August 2016


Back at the beginning of July, I chatted via Skype to Colin Greenstreet of the Marine Lives project about how I do my research.  It was one of a number of interviews that Colin carried out so that the project leaders could tweak the functionality of their database in order to make it as useful as possible for the end users.  It struck me at the time that this is something, in my experience at least, we rarely talk about: how we actually go about doing the research that leads to those papers and publications.

I’ve only ever done what felt natural to me.  Generally speaking, I Google things first, then I read a lot and make notes, usually in the form of direct quotations from the author with page numbers.  When I actually come to use them in my work, I often paraphrase, of course, but when I’m making notes I prefer to write down what the author actually said so that I know I’ve got it right.  As for primary sources, I tend to collect them in folders, both digitally and often physically as well – I scrawl all over the physical copies. I use a lot of online databases, especially Early English Books Online, and boy do I miss access to the State Papers Online

I collect my notes on a project in a single working document, then start another one for the end product – be it paper, article or chapter – so that I can swap easily from one to another.  When I think I’ve finished what I’m working on, I copy them into my (now rather enormous) ‘research file’.  It might be unwieldy, but at least it makes searching fairly straightforward – there’s only one place to look.

Colin posted the results of the interviews, including mine, on the Marine Lives project website (and you can keep up to date with Marine Lives developments via the project blog). I thought it might be interesting to have a look at how other people conduct their research.  I developed my methods by trial and error over time, and I wonder whether it would benefit us to chat a bit more about the methods we use – I’m sure that there are ideas that other people have that would work for me too, or even be more efficient.  Up to now, I’d never thought to ask.

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As  the summer vacation seems to be a good time to take stock of where things are, I thought I’d share a few bits of news.  First, the bad news: I didn’t get the British Academy Postgraduate Research Fellowship for which I was shortlisted, which was disappointing to say the least. I am, however, very proud to have got through the first 800+ applicants in order to be shortlisted among the 120 or so candidates for the second stage. Apparently, due to a reduction in funding, fewer fellowships were given than normal.  The next step is to redraft it ready for the next call.

In good news, though, I’ve finished the draft of my monograph and it’s gone to the publishers’ readers for their reviews.  I’m continuing to work, holidays allowing, on another article, while my article for Literature Compass on epitaphs should be appearing any time now.  I will be returning to Holy Cross College in Bury to teach on their undergraduate early modern history course next year, and I’ve got a couple of secondary school students to tutor, which is a bit different and good fun.

In the autumn I will be presenting a paper at a conference on Mary I, and I’ve been invited to give a paper at the Oxford University early modern seminar series.  All in all, not a bad place to be.

In a follow up to my previous post, this is my reflective log on Weeks 3 and 4 of the online blended learning that I am undertaking this summer.

Week 3 of my FutureLearn Blended Learning Essentials course proved much more useful in a practical way. (Again, any sections in italics are definitions provided by the FutureLearn course.) It started by looking at just how flexible Moodle really is, and it was certainly interesting to evaluate the effectiveness of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) that we present to our students.

Then it went on to encourage the use of open tools such as Padlet, Prezi and various Google applications, including Google Hangouts.  I’m by no means an expert on internet security, but I’m not sure I’d want to force my students into having a presence on, for example, Twitter, Facebook or Google Hangouts just so that they could participate in my course.

Thinglink looks absolutely fascinating – I could probably lose hours of my life playing with it.  It allows you to make multimedia images with ‘hotspot’ links to other material, so you can add video, text or audio files, for example, to a background image, then embed the image into the VLE.  Oh, I can see such potential in that!!!

The course brought out the possibility of recording aspects of your class, such as summaries, using Audacity.  It can also be used to get students to record introductions, discussions, role plays or even short glossaries.  The average student will listen to recorded summaries 3 times.

I’m also excited by the Open Edicational Resources (OERs) such as Merlot.  I am happy to admit that I didn’t know these existed before this course. I wouldn’t necessarily want students looking through them, because I can’t be sure of the quality of everything, but I’d certainly be interested in using some of the material that I’ve found.

Curriculum design using the DADDIE model:

  • Define the expected outcomes
  • Analyse the learners’ needs, expectations and requirements
  • Design the course sequence, learning outcomes, activities and assessment
  • Develop the resources, learning activities, and tests
  • Implement them, making sure they are accessible, inclusive and usable
  • Evaluate the course with learners to check that it is effective in achieving the learning outcomes, and to discover any additional outcomes

The course recommended an approach that uses digital technologies to put into students’ hands the ability to demonstrate their learning.  It suggested Mahara as a tool which would allow students to create their own portifolio which they could then show to an employer.  But here again, I’m left wondering how effectively something like that could be used in an academic setting – the course seems heavily geared towards vocational courses. Not sure that an e-portfolio would help me much in my academic setting. I can see the possiblity for recording presentations, but the key ways in which we in history assess learning outcomes is through a written examination and it will be that way for a long time – we need to know that students can demonstrate critical evaluation skills over an extended piece of writing.  But I like the idea of being able to record audio feedback – it would save me a lot of time in class explaining what I’ve written in the margins of essays!

The case study suggested making the same material available in more than one way, as podcasts, documents and videos, perhaps, so that people could access the content that best suited their particular needs at the time.  I can see the advantages to this, but it’s a heavy workload to create all these materials if you’re (almost) entirely responsible for your own course in a university situation.

Flipped learning will be familiar to history lecturers, since it relies on the students turning up at class having prepared in advance.  This is, after all, what most of us expect of students who turn up for seminars and tutorials.

The course advocated the use of social media, including Twitter and Facebook, as a professional rather than personal tool.

I do have reservations, however, about blended learning and the use of technology in and as the classroom.  My experience of teaching a blended learning course involved using a forum for a 3 hour online session. Even when the students knew what questions were coming and had ready prepared answers, we struggled to get through the set tasks (not set by me) in the time allowed. Ask them anything extra, and you had a 10 minute wait while they tried to come up with an answer and attempted to type it. Fora weren’t created for this type of use, as the video made clear – they allow discussions to develop over time. Eventually, I went over to using a ‘chat’, but although it was quicker because it didn’t require us to refresh the screens, it was still not, to my mind, quite satisfactory.  It’s not in my power to change the design of the course, but, personally, I think that it would be improved by asking all students to have uploaded their contributions before the start of the 3 hour teaching time, and then use that teaching time to draw their attention to the salient points, or clear up misunderstandings, or be available to answer their questions.

I have also got some reservations about the FutureLearn course itself.  It almost seems based on the assumption that the only alternative to blended learning is passive chalk and talk. When I pointed this out in an online course comment, I was reassured by the number of  people who agreed.  One said “it could be easy to confuse ‘activity’ (browsing, clicking, watching videos) with actual ‘active learning’ where the student is really taking in the content on a deep level. Just as a teacher can deliver a good lesson without technology, they can deliver a bad one with it!”

In week 3, there was a live question and answer session which brought up the following among the many points it raised:

  1. Access to reliable fast broadband is still a problem even in parts of the U.K.  Smartphone activities are an option but that assumes that everyone has a smartphone. (I’ve only just bought one, mainly for the camera!  – and I don’t use the meagre data allowance because I have other things l want to spend my money on, not lots of data for my mobile phone)
  2. Not all VLEs have mobile apps and they tend only to be cut down versions. The risk is that because the full suite of tools is not available, the students might miss things.
  3. Nearpod is a really useful collaborative learning app that a lot of people were prepared to recommend.
  4. Choice of technology should be based on the learning outcomes you want to achieve.