Back in February, as part of the Embodiment and New Materialism conference in Lancaster, I was part of a drama workshop which took place in Lancaster Castle.  It was somewhere that I’d been intending to visit for a long time, but had somehow never got around to it. So over the Easter break, we all went on the castle tour to get a proper look round.


Of course, one of the most interesting things about the castle for me is that it was where the Lancashire witches were tried.  Living near Pendle and teaching witchcraft as part of the undergraduate early modern history survey course meant that it was going to be a place I wanted to see.  Tradition has it that they were held in the medieval Well Tower before their trial.


But there were plenty of other good reasons to go. It’s an amazing place – the most secure court in the country on account of the keep walls, which are 3 metres thick!  It’s a hotch-potch of buildings clustered on a site that was first used in the Roman period.  Several buildings date from the medieval period, while the women’s prison was built in 1821 on the panopticon design.

The tour was excellent, and although it’s forbidden to take photographs in some parts of the castle because it is a working court, the are areas where photography is allowed.  The tour was excellent, finishing in the cells, where there was a display of prison clothing designed to humiliate the inmates and make them easy to spot if they escaped.  The condemned cell was rather more luxurious than the ordinary cells.


Another reason for my interest in the castle, though, is that my mother lived in Lancaster as a child and walked to school alongside the castle each day.



I have a confession to make…

I quite enjoy marking.

There.  I said it aloud. I know we all moan about marking – grading papers is laborious and can take up a lot of time, especially if you have a lot of students.  But actually, there are several aspects of it that I enjoy.  One of them is the moment when I come across a student quoting from a work written by someone I know.  For some reason, it always makes me smile.  That happened this afternoon and it’s one reason why I thought I would write this quick post.

Another reason is that I like helping people learn, which I suppose is why I went into education in the first place.  My tutor at Edge Hill, the lovely Darren Murrall, once described me as a natural born teacher and I suspect my children would testify to the fact that I can’t help myself.

But the main reason that I enjoy marking is because it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to see students improve.  It’s particularly great when a student takes on board advice that you’ve given and pulls a really significant improvement out of the bag, and that was what happened just before I knocked off work this afternoon.  Not just a smile, but a big grin and a good feeling.



Last Friday saw the publication of my first full length, peer-reviewed article, Verse Epitaphs and the Memorialisation of Women in Reformation England, commissioned by Liz Oakley-Brown when she was editor of the Renaissance section of Literature Compass.  I’m happy to say that it comes with its own teaching and learning guide, as well as supporting materials such as a ballad recording and a video abstract, although when I try to access the video abstract from the Literature Compass page, it takes me not to my abstract but to one by Jolyon Thomas.  Not that I’m not interested in the religious policy of modern Japan…  And frankly, I’d much rather watch someone other than me…

Anyway, it’s a nice way to start what promises to be an eventful week, because on Thursday I will be speaking at the Early Modern British History Seminar at Oxford University.  The title of my paper is ‘Text, Truth and Tonality in Mid-Tudor Ballads’. 

I’m also enjoying getting to know a bit more about twentieth century history, both for my tutoring of GCSE history pupils and my teaching at Holy Cross College for Liverpool Hope, although juggling all my different roles is proving interesting.

Before the summer vacation I completed the FutureLearn Blended Learning Essentials – Getting Started course, so when it finished I thought it probably made sense to sign up for the follow-up course on Embedding Practice.  As someone who teaches on a blended learning degree course delivered by Liverpool Hope University through Holy Cross College in Bury, these courses are providing useful Continuing Professional Development.  But in the spirit of using technology to assist learning, I have decided again to keep my reflective log here on the blog.

The course leaders define blended learning as

an appropriate mix of face-to-face and online learning activities, using traditional instruction, guided support and independent learning, underpinned by the use of digital technologies and designed using strong pedagogical principles, to support learner engagement, flexibility and success.

