Imagine HE

Writing about creative survival in higher education

Sounds In The Round

I was blown away by the Angelica Mesiti exhibition In The Round, at Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery.  Installations Over the Air and Underground (2020), and Citizens Band (2012) went straight home for me.  At the invitation of ESRC postdoc, Laura Harris, and curator, James Clegg, I wrote this creative response to the exhibition for their event, In Another Tongue.

[The opening passage picks up from the occasion and imagery that I wrote about some months ago in this blog post, but takes a different turn. I have elsewhere written and published more scholarly texts on some of the ideas described here – like this, and this.]

Sound-making is movement

I’m alone but I’m not lonely. I can hear the piano tuner’s progress, his temporal journey from low to high. Without thought, I’m in step with his decisions, which are evident in the vibrations and resonance that say, “Work done. This one is ready now, time to move on.”

What a luxury. What a privilege. I have safety, I have warmth, I have refuge. I have a piano – not a travelling instrument, it is furniture. And my piano has eighty-eight keys, eighty-eight notes. Their boundaries are clear and ordered, pre-determined by consensus.  I have the privilege of company, in my solitude: the piano tuner and I observe, together, the discipline of equal temperament.

*

Our human experience with music is one of interfacing: I interface with music as it comes to me in sound and movement.  Because sound-making is movement – it comes from vibration, from events of action; from airborne pressure changes that permeate our bodies’ physical margins.

Over the air, musical sounds sit in imaginative relief, distinguished from background noise by our recognition in them of patterns and signals.

We can theorize about the patterns. We can evoke them abstractly, inscribe them symbolically, explore them discursively. These patterns afford us the imagination of conceptual structures, rules, and conventions. Of theory. The degree to which (and manner in which) diverse musical cultures use theory varies, ranging from informal, implicit learning — technical attention given to complete items of performative repertoire — to explicit and complex symbolic literacy that fosters theoretical as much as embodied generation of new material.

But to make music is to participate in humanity; to communicate the realization of our expressive vitality.

Expert musicians have mastery in the production and modulation of sound. Their intentional control of an instrument of any sort (including the voice) requires fine motor control, expert co-ordination of independent movements between limbs or parts, and the assimilation of feedback between aural and motor processes at a very high temporal resolution. Music is an integrated expression of body and mind.

So, musical performance comes in skillful, multi-modal and temporally integrated technical proficiencies: actions that deliver the pressure changes that bring us patterns in sound and behaviour. Our encounters with music, then, as sound in air — as auditory experience — already encode action, bodies, movement. Distinguished from background noise, these are the patterned signals whose relief imprints upon bodily imagination.

Inherent in pattern lies order. And in order, we can infer intention, instigation, agency: through our encounter with pattern, we encounter others.  Others with bodies like ours, who share the common experiences of breath, and breathing; the same mechanics that motivate and sustain voices, limbs, digits.  But: Which others?

In Mesiti we meet strangers and their displaced mastery. Music lifted up, out, away from home. There’s no domestic sanctuary here. No piano furniture. No refuge in the colour-blind pretence of conventions of equal temperament. What becomes clear, is that the rupture presented to us is ours, too, as we witness the partly-familiar musical technologies; as we witness the vulnerability of the performers’ commitment to expression.

*

When it comes to music and its communication: what’s fact, and what’s fiction?  What’s in tune?  What’s out of tune?

The ‘musical structures’ to which we ever respond, as listeners, they may reduce to an auditory signal. But music arises from our essentially social, human existence — from our embodied interaction with one another and our world.

Over the air, this expression of logic and discipline stands as cultural identity, subject to political legitimacy or stigmatization. Our individual acts of musical performance express values of in-tune-ness, in-time-ness, proficiency, generativity, novelty, beauty.

But: Shared world, common bodies, interior beginnings stacked and grown one inside another.

Underground, under skin, music emerges from the connective mycelium of our absolute interdependence. From sympathies of sound in movement.

 

Image credit: Mycelium. This image shows a group of elongated cells (hyphae) from the filamentous fungus Podospora anserina. They are labeled with a fluorescent stain, JC-1, that labels areas of high metabolic activity (orange-red staining). It was taken by a high-resolution camera attached to a fluorescence microscope. The magnification is 630x.

