Online learning: things I have learnt that are not directly related to my job

September 7, 2011

Over my summer break I pondered upon how much learning I have done online. I’m not talking about learning relevant to my job (but I have learnt a lot online which has helped me in my job), but about learning not directly related to my job. The fixed wheel bicycle conversion I posted about a couple of days ago was possible through what I had learnt online. I bought most of the parts online. I read fixed wheel websites and forums to find out what I needed to do. Whenever I had questions or difficulties I found that other people had had these same experiences and had posted about them. I doubt that I could have achieved this in the pre-internet era. Moreover it was Sheldon Brown’s website that first got me interested in the idea of riding fixed in the first place.

I also look online when it comes to home DIY projects.  I wanted to know how long I should wait before applying paint to the new plaster in my hallway. My plasterer said a few days. Online the answers varied from a few hours to about six months. And then there was the question of preparing the wall prior to painting. My plasterer said to use a cheap white emulsion with about 10% water. Online some said you could use 50% water. Others said to use PVA. The emulsion people angrily responded that this is the last thing you should do. It’s unsurprising that there are differing opinions out there, but the passion with which opinions of how to prepare a newly plastered wall are held astonishes me. For the record I went to my plaster’s advice and it seems to have turned out ok. This case is different to the fixed wheel conversion in that in the pre-internet era I would have just done as the plasterer said the first place. Online learning offers the access to doubt as much as it offers the possibility of answers.

I know far more about computers than I ever planned to. But thanks to the internet I’ve been able to fix computer problems. I’ve even opened up the case to upgrade the memory. Similarly, when I couldn’t get the iplayer to work on my freesat dish, I spent much time looking online. Sometimes I don’t always find a solution to my problems, but to know that there were people out there with the same problems is some comfort.

Online learning:

  1. Makes me want to do things I didn’t even know about.
  2. Makes me want to check what I have learnt ‘face-to-face’.
  3. Offers a second or third opinion.
  4. Answers my questions successfully.
  5. Offers good advice.
  6. Offers bad advice.
  7. Helps me to doubt expert opinion.
  8. Gets me to buy stuff I need
  9. Gets me to buy stuff I might need
  10. Gets me to buy stuff I don’t need.

Converting my old bike to a fixed wheel

September 5, 2011

Last year I sought parts for my 1989 Dawes Horizon. No ‘off the peg’ rear wheel will fit into my 126mm drop-outs, at least not one which can take a 6-speed block and I quickly realised, after seeking advice, that bringing this bike back into action as a touring bike was likely to cost a lot of money (new rear wheel, plus cassette, plus new gear levers—I can’t believe how much gear levers cost!). It wouldn’t cost much more to buy an entry level touring bike. But the Reynolds frame is in good condition so I wanted to do something with it.

Over the past year I’ve been doing all my cycling on my Giant hybrid, a bike I got in order to ‘do everything’. However, I increasing became curious about the possibility of converting my Horizon to a fixed wheel, thanks to the late Sheldon Brown  The Giant has 27 gears, but I only use about six of them in Southampton. I finally decided to go for it over my summer break.

I only finished it a few days ago, but I’m hooked already. I bought a wheel with a flip-flop hub (fixed one side, free the other) a new bottom bracket, some bottom bracket spacers, anew chain and a new chainset. Not the cheapest way to covert a bike to a ‘fixie’, but one within my abilities (I was particularly not keen on redishing wheels).  I have removed the pannier rack and mudguards (this is a big step for me).

To cut a long story short I love it so far. I have a bike which seems to weigh about half that of my hybrid and I am able to go so much faster. It is exhilarating not being able to freewheel. It was ‘interesting’ going over speedbumps whilst continuing to pedal, but I’m getting the hang of it. I regret that I rode in on my hybrid this morning—it feels so slow.


Some new resources online for T&L in HE

September 5, 2011

Back into the office after a three week(!) break. Just going through the email. Spotted the following on the SEDA list and through them worth a mention. Useful for new and experienced academic staff alike.

1. Preparing to teach An introduction to effective teaching in higher education by Graham Gibbs and Trevor Habeshaw now online

2. Also, a useful bibliography from Mick Healey on

The following bibliographies have been regularly updated since 2005:

1      Active learning and learning styles: a selected bibliography  Active learning and learning styles bibliography

2      Discipline based approaches to supporting learning and teaching: a selected bibliographyDiscipline-based approaches Bibliography

3      Linking research and teaching: a selected bibliography  Linking Research and Teaching Bibliography

4      Pedagogic research and development: a selected bibliography Selected references on pedagogic research

5      The scholarship of teaching and learning: a selected bibliography  SoTL Bibliography

6      The scholarship of engagement: a selected bibliography  The Scholarship of Engagement – a selected bibliography

7      Dissertations and capstone projects: a selected bibliography Dissertations and Capstone Projects Bibliography

Could our students demand we teach courses we don’t already?

August 9, 2011

Student: I enjoyed your lecture today. I find Africa fascinating.

Lecturer: Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Student: I want to study for a degree in African Studies

Lecturer: Er we don’t offer a course in that here.

