Friday, 25 October 2013

Forest School Conference 2013

Please note that all images of or by children on this page involve only my own children and were not taken in school settings or during school activities. This limitation is due to compliance with the data protection act.

 Derwent hill centre is owned by Sunderland county council way over in the east of up north, it nestles in lovely valley just over the water from Keswick and is a wonderful place to hold a conference. They have a good list of resources and publications about outdoor learning here.

My background includes a lot of experience of working outdoors with children and working with digital technologies in the classroom and in a wide range of online learning contexts. Like many teachers most of what I have done has been purposefully linked to curriculum such as; taking digital cameras into the field and using them to catalyse the learning experience by placing the children in the role of scientific explorer / journalist and giving them tools they can use to capture and share their experience. The current set of mobile or portable technologies evolved rapidly, we have gone from  from a field notebook and pencil to increasingly high definition digital cameras and today apps such as iRecord Ladybird that enable anyone, who has a smart phone or tablet, to identify an insect by photographing it and rapidly comparing it with a database. They can learn about it from the stored information and then upload a photo of the sighting that automatically has location data attached to it. Somewhere in the depths of a university a new dot appears on a map and the scientific data has expanded.

There are many similar initiatives including We have moved a long way from scribbling on soggy or muddy notepads. The potential to use portable technologies to contribute to real world research in the field may offer benefits in terms of increasing motivation to learn, developing ICT skills, developing curriculum knowledge and learning how to capture and present information.

Most children and adults appreciate a record of special moments. Last year my boys were a few hundred meters off shore having kayaked out to a reef. We didn't have a waterproof camera so our only camera was back on the beach when they encountered a friendly cormorant that was more than happy to dry it wings a meter or so from where they were standing. Fortunately it stayed for ages and I was able to paddle back and get our camera to capture the moment but the boys wished they had a waterproof camera especially when it let them follow it underwater. In outdoor settings there are many opportunities to have special moments, unfortunately mobile devices are not cheap and are fragile so they are often not allowed on field trips or in local outdoor learning situations. It is often the teacher or other staff / helpers who are tasked with recording a school trip, that is better than no record but teachers are often very preoccupied with ensuring all goes well and the capturing of a record may be sporadic. A tough shockproof and waterproof camera would make it feasible for children to capture special moments and a record of good times.

During one of the presentations we were reminded that a child has a different perspective to an adult, that was the case here - this spider was a speck in the distance to adults but a 6 year old spotted it straight away and took a 'Deadly 60' photo.

The next two added to the deadly 60 album and really helped embed the difference between two snakes, first a baby grass snake...

...then a more dangerous viper. The vague banding on the grass snake had been enough to cause some uncertainty but seeing the two images together clarified the differences. Both images were captured by the same child but were taken several months apart.

The outdoors is an inspiration place for Art, the next two images both were the result of setting out to create an image that could be used for a celebration card. A small selection of baubles were the only brought items, seaweed, shells and cuttlefish bits made up most of the tree.

A very simple way of bringing some outdoors into the  indoors was a birthday message made from daffodil petals. It was too windy outside to get the petals to settle so they were brought indoors.

Talking to people at the Forest Schools conference it seemed there was a wide range of contexts in which people used technologies outdoors. I felt like there were sensible overlaps such as a "Forest School" area in school grounds also being used for other curriculum related activities. The notion of a "Wholegrain full flavour" or "Full fat" Forest Schools approach and other more diluted versions was raised in a workshop and was an ongoing discussion focus. As a newcomer to the FSA and its work I was interested in whether use of portable technologies would be seen as intrusive into the ethos, whether they add to the flavour or detract from it. Everyone was so friendly and talkative at the conference, being in an outdoor setting and talking to people about their philosophies and experiences provided some great insights into what were often imaginative and interesting approaches to enhancing learning.

It is clear there is a place and a need for increasing connectedness with the outdoors, as I write this another study has appeared. The RSPB study concludes that only 21% of children could be viewed as being "connected to nature". Linked from that article is a page where Yale have published a useful collection of related articles and other documents, it covers outdoor settings as diverse as recess play areas, residential trips, sport, gardens and topics such as impact on cognitive development, assessment scores, behaviour, well-being.

The Council for Learning Outside the classroom have also a collection of useful links including a recent Ofsted report: Learning outside the classroom: How far should you go?

Photography discussion.

The cost of cameras has dropped considerably over the last 10 years but fragility remains an issue with many models. Tough cameras (shock and water resistant) are available but do cost more than basic cameras such as flipcams. One delegate confirmed that they are a good investment and reduce the worry about breakage considerably.  The camera shown below belongs to my daughter (aged 27) it has tumbled 5 meters down a steep mountain slope, been dropped on the floor and in mud several times, been used on many snorkeling adventures, snowboarding trips etc. and has outlasted three other non-tough digital cameras that were only used by adults and were looked after carefully. There is a compromise in that the zoom and resolution is not as high as similarly priced standard cameras but for most purposes they are absolutely fine. The issue of image stabilisation was raised, young hands do not always stay steady, one of the problems with lower quality cameras is blurry images that are often caused by relatively low shutter speeds and a little bit of wobbling by the photographer. A camera with built in image stabilisation can reduce this significantly.

Tough cases are available for mobile phones as this video illustrates:

The fragility of technologies can be mediated without a huge investment, it is clear that many portable technologies are suitable for outdoor use by children but should we be using them in Forest Schools?

