Archive for the ‘My Learning Journey’ Category

Open and Collaborative Learning #altsep12

October 21st, 2012 by Cristina Costa

This was the theme for the ALT module this past week (week 4).

For this week I created a mini collaborative activity that aimed to get all ALT Module participants to work together on the development of an online guide of Manchester. They were given a recorded message from a friend of mine reporting about their visit to the city and describing the habits and tastes of the different members of the family. This aimed to give ALT participants enough information to come up with a rough structure of the guide, which aimed to be the tangible outcome of this collaborative venture. I also provided a task brief that can be downloaded here. Yet, the focus of this activity was not so much on the content they would put together as it was on the context they would create for learning and collaborating on the open web.

“This is your mission, should you decide to accept it

The challenge was a bit of a Mission Impossible activity in that ALT participants were provided with the background information about their task. Yet, they were free to devise their own collaborative strategies as well as to decide what to include in the guide, where to publish it, etc. I wanted to give them that autonomy, but this seemed to have generated some confusion and frustration amongst the ALT cohort.

Collaboration online can be messy
Collaboration can be a messy process because it relies on different people with different ideas, personalities, aptitudes and experiences. Yet, these differences are the strength of any collaborative venture, in that we draw on the “specialities” of each member to learn and move a joint project forward. Hence the importance of negotiation and distribution of tasks. As part of that a leader from within the group usually emerges. I felt this happened in this occasion. A couple of days prior to the start of the task one of the ALT members attempted to define three tasks – one for each group within the ALT cohort. This is an important step in the negotiation of the different components of a collaborative task. but there are other aspects that are as important when starting a collaborative project.These may include the following steps:

  • Identifying a leader (someone who will help coordinate the activity – although we all have the opportunity to express our opinion, there is a need to have someone in the group(s) who negotiates a decision that will move the project forward. In these situations a leader usually emerges from the group activity. Distributed leadership is also important given that the ALT cohort was divided in 3 different groups who were working on different components of the same task)
  • Identifying what needs to be achieved and by when
  • Devising a clear plan of what is being developed (agree on a structure before you start the task)
  • Defining roles for the different team members (identify the skills needed to carry out the project. This often requires knowing and drawing on the strengths of the team, and thus give autonomy to the different members of the group)
  • Defining how group members will communicate with their core group as well as the entire cohort (which tools can be used as back channels for information and idea sharing)
  • Establishing which tools will be used to achieve the end product
  • Trying to enjoy the challenge!

Keep Calm and Carry on!?

Panicking is a common reaction at the start of such activities. This has probably to do with the lack of structure it is first given or the idea that the challenge posed is a huge task that is impossible to carry out in a 3 hour slot. And in that sense, it’s true. No one puts together a touristic guide in such a short period of time. But, then again, that was not the purpose of this task.

Frustration with technology often discourages people from carrying on such activities. Yet, my intention had been to enable the use of technology in a meaningful context in which ALT participants would be able to learn from each other. I felt that the focus that was put on the creation on content undermined this aspect…

Many people reported that they felt overwhelmed with the amount of information they were being exposed to as they navigated through different sites and communication channels. The flow of tweets was too fast at some point and, from what I was told, this seems to have generated some anxiety in the people using twitter to communicate whilst collecting data from other sources. Clay Shirky talks about filter failure instead of information overload. Based on people’s accounts, I think this is what may have happened. In an information rich world it is important to define the scope of our activity, and sometimes less is more. I also think that defining what our role in the project is helps make our contribution more effective, because it enables us to narrow it down and focus on a specific aspect of the task that will complement it instead of having the entire group working on the same thing. Collaboration is a bit like the creation of a quilt. The different patchworks we develop for it constitute the whole picture; yet each patchwork (each individuals’ work) is a special(ised) contribution to the overall project.

In that vein, I had anticipated that ALT participants would have made use of their own resources and (online and offline) networks to create a guide that was highly personalised. I had imagined that they would not only reuse content from the web – which they did and even observed the Creative Commons guidelines – Well done! -, but also create their own content by sharing, pictures, videos or even personalised accounts of a city they know so well. I keep wondering why this didn’t happen. … maybe I could have provided that hint!?

Have I failed you?
…maybe I have! Maybe I should have provided more guidance? Maybe this should have been a face to face activity?
Although I cannot say that this task was a success on my part, I hope it was still a useful learning experience regarding how we navigate the web, source out information and communicate with others as part of a collaborative activity.

