Friday, 2 November 2012

Build it - and they will come: the challenges of building relevant online [student] spaces

Build it and they will come. Really? Will they really?
We have built a new website for students at our University – the Study Hub – it has sections on Studying at University; FAQs; Cool Stuff [yes I know – it was a working title and just stuck]; Courses, workshops & drop-ins; and Study Worries: .   

Study Worries is a Face Book page that we are trying to run as a crowd sourced supportive space for students. We have the hope that students will go in there to post advice, ask and answer each other’s questions… and generally start organically to build a supportive online community.

But, how do we get students – or anybody – to start to engage in these online spaces?

I suppose I first noticed that there might be issues with this during our student conference – Get Ahead 2012. This Conference is for students, organized by students – and with some sessions run by students. We wanted the participants to tweet about the sessions they were going to, to share their thoughts, to get a bit of interest going … Well – I think there were about three student tweets – and the rest were posted by a friend and me tweeting away furiously - and mainly to ourselves.

It was useful though, for it offered us that insight; just calling something a community does not mean that it will be owned by the people you would want to own it.

Of course the traditional thing in HE these days is to assess what you want students to do… If it ain’t assessed – they have no incentive to do it. But I wanted students to engage without using the leverage of assessment – I wanted engagement seeded by the meaningfulness or usefulness or quirkiness of the thing itself.

So – we built the Hub – with its Study Worries space and over the summer I started populating it with small academic stories that I found interesting, so that when students returned to us in September/October – there would not just be an empty space to join.

Here are some of the most recent posts that I put up:

Study Worries shared a link.
How do we promote active learning - including from tutorials? Join in the online debate today, Friday:

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Study Worries shared a link.
We've been talking about memory with a lot of different people today: even if you are on a course without exams - you will still want to remember stuff that you are learning - you want to take it away with you at the end of your degree. This Psyblog post makes some really useful points about memory - check it out:

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Study Worries shared a link.
If you think you would learn more if you were more CREATIVE - check out this site: Good luck, Study worries.

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Study Worries I REALLY liked the presentation: How technology helped me paint with mud:

Study Worries shared a link.
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Talking about DISSERTATIONS - have you noticed that our Master Classes this week are all about getting your dissertation started? Mondays 1-2.30, LCM-19. Weds 1-2.30 at Calcutta House, CM213 and Weds evening back in the Learning Centre, in LCM19, 6-7.30.

Study Worries shared a link.
For those of you *finishing off* your Dissertation - or even that PhD... good 'transition' advice. Good luck from Study Worries!

Study Worries shared a link.
Academic writing month? A blog post from the 'Thesis Whisperer' on getting that Dissertation written. What do you think?

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We built it… Where are they?
As you can see, the page consists of a mix of the hopefully interesting alongside basic but useful information about the classes that we are running. Engagement is tentative – and whilst I do get heartened when I see that perhaps twenty people have seen a post after only half an hour or so, there are very, very few posts initiated by students themselves.

Build bigger?
I was talking about this recently with Eloise Sentito from Plymouth University: she too is interested in getting students talking with each other about studying and learning – including at a meta level. We thought it would be great if students could engage in a site of their own the way that many learning developers do in the LDHEN list: see - the discussion space for Learning Development in Higher Education.

In a burst of hope, she is launching a jiscmail site for students: - it is built – we want them to come. If you are also interested in promoting student discussion about study and learning issues – please get them to look at - and get them to join.

What have you done?
If you have your own success stories – of how you have got students to engage with each other online – and to build online communities – even communities of practice – I’d be really interested in hearing your stories…

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The writing habit: from blog to PhD to eBook @thesiswhisperer strikes again!

I know that people are often interested in academic writing - and how to do it. I loved this 'Shameless plug' from @thesiswhisperer who wrote about crafting an eBook from her own blogs.

I hope this shares information on developing an approach to eBooks - and also on developing that writing habit.

Dr Inger Newburn's Blog post starts here:
"'A shameless plug'
by DrIngermewburn

So... I wrote an ebook. Or, more precisely, I compiled one out of blog posts and put it up on Amazon for $3.99 AUD - a price point carefully calibrated to match the cost of a cup of coffee in my home town, Melbourne. I thought I would write a quick post to give it a shameless plug let you all know it's out there and what's in it, so you can decide if you want to buy it or not.

