December 2016

As it’s Christmas, I thought I’d share a photo of my desktop Christmas tree, which has grown a bit since last year.  I bought it a new pot as a present.

I am, as usual, incredibly busy.  It never seems to stop.  Even when I find myself saying ‘things should ease off next week’, or ‘when I’ve finished x and y I’ll be able to take things a bit easier’, it never quite seems to work out.  I finished the term for Liverpool Hope a couple of weeks ago, and at the same time finished teaching one of my GCSE English and History pupils for a few weeks.  One had already taken a break for mock exams.  So finally I was able to go back to writing my Pilgrimage of Grace article, which I had left earlier in the year to prepare lessons on Of Mice and Men, 20th century European history and civil rights in the USA.  What’s been tough about this semester is that nothing that I’ve done has counted for more than one thing – very thing has been discrete and different.   The private pupils are all studying different topics, which are different again to my teaching for Liverpool Hope and the A-level lectures that I gave for Sovereign Education.  And of course, they are all different to the subject of my own research.  Ah yes, back to that – at the moment, it’s the Pilgrimage of Grace.

I enjoyed spending a week or so on my article in the run up to Christmas.  Not least because it was in better shape than I remembered it being.  At the moment, I’m trying to find out whether there was something particularly subversive about performance, because one of the officials seems particularly interested in whether or not one of the verses was intended to be sung.  When I’ve finished that section, I’m going to send it to a couple of friends to read, in the hope that I can get it sent to a journal early in the new year.  It’s not the only piece of writing in the pipeline, as I’m expecting to hear any day now whether or not the readers have recommended that the book of the thesis be published.  Back in September or October I gave a paper about Mary I, and the proceedings have also been submitted to a publisher.  I’ve also got the germ of another article buzzing in my brain, but sadly it doesn’t look like I’m going to get anywhere near starting the proper research for that in the near future. Because as always, there’s just too much else to do.  I have to do some preparation for the last few weeks of the 20th century history course; I have to finish the Pilgrimage of Grace article; I have to prepare work for my private pupils on factual writing, Romeo and Juliet, Indian history…  I also have a paper to prepare for a conference in Canterbury in a couple of weeks, organised by the very lovely Una McIlvenna.  I think I know more or less what I’m going to say, but I have to organise it!

Merton College

Merton College

And so to the travelling – there’s been quite a lot of that too.  Teaching for Hope in Bury, teaching in Garstang, taking staff training courses at Lancaster University, lecturing for Sovereign in Manchester and Birmingham, and the Autumn highlight: giving a paper at the early modern seminar at Oxford, which was a truly amazing experience and gave me so much to think about for the Pilgrimage of Grace article.  More on that later, I hope.

The second week of the Future Learn Blended Learning Essentials course involved several video tutorials on how to use Moodle more effectively, which was very useful as I’ve never quite managed to get myself to a Moodle course.  I had no idea that Moodle provided such varied tools for helping students to learn, rather than just as a place to put course materials together.  There was a video tutorial, for example, on how to set up a peer review process for student work, with the idea being that students are given criteria to assess in each others’ work in order to help them improve the final version of their own.  I’m not yet certain how that would work in my setting, but it’s got more potential than just asking students to comment on each others’ work.

The course also looked at how to encourage students to collaborate effectively online – something that I find difficult.  When setting the students presentation work in pairs or trios, it always seems that the students take one or two of the questions each, dividing the work up rather than working collaboratively.  The course also highlighted a fascinating app called iObserve, which allows teachers to make digital video recordings of student presentations and practical assessments alongside on-the-spot criteria checking.  It provides a single source of learner data about their progression.  Sadly for me, because it is a specialist piece of software developed for a particular educational purpose, it isn’t free, but I can see great potential in it to allow us to assess the presentations that are part of our course requirements but at present, we have little means of formally marking or providing meaningful feedback to our students – after all, they can’t see themselves giving their own presentations.

There was also some discussion of sharing resources, both within and between institutions.  Although we share within universities, inter-institutional sharing is the exception rather than the norm.  I wonder if, sometime in the future, major cross-institutional grant-funded projects could produce courses that were delivered by all the grant-holders between them, with video lectures from specialists at all the universities combined to create a course that was offered at more than one institution.  Quite possibly, that’s just a pipe dream, and it almost certainly has disadvantages, but although I haven’t thought about it long and hard, I just wondered if it might be a way of increasing the impact of our research on the academic environment and utilising the specialist skills of a group of researchers, while freeing up their time to take that research beyond the universities.

As a result of the activities in week 1, I made some changes to the way I conducted the online session last week.  All the students posted their answers to the seminar questions on the Moodle ahead of the session, and then we used two windows during the online contact time: one so that we could view the forum posts and the other was a chat window so that we could discuss the main themes that came out of everybody’s answers.  I found this much more satisfying, as it meant that the teaching was more active and that everyone could discuss their answers and ask questions instead of just posting and reading each others’ work.  I used a question and answer forum on Moodle so that students had to post their own answer before they could read those of other students.  As the course progresses, and the students settle into a routine, I might ask them to peer review each other’s work, as this was something that was touched on in Week 2, but I think they need more time to find their feet before I attempt that.  I’ve also provided them with a student forum where they can help each other out and discuss course issues between our face-to-face sessions.