The legal side...
The value of capturing photographs was not disputed, there were issues about what is captured. The data protection act requires organisations to protect personal information, this includes photographs and video. The base-line appears to be that no publicly available information should enable a child to be identified, if a photo is published on a school server it must not be linked to other information (names, addresses, etc) about those appearing in it. There should be an organisational policy that explains acceptable usage. Parents should be consulted as to whether that are happy for their children to be photographed and for the images to be made publicly available. Even with parental permission any images must not include or be linked to other data, including meta-data that might not be overtly visible, that could lead to the child being identified. There is also an obligation for data to be stored safely and securely. ICO advise:
"Do not disclose personal information(including photos) on a website without the individual pupil, member of staff or governor being aware. We recommend you get consent before publishing photographs on a website."  

The data protection act does not cover images captured for personal or recreational use:
"Images captured by individuals for personal or recreational purposes, such as with a mobile phone, digital camera or camcorder, are exempt from the DPA. If a parent makes a video of their child in a school play for their own family use, this is not covered by data protection law. A school may still have a policy restricting the taking of photographs or other images (for instance, for child protection reasons or to prevent disturbance), but we stress that this is not a data protection issue."

The interpretation of this into school policy varies, it is common for schools to include a clause that permits photos to be taken but not to be shared publicly in places such as Facebook, YouTube, Blogs or other open access spaces.

Please note do not take my guidelines, above and below this statement, as having any official status these are my own interpretation of the act - you must make your own interpretations and act lawfully in accordance with specific wording of the original policy and any policies in use by your organisation. 

In my opinion the taking of images by staff or pupils with the intent of sharing them via a school server or any other server that would provide public access should be done in-line with parental permissions, the data protection act and organisational policy. It appears that data collected for personal use can be captured but should not be shared. This would seem to enable children to use their own devices, or those owned by an organisation, to capture images that are to be used on a secure password protected server or for personal use. The grey area is whether to restrict the capture of images of children for personal use when they, or their parents, have asked the setting not to publish such images. Obviously in group settings unintentional capture of such a child can occur, given the data protection act also requires data to be stored securely some settings will delete such images as soon as they are taken. Schools are often risk averse, many schools protect children and staff by locking personal phones or cameras away during the school day. It was pointed out that the risk of inappropriate images being captured is extremely low and should be considered in the light of other more tangible risks such as walking children to an off site event or carrying them in a minibus. The risk was also compared to activities in a Forest Schools situation where children learn to use tools such as; knives, axes, hammers and learn how to light fires and cook on them. Be the risk in the physical world or the virtual there is a need to learn how to handle risk, locking technologies away does not develop good skills in that respect.

The concept of locking away mobile technologies is in stark contrast to the attitude of many who are pushing new frontiers of learning. In this video on child led learning Stephen Heppell mentions getting mobile devices out on display on the desk rather than being locked away. The development of an ethos of mutuality, collegiality and trust is critical to enabling this kind of approach.

Cameras are fairly safe in respect of sharing images, however; mobile phones or tablets enable images to be shared within seconds of being captured. Their use could then be seen as higher risk as there is a reliance on trusting children not to share images publicly and this can be difficult as children around the age of 9-12 are often part of social networks and very keen to show their friends what they have been doing. The Forest Schools ethos seems to be one of developing mutual respect and trust, this is particularly important in outdoor activities where working as a team is important. Where image capture technologies are used it would make sense to overtly extend this to encompass mutual respect in relation to the capture and sharing of images.

It seems that there are good reasons for enabling staff or children to take photographs of their Forest School experiences for a range of purposes. It also seems that the Forest Schools ethos is useful for developing mutual respect and that could feed on into promoting respect back in the normal school setting. The question I did not manage to resolve is whether technologies are likely to disrupt the Forest School approach. Some practitioners clearly felt that technology is just an integral part of every day life and would not be disruptive. Others did not feel technology was something they would purposefully use although several I talked too reported that they did not mind being photographed by children when in the midst of storytelling, demonstrating forest skills or any other part of their day. I did not meet anyone who told me they would rather not have technologies in use during their sessions. In some outdoor learning activities the technology may drive the activity - capturing and recording wildlife or taking a daily record of plant growth to make a stop-gap animation. In Forest Schools the role appears to generally be secondary to the main activities, i.e. that of recording good memories.

The issue of convincing senior management of the value of Forest Schools was mentioned and photographs were seen as playing a valuable role in providing evidence of what was done and what was achieved. A photograph of mud sculptures shows which Art learning outcomes have been met, photos of children helping and supporting each other relate to well-being, trust and feeling safe at school, video of campfire singing or playing percussion on 'found instruments' (sticks, stones, pine cones etc.)  shows where the music curriculum is being implemented and can link to the science curriculum.

There can be issues with video files can be large and this can be an issue on some school servers where space is a priority. They  may often be only temporarily saved then deleted later by technicians to free up space. The price of storage has plummeted over recent years, this shouldn't really be a pressing issue for a well functioning ICT service.

Another use of cameras that was mentioned is the capture of images via web-cam, these are permanently connected to the internet and may stream live video or a series of still images captured every 30 seconds or even a few hours apart. For a relatively small investment schools can set up nesting boxes that are monitored by web-cam, this can provide a lot of interest for children and gives them the feel of being part of something that they might see on TV. This one aspect that residential centres offering Forest Schools experiences might consider as it could be of interest both before and after visits to the centre and would not disrupt the Forest School day in any way.

