Towards a Postcolonial Pedagogy by Dr Nicola Abram

Engaging with literary representations of ‘race’, racism and ethnicity
This workshop offers university teachers of literature a forum to reflect on texts that enquire into the construction of ‘race’, the practices of racism, and the representation of ethnic difference.
Delegates will articulate the ethical value of such teaching and evaluate relevant practical approaches, working together towards a ‘postcolonial pedagogy’.
This workshop is free to attend but booking is essential as numbers are limited. To register, visit:
For further information, contact Dr Nicola Abram:
Workshop venue: Room G01, Building L033, London Road Campus, University of Reading, RG1 5AQ
Tuesday 29 April 2014
10am – 4pm

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Engaging large student lecture groups using Facebook by Dr Alastair Culham

Facebook can be a distraction to learning but it can also be an aid. I believe strongly that lecturers should do their best to make their subject interesting to students.  It can be an uphill battle.  However, this year’s experiment in using Facebook as a student engagement technology with a first year Photosynthesis class of 300 was a great success (measured by student response) and this is how I did it.

1) Set up a closed and secret Facebook group

For this you need a Facebook account and a Facebook friend who is willing to be signed up to the group.  Log in to Facebook, select ‘Groups’ and then click the +Create Group button.  Choose a sensible name for the group.  You will need to add one friend to allow the group to be created.

2) Add some content

To help the students understand what is needed add a short welcome message – “This closed Facebook group is to allow me to run quick quizzes during the photosynthesis teaching. Sign up now but there is nothing you need to do in this group until the lectures are due.”

3) Invite the class the join

The initial Facebook group setup is simple to complete and people can easily join following a request.

The initial Facebook group setup is simple to complete and people can easily join following a request.

You can invite students by inputting their email addresses: click on the ‘Invite by email’ link then paste in the comma separated list of addresses.  You can also email the link to the group via Blackboard and ask them to request to join.  It is important in the covering email to explain the purpose of the request and that you are not asking, or needing, them to become a Facebook ‘friend’.  Many students use Facebook for their private lives and it’s not appropriate for staff to have access to that in most circumstances.  Also ask that they bring an internet enabled device to the lecture – phone, tablet or portable – it doesn’t matter which.

4) Monitor the joining requests

Make sure you add people quickly once they have requested to join.  You should check at least once per day.  If the proportion of the class joining is small to start with you will need to send a reminder round, however once some people are signed up it’s likely their classmates will get on with it.  Don’t expect to get 100% sign up – some students don’t have a Facebook account.

 5) Prepare your question and answer set

Think carefully about which points are important in your lecture, which are amenable to simple question and answer, and which issues can be chosen to give a spread of questions over the whole 50 minutes.  Facebook surveys allow a question and then any number of answers but it’s best to keep the choice simple – anything from 2-6 works well.  Don’t put the questions in Facebook yet – once they are there they are visible to the students and they can start answering them.  Prepare a simple text document (I use Notepad but any text editor will do) and save the question and the answer set.

6) One day before the lecture

Remind students to bring internet devices.  Explain to those without them that you will use a show of hands for them when voting is happening.  Remind them that there is still time to join the group if they haven’t yet got round to it.

7) The lecture begins

A simple question to allow the students to adjust to this approach and check they are technically able to interact with Facebook.

A simple question to allow the students to adjust to this approach and check they are technically able to interact with Facebook.

Welcome the students, put Facebook on the screen and post a simple question related to the lecture topic.  This gives those signed up a chance to vote and also encourages those that haven’t joined to join.  This also gets the students used to the idea they are going to be interacting with you and the information you provide.

8) Question breaks

Over a double lecture period I posted 5 series of questions, roughly one set every 15-20 minutes.  Interspersing the standard lecture delivery with these short changes of style and a request to think about what has been taught helps all the students to keep up and gives chance for peer learning via the Q&A exercises.  In a class of almost 300 students it took 2-5 minutes to deal with each Facebook question and the accompanying discussion.  While those with IT chose their answers I did a show of hands for the rest of the class.  If you have only a maximum of 50 hands to cope with out of a class of 300 it’s quicker and easier to count.

9) After the lecture

The Facebook group is set up so students can use it for post lecture Q&A.  Do let them know how long you will monitor it on a regular basis.  If you are a regular Facebook user you will see if there have been any new posts.  If you are using Facebook just for this, do make sure you log in periodically in case any questions crop up.  Any questions that come up can be dealt with and the record is there for all students to see again at revision time.

Is it a good idea to encourage students to log on to Facebook during a lecture?

Student feedback on the experiment was favourable both during and after the lecture.

Student feedback on the experiment was favourable both during and after the lecture.

There is an obvious risk that encouraging students to log in to Facebook will simply distract them into checking their timeline.  However, if the student has bothered to turn up for the lecture there is the opportunity to keep them engaged with the content through the mini lectures followed by highly interactive Q&A sessions.  Experience this year suggests to me that the students find the approach engaging and highly educational.  Certainly the module feedback from several students picked out this lecture from the rest of term as a successful approach to teaching.

Students can ask questions about the quiz as well as simply selecting from the given answers.

Students can ask questions about the quiz as well as simply selecting from the given answers.

Large first year classes can be difficult to engage during lectures.  Students are new to University, often unwilling to stand out from the crowd and feel hidden amongst a large group.  This is challenging for the lecturer who is trying to judge whether their lecture message is hitting home, whether they have paced their lecture at the right speed and whether the content of the lecture complements the background knowledge of the students.  It is also challenging for the students who will become bored if the teaching material is pitched at the wrong level, delivered at the wrong pace or just find the content irrelevant.  Interaction with the Facebook quizzes allowed the students to see the answers their peers were giving, allowed me to identify and discuss areas of misunderstanding and even to challenge the depth and confidence of understanding by setting the occasional question with no correct, or multiple correct, answers.  In the case of no correct answers the students could query the options and offer a correct one.  In the case of multiple correct answers the class could soon see that it was split over more than one option.

