Feedback, NSS & TEF – notes from reading group

Chrysanthi read “Thanks, but no-thanks for the feedback”. The paper examines how students’ implicit beliefs about the malleability of their intelligence and abilities influence how they respond to, integrate and deliberately act on the feedback they receive. It does so, based on a set of questionnaires completed by 151 students (113 females and 38 males), mainly from social sciences.

Mindset: There are two kinds of mindsets regarding malleability of one’s personal characteristics; People with a growth mindset believe that their abilities can grow through learning and experience; people with a fixed mindset believe they have a fixed amount of intelligence which cannot be significantly developed. “If intelligence is perceived as unchangeable, the meaning of failure is transformed from an action (i failed) to an identity (i am a failure)” (p851).

Attitudes towards feedbackSeveral factors that influence whether a person accepts a piece of feedback – e.g. how reflective it is of their knowledge and whether it is positive or negative – were measured, as well as 2 outcome measures.

Defence mechanisms: Defence mechanisms are useful in situations we perceive as threatening, as they help us control our anxiety and protect ourselves. But if we are very defensive, we are less able to perceive the information we receive accurately, which can be counterproductive; e.g. a student may focus on who has done worse, to restore their self-esteem, rather than who has done better, which can be a learning opportunity.

The results of the questionnaires measuring the above showed that more students had a fixed mindset (86) than growth (65) and that their mindset indeed affected how they responded to and acted on feedback.

  • Growth mindset students are more likely to challenge themselves and see the feedback giver as someone who can push them out of their comfort zone in a good way that will help them learn. They are more motivated to change their behaviour in response to the received feedback, engage in developmental activities and use the defence mechanisms considered helpful.
  • Fixed mindset students are also motivated to learn, but they are more likely to go about it in an unhelpful way. They make choices that help protect their self-esteem, rather than learn, they are not as good at using the helpful defence mechanisms, they distort the facts of the feedback or think of an experience as all good or all bad. The authors seemed puzzled by the indication that fixed students are motivated to engage with the feedback, but they do so by reshaping reality or dissociating themselves from the thoughts and feelings surrounding said feedback.

Their recommendations?

  • Academics should be careful in how they deliver highly emotive feedback, even if they don’t have the time to make it good and individualised.
  • Lectures & seminars early in students’ studies, teaching them about feedback’s goal and related theory and practice, as well as action action-orientated interventions (eg coaching), so they learn how to recognize any self-sabotaging behaviours and manage them intelligently.
  • Strategies to help students become more willing to experience – and stay with – the emotional experience of failure. Eg, enhance the curriculum with opportunities for students to take risks, so they become comfortable with both “possibility” and “failure”.

I think trying to change students’ beliefs about the malleability of their intelligence would go a long way. If one believes their abilities are fixed and therefore if they don’t do well, they are a failure, a negative response to feedback is hardly surprising. That said, the responsibility of managing feedback should not fall entirely on the student; it still needs to be constructive, helpful and given in an appropriate manner.

Suzi read: An outsider’s view of subject level TEFA beginner’s guide to the Teaching Excellence FrameworkPolicy Watch: Subject TEF year 2 by the end of which she was not convinced anyone knows what the TEF is or how it will work.

Some useful quotes about TEF 1

Each institution is presented with six metrics, two in each of three categories: Teaching QualityLearning Environment and Student Outcomes and Learning Gain. For each of these measures, they are deemed to be performing well, or less well, against a benchmarked expectation for their student intake.

… and …

Right now, the metrics in TEF are in three categories. Student satisfaction looks at how positive students are with their course, as measured by teaching quality and assessment and feedback responses to the NSS. Continuation includes the proportion of students that continue their studies from year to year, as measured by data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). And employment outcomes measures what students do (and then earn) after they graduate, as measured by responses to the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey – which will soon morph into Graduate Outcomes.

Points of interest re TEF 2

  • Teaching intensity (contact hours) won’t be in the next TEF
  • All subjects will be assessed (at all institutions), with results available in 2021
  • Insufficient data for a subject at an institution could lead to “no award” (so you won’t fail for being too small to measure)
  • Resources will be assessed
  • More focus on longitudinal educational outcomes, not (binary) employment on graduation
  • It takes into account the incoming qualifications of the students (so it does something like the “value add” thing that school rankings do) but some people have expressed concern that it will disincentivise admitting candidates from non-traditional backgrounds.
  • There will be a statutory review of the TEF during 2019 (reporting at the end of the year) which could change anything (including the gold / silver / bronze rankings)

Suzi also read Don’t students deserve a TEF of their own which talks about giving students a way in to play with the data so that, for example, if you’re more interested in graduate career destinations than in assessment & feedback you can pick on that basis (not on the aggregated data). It’s an interesting idea and may well happen but as a prospective student I can’t say I understood myself — or the experience of being at university — well enough for that to be useful. There’s also a good response talking about the kind of things (the library is badly designed, lectures are at hours that don’t make sense because rooms are at a premium, no real module choice) you might find out too late about a university that would not be covered by statistics.

Roger read “How to do well in the National Student Survey (NSS)” an article from Wonkhe,  written in March 2018. The author, Adrian Burgess, Professor of Psychology at Aston University, offers some reflections based on an analysis of NSS results from 2007 to 2016.

Whilst many universities have placed great emphasis on improving assessment and feedback, this has “brought relatively modest rewards in terms of student satisfaction” and remains the area with the lowest satisfaction.

Burgess’ analysis found that the strongest predictors of overall satisfaction were “organisation and management” closely followed by “teaching quality”.

Suggested reading

From WonkHE

From the last time we did assessment & feedback, which was July 2017 (I’ve left in who read what then)

Accessibility, inclusivity, universal design – notes from the reading group

Naomi looked at the Accessibility of e-learning OU Course, and read the 10 key points from the UCL Blog

The summary comments written by Jessica Gramp summed up the OU course and gave a good overview of what the course covered, as well as an idea of how wide the disability scope is. It was an interesting read for someone who’s knowledge of accessibility in e-learning is quite limited.

The post gave information on how there are two views of disability. The Medical Model, describes ‘the problem of disability as stemming from the person’s physical or mental limitation.’ And the Social Model, ‘sees disability as society restricting those with impairments in the form of prejudice, inaccessible design, or policies of exclusion.’

The idea of society restricting those with impairments through inaccessible design was interesting, as it is something most people have done, but often give little thought to.  We often like to design things to look ‘pretty’ but give little thought to those using screen readers or think about how we would describe an image for example. What is also mentioned in the post is how accessibility is about both technical and usable access for people with disabilities. Jessica gives the example of a table of data. Although it may be technically accessible for someone who is blind, the meaning of the data would be lost on a screen reader and would no sense and be unusable to the user. The post and course both talk about evaluation accessibility, but for me it’s something that needs to come right at the beginning of the design. There is no point designing something that uses spreadsheets for example if screen readers won’t produce the correct data and meanings to the users.