Audio recordings.
There are several variations on fairly inexpensive products that are very similar, often called sound tins or talking buttons, these are small devices that offer the opportunity to record short snippets of audio this may vary between a few seconds and up to around a minute, 40 seconds is fairly typical. They can be used by children or adults to record a little of the outdoors and bring it indoors, the recording can then be locked so it can't easily be over written and they can be stuck to a wall display or many other surfaces. Children of all ages can easily record the gurgling of a stream, duck quacks, Mooos, Baaaahs, birdsong, rushing wind, rustling leaves, the crackle of a campfire etc. This can then be brought indoors and used to enhance a record of a trip or as sound effects during story reading, mixed into a music track and many more creative approaches to using audio. They can also be taken outdoors, children could pre-record an audio clue to leave as guidance for others to help them find their way around an outdoor trail or to highlight things to look at at particular spots - "Stand with your back to this button; somewhere in front of you is a nest made by forest ants - find it and take a photo without disturbing the nest or getting bitten." 

Many digital cameras have the capacity to record good quality audio, iPods, iPads and a host of other portable devices do the same. This opens up the possibility of capturing and using longer soundscapes although the interfaces are less intuitive and may be not so suitable for younger learners. Soundscapes can be excellent for prompting recall and are particularly useful for visually challenged children.

The data protection act seems to be less concerned with audio data although care should be taken as far as any pupil's names being mentioned if audio is to be posted on a public site.

Several delegates mentioned using walkie talkies in outdoor learning / Forest School sessions. These are relatively inexpensive and do not link to public networks in the way that mobile phones do. This enables pupils to explore communication at a distance without staff needing to worry overly about inappropriate usage.

Digital microscopes were also mentioned as a useful tool. These can be purchased for £45 + for a reasonably decent USB unit and can open up a new perspective on the outdoor micro world. It can take a fair bit of patience to capture good images but they can be very useful field devices or for examining specimens indoors. I did not hear anyone promoting their use as part of a pure Forest Schools experience.

The fact that many Forest School activities focus on pure nature and do not involve 'electricity' was discussed. This really is the pure undiluted approach and there are many arguments in favour of electricity free days. it is not unusual for children on residential visits of any sort to have no access to TV. Few actually feel downhearted about that once they are on the trip and many will learn that TV is not an essential as far as having a good time goes. An electricity free experience takes that a step further and I can very much see the value in that even as far as walking in the dark without torches. Activities like that really bring children into a very different world to their normal one. Managing to survive with minimal help from technologies could well be 'character building' and develop self reliance skills.

For many years schools lead the way with technologies, home ownership of a range of mobile devices is now common, use of iPads, games consoles and smart phones starts at a very young age and today many schools struggle to keep up. The rate of development of technologies is not slowing, there is a progress towards more ambient and un-intrusive technologies  wearable devices and gesture control are arriving it seems inevitable that children will be subject to increasing immersion in technologies both at school and at home. Against that backdrop I think there is a clear case for a wholegrain Forest School core to continue to provide an oasis in a sea of technology. I am also torn between that and my intrinsic instinct to make good use of technologies and the opportunities they offer.

My conclusion during the conference was that 'enhancing well-being' was the main goal of everyone I talked too. Many of the accounts of activities I heard were about children deeply immersed in what they are doing, stress levels lowering, intense focus on task, bravery overcoming fear, smiles appearing and targets being achieved. Cziksentmihalyi describes this immersive experience as a state of flow where engagement with task is so deep and all consuming that a sense of timelessness might be experienced. He also suggests that this state of being is in itself intrinsically rewarding and that flow could be seen as an optimal learning state. The ideas emerged from a background in climbing, many lovers of sports such as climbing, surfing cycling, diving etc. are very familiar with feeling 'in tune', 'on fire', 'stoked', musicians, singers, storytellers and all sorts of people light up when they are in the flow of the moment. Technologies are far from being an essential element of Forest School but they can be used to good effect without causing disruption to core values and aims. In my experience flow can be achieved easily when children use well designed technologies for activities they feel are important, it can also be achieved just as easily in non-electricity days deep in the woods. 

To an outsider Forest Schools could initially seem like a lightweight add on, a 'lets all just play and have fun and make friends' holiday from real learning. The reality is that Forest school practitioners are highly skilled at using carefully crafted activities that can help change who young people are. It seems to be working very well as it stands and I am not going to advocate any hasty changes to implant technologies into the approach. I would still endorse their use particularly for retaining a record of the experience. I have a single faded and folded photograph that is all that survives of a junior school YHA trip to Once Brewed youth hostel in the early 70s, it is not a good photo, a few kids and a student teacher as small toy sized figures playing Frisbee in a field. When I look at it I smell the smell of the field, the sound of the river, the hurt of a hailstorm, a walk above Crag Lough in slanting sleet, games of chess in the evening, the sounds of dishes being washed, children's laughter, the tramp of boots along a wall tramped by Romans and much more comes flooding back. I spent a lot of time out doors and visited that area many times with parents and friends but that photo is so valuable in bringing back that particular moment. I wonder whether the value of such things to children being brought into the forest, perhaps from an inner city for the first time, is well worth the slight compromise of letting a little bit of electricity into a Forest Schools day.

The video below reminds me so much of values and experiences many UK children are somewhat removed from, it traces the life of a djembe drum from the cutting down of the tree to the use in bringing the village together in celebration. About mid way through there is a lovely vignette of children playing vibrant rhythms on junk instruments. It shows elements that bond a community particularly the whole community event in the closing minutes. If Forest Schools practitioners can help children touch that spirit of communal effort and joy through days of adventure and a few hours of singing round a camp site the children are very likely to return to school as different people - that is an outcome that many traditional lessons can not claim.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Introduction to Reflective Practice Part 2.

