I started drafting this entry on the 19:15 from London Paddington back to Swansea last Friday, and having spent the previous couple of days in Cambridge at the Developments in Economics Education (DEE) Conference run by the HEA Economics Network, thought I’d jot down some of my thoughts and reflections on the event while they were still fresh in my mind.
A particular highlight for me was getting to meet Steve Greenlaw from Mary Washington in the flesh rather than just in cyberspace. Those who’ve read my previous posts (on Oremi) will know that I’ve been a fan of Steve’s blog for some time now, and really like the way he explores ways in which (social learning) technologies can be used to enhance the quality of the learning among his students. Better still, I was asked to chair the workshop in which Bhagesh Sachania (Economics Network) and Paul Ayres (Intute: Social Sciences) talked about using blogs in economics and Steve discussed a wider range of social networking tools and how they might be deployed. His survey included blogs, wikis, RSS (and as I learnt, how you can do searches in Google and have these updated via a feed as new resources appear – how cool is that!), social bookmarking and Twitter. While I’ve used most of these (within Oremi), it struck me that there are a whole range of other uses that one could make of these technologies… (and yes Chris H., I’m bearing in mind your mantra – “Technology last!”).
One particular thing that the session reinforced for me is the sense in my decision to use del.icio.us in my teaching for the coming year (following a blog tip by Chris Jobling) to highlight resources for my students on the various modules I teach – as he suggests, tagging items with a module code makes it easy for students to find sites their lecturers think look interesting (Steve made the same point earlier today). This is easier than posting links in Blackboard, since the process can be done with a couple of clicks, just adding a tag line and brief description rather than the rather long-winded and cumbersome process that adding links in Blackboard entails. Crucially though, the students can also be encouraged to do the same, sharing useful pieces they find, so that the whole process becomes a social one. And because del.icio.us has an RSS facility, students can use a feed reader/aggregator to notify them of new entries as and when these appear. Wikis however, are a must use for the group projects on EBG102 in the coming session. I’m still thinking about more inventive (and formal) ways of getting my students to blog in the same module – essentially as a learning journal, hopefully encouraging them to become more reflective learners – but I did pick up the importance of getting them to think about ‘audience’… Twitter seems slightly more frivolous, but I think could be useful for keeping colleagues and students informed about my whereabouts and hence availability – my increasingly busy schedule means this is not without some merit! All-in-all a great session – thought-provoking and challenging!
One idea that occurred to me afterwards was whether it would be worth running an EN workshop on Web2.0 technologies later in the coming academic year – looking at not just why and how the technologies might be deployed, but also at the practicalities of doing so. I think many academics are put off exploring new technologies in their teaching by the perception that doing so is difficult and time-consuming, involving learning lots of complex new things; this was certainly true for me with podcasting until Bhagesh Sachania showed me how easy it in fact was when he ran a session on this at the Welsh Economics Colloquium earlier in the year. A key part of the workshop would be practical, hands-on sessions with staff helping them set up accounts on say, del.icio.us, WordPress (or similar), etc., and then starting to use them. Both Bhagesh and Steve seemed keen on this idea, the latter agreeing to come and run some of the sessions, and the former suggesting we approach Philip Wane from NTU who shared with me the eLearning Award run by the Network this year to join us in running the event). Given travel times, we might run the event over two days with a slightly different focus on each, and delegates able to attend one or both days as their interests/schedules dictate. So I guess we’re now officially at the planning stage – and having declared the plan publicly here, I’m now committed to making it happen!
A second incredibly helpful session was the presentation skills workshop run by Michael Pagnotta and facilitated by Judith Piggott from Oxford Brookes. This covered a range of issues and skills including how to grab and maintain audience attention (body language; eye contact; interest), voice projection and breathing (open mouth; breathing from the diaphragm and not the shoulders; head position). The key thing with maintaining focus/interest is the distinction between ‘high status’ and ‘low status’ delivery – the former being characterised by strong eye contact, deliberate movements and clear, positive projection with open mouth (the latter is the opposite). I’ve never been much of a fan of role-playing type exercises before, but this was really well-delivered, and never felt demeaning or patronising as is so often the case with such activities. I always thought I ‘projected’ pretty well, but I now realise there’s lots I could learn to do so much better, and in particular to reduce the strain on my voice (Judith also told me one should avoid coffee before lecturing). In particular I learnt that (i) the reason my voice struggles in Glyndwr Lecture Theatre D is that because I move away from the microphones and besides needing to work on my breathing, I make the mistake of tilting my head back where the rake of the room is so steep (the trick apparently is to tilt only very slightly and to use the eyes – this still establishes contact with the back of the room); and (ii) my security blanket/position is to stand with my hands behind my back! I think some further reading and practice of breathing etc. might be in order… (and it might be worth exploring whether Michael would come and deliver a session for our students (although how this would work with c. 350 of them…?!))
In addition to the above, I also had the pleasure of meeting Petronella Horn and Ada Jansen from the University of Stellenbosch, albeit regrettably only on the journey from Cambridge back to London with Steve (with over 100 delegates, it’s unfortunately difficult to meet and talk to everyone in just two (very busy) days). They’ve been doing some really interesting work on the determinants of first year student outcomes in an economics module, focusing on the impact of tutorial programmes. It’s still work in progress, but looks very promising, and they’ve been kind enough to let me have a copy of the paper to comment on, which I’ll do (privately) in due course.
All four of us succumbed to the advertising by Tim Harford (one of the keynotes) for his book The Undercover Economist – something that I think offers a number of ideas for how we should make our teaching more engaging for our students. he stressed the need to focus on applications (something that was also emphasised by Andy Ross in his excellent keynote address – his extensive and varied list of its many uses would be worth publishing on the Network’s Why Study Economics web site). Given Tim’s gambit about how one of economics’ uses is to help save you money (e.g. by ordering the undisplayed ‘short’ drink sizes in a certain well-known coffee shop chain), the irony is that we managed to get 4 copies for the price of 3 by buying ours in pairs at the bookshop at the railway station!! As Steve said, assuming a number of others from the conference who went through the station also bought copies there, the run on copies must be playing havoc with their stock control system as they try to figure out why there’s suddenly such a burst of demand in Cambridge!!
Although modesty should probably forbid me mentioning it, the other obvious highlight of the event for me was being awarded the eLearning prize at the conference dinner! This was a tremendous honour, but I’m very conscious that it’s also one that owes much to the efforts made by the team of learning technologists here in Swansea, including Kemi Adamson, Chris Hall, Clive Richards and (although she’s now left to pursue other opportunities on the other side of the world) Nicola van den Berg. Thanks guys!
If anyone’s interested, there are photos of the conference available from the Network’s web site…