The last point Jessica makes, which I really liked, was that accessible learning environments help everyone, not just those with disabilities.

“This last point reflects my own preference for listening to academic papers while running or walking to work, when I would be otherwise unable to “read” the paper. As a student and full-time employee, being able to use this time to study enables me to manage my time effectively and merge my fitness routine, with study time. This is only possible because my lecturers, and many journals these days too, provide accessible documents that can be read out loud using my mobile smartphone.” – Jessica Gramp

A thought-provoking blog post that gave me a lot to think about and made me put more thought into the work I create online.

Whilst reading this I also came across on article on Twitter from Durham’s student paper The Palatinate. This talks about how Durham University have introduced lecture capture to their lectures. However, the English department have opted out, citing changes to the teaching relationships, and a ‘lack of credible evidence that lecture capture improves academics attainment.’ In the departments’ email, they talk about the ‘danger of falling attendance, and the potential compromise of the classroom as a safe place, where controversial material can be discussed.’

These are all good points, but the writer of the article points out that accessibility needs may be more important than these factors. With such a wide range of disabilities, lecture capture could provide help in lectures to those that need it. The question also needs to be answered that if they aren’t going to use lecture capture, what are they doing to help their students with disabilities?

It was an interesting article that makes us think about how much accessibility weighs in within teaching and learning. It should be at front of what we are thinking when we first start designing how we are going to teach, or present data. But there is often a stigma and it can also cause tensions and challenges. Going forward, these need to be addressed, rather than be ignored.

Suzi read Applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles to VLE design from the UCL blog. A short, but very thorough and clear post, written as part of UCL’s Accessible Moodle project. For the main part this is, reassuringly enough, a re-framing of things we know make for good accessible web design (resizing text, designing for screen readers, etc). However, it did include the following:

“The VLE should also offer the ability to customise the interface, in terms of re-ordering frequently accessed items, placement of menus and temporarily hiding extraneous information that may distract from the task at hand.”

Not suggestions I have seen before in an accessibility context, possibly because they are more difficult to implement. In particular, the idea of limiting distracting information – that being an accessibility issue – seems obvious once it’s been said. It’s something that would be welcome for a wide range of our students and staff.

Suzi also read Advice for making events and presentations accessible from GOV.UK. Again this is very clear, straightforward advice, well worth being aware. The advice is for face-to-face events but covers points on supporting a partially remote audience. Some of the points that I had not thought of included:

  • Ask your participants an open question about their requirements well before the event. Their wording is “Is there anything we can do to enable you to be able to fully participate in this event?”
  • Don’t use white slide backgrounds because of the glare. For example, GOV.UK slide decks use black text on grey or white text on dark blue.
  • Give audio or text descriptions of any video in your presentation.

There are also some interesting suggestions in the comments. I found the comments particularly interesting as they seem to be individuals speaking directly about their own needs (or possibly those of people they work with) and what they would find most useful. Suggestions include ensuring there is good 3G or 4G coverage, as wifi might not be enough to support assistive technologies, and opening with a roll call (because as a blind person you can’t just glance around the room to see who is there). One commenter suggests you should always sing the key points from your presentation (to an existing tune, no need to compose especially) – an idea I love but not one I’m up to implementing.

Chrysanthi watched 2 videos from the list 15 inspiring inclusive design talks:

When we design for disability, we all benefit | Elise Roy

In this talk, Elise Roy gives examples of inventions that were initially inspired by/ for people with disabilities, but turned out to be useful for people without as well. These include:

  1. Safety glasses that visually alert the user about changes in pitch coming from a tool (which can mean the tool will kick back) before the human ear can pick it up (theirs).
  2. A potato peeler that was designed for people with arthritis but was so comfortable that others used it.
  3. Text messaging, which was originally conceived for deaf people.

Her suggestion is to design for people with disabilities first, rather than the norm. This could mean that the solution is not only inclusive, but potentially better, than if it was designed for the norm. So rather than “accommodate” people with disabilities, use that energy to come up with innovative solutions that are beneficial to all.

Derek Featherstone: Accessibility is a Design Tool

Derek Featherstone makes a similar point to Elise Roy, that designing for accessibility can help everyone. Looking at how outliers/ people at the ends of a spectrum will be influenced by a design decision can also help understand how the average person will be affected. “If we look at the extremes, everybody else is going to be somewhere in the middle”. Between no vision and perfect vision, between no hearing and perfect hearing etc.

The main points to consider for accessibility as a design tool:

  1. People with disabilities may have needs for specific types of content, on top of the content everyone else gets, in order to make decisions: e.g. to choose a health provider, they don’t just need to know how far away the provider is, but perhaps where the wheelchair ramp is at the practice, as that might affect whether they choose to go to this one or choose a different one. Designers should find out what kind of extra content they need. Other examples: Are there captions for this film I am considering watching?
  2. When trying to make something accessible, it is important to consider why it is included in the first place, rather than just what it is. That could be the difference between providing a confusing textual description of an element, and a clear one of how the information the element portrays affects the people accessing it. E.g. instead of trying to textually describe a change of boundaries on a map, give someone the ability to look up their post code and see if they are affected by that change.
  3. Proximity; this known design principle of grouping related items together (e.g. images to their textual explanations, instructions to the parts they refer to etc) is even more important for people with certain types of disability, like low vision. This is because it is much easier for them to lose the context, as they see much less of the interface at a time. Derek suggests getting an understanding of this by examining an interface looking at it through your fist, like holding a straw. Actions, buttons etc should be placed in a way that the desired action is located where the person would expect according to the patterns of use that have been established already. If so far, the action is on a specific part of the screen, changing that will be confusing. Buttons should be distinguishable from each other even without reading, so e.g. for buttons previous & next, using the exact same colours, font, sizes, etc means the user needs to read to distinguish.

Finally, it is important to not get so caught up in the technical requirements of making something accessible on paper, that we forget what it is we are trying to achieve.

Suzanne read New regulations for online learning accessibility (WonkHE, 23 Sept 2018)

Published in WonkHe in September 2018, this article by Robert McLaren outlines the new regulations for online learning accessibility. McLaren works for the think-tank Policy Connect, which published a report in collaboration with Blackboard Ally after the government ratified the EU Web Accessibility Directive on the 23rd of September. This directive clarifies the position of HE institutions as public sector bodies and thus includes them in the requirements for web accessibility. This means that VLEs, online documents, video recordings etc are all counted as web content, and need to meet the four principles of accessible web design: that it is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Additionally, VLEs will also have to include an accessibility statement outlining the accessibility compliance of the content, directing students to tools to help them get the most from the content (such as browser plugins), and explaining how students can flag any inaccessible content. As McLaren notes, this has long been considered good practice, and isn’t really anything new, but is now a legal duty.

