HERDSA 2012: Session 1 notes – Peer Assisted Teaching Schemes

The second talk I went to in session 1 was more work on A/Professor Angela Carbone’s work in Peer Assisted Teaching Schemes, for which she has highly awarded and, for 2013, will be taking up a senior fellowship at the national level to continue this work. Congratulations, Ange! The subtitle of the talk was “A Way of Creating and Developing New Connections”.

There is a lot of support for new academics in terms of induction and teacher preparation but what about those educators who are already established but have units that are in need of reform or reduce? Who do they turn to in order to get help? What if you just want to adopt new technologies and you’ve been in the game for decades? Who can you ask for help? The core of the PATS work is that we need to think about teaching standards, more experienced staff, transition issues, risks, and new technology.

We are constantly being assessed – CEQ, SETU/SELT, lots of controversy around these instruments. Arts and Humanities seem to appear better than physical sciences, and there is not much research from either side to answer the question ‘why?’ Do student evaluations measure student outcomes or teacher effectiveness? According to the research, they don’t actually measure either. The use of these things for management addds stress to academics and their school – people get stressed when they even just use these measures in their class.

So, if we’re stressed, struggling and trying to adapt, it’s pretty obvious that we need help but the question is “where does this help come from?

What is PATS: academics within a faculty are partnered together and follow an informal process to discuss strategies to improve unit quality and develop educational innovations.


  • to improve student satisfaction with units
  • improve the quality of teaching
  • to build leadership capacity amongst teachers.

A mentor and mentee are linked in a reciprocal partnership. The theoretical basis this comes from a large number of sources including Vygotsky, Lave, Gratch and Boud, looking at our teaching through four lenses, after Brookfield 1995. The four lenses are: the student view, the theoretical view, the autobiographical view and the colleague’s view, where another academic can serve as a critical friend.

The relationship between mentor and mentee begins before the semester, where the relationship is developed, with ongoing catch up sessions through the semester, discussion and review, including subsidised coffee meetings, culminating in a critical review (with a friendly perspective) and self-reflection. This is looking at all of the aspects with a critical eye but alongside someone that you now have a relationship with – a critical friend to assist you in your own reflection. However, within this, there are workshops and deliverables to make sure that both parties are actually working in and at the relationship – it’s not a free coffee club.

I can’t summarise all of the PATS work in one post but I think we can all identify people around us who might fall into this category: people who might need help but are outside of the traditional bootstrapping systems that we employ. A/Prof Carbone also commented that there were people that were taking part who were looking to improve good courses to really good ones, rather than just trying to fix courses that had been identified as under-performing. This was helping to reduce any lingering stigma at being in a PATS relationship with someone. Some of the unexpected results included the mentors and mentees forming a relationship that allowed them to work together on research and development beyond the designated course improvement.

In the framework of this conference, which is all about connections and community, it’s obvious that PATS is helping to link people together, making connections and building community. There are lots of works to read on this, and I enjoy reading through the theoretical underpinnings as well. (Plus, you know I’m a Vygotsky fan…) I already knew about this work but it’s always interesting to see how it’s evolving and developing.

HERDSA 2012: Session 1 notes – Student Wellbeing

I won’t be giving detailed comments on all sessions – firstly, I can’t attend everything and, secondly, I don’t want you all to die of word poisoning – but I’ve been to a number of talks and thought I’d discuss those here that really made me think. (My apologies for the delay. I seem to be coming down with a cold/flu and it’s slowing me down.)

In Session 1, I went to a talk entitled “Integrating teaching, learning, support and wellbeing in Universities”, presented by Dr Helen Stallman from University of Queensland. The core of this talk was that, if we want to support our students academically, we have to support them in every other way as well. The more distressed students are, the less well they do academically. If we want good outcomes, we have to able to support students’ wellbeing and mental health. We already provide counselling and support skill workshops but very few students will go and access these resources, until they actually need them.