Christian Scheckhuber, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Group work griping

We generally teach courses in single semesters.  Twelve weeks of teaching, which feels like a triple marathon yet also flies by. In these three months, I want students on my courses to engage, to share, and to pick up the baton for themselves. I want them to do this from week 1.

I see that the majority want this too, but they are not always sure how to do it. Indeed, the silence when I invited thoughts, ideas, and contributions during the early weeks of this wobbly, half-out-of-lockdown semester was quite deafening.

But even during ‘normal’ times, classroom dynamics in the early weeks tend to go like, ‘This is all ok you will tell us some new things and if we’re interested we’ll listen.’   Then, once there’s a deadline: ‘Wait what? I need to do something?’ (Fair enough, most of us need deadlines to get things done.)

Hence, some early graded assessment changes the dynamic of a course.  I think of it like a release valve.  For sure, it won’t feel like a release valve to the students, it will feel like a pressure point.  But this is life and sometimes things get stuck, and we have to figure out how to use pressure skillfully, to unstick them.  So I usually start things in Week 3 for a Week 6 submission point.

Now, any assignment needs balanced alongside other courses and teaching, and also alongside the routinely unpredictable tasks of an academic practitioner: initiating, proposing, explaining, writing, practicing, re-purposing, collaborating, project-managing, re-creating, advocating, administrating, persuading, re-imagining, inventing, facilitating, caring, and also these days some servitorial duties, manual labour, and completing inscrutable and coded HR information returns using obscure Excel worksheet formulae.

How, then, to best manage the burden of administration, marking and feedback that is part and parcel of a mid-semester submission?

Collaborative group projects can – potentially – create a nice space to learn about a lot of stuff.  They can foster a community vibe which significantly boosts the quality of teaching and learning.  And the chance to learn what it takes to be an employable human. They can minimize the mid-semester marking burden while still generating lots of good quality feedback for learners. Or, they can be hellish for everyone.

Group work will never please everyone. Oh well.

To mitigate against the latter, I have been using WebPA for quite a few years now.  It’s a system to manage peer assessment. I believe that it was devised at Loughborough University – here’s a link to the WebPA homepage for more about this open source project. Some clever team at my own institution have integrated WebPA into our regular VLE.

What This Means is that I grade and provide feedback on the attainment of, say, 10 assignments – but my 60 students each receive an individualised mark which reflects their contribution to the project. It also provides students with scaffolding and feedback to understand how to work well in a group.

But what is WebPA?  Took me a while to get it.  This is ‘it’:  Once the submission is in, students take 2 minutes using a Likert scale to answer survey questions about how everyone in the group contributed to getting the project done. Based on these numerical responses, the WebPA algorithm generates a weighting which moderates the project marks. The output takes into account the assigned grades and groupings (so you can have uneven group sizes), and you can tweak the parameters to fit the method to your madness criteria.

The target and the tone of the survey questions are worth getting right. I’ve devised four questions that work for me regardless of the topic of the course, or the nature of the assignment. Here they are:

For each of the four criteria below, choose the best fitting statement for YOURSELF and EACH OTHER MEMBER OF YOUR GROUP:

1. Getting started: Contributing timely and appropriate ideas
  • Plenty of appropriate suggestions – score 5
  • Plenty of suggestions – score 4
  • Some suggestions on the right lines – score 3
  • Contributed only a few, or inappropriate, suggestions – score 2
  • Contributed no suggestions – score 1
2. Getting going: Turning ideas into action!
  • Unstoppable! A powerhouse of initiative! – 5
  • Good amount of initiative – 4
  • Fair amount of initiative – 3
  • Took action when nudged – 2
  • Showed little or no initiative – 1
3. To the finish line! Completing work and delivering the project
  • Highest level of contribution – 5
  • Great contribution -4
  • Kept at it – 3
  • Not especially helpful – 2
  • Obstructive – 1

4. Overall: General contribution to the group (e.g. through punctuality, respectful behaviour, good communication)

  • Score from 5 (highly positive contribution) to 1 (not a positive contribution)

Obviously, a process like this needs talking about in class well before the project is in progress. Doesn’t take long to run through survey questions. It’s a nice quick discussion that demystifies group work and saves a lot of time in the long run.