A key author in this field is Argyris who suggests that it is sensible to look beyond the obvious solutions to a problem. This kind of approach could be described as thinking outside the box. Argyris provides a framework that helps identify what the boxes are that might be limiting our ability to identify better solutions.

Argyris (1974) suggested that when people look at situations and see a problem, or a place where there is room for improvement, they often use personal experience to plan change within their usual framework by employing familiar or locally accepted strategies. Argyris proposed that this single loop learning approach may not be enough to achieve significant improvement in the workplace. He proposes that this is especially the case when the assumptions and beliefs on which the reflection and actions are based are out-dated.

 Double Loop Learning involves assessing and challenging the 'belief systems' and 'values' that govern action in the workplace. These are grouped under the phrase 'governing variables' or sometimes 'governing values'. 

During the year 2 BA LTR reflection in the work setting module students sometimes look back at the reflective models used in the year 1 reflection module and feel that governing variables are not addressed and that many of the models are likely to lead to single loop learning solutions. if you read the original publications about the models rather than just working from the images of the models you will find that a phase such as 'Review' is expected to be far deeper and more systematic than just having a think about what happened - factors that govern behaviour can be used to support analysis in many seemingly basic models.

Some models start with a step such as "Have an experience." That may be a purposeful action such as deciding to examine a workplace policy, procedure or to observe someone in practice. Students on the LTR reflective practice modules more usually examine a practice based experience that was not predetermined - they become alert to looking for 'significant events' during their working day or during study periods outside of work. The insider perspective of this approach is valuable but does require them to develop the ability to step back and examine their own behaviours and beliefs from an objective perspective. The recording of a significant event is the first part of the journey through a critical incident analysis and is the first meeting with a need to consider what is governing their understanding of reality. The significant event becomes a critical incident when it has been analysed through the application of critical thinking strategies.

Wherever describing reality is needed, be it in critical incident analysis, or any other kind of analysis of experiential learning / research that is concerned with real world phenomenon, there are governing factors to consider when attempting to describe and understand reality. Some of them are easily varied, some less so.

Many reflective models appropriate for work-based learning start with a step that describes what happened during a significant event, for example the first of Gibbs 6 steps. 

"What happened?" That might sound a fairly simple starting point but there are pitfalls when attempting to construct a description of reality and it should be remembered that a straightforward description risks being just a personal perspective - one individual personal belief about what happened. 

Korzybski's 1933 work Science and Sanity set out some useful principles:

 "A map is not the territory." 
 "A map does not represent all of the territory." 

This can be applied to language in the form:

"The word is not the object." 

This reminds us that a word does not contain all of the information about what it describes. Words can be misleading, people have differing perceptions about what is meant by a word. My wife and her mum both drink what to me is scalding hot tea. My mouth feels pain drinking tea at a temperature she can drink with ease yet her's is fine. Our perceptions of what is meant by 'hot' are at variance. My concept of 'hot' is only 'fairly warm' to her. 

The principles can  also be applied to personal constructions about experience, so when initially grappling with Gibbs first step: "What happened?" the resulting account might well be a map that represents only part of the territory so it is more about 'What I think happened.'  That is fine as a first step, personal perspectives are useful but should not be thought of, or presented as, absolute truths. 

In a busy classroom it is all too easy to develop an in the moment perception that is an incorrect map of what actually happened: 'That child is being noisy so is the cause of my class being disrupted.' The reality might be that the noisy child has been putting up with covert harassment from someone nearby and eventually reacted noisily; that could be exactly the outcome the covert harasser was trying to provoke. Making an incorrect judgement call in situations like that perpetuates bullying, can be very stressful for the victim and can result in them losing trust and respect for the teacher and disengaging from learning. This can be made much worse if, when identified, the victim tries to explain what actually happened and are told not to answer back.

When I ask students to apply reflective models to examine and improve their personal practice one aspect I am looking for is an awareness of the fragility of personal perspectives. The starting point is identifying a significant event either in the workplace or relating to your study. 

1. What do I think happened? Create a first draft personal account based on a 'let it flow via a stream of consciousness' approach with no concern about module word limits. Reflection on what you think happened and how you behaved should include reference to personal feelings and your initial perceptions of the feelings and behaviours of others.

2. What might really have happened? A refined description where personal beliefs and their influence are carefully considered. This may be difficult as the aim is to take a deep honest look inside yourself and uncover potential self deception with the aim of moving towards an unbiased account. 

3. What do others think happened? This might include individual consultation with others who were present as peripheral observers or actually involved in the event. Individual accounts are important in order to avoid gathering political responses adapted to suite others.

4. Collaborative debate. Dewey was in favour of collaborative reflection but this can be a difficult step. In some circumstances it might not be ethical or sensible to include. It can be valuable to bring together those who were involved and share an overview that provides the group with insight into the range of potential realities. These are then discussed with the aim of agreeing a most likely version of reality.

At this stage there may be an account that could be proposed as getting close to answering what actually happened. It will still be a map of reality rather than an absolute truth, however; it can be a good basis from which to proceed to identifying how to improve your behaviour should a similar situation arise again.

5. What else might have been be done? This step is an analysis of all potentially effective options as to how you might have improved how you behaved. Freed from all governing factors the reflective practitioner records a blue sky aspirational exploration of unbounded possibilities.

6. What else could have be done? Analysis of the findings from the previous step focuses on deciding what the reflective practitioner believes would be best to do out of all the possibilities that were uncovered. This is still a speculative potential action as the only governing variable is the personal belief about what could have been best for those involved in the original event.