At approximately 6 million tonnes The Great Pyramid is often cited as the heaviest man-made object. [By Nina (Nina) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

At approximately 6 million tonnes The Great Pyramid is often cited as the heaviest man-made object. [By Nina (Nina) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

There are plenty of amazing facts to throw at students about photosynthesis – plants produce 42000 times the weight of the great pyramid in sugar every year, half our drugs are based on products of plant chemistry and the oxygen we breathe is a waste product of photosynthesis.  However, this does not necessarily impress 200 first year students – available oxygen, food and medicines don’t seem to engage the imagination – they are just things that are there.  The challenge was to find something interactive, that would work at this scale, that was not stupidly expensive to run, that didn’t need lots of equipment to be carted around campus and that the maximum proportion of students could relate to.  That ruled out PRS systems (heavy to carry around and unfamiliar to students), twitter needed commercial software to gather data in a useful way live and the dominant demographic of those on Twitter is a rather older age range than our first year students.  The obvious choice was to engage with Facebook.  Student responses suggest this was a worthwhile experiment but I will only be sure when I have this year’s exam results to compare with last year’s.

It’s quick, easy and free to set up.  I realise it’s not for everyone and will not suit all styles of lecture however there’s little lost by trying this approach once, it may suit your teaching and deepen student engagement.

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Flipping assessment?! by Dr Karen Ayres

Like many colleagues, I have attended a number of interesting talks on the ‘flipped classroom’ approach, whereby, in a role reversal, the main delivery of information takes place outside of the classroom, and the contact time is used instead for reinforcing learning. I haven’t quite identified yet how I can make use of this approach in my own teaching, but I have been inspired to try ‘flipping’ an assessment in one of my modules. Admittedly this may be the wrong terminology to use here, but what I mean by this is a role reversal when it comes to assessment. In one of my modules this year, instead of asking students to produce a guide on using a statistics computing package, which I would usually then assess for clarity, accuracy and effectiveness as a training resource, I instead provided students with a piece of work I had created (with deliberate errors and other problems!) and asked them to assess it as if they were the lecturer.

The approach of engaging students in marking is of course not new, since peer marking is used by many lecturers. However, this was not a standard peer marking exercise, because I did not provide them with a marking scheme, nor a set of solutions to use. I left it to the students to decide how they wanted to split up the 100 marks, and what they wanted to award marks for. By doing it this way, my aim was to see whether they knew what the key elements of an effective training guide was, by showing how they thought one should be marked. They were also asked to provide effective feedback on the work, on the understanding that feedback should be constructive and should benefit learning, and that the feedback should justify the mark they awarded (I didn’t use the term ‘feed-forward’, but did ask them to consider what they would find useful if the work being commented on was their own). My aim here was to determine whether they understood how the key elements of an effective training guide should be put into practice, and also to see if they were able to identify technical inaccuracies in the work. It is this last point which I feel the flipped assessment approach may be particularly beneficial for. Often students may misunderstand something but not include it in their own piece of work, meaning that this misunderstanding escapes identification. By asking that they mark work which includes errors, and by requiring that they give feedback about why it’s an error, I feel that I’m demanding a deeper level of subject knowledge from them than I would be doing in a traditional assignment. Of course, it’s then important that I go through these errors with them afterwards, to make sure that no misunderstandings have been created!

I’m pleased to report that I was very impressed with what my students did on this assignment (obviously I had to assess their assessment!). It was a group assignment, and all groups produced a very detailed marking scheme, in a grid layout – I hadn’t given them any pointers on this, so the fact that they decided to do it like this was encouraging. The written feedback that they provided on the script they were given was similarly impressive, and in some cases of the same standard that my colleagues and I routinely provide. What was more interesting was the fact that alongside their various annotations on the script, they provided a separate, very detailed, document listing errors and issues with the work, including further feed-forward comments. If students all expect this multiple level of detailed feedback on their own work as standard, this might explain why some are unhappy with the (still reasonably detailed) feedback they do receive!

In summary, my aim in designing an assessment in a ‘flipped’ way was to encourage a deeper level of thought, and to assess a deeper level of understanding, than I felt was achieved by the usual approach. I feel that those who are tasked with assessing the knowledge and learning of others need to have a deeper than usual understanding of both the technical and communication sides of the discipline (certainly in mathematics and statistics). After the success of this trial run I will definitely be looking at how else I can use this different type of assessment in my other modules. My next step is to consider how to use something like this for a quantitative assignment, for example by asking them to both produce their own set of solutions with marking scheme, and then to use them to mark my piece of work that I submit to them for assessment!

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Linked Academic Placements: solving a problem by Dr. Cindy Becker

In the Department of English Literature all of our Parts 2 and 3 modules are available as placement modules, allowing a student to identify (with our help) a suitable placement provider and work with the module convenor and me to craft a placement project or activity which links to the learning on their chosen module. The placement report then replaces one element of the assessment (usually the assessed essay) for the module. This seemed to us to be a neat way to embed placement learning within our curriculum and to ensure that students were offered the widest possible range of placement experiences.

We had, however, overlooked one factor: students vary. Whilst the system works for many, some students are hugely ambitious and so try for placements with highly prestigious providers, who can take weeks to reply to every query; others are late bloomers and only think of a placement several weeks into a module. This caused some nasty glitches in the system. We require students to confirm their placement by Week Five of the term in which the module is taught, but we found that some students were missing that deadline and so could not carry out an embedded placement as part of the module assessment (indeed, some were unable to confirm a placement until several weeks after the module had completed). We also realised that students who were keen in the first week or so of term would assume that they had ‘missed the boat’ by Week Four and so simply gave up.

