Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Final Day’s Symposia Session

The final day of the conference began with a symposia convened by the University of Hertfordshire. The session proved worthy of note, not only with the material presented but the way the symposia had brought presenters together from different sections of one institution to discuss a central theme; Issues impacting policy development in higher education. Although all papers presented were informative, I want to reflect on one; a futures methodological approach was applied to the higher education sector resulting in five possible scenarios for the sector in 25 years time. The data utilised came from social and economic projections and what a future society could be like, thus influencing how the sector will be organised as opposed to looking from the individual institution’s angle.
Scenario 1 – A much smaller sector leading knowledge creation.
Scenario 2 – Responsive to knowledge creation with strong links to industry.
Scenario 3 – Regional universities with institutions mutually dependant.
Scenario 4 – No government funding, students fund themselves and academics generate income with both predominantly part time.
Scenario 5 – Total government funding, with an initially expanded sector having secure employment contracts.
Discussions acknowledged that further development of the scenarios is required, yet all provide a possible glimpse into the sector of the future, will it be one of these or something different?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Monday 7th December

So you want to be published?
Then don't just spam any and every journal you can think of, was the notion at the heart of Ian White's presentation on the subject. Raising some pertinent, and some would think a little basic, points on the subject of getting one's work out there, Ian highlighted just how important it was to ensure that a journal submission fitted in with the target market of the journal, and also with any philosophies the journal may have. It was recommended that if one was keen to become published then going down the route of literature reviews for the journal was a good starting place. Worth noting also was that a submitter should not be afraid of rebuttal, or harsh editing comments, but should instead be prepared to work with the Editor on such points.
Whilst it might seem that the presentation was basic, it really did reinforce and expand on valid points and left the audience, after some very keen questioning, feeling satisfied and enthusiastic about becoming involved in presenting their work to the wider audience.
So what did I gain from it?
That particular piece stuck with me; as a non-academic I seem to find boundaries and restrictions on activities I want to carry out, and I get frustrated with the seemingly slow turnaround of getting research findings out into the World. It was good to see and hear some challenging questions being discussed on the subject. The day of the conference that I was present at was themed at new researchers and felt very supportive and constructive. Discussing with other presenters over lunch (I think every attendee was presenting at some point), the feeling was that of being given opportunities, and with that I would recommend certainly the first day to any prospective new researchers within Newport.
Tom Hadfield

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


Sat in on two sessions in the main Caernarvon suite and was surprised at the diversity of contributions as some seemed very learned whilst others seemed overly simplistic. I like the idea that higher education should protect its right to research for the sake of it and not be always having to demonstrate tangible value for money outcomes. That does not negate the need for accountability with public or private funds but frees the sector to investigate and test the boundaries that otherwise might get ignored.
Made a great contact in the lunch queue for desserts, networking is an art first and then maybe a science, a state of mind and then maybe a skill.

General themes and reflections

Here’s a a few comments that are left over in my mind from the SRHE conference last week. As with all large conferences as I sit and skim the proceedings I realise that I missed far, far more than I listened to, and some of it looks far more interesting to me now!

Sessions I joined (couldn’t do Thu PM - clashed with teaching).

Keynote: Gary Rhoades

Symposium A1

Symposium D5

Keynote: Merle Jacob






Symposium L5


Denzin’s Elephant.

Symposium A1: I didn’t understand too much of this session but it was all papers by past colleagues from Sussex. Nice to catch up.

One paper was very clear - a depressing tale about the trading of sex for grades in the National University of Ghana (i.e. female students exploited by male faculty; ironically some quite deep resentment from male students who see this as an unfair advantage!).

Picked up some nice words: quotidian (means everyday, basic, common); doxa (means common belief, opinion); metonymy (means using the name of one thing for that of another with which it is closely associated – e.g. I read Shakespeare, or London has decreed).

Denzin’s elephant came from a paper by John Pryor about being a peer reviewer. Quite interesting, though quite a personal story. Methodology: autoethnography (is that just ‘writing about myself’?).

‘Linear’ and ‘non-linear’; Chains and Networks.

Here I went to Session F5 “Using Knowledge Structures as a lens to consider the development of university teaching”. Ian Kinchin et al King’s College.

