Who are Students Unions for?

This post is prompted by an email the Students Union sent to all students. As a postgraduate student, I received the email and there was one sentence which I found unprofessional and inappropriate.

“We helped a load of new students arrange their accommodation when the uni f***** up.”

Now leave aside the fact that is seems a bit disrespectful to all the hard working staff at the university; Students Unions have a long tradition of disparaging their universities and taking an adversarial stance.

No, for me the email seems to reveal a rather misplaced sense of their audience (the students). The first is age and position in the outside world, I am a bit older than the average student but there are plenty of mature students of a similar age and older. I don’t really expect an official communication to contain such language (even with the asterisks in place). I would expect more eloquence from a university student. Many of our students are professionals or will shortly be joining a profession where this kind of email would be unacceptable in the workplace. Many of our students will have families and children and once again it just is not appropriate language.

Secondly, there is the cultural consideration and a worrying trend amongst younger students towards a more laddish, sexist culture. I know the email was written by a young, white male and I think it reveals something of their cultural world which is far removed from my world and I suspect far removed from the world that many of our students live in. What would possess someone to send such a sentence to 20,000 individuals from diverse backgrounds? To my mind it is someone steeped in a certain culture where it is acceptable. The kind of culture I do not want to be part of and I would hope the kind of culture many of our students would not want to be part of.

So who does this Student Union think they represent? How was this sentence sanctioned and allowed to be sent out? Does it reveal a particular culture within the SU as I allude to or was it just a genuine mistake? [answers on a postcard please]

Maybe I’m grumpy and middle-aged but I would rather not get an email with the f-word in it and I suspect the same is true for many students.

NB: I am not offended by swearing. I swear myself but I do it in private or with small groups of people I know.

UPDATE: The Union have now apologised for the email. These are the facts.

1. The apology came 10 days after the original email.

2. The apology was qualified, “it (the original email) was written in a way we hoped would spark interest in the AGM and what the Union is up to.”

3. The bulk of the email was about the rearranged AGM.

Absent from the Academy

Really interesting short film that explores the absence of black academics in UK Higher Education. Should be required watching for all those who teach in HE. I found the student comments particularly interesting. Mirrors some of the comments Oxford Brookes students mentioned in our research.

Enjoy watching

MOOC score

So how is my MOOCing going this semester, I ask myself. Well..

cMOOC – 0

xMOOC (ish) – 1

I dropped out of the more connectivist MOOC and am still hanging in there on the MOOC that is more x-type. So why might this be?

The cMOOC was How to Teaching Online my initial analysis is:

Material – As usual in a cMOOC loads of resources that I didn’t have time to read. This really does affect motivation. It is all very well knowing you don’t have to read everything or engage with everything but you do feel you are missing out. It does affect how you feel when trying to engage.

Interest in topic – the topic is very much work related and I seem to struggle to actually get motivated in work related MOOCs.

Discussions – I just find cMOOC discussions bewildering (‘nuf said!)

Structure – I think I need more structure than is typical in a cMOOC.

The more x-style MOOC is a basic writing course and my analysis of this is:

Material – focussed material that gives you all the basics. I feel more in control.  I can always go off and find more if I feel the need to.

Interest in topic – The topic is more related to personal stuff and my studies rather than work. This makes means I have greater intrinsic motivation

Discussions – Structured discussions. I have not found them that useful but at the same time don’t feel like I am missing out.

Structure – Highly structured which works for me. I feel on top of the course. Conversely, the topics are only released weekly which means I can’t jump ahead even if I have more time this week than next week. That is a big issue for me.


As I said in a previous post, it once again feels like wanting to get the best from both. I like the pedagogy of a cMOOC and see value in a community of learners. However, the structure is demotivating and overwhelming. So my idea would be to adopt and core & extension model.

Have a highly structured core to a MOOC that gives the basics with structured discussions as well. It would be easily manageable.  Then have an extension that allows some to go beyond the core and engage with material and each other to a greater extent. Hopefully this will help motivate and retain those struggling and with limited time whilst still meeting the needs of the keen and highly engaged.


Reviewing Chickering & Gamson for online teaching

Week 1 of the #tomooc gave pride of place to Chickering & Gamson’s 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education. This is great to see because it is also at the heart of our face to face PGCert in teaching in HE. It reminded me of how it is both a useful evaluative lens through which to review a course and a useful course design tool.