We found one solution to the problem earlier this year, when we relaxed our rules to allow students to undertake placements before a module has begun: working with convenors, they could then arrange a placement in the vacation before the module was taught. This allowed students to begin thinking about a placement months before they would undertake it, solving the problem of students starting to plan a placement too late. What it did not solve was the problem of placements which, sometimes unexpectedly, take an age to arrange. Continue reading

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Making American Government a social experience by Mark Shanahan

Getting young people to engage in the political process appears to be a problem all across western democracies. Politics and politicians seem remote from the young and the gap between the Baby Boomers and Generation X figures holding the reins of power and the Millennials now making their way through university appears ever wider.

This year, I’m convening a second year undergraduate module introducing the system, processes and key themes of American Government to a group of 71 Politics and International Relations students – with a sprinkling of historians, and language students. This could be particularly dry: there are any number of books and learned papers on the theory and practice of politics in the US of A and this could easily become just another module where students stand on the shoulders of scholarly giants regurgitating the same arguments that have held sway for decades.

Luckily my predecessor had already opened the door to some new methods of teaching – her lectures featured plenty of small snippets from US TV, while the seminars have been set up to be highly interactive and built around core themes in the American psyche – issues such as gun control, religion and the media. That works for me since it’s the world I’ve come from (the media, that is – not so much the other two…). I’m a late entrant to the world of HE teaching, having spent more than two decades in journalism and, latterly, corporate communications. In my working world, it has been my practice to seek out my subjects and talk to them – not to read about them in academic literature. I’ve tried to bring a little of this into the lecture theatre and seminar room.

The American system of government, from local, through State to national level, and then focused on the triumvirate of the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary is complex and could be quite daunting. So my focus has been to bring it to life by focusing on interesting people and ‘live’ events. We spent a session looking at Cory Booker’s recent Senatorial election, focusing on how he – a rising star of the Democrats – engaged with the media throughout his campaign. It raised questions around the role of broadcast media; the cost of getting elected and the interest groups that largely met that cost. But towards the end of the Autumn term we stepped up that engagement in the political process in action by engaging – albeit vicariously – in a race for a Congressional seat in Massachusetts.

For one seminar, I split my groups of 18 or so students into two teams – Republican and Democrat. I gave each a sheet with a few details of Massachusetts District 5 where there was a special election brought about by the sitting Representative winning a seat in the Senate that had been vacated by John Kerry when he was appointed Secretary of State. Each sheet had the bare social media details of the competing candidates – their Facebook page; Twitter and You Tube links plus the email address of their campaign headquarters. The goal for our teams was to find out about and build a profile of their respective candidates: Katherine Clark for the Democrats and Frank Addivinola for the Republicans; to find out what were the burning issues for Mass District 5 and to formulate questions that young voters in the District would want answers to. Nothing particularly new at this stage. But then I asked my students to use their social communication tools to engage directly with the campaign: to follow the candidates on Twitter; to like their Facebook page and to start posing some of the questions raised in class themselves.

The real breakthrough – the real eureka moment that directly connected the students to what American elections are all about – came when Frank Addivinola tweeted back in the middle of the seminar. The twitter feed was up on screen so everyone saw it. It was immediately galvanising, adding new energy to the session. Suddenly this wasn’t about books and theory. Instead, the students were communicating directly with a real politician in a real race that really mattered.

Over the subsequent four weeks up to the special election, we’ve kept up with the race and have had sporadic feedback from the candidates. We’ve learned that they will comment on postings to their Facebook pages and will answer individual questions raised in Tweets. Despite promises to the contrary, neither candidate responded to the batch of questions collated by the seminar groups that we emailed to their campaign HQs. We’ve learned that the race was one-sided from the start and even to win the equivalent of a UK MP’s seat in, effectively, a one-horse contest, the winning candidate, Katherine Clark, had to raise and invest over $1 million. We’ve learned, by following and engaging with a couple of Boston political journalists,that the race garnered little conventional media interest, but that both candidates were active in social media, often bypassing the traditional outlets to get their points of view out to a demographic largely engaging with the process online.

The fact that my students, digital natives all, and for whom my life events such as the end of the Cold War, are just history, are growing up in an age where social communication is the norm, made it easy to engage them in the political process using social tools.

It has been a learning experience for me too. I had no idea if the candidates would take any notice of a group of students who were thousands of miles away and wouldn’t be voting in the election. But social media brings immediacy to communication and shrinks distances rapidly. I certainly plan to use it more in future modules dealing with contemporary issues. 140-character messages are a powerful means to engage.

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Creating a campus biodiversity recording app by Dr Alice Mauchline

IMG_2897 (2)There is an on-going multi-disciplinary, student-led project at the University of Reading to create an app for recording biodiversity sightings on the Whiteknights campus. This project was funded by the Teaching & Learning Development Fund and is currently engaging students, staff and external natural history groups alongside design and technology experts to create and customise an app for data collection on smartphones and other mobile devices in the field.

The biodiversity data records will be stored in a central database which students and staff can analyse to e.g. monitor long-term changes in the local environment. It is anticipated that this dataset will develop over time and that the app will be used to support curriculum teaching and other research projects at the University including those that are coordinated through the Whiteknights Biodiversity blog:

One of the main aims of this project is to ‘engage students in research and enquiry in the curriculum’ which is one of the University’s T&L key strategic priorities. The multi-disciplinary team of students will have first-hand experience of developing a data collection tool that can be used for research projects in the curriculum across several Schools. The future availability of this app has already prompted both staff and students to think of ways that it could be used in teaching and research and it is hoped that it will help to ‘evolve our approaches to teaching and learning’ – a second T&L priority – and to support Technology-Enhanced Learning in fieldwork.