7. What can actually be done now? This aims to make a decision on what is feasible to do within workplace boundaries. These boundaries include factors such as workplace policies, behaviour expectations, institutional visions and aims, accepted norms of behaviour and expected best practice. A solution that has been adapted to fit with factors that govern what can be done in the workplace is developed and articulated in an evidence based format that shows a careful and systematic analysis has been implemented. 

8. What needs to be changed? In an organisation that fits the criteria developed by Senge for being a 'learning organisation' those able to plan and implement higher level change will be actively seeking new ideas to improve the current system and will welcome input from all staff. Disruptive innovation solutions that go beyond the current boundaries that govern the workplace might also be welcome. A persuasive evidence based account extending on from step 7 findings can be useful in persuading others that change is to be embraced.

For BA LTR students on the 'Reflection in the work setting 2' module:
In all of your patches you need to evidence that you understand the nature and role of governing variables in systematic approaches to reflection that are dominantly focused on yourself in the workplace but can also encompass reflection on study related issues such as use of technologies, the online library, developing good literature skills and other relevant practices. The link to double loop learning is also very important and you can bring in triple loop learning as well. This takes the impact of reflection further than personal practice and involves concern with sharing outcomes / influencing change at the organisational level. 

Good understanding and use of the concepts of espoused theory / theory in use will be evident in most higher level work as will reference to the type 1 and 2 behaviour models. 
Good signposting is essential. Governing variables operate at one or several levels so we need to see comments such as: "This governing variable operates at the personal beliefs level. Having reflected on my beliefs I realise they are partly based on the norms of behaviour / expectations in the workplace..." 
it is also clear that the potential for variance of factors that govern behaviour does not always lie with the practitioner so you should also include reference to whether you are able to be an agent for change, whether you would need to persuade / involve others or whether change would have to come from outside of your workplace via something like change at the level of government policy. This is why I have included reference in the template to solutions in an ideal world and the solutions it is possible to implement in your real world situation. You might also feel that your ideas differ from those in the workplace - it is not always the need for change to be implemented from outside​ the workplace that limits your ability to implement it. You do not need to change any governing variables to pass this module to a high standard, what is important is identifying what and where change is needed,whether it can or can not be implemented and why this is the case. 
Please make sure that any work you ask for feedback on is in 'final draft' condition. This means spell checked and with syntax and writing style carefully refined, any figures and references should also be in line with final submission expectations. Feedback on work that is almost ready for submission is more valuable than feedback on work that is in an early draft state. If you do still have potential additions to make then a few notes in a different coloured text are fine - e.g. 'Paragraph on model 1 ands 2 behaviours to be inserted here.
Formative feedback is a way of  helping students​ to reach their full potential and you must make use of this opportunity as it will potentially help you gain a higher final classification.
The following video is a draft created by a year 2 student.

 This is my idea of 'serious fun'. The theory is evident in the concise narrative from the start, the opening grappling with what had been asked was a lovely way to highlight how easily it is to misconstrue reality, the "I now believe this is what happened" line also has the very important tentative voice that indicates understanding of the fragility of truth, and of semantics that I tried to convey re Korzybski. It also shows application of the first two steps in the model mentioned earlier on this page:
1. What do I think happened? 

2. What might really have happened?

 Even when much time and effort is used to get as close to the truth as possible it is still only a personal construction and as such is quite a fragile conceptualisation. The voice that is used was done very well, it is concise, and precise there is nothing sloppy or incoherent.  It is also a very impersonal voice so when Laurence listens back to it he is listening to an objective account rather than listening directly to his own natural voice. That can have quite deep psychological impact as far as reassessing the judgements that were made. It is a great example of 'less is more'  I asked students to reflect on their creative use of technologies. It is a first attempt at making a video, a choice of technology made by the student autonomously, so I like the way it is an exploration of using new software creatively while reflecting on that aspect of practice. The immersion in the critical incident that is achieved when creating media artifacts tends to be deep and sustained as generating media takes time and there is a wish to present something of good quality. 
Below is a framework I recommend you try for at least one of your Critical incident reports. You are welcome to devise your own framework for the other one - originality and synthesis of ideas to develop new systems tends to gain higher credits. A Flash resource that reminds you about reflection in action and then moves on to this framework can be accessed by following this link. Depending on your connection it could take a few moments to load. 

Argyris, C.,1982. Organizational Dynamics; The Executive Mind and Double Loop Learning. [Online] Accessed 08 July 2013 

Dick, B. and Dalmau, T., 2000. Argyris and Schön: some elements of their models. [Online ] Accessed 21 October 2014 

Tarrant, P., 2013. Reflective Practice and Professional Development. Sage.

Tripp, D.,1993. Critical Incidents in Teaching: Developing Professional Judgement London: Routledge.

Korzybski, A., 2003. Science and Sanity (5th ed.)

Thursday, 12 September 2013


 I have been interested in bats all of my life and spend much of my teaching time helping people see their world differently, looking through the mirror is a basic reflective practice concept and turning a photo upside down is such a simple idea but I have never thought of doing it to gain insight into bat world - for me this one provided a fascinating different perspective on bat world.  Many thanks to Weh Yeoh for Tweeting.

I am off to find photos of ostriches in a desert and turn that upside down to see how they look at bats :-)

Friday, 21 June 2013

Ultraversity and BA LTR

The Ultraversity project was initiated by Stephen Heppell at The Ultralab in 2003 with the initial aim of researching new approaches to undergraduate study.  The application of a cybernetic analysis in line with Beer's viable systems approach (1985) has been described here: of the key elements of the approach to learning design are also discussed in the Viable Systems post. 

