Sunday, 13 April 2014

Erasmus reflections: the view from home

The old campus of  Universidad de Murcia
So - now I'm home, the bags are unpacked and I have filled in my official report for the Erasmus scheme.

It is important now to reflect on what has been the value of the exchange and what do I think will change as a result of it?

Firstly for me, the immersion in a new environment, a different culture and with the opportunity to speak and listen daily in the language I am studying has been invaluable. This is a tiring process but the rapid development of fluency and vocabulary is amazing - and it is something that just doesn't happen in a normal holiday experience, especially if you go with another English speaker, as you simply don't need to speak as much when you are pretty much a self contained unit. Travelling alone brings different challenges and working rather than just being a tourist requires a more sophisticated vocabulary altogether.

In terms of personal learning about education, this has many levels. I saw at first hand the impact of democratic processes in the appointment of senior managers - something which doesn't happen in my university. It is interesting to compare the different educational systems (UK and Spain) - the growth of private universities for example. And student experiences differ, with many young people often choosing to continue living at home whilst studying.

I was very careful in my choice of university to visit. I had a specific interest in technology enhanced learning and the University of Murcia is fortunate in having a reknowned Innovation Unit and reknowned innovation leaders in Mari Paz Prendes Espinosa and Linda Casteñada. In particular being able to work with Linda and Maria Mar Sánchez in their classrooms taught me a huge amount about trusting the students to find their way with technology and about the value of setting creative challenges.

Delivering a workshop for the bilingual student teachers was a personal challenge. My delivery and design was not really very much different from what I would have done for my own class, but the room set up and available technology presented another sort of challenge - and performing in front of an unfamilar audience (and such a great teacher as Linda) did make me a little nervous. But I can at least now add international teaching to my CV!

The links forged with the University of Murcia have the potential to be of great mutual benefit. I hope on a personal level to continue having contact with the Innovation team in order to collaborate on projects - and to undertake a language exchange with Marimar Roman with regular Skype calls or Hangouts.

I am also hopeful that there could be student and other staff exchanges in the Social Work discipline as a result of contacts I made there - and with luck I'll be going back!

Getting the basics right: Atica, the LMS and to mooc or not to mooc

Thursday's first meeting was with the team at ATICA - the ITC support team who manage the LMS.
The virtual learning environment at UM runs on an open source platform developed in collaboration with US and UK universities which has all the usual accoutrements. The design is different from the ones I have used but essentially the functions are the same. One thing that stood out for me was the clear and simple links between the VLE and the university's system for recording student grades.
The Team also demonstrated a collaborative platform for staff - open to any academic to store documents, create discussions etc. This functions as a shared space to develop research.
In the maths faculty I was introduced to the Dean who has long been a champion of TEL. We discussed a student social network site that has been developed exclusively for the use of students in the faculty to share work, documents and links, ask questions and make comments. It is moderated by a non faculty member of the ITC support team, but otherwise there is no other interference.
We also discussed Universidad de Murcia's engagement in MOOCs. Having been a pioneer in its first year of running these, he is now asking what is the point of the MOOC? Unless there is clear rationale for putting a course into this format, and unless the academic involved is given some recompense for time and effort, this is an inevitable question, and one which all universities really do need to be asking themselves.
My penultimate day in Murcia ended with a visit to a salsa club with Marimar to experience a little hands on social learning! 
Today a meeting other UK teachers from Southampton (Sue White and Hugh Davis) and the Universidad De Murcia team sharing the work of each university'sTEL work - including this interesting slide from Hugh which shows the drop out/participation rate of MOOCs. One answer Southampton have found to "what's the point" is to embed the MOOC within a course for paying students. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Day 3 - el dia de monstruos! #mmtic1