The article then outlines several areas which may still need addressing in VLE content. The first is ensuring content is usable. The example he uses is the prevalence of scanned pdfs which are hard or impossible to work with (as they appear as image, rather than text) for disabled students, but also for non-disabled students and those working with mobile devices. From this point, McLaren moves to discuss briefly the idea of universal design, which he defines as “educational practice that removes the barriers faced by disabled students and thereby benefits all students.” In the article, he claims that the rise in universal design has in part been fuelled by cuts to Disabled Students Allowances and the increasing shift in focus to universities to remove barriers for disabled students rather than DSA and other measures which work to mitigate these barriers once they are in place.

The article then suggests a model for ensuring the change required to meet these needs: “We recommended a cascading approach. Government should work with sector organisations to provide training for key staff such as learning technologists, who can in turn train and produce guidance for teaching staff.” As the report was sponsored by Blackboard Ally, it is perhaps not surprising that another side of their solution is to provide a range of usable and flexible resources, which Ally helps users ensure they are providing. The final remarks, however, surely stand true no matter how achieved (through Ally or other means): “An inclusive approach allows all students to learn in the ways that suit them best. If the sector can respond effectively to these regulations, all students, disabled and non-disabled, will benefit from a better learning experience.”

Suggested reading

Turnitin UK summit 27th September 2018

On Thursday 27th September I attended the Turnitin Summit, held at the impressive Sage Gateshead.

Tyne Bridge and Sage Gateshead

Tyne Bridge and Sage Gateshead

This event was eagerly anticipated by many of us working in the area of electronic management of assessment (EMA) in UK HE, as Turnitin were to demo their new advanced marking functionality.  Having been previously involved in some product development sessions with colleagues from Turnitin I had some idea of what we could expect, but it was great to see a live demo showing what has been built.

The new version has many much-needed features, including improved support for sharing marking between multiple markers, double and double blind marking, and also an option to allow release of feedback prior to release of marks.  Sector beta testing is due to take place in Q1 and Q2 2019, with general availability scheduled for Q3.

As Bill Loller, VP for Product Management, mentioned when introducing the demo, this development is a real testament to some excellent partnership working between the company and UK clients, which, on the evidence of the day, will deliver some really tangible benefits for us.

Another area of EMA which Turnitin are working on is support for moderation and I attended a useful session later on where we were able to feed in to this development.

I was also interested to hear Marc Daubach, Chief Revenue Officer & SVP Customer Success, mention Turnitin’s recent acquisition of Gradescope, a company which have been developing solutions incorporating AI-assisted marking.

Although my main focus for the day was assessment, there were also updates on the new “Authorship Investigation” product, designed to address contract cheating, and the “Code Investigate” tool, which checks similarity of software source code, currently in development.

Online communities – notes from the reading group

Amy read Professors share ideas for building community in online courses. The over-arching narrative of this piece was that ‘humanizing learning’ was the most effective was to build online learning communities, which occurs when students connect on a emotional and social level when engaging with the community. The author, Sharon O’Malley, suggest six methods for achieving this:

  1. Let students get to know you – instructors need to present themselves as ‘real people’ – this can be done by appearing goofy or telling genuine anecdotes in videos, for example. Students should also be encouraged to reveal their non-academic lives, in order for others to feel more like they know them personally, rather than just in the learning context
  2. Incorporating video and audio resources and feedback
  3. Meet in real time – students can talk to each other in real time and make instant connections
  4. Work in small groups – students get connected with others in their group – instead of feeling like they’re in a class of fifty, they feel they are in a class of 5, 10 etc.
  5. Require constant interaction – group projects and collaborative writing assignments force students to engage with each other out of the session
  6. Rise to the challenge – building community takes time – it takes planning and experimentation. Stick with it if it doesn’t immediately work!

Roger introduced a Building learning communities card activity. This is an activity from QAA Scotland, designed to stimulate discussion about what helps an effective learning community. The activity cards suggest the following factors:

  • Clearly defined and inclusive values
  • A clearly articulated and shared purpose
  • Clearly articulated and shared purpose goals
  • Active and vibrant interaction
  • Owned and managed by its people
  • Dedicated structure
  • Collaboration
  • Adequate and appropriate support
  • Understood and respected expectations
  • Adequate and appropriate resources
  • Built in evaluation

The instructions ask the group to consider which of these are essential and which are “nice to haves”.   The activity was certainly effective in stimulating discussion in reading group.]

Suzi watched Building Community: A Conversation with Dave Cormier – a recording of an edX webinar from 2014 – video. Here Cormier, who coined the term MOOC, talks to edX about how they could and should use online learning communities.

Cormier talks about four models of learning that you could scale up online:

  • One-to-one (adaptive learning, tutoring on skype?)
  • One-to-many (video lectures on MOOCs)
  • Cooperative learning: many-to-many, all working on the same thing
  • Collaborative learning: many-to-many, shared interest but each with own project

Collaborative learning is the one which he thinks is particularly – perhaps only – served by online communities. The real life equivalent being chaos, or maybe conferences (which, arguably, don’t work well for learning).

He draws the distinction between mastery learning (where skills can be ticked off a list as you progress) and complexity. Communities are not a particularly useful tool for mastery, or for checking who has learnt what. They are much better suited for complexity. This seemed to echo discussions we’d had about the difference between using gamification and using playfulness in learning – gamification being more for mastery, playfulness for complexity.

Cormier offers some tips on building a successful community.

  • A community should have, should move people towards building, shared values and a shared language.
  • Drive participation by having a famous person (but this can become one-to-many) or by asking annoying questions that people can’t resist engaging with (eg “how do we recognise cheating as a valuable part of education?”).
  • Shape participation by assigning roles to people and having course leader presence to set the tone.
  • Give people ways to get to know each other and make connections: recognising who people are and recognising aspects of yourself in them.

His view on evaluation and measuring success might be more specific to the MOOC context. He suggests borrowing techniques from advertising to demonstrate their value (but he doesn’t give details). The outcomes he suggests you might hope for are things like building more interest in your research area, or building the brand of an academic / department / institution.

He also asks some interesting questions. About the authenticity of work we give to students – how will their work persist? Can it be right that so much of students work is destined to be thrown away? About life beyond the community – how will the community persist? Communities are emotional – you shouldn’t just pull the plug at the end.

Lots of this is challenging in an educational context. For instance, communities take time to build but we generally work with units that last for a teaching block at most. Our online Bristol Futures courses only last four weeks. I wonder if this is to do with setting expectations. Perhaps we need thin and thick communities: the thin communities being time-bound but with much more scaffolding and a narrower purpose, the thick communities being more what Cormier is talking about here.