The team comprises six student champions: Liz White (Biological Sciences), Liam Basford (Typography & Graphic Communication), Mark Wells & Stephen Birch (Systems Engineering), Jonathan Tanner (Geography & Environmental Science) and Phillippa Oppenheimer (Agriculture). They are supported by a member of staff in each of these Schools; Alastair Culham, Alison Black, Karsten Lundqvist, Hazel McGoff & Alice Mauchline. The student champions are currently working together to gather information from staff in the relevant Schools about how this app could be useful in their teaching. They are also scoping other external projects and mobile recording apps to provide a basis for our design. The name, logo and branding of the project is also in development and the team held a recent Hack Day to decide on the basic functions for the user-centred app.

The team will soon have a prototype app for trialling and testing on campus and the student champions will be recruiting volunteers to help test the app for collecting biodiversity records. So keep an eye out for them and there will be further updates on this blog as the project progresses.

Please get in touch if you would like further information as we’d like to involve as many people in this project as possible!

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Making Screencasts: It’s enormously fun and rewarding! by Dr Emma Mayhew

Screencasts 2 20.11

Have you ever wondered if students actually read their handbooks? Many probably don’t get all the way to the end and miss out on crucial information. If handbooks aren’t always delivering then how can we communicate with our students in a more engaging, captivating and accessible way?

One solution is video. It’s much, much, easier to make your own videos now than it was even five years ago. A whole range of software has been developed and made absolutely free on the internet.

So I started to use this software. And I had a lot of fun. I made 10 short screencast videos using really eye-catching graphics where the viewer zooms around a full body x-ray, a huge wave, a gigantic iceberg and a row of coconut macaroons. Viewers hear my voice talking them through the extenuating circumstances process, sources of pastoral and academic support, wellbeing within my School, the Student Charter, how to write a great essay, essay marking criteria, plagiarism and referencing, pre-arrival information for first year undergraduates, a rough guide for MA students and dissertation writing within the department. They all sit together in a prominent section of the department’s webpage and have been widely publicised to all of our students.

I’m not just blandly repeating information that’s already accessible. I’m adding to it-my highly detailed ‘How to write a great essay’ is a good example. But I’m also responding to new issue areas. The clarity of essay marking criteria was highlighted by the National Student Survey so now we have a five-minute screencast where we zoom around the human body outlining the 5 key criteria we’re looking for when we mark and detailing exactly what a high first looks like, a low first, a high 2.1 and so on.

Students can watch these screencasts exactly when they need them. They can access ‘How to write a great essay’ when they are actually writing their essay. They can access ‘Extenuating circumstances within the School’ when they are ill at 2 a.m. the night before an exam. They can watch ‘Student wellbeing’ if they are experiencing a crisis on a Sunday afternoon. Students can pause, rewind, watch again and click on embedded links within the screencasts for more information. And they are watching-the screencasts have recorded over 700 views over the last few weeks.


This is great but I didn’t stop there. I started to use screencasts in other ways. I sent out a ‘lecturer update pack’ to all politics staff in September. As colleagues zoomed around the world in this screencast I updated them on feedback turnaround times, NSS results, TURNITIN and our T & L priorities. ‘Unravelling the mysteries of the personal tutorial system’ allowed new staff to tumble around a giant Crystal ball covering key aspects of the role. No narration this time-they simply enjoyed a mystical soundtrack instead.

But I didn’t stop there. I made a 2 minute promotional screencast in 2 hours in September for use at our Open Day talks. I used more captivating graphics to highlight all the things we do well as a department and this is all set to rather catchy ukulele music.

I’m now using the same screen capture software to record video feedback on Part 3 essays. My students don’t get an A4 feedback sheet. They get an MP4 file via the Blackboard. They see my face, hear me speaking and watch me scroll through their essays in real-time, circling areas that I want to draw their attention to. The feedback from this has been fantastic.

There is a real potential here to use free, user-friendly technology to enhance the way that we deliver information to students, staff and prospective undergraduates. This is really fun, we can be really creative and we will be pushing forward technology enhanced learning.

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Developing highly employable pharmacy graduates by Dr Samantha Weston

In an effort to rise to the challenge of increasing the employability of graduates, staff from Reading School of Pharmacy worked in a cross-faculty collaboration with colleagues in Henley Business School to develop the UK’s first Post-Graduate Certificate in Business and Administration available to undergraduate MPharm students. This clearly fits with the 2013-15 teaching and learning enhancement priority relating to developing highly employable graduates.

The concept behind the development of the programme came after discussions with stakeholders from community, hospital and industrial sectors outline weaknesses in management and leadership in pharmacy graduates throughout the UK. Although all pharmacy undergraduate programmes nationwide teach management and business skills, all stakeholders felt that extra training in this area would enhance the employability of graduates, and allow them to develop and thrive more effectively in their pre-registration training year and beyond.

We believe that the introduction of this course will lead to RSOP attracting and recruiting the most competitive and ambitious UK and international students who will become the leaders of the future within the NHS and the Healthcare and Healthtech industries. The project will further differentiate our Pharmacy graduates from those from older, long-established Schools of Pharmacy.  This innovative and unique new course will run alongside the current MPharm Pharmacy programme, and be aimed at the highest achieving students who have an ambition to follow a leadership career path in industry, commerce, academia or the NHS, and who may also want to go on to complete a full MBA in the future.

Although the proposed course is innovative and unique in the UK and worldwide, it is analogous to joint MB /PhD courses for Medics wishing to become Researcher-Physicians, and would compete with well-established postgraduate dual Pharmacy/ Management courses in the US which have already been shown to increase graduate earning potential.

The course runs for its first cohort in the summer of 2014, and the course developers are currently in discussions with other Schools and Faculties to discuss how the programme can be adapted to provide a specialist focus for their own discipline. If colleagues would like further information about the initiative then please contact either Samantha Weston or Al Edwards in Pharmacy or Lynn Thurloway in HBS.