This is a problem. Tell a student at the start of the course, when they are fine, where they can find help and they won’t remember it when they actually may need to know where that resource is. We have a low participation in many of the counselling and support skill workshop activities – it is not on the student’s agenda to go to one of these courses, it is on their agenda is to get a good mark. Pressured for time, competing demands, anything ‘optional’ is not a priority.

The student needs to identify that they have a problem, then they have to be able to find the solution! Many University webpages not actually useful in this regard, although they contain a lot of marketing information on the front page.

What if we have an at-risk profile that we can use to identify students? It’s not 100% accurate. Students who are ‘at risk’ may not have problems but students who don’t have the profile may still have problems! We don’t necessarily know what’s going on with our students. Where we have 100s of students, how can we know all of them? (This is one of the big drivers for my work in submission management and elastic time – identifying students who are at risk as soon as they may be at risk.)

So let me reiterate the problem with the timing of information: we tend to mention support services once, at the start. People don’t access resources unless they’re relevant and useful at the particular time. Talking to people when they don’t have a problem – they’ll forget it.

So what are the characteristics of interventions that promote student success:

  • Inclusive of all students (and you can find it)
  • Encourages self-management skills  (Don’t smother them! Our goal is not dependency, it’s self-regulation)
  • Promotes academic achievement (highest potential for each of our students)
  • Promotes wellbeing (not just professional capabilities but personal capabilities and competencies)
  • Minimally sufficient (students/academics/unis are not doing more work than they need to, and only providing the level of input that is required to achieve this goal.)
  • Sustainable (easy for students and academics)

Dr Stallman then talked about two tools – the Learning Thermometer and The Desk. Student reflection and system interface gives us the Learning Thermometer, then automated and personalised student feedback is added, put in by academic. Support and intervention, web-based, as a loop around student feedback. Student privacy data is maintained and student gets to choose intervention that is appropriate. Effectively, the Learning Thermometer tells the student which services are available, as and when they are needed, based on their results, their feedback and the lecturer’s input.

This is designed to promote self-management skills and makes the student think “What can I do? What are the things that I can do?” Gives students of knowledge of which resources they can access. (And this resource is called “The Desk”) Who are the people who can help me?

What is being asked is: What are the issues that get in the way of achieving academic success?

About “The Desk”: it contains quizzes related to all part of the desk that gives students personalised feedback to give them module suggestions as appropriate. Have a summary sheet of what you’ve done so you can always remember it. Tools section to give you short tips on how to fix things. Coffee House social media centre to share information and pictures (recipes and anything really).

To allow teachers to work out what is going on, an addition to the Learning Thermometer can give the teacher feedback based on reflection and the interface. Early feedback to academics allows us to improve learning outcomes. THese improvements in teaching practices. (Student satisfaction correlates poorly with final mark, this is more than satisfaction.)

The final items in the talk focussed on:

  • A universal model of prevention
  • All students can be resilient
  • Resources need to be timely relevant and useful
  • Multiple access points
  • Integrated within the learning environment

What are the implications?

  • Focus on prevention
  • Close the loop between learning, teaching, wellbeing and support
  • More resilient students
  • Better student graduate outcomes.

Overall a very interesting talk, which a lot of things to think about. How can I position my support resources so that students know where to go as and when they need them? Is ‘resiliency’ an implicit or explicit goal inside my outcomes and syllabus structure? Do the mechanisms that I provide for assessment work within this framework?

With my Time Banking hat on, I am always thinking about how I can be fair but flexible, consistent but compassionate, and maintain quality while maintaining humanity. This talk is yet more information to consider as I look at alternative ways to work with students for their own benefit, while improving their performance at the same time.

Contact details and information on tools discussed:


HERSDA Keynote: “Cultivating Connections Throughout the Academe: Learning to Teach by Learning to Learn” Dr Kathy Takayama.