This was v interesting and a clear exposition about concept maps and it explored aspects of how lecturers model teaching.


“The method highlights the negative influence of linearity in promoting an environment where non-learning is the norm ... [where] ... dialogue between teachers and students is not seen to have a purpose”.

This is the sort of thing I want to argue with.

The situation described in that quote is not backed up by any serious data. There’s a whole lot of unprovable assumptions before we start. (You could argue instead that this is simply a description of bad teaching and that linearity has little or nothing to do with it.)

There is some evidence to suggest that when asked to describe how they teach lecturers will often describe a ‘chain’ or ‘linear’ model of the teaching and learning process. But again, what does this really tell us about the issue of non-learning?

Thus linear thinking is represented by linear chains of logic; non-linear thinking is the network of knowledge (though chains are embedded in the network). Linear is bad! It implies certainty and closure. Non-linearity is good. It is how experts think. It is open. Experts can move between these representations freely and rapidly (this thus offers part of a model of problem-solving) but the novice cannot. We need to encourage non-linear thinking in our students.

Yes but … while enjoying the framework for this paper, I am not convinced by the polarisation between (so-called) linear and non-linear representations of knowledge, and I am particularly not convinced by the value system that gets laid on top of it – i.e. linearity is the dark side! It leads to non-learning …

Which is better? To learn by being told (in chains) or by learning through exploring networks (or concept maps)? Answer: there is no real choice here.

So I find myself speaking up for linearity and the out-of-favour lecture. Being told is not a bad thing, and may often be a necessary thing. (Here though we need a discussion about the situated nature of ‘learning by being told’ – it is more complex than some of these straw dogs suggest).

Nicola made a related point in her’s and Rachel’s paper about the academic writing experiences of students. There, ‘memorisation’ is repositioned as a fundamental part of learning. I have always seen memorisation, repetition and, importantly, imitation  as basic components of learning. However, as pedagogical concepts they seem to have acquired such bad connotations; perhaps because of their implications of power? But why so squeamish?

I think this is bad news for any discussion about pedagogy because it skews everything before we start, and rules out, uncritically, some key concepts. Maybe I am imagining it but there seemed to be a subtle kind of orthodoxy running through parts of this conference – a received wisdom (doxa) that linearity, lecturing (a chain mode of delivery supposedly), learning by recall etc, are all ‘bad’ things and that we are striving for something higher and better, more student-centred.

But this received wisdom is uncritically absorbed and becomes a subtle but powerful orthodoxy in its own right. I wonder if a paper about the effectiveness of rote learning in Eng Lit classes would be accepted for the SRHE?

Similarly I heard several references to poor old PowerPoint as being nothing more than a linear presentation tool and thus not fit for purpose in our aspiration to achieve non-linearity in learning.


It's non-linearity however is all too rarely exploited, even by those who argue that HE is too linear! Have they not noticed? If not, why not?

Footnote: I am also reminded that in the VLL symposium there was a brief reference to the notion that the lecturer is often seen as a ‘perfect narrator’. This is an interesting perspective. It connects, among other things, to the books I am reading about plagiarism currently one by Rebecca Moore Howard where she describes how lecturers rely entirely on plagiarism as a basis for their lectures; they tend to convey the impression that it’s all their thinking and ideas that are being presents. We rarely, if ever in the context of a lecture, display our sources. Lecturer as perfect narrator. (And then, says Rebecca, we go on to punish students for doing the self-same thing!).

The crisis in academic capitalism; the failure of the neo-liberal mission to democratise education.

Wow! My take on this is to apply elements of this thesis to our own situation, as came up in the follow-up discussion group: after 1979 The Tories began the long process of commandeering education through a paradoxical combination of privatization and extreme centralisation. They and their neo-liberal (?) descendants (new labour?) justified all this on the grounds of improving equality (aka, widening access etc.). Now we realise that inequality is worse than ever and that HE has made little difference. The ideology of market forces, of student as consumer, the supposed power of choice, does not work.

Question: what is the replacement? how do we change direction?

The lecture as a failed educational form (traditional) vs. new learning spaces (progressive).

(See also notes on non-linearity above).

