagues had just completed degrees in similar subjects. I had been their tutor for a module with a similar title and learning outcomes and, despite all my best efforts, prodding and verbal abuse (it was before safeguarding was on the menu and we could get away with threatening to do dreadful things or tell their parents what they really did at lunchtime in order to get good results), yes, despite all that, quite a few submitted very weak portfolios and only covered  a few of the points I'd hoped for and had a basic grasp of what might be required but not a great deal more.

When it came to grading, I managed to get hold of some papers that the university had issued to help us figure out where on the 1 - 20 scale their work fitted. Under the column for grades 1-3 this was the text:
High level of abstract thinking original ideas; understanding is generalised and applied to new contexts ideas drawn to conclusions; highly reflective; sharply perceived; generalised from personal experience; shows metacognitive understanding; goes beyond what has been given; the whole is conceptualized at a higher level
Luckily for them, this was in the column 13-16
The work meets one part of the task, but misses other important attributes; little evidence of moving from the specific to the general; often focuses on terminology; sparse understandings, or some higher level understanding offset by some misunderstandings
The latter being pretty accurate for most. So the degrees got completed and everyone was happy. Well, maybe their employers weren't but that's another matter. The point is I could pass them.

Now, this is what the HNC book says for one of several learning outcomes:
3 Be able to evaluate the project outcomes

Evaluation techniques: detailed analysis of results, conclusions and recommendations; critical analysis against the project specification and planned procedures; use of appropriate evaluation techniques; application of project evaluation and review techniques; opportunities for further studies and developments

Interpretation: use of appropriate techniques to justify project progress and outcomes in terms of the original agreed project specification

Further consideration: significance of project; application of project results; implications; limitations of the project; improvements; recommendations for further consideration
Students have to meet all the learning outcomes so in the appropriate task for this they will have to do what it says. This is just to pass. There is a whole host of further requirements for merit and distinction.

OK, the degree guide text and the learning outcomes aren't directly comparable as one lists academic approach and the other lists things to be demonstrated but you'll get the gist. It looks an awful lot simpler to get a pass in the degree module than in the HNC unit

In a discussion with a colleague I have appreciated that at level 3 we didn't expect every element of each learning outcome to be covered by assignment. He used the example of an exam at the end of a year: people pass by successfully answering questions about a selection of things covered by the course. So I should use the same approach here too. Yes, I'll provide teaching, materials and guidance about the whole range but the assignments need only test their ability to prove an understanding of some. That was helpful and meant my brain was slightly better able to cope with this assessment business. However, I would still much prefer to deal with university second assessors and panels than the Edexcel External Verifier. Any day of the week.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Why are you here?

A small group of Level 4 students returned from Christmas holiday this week. I don't know quite where the idea came from but I decided to start by asking them this question: Why are you here?

We had some fun with the replies which came eventually - albeit after quite a while! They took just two basic forms:

Well, it's our lesson now. It's on our timetable.

To learn about project management.

Before the break I had published their first assignment - quite a tough task that required them, amongst other things, to explain what ideas for projects they had considered, which particular one they'd decided to plan to go ahead with, a detailed project proposal for that one which would include first attempts at setting milestones and considerations of their own strengths and weaknesses.

They had also been provided last term with a lot of information about the assessment criteria, the subject itself, including some very pertinent notes and presentations covering what they needed to write about in this assignment. All the material was available on-line in case anyone had missed a session when I might have gone through it in class.

I had also made it pretty clear that I needed to have their first attempts or drafts during the break or when they returned as the hand-in date was the end of January and it was plainly obvious that not only was the topic itself something new to all of them but even the brightest was finding the academic demands of this programme markedly more challenging than the mostly practical based National Diploma Level 3 programme they had completed in the previous year.

They really should have been coming in either to give me some work, to finish off whatever they'd been working on or to ask me, or maybe the others, for some help to explain what was actually required. Something along those lines started to emerge when I reminded them about the request. To which I then replied along these lines:

Well, there's not much point you coming out in the wind and rain, spending money on fares or petrol just to give me some paper. E-mail works well these days and is free. There's no way I could provide any meaningful feedback as it would take me best part of the session just to read one draft.

You all have perfectly good computers at home so coming in to use these rather average machines and reluctant printers - the 'coming in to finish off' thing - doesn't make a lot of sense either.

Asking for help? OK, but you have phones or, again, we could do that by e-mail quite adequately.

To learn about project management? One of the first thoughts. That sounds very reasonable but you should already have learned enough to do the first assignment. If you'd thought a bit more about that you'd have concluded that I'm hardly likely to go through all that again. I might have moved on to the next topic but, in the circumstances, with everyone's first assignments still outstanding that would probably only confuse you or delay still further when the first gets handed in.

So the only reason left with any validity was because it's on their timetable. It's like they're still at school and will get told off or have letters sent home if they don't turn up. They come because they feel obliged to. They expect me then to persuade them to do something useful during the morning - like get on with what they should have done earlier. In fact, just like all the previous years, very little actually gets done in class at all or it's used as a sort of 21st century typing pool. If I don't nag and prod then, with one or two notable exceptions, I'd get little work until the last possible moment and even only then if I'm lucky and, if previous programmes' submissions are anything to go by, it will be unlikely to be good enough to pass.

The real reason I would like them to be there is to get feedback on what they have submitted in good time beforehand, to discuss queries that either they've raised previously in correspondence or a phone call and I'd even be delighted to help with something that just occurs to them on the way in or is prompted by another student's question.

That would maximise the use of my time in providing constructive support and advice or imparting a little more knowledge and understanding as necessary. However, even all that, indeed, could be dealt with without their having to attend a class.

So, after a fascinating discussion, we all had to conclude that the only time they should attend would be to learn something new as and when it's appropriate. So a few lectures or discussions each term can do that and I can run workshops on the other days for those that want them.

That would be a nice conclusion but for some target I am supposed to meet. If my programme's attendance is below a certain figure I get talked about in whispered and disapproving tones at managers' meetings. Then I get lots of paperwork, action plans and the students have to complete Individual Learning Plans with SMART targets indicating how they'll meet some institutional attendance target so that my target gets met so that the department's target gets met and so on.

So, the answer to my original question, Why are you here? has to be So you can tick the box that says we're here, sir.