Today I attended a class of trainee infant school teachers. This was the day they were presenting their finished group projects - animated videos about "monsters" to be shown to infant school children. They have had some basic introduction to the necessary tools - like audacity and movie maker - but after that they were on their own. The results were colourful, quirky and exceptionally accomplished stop motion animation with handmade clay figures or pencil drawings. In a discussion with the teacher, Malle, after the class, she echoed something that Linda had said to me the day before: that having started out giving very detailed instruction on the use of technology to their students, both teachers had come to the realisation that students learnt more when given very little information about the tools. Instead the teacher indicates a couple of likely platforms that might be helpful, then leaves them to it, simply offering to be on hand if needed. Initially the students complain and despair but gradually they accept the situation and eventually embrace the technology and adapt it creatively to their purposes.

Over lunch I discussed with Linda the need for teachers to occasionally not know, to be fallible and to look foolish in front of their students. Linda and Malle are both willing to put themselves in this uncomfortable place and this is what I feel inspires their students to "have a go" at new and scary things. In their turn, as infant teachers, they are modelling to their pupils how to learn - through trial and error - and how to live with the anxiety that process invokes.

The monster videos had a common theme of overcoming fears, feeling fallible and succeeding with the support of others. This is very much what I see happening in the classrooms this week!

I have been facing monsters of my own all week too. Being here at a strange university is one thing, but being here alone and not being a native Spanish speaker is quite another. Every evening has been a challenge for me, finding my way around Murcia, discovering places to eat, negotiating menus.

During the day, in between classes, there have been meetings which bring challenges of their own as I struggle to keep up in a different language, my brain simply becoming exhausted after the first couple of hours, but always I feel supported by the patience of the people around me, their willingness to help and their tolerance of my mistakes. Today I had a meeting with the Unidad de Innovación - the Innovation Unit of the University. Just that name is magical! and what they do - supporting the teaching staff to become creative with technology, even undertaking support roles in the University's MOOCs - is really transforming how teaching is done here. Without the support of such a team,to help them overcome their fears, to give them the time and the tools with which to innovate, it is very difficult to persuade the average university lecturer to change their approach to teaching and learning. Each year the unit puts out a call for bids to propose new projects and that forms the basis of their programme of work. Up to 80 new projects are being supported at any one time.

I have to add - as a final irony - that the wifi continues to be the biggest challenge of all for me. Whether it is sitting propped against the bathroom door in my hotel as I constantly refresh my log in details or the painfully slow signal in my temporary office at the University, I have been beset by techno gremlins all week.

Finally - today has been a big day at the University as all the staff and students voted in their new Rector and a new team of Vice Rectors (the equivalent in UK of Vice Chancellor and proVice Chancellors). The democratic process has much about it that is to be admired but the campaigns are also deeply political and divisive and changes to the current management may mean the end of innovation, the end of mobile learning and even the end of wifi here at the University. For some parties, it seems, teaching with technology is the scariest monster of all!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Day 2: teaching with technology? y gracias a #rict1314