With this in mind, and following on from Dr. Dreon’s article, I thought I might use it to explain my thoughts on the First  Steps into teaching in HE MOOC (#FSLT13) we ran earlier this year and plan to run again at the start of 2014.

1. Encourage contact between students and faculty.

One of the key design principles we embraced was to make sure learners got responses when they posted discussion. To help with this we used volunteer ‘expert’ participants in addition to tutors (see the forthcoming issue of JOLT vol.9, no.2 article by Waite et.al for details). We also feel it is important that, just as in a face to face classroom, tutors pose challenging questions in the discussions to enhance learning and understanding. The key flaw I think we need to address for FSTL14 is in making sure that the ‘experts’ do not dominate the discussions.

Like many MOOCs we also used regular webinars to allow real time contact between tutors and learners.

The idea that Dreon mentions of ‘office hours’ is interesting but the challenge there is how to deal with a global audience. For example, the #tomooc webinars occur at about 1am for those of us based in Europe (now I like to start my work early so staying up until that time is a bit beyond me!) So i think we have favoured asynchrony (with a quick response time) as the preferred mechanism for contact.

2. Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students.

One of the big challenges that I see with cMOOCs is that often student – student contact is encouraged but expected to happen organically. Learners are supposed to organise themselves. I remember a colleague who could not find partners to work with her on a topic during one MOOC, which meant she ended up working alone.

Would we do this in a face to face classroom? I think we should, as tutors, help learners to connect and design our courses accordingly. With this in mind FSLT13 organises live sessions for group work. We ask learners to sign-up for working with groups to share their work with peers. Learners do not have to sign-up but at least it provides an opportunity for connection without in any way excluding organic connections.

3. Encourage active learning.

For this, we have a weekly discussion and weekly tasks (which links into the design for student – student contact). Active learning is crucial but we must not forget that reading and thinking about what you read can also lead to learning. How active do we need to be, active reading on your own seems part of ‘active’ to me.

4. Give prompt feedback.

For us, this is a crucial aspect of 2 & 3 above. We want learners to produce a wide diversity of tasks that were not suited to computer feedback, therefore the need for human feedback. But how do you scale that up from a classroom of 30 to possibly hundreds or thousands. For us the answer we went with was peer feedback. I feel that peer feedback is massively underused for university education. On the FSLT MOOC students can get 10 UK credits on work entirely marked by peers (although moderated by tutors.)

5. Emphasize time on task.

I find this a tricky one because we are all busy and have competing demands on our time. Personally, I would characterise my use of the internet as ‘snacking’ which I don’t think is conducive to really transformative learning. MOOCs seems to include a huge range of content (try to justify their existence?!) that can’t possibly all be consumed. I think this can encourage a surface form of learning even when there are tasks that specifically draw upon that content. I think there is a fine balance to be made.

6. Communicate high expectations.

Always but again  communicating this online can be difficult. There is a risk that the workload and content can feel like too much for some. So they drop out. I think going back to point 1 really helps. When you teach face to face you inevitably explain an assignment because not even the best assignment briefs can pick up the nuances of what is required and the expectations of the tutors. I think webinars offer a good way of communicating high expectations.

7. Respect diverse talents and ways of learning

I think of all the seven items this one seems almost to be built into the notion of a good online course and MOOCs. The multimedia aspect of the web seems to encourage tutors to think more about diversity than they might do in their face to face teaching. So a diversity of content; text, audio, video etc and a diversity of tasks / assignments for learners.


So overall, I’m pretty happy with what we have done in the past. They all still pose challenges for the next run and further discussion and tweaking but I think we are on the right lines.


One of the great things about blogs is the ability to go back and look at what you have written previously. I happened to stumble upon a series work blog posts I made back in 2010. What often surprises me is that I had some useful thoughts that are still relevant to my work today and that I should not forget them.

That thought then took me back to one of the findings of my e-portfolio research. What struck me in interviews with students who had really successfully used e-portfolios, was the value of looking back at your thoughts over time. Here is a link to my original slides about the idea.

Having just done this myself, I too found it a powerful learning experience. When asked to explain the value of keeping thoughts and reflections it is this process of going back over time that really adds value to reflective writing.

How to Teach Online

A community college in Hawaii has just started a MOOC on ‘How to Teach Online‘.

I am interested to see how it works as we will be developing a similar course for our Postgraduate certificate in learning and teaching in higher education to start in March 2014.