A very interesting keynote today and I took a lot of notes. Anyone who has read my SIGCSE blogs knows that I’m prone to being verbose so I hope that this is useful if wordy. (Any mistakes are, of course, mine.)

Dr Takayama started talk with an art image: “Venn diagrams (under the spotlight)” by Amalia Pica. She stressed how the Venn Diagram was simple, versatile, intearction, connection, commonality, and it also transcends boundaries – the overlap of two colours produces a new colour. We can also consider this as an absence of difference (sharing) or new knowledge (creation). However the background of the artwork was based in the artist’s experience of the suppression of group theory and Venn diagrams in Argentina – as both of these were seen to encourage subversive forms of group activity and critical theory. Dr Takayama then followed this thread into ideas of inclusion and exclusion. What are the group dynamics from our structures? How do we group students and acaemdics into exclusive and inclusive domains? What does this mean for our future?
How does this limit learning?
She then talked about our future professoriate – those students who will go on to join us in the professorial ranks. She broke this into three aspects: Disciplinary Identity, Dispositions for engagement and Integrative communities. Our disciplinary identity reflects our acculturation to disciplinary practices and habits of mind, where our dispositions identify who we find ourselves in the learning – rather than focusing on what to learn.
“In the face of today’s hyper-accelerated ultra-competitive global society, the preservation of opportunities for self-development and autonmous reflection is a value we underestimate at our peril.” (Richard Wolin)
When we discuss the emergence of disciplinary identity, we are talking about expert thinking – the scholarly habits of a discipline that allow someone to identify themselves as a member of the discipline. What do we do that allows us to say “I am a microbiologist” or “I am an engineer”?
The development of expertise is through iterative authentic experiences, truly appropriate activities carried out inside the disciple, where we have discipline-centred practices, including signature pedagogies (Schulman). The signature pedagogies of a discipline have four features. They must  be pervasive, routine, habitual and deeply engaging
Dr Takayama then discussed, at some length, a study in placing students into unfamiliar territory, where they were required to take scholarly habits from another discipline. In this case, Dr Takayama (a microbiologist) exchanged scholarly habits with students of David Reichart – Historian. Academics confirm to standard practices of their disciplines and students acculturate quickly. Takayama and Reichart sought to take pedagogies from other areas to take students into new thinking processes.
Students from the History course were required to use a science poster basis (research poster) to present their work, instead of a traditional report. The word “Poster” was reacted to badly – students thought that was a cheapening of their effort for a year’s work. Students had to think outside of the norms and discovered new aspects of communication, voice and interpretation in the unusual territory. This also added a challenge component and allowed a multi-dimensional exploration of area.
The microbiology students had to document their research in a completely blank book and were allowed to create a narrative in that blank book. This was at odds with usual structure for Science: accurate, reproducible, adhere to convention, no narrative, no first person, dates, signatures. While accuracy and reproducibly were still enforced, students were encouraged to explore much more widely in their blank book.
Student work started to resemble commonplace books (loci communes) – a compiled work with annotations and narrative from the compiler. The new student books contain personalisation, reflection, narrative, collage, moments of exhilaration and discovery – but they maintained fidelity and scientific accuracy.
This then led to the core idea from the work: (An) engagement with the unfamiliar as a means for further development of expertise.
Students’ understandings are deeply tied to existing and established practices – to the point that students feared that outside conventions would render their work invalid. Working in unfamiliar territory allows the students to refine their understanding of their discipline and push the boundaries, as well as their own understanding. Lecturers had to take risks as well, to get this realisation.
In our traditional dispositions for engagement, we have had a tendency to create a learning culture that is less interested in the unfamiliar and we have implicitly driven a focus on understanding a discipline vs developing an understanding of oneself. The nature of learning as situated in institutional cultures is something that we can see from the inside but the student perspective is vital as we want to know what the students think that we look like. From the students’ perspectives, they see learning in terms of specialisation, globalisation, technology and collaboration. This is a critical forum through which students made sense of their own place in relation to the  discipline.
Students identified two over-arching goals:
  • Routine Expertise: The Habits of mind and skills associated with efficiency and performance in familiar  domains, and
  • Adaptive Expertise (after Bransford): applying knowledge effectively to novel situations or unique problems
Students discover themselves in the material – finding connection and allowing deep eqnuiry into their own nature. (Students’ awareness of themselves in the course or the curriculum (Barbazat, Amherst))
Looking from our perspective, based on what our students want and how they succeed, Barnett (U London) identified dispositions for learning as Venturing Forward
  • A will to learn
  • A will to encounter the unfamiliar
  • A will to engage
  • A preparedness to listen
  • A willingness to be changed
  • A determination to keep going.
 Dr Takayama then went on to talk about developing a strong learning and teaching community through courses such as Brown’s Certification program, which has any benefits in enhancing the perception of value and practices in learning and teaching, as well as overall enhancement of the new post-graduates. One of the core points identified was that many of the PhD students who are produced will go on to teach in liberal arts colleges, institutions with an undergraduate teaching focus and two-year colleges. If we don’t teach them how to teach then they will be woefully underprepared for the future that lies before them – just being good at research doesn’t translate into skill at teaching, hence it must be fostered and well-organised certification programs are a good way to do this.
I hope to comment more on the cert program shortly, but  a very interesting talk with lots of ideas for me to take home and to think about.

HERDSA 2012 – Conference Blogging

Hello from Hobart, Tasmania! I’ve switched over from my usual automated 4am delivery to ‘semi-live’ blogging of the talks and events that are taking place at the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (inc.) – or HERDSA. Last night was the conference reception and welcome, including a couple of talks about University of Tasmania and the (rather bleak) future of the Tasmanian Devil.

This morning we’re all gathered for the official opening, before the keynote on “Cultivating Connections through the Academe”. The theme of this year’s conference is “Connections” so everything is being framed along these lines.

Oh, that was interesting, His Excellency, the Honourable Peter Underwood AC, Governor of Tasmania, just arrived so we all had to stand up, somewhat awkwardly, while we waited for the Governor’s party to arrive. (If you want to see something amusing, ask a large group of academics to all do something at the same time that they may not have expected to do and then make them wait. It is, in the words of the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog, not in our nature.) Once the Governor had arrived, and Advance Australia Fair had played, we had a welcome to the country by a member of the local indigenous community. I have noticed that there is a great deal of meaning and respect attached to the traditional greetings and acknowledgements of traditional ownership here – I have a basic requirement that if you are going to make a statement regarding the indigenous community and their relationship with the land, that it must at least be genuine and preferably heart-felt. So far, all of these statements have been sincere and I also noticed that the Governor bowed his head to the person who was going to give the welcome to the country. That was, I thought, a nice example of how mutual respect doesn’t have to be arduous or obsequious.

The Governor’s speech did touch on some key points regarding the value of education, in its role of passing on knowledge and forming communities to engage people in learning, identifying educational scholarship and teaching community as a possible strategic priority. Perceptions are important – but if perception doesn’t coincide with reality then we have an problem. The Governor highlighted the problem that we have where people see a perception as being implicitly separated from the reality – drawing on his experience with a school board. In order to identify ourselves as good performers, it is not enough to perform well, but we must be seen and perceived to perform well – where perception and reality coincide, perception drives how we are treated and, therefore, takes the priority.

The Governor mused on his time on the Supreme Court and thought about who much power he actually had, if the prisoner rejected his sentence, if the bailiffs refused to carry away the prisoner, if the police refused to arrest the bailiffs for contempt. He summarised his thoughts on this (and I paraphrase here) as:

The only power given to me was that given by public perception and public support.

He then identified us, the tertiary educator, as being in the same situation. It is our reach into the community and the community’s connection to us that gives us our ability to work, our authority to educate and our role within the greater community. As I mentioned earlier, this entire conference is about connections, hence community and, from the Governor’s perspective, our ability to carry out our job.