My idea in developing this activity was to enable learners to decide on their role and thus negotiate what their single and group contribution to the jointly developed product would look like. The activity did not aim to assess the quality of the content; rather it focused on the development of a context for collaboration based on the principles and ideas we have been discussing for the last 6 weeks, if we include the pre-induction activities. These include participation, networked and communal learning, creative commons, etc.
What I would like to learn from you is:

  • What worked?
  • What could be done differently?
  • What have you learnt from this entire experience?

I would really welcome honest feedback! ;-)

Do you need to lecture in a lecture?

October 20th, 2012 by Cristina Costa

Theme 2 of the TESS programme was focused on teaching. The idea was to answer 3 “wh” questions:

Who are we teaching?
What do we want learners to learn/achieve?
How do we want learners to learn/engage?

These 3 questions link back to the way people learn. And they are also related to our one teaching and learning philosophy. In this sense, the act of teaching is connected to our professional values and the principles we share regarding our teaching vocation. Hence, I think it’s important that we ask ourselves what our role as educators is. Do we want to impart (static) knowledge [that’s an easy way to teach] or do we want learners to engage in a culture of knowing in which their activity/role is placed at the centre? This requires learners’ participation. Research does say that learners learn better when they are actively involved. This is due to the fact that participation is an act of belonging. We learn better when we are able to connect, physically and emotionally, to what we are learning. And isn’t learning a process of making connections between old and new information?

From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side

This leaves the educator with the responsibility of “animating” the classroom as part of the learning process, making it an engaging experience in which learners feel compelled to take part in. And this is probably our biggest challenge as educators, because it does require that we put that control back into the learning activity.

As part of that we looked at constructive alignment and the need to prepare our teaching sessions in such away that they promote effective learning.
In so doing, we need to be able to answer the 3 questions mentioned above. And those answers can be formalised by the development of clear and achievable intended learning outcomes (ILO) which aim to inform the structure of any given session we prepare as part of our teaching activity.
The learning outcomes – the what? – will then inform the how? in that we need to choose learning activities that may lead to the achievement of ILOs as well as the assessment (which we will explore in Theme 4)

We also looked how to write learning outcomes – these should make use of action verbs that lead the learner to demonstrate what they have learnt and achieved. We explored different types of verbs that help express different stages of the learning process, from the most simple stages such as identifying or following a simple procedure to the creation of something that reflects learning in a particular area. (a list of ILO verbs was provided for this activity)

Retention of Information

Photo by GCouros, Retention of Information, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The session ended with us sharing ideas about how we can teach small and large groups. Our discussions also aimed to demystify the assumptions that we cannot do active learning in a lecture slot, or for that matter, with large groups.
We should approach a lecture just like any other teaching opportunity. It aims to enable learners to learn and be involved in that learning experience. Hence, we should not focus on the meaning the word has acquired throughout the years given the experiences we have had as students ourselves. We should always personalise teaching to match our own convictions (philosophy). It should also take into account our understanding of how people learn and what the purpose of teaching really is! I believe teaching is a form of helping learners grow intellectually, of maturing their ideas… In facilitating that process educators’ grow too. Learning and teaching are not isolated activities. We are all learners and teachers. Understanding this dialectics enables us to understand our role better!

- How are you planning to put these ideas in practice?

- How hard is it to yield the control of the learning experience to the learner?


Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy

Learning and teaching in laboratories

Short Guide: Postgraduate Demonstrators and Teachers *

Large & Small Group Teaching


* A big thanks to Dr Gemma Lace for letting me attend one of her lab session and share some literature with me.

Communities of Practice #altsep12

October 11th, 2012 by Cristina Costa

Thursdays have now become one of my favourite days of the week. … this because it is the day we meet colleagues participating in the ALT Module and I am having a ball taking part in this (having said that, I must say I have started to like Wednesday a lot too – that’s the day I work with the GTAs :-) )

These last weeks have brought me back to my days in the Navy where I used to teach. I missed having contact with a group of people from different backgrounds for an extended period of time. I like the experience. I enjoy the interaction.

OK, back to the title of this post…

This week we explored the concept of Communities of Practice (CoP) and what it means in education. [I didn’t mention it, but CoPs is one of my pet topics. I did research on an online CoP for my MPhil and this has always been a topic very close to my heart because it is about people, and how they come together to learn with and from each other.]

