Space to Think

I’m supposed to be asleep now but instead I am here. Why? Well because as usual, five seconds after closing my eyes my brain is clamouring to process the day. At Brooke’s we have a new teaching and learning building going up and one of the tag lines is ‘Space to think’. Of course they mean physical space but it is mental space which is even more important.

We seem to have bought into this Anglo-American idea that work is about being busy and being ‘seen’ to be busy. Work is busy-ness! Business is busy-ness! How often do we sit there and just think? I was amazed at how productive my day has been because our team were given ‘permission’ to just think and write without having to do emails or any other task. One colleague noted that it had been a long time since she had just concentrated on one thing, it felt very odd.

So my brain is telling me I need the space to think. My work day demonstrated to me the value of that space. So I better start doing it. My resolution is to create a space to think everyday. I hope you can join me.


Blogs, e-portfolios and learning narratives

OK this could be a convoluted one! I am planning to apply for an EdD and this started me off thinking about what area I would like to research. At the same time, I was directed to a post on bPortfolios (blog-based portfolios!?) by David Hopkins which references some work on “bPortfolios: Blogging for Reflective Practice” (Wicks 2011). So what is the connection?

As part of the PGCert for new lecturers at my previous institution Salford, we used both PebblePad and WordPress as portfolio tools for assessment. During the evaluation of these tools I became convinced that an open blog-based portfolio like WordPress was more useful to the learners as a learning tool than an institutional e-portfolio tool. Why?

Wicks (2011) noted that bPortfolios enhance critical reflection through:

  • Social interaction – Students share their learning reflections in an open format. [Yes I witnessed this to a certain extent in our learners. This is something that needs to be pushed more I think.]
  • Developmental – The reverse chronological order of posts shows learning growth.  [Yes and this is the big one for me which I will come back to later.]
  • Organization – Categories and tags allow students to classify their reflections. [Not sure about this. I think it helps some learners but many still struggle with organising their electronic records and seem to prefer (or at least are most comfortable with) the file system that Microsoft uses]
  • Autonomy – Students have ownership of their personal content management system.  [I think this becomes more important in the future. As I start to use more of my own systems and work outside institutional systems, I appreciate more the flexibility afforded from choosing and keeping my own tools and not being forced into using institutional tools.]
  • Reflective – Students consider which standards are being addressed and what key words best describe the post.  [Yes. I think being able to see some of the high quality work some of our students produces gives others an idea of what to aim for as well]
  • Digital citizenship – Students practice using social media to enhance digital reputations(Chaplin, 2011). [I think again in the future this will become more important]

David raises the questions of what is the difference between an e-portfolio and a bPortfolio? Have bPortfolios killed off e-portfolios? Or does the idea of a bPortfolio just confuse the whole e-portfolio thing? For me, I am interested in answering these questions from a slightly tangential angle (This is where the EdD could come in).

I’m interested in learning narratives and reflection. Portfolios (of any kind) seem to be an ideal way to capture learning and reflection. Some early research I was part of for the 4th cohort of the International Coalition for E-portfolio research ( suggested that different learners see their learning journey differently. I looked at leaners’ sense of narrative diachroncity (as Bruner 2001:6 puts it ” …a mental model whose defining property is its unique pattern of events over time”) in their portfolios and presented this paper at a Centre for Recording Achievement event in 2010. What I was looking at was how students recorded their sense of learning and their identity and self over time in their portfolio. It seemed to me that those who benefitted the most from the portfolio developed this sense of change in themselves over time. The regular recording of learning over time allowed a meta-reflection to occur. As the students thoughts changed and their sense of identity as learners and future professionals changed over time they were able to see their earlier selves and reflect on their journey.

So how does this related to e & bPortfolios. My hypothesis would be that the bPortfolio might be better at helping to develop this learning narrative over time. All too often, I get the sense that many (although certainly not all) e-portfolios (especially those for assessment of learning) tend towards post hoc rationalisation of the learning journey. They are often not written at the time the learning occurred but sometime afterwards and can often fall prey to the last minute rush to get the assignment done. Bits of evidence are hastily added at the last minute to justify the learning that has supposedly taken place. Yes it represents an authentic learning narrative but it is probably a different narrative to the blog based approach. I would guess that the blog based approach would better encourage the messy, ongoing reflection that better captures the learning in progress and better provides the comparison of where we were to where we are now. It would be a more ‘accurate’ record of the journey. As long as a process of meta-reflection and sense making formed part of this process then this would seem to be ideal. Of course what is obvious here is that the tool is irrelevant in most aspects; rather it is the process which is important. What I would conclude though is that a blog tool like WordPress seems to better fit the kind of process I would like for my learning and for my learners. And on top of that you get the extra benefits as outlined by Wicks (2011)!

As always your thoughts are welcome, even if you think I’ve lost the plot with this post!

Bruner, J. (1991) “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, Critical Enquiry 18:1 pp.1-21

On teaching international students

I am just about to embark on an online course at Oxford Brookes University called ‘Teaching International Students‘. As preparation, I have been reading Teaching International Students edited by Carroll and Ryan. One of the first messages that strikes me is that in order to teach international students me must first know ourselves. This means being aware of our own culture; both the national culture and the academic culture. By being aware of the cultural aspects of higher education in the UK, by being aware of the unconscious, taken for granted beliefs (as Schein puts it) or the habitus of HE (as Bourdieu puts it) we not only do better for our international students but also our home students. This is because, even for our home students, the academic culture may be very unfamiliar to them. By being aware of the cultural artefacts we can be more explicit about what is required of students and hopefully this means they can succeed.

This should be fairly obvious and is clearly explained in the book. What is not so obvious though is our role in being self-aware. Yes we can be self-aware and sensitive to difference and this is a good thing. However, what does this really mean for us as individuals? For me, it requires a flexibility in beliefs. Beliefs about ourselves and beliefs about others. We all hold beliefs which others would contest are false. In the case of international students and students more widely, these could be well meaning generalisations based on past experience. We can make the mistake (due to time pressure or class size) of grouping certain students together and assuming they will behave in the same way rather than treating everyone as an individual. I think how we deal with challenges to our beliefs are important. I have come across some scientists who dismiss out of hand alternative approaches (mainly qualitative methods) to research such as those found in social sciences or education. I don’t want to single out scientists. The same could be said for many individuals. The key defining factor about such people is their unwillingness to question their own beliefs and look at the alternative perspectives presented to them (or at least try to understand why the other person holds an alternative perspective).

So linking the two thoughts together, it seems that to teach international students (and indeed all students) well we need not only to be self aware and aware of our own cultures but also to be flexible in our understanding of our own beliefs such that challenges to them are carefully considered. This will allow us to at least come close to walking in the other persons shoes, to better understand them in order to help their learning.

Thoughts on International students

I have recently been involved in recruiting for a mentoring project to pair up an international student with a home student to support both students in academic writing. What a fascinating experience, it really challenged my ideas about the rather simplistic differences between the two. Yes there is a clear distinction in terms of fees paid but life and identity are never that simple.

What if you were born in Europe but have lived in the UK and consider yourself a home student? What about your language? Is English your first or second (or third, fourth etc.) language? And therefore what support do you require and how will it differ based on cultural and linguistic considerations. Someone used to British culture would presumably feel less of a shock coming to a UK university that someone who arrives in the UK immediately prior to their study? What is interesting is that it is not as simple as I had initially thought. This would then suggest to me the merits of the idea of being as inclusive as possible in our practice. Being inclusive is good for everyone. So I am very much looking forward to the project and to learning more about internationalisation.