‘How to teach Online’ is described as a MOOC and has a clearly expressed connectivist pedagogy. I notice that they will not be using an LMS, such as Moodle (which we will probably use). Whilst connectivism is an interesting idea and great for many learners, I am not convinced this way of learning is for everyone. I think this style of course caters for a particular type of learner. On the other hand you have the so called x-moocs which are highly structured and can often be done by individuals in isolation; with no community or collaboration. What I am interested in is how to create an online course that gets the best from both worlds to meet the needs of as wide a range of learners as possible.

I am also interested in the ‘novice’. ‘Novice’ in a sense of both the course content and online learner. Are connectivist MOOCS too overwhelming for many because of the sheer number of new ‘things’ (tools, content…) you have to deal with to get started? How to Teach online has a ‘prep’ week to give time for learners to get to grips with the tools and the nature of the course. It should be interesting. Hopefully I can find the time to get involved!!!

So to answer the course intro questions.

Q; What is your intention for this workshop (why are you here)?

I’m an educational developer in the UK and my intentions are kinda outined above.

Q: What issues do you think are important?

Participation – keeping learners engaged throughout the course.

Q: How  will contribute?

Blogging (probably, I always have good intentions with my blog but…), Trying to have a look at the different content available, Creating some artefacts would be great. Discussions.

Q: How would you like to see community develop among participants?

Hmm, can I get back to you on that one 🙂

Q: These types of workshops are new for most people. In fact  about 90% don’t even participate. How will you overcome the fear of learning in the open and the frustration of using new technology, courageously work through any setbacks, and not give up?

Personally, learning in the open is not an issue as I’ve been teaching online for many years and have taught and participated in MOOCS before as well as having created Open Educational Resources. For me the biggest issue is time. I work full-time and I am studying part time for a doctorate. Squeezing in another course is the biggest challenge.

So, a big Hello from me to everyone on the course and wishing the course team all the best.

By Neil Currant Posted in tomooc

Do students have to conform to our values?

It takes a convergence of events and a receptive mind to gain new insight. This thought was prompted by a planned conversation with a colleague and the chance arrival in our office of a copy of ‘The Doctorate: international stories of the UK experience’, Trahar (2011).

In discussing academic advising, we came across the challenge of advising students whose values might not be the same as ours or those espoused in the higher education system in the UK. The job of the advisor should be to make students aware of the values inherent in the UK system. This is good. Students should always be made aware of the expectations of an educational system but you have to wonder how far we ‘force’ (if such is the right term) students to conform to those values in order to do well. That by espousing values that have developed over hundreds of years in UK academia we are unconsciously devaluing the student’s own values and the culture from which those values derived.

It is a situation neatly summed up by Trahar (2011) in her story of a supervision of a student with very different beliefs to her own. Trahar struggled  with notions of herself as open to diversity yet confronted with ideas of the world at odds with her own beliefs. The story was resolved with discussing her discomfort with the student which allowed them both to move forward. How often does this happen? This might work with a close doctoral supervision relationship but what about the undergraduate with their infrequent contact with their advisor?

Stockfelt (in Trahar 2011) rails against the hegemony of the western epistemologies of (mostly) dead white men that must be referenced. How can these be relevant frameworks for understanding the stories of disaffected young men in Jamaica? All around academia you will find ‘white’ curricula. It is not surprising really, most staff are white. We tend to teach and design our curricula around our research interests and with what we are most familiar. Or possibly we are directed in certain ways by, mostly white, professional bodies.

So how do we create a truly diverse and inclusive curriculum? I don’t have the solution to that (if you do please let me know!) In my work, I hope that the global citizenship graduate attribute will be a lever to have the conversation and to push the curricula in a more diverse direction. But first, I will start with my own practice and use May & Thomas’ (2010) audit questions and of course have a serious reflection about how to make the delivery more inclusive by September!


May, H. & Thomas, L. (2010) Embedding equality and diversity in the curriculum: Self-evaluation framework. HEA: York

Stockfelt, S. (2011) ‘Slave to the white leaders on paper? The PhD expedition’ in Trahar, S. (ed) The Doctorate: international stories of the UK experience, HEA ESCalate: Bristol

Trahar, S. (2011) The Doctorate: international stories of the UK experience, HEA ESCalate: Bristol

MOOCs – are they really working?

Over the next month or so I will digress from my normal diversity topic to talk about MOOCs (Massive Open, Online Courses – I am sure you already knew this given the hype about them in the past twelve months). I am about to embark on being a tutor in a MOOC for the first time. This has prompted some reflection on MOOCs.