Five of the ALT participants (Action Learning Set 1) facilitated the entire session. It was a magnificent experience. Not only did they negotiate the planning of the session and the different activities amongst themselves, they approached the topic with class. I liked the diversity of activities, the risks they took, and the way they managed and encouraged discussion. I loved it. I thought it was a huge success!

Some points I would like to reflect on:

  • Building on last week’s topic, participation is a key aspect of communal learning.  When Lave and Wenger (1991) started looking at how learning happens in social and informal contexts they noticed that learning involves participation, active participation!

“Participation refers not just to local events of engagement in certain activities with certain people, but to a more encompassing process of being active participants in the practices of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these communities” (Wenger 1999, p.4)


As part of their research Lave and Wenger (1999) also noticed that individual’s participation in a community evolves as individuals become more confident to contribute to the development of the community. At first individuals engage in what Lave and Wenger call legitimate peripheral participation. Individuals remain at the margin of the community life, participating in low risk activities until they develop the confidence to fully participate.


  • Identity: as individuals move into the core of the community, individuals acquire a strong sense of belonging. In so doing, they develop an identity as a member of that community.  They identify themselves with the epistemologies of practices shared by the community. Consequently, they share similar approaches to practice.

  • Learning networks are different from CoPs in that CoPs feature stronger social bonds amongst  CoP members than members of a network. Networks can be defined as people sharing the same social space but who are not necessarily driven by the same practices. Yet, this offers something that is often lost, or at least less evident in communities: diversity. In networks individuals congregate around different interests and not necessarily around common practices. As a result, networks may feature a wider range of critical approaches regarding the same topic of discussion given the diversity of its members.

With the emergence of the web as a social space for interaction and collaboration, we are able to tap into different networks, learn from them, and bring that learning into our communities. Individuals belonging to the same community will be linked to different networks. The knowledge acquired in those networks can benefit and shape the learning of the community members.


  • As part of my research, I looked at curriculum within a community of practice. Given that communities of practice as usually informal social learning systems, there isn’t a set curriculum or planned activities. As such, the community is the curriculum, i.e., its members set their own learning outcomes which are motivated by their own learning needs regarding their own purposes or the reasons that brought them together in the first place. In so doing, community members develop a shared repertoire based on a joint enterprise and mutual engagement.


  • Socialisation is the glue of a CoP. People develop trust, and identify affinities that go beyond their initial purpose of learning something together. The CoP  I studied, the Webheads in Action, a CoP of EFL educators have come up with a saying that expresses it very well: sharing is caring.And indeed it is. Only if we contribute with our ideas, experiences and even questions will people acknowledge our presence. That is sharing. And at the same time it is also caring, because in the process of sharing our knowledge and developing our learning we not only take (what others know) but we also give (what we know) back to the community.

#TESSGTAs: Theme 1 – Learning

October 6th, 2012 by Cristina Costa

This week I started working with the Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) that have just started their 3 year appointment as PhD students who also have teaching duties. I think that is a great way to experience a bit more of academia beyond the completion of a PhD.

As part of the “deal” GTAs get an introduction to Teaching and Learning. The TESS (Teaching Essentials) programme for GTAs comprises of 6 thematic workshops where we cover different aspects of teaching in Higher Education.

Theme 1 deals with Learning. This was the first time I run this session. I was pretty nervous because I did not know how it would be received. But I guess the result was not that bad.

I wanted to make it as dynamic a session as I could, and I also wanted to inspire a culture of “thinking together”. As such, I used two questions that would guide the entire session. The goal was to answer them by the end of the session. The questions were:

What is learning?

Where does learning happen?

Pretty obvious questions, you must think. Yet, as we start to think about them, we realise how complex the answers can be.

To kick start the workshop we discussed the key reading for that theme. We are reading the Teaching at University: A Guide for Postgraduates and Researchers by Morss and Murray. It is a light, yet informative reading; a good introduction to different concepts and research on teaching and learning in Higher Education. The book leans towards a (social) constructivist approach that suits me perfectly as I feel this is the best approach we can adopt for our teaching. Our knowledge needs to be scaffold, and what’s a better way to learn than to co-construct meaning by participating in the environment that influences our thinking.