Under this theme I put Symposium L5, “Creating and Developing visual learning spaces for tomorrow’s universities”  presented by a team from The University of Nottingham’s Visual Learning Lab. Some interesting stuff – e.g. that art history and design lecturers like dimly lit, low-ceilinged rooms to teach in; or the use of multi-screen displays for teaching design and art history.

A couple of nice details about the history of art history pedagogy– see Heinrich Wolfflin (introduced double projection using lantern slides); also Mnemosyne (the goddess of memory) and Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, Picture Wall etc.

But all rather strongly technology focussed, and admitting that a fair degree of technical support is required. Thus not scalable.

No strong evidence is forthcoming about the effectiveness of these hi-tech learning spaces, apart from fairly anecdotal data about preferences, ambience, classroom organisation etc. All these are good of course – students and teachers need to like and enjoy their physical spaces – but technology-rich learning spaces like these can only form part of a repertoire. Question is: how big a part?

Incidentally, one of the talks used the ‘linearity’ critique of PowerPoint as a small part of the rationale for multi-screen displays. I also found the presentation about interactive whiteboards surprisingly limited particularly in that there was know focus on the value of the ‘interactivity’ that these tools provide. I sensed that this was partly due to slightly undeveloped or unsophisticated conceptions of digital information flows and re-use. I don’t mean to sound snotty – I am always making mistakes about these more technical aspects of the tools we use, why only the other day I found myself arguing that a physical computer is more likely to be stable than a virtual one … I was promptly corrected by those in the know. But too often our conceptions of what IT will do for us in our teaching and learning rest on weak or woolly understanding and skill of what IT can actually do.

We teach what we know. If we believe that PowerPoint is linear then so will our students, and of course everyone is denied the opportunity to realise the great potential of the non-linearity that PowerPoint (and all similar tools) affords. If we believe that PPT is linear then that’s how we will use to to support out teaching.

Similarly, if we don’t believe, or have no conceptions of the importance of managing and using data files as a foundational skill underpinning the effective use of IT in learning and teaching then of course our file management will be crap and everything that depends on file management will be crap. This at least partially explains the relatively slow take-up of VLEs – they depend on a decent level of skill in handling data files.

A related talk was given in Session G12.1 “New Spaces for New learning in HE”, by Paul Martin et al Brighton University, a report on the work of the Brighton Creativity Centre. (Here’s some links to related work at Brighton: InQbate; SPACES FOR LEARNING in ART and DESIGN; CETLD etc.

The talk was strongly from the viewpoint of design and fine art teaching. Here we were presented with a digitally facilitated studio space rather than a conventional teaching room. It’s a completely flexible space etc.

The speaker was a little critical – the technology is quite complicated to use, and there is a limit to how messy you can be in the learning space (speaker is a fine artist, hence presumably likes to make a lot of splashes!).

Again, no real evaluation of the effectiveness of this sort of space was offered and as with all presentations of this type, the question of scalability and replication is barely touched on.

Besides, this speaker made a strong assertion to the effect that outcomes are determined by the teacher’s attitudes, knowledge and motivation as well as those of the students. The use of ‘determines’ is rather strong and if this is true, as I suspect it is, then we are left with only a marginal contribution from the physical learning space – so why invest all this time and money in experimental spaces?

This talk also left me wondering what their real value is apart from the obvious (fun, fresh, funky) but we don’t know anything much about things that might have lasting value. Particularly of course as the history of education is full of attempts to reform and remodel the physical environment around pedagogical principles but we see little real change from the basic models laid down in the 18/19 Centuries.

Creativity’ as an icon of learning.

I only mention this in passing, as an example of some sort of social rhetoric. The concept of ‘creativity’ seemed to be in frequent use in many of the talks and conversations I heard. But it’s one of those odd ideas that is used more like a kind of ‘placeholder’ for a set of values that are intrinsically positive, but at the same time vague and difficult to define. Without realising it your interlocutor has invited you to fill in the blank which you obligingly do.

“Our aim is to make our students more creative” is code for bright, lovely, environmentally aware, non-racist, happy, bouncy students whose potential has been more fully realised. ‘Creative’ is also contrasted with ‘lectures’ (and hence linearity) as the negative force in teaching and learning. ‘Creative’ is good.

How can you not fill in the blank this way?

