Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Opening up the university

As part of a collaborative effort in collecting writing in the “death of the university” genre, I accessed this interesting reading list on university space layout, crowd-sourced in the old skool social medja of the Critical Geographer’s JISC mailing list.*It includes this report from Loughborough university, which unlike most of the guff in the “death of the university” literature is actually based on evidence, rather than just someone moaning in front of a keyboard (I really like this response to a recent awful Spectator piece on the growth of uni admin). The report included this interesting space-utilisation graph:

At both universities I’ve worked at we’ve had space utilisation studies and I’ve always wondered what the results look like. It’s not a surprise. I’m sat typing this at home, so my office is part of that 60 per cent that’s unused.

Anyway, I was thinking about this over the past couple of days. As you’re probably aware if you follow this blog, I swim and generally keep fit to maintain sanity (you can watch me swim here). My swimming training happens at a local secondary school in Edinburgh, with the coaches paying a commercial rate to cover all the school’s costs. On the one hand, I can afford to use this resource at commercial rates and this excludes other groups that might not be able to afford it. On the other hand, this income means that the school can actually afford to keep the pool open and have a swimming pool that their pupils can swim (although one of the kick boards I’ve used had “I HATE SWIMMING” scratched into it) – a difficult balance for a local authority to strike and one we don’t talk about enough.  

At the weekend just gone, I competed in the Stirling Triathlon (if you go and look at the results, in my defence, the swim time includes the 50-60 second run around to transition!). This used the university pool at Stirling and the campus for the run. I’m pretty sure a lot of my race fee went towards the cost of renting the buildings.

But, I want to go back to that diagram above. At an event on the Future Public Servant as part of the Scottish Government’s Participation Week yesterday, I made the point that one of the greatest resources the Scottish Government has to enable participation is its own resources – it has extremely talented individuals who could join committees and do participation in their local or interest communities. They also have buildings throughout Scotland that will be left empty at times that people want some space to use. As a research project I supported showed, what helps people engage is somewhere to sit and have a cup of tea and somewhere to prepare and eat food together – something most public sector organisations have in acres.

It strikes me that a very easy way for universities to become more progressive, change society for positive benefit, and coproduce services with local communities is to open some of this space they have up to a much wider range of organisations and groups. Being an academic, I feel very confident walking into other university’s space (cafes, libraries etc.) and using them for my own ends. If the university is going to be engaged then it spaces should be more open and more people should feel comfortable in them. To put it plainly, a local Community Council should be able to use a teaching room of an evening for free for their meetings. Perhaps this is one way the university can engage again with a social mission akin to the settlement movement?

* if you’re not a member of CRIT-GEOG I’d advise joining and getting the daily digest just to have a daily chuckle at the debates that go on. The annual “stop sending requests for articles” debate is a particular highlight I always look forward to. 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Reflections on teaching practice - changing practices

If you’d not already gathered, I moved to the University of Stirling in July last year. I knew teaching here would be a bit different when in my interview I was challenged as to how I’d changes my teaching practices, particularly my enjoyment of student-led learning and interaction that I had developed from being taught at and then teaching at Heriot-Watt, to suit a class of 300. Apparently my answer impressed as I got the job. This will be the first of a series of blog posts reflecting on this change of teaching scenery and context.

Stirling has the “Stirling model” of undergraduate degree. In the first two years you will have one or two core modules you have to sit to progress in your subject and then you can chose what you want from across the introductory modules offered by the University. Numbers of these modules are limited so the classes are commonly enormous. You specialise down in your honours years.

I was coordinating one of these mega introductory modules – Understanding Social Policy. It had 367 students. There was only one lecture theatre on campus big enough for it. If it was any bigger it would have had to be split in two. The constraints this imposes are immense – my timetabling options were nil. It had to be run as two lectures a week for 12 weeks with ten hour-long tutorials. Even the coursework essays had to have staggered hand-ins to prevent the student office being overwhelmed.
In these reflections I want to focus on two aspects: lectures and what I’ll refer to as “not teaching”.

Firstly, lectures. This was my first time when I felt I was properly lecturing in the old school style. I had 50 minutes and I had to broadcast out a group of students to begin their learning process. I was stood at a lectern with c.200 faces staring down at me. And, actually, boy did it feel good. I’m clearly a thwarted actor. In my lecture on poverty I got a little bit carried away and ended up shouting about the scandal that 40 per cent of children in Scotland experience poverty at some point before the age of five. The faces in the audience looked visibly shocked as I boomed into the microphone and banged the lectern.

However, the limitations of the lecture as a teaching medium were very apparent during the exam period. Even in the run-up to the exam, the emails from students, mercifully few it has to be said, revealed that the students understood the exam merely as an opportunity to memorise a lecture and then dump these memories onto the page over three hours. On some of the answers to the exam questions, you could see this was exactly what students had done – not read widely, but regurgitated the 50 minute narrative they had heard as it roughly answered the question.

This is where my PGCap know-how and the idea of devising your assessment to the learning outcomes has really helped. As I joked on twitter the other week:

The basic learning outcome is to get students to read beyond the basic material in lectures. But this, although fun, would not be the ideal way to assess learning outcomes. Instead I’m going to shorten the exam and have the first half of it as comments on contemporary sources – data, quotes from policy documents, the Daily Hate Mail etc.

The second issue I wanted to talk about was “not-teaching”. By this I meant the strange sense of detachment from the learning process from being a coordinator of such a large module. I didn’t run the seminars/workshops, and didn’t do all the lectures (the modules are team-taught). I got to know literally a handful of students by name and only moderated around 15 per cent of the work. This was extremely different to teaching classes of 30-40 where, although you didn’t know every student well, you definitely got a sense of learning with them, rather than teaching at them. Therefore I ended semester with very little idea of how the students had actually got on during semester, except their performance looked like that of a group that were only marginally engaged with the subject (the majority of marks were below 60 per cent). I used a Google Form to get more feedback off my students and achieved an admirable 89 responses which were helpful, if not contradictory, as ever.

Anyway, it can’t have all been bad as I won this: