Dec 14

Learning Commons observations

Involved in the Parklife project is one of our Learning Technologists and he was kind enough to observe a session in a Learning Commons on Friday, these are his observations:

I’ve observed two Park Life sessions, with the aim of looking at how students use the physical environment and the use of the technology they have to hand.


In both cases, groups seemed comfortable with the concept of dispersing within a designated area and being lightly supervised by roaming tutors. A few students had physical impairments that made the most direct dispersal routes difficult or impossible to use, so forming and reforming on a locus in a Learning Commons should, ideally, be physically easy in a bespoke environment. It was noticeable that groups were less willing to disperse in the last seminar group, but whether this is a sign of wanting to be quickly aware of a dismissal or just the growing darkness making dispersal less attractive is unclear.


During both sessions, groups had been tasked to capture ideas as a group and select a favoured answer or solution. At the end of October, it was noticeable that the most popular way of capturing information was using pen and notebook, with a few laptops and tablets in evidence. In this session, smartphones were widely used for research.


In the December session less research was required as the focus was on collecting opinion, which might account for the lower level of smartphone use, or this might also have been increased engagement with the task. While paper notebooks were in evidence in this session too, fixed and mobile whiteboards, along with student laptops, were much more evident. Efficiently capturing and sharing ideas – especially among the larger groups of four or more – is clearly something that needs facilitation within a Learning Commons.


It would be interesting to know how students are sharing information amongst their groups so that we can consider ways to support them – this might be a physical tool or just advice on how best to do this. I will try and do this informally on my next observation, but it needs to be taken into account in the final survey of student attitudes to the project.

Dec 14

Q&A on Team-Based Learning (TBL)

After my last post Simon Tweddell from the University of Bradford commented about his experiences of TBL and posed some questions, in this blog post I attempt to answer those questions.

1. Do you assess your application exercises?

No.  We are evaluating the impact of TBL by running different seminar groups in different ways, this means the lectures and the assessment remains the same for all students.  I agree though that tying assessment to attendance would likely improve attendance.

2. How often are you teams working together?

The teams have done two ready assessment tests (rats) to date, each with two weeks of follow-up application exercises.  In term 2 (after Christmas) they will do three more blocks like that so over the module they will have 5 hours devoted to rats and 10 hours to application exercises.  In other weeks they work on related tasks, still in their teams.

3. The biggest challenge in TBL is writing significant and challenging 4S applications that are authentic, interesting and written so that the students want to attend. Exercises that relate to their future roles once graduated and ideally that they will be talking about afterwards so those that aren’t there will feel like they’ve missed out.

My application exercises are around the constitutional issues of creating a new State.  Teams are political parties vying to form the first government of a new State – currently the University campus.  Those students who are interested in public law as a career will find that it ties well to their future roles if they wish to work for the civil service or political parties.

4. Ensure students know that the application exercises will prepare them for the end of module assessments, which are also applications and future learning and life beyond the classroom.

There is a clear link to the assessment.  Having started to design the constitution of the new State the coursework assessment requires them to answer the question ‘Should the UK have a written constitution.’  I will ensure that I explicitly draw the links for all the students.

5. Are you using summative peer assessment? Know that poor attendance (or lack of preparation or contribution) will affect the marks given to them by their peers will also incentivise them to prepare, attend and contribute in class.

No – this is for the reasons given in answer to question 1.  However, I agree that it’s a great idea.

Nov 14

Team-Based Learning in Public Law

The Parklife project is about learning commons, Team-Based Learning (TBL) and experiential learning and we’re enjoying evaluating all three but for this post I’m going to focus on TBL.

The students have just undertaken their second set of Readiness Assurance Tests (RATs) which they first take individually and then as a team. The results are consistent with what the literature tells us – the teams are consistently better than the sum of their parts, with team scores consistently dwarfing the scores of the best individual within the team. What’s surprising is how dramatic this finding is, even the weakest teams seem to out-perform the best-performing individuals. The project is also producing interesting data from an equality perspective, which we will collate, and identifying obstacles, most frustrating of which is what to do when there are no team players. Attendance, or lack of, is a perennial issue for all of us who teach in HE, but how do you run TBL if poor attendance reduces teams to 2 or 3 individuals? Answers, if you have them, would be appreciated.

Nov 14


October was an exciting month, early in the month I foun outd I had been awarded a grant to research Parklife (more on that in a minute), I successfully completed my application for Fellowship of the Higher Education Authority, and I ended the month in New Delhi! Movember is moustache growing month (Google it if you’re confused) and Parklife is really going to take off so watch his space!

Anyone who’s read my previous blog posts will know that Parklife is about the political life of the world’s newest State, Parkland. The University of Northampton’s Park Campus has been declared an independent State and first-year law students are vying to become elected as its first government. After the success of introducing this ‘learning by doing’ into Public Law the project is growing, supported by a Learning and Teaching grant. This year we are piloting team-based learning – which I’m very excited about – and experimenting with different learning spaces, especially learning commons. So far the students tell us they’re enjoying it and we are! I’m going to regularly blog about how its going so if you’re interested read and comment.

Oct 14

Putting the Team in Team Based Learning

It is difficult to argue against the effectiveness of Team Based Learning (TBL), it is clearly based on solid pedagogy and the literature indicates impressive results. In fact so taken am I with what I have read that I am running one of three TBL projects at the University of Northampton. Because of the poor attendance in the first few weeks of term and the need to give the students the opportunity to get some knowledge I’m not starting with the first readiness assurance test until next week – for now we are forming teams and getting the basics sorted.

Designing TBL activities are backwards designed – teachers are asked to think about encountering a successful student in the future and ask: “What are the students who really “get it” doing?” (Michaelsen, L. K. & Sweet, M., 2008). I’m piloting TBL with Introduction to Public Law students so if they end up putting what I’ve taught them to use they’ll be doing some good ‘public lawyering’ which really means sitting in the dusty corridors or Westminster, or a less dusty think tank, and advising on issues of constitutional importance, maybe considering constitutional reform or advising a Minister if they should resign after an embarrassing paisley pyjama moment. So if I’m charged with teaching my students about the doctrine of the Separation of Powers what I imagine those who really ‘get it’ doing is advising politicians on how to implement the doctrine in practice. What I have told my students so far is that a militant band of parking attendants have taken charge of campus, declaring Park Campus as the independent State of Parkland. For Parkland to have any chance of being recognised as an independent State, and player on the world stage it’s going to need some impressive politicians leading government and a well-drafted constitution. So I’ve formed my ‘teams’ of 5-7 students as political parties – TBL advocates strongly against friendship groups as the basis of teams. My students have been surveyed on the basis of their opinions on the economy, immigration, criminal justice, defence and foreign policy and family and grouped with team-mates with similar opinions. The first team based discussions seem to demonstrate that this works – generally students are not shouting each other down but mutually supporting suggestions, after all they broadly agree on whether the answer to social problems is to hang ‘em and flog ‘em or hug a hoodie already. So, I’ll be using the readiness assurance test to ensure that all the students have a solid understanding of the doctrine of the Separation of Powers, and its implementation in the UK, before they decide as teams whether they favour Parkland following a strict separation of powers, or something a bit different.

Oct 14

How to… reference


Jun 14

Ditching the MOOC

I have become one of the vast majority of people who start a MOOC and fail to finish not because I wasn’t enthusiastic to begin with but because I couldn’t keep up the enthusiasm necessary to maintain the commitment to the course.

I have reflected on the reasons for falling behind to the point where the only realistic option was to give up, and whilst much of the blame lies with me there are things that contributed towards this.

  1. Going it alone

I posted to the discussion forums, to a string with thousands of contributors.  My post was unlikely to be found within the mass of others and the overwhelming number of posts meant I was unable to find a way in to reading others posts and engaging with them.  Is my digital literacy, when it comes to navigating discussion forums, lacking or is what appears to me to an over-facing mess actually un-navigable?  I know when creating online courses like ILOOC (Northampton University’s International Law Open Online Course) I tend to get participants to divide up into smaller groups.

  1. Unrealistic expectations

I founds that the time required was substantially more than what I was told to expect – the materials and tasks filled the time but we were also asked to keep a journal of characters we witnessed whilst sitting in coffee shops, waiting for trains etc… Perhaps I’m not their typical student or target market but I spend very little time doing either.