Basically, in setting up group projects I try to use my platform as academic lead to model the attributes that I believe will serve my students best in their studies and the rest of their lives. These include humour, honesty and a bit of loving-kindness. With this approach, assessed group projects can be a really important component in course design, steering the ship towards peer-directed and peer-supportive waters – an essential survival strategy for the 12 week semester model and hybrid HE meltdown strike-stricken pandemic workload that we all have to operate in.

E-books and ballots

This week we launched a creative commons multimedia e-textbook, Fundamentals of Music Theory. This came about as the result of a pilot Open Educational Resource project, and – funded by a Student Experience Grant – we paid three Music student interns to work on the transfer of a range of existing digital materials into this new source, providing some valuable work experience.  (The valuable part came from the tutelage of the OER team, with their experience in collaborative project working and their handling and direction of the interns.  It was also valuable for me to watch how they did this, and to see our students operating in a different context, away from lectures and tutorials.)

Overall it was a very positive experience, though the timing of the project meant that it took place across perhaps the most stressful and intense period of working of everyone’s career to date. First discussions then application coincided with the end of a period of industrial action/the onset of the pandemic. The recruitment phase took place in lockdown Semester 1, 2020. The active, funded portion ran from January to June 2021 while we struggled on to the end of the locked-down academic year.

The irony isn’t lost on me: that while I push myself to develop free, open educational resources (no royalties, creative commons) through very positive OER initiatives and, well, University branding…  that little by little over my 14 years of service, my daily working life at the University has been stripped bare of meaningful opportunities for generosity, where we can perform kindness though hospitality and inclusion. The spaces and chances to give and receive (Would you like a cup of tea?  Let’s eat together. Come sit down, let’s talk!) – where we can rehearse and model authentic dialogue – have been squeezed out as a result of other ‘efficiencies’, or deliberately culled.

Academic communities’ primary work is to share what they know and to keep learning more. Here’s a thought that’s crossed my mind: We’re naturally all a bit perfectionist and peculiar, we’re not always great at interpersonal dynamics – and these current circumstances of our professional accommodation and facilities are de-skilling us further.

The example of PhD viva voce examinations: an extended, rigorous, intellectually and creatively gruelling dialogue between scrutinizers and defender, the culmination of a minimum three years independent work by the candidate. Pre-meeting, examination, and feedback session all in cannot take less than 3 hours.  Yet in my role these days as supervisor, or examiner, or chair of these events, it comes down to me personally to make provision of anything beyond a glass of water.  No tea or coffee. No biscuits.  Forget sandwiches!  And don’t even dream of a hot meal, who’s got time for that?

There are of course ways and means of advance planning and reimbursement: but these are all tasks that require my attention and time. Alongside the practical and mental preparation for my actual, academic role in this essential award-determining business. Is this dance of form-filling and justification really what the University wants me to spend my salaried hours on?  (No.  They want me to spend unsalaried hours on it.)

Beyond that specific example – which also flags up general issues of debilitating busyworkload – I’m not talking about anything fancy here. Just talking about, you know, physical areas to congregate which function well because they are properly provisioned, and pleasant, so that people want to spend time there. Quiet and private spaces are necessary, too. With some office furniture designed for conversation. Maybe even, rain-proof accommodation that keeps your professional belongings and books dry. (Ask me about that.)

UCU is balloting.  I’m weeping at the thought of more strikes, distressed students, pay loss. My pension is slashed, my income shrinks further in real terms, this affects my whole life and my family’s.  And this is all secondary – in how I feel – to the fact that I’m made to compete constantly for funds, for time, for space with my own colleagues.

UCU is balloting again, and what am I supposed to do?  It doesn’t take a PhD does it. I can just read back what I’ve written here and see it’s a no-brainer.

Invitation To Play

There is A Thing that early childhood educators know about, called an Invitation To Play.

If you don’t already know what that is, I wonder what you’re imagining. An enticingly heavy, embossed card through the letterbox? A verbose request in swirling calligraphy? A formal – perhaps awkward – conversation? Or a request to attend, from an eyebrow-wide, open, smiling face?