I also read The year we wanted the internet to be smaller (on the growth of niche communities in 2017) and 11 tips for building an engaged online community (practical advice aimed at NGOs). Both are interesting in their own right and worth a read. In both the idea of shared values, shared language and a sense of purpose came up. They also talk also recognition: communities as a place where you find “your people”. This resonates with my positive experiences of online communities but is, again, challenging in an education context. As Suzanne pointed out I think – if the tone and being among “your people” is important you must be able to walk out and find something different if you don’t feel comfortable. And it may be far better that you work with people who aren’t just  “your people”, or at least who don’t start that way.

Suggested reading

Online communities in education

From other sectors

Education communities – articles that are 10+ years old

Suggested listening

Miscellany – notes from the reading group

No theme this month – just free choice. Here’s what we read (full notes below):

Naomi read Stakeholders perspectives on graphical tools for visualising student assessment and feedback data.

This paper from the University of Plymouth looks at the development and progression of learning analytics within Higher Education. Luciana Dalla Valle, Julian Stander, Karen Gretsey, John Eales, and Yinghui Wei all contributed.  It covers how four graphical visualisation methods can be used by different stakeholders to interpret assessment and feedback data. The different stakeholders being made up of external examiners, learning developers, industrialists (employers), academics and students.

The paper discusses how there is often difficulty pulling information from assessments and feedback as there can be a lot of data to cover. Having graphic visualisations means information can be shared and disseminated quickly, as there is one focal point to concentrate on. Its mentioned that some can include ‘too much information that can be difficult for teachers to analyse when limited time is available.’ But it is also discussed how it is important then to evaluate the visualisations from the point of view of the different stakeholder who may be using them.

The paper looks at how learning analytics can be seen as a way to optimise learning and allow stakeholders to fully understand and take on board the information that they are provided with. For students it was seen as a way to get the most out of their learning whilst also flagging student’s facing difficulties. The paper also talks about how it brings many benefits to students who are described as the ‘overlooked middle’. Students are able to easily compare their assessments, attainment, and feedback to see their progression. Student’s agreed that the visualisations could assist with study organisation and module choice, and it’s also suggested taking these analytics into account can improve social and cultural skills. For external examiners, analytics was seen as a real step forward in their learning and development. For them it was a quick way to assimilate information and improve their ‘knowledge, skills and judgement in Higher Education Assessment. Having to judge and compare academics standards over a diverse range of assessment types is difficult and visual graphics bring some certain simplicity to this. For learning developers too, using these images and graphics are suggested to help in ‘disseminating good practice.

The paper goes on to explain how it does improve each of the stakeholder’s evaluation of assessment. It goes into a lot of detail of the different visualisations suggested, commenting on their benefits and drawbacks of each set of data, which is worth taking a more detailed look at. It should also be noted that the paper suggested there could be confidential or data protection issues involved with sharing or releasing data such as this as in most cases this certain data is only seen at faculty or school level. Student demoralisation is also mentioned near the end of the paper as being a contributing factor to why these graphics may not always work in the best ways. It finishes by suggesting how it would be interesting to study student’s confidence and self-esteem changes due to assessment data sharing. It an interesting idea that needs to be carefully thought out and analysed to ensure it produces a positive and constructive result for all involved.

Suzanne read: Social media as a student response system: new evidence on learning impact

This paper begins with the assertion that social media is potentially a “powerful tool in higher education” due to its ubiquitous nature in today’s society. However, also recognising that to date the role of social media in education has been a difficult one to pin down. There have been studies showing that it can both enhance learning and teaching and be a severe distraction for students in the classroom.

The study sets out to answer these two questions:

  • What encourages students to actively utilise social media in their learning process?
  • What pedagogical advantages are offered by social media in enhancing students’ learning experiences?

To look at these questions, the researchers used Twitter in a lecture-based setting with 150 accounting undergraduates at an Australian university. In the lectures, Twitter could be used in two ways: as a ‘backchannel’ during the lecture, and as a quiz tool. As a quiz tool, the students used a specific hashtag to Tweet their answers to questions posed by the lecturer in regular intervals during the session, related to the content that had just been covered. These lectures were also recorded, and a proportion of the students only watched the recorded lecture as they were unable to attend in person. Twitter was used for two main reasons. First, the researchers assumed that many students would already be familiar and comfortable with Twitter. Secondly, using Twitter wouldn’t need any additional tools, such as clickers, or software (assuming that students already had it on their devices).

Relatively early on, several drawbacks to using Twitter were noted. There was an immediate (and perhaps not surprising?) tension between the students and lecturers public and private personas on Twitter. Some students weren’t comfortable Tweeting from their own personal accounts, and the researchers actually recommended that lecturers made new accounts to keep their ‘teaching’ life separate from their private lives. There was also a concern about the unpredictability of tapping into students social media, in that the lecturer had no control over what the students wrote, in such a public setting. It also turned out (again, perhaps not unsurprisingly?) that not all students liked or used Twitter, and some were quite against it. Finally, it was noted that once students were on Twitter, it was extremely easy for them to get distracted.

In short, the main findings were that the students on the whole liked and used Twitter for the quiz breaks during the lecture. Students self-reported being more focused, and that the quiz breaks made the lecture more active and helped with their learning as they could check their understanding as they went. This was true for students who actively used Twitter in the lecture, those who didn’t use Twitter but were still in the lecture in person, and those who watched the online recording only. During the study, very few students used Twitter as a backchannel tool, instead preferring to ask questions by raising a hand, or in breaks or after the lecture.

Overall, I feel that this supports the idea that active learning in lectures is enhanced when students are able to interact with the material presented and the lecturer. Breaking up content and allowing students to check their understanding is a well-known and pedagogically sound approach. However, this study doesn’t really provide any benefit in using Twitter, or social media, specifically. The fact that students saw the same benefit regardless of whether they used Twitter to participate, or were just watching the recording (where they paused the recording to answer the questions themselves before continuing to the answers), seems to back this up. In fact, in not using Twitter in any kind of ‘social’ way, and trying to hive off a private space for lecturers and students to interact in such a public environment seems to be missing the point of social media altogether. For me, the initial research questions therefore remain unanswered!

Suzi read Getting things done in large organisations

I ended up with a lot to say about this so I’ve put it in a separate blog post: What can an ed techie learn from the US civil service?. Key points for me were:

  • “Influence without authority as a job description”
  • Having more of a personal agenda, and preparing for what I would say if I got 15 minutes with the VC.
  • Various pieces of good advice for working effectively with other people.

Chrysanthi read Gamification in e-mental health: Development of a digital intervention addressing severe mental illness and metabolic syndrome (2017). This paper talks about the design of a gamified mobile app that aims to help people with severe chronic mental illness in combination with metabolic syndrome. While the target group is quite niche, I love the fact that gamification is used in a context that considers the complexity of the wellbeing domain and the interaction between mental and physical wellbeing. The resulting application, MetaMood, is essentially the digital version of an existing 8-week long paper-based program with the addition of game elements. The gamification aims to increase participation, motivation and engagement with the intervention. It is designed to be used as part of a blended care approach, combined with face to face consultations. The game elements include a storyline, a helpful character, achievements, coins and a chat room, for the social element. Gamification techniques (tutorial, quest, action) were mapped to traditional techniques (lesson, task, question) to create the app.

