Imagine HE

Nikki Moran writes about creative survival in higher education

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 they 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, when we have no alternative way to check that we’ve been heard and understood. It’s far too easy to 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.

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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