The University of Tasmania has a very special position within the life of Tasmania, as this is a small state and UTAS is the only University, to the extent that many tasks that would be assigned to government in Tasmania are performed by groups within UTAS, with community support. Because of this, they have to engage heavily with the  people around them and form strong and well-perceived connections.

Even people who haven’t been to UTAS are, apparently, aware of the role of UTAS and what use it can be to them. That’s a very powerful connection – both mental and community. The Governor then again stressed the importance of identifying all of the components of a strategy for a successful University, among them a prioritisation of Learning and Teaching, alongside Research and the usual key aspects.

An interesting talk from a unique part of Australia. We have a reception at Government House tonight where I will not have any opportunity at all to continue the discussion. 🙂

What are the Fiction and Non-Fiction Equivalents of Computer Science?

I commented yesterday that I wanted to talk about something covered in Mark’s blog, namely if it was possible to create an analogy between Common Core standards in different disciplines with English Language Arts and CS as the two exemplars. In particular, Mark pondered, and I quote him verbatim:

”Students should read as much nonfiction as fiction.”  What does that mean in terms of the notations of computing? Students should read as many program proofs as programs?  Students should read as much code as comments?

This a great question and I’m not sure that I have much of an answer but I’ve been enjoying thinking about it. We bandy the terms syntax and semantics around in Computer Science a lot: the legal structures of the programs we write and the meanings of the components and the programs. Is it even meaningful to talk about fiction and non-fiction in these terms and where do these fit? I’ve gone in a slightly different direction from Mark but I hope to bring it back to his suggestions later on.

I’m not an English specialist, so please forgive me or provide constructive guidance as you need to, but both fiction and non-fiction rely upon the same syntactic elements and the same semantic elements in linguistic terms – so the fact that we must have legal programs with well-defined syntax and semantics pose no obstacle to a fictional/non-fictional interpretation.

Forgive me as I go to Wikipedia for definitions for fiction and non-fiction for a moment:

“Non-fiction (or nonfiction) is the form of any narrativeaccount, or other communicative work whose assertions and descriptions are understood to be factual.” (Warning, embedded Wikipedia links)

“Fiction is the form of any narrative or informative work that deals, in part or in whole, with information or events that are not factual, but rather, imaginary—that is, invented by the author” (Again, beware Wikipedia).

Now here we can start to see something that we can get our teeth into. Many computer programs model reality and are computerised representation of concrete systems, while others may have no physical analogue at all or model a system that has never or may never exist. Are our simulations and emulations of large-scale system non-fiction? If so, is a virtual reality fictional because it has never existed or non-fictional because we are simulating realistic gravity? (But, of course, fiction is often written in a real world setting but with imaginary elements.)

From a software engineering perspective, I can see an advantage to making statements regarding abstract representations and concrete analogues, much as I can see a separation in graphics and game design between narrative/event engine construction and the physics engine underneath.

Is this enough of a separation? Mark’s comments on proof versus program is an interesting one: if we had an idea (an author’s creation) then it is a fiction until we can determine that it exists, but proof or implementation provides this proof of existence. In my mind, a proof and a program are both non-fiction in terms of their reification, but the idea that they span may still be fictional. Comments versus code is also very interesting – comments do not change the behaviour of code but explain, from the author’s mind, what has happened. (Given some student code and comment combinations, I can happily see a code as non-fiction, comment as fiction modality – or even comment as magical reality!)

Of course, this is all an enjoyable mental exercise, but what can I take from this and use in my teaching. Is there a particular set of code or comments that students should read for maximum benefit and can we make a separation that, even if not partitioned so neatly across two sets, gives us the idea of what constitutes a balanced diet of the products of our discipline?

I’d love to see some discussion on this but, if nothing here, then I’m happy to buy the first round of drinks at HERDSA or ICER to start a really good conversation going!