The specific needs of the target group needed the contributions of an interdisciplinary team, as well as relevant game features; eg the chat room includes not only profanity filter, but also automatic intervention when keywords like suicide are used (informing the player of various resources available to help in these cases). Scenarios, situations and names were evaluated for their potential to trigger patients, and changes were made accordingly; eg the religious sounding name of a village was changed, as it could have triggered delusions.

The 4 clinicians that reviewed the app said it can proceed to clinical trial with no requirement for further revision. Most would recommend it to at least some of their clients. The content was viewed as acceptable and targeted by most, the app interesting, fun & easy to use. I wish there had been results of the clinical trial, but it looks like this is the next step.

Roger read “Analytics for learning design: A layered framework and tools”, an article from the British Journal of Educational Technology.

This paper explores the role analytics can play in supporting learning design. The authors propose a framework called the “Analytics layers for learning design (AL4LD)”, which has three layers: learner, design and community analytics.

Types of learner metrics include engagement, progression and student satisfaction while experiencing a learning design. Examples of data sources are VLEs or other digital learning environments, student information systems, sensor based information collected from physical spaces, and “Institutional student information and evaluation (assessment and satisfaction) systems”. The article doesn’t go into detail about the latter, for example to explore and address the generic nature of many evaluations eg NSS, which is unlikely to provide meaningful data about impact of specific learning designs.

Design metrics capture design decisions prior to the implementation of the design. Examples of data include learning outcomes, activities and tools used to support these. The article emphasises that “Data collection in this layer is greatly simplified when the design tools are software systems”. I would go further and suggest that it is pretty much impossible to collect this data without such a system, not least as it requires practitioners to be explicit about these decisions, which otherwise often remain hidden.

Community metrics are around “patterns of design activity within a community of teachers and related stakeholders”, which could be within or across institutions. Examples of data include types of learning design tools used and popular designs in certain contexts. These may be shared in virtual or physical spaces to raise awareness and encourage reflection.

The layers inter-connect eg learning analytics could contribute to community analytics by providing evidence for the effectiveness of a design. The article goes on to describe four examples. I was particularly interested in the third third one which describes the “experimental Educational Design Studio” from the University of Technology Sydney. It is a physical space where teachers can go to explore and make designs, ie it also addresses the community analytics layer in a shared physical space.

This was an interesting read, but in general I think the main challenge is collection of data in the design and community aspects. For example Diana Laurillard has been working on systems to do this for many years, but there seems to have been little traction. eg The learning design support environment  and the Pedagogical Patterns Collector.

Amy read: Addressing cheating in e-assessment using student authentication and authorship checking systems: teachers’ perspectives. Student authentication and authorship systems are becoming increasingly well-used in universities across the world, with many believing that cheating is on the rise across a range of assessments. This paper looks at two universities (University A in Turkey and University B in Bulgaria) who have implemented the TeSLA system (an Adaptive Trust-based eAssessment System for Learning). The paper doesn’t review the effectiveness of the TeSLA system, but rather the views of the teachers on whether the system will affect the amount of cheating taking place.

The research’s main aim is to explore the basic rationale for the use of student authentication and authorship systems, and within that, to look at four specific issues:

  1. How concerned are teaching about the issue of cheating and plagiarism in their courses?
  2. What cheating and plagiarism have teachers observed?
  3. If eAssessment were introduced in their courses, what impact do the teaching think it might have on cheating and plagiarism?
  4. How do teachers view the possible use of student authentication and authorship checking systems, and how well would such systems fit with their present and potential future assessment practises?

Data was collected across three different teaching environments: face-to-face teaching, distance learning and blended learning. Data was collected via questionnaires and interviews with staff and students.

The findings, for the most part, were not hugely surprising: the main type of cheating that took place at both universities was plagiarism, followed by ghost-writing (or the use of ‘essay mills’). These were the most common methods of cheating in both exam rooms and online. The difference between the reasons staff believed students cheated and why students cheated varied widely too. Both teachers and students believed that:

  • Students wanted to get higher grades
  • The internet encourages cheating and plagiarism, and makes it easy to do so
  • There would not be any serious consequences if cheating and plagiarism was discovered

However, teachers also believed that students were lazy and wanted to take the easy way out, whereas students blamed pressure from their parents and the fact they had jobs as well as studying for reasons.

Overall, staff were concerned with cheating, and believed it was a widespread and serious problem. The most common and widespread problem was plagiarism and ghost writing, followed by copying and communicating with others during assessments. When asked about ways of preventing cheating and plagiarism, teaching were most likely to recommend changes to educational approaches, followed by assessment design, technology and sanctions. Teachers across the different teaching environments (face-to-face, blended and distance learning) were all concerned with the increase in cheating that may take place with online/ eAssessments. This was especially the case for staff who taught on distance learning courses, where students currently take an exam under strict conditions. Finally, all staff believed that the use of student authentication and authorship tools enabled greater flexibility in access for those who found it difficult to travel, as well as in forms of assessment. However, staff believed that cheating could still take place regardless of these systems, but that technology could be used in conjunction with other tools and methods to reduce cheating in online assessments.

What can an ed techie learn from the US civil service?

I recently read Getting things done in large organisations by Thomas Kalil (profession: “expert” according to Google). Kalil worked for the Clinton and Obama administrations on science and technology policy. This is his attempt to share what worked for him. I was interested because 12 – nearly 13 – years in at Bristol and I’m still learning how to get things done. From what I understand of their structure and rate-of-change, civil service and universities are at least in some ways similar.

The paper is aimed at “policy entrepreneurs”: people who generate or spot new ideas, then evaluate and (if appropriate) help make them happen. I grew up in the 80’s and the word entrepreneur brings to mind Rodney from Only Fools and Horses … I can’t imagine wanting to apply the term to myself. But the principle certainly applies within my role, and indeed many professional roles.

Kalil starts by giving a bit of a career history, which is probably only relevant if you would like to become a policy advisor. This is the first 6 pages. The remaining 10 pages are pretty solidly filled with good advice. Here are some of the things most directly applicable to my role in digital education….

“Influence without authority as a job description” – this resonates, working in an organisation that is still often operating on goodwill and people’s desire to cooperate

Thought experiment: What if you had 15 minutes with the president (in my case the VC), and if he liked your idea he would be willing to call anyone to make it happen. Kalil developed this as a way of making people think seriously about what they would change, and who would be in a position to do it. Follow up questions:

  • Would the people called be willing & able to do it?
  • Is there anything we could change (for them or about the proposal) to make them more willing or more able?
  • What existing forums / mechanisms are there that could carry this forward? (This also relates to the paper from a previous reading group on evidence and the question: would the initiative continue if we walked away?)