Its great to see that some things about teaching are the same the world over. And it is fascinating when you see the differences.
As the class started at 12 I was expecting to arrive a few minutes early to set up my presentation and generally get ready. No. This being Spain, I meet with Linda around 12, we wander over to the classroom block, and the class starts "eventually". This in my university would be a major crime against timetabling and students would be on their feet demanding their £9000 back (those that had turned up anyway).
Unlike my own big, flat, Scale up room filled with big round tables and macs, this is a traditional raked lecture theatre and students bring their own devices.  They do manage during the group work section to organise themselves in huddles but I am suddenly very appreciative of my usual teaching space.
The students designated  to introduce me do so using Pearltrees. The photos are the nice ones I have posted recently (and none pre-diet, thank goodness! ) They have discovered that I hail originally from Oldham and got my degree at the University of Leeds. Phew - nothing too embarrassing there. Disturbingly however, they mention a couple of recent Facebook posts about Murcia, reminding me that I really need to check my privacy settings - again.
At the end of the class the students ask a few questions about project based learning and applaud as I finish answering them. This kind of treatment could go to my head, but I think this spontaneous show of appreciation had more to do with the fact that it was nearly 2 and there was a chance of breaking early for lunch. (I still can't get used to the idea that 2pm is an early lunch!)
I gave the class in English - which is the norm for this bilingual group - and normal of course for me, but what is different is that this group of students chose to have their course delivered in English rather than castellano, to enhance their learning!!
So much for the differences.
The similarities are equally fascinating: students chit chat at the back of the class, which is reassuring in a way as I always thought it was just me or my course where this was a problem. My colleague Linda deals with this much as I do, by inviting those students who don't wish to be there to go join their friends in the canteen.
As I grow in confidence I give the odd "ssshh" which works much better than it does back home.
The presentation goes well and I give them their task - to create a Pinterest board of their favourite educational tools, web pages and apps. And then the WiFi packs up!
Ah! This is just like a home from home!
Somehow we limp along: one or two manage to latch onto a signal, they download the app on to their phones and use that instead. One group takes over the teaching podium. Without a big screen and PC to be able to demonstrate now, I walk round the room checking on progress, answering questions as I can. When I don't have the answers, better things happen, as students make discoveries by themselves and I carry the messages about these discoveries from group to group or shout across the room inviting groups to make a direct connection.
The noise and the seeming chaos are just like my classes back home which is how I know something wonderful is happening. That and the links to the new Pinterest boards that are emailed and tweeted to me :)

At the end a few students come to ask questions about teaching with text boooks which I don't quite understand at first so we switch between castellano and english in an effort to improve our communication. It's all very exhilerating :)

All in all, despite the technical problems, I absolutely loved working with such an enagaged and engaging group of people - and I have asked Linda if I can stay here as her assistant!

Monday, 7 April 2014

Erasmus exchange - Universidad de Murcia

It's been almost a year in the planning - longer if I consider that I have wanted to make an Erasmus staff exchange visit for the past three years - but finally I am here.

Why did I want to do this?

Well - firstly as a student of the language, it was a goal to aim for: to feel sufficiently fluent to be comfortable working (largely) in castellano and to be able to get by on my own in a strange city.
After 10 years of studying, I finally feel ready for the challenge!

Secondly, I have been following various Spanish and spanish speaking "professors" on Twitter for a number of years and have an impression that there is a lot of great practice here in Spain that it would be good to see first hand.

Thirdly, and specific to Murcia, I formed a connection with Linda Casteñada some years ago when I attended the first PLE conference in Barcelona. She later helped me with one of my Spanish homework assignments by sending me a wonderful book she and her Head of Department - Maria Paz Prendes - had written about the University of Murcia's transition to a connected campus. What better place to come!

Finally, I know that Linda uses technology with her students and works with them to develop their Personal Learning Networks. Although she works with primary teachers in training rather than with social science students, as I do, I still thought this an ideal place to come and observe the similarities and the differences, to learn about some innovative good practice and generally have time to think about ways I could improve my own approach. And it's sunny!

So - Day 1: started off well being picked up by the lovely Maria del Mar in her impressive big white car in which I was whisked off to the palm tree lined campus at Espinardo. We were met by Linda and Manel Rives - the guest speaker for the first session - and what followed was a lot of kissing. Later I met the rest of Linda's team and her boss - and there was even more kissing! Well - because of the cultural differences I should say more accurately that there was a lot of fumbling as I first held out my hand, then realised that the two cheek kiss was the official protocol. I also learned, by the way, that loud "mwah" sounds are not de rigeur - in fact they might even be frowned upon - but I was much too embarrassed in my quaint English fashion to fully notice all the nuances of these exchanges.

Kissing over, I attended a really interesting workshop run by @manelrives  in which he explained the many great learning opportunities to be had through mobile apps - and then led a workshop in which Linda's students found some and explained to one another how they thought they could be used in the classroom. (at least, I think that was what was happening - my castellano was flagging after an hour!)