  1. Please sir, can I have some more

Finally I didn’t have the prior knowledge assumed and would have really benefited from an additional resources page or similar to allow me to get up to speed.

May 14

Week 3: Writing fiction

Its 6:21am on Sunday morning and I’m almost a full week behind with the MOOC and catch-up time is elusive, the baby I’m bouncing on one knee is screaming while I try to concentrate.

I’m halfway through the MOOC and the content is enjoyable but, and its a big but, I’ve not interacted with any other MOOCers yet.  The page I’m currently on doesn’t require a comment like others, yet there are 1526 comments so rather than engage I know I’ll just click through.  I wish there was some kind of smaller group activity so there were other people I could share this experience with – perhaps its my own skills at navigating a MOOC that are lacking.

Anyway time to catch up!

May 14

Week 2: writing fiction MOOC

Yesterday I finished first marking one module and second marking another before grabbing a coffee with the ILOOC team – ILOOC is our new international law MOOC.  Its exciting, we have a launch date – put 22 May in your diaries.  This means that I am yet again behind with writing fiction MOOC but also that I have today, at home, to do that and write some of my PhD ahead of a supervisory meeting tomorrow.

Each week starts with a short video from the instructor, it sets out the aims and really helps manage expectations.  The obvious excitement is infectious – these 2-3 minutes are great.

We were asked to consider how we worked best, reflecting on other author’s experiences from the podcast, I wrote:

I’m great in the early morning, if I have a lot on I get up before the house wakes up and work. Our new son is barely a month old and the 5 year-old has taken to rushing down stairs as soon as he hears me … aaargh! I like the idea of practice though – I blogged when I was going through crap to keep me sane – it works.

The next task was to write two descriptions, one of our ideal work space and one of our dreaded work space – I wrote each from a positive perspective although one is a way or working I can’t abide.  Is it obvious which is which:

I left the house, the kids playing noisily, the dishwasher competing with the washing machine for supremacy and headed across the fields. At first the silence shocked but gradually I realised it wasn’t silent but full of natural, peaceful sounds. By the time I got to the pub my head was clear, worries had evaporated and I felt energised. I ordered a pint of Abbot and found a quiet corner, took the lid off my fountain pen – it makes a mess of my hand but I love scribbling in green ink, scrawl illegible to anyone else.

The computer sits on the old pine desk in the corner of the kitchen, my eldest son at the kitchen table doing his homework, the youngest asleep in my lap. I know everything is okay – the boys are safe and my wife is contentedly busy sorting something that’s been nagging at her all day. I relax into my desk chair and start typing.

We were asked to post this paragraph for feedback so please critically respond to it!

May 14

Week 1: writing fiction MOOC

Monday - Today is my first day as a MOOC student, I’m going to participate in the OU’s Start Writing Fiction MOOC on FutureLearn. I’ve done the packed lunches, dropped our eldest off in the playground, fed the baby and he’s napping so it’s time to go!  I’m also doing a full day’s work today, this is for real, like many of the other participants I’m doing a MOOC as well as a full-time job and busy family life.  And, like most of the participants I’m looking forward to it. I’ve received the welcome email and the first thing I’ve been asked to do is follow a link to SurveyMonkey – they want to know why I’m doing the course.

Saturday - It’s now nearly the end of the first week of the MOOC and I’m already playing catch-up.  The MOOC requires commitments of blocks of time, its not something you can pick up and put down as much as I had expected and that’s created problems.  It also is taking much longer than the time stated on the course, the amount of time isn’t a disincentive but the failure to manage my expectations is frustrating.

What I’ve liked about the course is the way its chunked – initially it felt like there were a lot of parts but each part is really small and manageable so you constantly feel like you’re progressing.  This is something I will definitely be taking with me and applying to my teaching.  The materials are also well presented and have an air of professionalism about them which I like.

What I’ve found difficult about the course is quite how massive it is, comments run into the thousands and this isn’t managed so its just an over-facing list – as yet I’ve no comments on my posts and I suspect I won’t as they get lost amongst the masses.  I would have liked to have connected with other students and I wonder if there is a place for break-out activities here?