There’s something empowering about having an answer to this prepared. I don’t, but I will.

How does your remit fit into the bigger picture? Related to the thought experiment above is the importance of keeping aware of – and actively looking for – areas where digital education can further the broader aims of the university.

Partnership working (working collaboratively) works best when you have good relationships. Both sides need to:

  • Understand each other’s priorities
  • Trust each other to follow-through
  • Feel able to disagree and raise concerns

Relationships need to be a two-way street, not just one side dictating. It’s also important to understand the internal politics and personalities you are working with. Clearly the bulk of this is good advice for all relationships, professional and personal.

Have an agenda. In my experience teams do tend to do this but, for personal job satisfaction at the very least, having a personal agenda makes some sense. Kalil has some good questions to ask on this (go read them) but key for me is: why do I believe this is the right thing to do and that it will work? Also, recognise that you won’t know the answers without listening to (and asking interesting questions of) other people.

Make it easy for other people to help you. The example Kalil gives is: if you want someone to send an email, write it for them. Closely related to this is his advice for making follow-up more likely to happen: ask people if they think they can complete their assignment; document and follow up commitments; have deadlines, even if they’re artificial; if someone isn’t following up, try to find out why.

Understand what tools are available to you. What are the things you / your team / the organisation can do to affect change?

Be open to ideas from a range of sources. Engage with people from outside of your own contexts. Adapt and imitate what works elsewhere.

Plan for a change in administration (surprisingly applicable in universities, this one).

And some don’ts:

  • Don’t try to do too many things at once
  • Don’t act of the urgent and forget the important
  • Don’t spend too much time on reports
  • Don’t let things drag on indefinitely
  • Don’t surprise people, they don’t like it

Nothing earth-shattering perhaps but good solid advice, much of which it’s worth being reminded of. I’d recommend it.

Wellbeing – notes from the reading group

Roger read: Curriculum design for wellbeing.

This is part of an online professional development course for academics, produced by a project run by a number of Australian Universities co-ordinated by the University of Melbourne. It aims  to build the capacity of University educators to design curriculum and create teaching and learning environments that enhance student mental wellbeing. There are 5 modules: on student wellbeing, curriculum design, teaching strategies, difficult conversations and your wellbeing.

I focussed on module 2 which is on curriculum design. It starts by stressing the importance of students, through the curriculum, experiencing autonomous motivation, a sense of belonging, positive relationships,  feelings of autonomy and competence (M-BRAC). All of these are aspects of good practice in curriculum design.

It goes on to consider how elements of curriculum design support student mental wellbeing, covering alignment, organisation and sequencing of content, engaging learning activities and a focus on assessment for learning.

For example, aligning ILOS with assessment and learning activities helps student autonomy as they understand how what they are doing contributes to their goals and they develop their knowledge and skills, including self-regulation, to achieve the ILOS. Assessment for learning plays a key role here. Clear organisation and sequencing of content contribute to effective learning. Both alignment and structure help to build students’ sense of competence.  Engaging and meaningful learning activities can increase student motivation and encourage peer interaction, which can contribute to building relationships and a sense of belonging.

It suggests that when reviewing the curriculum one should ask:

  • How will the curriculum be experienced by my (diverse) students eg international students, mature students, “first in family” students?
  • Will the curriculum foster or thwart experiences of M-BRAC

The module then has a number of FAQs you are asked to consider, with suggested answers. These were really useful as they tease out some of the complexities, for example “Is setting group assignments in the first year a good way of helping students develop positive peer relationships, and feel a sense of connectedness or belonging?”  Here they recognise that if not well-designed or if students are not supported to develop group work skills it can have a negative impact.

The module ends with a set of case studies illustrating how curricula have been re-designed to better support M-BRAC.

Amy read: Approach your laptop mindfully to avoid digital overload.

This was a short article that recognised the ever-increasing belief that we are being constantly bombarded with masses of new information which, in turn, means that many are suffering with stress-related diseases, anxiety and depression. The reliance on digital devices to provide constant streams of information in the form of news articles, social media feeds and messages mean that without these devices we feel lost without them. A full digital detox is suggested at the beginning of this article, though this may be a short-term solution and often an impractical one.

The authors of this article suggest introducing the practice of mindfulness into our lives to combat this. They describe mindfulness as ‘a moment-to-moment attention to present experience with a stance of open curiosity’. Mindfulness has been studied extensively by the medical community and has shown to help with stress, anxiety and depression in individuals. One can ‘reprogramme’ their mind to deal with stresses more easily by training it to be more present. The authors suggest two key ways they suggest to introduce mindfulness into our use of digital devices to reduce the pressures they can put on us.

One of the methods they suggest is ‘mindful emailing’, which includes practices such as taking three breaths before responding to a stressful email and also considering the psychological effect that the email will have to the recipients.

The second method they suggest is the mindful use of social media, citing ‘checking our intentions before uploading a feed (post?), being authentic in our communications and  choosing the time we spend on social media, rather than falling into it.’

If you haven’t tried mindfulness before take a look at these tips and short audio meditations.

Chrysanthi read: Designing a product with mental health issues in mind,

This article – true to its title – talks about including technological features that aim to help the vulnerable users. While the examples given are taken from a banking application context, the suggestions can be applied to other contexts. More specifically, the article mentions positive friction and pre-emptive action. Positive friction goes against developers’ usual desire to make everything easier and faster and aims to put some necessary obstacles in the way instead, for users that need it. The example used is allowing certain users with somewhat “impulsive” behaviour to check their recent purchases and confirm that they indeed want them. This would help eg bipolar disorder sufferers, who overspend in their manic phase, often at night, and slip into depression in the morning because of their irreversible mistake. In the specific app, this is still a speculative feature.  Pre-emptive action aims to prevent trouble by anticipating certain events and acting on them, eg perceiving a halt in income and sending a well timed notification to start a conversation so the person doesn’t end in debt (and therefore create more stress for themselves). Also, allowing vulnerable customers to choose their preferred time and form of communication (eg phone might be anxiety inducing or email might seem complex).

In an education context, positive friction could be relevant in cases where students are repeatedly doing things they no longer need to do. This would help when – under the illusion they are still learning – students are focusing on redoing exercises they already know how to do – which might help them feel accomplished but doesn’t add value from some point on – or on consuming more and more content, even when they haven’t actually digested what they have learned so far. It isn’t very clear how this could be applied during exam period, though. Pre-emptive action is perhaps easier to translate in an educational context. Any action (or inaction) that is either outside the student’s usual pattern or outside a successful pattern, might be a conversation starting point, or a trigger for suggestions for alternative ways to handle their studies. Also, allowing them different options to learn and communicate with their professors and peers.

Chrysanthi also read: E-mail at work: A cause for concern? The implications of the new communication technologies for health, wellbeing and productivity at work.

