Collaborate is now coming to the end of our third full month of work, and is progressing well. We have our first Steering Group meeting very soon, and our first JISC Interim report is due at the end of March, so this seemed like a ideal opportunity to post a summary of what Collaborate has been up to.
Working together: New relationships
Perhaps the most important thing we’ve been doing is learning to work with each other. The two full-time members of the core project team are new to education enhancement, new to each other and new to the project director, so we’ve been exploring our strengths and weaknesses and getting to know each other better. How well we understand our roles, and what we expect from each other, will to a large part determine how well we can meet our project objectives.
There’s also been the Extended Project Team and other members of Education Enhancement division to get to know, but we’re confident now that all the basic relationships and understandings are in place, and so far we have had very positive reactions to the ideas and work we’ve been doing. It’s a very heartening feeling to know that we are surrounded by so much expertise, and willing expertise at that!
Planning the process: Mapping out milestones and their tasks
With so many people to engage with, and a long list of objectives and outcomes to complete, it’s important that we have a strong project infrastructure to help guide us. We’re making extensive use of new technologies here, specifically using Google Apps for all our project creation and sharing needs, and the complementary project planning tool ‘Manymoon‘ to help manage and remind us of key milestones and tasks that need to be completed.
Google Apps in particular is proving exceptionally valuable by removing all barriers to collaboration between the project team members. By creating shared collections that map into our project plans, and creating documents within these shared spaces, project team members can instantly access any piece of work that has been created by any other team member in a meaningful context, and – crucially – can tell immediately by visual cues in the collections what has been recently been worked on. Creating and sharing has become so seamless and simple that it’s naturally making us more collaborative. Add into this mix the use of Google Hangouts for video chats, YouTube for editing and hosting video interviews and Blogger for our video wall, and you can see how we’ve started to use the rich tapestry of products within the Google Apps suite to ensure we’re as productive and innovative as we can be. And this is just the start …
Engaging with stakeholders: Interviews and more
We’re now well into our baselining process, which runs until July, working with each College in turn to understand how the three key Collaborate threads of assessment, employability and technology are being implemented in practice. We are using two techniques here, interviewing key individuals who have rich knowledge about these issues due to their positions within the Colleges, and at the same time running keyword searches on module descriptor databases to produce a broad statement of planned learning and teaching activity. These are then combined into a report which summarises the outputs of both, again using the three threads of assessment, employability and technology.
The first parts of our baseline review have now been submitted to JISC, which includes the introduction explaining our approach and also our report on the Business School, and we are currently working with the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, the Flexible Combined Honours Programme, and have just started discussions with the College of Life and Environmental Sciences. After the Easter break we’ll be moving on to the last two Colleges, Humanities and Social Sciences.
This baselining process is a key part of understanding the broader picture of assessment, employability and technology at Exeter, but is also our chance to engage with staff and students across the institution and to start to tease out which modules might be appropriate for more in depth work. We’re slowly building our list of possible module choices, and in turn trying to decide how best to engage staff, students and employers together. It’s been fascinating to see just how embedded some employers already are in the various work across the University, but at the same time no one seems as yet to be engaging with employers at the kind of level that Collaborate is suggesting, so it will be interesting to see what we can achieve that’s new in this area.
Understanding the issues: Literature reviews and discussions
Alongside the practical work of engaging with staff, students and employers, we’ve made a commitment to base any interventions on a strong academic foundation. From traditional literature reviews and discussions, to meetings and discussions with colleagues who are also being funded by JISC in this area, we’re ensuring that we’re aware both of the best thinking about assessment, employability and technology, and also the best practical work that has already been done in this area. We were very fortunate in this respect to be visited by Graham Gibbs earlier this week, one of the leading thinkers on assessment globally, and had the opportunity to discuss with him the project and our thinking so far.
The core members of the project team itself have quite different backgrounds and experience in these areas, and this dissonance is having a markedly positive effect by provoking new thinking and insights between us. From a personal perspective the most productive working relationships I’ve ever had have been in situations where there’s mutual respect, but at the same time lots of disagreement, so personally I see this dissonance as an important way of generating innovative thinking.
Key challenges, beyond issues of technology, are continuing to emerge from the mapping process that are especially important to the project. For example:
- The literature review is helpful in terms of recognising the ‘gap’ in curriculum provision and reinforces what employers have told us. The literature also outlines that authentic assessment may be a means for ‘narrowing the gap’, but available definitions of ‘authentic’ don’t give much clue to how the curriculum might be developed.
- Exeter is largely a non-vocational University and ‘authentic’ ways of working are not the norm. Some students at Exeter have almost no opportunities for anything other than traditional written essays and largely individual work, and alternative forms of writing – even reports – have not been explored. Even present-day ‘authentic’ academic writing is not widely explored – for example, journal writing, literature reviews, book reviews, blogs, newspaper articles, twitter.
- The literature also highlights a variety of perceptions in relation to Assessment and Feedback Principles, but within these Principles there currently tends to be far less attention on the forms of assessment than on feedback per se. Although as a project team we strongly acknowledge the role of feedback, attention will remain on the design of assessment: if the majority of assessments remain traditionally academic, there is little room for gaining a range of academic and employability skills, and feedback will serve only to reinforce a narrow spectrum of experience.
- Even where students are engaged in a curriculum that is more ’employability-led’ than the majority of modules at Exeter, there seems to be little focus on having a vocabulary to describe the skills gained, even though there is clear recognition by students of how essential such modules are.
- Even where employers are involved within programmes, either coming in to the University or with students going into the workplace, assessment remains traditionally academic; employers are rarely, if ever, involved in assessment design, though there are some examples of employers being involved in marking of presentations.
Communicating our progress: Meeting & Blogging
Lastly we’ve been communicating what we’ve doing, by meeting up locally with interested parties and introducing them to the project, by attending seminars and representing Collaborate nationally, and by writing both here in this blog and also within our Collaborate Voices video wall blog. With some help from colleagues at Education Enhancement we’ve produced a Collaborate handout which we’re widely disseminating.
The people we’ve met so far seem genuinely interested and excited by the ideas we’re generating and the direction the project is taking. We’re conscious the project is ambitious, but are encouraged to have the support and enthusiasm of so many colleagues already, not to mention that of employers and students, and are looking forward to meeting and working with many more people over the coming months.
We’re now reaching the point where we can start turning all our ideas and discussions into concrete proposals for colleagues … but that will have to wait for another blog post.