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Preparation for phonetic transcription: an exercise in student engagement by Professor Jane Setter

As a recipient of funding under the PLanT (Partnerships in Learning and Teaching) scheme (PLANT Projects Scheme), I am delighted to be able to report on the project – which is still a bit of a work in progress.  The PLANT awards are aimed at facilitating projects which get students involved with staff as partners in aspects of T&L at Reading, which is an excellent idea, as students have a unique perspective which can often take lecturing staff in directions they’d not thought about before.

This post looks at how students in the second year of their BA programme in English Language became involved in the support of first year students’ transition to the more demanding second year module in English Phonology (LS2EP). Continue reading

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Seneca on Higher Education in the Arts and Humanities by Professor Peter Kruschwitz

Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – A.D. 65) was a famous Roman statesman and stoic philosopher. As the young Nero’s tutor, he at some point was de facto Rome’s Emperor by all but the title. His Epistulae Morales (‘Moral Letters’) constitute a major part of his philosophical work. The 108th epistle of that collection provides remarkably relevant food for thought for the Higher Education landscape. The following text is my (reasonably faithful) translation of the opening of Seneca’s epistle, without omissions or adaptations; the subtitles, however, are my own.

Reading List Enquiries

The topic, about which you enquire, is one of those, which deal with knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Yet, because it relevant, you rush and do not wish to wait for the books which I am busy to arrange, covering the whole area of moral philosophy. I will send them in due course, but let me write this in advance, how your very desire to learn, which I see burning in you, needs structure, lest it proves to be an obstacle. Continue reading

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Chemistry Education Research: Conference Reflections by Dr David Nutt

I was thrilled to be heading to the Gordon Research Conference on ‘Chemical Education Research and Practice’ in Newport, Rhode Island, thanks to an ‘Activating Chemistry Education Research’ bursary from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Having been to Gordon Conferences in the past, I was familiar with the format: busy mornings of talks, free afternoons for networking (or, in the case of Newport, visiting mansions, not necessarily incompatible with networking!), and then further talks and posters until 11pm. These conferences are normally small, with around 150 people at the cutting edge of the topic. I was hoping my poster on the ‘Flipped Classroom’ was going to be up to scratch. Another cornerstone of these conferences is confidentiality, with presenters encouraged to present a significant amount of unpublished work. Live tweeting was explicitly forbidden! Continue reading

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Fabulous Plagiarism by Professor Peter Kruschwitz

Niccolò Perotti, the Italian humanist, preserved a collection of fables ascribed to the ancient Roman fabulist Phaedrus. This collection, commonly known as the Appendix Perottina, contains a poem called Prometheus et Dolus (‘Prometheus and Trickery), subtitled De ueritate et mendacio (‘Of Truth and Falsehood). It reads as follows:

Olim Prometheus saeculi figulus noui

cura subtili Veritatem fecerat,

ut iura posset inter homines reddere.

Subito accersitus nuntio magni Iouis

commendat officinam fallaci Dolo,                                                 5

in disciplinam nuper quem receperat.

Hic studio accensus, facie simulacrum pari,

una statura, simile et membris omnibus,

dum tempus habuit callida finxit manu.

Quod prope iam totum mire cum positum foret,                            10

lutum ad faciendos illi defecit pedes.

Redit magister, quo festinanter Dolus

metu turbatus in suo sedit loco.

Mirans Prometheus tantam similitudinem

propriae uideri uoluit gloriam.                                                        15

Igitur fornaci pariter duo signa intulit;

quibus percoctis atque infuso spiritu

modesto gressu sancta incessit Veritas,

at trunca species haesit in uestigio.

Tunc falsa imago atque operis furtiui labor                                 20

Mendacium appellatum est, quod negantibus

pedes habere facile et ipse adsentio.

Simulata interdum initio prosunt hominibus,

sed tempore ipsa tamen apparet ueritas.

‘Once upon a time Prometheus, creator of a new era, had, with meticulous care, moulded the figure of Veritas (‘Truth’), for it to be able to dispense justice among humankind. Suddenly called away by a messenger of the great Jupiter, he relinquished his workshop to devious Dolus (‘Trickery’), whom he had recently accepted as an apprentice. The latter, burning with zeal, with crafty hand, while there was time, created an effigy of the same appearance, the same stature, equal also with regard to every limb. As he had already almost finished this marvellous work, he ran out of clay, to craft the feet. The master came back, whence Dolus, struck with fear, rushed to sit down in his place. Prometheus, in admiration of such similarity, wanted the glory of his own work to be seen. Thus he put both statues in the kiln simultaneously; once they were fired and had life breathed into them, venerable Veritas walked with measured gait, but the handicapped copy was stuck in her step. Then the false image and result of stolen work was called Mendacium (‘Falsehood’) – and I readily agree myself with those who claim that Falsehood lacks feet. False copies every now and then can be to the credit of humankind, at first; but with time truth herself will appear nonetheless’.

Dolus’ plagiarism of Prometheus’ inspired work was discovered immediately, it did not even need to stand the test of time. The false copy did not do the wrong-doer any good: Prometheus revealed the ineptitude of Dolus’ work, using the kiln as plagiarism-detection device – the divine potter’s Turnitin, so to speak.

A simple story, with a simple, agreeable moral.

Or is it?

Fables supposedly teach a lesson, and an important lesson to learn is that the moral of a fable, literally its bottom-line, is not always exactly what a poet actually wanted the readers to appreciate: fables are a thoroughly and utterly subversive genre. So perhaps one should read the fable once again.

Prometheus, whose name means ‘Fore-Thought’, is more than the potter of a new age: he is presented by the poet of this piece as the inspired, inspirational creator of ueritas, truth, and he is also an educator, a magister.

Is Prometheus a good educator?

There is room for reasonable doubt.