This paper explores the potential negative implications of using email at work. The email features they consider as potentially problematic are: speed, multiple addressability, recordability, processing & routing. Essentially, email as a message that can be instantly transmitted to several people at once, automatically stored, easily altered and different versions of it sent to various people, not all of which necessarily visible on the recipient list. According to the authors, emails may increase stress by increasing workload and interruptions, adding difficulty to interpretation of the message and tone, increasing misunderstandings and groupthink, reducing helpful argumentation and social support, increasing isolation and surveillance – which increases discontent, offering a new ground for bullying and harassment, or hindering the processing of negative feelings. Having established these potential negative implications, the authors point out that more research is needed to understand the optimal ways to use email at work, for effective communication and humane workplaces.

Naomi read: Did a five-day camp without digital devices really boost children’s interpersonal skills?

This article was about a brief study led by Yalda Uhls in Southern California. It studied two groups of pupils ‘who on average spent 4.5 hours a day ‘texting watching TV, and video gaming’. Half of the children were sent on a five-day educational camp in the country side where all technical devices were banned. The other half stayed at school as usual. Emotional and psychological tests were carried out on the students before and after the 5 days were completed.

There was a small amount of evidence to suggest the children who had spent time away from devices improved psychologically over the five days. However, because there were several small problems with the study no firm answers can be taken from it. Its suggested the children who went away for the five days only looked like they improved on the tests because they started at a lower level then the children who stayed at school. It was also suggested that the children who stayed at school tests deteriorated because they were tired from doing a week’s work.

As it suggests in the article, the results of this study weren’t particularly hard hitting but it does raise the question of how much the younger generations are using their devices throughout the day. Uhls does admit in the article that there were shortcomings to the study, but they suggest that these findings relate to the ‘wider context of technology fears’ and hope their paper will be ‘a call to action for research that thoroughly and systematically examines the effects of digital media on children’s social development.’ Although the study needed a more comprehensive approach the ideas behind it are interesting and relate to several issues that we see in everyday life – is it good for us to spend so much time on our devices, or is it integral to how we live now?

Suzi read: Learning in the age of digital distraction

This interview with Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist, is a plug for a book called The Distracted Mind in which he and and research psychologist Larry D Rosen talk about the way our brains are wired influences how we use technology.

They suggest that information-foraging is a development of our evolved food-foraging mechanisms, and so is to some extent driven by our very basic drive to survive. Because of this it is hard to prevent it from distracting us from our ability to set and pursue higher-level goals.

Information-foraging doesn’t just impact on people’s ability to focus, it can cause anxiety and stress, and affect mood.

Suggestions for possible ways to combat this include:

  • accepting that we need to (re-)learn to focus (they are also developing brain-training video games)
  • using play in education (but this was only very briefly mentioned I wasn’t clear if this was playfulness or gamification)
  • physical exercise
  • mindfulness
  • sitting down to dinner as a family, or otherwise building in device-free interaction time

Suggested reading

UCiSA – Beyond Lecture Capture event

On the 14th June Neil Davey – Teaching, Learning and Collaboration Spaces Team Manager, and I attended the UCiSA Beyond Lecture Capture event. This event focused on how lecture recording has impacted both student learning and enhanced their experience.

Session topics include:

  • Research on the student learning experience with lecture capture
  • Student feedback panel session
  • Analysis on usage of lecture recordings compared to grades
  • Moving from the traditional lecture to the flipped

Many of the talks expanded on what we have seen at Bristol and the supporting research –

  • Students love lecture capture
  • They use it primarily for revision and enhancing their notes
  • Audio quality is key
  • Good Data is paramount – students do not like lectures with no point of reference in the title
  • Incomplete coverage of rooms is frustrating for them
  • Impact on attendance is a concern of academics
  • Induction for students is needed at a point they are most receptive – ideally contextualised by academics rather than delivered in the abstract

I did hear a couple of things that surprised me, for example both the University of Sheffield and York had high percentages of students that watch the recordings all the way through circa 40%. How do we test what we think we know and what questions should we be asking of the data both quantitative and qualitative we have already gathered to see if our assumptions are correct.

While not an exhaustive list –

How many of our students watch the whole recording?

How are closed caption units used – does this differ from other recordings?

Is there a positive impact on student well being e.g. reduced anxiety when lectures are recorded?

How do we quantify any affect on attainment?

 

 

Playful learning – notes from the reading group

Suzi read Playful learning: tools, techniques, and tactics by Nicola Whitton

This is a useful scene-setting article, suggesting ways of framing discussions on playful learning and pointing the way to unexplored territory suitable for future research.

There are three ideas about how to talk about playful learning:

  • The magic circle – a socially constructed space in which play can happen
  • A mapping of aspects of games onto playful learning: surface structures of playful learning <> mechanics of games, deep structures <> activities of play, implicit structure <> philosophy of playfulness
  • Tools / techniques / tactics of playful learning: objects artefacts & technologies / approaches / mechanics and attributes – these could serve as prompts for getting playfulness into teaching

Whitton suggests three characteristics of the magic circle which make it pedagogically useful: “the positive construction of failure; support for learners to immerse themselves in the spirit of play; and the development of intrinsic motivation to engage with learning activities.” In playful activities, failure will be framed positively, participants suspend disbelief which can encourage creativity, and participation is voluntary so there is intrinsic motivation (the difficulty of this last in particular in a formal education setting is acknowledged).

There’s a lot of acknowledgement that playfulness may not be an easy fit in higher education. Obstacles include: the inescapably of real world power relationships, confusing gamification with true playfulness, the need for things to be mandatory and assessed, existing attitudes to failure, prejudice about play being for children, lack of time, confidence and social capital.

I wasn’t certain about the point about play being a privilege. While certain types of play might attract a relatively slender demographic (escape rooms, real world games) and it’s important not to assume that everyone would want to engage in these, adults seem to play to learn in a range of contexts. I thought about the kinds of spaces where you would see playful learning: cooking, Karaoke, parkour, getting dressed up, new social media platforms (when FB started and everyone was poking each other and and biting each other and throwing bananas, hashtags came from playing with the way Twitter worked), and of other adult pursuits. There is playfulness in higher education too, although it’s often not explicitly described as such. Maybe there is a danger of rarefying play and almost making it by definition a domain for geeks alone, not recognising play that has not been made explicit.

This got me thinking about why we play, and why we might want to play in HE, and about one of my favourite quotes:

“The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?”

— Rebecca Solnit, A field guide to getting lost

This sums up a lot of what university could and should be. Playfulness has to have a very key role in that: place to play with possible selves, both academic and social.

Chrysanthi read Gamifying education: what is known, what is believed and what remains uncertain: a critical review by Christo Dichev and Darina Dicheva.

This is a review aiming to find what is known about gamification in educational contexts based on empirical evidence, rather than beliefs. The authors seem to find that much more is believed or uncertain, rather than known. For example, their main findings are that a. gamification has started being used at a pace much faster than researchers pace at understanding how it works, b. there is very little knowledge about how to effectively apply it in specific contexts and c. there is not enough evidence about its benefit long term.