For some time now, readers have started asking me to write posts on topics which I dealt with much earlier. Owning a blog is like having a large and very untidy attic; posts become submerged as the blog rolls on. I have to rummage through the boxes to find the precise thing the reader is looking for. I have trouble remembering what month a particular post was written or what it was called. I am a sloppy tagger, so the wordpress search tools are not that much help. I often resort to googling my name and random words to find what I am looking for.

A book provides a structured reading experience that a blog just can't because it's not sequential. I write on topics which interest me or which are prompted by reader requests and things which happen at work. So the posts tend to address different parts of the thesis writing endeavour. Compiling these posts into a book was a way of ordering what I have written in such a way that echoes the process of writing a thesis: start, middle and end.

I chose some of my favourite posts for this book. Others I chose because, at the time, they seemed to resonate with you, the readers. Putting it into a book has taken 10 months because I was doing it in what little spare time I had and, on returning to these posts, I found the itch to EDIT had to be scratched. I fiddled with some posts, extensively rewrote others and occasionally pushed to unrelated ones together. I then wrote an introduction and conclusion. The whole time I nagged my overworked and wonderful sister, @anitranot, to design me a cover (which I think is great).

I believe in the advice in this book - because I followed it myself. I don't make much of a big deal about this normally, but I did do my thesis in 3 years while working two days a week for most of it. I believe I turned out high quality work: I won my faculty award at the end, as well as best paper and my examiner's reports were glowing. On those two days I wasn't doing my thesis I taught PhD students. This experience deeply informed my teaching style. I believe that a thesis can be written in 3 years and that it doesn't have to kill you.

This doesn't mean writing a thesis is easy. Although I was well versed on all the 'tricks of the trade' and had professional colleagues, such as Dr Robyn Barnacle (thanks Robyn!), to get me through, I still experienced all the emotional ups and downs I write about with relish. While I was doing my PhD I often felt like I was in a helicopter, watching myself toil away on the ground making, literally, every mistake in the book. I used to tell my sister I was like a medical doctor: I could diagnose each disease I was suffering with ease, but was completely unable to cure myself.

The only way I could deal with this strange, contradictory experience was stubbornly put into practice everything I learned in the books that I used to prepare my workshops at RMIT. PhD students in these workshops helped me refine these techniques and would suggest others. I still listen closely when colleagues and students talk about how they work and what technology they use. I am an avid believer in the power of 'kitchen talk' to solve practical problems (Twitter enables this now on a much bigger scale of course) and many of the things I learned are in the book.

Finally, running a blog is not a cost neutral enterprise. I have funded the expenses of Thesis Whisperer out of my own pocket. Although in the past RMIT has been supportive, allowing me some work time to do the blog, I recently removed this time from my workplan. This is a story for another time, but suffice to say I now do the blog in the evenings and on weekends - that's why posts have slowed to one a week.

I do this work because I love it and think it's valuable, not because I want a promotion or money to support my lifestyle. Due to the vagaries of the international banking system I will only get a cheque after I have sold more than 300 copies. I am trying to guilt you into buying the book, you can, if you wish, read a lot of this content for free if you can be bothered to trawl through the blog to find it. I do hope, however, that enough of you will find the book to be a worthwhile alternative to your next coffee so that can pay for it's own domain registration next year!

... I have put the book on Amazon without digital rights management (DRM). I would prefer people not to pirate it, but I suppose they can if they want to. I hope you wont. I chose no DRM so that you can buy it and read it on any e-reader which can load .mobi files. You don't have to own a Kindle or any ereader to access the contents of this book; you can use the free Kindle app to read it on your computer, phone or tablet.

I'm looking forward to hearing what you think :-)

September 27, 2012 at 7:33 pm
Tags: book review, ebook
Categories: Book Reviews

Do let @thesiswhisperer know what you think of the book - and also - take the time to think how her experiences can inform your practice - as a student - as a PhD student - and as a potential eBook author.


Saturday, 22 September 2012

Fourth Hour: creative timetabling... What would you do?