But in fact ‘creative’ has a far more mechanistic aspect which makes it less attractive. This aspect is rarely addressed. Learning one’s first language is ‘creative’ only in a technical sense; thinking itself is ‘creative’ but as a process it cares nothing for values.

Creativity is a Janus. We like to use it to signify the beautiful, the desirable, the good. But evil too is generated out of creativity.

Sort that one out!

ESDGC as a new ideology.

I am worrried that there is potentially a great threat to liberty and to democracy (such as it is) which may come from an authoritarian and orthodoxical repetition of received wisdom (doxa?) about the state of the planet. ESDGC may be a key policy to unlock the future (I hope it is), or it may turn out to be a key power-tool for reaction and repression. (See this THE op ed piece for a related discussion).

The stakes are that high.

Thus, while I found Brendan’s Session H9 illuminating and relevant I am worried about the suggestion that ‘developing sustainable behaviour’ is an aim of HE. This feels closer to indoctrination whereas a more proper orientation for HE must be towards the critical evaluation of behavioural choices, without prescription.

After all, we have a relatively poor understanding as to what genuinely sustainable behaviour is, if only because all solutions turn out to generate their own problems that require solutions. So the notion of ‘developing’  sustainable behaviour is fraught with moral and political dangers as well as, more obviously, environmental dangers.

[Sidenote. Take for example our council which has recently introduced a recyclable waste collection. Very good. But the other day I realised that now we have two collection vehicles visiting our house – one for the regular rubbish (now a smaller load of course) followed by another (admittedly smaller) vehicle to collect the recyclables.]

Why? Is that  sustainable behaviour?

So, the role of HE is not to change behaviour. The role of HE is to enable reasoning about choices so that the choices that people do make are based on reasons and principles rather than hearsay of propaganda.

The People’s choices may not be the right ones … but we certainly cannot design a curriculum that can know in advance what are the right behavioural choices for students. All society can ask of HE is that we empower students to think about things. We have to leave their behaviour, their actions, to them.

Is that an old-fashioned view of HE?

One obvious and major problem with this view is that nevertheless HE does in fact create prescriptions on behaviour, academic, moral and political. But (a) not all these prescriptions are assessed or measurable outcomes of the curriculum; and (b) many are contested.

Indigenous knowledge

Nicola reminded us that indigenous knowledge should be valued. This is a vital aspiration. It is conceptually connected to the notion that we need to understand much more about where all our students start (their prior learning as it were). And of course, in some sense all knowledge is indigenous.

But we still have to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the trash from the recyclables. Not all indigenous knowledge is worth keeping as knowledge. Some is interesting only as a museum piece …

The same goes for indigenous values, customs and practices. All are open to question.

Isn’t that what HE is for? Not merely to validate beliefs and practices on the grounds that because they are held by some one or some group they should be respected for their intrinsic value, but to dissect, analyse, critique and reassemble indigenous knowledge into a relevant and appropriate way of life.


Listened to an interesting PhD project about how and why students engage with academic reading. This paper used the idea of threshold concepts quite a lot (these came up in other papers too). Must look this up. Ensuing discussion also addressed the issue of to what extent lecturers model reading for their students.

This topic resonates with my own recent interest in plagiarism which grew out of some measure of hostility towards the adoption of tools like Turnitin.

Authorship, writing, reading, ‘relationship with text’, deja-lu, copying, replicating, sharing. The whole screaming paraphernalia of textuality is up for grabs it seems to me. One of the many prescriptions about that HE tries to enforce and which is increasingly contested.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Welcome to the SRHE2009 Newport Blog

Welcome to the SRHE2009 Newport Blog. It has been created by the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at the University of Wales, Newport.

I would like to invite all delegates from the University of Wales, Newport, to contribute a post to the blog to help disseminate some of the excellent content presented at the Conference, post photographs, and to comment on other delegates posts, so that we capture our experiences of the event.

As a minimum, I would suggest you:
  1. Report on at least one talk you attended that you think is important to disseminate to Newport colleagues.
  2. Highlight at least one contact that you may have made through networking that would be worth us following up and why.
  3. Reflect on your experience at the Conference in terms of your own professional development.
  4. Contribute anything else that would be of interest to Newport colleagues.