We also talked about the writing of the teaching philosophies and how it is hard to transfer our thoughts about our teaching practice into writing. Yet, it is a very important exercise because it makes it clear what our convictions and beliefs about teaching are. And those will inform how we approach learning and consequently teach. At this point it was interesting to see how GTAs were not sure of whether they should have commented on each other’s blogposts or not. I guess it is hard at first to provide a critical comment to someone’s teaching philosophy. Yet, critical does not mean criticism. It is not about telling what people have done wrong or provide a negative comment; it’s rather about thinking together by sharing similar experiences and/or providing people with new perspectives that might make them think differently and thus complement their own ideas.

For the 2nd part of the session, we did a jigsaw with 4 different readings about learning from different perspectives. Again I took inspiration from my friend Ilene Alexander, who also pointed me in the direction of some very interesting texts, one of them regarding how the brain works.

The exercise consisted in having people working in groups of 4 with each group member reading a different text on different aspects of learning. The idea was to stitch the information of the 4 papers together into a narrative that encompassed different aspects of learning. It’s a long and complex exercise to digest and process new information. As usual it would have been nice to have had more time to develop this exercise, but I think we got some good discussions going on and in the end we were able to (start) answer(ing) the questions that guided this workshop.

Besides the terrible time management issues, I also felt that sometimes I talked for too long at some points. I think I need to refine my thoughts. Yet, I know I am lucky to be working with a group of GTAs that is very participative and keen to discuss things. This has helped my job a lot! ;-)

Next week, we will be talking about Teaching. The challenge is to connect what we have discussed about learning with the practice of teaching. I am working on a session that aspires to make those connections. I think it’s important we don’t treat these thematic workshops as isolated sessions but rather build on them so we get a more robust understanding of how we can empower our students with different approaches to teaching and learning.

I truly believe that in this day and age, our role as educators in a Higher Education setting is to make sure our students are able to build on their knowledge to develop new learning, i.e, make connections. And also that they become confident problem solvers by learning to be resourceful and develop new ways of interacting with the realities that challenge their practice and perceptions.

I wanted to show this video in class (recommended by Becci Jackson) but I didn’t get enough time to do so. I think it illustrates the point above very well.

So my questions about this week session are:

  • Did the dialogic approach used in this workshop suit your way of learning? Why/why not?
  • What aspects of last week session’s would you like me to improve (because they did not work for you)? Please provide examples.

This post was originally posted on the TESSGTA space.

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    Digital Literacy

    A National Survey fin Wales in 2017-18 showed that 15% of adults (aged 16 and over) in Wales do not regularly use the internet. However, this figure is much higher (26%) amongst people with a limiting long-standing illness, disability or infirmity.

    A new Welsh Government programme has been launched which will work with organisations across Wales, in order to help people increase their confidence using digital technology, with the aim of helping them improve and manage their health and well-being.

    Digital Communities Wales: Digital Confidence, Health and Well-being, follows on from the initial Digital Communities Wales (DCW) programme which enabled 62,500 people to reap the benefits of going online in the last two years.

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    Zero Hours Contracts

    Figures from the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency show that in total almost 11,500 people – both academics and support staff – working in universities on a standard basis were on a zero-hours contract in 2017-18, out of a total staff head count of about 430,000, reports the Times Higher Education.  Zero-hours contract means the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours

    Separate figures that only look at the number of people who are employed on “atypical” academic contracts (such as people working on projects) show that 23 per cent of them, or just over 16,000, had a zero-hours contract.

    Resistance decreases over time

    Interesting research on student centered learning and student buy in, as picked up by an article in Inside Higher Ed. A new study published in PLOS ONE, called “Knowing Is Half the Battle: Assessments of Both Student Perception and Performance Are Necessary to Successfully Evaluate Curricular Transformation finds that student resistance to curriculum innovation decreases over time as it becomes the institutional norm, and that students increasingly link active learning to their learning gains over time

    Postgrad pressure

    Research published this year by Vitae and the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and reported by the Guardian highlights the pressure on post graduate students.

    “They might suffer anxiety about whether they deserve their place at university,” says Sally Wilson, who led IES’s contribution to the research. “Postgraduates can feel as though they are in a vacuum. They don’t know how to structure their time. Many felt they didn’t get support from their supervisor.”

    Taught students tend to fare better than researchers – they enjoy more structure and contact, says Sian Duffin, student support manager at Arden University. But she believes anxiety is on the rise. “The pressure to gain distinction grades is immense,” she says. “Fear of failure can lead to perfectionism, anxiety and depression.”

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