Actually, an invitation to play involves no words, either spoken or written. (Or typed, or embossed.) It is a scene. A site for invention and exploration. It is the setting-up of objects and materials, the curation of another person’s future actions – a creation of desire!

I discovered Invitation To Play before I knew its name, watching my young son’s behaviour – at ease in his home, primed for a day at nursery, out and about in brand new places. In thrall to his mind and infant curiosity, I was accustomed to exploring his reactions to objects both familiar and exotic. I noticed that his activities expressed different rhythms of repetition and renewal. I suppose that when watching with love, we always do witness the direction of attention in those we adore: I found that I could learn more about his mind by interacting, myself, in his world. Stepping with care into play.

In his absence I would take huge pleasure in visiting the play areas of his home (our home), and setting up a new object – a book, or three bendy pipe cleaners, or a wooden spoon alongside a tin pot. Laying them out, just so: calibrating my knowledge of his mind and the possibilities inherent in those objects.

This is the Invitation To Play.

There is nothing more rewarding and affirming than standing silently aside and watching the invitation work its magic.

So much of HE teaching is lecturing. So much lecturing is telling. Telling is no fun! Discovery is better.

Facing out, tuning up

I’m sitting in my kitchen, looking into fine, drizzling rain tickling the leaves of the elder which has grown too tall for itself, leggy and bending outside my window. The air around me feels spacious and cool. It’s occupied by the logical tranquility of the piano tuner’s key strikes. I’m gazing without seeing, hearing without listening.

The cat stands, stretches, and wanders across the room, disturbing the bell on his collar. It blends with the piano’s harmonics which are moving in and out of focus, trickling into the kitchen from the hallway on the other side of the door. No words. This space is peaceful.

In this moment, demands on my attention and time are quelled. I am alone but far from lonely. My ears keep me in company with the piano tuner’s progress, his temporal journey from low to high. Without thought, I’m in step with his decisions, which are evident in the vibrations and resonance that say, “Work done. This one is ready now, time to move on”.

Like everyone, I’m living in daily anxiety through inevitable, unknowable change. Like every parent, I fear the future of austerity and global damage. The insecurity can be overwhelming – what to do for the best? How much is ever enough? But I can escape for another few minutes into this step-wise sonic space of action, clarity and order.

Imagine if… our University teaching and interactions were to create this same feeling for students to sit with, for an hour or two? Where we can acknowledge the disorder and complexity of our precarious life and times, but yet enjoy moments of clarity in successive decisions that we reach – for ourselves – through absorption and creation. Agreeing that this will do, that this is well enough in time, in tune, ok for now – each single small decision accepting something beyond ourselves.  Idealistic?  Pretty sure this is how it should be.

Teaching with Tangles and Knots

I’ve spent the day with a background of mental visualisations. Abstract images of stitching, sewing, crotcheting, knitting. Of material workmanship in progress – productive incremental actions. The imagery involves a sensation in my fingers and the palms of my hands. Tingling imagination of the warm, abrasive itch of wool, of pinching and grasping and moving yarn and threads, manipulating needles and tools, of bringing stitches and loops together from sides to middle, sides to middle, turning in and outside and yielding comforting new breadths and lengths of fabric.

The imagery emerged after I read a discussion thread this morning. Among some musicians who teach University courses in composition, who were identifying and discussing the dilemma they routinely encounter in the admissions and pedagogic process. The dilemma is to do with the deep divide between experience and expertise in musical notation practices amongst prospective students. The discussants described witnessing a debilitating lag in skills for those seeking access to musical composition programmes who did not already have fluent, sophisticated literacy skills from working with musical scores already for many years and as a fundamental, performative aspect of their musical lives. The conversation in the thread recognised that the means by which applicants might have attained such skills were almost exclusively tied to both cultural and financial capital. Yet the need for musical composition pedagogy and professional practice to be based in music notational literacy was – for the majority of contributors – an indisputable priority: How, one discussant asked, would applicants with less experience and fluency in reading and writing musical scores ever ‘catch up’?

Another contributor began circumspectly to question the musical conservatory in its entirety: Having noticed that ‘luckily, conservatories are not the gatekeepers of music’, then ‘letting [more] people in’ to conservatories is something that would concern the contributor a lot more should the conservatory itself offer something of value to students whose interests (and experience) lay with ‘say, non-notated music’.