First a disclaimer, I like the idea of openness but am somewhat sceptical of MOOCs, their hype and their power to change anything important in education. I have participated in a few MOOCs and feel that my participation has been somewhat unsuccessful. I have found it a frustrating experience. So I am hoping my own difficulties will help me be a decent tutor but I need to know why I have found it difficult. I think there are two key reasons:

1) The topic – I have engaged in work-based MOOCs (MOOCs about MOOCs and MOOCS about vaguely interesting work topics) when in hindsight I should have started with topics that I found inherently interesting.

2) The type of MOOC – they have all been cMOOCs (connectivist MOOCs which place the emphasis of learning from each other). I prefer this style of learning in face to face situations but would probably get on better with the more structured xMOOCs.

3) Learning Design problems – this is the one that really bothers me. There is an interesting article written on Inside HIgher Ed that sums up my own frustrations. The description of the MOOC 1.0 is very apt. I really struggle with the idea that it is fine for so many people to not complete. The sense of feeling overwhelmed in a MOOC seems to be a common occurrence. Sue Folley offers some very practical tips of dealing with this and I heartily agree with most of them but I have a serious problem with the idea that “No one can engage with everything”. That strikes me as a serious design flaw of a course. It seems to be the fashion that a MOOC must provide loads of content / activity / discussion and no one is expected to do everything. It is no surprise students get overwhelmed. I wouldn’t do that to my face to face students and I haven’t done that on any of the online courses that I have previously taught. It feels like, as mentioned in the Inside Higher Ed article, we have thrown out much of what we know about learning and learning design in these MOOCs.

My thoughts on this at the moment are, how can be make the massive seem smaller and more intimate? In a large lecture theatre you want to encourage engagement and you can do that by making the environment feel smaller by using group work and other techniques that don’t involve students having to speak in front of 300 of their peers. Can we use those ideas in a MOOC? Would we want to? Is it a way forward?

Multiculturalism or what really is this diversity thing?

As this is a learning journey, there is always the risk you read something that changes you views / previously held beliefs and makes you rethink. A new colleague introduced me to the writing of Kenan Malik yesterday. He has some interesting ideas on multiculturalism and why both sides of the debate are wrong.

Malik notes a serious flaw in the debate; that it fails to disconnect the lived experience of diversity from multicultural policy. The first is something we should celebrate whilst the second has been somewhat of a disaster.

One of his key arguments is that multicultural policy has exacerbated divisions based on race or other defined characteristics. In a drive to respect all difference we have ossified certain differences. That the very categorisation of certain characteristics essentially creates them as fixed aspects of identity. The example Malik uses is political representation of minority groups in Birmingham, England. The groups chosen to represent their communities were divided along race/ religious lines. In order to access funds and have your community voice heard you would have to use your most relevant group. Only of course no group speaks for the entirety of any community. The Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities were represented by a Muslim group, but what if you were a Pakistani atheist or Christian or Hindu and so on; you get the idea. The result is a gradual move towards identifying with a particular group in order to fit it and secure your own identity. This to me seems to undermine diversity and difference not celebrate it.

Malik highlights the inherent tension then for equality. “Equality cannot be relative, with different meanings for different social, cultural or sexual groups. If so it ceases to be equality at all…” (Malik 1998) It rather leaves us in the same absurd situation that George Orwell highlighted in Animal Farm, “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. Whose equality is better? Does religious equality trump sexual equality or vice versa? The current passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in England and Wales is a good example of how easy it is to get tied up in knots with our current multicultural policies. In order to maintain both religious freedom and freedom for sexual preference we get the legalisation of gay marriage as long as religious groups don’t have to do it. Which begs the question, either gay marriage is a societal value which we respect or it isn’t? Instead we have a fudge which fails to answer the question. We sort of respect gay marriage unless you don’t and then that is OK as long as it is a religious belief and not some other sort of belief which is prejudiced.

So how might this effect us on the individual level? For me, there is one single object which highlights the problem; the equalities monitoring form. Such a form asks for certain characteristics, all of which are social constructs, and offers limited choice as to the options we are allowed to identify with. We are so used to them that we probably don’t think much about filling them in but I suspect that over time they have subtle effects on our concept of our own identity. When I tick the white, british box I am forced to reaffirm my British nationality. The form is saying to me “remember you are British” or to others “remember you are Black African” and so on. We think the form reflects who we are. That it is a simple measure of an objective reality instead of it actually creating our identity and defining us in ways we might not want it to.

