Teaching English Studies Through Blended Learning

Yesterday I and approximately 30 other colleagues attended Teaching English Studies Through Blended Learning at the School of English, Leeds. Many thanks to David Higgins for organising what was a lively and stimulating event.  I think we all came away with copious notes and heads full of ideas about teaching HE English in the twenty-first century — in part in relation to e-learning, but by no means exclusively.  I particularly appreciated the mix of presentations and opportunties for reflection and discussion.

I kicked off proceedings with “@likeabatoutofhell @ClosetCase @MsDisillusion @TheBlooferLady: Tweeting the Victorians — New Adventures in #OnlineEnglishTeaching”.  This was a way for me to demonstrate how I have integrated a range of discussion forum activities across my two Victorian Literature modules (many described in detail in other posts on this blog).  It was my first chance to share my Fin de Siecle Twitter session with the wider world, in which my class chose a character from a range of late nineteenth-century texts, also chose a twitter name for them, and then tweeted as Dorian Gray/Dr Jekyll/Dracula/assorted New Women characters, etc.  But we did this all within the VLE discussion forum and not on Twitter.  This provoked interesting discussion: some colleagues told me I could have done this in Twitter if I’d wanted, although I expressed concerns about the rest of the twittersphere potentially joining in.  The ‘walled garden’ metaphor for the VLE came up (which for some is a good thing; for some not), and questions about boundaries in online learning spaces.  I will post about this Twiiter-like activity in more detail another time.

Fiona Douglas (Leeds) talked about developing self-assessing interactive study skills activities for students (and, importantly, NOT calling it study skills but ’Studying and Researching English’) using Articulate software.  Greg Garrard (Bath Spa) then  introduced us to his Poetiks poem reader, which can be used as a tool to aid students with understanding scansion.  I must admit that I feel slightly queasy at the prospect of a computer somehow being able to ‘read’ a poem.  My first mischevious thought was to wonder whether if I tried putting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh through (longer than Paradise Lost) it would blow up.  Greg is a powerhouse of radical and queasy-making ideas to other English lecturers, as one of our subsequent small-group discussions revealed.  He’s an advocate of cutting down the number of texts we teach students and slow reading.

Alison Johnson (Leeds) used the database Scopus to show how many articles are being written about blended learning, and gave two of her PhD students, Alberto Gomez and David Wright, the opportunity to have their say about how online learning facilities available to them at Leeds had helped their studies.  Laurence Publicover showed us the blog he’d started to accompany a module on ‘Literature and the Sea’, and Paul Maddern took us round The Seamus Heaney Centre Digital Archive, which is a treasure trove of recorded poetry performances.

There’s lots more to say about the day, and I may well post again.  In the meantime Ms E-Mentor has decided it’s time to join the twittersphere, and I’m now tweeting as @MsEmentor.

Online Discussion in English Studies: A Good Practice Guide

Finally, finally Online Discussion in English Studies: A Good Practice Guide to Design, Moderation and Assessment (English Subject Centre Report No. 21) is out!  It’s been a long time in the making but this Guide to using discussion forums in English Studies (and beyond) has been a collaborative venture between many colleagues, both at the University of Wolverhampton and beyond.  Its genesis is in e-learning-related projects carried out by myself, Ben Colbert and Frank Wilson at Wolverhampton, with Hilary Weeks as our research assistant between approximately 2004-06.  Out of these came an English Subject Centre project, which included a day conference, several seminars to colleagues and finally this Guide.  Wolverhampton colleagues Candi Miller and Jackie Pieterick came on board relatively late in the day to add a chapter on using discussion forums in Creative Writing, and Christina Lee (Nottingham), Matt Green (Nottingham), Stacy Gillis (Newcastle), Heather Beck (Manchester Metropolitan), and Michael Symmons Roberts (Manchester Metropolitan) all added case studies from their various different teaching contexts.  Brett Lucas, the English Subject Centre’s Learning Technologist, has been a terrific support from start to finish as well, and has put a lot of work into getting the Guide looking as good as it does.

I’m personally very proud of this work, by which I mean both my contributions to it, but also the Guide as a whole.  I’ve had reason to be reminded recently of the ways in which pedagogically-focussed work can be regarded as ‘in tension’ with subject-based research, and the genuine difficulties there can be for academics who wish to do both.  Someone somewhere sometime will try and force you to choose between them.  When I started my career as an academic I was as dismissive as some no doubt still are of pedagogical research versus the clearly ‘more important’ subject-based research.  This changed for me when I undertook a Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education at Wolverhampton — the kind of teaching qualification that new lecturers now have to do.  I tried the resist the cynicism I saw in some of my colleagues who were undertaking the PGCHE and genuinely welcomed the opportunity it gave me to reflect on my teaching in a focussed way, underpinned by reading and research. In the Technology-Supported Learning module I went from being the student at the back of the class with her arms folded — all body language saying “this is nothing to do with me” — to someone enthusiastic about what using discussion forums in my Victorian classes might mean.  Everything I have done with e-learning since came from this.  At no point did I stop thinking about myself as an English Lecturer (or researcher), and I remain very firmly committed to my subject as the focus for the pedagogical thinking I do, but the Good Practice Guide has broader appeal beyond the discipline of English too. There’s no doubt to me that my bits of the Guide are what I would call ‘subject-based research’ too, but whether future REF panels will agree remains to be seen.

E-Learning Background

It all began for me several years ago when I undertook a postgraduate teaching certificate in Higher Education and there was a module on ‘Technology Supported Learning’.  I sat at the back with my arms folded for most of it and thought “this doesn’t have much to do with me”.  The assessment, however, required me to discuss how I was using an aspect of technology-supported learning in my teaching, which I wasn’t.  In desperation I spent a couple of long evenings locked in my work office with my computer, a takeaway and Wolverhampton’s guide to using our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).  I then tried out a four-week experiment with my Level 3 Fin de Siècle undergraduate class.  I set up a few online activities and encouraged them to join in.  Some did, some didn’t, but enough did for me to be able to evaluate their responses to what they’d done online via a questionnaire, and based on those responses I took the leap of making a much more intergated online component part of my two Level 3 Victorian classes for the following academic year.

Getting to grips with any new teaching practice or approach is always a question of trying it out and seeing what works, refining if necessary.  There’s been a fair amount of that over the subsequent years, perhaps particularly around the area of assessing online.

I couldn’t now, however, imagine teaching these two modules without their online component.  They’d be lesser courses without it.

About Ms E-Mentor

This blog started in 2009 about an academic year in the life of me, Rosie Miles, who teaches English at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK.  The aim is to give a ‘hands on’ account of being an e-tutor on the courses I teach that have an integrated online component, using our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) WOLF (the Wolverhampton Online Learning Framework).
Rosie Miles

The modules which I have used to develop online activities both concern the Victorians: one is a module on the ‘high’ Victorian period, and the other on the Fin de Siècle.  My blog aims to describe the various activities and other related issues about being an -e-tutor.  I sometimes also stray off topic into other poetry and literature interests.

In 2011 I was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship, in part for the online work I have done in English Studies.  I was also an E-Learning Consultant for the HEA English Subject Centre for several years until its closure in July 2011 and visited HE English Departments around the UK demoing some of the activities I describe in my blog.  If you are in an HE English Department and would like to see more of what I describe here then please invite me.  R.Miles@wlv.ac.uk