Hmm. Having composed the post and pressed ‘Send’, might the contributor themselves have then spotted that slippery double standard?

The thread mirrored so many conversations I’ve been party to, that I’m still working through, and that I’ve challenged without resolution.  But why did all this bring me to that quiet mental yearning for the experience of a crafting process? Sides to middle, sides to middle, inside to outside…

Let’s imagine that teaching and learning in HE Music depends on three parts: intellectual (discipline), artistic (radical), and technical (progressively-refined skills).

  • With academic discipline, we support students’ submission to an existing framework of knowledge in order that they will master and challenge it.
  • Art is radical. We have to respect the authentic voice of the individual student from scratch, so that they can step up and raise that voice when they are ready. Might take ages, long after graduation. That has to be OK.
  • Technical teaching and learning in music… it feels to me like this is where everything hangs.  This requires that we academic practitioners develop our own workplace-consensus on defining those progressive skills so that we can tool up to teach them. This final aspect is the most controversial. These skills are not necessarily the ones that we were trained in. We are going to have to be courageous to deal with this.

In my daily life and work with University music teaching and the students who arrive at our University, I find myself longing for a way to teach that would better honour individuals and give them a better chance to honour one another and their own private, unique musical life experiences. I would like to have richer interactions with more opportunity – time, space – to meet applicants and students where they are. To validate the experiences that have shaped their particular journeys. Not only their exam grades or qualifications, but their own niche: Their context, their aspirations, their priorities, their families or networks. What these people can ultimately have to say – as musicians, artists, members of civic society – is dependent on all of this.

But: again, why did this bring on the vivid, tacit internal vision and sensation of crafting? Of working-with? Of sides-to-middle, inside-outside transformation and growth? Perhaps, because this is the process that I want teaching to be — working with, not working on. Transforming and creating through process. Making, not judging.

Why I Find It Helps To Remember You Have A Bum And A Back

The demands of remote teaching have given urgent rise to so many needs during the past 12 months. We need screen breaks, we need good spec tech, we need more space at home than most of us have got, we need our children to go away, we need to move and stretch, and (I think, more than anything), we’ve needed to upgrade the quality and efficiency of our professional relationships, with colleagues and with students.

What I mean by better quality relationships is, the sort of relationships that can really tolerate confusion, and impatience, and misunderstandings, and occasional mute button swearing. We’ve had to share and create new knowledge under exceptionally limiting circumstances and with broken connections, poor sync, terrible sound quality, patchy wifi. Good communication fundamentally requires a basis of some common ground, but when this began we were all in a new place, each of us confined to our own pieces in a square jigsaw of icons and initials and – now and then, if you’re lucky – floating faces.

The digital reduction of our physical selves and our communicative intentions into 2D space is as crummy as it’s miraculous. How can we know if we understood? How can we know if we have been understood? We can dissolve into a puddley, formless state of gaze and scroll, gaze and scroll, all our precious connections to other people mindlessly constrained to a loop between gritty eyes, aching ears, fingers on the keyboard… This is why I find it really helps to remember you have a bum and a back, and I have enjoyed reminding my students of this, too.

This semester I have systematically integrated such reminders into my online teaching, making space for the class to act (not think) in a playful and creative manner in response to a variety of prompts, some as warm-up activities, others as core teaching devices. I’ve used my experience of improvisation and mindfulness practices, and it’s been serious fun – as in, the results have induced both laughter and deep reflection. Devising the exercises for online groups required a little bit of thinking, mostly in reshaping group facilitation strategies that I have used informally for a number of years. Making these work online has felt like a game-changer, for the way that they can transform a shallow, disconnected virtual space into an engaged and courageous cohort of students.

– Playful grounding exercises as standard welcome/warm-up

– ‘Busy hands’ tasks, to help students navigate online discussions with one another

– Structured peer-to-peer listening sessions, timetabled alongside academic seminars

– Deliberate integration of freeform creative journalling exercises (doodling, painting, colour, collage) into academic topic-based discussions:

  • to support students’ development of their own voice and original argument
  • to support students’ autonomy, their own approach to integrating knowledge
  • to create space for emerging studentled discussion and new perspectives on central issues of concern such as good academic conduct, plagiarism, etc.