Prometheus, thinking ahead rather less than his own name would suggest, has accepted Dolus-Trickery as his apprentice, unimpressed by the tell-tale moniker of his pupil. Prometheus seems to be keen to promote his own art over everything else, driven by a desire for glory.

Prometheus’ pupil, in turn, is gifted enough to create a spitting image of Prometheus’ sculpture. He is let down by the lack of resources at the workshop to perfect his work. Moreover, he appears to be terrified by the return of the instructor to such a degree that he is quite literally afraid to stand up for his own (replica) work.

Dolus is described as ‘burning with zeal’ (studio accensus). He is a capable craftsman, and he seems to see his time at Prometheus’ workshop as an opportunity to live up to the technical standards set by his master-educator. Dolus is not cheating, either: he merely runs out of building material, he does not make any attempt to conceal his work. Yet, the poet dismisses his work as false image and result of stolen work.

Where did Dolus go so horribly wrong, why is his Veritas nothing but Falsehood, a fake, and a lie?

The key to unlock the message of this poem is hidden in its precise middle:

Redit magister, quo festinanter Dolus

metu turbatus in suo sedit loco.

‘The master came back, whence Dolus, struck with fear, rushed to sit down in his place.’

Prometheus has let down a talented, eager pupil first by leaving him with too little resource and too little advice, and then by giving him the impression that he needs to be afraid. He has reinforced this message by the way in which he followed up on what had happened, making a mockery out of a talented student’s skillful work rather than guiding him to best practice for the future.

Worst of all, however, the educator forgot to teach his pupil an important lesson, yet a lesson that he expected him to know from the outset: it is originality that will prevail in the end, and yet this originality must be an originality that lies largely within the confines and the practices of the discipline.

To get the balance right overall, one needs practice as well as time, resource, and the opportunity to try oneself out, while obtaining firm, yet supportive advice from a teacher (who is interested in the profession, not in their own glory).

Falsehood, according to this fable, is a near-perfect truth that fails to advance. In a poetic, subversive way, we as educators are invited to consider how this could have been avoided and how we in turn may run our workshop differently.

Finally, the fable may well contain an aside remark on the impact of management meetings on the quality of one’s profession – fables are a thoroughly and utterly subversive genre – but that is a different story altogether.

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Moving forward with Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Reading… by Vicki Holmes

The Digital Development Forum in July was an ideal opportunity to begin sharing some of the thinking and planning around Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) that has been happening over the last 6 months.

In January 2013 the TEL Strategy Group was established, chaired by Professor Gavin Brooks and with representation from across the University.   The Strategy Group has met 4 times to date.  In addition, Professor Julian Park (Associate Dean Teaching and Learning for Faculty of Life Sciences), Kara Swift (VP Academic Affairs 2012-2013) and myself have been part of the ‘Changing the Learning Landscape’ programme, a national initiative to help universities develop their thinking and practice around TEL.  This has involved participating in a series of workshops, and meeting and sharing practice with colleagues from other HEIs.

So what has been the output from this?  

We have identified 3 strands of activity that we feel are crucial to Reading’s TEL development:

  • To further embed existing technologies, underpinned by expectations of use – we want to ensure that our current technologies are fit for purpose and being used to the full
  • To develop and explore new areas of TEL activity and other technologies – we want to look to the future and ensure that we keep pace and, at times, lead the way
  • To embed and support the above with foundational and cross-cutting initiatives – we want to ensure that all TEL initiatives are appropriately supported and underpinned

Within each strand, we have identified 2 priority areas and created projects to take these forward.  All 6 projects will have a nominated lead; the lead will then involve other staff to support and progress the project.  Some projects are well underway, while others are in the early stages.

In addition, an audit has also been undertaken (drawing on the Digitally Ready project, as well as interviews with other universities and national surveys) to help understand our current position.

So what next? 

In the Autumn term there will be some formal communications to the whole University from the PVC Teaching and Learning about the TEL vision and activity.

With respect to the 6 projects, expect to hear more as they gather pace.   We will be inviting you to get involved – your input will be crucial in informing the direction and ensuring that TEL meets your and your students’ needs.

My presentation from the event is available on Yammer

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Developing students’ academic skills online: the Library’s ‘Info tips’ by Erika Delbecque

illustration for info tips blogpost

Library Info tips have been a feature of our website since 2009 but how well-known and used are they? Which are the most popular? These bite-sized articles, which are aimed at developing students’ academic and research skills, cover topics that are relevant to all students, such as:

  • Referencing
  • Finding specific types of materials such as statistics, images and maps
  • Using Endnote
  • Accessing and using e-books
  • Using the internet for academic study

The Info tips are advertised by a banner on the Library homepage, and a new tip is published every two weeks. They are often written jointly by Liaison Librarians and Study Advisers, and they usually tie in with specific periods in the academic year. For example,

the Info tips that we published this summer on reading around a subject and keeping records are aimed at students working on their dissertations, and in October, Info tips on using the Library catalogue and understanding reading lists can help new students find their feet.

Through the use of Google Analytics, we have been able to ascertain the popularity of the Info tips.  Each Info tip is visited by hundreds of students. Top of the chart with over 500 views is ‘Study advice for exam success’, which points students towards useful books on exam revision, makes them aware of workshops organised by the Study Advice team, and gives a few helpful tips on how to revise effectively. Two other timely Info tips, ‘Develop your research skills’ and ‘Using the internet for academic study’, complete the top three.

Through our Info tips feature, we are able to encourage students to develop their academic skills by providing targeted information at the time when they most need it. Please help promote them by alerting your students to relevant Info tips. You can sign up for an RSS feed from our Library news blog to get alerted to new Info tips as they are added. In this way, you can help us make the Info tips reach an even wider audience.