The project team were keen to widen participation to groups who might find it difficult to study via traditional approaches. It was clear to the team that there were a lot of people operating in relatively low paid or voluntary employment and having developed considerable expertise in their role but without the academic background or financial independence to be able to take three years out of the workplace to study a traditional on campus route towards the qualifications they needed to progress their careers. Roles that were high on our agenda included: teaching assistants, lunchtime supervisors, parent volunteer helpers in schools, nurses, self employed, small business employees and more.  In the UK the Open University were the main institution offering distance learning opportunities but courses were usually part time, involved travel to tutorial group meetings or summer schools and were studied over 6 years. That is a long time over which to sustain motivation. One of the key research questions was how to create a viable approach that would enable this group and other learners to study while still actively employed and to achieve a full honours degree in considerably less than 6 years. This was reflected in the original validation document that was created before the change from Anglia Polytechnic University (APU) to Anglia Ruskin University:

 "Students targeted are those who are unable to attend university face-to-face and who might benefit from an alternative approach to learning...

The principle aim of the BA Learning, Technology and Research is to provide access to higher education to people who are committed to their work... Students will learn the skills to improve their effectiveness in their particular work context and will develop the ability, and confidence to influence and improve practice within their work setting.

The programme will focus on ‘understanding why and knowing how to’ and will develop individuals to become articulate, critically reflective problem solvers within their work context, in line with the APU aspirations."
2003 validation document available here.

The original aspiration to provide a viable route to HE qualifications for "those who are unable to attend university face-to-face" is still relevant but has evolved in that fully online learning has become desirable for other reasons since the inception of the course. Notable amongst these is the increased flexibility of where and when to study and the potentially greater support available within an active online community environment. The asynchronous dialogic approach to learning is key to achieving this.

The Ultraversity project ran from 2003 until 2006, the research lead to the development of the 'BA (Hons.) Learning, Technology and Research'  degree. Students reported that they and employees felt the combination of Learning, Technology and Research was attractive in the title of the degree and that the three themes were very much reflected in the course design, however it was the 'Ultraversity' brand that most of them used when talking about the course. They would refer to studying the Ultraversity degree or having graduated from Ultraversity.  For staff, students and a range of other stakeholders the short form 'UV' became synonymous with the BA LTR course. As time progressed the BA LTR course outlived the Ultraversity Project but the Ultraversity label was still in wide use and the reflective and action based iterative research principles were retained by staff as a means of personal and course development.

Beer, S., 1985. Diagnosing The System for Organisations. John Wiley, London and New York, NY.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Voices in the Machine

Welcome to the Machine.

The infrastructure of the internet is a mass of emotionless machine technologies. When teaching work based studies via distance learning, tutors have to convey humanness to provide a rich and rewarding experience for students. I argue that bringing the tutor voice into the machine world is an essential part of creating an outstanding experience.


Voices in the Machine: Reflections on the Use of Audio in Online Learning.

Text is a precise and effective tool for HE tutors facilitating student learning on online courses with a dominantly asynchronous dialogue based pedagogy. This paper discusses how and why tutors should augment their communications through the incorporation of voice recordings and how this can be achieved efficiently and effectively. Analysis of work done over the last 12 years provides evidence of the impact of this on both tutor and student. All of the online projects from which experiential data for this paper is drawn were based on social learning and the notion of creating a ‘Community of Practice’ (COP) Wenger, 2002.

First steps into audio

At the turn of the century, a new approach to training respiratory Specialist Registrars (SpRs) via the internet was being explored in a partnership between the British Thoracic Society (BTS) and Ultralab. At that time ISDN had arrived, downloads of up to 1Mb per minute were now possible at home, however; this was not cheap and file size was very important. Computers with 8Mb of RAM and no loudspeakers were not unusual. Text is a very efficient form of communication: it can be concise, precise, quick to read and generates low amounts of data, just a few 10s of kilobytes for hundreds of words. An audio recording, even when efficiently compressed, can be around 1 Mb per minute of speech. Asynchronous text, via email or online forums, was the dominant communications method in the SpR online community. To cater for the lack of audio capability, alternative video of keynote presentations was provided with no audio but including the narrative transcribed as overlaid text; see figure 1.

Figure 1. Screenshots from a video capture of keynote presentation.

The asynchronous media rich delivery was clearly appreciated by the trainees:

You have the fabric there of exactly what we want; we want to go home, relax and when the kids are asleep, we can say this is the time to learn."
 Respiratory SpR. November 2000.

An audio enabled version was later viewed on newer computers with audio capability; this contrast enables evaluation of the power of vocal cues. The SpRs and Respiratory Consultants on the project reported that hearing the voice of the presenter enabled them to differentiate between conviction and uncertainty and that this was critical when assessing the viability of the keyhole surgery presentation that was literally at the cutting edge of invasive thoracic strategies at that time.

Identity and authenticity
Amongst the key issues relating to success in fully online learning is that of identity and its relationship to developing trust. Text has been in use for many thousands of years, however; in many cultures it is only in the last few hundreds of years that reading and writing have become tools of the masses; in evolutionary terms it is a very new paradigm. Dunbar (1997) notes the importance of trust and bonding in human and animal relationships and suggested that complex speech evolved partly as a more efficient way of bonding than social grooming. It was noted in studies of several species of monkeys and apes that special treatment is given to grooming partners. That most people are expert in decoding emotive cues from vocal sounds was demonstrated by Aeschlimann et al. (2008) who found that non-linguistic human vocalisation sequences, of just 2 seconds duration, were reliably perceived as emotionally positive, negative or neutral.