Student: But the University of Harrogate does

Lecturer: Umm, well, we don’t here…

Student: I think we should make the university set up an African Studies course.

Lecturer: Errrrr….

Student: If they didn’t listen we could have sit-ins and protest to the Vice-Chancellor and get the local papers in.

Lecturer: Mmmmm

As far as I know this never happens in the UK. Students here select their subject of study on their UCAS form prior to arrival. Some universities will allow students to change course during or at the end of the first year. Students will protest if a university attempts to close down a department or a programme, but a protest aimed at getting the university to offer courses it doesn’t already teach or have the staff for? No way!

But at the US universities in Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur’s book, Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education this is precisely what has happened as students have sort to pressure senior management to set up courses in Asian-American Studies, Women’s Studies and Queer Studies. When I began to read the book for review in Innovations in Education and Teaching International I was somewhat intrigued by this form of protest (the book opens with an account of students getting arrested for occupying the administrative building at the University of Texas).

The differences between US and British universities cannot be addressed in anything as short as a blog post. But whilst I have difficultly foreseeing these sorts of campaigns in British universities, I think that there is an interesting point here. For students unable to ‘go away’ for university many subjects are not available to them. For example students in many areas of England are unable to access a languages degree in their own Travel To Work Area (TTWA) or even in the next one. Students who live in the Welsh borders, parts of Lincolnshire, parts of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset and parts of North-East and North-West England are not within two TTWAs of a university which offers language degrees. I expect similar patterns would emerge for other subjects. Could students in the UK start lobbying for the provision of new courses in their university or locality?

Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur, Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education (Ashgate, 2011).

My review in Innovations in Education and Teaching International

Should we standardise language course titles?

August 8, 2011

Suppose you have just completed French Level 4. What standard are you at? Can you ask for directions, read L’Étranger, conjugate the pluperfect subjective, book a hotel room, express your thoughts on the Arab Spring, recognise the past historic tense, or discuss Molière on French TV?

It depends of course. In my most recent report of ‘non-specialist’ language learners (in other words, those not doing a degree in languages – I’m not really sure about the term), I asked learners to provide me with the exact title of their course. I then mapped their answers to the standard they said they should have reached by the end of the course. What I found was that Level/Stage 4 courses appear at all three levels to which I mapped the course titles.We have a Level 6 at A1/A2, a Level 8 at B1/B2, a Level 4 at C1/C2 showing just how every institution has its own system. Thinking radically for a moment, why don’t we standardise our course titles?

Some of the advantages I can think of include:

  1. More learners would be able to articulate their level to employers or other stakeholders. (Over a third of learners were unable to say what standard they should have reached by the end of their language course)
  2. Learners would be able to continue their language learning at another institution (e.g. if they got a job in another part of the country or wanted to continue studying at a higher level not available at their current university).
  3. We would be able to collect better data cross-institutional on the language abilities of ‘non-specialist’ language learners.
  4. Students might be less worried about whether a certain level of course was too easy or too difficult for them.
  5. We could have a national recognised standard for all language learners (you could argue that we could achieve this simply by putting CEFR levels into every course title).
A defence of the current unstandardised system would be most welcome!

Read the full report.

Day 2 at the LLAS Centre

August 2, 2011

New LLAs logo

We are now at the end of Day 2 of LLAS: the Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies. Our new website is up nicely integrated with Twitter and Facebook. Our new logo builds on our longstanding identity as LLAS (pronounced L-L-A-S) and we have kept our purple colours.

We have 19 events up on our website now kicking off with our annual workshop for Heads of Department on 14 September. Much of our professional development is going on as it has for the past eleven-and-a-half years as we seek to maintain and develop that which we have built up.

On a personal level there are significant changes. I am now only working only four days per week, but am seeking ways to make up my shortage of hours(!). Additionally, as from next week I will start as the Acting Academic Coordinator for the Higher Education Academy Islamic Studies Network, a role which I expect to be undertaking until March 2012.

I’m currently catching up on some unfinished business from last week (I was ill for a couple of days), notably a summary report on the National Student Survey projects we funded and the 2011 survey of non-specialist language learners.

I will be a taking some time off work later this month with plans to finish painting the hallway, landing and stairs (in Dulux cookie dough) and continuing to organise my messy outbuilding (bigger than a shed, smaller than a garage).

Goodbye subject centre, hello LLAS Centre

July 20, 2011

The new LLAS: Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies will come into existence on 1 August. Despite the withdrawal of most of our HEA funding we are fortunate to be able to carry on with some of our activities as a ‘not for profit’. We will continue to work with HEA as well as with subject associations in LLAS.

We have a programme of workshops and conferences lined up already and we are planning further workshops on areas such as employability, language teaching and sustainable development. We will also be available to provide staff development in departments and will continue to publish Début: the undergraduate journal of languages, linguistics and area studies.

Nevertheless, this is very much the end of an era. I will greatly miss the many colleagues in other subject centres I have worked with over the years though I hope that I will continue to see them in other settings.