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Enhancing student engagement through T&L seminars by Dr Karen Ayres

Many of us enjoy attending the University’s T&L Showcase Series of seminars, as not only do these events give an insight into the exciting things going on across the University, but they also give us food for thought with regards potential teaching enhancements we may wish to try out ourselves. It was somewhat with this second aim in mind that last year I set up something similar in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics – a Teaching & Learning Seminar Series. On the one hand this was an attempt to create a seminar series of interest to those in the department who were more interested in T&L projects than research. However, with my student engagement hat on, I was keen that this seminar series would be fairly unique as it would be open equally to students and staff, both in terms of being audience members and also being presenters.

The seminars consist of a 20 minute presentation on a T&L theme determined by the speaker, followed by an audience discussion of some of the key points arising. Here both students and staff discuss the topic on equal terms, since both have an interest in it. We had six seminars this year, three of which were presented by undergraduate students (on topics they proposed themselves, such as the usefulness of tutorials and lecturing styles vs learning styles, and also on diversity of assessment, which had been the focus of a Departmental T&L summer project for one student).

In terms of how successful this series has been, I think it is fair to say that, although the audience has been small for most of the seminars this year, those who have taken part have enjoyed it. I’ve certainly found the discussions to be very useful, and there is never enough time to discuss everything we want to! But some ideas have arisen which I’ve already been able to take forward when considering programme enhancements, and these ideas have generally come from the students. We definitely aim to continue with this seminar series, and hope that our students (and staff!) will continue to propose topics for discussion. I would encourage other departments to try out something similar, as this is a straightforward and enjoyable way to engage students as partners in the learning process.

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Supporting Postgraduate Study by Dr Cathy Tissot and Dr Carol Fuller

At an away day prior to our Periodic Review, staff had an opportunity to have some creative dialogue around how we can better support our postgraduate students. This came up as a response from some thought provoking feedback from our current students when asked how we can improve. International students, students with English as an additional language, and particularly part-time students who are in full time employment were the ones we were particularly keen to support in more flexible ways. The part-time students in particular are taught outside of traditional teaching hours and often live at a distance to UoR so it is not easy for these to access library and student study support services. Students new to postgraduate study can often lack confidence in their writing skills, for example, and this group voiced interest in having support mechanisms that were accessible and readily available to them outside of traditional hours.

What’s the solution? Discussions lead us to conclude that we could make better use of Blackboard and Mediasite (this is video capture platform that allows you to view a PowerPoint while simultaneously watching the recorded presentation).  Drawing on feedback from students plus ideas based on experience of common issues, staff drew up a list of ideas for short, bespoke video clips. The idea was that these could be included on Blackboard, across all courses, and in a folder special designated ‘study support’. Students can access these whenever they need or refresh their skills at particular times, for example, when writing an assignment. This way the resource is available when students need it, not when we can timetable to deliver it. It is therefore very much a student led resource. All the videos were also transcribed to make them fully accessible to all students.

The videos are short, focused and specially filmed. Here is a flavour of some of the areas we covered:

  • APA Referencing
  • Using Endnote
  • Making a complaint
  • Writing a literature review
  • Doing a presentation
  • Avoiding plagiarism
  • Word for academic purposes, plus many more!

Here is a link to an example of one of these (you will need your username and password to login – which is in the top, right hand corner. The videos can be found in the Internal Folder – the Institute of Education – Student Study Support, near the bottom of the list) and if you have any ideas as to what else we could cover (or want to volunteer to do one) we would love to hear from you!

Word for academic purposes

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QGIS: A new option for GIS teaching by Dr Alan Howard

The use of the free open source GIS package “Quantum GIS (QGIS)” is increasing slowly but steadily and for many purposes provides a viable alternative to commercially produced software like MapInfo and ArcGIS. QGIS is licensed under the GNU General Public License.

Data indicates that interest in QGIS, as measured by the relative number of Google searches, overtook MapInfo this year while ArcGIS maintains a dominant market position.  The French Ministry of Environment has investigated the feasibility of migrating from MapInfo to QGIS and some universities, such as Harvard, offer GIS classes using QGIS. There is strong and expanding online support for QGIS users and a growing collection of materials and tutorials licensed for free T&L use.


Google Trends Data: . Accessed: 17/7/13.

I currently use QGIS in preference to ArcGIS for personal research and I propose introducing a Part 1 “basics” course in GIS using QGIS from 2014. At present ArcGIS remains the primary teaching package in Geography and the Part 2 module GG2SDA Spatial Data in the Digital Age convened by Geoffrey Griffiths attracts students from other programmes in Science/Life Sciences. However instructors report that many students do not spend enough time out of class working with the software in order to acquire sufficient experience to develop confidence and expertise in GIS. This may in part be due to perceived difficulty in accessing ArcGIS out of the classroom. Although students may license ArcGIS for free use on their personal equipment few tend to go through the ITS registration process to facilitate this. It is hoped that by using QGIS at Part 1, which is easy to download and install from the Internet, more students will be motivated to engage with the material and software “out of hours”.

July 2013 sees the launch of the first MOOC utilising ArcGIS (“Maps and the Geospatial Revolution”) produced by Pennsylvania State University. GIS training is likely to become increasingly open, accessible and free and QGIS may work well in this developing model.

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MOOCs and quality – a report from a day conference in London by Dr Matthew Nicholls

I recently attended this QAA event on MOOCS in London for the University. Speakers included David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, and Sir Timothy O’Shea, Vice Chancellor of Edinburgh University which has been running 6 MOOCs for the last year (including very popular courses on philosophy and on equine health).

The guiding topic for the day was the incorporation of quality assurance into the products and ‘ecosystem’ around MOOCs, especially as they begin to move from being free-to-all offerings to involving elements of cost and/or accreditation, which seems a likely next step.

The room, naturally, was full of people who believe in MOOCs – but the level of enthusiasm and belief that this really does mark a significant departure point in HE was impressive. This suggests that Reading has done well to get in among the early adopters of this in the UK, because the impression was that the pace of change and accumulation of market-place prestige is likely to be rapid, and that early providers are being promoted by FutureLearn as an elite – there are plenty of institutions outside this initial group who are getting interested in providing MOOCs, so our early engagement brings both opportunity and some pressure to deliver.