Scott (2011) illustrated the fluidity of processing and responding to speech:

 “…we take turns in conversations with barely perceptible gaps between one speaker stopping and the next person starting (a recent study reported that 45% of turns fell within a window of +/- 250ms, and 85% within +/- 750ms, in a corpus of strangers talking to each other on the phone). Speech is the currency of most social interactions, and this speech is rapidly produced and co-ordinated with the speech of the other people to whom we speak.”

The asynchronous dialogic approach, used in the BTS project to developing online COP, was further developed through the Talking Heads project, as reported by Chapman and Ramondt 2005. Bradshaw, Powell and Terrell (2005) show that learning driven by text based dialogic processes proved very successful in undergraduate work-focused learning for supporting students who are geographically distant from each other and their tutors, and who also access study in differing temporal frameworks. In line with the Ultralab findings in these projects, it is acknowledged that socially mediated learning through online discussions can be complex (Coats and Stevenson 2006). Wenger (2007) also recognised that a process of regular social interaction, negotiation and resultant ‘meaning making’ defines the identity of individuals and of the online community. Millwood, Powell and Tindal (2008a) discuss a further evolution of this approach as applied in the Ultraversity project.

A common theme is that significant effort can be required to develop trust and bonding via text-based discussions and that conveying authenticity and identity of students and tutors was critical in achieving this. Below are two examples that suggest the use of audio by tutors can reduce the effort required to convey identity and develop trust. An interview with an Anglia Ruskin final year undergraduate student, provided insight into the value of emotive vocal cues:

“The impact was quite strong in that it softened the process by reducing some of my anxieties. There was a realisation that we were interacting with people and not a name on the screen. Another aspect that I found energising was the inclusion of extra information through your tone, intonation and human-ness of the delivery.”

The student went on to say that after hearing several of my podcasts he could then 'hear' my tone when reading my text posts in the online community.

The image below in figure 2. was created by one of my undergraduate students following initial text-based interactions over the first few weeks of semester on a fully online course. Although the implication is of a benevolent tutor, the image conveys a perception of distance between student and tutor.

Figure 2 Drawn by a student to convey initial impressions of tutor.

Following the use of audio messages (podcasts) in weeks 2 and 3 of semester the perception of the student changed to one where 'Ian as lofty cloud-based tutor' evolved to Ian a feet on the ground real person, friendly and and approachable - a co-learner with expertise to share.

Augmenting course resources with digital storytelling
The Ultraversity project started in 2003 and lead to a learning design for undergraduate courses based on assessment through patchwork text and media described by Millwood, Powell and Tindal (2008a and b), and by Arnold et al. (2009). The Viable System Model (VSM) developed by Beer (1985), uses amplifiers and attenuators as mechanisms for controlling complexity within systems. The patchwork media approach reflects this process in that it breaks down learning activities into discrete, but related, patches.

In 2008 the VSM process was applied to further evolve our pedagogy as student review had mentioned initial feelings of overload when faced with a mass of online text-based resources. The solution to attenuating complexity was in the form of telling the story of a learning journey and was expressed as an interactive map. This reduction of variety assisted with initial conceptualization of tasks. As students click on each stage on the map they follow the progress of an avatar and read concise text relating to each activity, the augmentation via more expansive audio story clips amplifies the subsequent understanding.

Fig 3. Screenshot of an interactive learning journey hosted in the Anglia VLE.

One student’s reaction to this approach conveyed a sense of excitement rather than overload:

“ exciting is this!!!
The climb begins.
Good luck one and all”

Another student reflected the journey metaphor in her assignment and implied a change in motivation:

I was ready to hang up my walking boots [after the previous module] but I pulled them on, tightened the laces and began the climb. I soon found myself at the first plateau and learning activity...I thoroughly enjoyed this module and I hope it is reflected in my work. I really liked the mountain and loved the climb as much as the descent!!!”

Although this solution was not entirely audio based it was the concept of storytelling that led to the conceptualisation of the journey and the audio clips that provided a cognitive bridge to the more detailed course resources.

Audio for assessment
Feedback from final year students indicated that vocal cues are important in conveying the critical friendship aspect of peer assessment. The use of audio helps students develop the confidence to offer deep and challenging critical commentary:

“…we inadvertently stumbled upon gold when we decided to do it [peer assessment] using audio because immediately you could sense the hesitation in the voice of your critic, 'the humanness of the medium' was the phrase that I used whereas text can be very harsh because it has no tone no intonation its not organic. I think one of the reasons why video wasn't used for me is self consciousness, its nothing more not even vanity, you can see a lot in a voice…”
Julian Keith

 Hi Ian, I experimented with audio feedback in year one with Toby and Julian - I think we all found it quite an easy way to be a critical friend - without the worry of being unable to express our empathy.  I think the ability to use alternative media when providing critical feedback allows me to be far more open and honest, because I am able to communicate my perspective and that fact that it is MY perspective and not a statement of fact - hope that makes some sense.” 
Sally Clifford

This next observation from a student was a response to audio feedback that accompanied digital annotation of work in progress during supervision of a final year dissertation.

“I think it is fantastic that you use voice recordings as well as written feedback, it really enabled me to understand the context in which you were giving the information. It also gave me the ability to 'sense' whether I was on the right track or not.”

This student was used to traditional course delivery and the supervision was the first contact with remote online tutoring. The authenticity transferred through emotive vocal cues was a key element in improving this personalised feedback experience.  A 2010 JISC report uncovered similar findings:

Many learners find feedback via digital audio and video more detailed and helpful. In contrast, written feedback is perceived as brief, unclear and difficult to recall. A more personal approach to feedback adds value to learners’ experience of higher education.” 