One of the first activities asked what learners think about blended learning.  Well, as you might expect, some answers were more nuanced than others:

  • It generates more enthusiasm because it’s  more fun
  • It generates competition between students which makes them want to do well
  • It makes it easy to collaborate, because students can work on one thing together but on their own computers
  •  Some identified it as significantly better than pen, paper and text book because you can do things that they can’t do – demonstrations, for example.
  • It offers the ability to check what you need to do whenever you like (at undergraduate level it would have been normal for years to provide this kind of information in a course handbook although I accept that at school it was less so).
  • You can use interactive quizzes to test yourself.  this helps you to find flaws and gives you an immediate response)
  • It allows you to complete things at your own speed. (I’m not sure I agree with that – you still have to keep alongside the rest of the class in order to progress with class activities).
  • Foremost, it is easily accessible – it makes education available when you want, where you want.  There are disadvantages to this though: if you’re trying to do all your studying on the bus, it might not be the optimal learning environment.

The video made the point that blended learning works well at the college because it is “carefully managed and well supported.  They’ve embedded it into their practice by engaging staff and listening to learners”.

The next activity asked me to suggest ways in which teachers could collect evidence of learning during a session teaching aromatherapy (yes it’s a bit far removed from academic history, but I knew that when I signed up for it, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the implications of moving the techniques from vocational FE to academic HE later).  First off, they can make sure that people appear to be paying attention to the teacher speaking.  While doing the planning and practical activities they could walk round the classroom and watch what the students were doing.  This helps the teacher to see if they have understood the passive, listening activity.  They could also have collected in the recipes of three suggested mixtures.  The course leaders also pointed out that the computer aromatherapy programme gives the students instant visual feedback on their choices, while promoting discussion and planning on the part of the students.  Here again, the teacher can listen to what the students say to identify evidence of how well the students learn the concepts they need.  In summary

The pie chart feedback encourages experimenting. The digital tool records their sequence of experiments. The collaborative task promotes discussion, which the tutor can reflect on. And the students record their own results, which provides evidence of what they have learned.

 The sixth lesson was to look at an existing learning plan and see how technology could be used to enhance it.  It showed that by adding blended learning activities to the vocational lesson, the students were engaged in more active learning. Now, I still have a bit of a problem with how to adapt some of these activities for the sorts of higher level, critical-thinking skills that I am trying to encourage in my students.  One bit of advice did have resonances, however, because it related to the ways in which students upload their own work to a website for comparison.  It didn’t sound dissimilar to the chat-room activity that I conduct fortnightly with my students.  It suggested that they could use their own research

to produce a digital report, and then upload that to the class website. And then, the next class meeting, this means that instead of just discussing what they found, both learners and the tutor can make use of the website to compare their shared experiences, and then make an edited record of the best bits of their reports. It’s a great way to summarise what they found that’s relevant to the intended learning outcome.

I wonder if it’s possible to do this with the student analyses of the secondary sources which they study each week?  If I could persuade the students to upload their responses to a forum ahead of the session, we could then use that as a starting point for an online discussion which identified the most important factors, or where students had got a particular idea.  I wonder if this would make better use of our online time than just reading through 12 sets of answers to the same questions without having time to engage in any debate…  There is a problem though, because I usually find that my students aren’t actually able to type, which means that they are unable to answer anything other than seen questions.  They can’t type fast enough to answer off the cuff questions.

From a management point of view, blended learning technology offers the ability to track the amount of work done by individual students and the progression of students under the supervision of different teachers.  The course pointed out that it is possible to track progress towards learning outcomes (either as a teacher or manager) through

  • Reading comments in a forum
  • Tracking learners’ VLE activity
  • Results from automated tests
  • Using voting tools in response to your questions in class

The data generated by educational technologies such as Moodle are known as ‘learning analytics’ or ‘activity data’.  There are, however, some significant ethical issues surrounding learning analytics, particularly with regard to clarity, privacy and validity.

 I also had a go with an electronic lesson planner, or as it prefers to call itself, a learning designer. It was useful to be able to see instantly how much time  you had used up, and the pie chart made it easy to see the proportions of different types of learning activity.