The one slightly worrying moment came at the start when Linda's students presented their guest speaker. They had been charged with exploring his online identity to find out as much as they could about him and put this, along with any photos they could find on the web, into a charming Powerpoint presentation. Oh dear! It's my turn in the morning. (Note: I really must Google myself tonight!)

The rest of the afternoon was spent in my new temporary office - with aircon and wifi I'd kill for in my "4 star" hotel in the centre of Murcia. Linda ran through the week's itinerary of meetings and social events (I'm even going dancing one night as Maria is also an avid salsera) and I prepared my workshop for tomorrow. It will be in English as this is a bilingual class and English is compulsory. As a bonus, the University has a publicly accessible swimming pool (thanks again to Maria for the investigations) and I shall explore that tomorrow after the class.

I finished the day walking over to the tram stop for a pleasant ride back into the centre of Murcia. As I walked down a shady tree lined boulevard back to my hotel, I really felt that this was living my dream! If an Erasmus exchange is about anything, it must be about a short, intense, immersive experience of a different culture and whilst I "know" Spain as a tourist and holidaymaker, being here as "prof" and student rolled into one is giving me exactly that.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

#digilit The experiment draws to a close

A year ago I was involved in two MOOCs - #oldsmooc and #octel - which helped me think about the redesign of my "traditional" study skills module to transform it into a more contemporary digital skills module. At the same time I volunteered to take part in a pilot of a Scale Up classroom environment. Just to add another variable to the mix, I also volunteered my module to be part of a Changing the Learning Landscape bid that the university was making to fund student mentors in classrooms

I have been blogging about this for the past year here on The Virtual Leader and also over on the module team blog Not To Scale

So now the great experiment is drawing to a close and the students have submitted their module evaluations.

There is much to learn from this. Designing a module to teach 21st century skills is one thing, designing it to be taught within a brand new teaching environment is another. The environment we teach in really does shape the how and the what of the curriculum. For this reason the changes made to the module were complex and complexity brings with it unintended consequences.

Some exciting and unlooked for outcomes for me are that a) more of the wider course team now want to teach in the Scale Up classroom b) there is general acceptance from the wider course team that digital literacy skills need to be embedded across the curriculum, so the module will likely disappear in 2015 and c) there is a lot of support within the team for greater use of student mentors in classrooms.

The last few weeks of the module have been particularly enjoyable as students have been working on their final group projects. My role has been much more that of a support for the groups and the classroom environment really lends itself well to this style of teaching. I feel the students and I are able to develop a relationship where I can see their progress and understanding and they understand the point of what we have been teaching them for the past 6 months!

I have now finished marking their final research projects and so it is possible to judge the extent to which digital literacy skills have been developed.

The first option they were given was to design a short research questionnaire using Survey Monkey or Google Forms. Option 2 was to use a platform such as pinterest or Tumblr to curate various resources relating to their particular research interests.

They also had to complete a worksheet in which they outlined the preparatory research they had carried out on their topic, reference their sources and discuss their design choices and any ethical issues.

I am generally very pleased with the majority of submissions which do demonstrate that they have managed to pick up the rudiments of Harvard referencing, can find their way around Google Drive and other web based tools and find articles, websites, ebooks and the like to support their work.

There is even the beginning of an understanding of research skills which, whilst many of the students don't see the point of them (according to their module feedback) we HE teachers will see as welcome news.

I will certainly be running at least one final iteration of this module. I have learned much about how to make bext use of the room, the technology and also what sort of assessment best aligns with the learning objectives for the module. Next year, project groups will be set up much earlier and there will be opportunities for formative feedback in Term 1, with the final project itself having more depth and breadth.

I will be sorry in one sense to see this module go altogether and will continue to be anxious about how well we can embed essential skills into the wider curriculum, but if that does begin to happen, the learning curve we have been through in the past few years will have been worthwhile.