According to a more recent JISC report (2012), literature suggests around 20% of marked work may go uncollected. Recent action inquiry on an undergraduate course has explored the value of ‘generic feedback’. This is based on compiling notes made during final assessment and aims to raise the visibility of key learning targets to all students. It is presented to the whole cohort as an mp3 file located in a subsequent module specific discussion forum. It is difficult to assess whether students learn more but it is clear that some students do listen more than they might read:

 “I listen to the generic feedback podcasts on the train on the way to work, I listened to one twice a day for a week, it really soaked in, I wouldn’t do that with text.”

McClean et al. (2012) uncovered similar findings, notably the students felt audio feedback was more personal than written comments and the perception of not feeling like it came from a stock set of comments. Students also mentioned listening to audio feedback several times.

I have used audio in:
 FirstClass client - this provides a one click approach to adding an audio interface in an email header, the recording is done in the email and the file automatically attaches once done.

Plone - here audio files were recorded outside of the platform then uploaded to contents panels, this was less efficient that FirstClass but did work well.

SharePoint - some versions allow audio to be embedded in discussion items, this is very useful as it places the audio directly in context. Other set ups do not allow audio in messages but it can still be embedded in wiki or html resources pages as well as being placed as a downloadable podcast in a documents or shared documents folder.

Turnitin/Grademark - the addition of a recording interface on feedback pages can provide a very useful supplement to text based feedback.

Telling the story

Robin (2006) provides seven key elements of digital storytelling:

Figure 4. The Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling. Robin (2006).

A powerful use of podcasts is conveying the story of a personal experience, this can provide an authentic insight with conviction that is hard to achieve via text. For many years a text based example of double loop learning (Argyris 1982), drawn from my own student teacher days, had been in the course resources. Converting this same story to a podcast changed the impact considerably. In an unrecorded tutorial discussion about this several students agreed that the text version had been “something a tutor had written” however the audio version transformed the story into: “An important event someone had experienced”.  This example of a changing perspective reinforces the value of Robin’s elements 3 and 4.

A significant barrier to many people is that the voice we hear when we speak is not the voice we hear when we listen to a recording. In addition to the external voice that others hear, we hear sounds that resonate through our skull and internal spaces such as sinuses. This in part explains why many people do not like hearing their recorded voice and are reluctant to make recordings. My first attempts at recording audio involved reading from a script, I made mistakes, got to the end of one line and went back to the start of the same line or missed part of a sentence out. Focusing on the script resulted in many unsatisfactory takes and lead to an unconvincing final recording. The emotive cues conveyed my nervousness rather than my passion for the topic. I persevered and over several months of experimentation found that a set of prompts proved more effective than a script or a totally ad hoc approach. This can be seen in the video capture showing recording using Audacity on the same page as the above podcast.

McDonnell et al. (2004), argue that creating a story for an audience requires the teller to become an observer of the experience and links the changing conceptualisation to stages in Kolb’s learning cycles. The reflective and analytical steps outlined in the diagram below enable this perspective.

Figure 5. A knowledge management process to support the recording of digital stories.

This process lead to a more natural recording as can be heard on this introduction to the second year of study which starts with a reflective practice module.


Student feedback indicated it was both a useful initial introduction to the module and provided valuable insight into expected behaviours and standards such as increased student autonomy in managing their learning.

The original was punctuated by what I felt were highly irritating non-linguistic sounds, the umms and errs I was not aware of saying and many of which I edited out. When subsequently discussing with a student whether umms and errs are distracting he said something that proved to be a significant event for me: “...the umms give me a few moments to absorb what you have just said.”
Another observation provided further evidence of the value of informality:

“I really look forward to your audio messages Ian.  I think that is because it brings the module to life, your style of delivery is informal and this works particularly well, you are not lecturing us.  I feel that your interest in us is genuine and that you deliver in this way to add a personal dimension…I listen through the whole audio initially and then on the second playing I jot down key points that you make on Stickies and plaster them around the wall above my computer.”

Reflecting on this systematically and at length after the event (Schon 1983 and Argyris 1982) the conversation became a critical incident (Tripp, 1993) that transformed my willingness to engage in audio recording. It seems there is no need to aspire to achieve a formal ‘BBC standard’ of recording and that whether the speaker likes their recorded voice or not is irrelevant. What is important is that this powerful emotive tool is not neglected.

Six key elements in capturing an authentic recording are proposed:

  1.  Be natural, be yourself, anything else will sound artificial unless you are an expert at creating alternative voices.
  2. Work from prompts rather than a script.
  3. Talk as if you were speaking to a student - as if they are in the room with you.
  4. Let your voice convey your passion - enthusiasm for the topic will be appreciated.
  5.  Let your voice convey praise and concern - this can reinforce the value of high quality work and the importance of improvement.
  6.  If you are at all nervous about the process, avoid listening back to a recording.

The overarching problem to be solved relating to use of audio, in fully online learning at HE level, can be summarized as: Is audio an effective use of time?

Beneath this umbrella are several sub-questions:
1.     How much time and effort is involved?
2.     Do students learn more?
3.     What should it be used for?
4.     How should it be done?

The JISC 2010 overview suggests audio and screen capture may save time for tutors and improve learners’ engagement. However, the rhetoric in the blog and twitter worlds conveys a polarity between the use of audio being perceived as ‘very effective’ and ‘a waste of time’. The use of software such as Audacity to record and export mp3 files is a very straightforward process. This software is compatible with Mac and Windows and is free to download. For tutors involved in online learning the effort required to explore this approach is minimal and the benefit to students is potentially significant.


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