Here are some of the observations that seemed to me key messages from the day’s discussions and presentations:

  • MOOCs seem to be accepted as useful as a good shop window for recruitment – that’s a major quid pro quo at this stage.
  • Completion of courses is not the main or only goal – tasters etc count as success, rather than the percentage of people finishing a course.
  • Entering the MOOC market properly requires serious engagement and up-front investment: it’s a prominent platform on which to fail.
  • It has developed a momentum that is finally realizing long-anticipated radical change in the sector, as technologies converge into something workable – it does seem to justify the hype.
  • Education analytics that come out of MOOCs have the power to be transformative.
  • The future, regarding accreditation and paid-for enhancements, is fairly close but not yet clearly defined.
  • At the same time, there is a distinction between informal, for-free, MOOC learning and fee-paying, formal, accredited learning, which the OU sees as important to maintain.
  • The pace of change is such that institutions are having to make commitments, with no extra resource and with no clear picture of where this might be heading. But it is better at this stage to be part of the process than to be left behind.
  • The undergraduate campus experience is not seriously threatened by this (yet), but for enrichment, and esp. part-time, postgraduate, and specialist vocational material, the MOOC has the potential to be seriously disruptive.
  • Student panelists seemed enthusiastic – they showed no resistance at all to the idea of MOOCs being used within their own courses as a supplement (though nor did they acknowledge that without separate funding MOOC creation and administration are likely to be competing for resources of e.g staff time with campus teaching).
  • There was also no student resistance to universities giving away course content for free that other students are paying £9k for – students see the wider University experience as what they are paying for.

Finally, I asked Sir Timothy and others what success in a MOOC would look like and how it could be measured. There was no very clear answer as we are at such an early stage – which is interesting in itself – but it was suggested that for the entry cost to the MOOC marketplace it would be hard to buy an equivalent amount of positive press coverage, interaction with potential applicants, and teaching innovation.

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Teaching students how to use references: a speaker and a ‘toolkit’ by Dr Kim Shahabudin, Helen Hathaway, Clare Nukui, Dr Liz Wilding

On Wed 5 June, rather too many people crammed into rather too warm a room to hear about where we are going wrong when teaching students about referencing practices – and a suite of teaching materials that will hopefully help us avoid such pitfalls.

Our speaker was Diane Schmitt, Senior Lecturer in EFL/TESOL at Nottingham Trent University, whose topic was Adding ‘purpose’ to instruction on the use of sources, referencing and ‘avoiding plagiarism’. Diane argued that we need to refocus on the fact that the absence of plagiarism is not equivalent to good writing. We should instead move towards a ‘pedagogy for using sources’, teaching students how, why and when to use sources in their discipline. An especially useful ‘takeaway’ message proposed encouraging students to take a staged approach to reading, starting with a short introductory text that outlined the main issues and topics before moving on to in-depth research in second-level sources which could be used to support their academic writing.  Bringing reading into the classroom can help to support ‘reading to learn’ as well as building knowledge and the comprehension of arguments.

The session also saw the launch of the Academic Integrity Toolkit, a suite of teaching materials on the practices students need to get right to avoid plagiarism. These were developed as part of a TLDF-funded project, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Supporting independent learning practices to avoid plagiarism, which brought together investigators from Study Advice, the Library and the ISLC. With brief handouts and exercise sheets, PowerPoint slides and links to screencasts, the Toolkit aims to facilitate guidance on effective study within subject teaching and in feedback to individual students. Topics include taking useful notes, citing unusual sources and writing paraphrases. The full toolkit is on Blackboard (search the Organisation Catalog for ‘Academic Integrity Toolkit’ – you can self-enrol) where slides and handout from Diane’s talk can also be found. Contact any member of the team directly for more information.

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Institute of Education promotes student-staff partnerships in learning and teaching by Dr Eileen Hyder

The academic year 2012-13 has been a dynamic time for the SSLC of the BA Ed programme. In response to results on the NSS and internal evaluations, two sub-committees were set up to focus on specific areas for development within the course: Organisation/communication and Assessment/feedback. This student input has resulted in many changes. For example, the timing of assignments has been reviewed; use of Blackboard has improved; processes for school placements have been revised and students have had input into timetabling and planning for next year.

In addition the Year 4 student reps have taken part in the PLANT (Partnerships in Learning and Teaching) project linked to the University’s Teaching and Learning Enhancement Priority Area of engaging students in research and enquiry, specifically within the areas of engaging students in curriculum and pedagogic developments and expanding opportunities for students to engage in research.

The focus of the project was to allow final year students to evaluate the programme and make recommendations for future developments. Reps engaged with Year 4 students in a variety of ways. Firstly they asked students to use post-it notes to write words which represented the positive aspects of the course. This was used to develop a Wordle. Secondly they carried out a focus group with a randomly selected group of students. Results were fed back to all Year 4 students for validation.

The PLANT project has been underpinned by the idea of legacy (Year 4 feeding back to make positive changes for other students). Funding from the PLANT project has allowed students to develop resources which will be beneficial for the programme. The Wordle will be used on Open Day presentations; flyers are being developed which will be emailed to Freshers before they join the course and a sheet of ‘Top tips for surviving Year 4′ is being developed for next year’s finalists. In addition, the results have been disseminated to programme tutors with Year 4 reps attending the termly tutor meeting and they have also met the IoE Director of Teaching and Learning.

This year has shown that students can be active partners in curriculum design and development as their input has been vital in driving forward change. We are now considering the transition from this year’s reps to next year’s so that momentum is not lost and so that we can continue to work with our students to continue improving the student experience on our programme.

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