Over this time, I’ve loved finding patches of common ground with other ECA colleagues who have also been trying out new strategies. And I’ve loved naming each exercise – Lemon Buzz, Alternative Corner Reality, You Have Nice Hands, Labyrinth, Other Body Curiosity… Please get in touch if you’d like to know more. If you’re already using creative journaling or art techniques in your academic teaching, I would especially like to chat!

Making a virtual meeting sign-up sheet

I have been thinking and talking to people about the best way to schedule Personal Tutor and other student meetings. Options include blocking out a time for drop-ins, then use the Lobby function in Teams to let individual students in. Or, use your Calendar, and ask students to make appointments according to your availability.

Here is another possible solution for ECA Personal Tutors needing to schedule their online group and 1-to-1 meetings in the next couple of weeks. It is also useful if you have irregular office hours.

This is it: Use anything in Office or Office365 to make a basic grid. I used OneNote.

It gives similar scheduling flexibility as a Doodle poll – better, I’d say – and it has the advantage that it keeps you right by our institutional guidance on GDPR.

This is the process.

Make a sign up sheet à Save it to OneDrive à Paste a link into ECA Senior Tutor Dee’s ‘Welcome message’ template à Have students schedule themselves up according to your availability.

Here is a link to a sign-up template in OneNote that you can copy.

 

If you want to go one step further, use MS Teams to ‘Create a Team’ for your personal tutees.

Step 1. Make a team – the ‘Other’ type option is fine.

Step 2. Make it private.

Step 3. Skip the step where you add people.

Step 4. Go back the Teams view, find the ‘…’ and click More options > Manage team.

Step 5. Select the Settings tab > Team code > Generate. Click Copy.

Share this code in your Welcome email and invite students to join the Team. You can pin your sign-up sheet in the Team, just as if it’s a piece of paper stuck to your door.

Do this by adding a tab in your General channel – see screengrab.

Reasons you might want to do it this way:

  1. Generate instant magic community feeling
  2. Reduce transactional distance
  3. Save yourself from email inbox traffic

(PS – You will still have to suffer EUCLID to do the following: Find your personal tutees and their records, press the red attendance button, enrol them on courses, keep notes/document meetings, and send any group emails. Sorry.)

Media production studios experience

Media Production Studios pilot recordings – I did a session so I thought I’d tell you about it

I went to High School Yards yesterday morning for a pilot session of the new media recording services. I’m sharing thoughts on it here to let you know what to expect if you’re thinking about using this service yourself.

In two hours, we recorded materials for 6 x short (2-3 minute) ‘piece to camera’ lectures.  ‘Piece to camera’ means a headshot recording of my yabbering face. The material is for a Semester 1 course, and will also be used to update an existing MOOC which deals with the same content.

So I was working with a revised version of lecture material from last year, which I’d improved it in a series of drafts based on feedback from colleagues.  This meant I could boil each segment down to 3 minutes max.

This is dead important. Piece to camera works best when it is v v short.

Piece to camera can be interspersed with graphics, stock footage, slides etc. This requires planning and story-boarding, which I think is the most fun bit. I have always loved story-telling. So it’s frustrating at the moment that there is so little time to do this.

Of course, pre-recorded lectures don’t have to include our faces. It’s stressful, it feels very exposing. And do you remember how humid it was yesterday. Yabbering face amidst frizzy hair.  But.  I chose piece-to-camera for because:

1. I’m not at the stage to create graphics or choose stock footage. (The children only went back to school yesterday, and for how long…?)  But having the complete segments recorded and in the bag means we can sort this out later.

2. The nature of these scripts – the content – deserves an identifiable, explaining face to go along with it. One segment is introductory, it’s the first welcome to the course.  The other sections comprise a five-part contextualising micro-lecture addressing bias and ethnocentricism in the subject matter. It’s complex stuff and I want to deliver it humanely and accountably, not impersonally.

So if you just have straightforward content and slides already, a decent microphone voiceover recorded with Kaltura to Media Hopper or something is brilliant.

But if you have reason to feel that face-to-face delivery of some content would work better to engage students – maybe just for an early week, establishing what the course is, what you want students to do and what you want them to get from it – the Media Production service is a supportive way to do it.