While the understanding of how to engage, motivate and aid learning through gamification is inadequate, researchers are still praising the practice, thus inflating expectations about its effectiveness. The frequent use of performance-centric game elements like points, levels, badges and leaderboards is noteworthy; in absence of justification from the researchers implementing them, the authors hypothesize that this happens because they are similar to traditional classroom practices and easy to implement. But this leaves other major game elements out; authors note – among others – role play, narrative, choice, low risk failure. These tiny elements are then expected to affect broad concepts like motivation, with researchers often concluding that that is the case, without enough evidence to claim it is so.

This implies a somewhat blind application of the easiest-to-implement elements of gamification, with the belief that it will be enough to motivate students to perform better. But how are points different to marks and levels different to grades and chapters?

Perhaps gamification can’t be a canned, one-size-fits-all-learning-contexts solutions. Perhaps researchers and practitioners need to put in time and at least a bare minimum of imagination to create something that will be engaging enough for students, for the evidence supporting it to not be stamped “inconclusive” when under scrutiny.

David read Playful learning in Higher Education: developing a signature pedagogy by Rikke Toft Nørgård, Claus Toft-Nielsen & Nicola Whitton (2017)

This paper starts off with a bit of a rant about the commercialisation of higher education and the focus on metrics to measure performance and how this creates an assessment-driven environment focused on goal-oriented behaviours characterised by avoidance of risk and fear of failure. The authors see recent gameful approaches in higher education as a response to this but warn that while gamification may increase motivation, games often focus on extrinsic motivational drivers and the results may be short-lived. They also cite research which points to issues around perceived appropriateness and students manipulating points-based incentive systems (and my colleagues and I have encountered examples of this in out teaching).

In contrast to gamification, they regard playful learning as something which encourages intrinsic and longer-term motivation by offering the chance to explore and experiment without fear of being judged for failure and therefore being able to learn from it. They use the ideas of the ‘magic circle’ and ‘lusory attitude’ to describe the environment in which this can occur. The concept of the magic circle is used a lot in gaming and is a metaphor for the ‘space’ we enter into when we fully engage with a game, accepting the different norms and codes of practice (or actively constructing them with other ‘players’). This can refer to physical (e.g. sports) or virtual/imaginary (e.g. computer games) or a combination of both (e.g. a child’s tea party). For this to work, we need to assume an ‘lusory attitude’. This gives participants a shared mindset in which they are free to play, experiment and fail in a safe place.

The Magic Circle – How Games Transport Us to New Worlds

The authors then turn to the question of how to implement such an approach. Using the results of two studies about what students report (a) makes their learning enjoyable and (b) disengages them, they develop a ‘signature pedagogy’ for playful learning in higher education. The notion of ‘signature pedagogy’ they assume is split into three levels:

  • The foundation is formed by Implicit (playful) structures, which are the necessary assumptions and attitudes (values, habits, ethics)
    • Lusory attitude
    • Democratic values and openness
    • Acceptance of risk-taking and failure
    • Intrinsic motivation
  • Deep (play) structures represent the nature of the activities which the implicit structures facilitate
    • Active and physical engagement
    • Collaboration with diverse others
    • Imagining possibilities
    • Novelty and surprise
  • Surface (game) structures are the ‘mechanics’ of an activity, including the materials, tools and actions involved
    • Ease of entry and explicit progression
    • Appropriate and flexible levels of challenge
    • Engaging game mechanics
    • Physical or digital artefacts

The authors see the implicit (playful) structures as the necessary starting point for their ‘signature pedagogy’ but do not say how students get to this point. Indeed they acknowledge the inherent paradox in their model:

“…for many students to view learning as valuable then it must be valued by the system (assessed), yet it is simultaneously this assessment that makes learning stressful and undermines the creation of a safe and comfortable environment.”

For me, then, this article leaves three interrelated questions to be discussed:

  1. For playful learning to be successful, do students need to have the implicit structures already in place or can students acquire these through the playful activity itself?
  2. If these implicit structures are prerequisite, how do we get students to acquire them?
  3. As this involves a change in students’ attitudes which the authors argue are reinforced by the current assessment-driven environment, does this pedagogical approach have any chance of success without change at the programme or institutional level?

Suzanne read Unhappy families: using tabletop games as a technology to understand play in education by John Lean, Sam Illingworth, Paul Wake, published in the ALT Journal special issue

In this article, the authors decide to take a step back when considering the ‘future’ of digital technologies in relation to playful learning by considering traditional table top games as a form of technology. They aimed to better understand the affordances of digital game tools by looking at table top games as an analogue, in order to reflect critically on the pedagogical uses of games and playful learning. Their hypothesis was that table top games (see the article for a full definition of how they classify a game as ‘table top’), are successful because: 1) they provide an immediate and accessible shared space, which is also social; 2) this space and the game are both easily modified by players and educators; and 3) they provide a tactile, sensory experience. So, in essence, that they are social, modifiable and tactile, which are all things that could be transferred into digital games in education, but which are often overlooked.

To explore this hypothesis, they used a specific game, that of  ‘Gloom‘, which was played by participants at the 2017 ALT Playful Learning Conference. In relation to the first hypothesis, they found that the game encouraged a lot of social interaction. Firstly, the game encourages players to talk about their recent lived experiences as a means of deciding who gets to go first (ie, who has had the worst day thus far). Additionally, there is a storytelling element of the game, which also encourages an empathetic interaction between the game and the players, as well as between players.

Regarding how modifiable the game is, the players found it was easy to change and adapt the game, even during play. They also explored the ways of playing around with and stretching the rules, to create different rules or games within the game play. The authors note that this is often not as easily achieved in digital games, where rules can be more fixed and more difficult to circumvent. Thirdly, the players did undoubtedly find the game tactile, as the cards provide a physical element, further enhanced by the way the cards are played. The cards themselves have transparent elements, so as you stack cards you create different versions of them, allowing for the storytelling element.

In conclusion, the authors used this game play experience to revisit some preconceptions about what ‘play’ or ‘playfulness’ is in a game context. They felt that the ‘true’ play seemed to happen when the players had modified the rules to the point where the game itself was almost no longer required. The players were exploring and testing their new game playfully, in the way that they were interacting with each other and the environment. In terms of education, they felt that this playfulness had great potential for learning. The process of negotiating the play, and working out how to play with others who might have different ideas to you (for example, either wanting to stick to the rules or wanting to break them) is potentially a powerful social learning opportunity.

However, they also noted that this very character of playful learning – that it is negotiated and created by the context and participants – makes it extremely difficult to categorise or understand pedagogically. If we need to allow for such variety of outcomes in playful learning, it can be difficult to work out how we can situate it within other educational structures, like lesson plans or learning objectives.

Suggested reading