And why these certain characteristics. Why does what I do in the bedroom matter but my choice not to kill and eat animals doesn’t? (and before you jump on me for being racist, homophobic or anything else. Let me be very clear. I fully support diversity and equality but I think the way we go about it is wrong. I genuinely don’t understand why anyone would discriminate against another for the colour of their skin or their sexual preferences.)

Identity is a complex and shifting aspect of our lives. It changes over time. Yet multicultural policies seem to assume immutability. In my research, I wanted to collect demographic information (although now I am not so sure of that idea) but I did it in a way that for gender and ethnicity there was no choices. There was just a blank box that allowed the participants to put whatever they wanted to in order to define their own identity. The result, every single one of them listed a category from an equalities monitoring form! Even though none of those categories were present on the form. That just demonstrates to me how pervasive this official categorisation has become. How strongly it seeps into the rhetoric of diversity and colours notions of our own identity.

So to action, well firstly I think a personal boycott of forms that expect me to categorise myself by predetermined categories. On a more serious level, I would be intrigued to know if anyone has already tested the hypothesis about whether removing the categorisation of people can actually start to eliminate inequality. I know psychologists have discovered the ‘stereotype threat’ effect (The comment section of my previous post has a link to an excellent talk explaining this.) I wonder how much this plays out in educational inequality. What this means for my own research into educational inequality I still need to reflect further upon. The research seems to show race / ethnicity is a factor but now I wonder if it is a factor because we have made it a factor by placing so much emphasis of differences. And how do we solve the inequality? Does the act of actually researching BME attainment and completion rates actually end up perpetuating the inequality or making it worse by once again emphasising crude categorical differences? Even though I have tried my hardest to make sure it is not about crude categorisation of people yet the BME / white division is exactly that.

On a personal level, I am still left pondering a question posed to me two months ago. I had been talking about my work on my course and a fellow student made a key observation. She asked “what colour her skin was?” A seemingly simple question which I couldn’t answer. Do I base my answer on her religious affiliation which is often tied to ethnic affiliation? Do I base my answer on actual colour and if I do is my view of any colour actually accurate? By answering the question, I would be imposing my view of her identity. It gets to the heart of race and ethnicity for me. I can tell you my identity but I refuse to let that define me (Yes I know about the invisible white knapsack but this post isn’t about power inequality but about how we view identity and difference.) and I refuse to impose your identity onto you. Naive maybe but I can always hope for a better more equal world.


Malik, K. (1998) ‘race, pluralism and the meaning of difference’, new formations no.33, available online http://www.kenanmalik.com/papers/new_formations.html [accessed 19th April 2013]

Orwell, G (1945) Animal Farm

On being a student

I have been listening to my research interviews with students this morning and reflecting on my own experiences of being a student. It has prompted a number of thoughts which I am struggling to put into a narrative so in no particular order:

Fear – fear of failure, fear of non-completion. Myself and others have described the fear that your success depends on the judgement of an individual. It depends on a set of complex rules and regulations which you don’t always know and may fail to use them to your advantage. It is described as survival. Making it through the module, passing and moving on to the next one. Hoping each time you pass and can progress. What sort of learning experience is this?

Being different – I always thought that exploring who you are and being different was what university was about but the reality is that being different can be a bad thing. Whether that difference is your culture, the way you think, the colour of your skin; these all place risks on you. We say we value original thought but what it seems most want is for student to be like us, to think like us, to conform.

Us & them – in reference to students and lecturers. I struggle with this one because as a lecturer, I don’t see this but as a student it feels like us and them sometimes. Having sat through subject committees as both, I felt pushed into an us and them mentality when in the role of student. My job is to advise lecturers on teaching, learning and assessment practices and I know a heck of a lot about learning technology. As a student, all that expertise was pushed aside. I was a student, how could I possibly know better than the lecturers how to teach and how technology should be used?

This makes me wonder about how we get students to evaluate. I think it has to be as partners. We should see students as the talented adults they are. We should view them as new colleagues just starting off in their careers. They have a little less experience and knowledge in the particular area we work in but they also have vast skills and experiences in other areas. Some of our students have set up and run charities or social enterprises or businesses as students, whilst they are studying.

Anyway, a bit rambling but what I conclude is that we need to really think about how we view students. I think we need to have more respect for them and value what they bring to our institutions. Partnership!