These are the reasons I found it supportive:

1. Scheduling it gives you a clean deadline and then it’s done.

2.  No crowd, but you’re not on your own: one efficient, professional, sympathetic technician/recordist who will coach you through it, handle the auto-cue speed, and tell you if your rumbling tummy is loud enough to have spoiled the take.

3. Superb quality of audio and video.

I’ve put quality down there at no.3, because I think there is a lot to say for using lo-fi content in blended learning. Glossiness can sit badly and seem inauthentic next to the real, messy business of responsive teaching.  But if you’ve got portions of important, basic content that are not going away any time soon – or if they’re headed for a large platform like Coursera MOOC – then a bit of gloss is nice. Very happy to answer questions or chat if colleagues are thinking about using this service.

Learn Quizzes

Learn has a built-in ‘Test’ feature that can solve some of the problems of online assessment

I started using Learn’s integrated quiz feature about two years ago. It was a while before I could talk about it without swearing. But it has now become a major asset to my teaching practice which I’m really f**ing grateful for in the face of the digital challenge which is Semester 1, 2020-21.

I’m writing this because I’d be happy if my own voyage of discovery could spare a single colleague some misadventure.

I use Learn quizzes for both formative and summative assessment, but primarily as a feedback device. Knowledge checks which get students to check in with themselves, as a step towards understanding what it is that they need to ask us.

The feature that I’m talking about is called ‘Tests, surveys and pools’. It’s in Course Tools, from the left-hand menu bar.

I use weekly revision quizzes plus graded (summative) tests. The very best part of this is that I NO LONGER HAVE TO DO THE MARKING because I already did that when I built the questions in the first place: Learn now marks automatically into Grade Centre.

These quizzes – the ‘tests’ – are based on question ‘pools’. If one is feeling smug and efficient, one can prepare these in batches, which is satisfying in the same way as eating a really good pie you made for the freezer. Or having someone else pour you a cup of tea.

When you create a test, you can put it together from scratch with new questions specific to that test. Or, you can set a question which draws down on a designated pool that you already created. To deploy a test, you create a particular instance of it through a link that becomes visible to your students.

Why use pools? To generate randomized but equivalent test papers. This is a Big Deal because it lets you support students with adjustment schedules, and accommodate all sorts of asynchronous assessment dilemmas. For example, you can have a timed test which starts from the moment a student presses ‘Begin’. This can be a different duration for each student if necessary, and they could either be sat next to one another, or in different countries.

Preparing questions involves writing feedback for both correct and incorrect answers. I once read a book about caring for my pet guinea pig which said: “Do not feed your pet garlic, it makes them furious.” Well, turns out that setting a quiz with insufficient feedback makes students furious. But online learning feels less remote with instant feedback.

As with EVERYTHING about Learn, the quiz platform’s strength is its weakness: seemingly infinite combinatorial possibilities for bespoke, personalised ‘solutions’. This means endless options, filters, adjustments, preferences… And this can cause something I’d describe politely as fatigue.

The flexibility does mean, though, that it’s possible to design most assessment formats that you can imagine. Your questions or tasks can be posed as straightforward, plain text. Or they can include images, documents, websites, sound files, videos – any media.

Question-types can include, e.g., sophisticated multiple choice, short text, long essay, ‘yes/no’, or answer via ‘upload file’ – which is VERY HELPFUL if you are teaching music notation and you need to see images of students’ handwritten scores. (I wonder whether it could also be a useful device for other visual or practical ECA courses?)

Previously, I set a written final exam for this course to assess handwritten work. There will be no timed exam for this year’s students, it will be coursework only. I’ll use the Learn test platform to set tasks and see uploaded images of their work. I tried this out in the August resits and it worked fine.

If anyone is considering using Learn quizzes I’m happy to share what I’ve learned.

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Please note that personal data collected through this form is used and stored for the purposes of processing this report and communication with you.

If you are unable to report a concern about content via this form please contact the Service Owner.

Please enter an email address you wish to be contacted on. Please describe the unacceptable content in sufficient detail to allow us to locate it, and why you consider it to be unacceptable.
By submitting this report, you accept that it is accurate and that fraudulent or nuisance complaints may result in action by the University.

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