Our University has adopted a 'fourth hour' policy for first year students - inviting us to be interesting and creative with that time: to use the time to reinforce or extend student learning. I think this can be a great idea and some things that we have already thought about include:

Peer Mentoring
Obviously we have not just invented peer mentoring - its been around for years; but the fourth hour does allow us to schedule time tabled time for peer mentors to meet with their mentee groups; to become better acquainted with each other and the University with its Byzantine forms and processes. We do not know quite where our peer mentor experiment will go - it could evolve from a quite pastoral system into a more formal writing mentor programme. It could be that our peer mentors become the subject of educational research by those students taking up our AniMet Challenge <>. It could be that the peer mentors could facilitate students engagement with the next idea:

Keep a 'cultural dossier'
I was the first in my family - in my whole neighbourhood - to go to University. I took a joint honours Education and Literature degree: a University of London degree operated through North London Polytechnic - and the most wondrous experience. Contrary to popular misconception, the Polytechnic was not a Gradgrind vocational institute designed (merely) to train the engineers and teachers of the future - but an inspirational space designed to produce critical and creative thinkers. Part of our first year included visiting Magistrates Court to observe the legal system in action; going to art galleries and museums; being encouraged to go to the theatre and write about our experiences in our essays. And one thing that we could do for our students would be to 'give them permission' to be a real student - not to rush back home to do the housework - not to dash off to that job ... but to legitimately go out and about around London - having wonderful experiences and keeping a record of them in their own cultural dossier.

Another interesting idea, I believe, would be to get our students to find, engage with and reflect upon a Mass Open Online Course (MOOC). I have enrolled on such a course myself (E-learning and Digital Cultures, starting 28th January) and am really looking forward to it. If we want our students to consider lifelong and lifewide education - and to develop as empowered and digitally literate learners - what better way than for them to find, engage with and reflect upon a MOOC?

If you had a fourth hour - what would you do and why?

Saturday, 1 September 2012

London Metropolitan University: attacked again - naturally

A small polemic - with apologies to those who believe that academics need to be objective and impartial...

London Met and its students have been vilified for years; being the scapegoat of choice when the degreed class protest widening participation to protect their own privilege. Now it is being attacked in the so-called 'fight against immigration' - with thousands of students given days to find new places to continue their degrees or leave the country.

If this latest attack did not have such appalling consequences for so many - this would be seen as the desperate, laughable, political action that it is - and yet more evidence of the de facto creation of a two tier HE system - not least by the continued bad press that demonises spaces for successful working class/'non-traditional' education. This draconian and patently unjust and unethical behaviour destroys the lives not only of those students immediately affected by the actions of the ConDem  government via the UKBA - but of all LondMet students.

All students need the respect and reward that their degrees deserve. LondMet students know how hard they have worked for their degrees - and they need their degrees to have value in the wider world. This elitist, cruel and partisan behaviour should be protested. Starkey (2002) was allowed to say in the House of Lords that 'there are Mickey Mouse students for whom Mickey Mouse degrees are quite appropriate' - that statement was appalling snobbery and effrontery - it should not have gone unchallenged then - we are paying the price now!

As I was saying to some new friends recently: "First they came for London Met, but I was not a London Met lecturer, so I did not protest... "

Here're just a few tweets:

Remember Starkey (2002) there are Mickey Mouse students for whom Mickey Mouse degrees are quite appropriate? We are paying the price now!
This is from our students: Support for London Metropolitan University and International Students - Sign the Petition
 Harvard students investigated for cheating Shome mishtake shurely? Only LondMet ever guilty...!?
Not illegal, but scapegoated then? ": Times Higher Education - UEL opens doors to London Met students "
  A cynic might say that it is one way to top up recruitment at more favoured HEI affected by fee rises!
" on Today: gvt risking 'perfect storm' for HE, with uncertainties exacerbated by impact of Lon Met decision overseas"
Terrible news about londonmet. Unacceptable treatment of our, or any, students. If there is a problem, fix it. No way for Govt. to behave!

Good interview from  on the UKBA/London Met situation, a punishment on international students not LMU.

This is a complete betrayal for the students at London Met and a disaster for our education sector as a whole

CODA - Since the argument is that all the displaced and traduced students will get an alternative place - just how valid was the hysteria about London Met's untrustworthy practices?