March 22, 2007

Developing reflective practice

Had a conversation today about reflective practice and blogging. As stream leader of the Engineering Enterprise Excellence (EEE) MSc programme I have encouraged the use of blogs as a tool that assists development of reflective practice. One of the key aims of this programme is for the students to achieve deep learning, and reflection is an essential element of this learning process. Why use a blog for this? Why is a blog so much better than a diary? The blog can be used like a diary because you can create private entries. However, the power of this medium occurs when we choose to make our entries public. By making our reflective thoughts public, we engage the social aspects of learning - of inviting others to comment on our thoughts, helping us to build on our ideas and enabling us to become aware of and understand other views. This provides us with a deeper learning experience and with practice this reflective thinking will become ever more natural.

I recognise that some people are nervous about making their thoughts public.  It is very easy to restrict access to your blog to a circle of friends or colleagues in whom you can confide your thoughts. As you develop confidence in the positive nature of the bogging community, you will widen the circle and thus expand the opportunities for development of ideas. Your blog will become a learning log that will enable you to track the development of your thinking during your study year.

For the current EEE module I have incentivised the use of blogs by allocating marks for the number and quality of reflective entries. My hope is that some students will continue to use blogs when the module and assignment is over.  Perhaps next year I should use this approach from the beginning of the course to increase the probability that EEE students become lifelong reflective practitioners.

March 21, 2007

Enriching the learning environment

I have submitted a bid for funding research and development of the EEE MSc learning environment. The idea is to develop a synchronous conference environment. Nothing new in that you might say, telematic conferencing has been available for a long time. True. What is different about this project is to try to recreate the sense of co-location and socialisation that one has in face to face (F2F) meetings. I would like to create the on-line equivalent of allocating students to teams and asking the teams to meet in a syndicate room or the Learning Grid to discuss and plan a mini-project.

I have noticed how EEE students meet as teams at all hours of the day and night, usually in the Learning Grid. I feel that the facilities of the LG are not always needed and indeed, some of the meetings take place in the coffee shop. For the shorter meetings, how much time would be saved if they could hold the meeting without leaving their residence? For students who live off campus the benefits could be huge. Even if you live on campus, the walk from the LG to the residence during poor weather can be challenging.

If as tutor, I would like to meet the students or the students wish to discuss some aspect of their studies with me, virtual meetings become even more attractive. No longer would it be necessary to book a meeting room (usually in short supply). We could just switch on our high definition webcams at the appointed time and let the meeting begin with the contributors located around a table in a meeting room on screen.

Moving on to module syndicate work the tutor could ‘visit’ teams in their syndicate rooms, switching from one room to another as one would do physically. The students would ‘see’ the tutor as he/she ‘entered’ the room. Then of course, the tutor could ask one team to present to the others, promoting the presenting team to a position of prominence on the screen in both position and size so that they could present to the rest of the group. Presentation over, the team could be return to ‘syndicate room’ position and another team prepared to give a presentation.

Such a system would develop to be stateful. That is, similar to programs like MSN Messenger, you would be able to see who is on-line and set up impromptu meetings, much as you can do in Messenger but with full visual semantics to enable the social aspects of learning to enrich the learning environment.

Of course, such a system would be of even greater benefit to students who live far away from the campus, such as our industrial, part-time students, both at home and overseas. I do not envisage that such a system would completely replace F2F contact, no matter how many improvements were made in terms of bandwidth availability etc until perhaps the technology gives us full 3D high-definition…watch this space.

December 11, 2006

Leadership module

Last Friday (8 Dec 06) saw the end of the Leadership and Excellence (LE) module, one of the core modules for the EEE masters degree and an elective module for the 5 students from other streams. This year the three teams comprised a mix of elective and EEE students and from the outset I was pleasantly surprised at how well the elective students adapted to the different learning environment that has been created for the EEE degree. Without the benefit of the induction week and the previous Practices and Principles of Excellence module, the elective students seemed to embrace the lack of lectures, learning through completing mini-projects in groups and discussing topics of interest in seminars. All of this was supported through the use of forums, blogs and most importantly, the Learning Grid.

Everyone was encouraged to take the opportunity to lead a project or exercise and both Graeme and I were once again delighted at the depth of learning that the LE students demonstrated during project presentations and seminars. The two weeks finished with a planning operation for an outward bound exercise, called the Leadership Challenge. It was interesting to see the different approaches of the leaders and their team members. The exercise is effective because everyone forgets that it is an exercise and gets really immersed into achieving the best plan, scoring the most points and thererfore, everyone behaves naturally.

I thoroughly enjoyed this module. It was great to be in the company of the LE students – their energy and enthusiasm was sustained at a high level throughout the module and many of the reflections in the blogs showed a high degree of insight. I feel that they have achieved a huge amount in just two weeks and I hope that this will provide a foundation for their leadership practice when they leave in ten months time. Thanks everyone.

March 08, 2006

Feedback on EEE degree

I had an interesting discussion today with one of the Chinese students on the EEE Masters degree programme which has given me much food for thought. The conversation started with the student saying that she was tired – as a result of a lot of study – not a hedonistic lifestyle! This led the conversation to how much more tiring EEE modules are compared to more conventional taught masters modules. The reason for this is that the EEE modules are more demanding than sitting in lectures (and syndicate exercises) all day, taking notes as appropriate. The EEE modules require a lot of activity because they are team project based and some of the EEE modules have no lectures at all. The learning through discovery approach requires much more thought, analysis of the literature and discussion, leading to presentations or written submissions.

I commented on how different this experience must have been compared to the style of learning prevalent in China. She agreed and when I remarked that everyone on the course appeared to have adapted to it well, she replied that whilst everyone is in favour of the approach, some find it quite hard to contribute to some of the projects. The teamwork inherent in the programme has been very supportive and it is important to get the right mix of students, particularly in the early modules when the approach is new and quite daunting. As module tutor for the first two modules I had been unaware that some students were struggling during the in-module work. I was aware that some students were making more contributions to forum discussions, and individual performance in post module assignments showed a spread of ability, but nothing that raised concern. I recognise that it is not easy for a student who is struggling to go to the module tutor for help and it is equally if not more difficult for the other team members to advise the module tutor that one of their number is having difficulities. This is of major concern to me and we, the EEE tutors, will have to consider how to overcome this problem for future courses.

Another surprise to me was that the degree has a reputation, after 4 modules (the fifth has just started) for being difficult and that students have either decided not to take one of the EEE modules as an elective or have cancelled their EEE module elective. Apparently at least one potential student who intends to study at Warwick next year has decided not to apply for the EEE degree on the basis of its reputation. The EEE students are spending more time on in-module work and post module work than is intended. A module is supposed to represent 100 hours study and my modules break this into 60 hours of team based projects and 40 hours individual assignment. The in-module work is done over two weeks and more effort is applied than is intended. Most students are unable to do anything other than the in-module work during this period. Citing this week as an example, a project was set on RDD for a presentation on Friday. While it was still possible to do the project better, the students would work on it, even though this means that more time is spent on it than expected. This is a demonstration of critical autonomy and enthusiasm but if more time is spent on the module, this either takes time away from the project or it means that the study hours required for the degree increase from 1800 hours. While I am concerned that the degree's reputation may put off potential students from applying for it, there is no place on this course for students who want a masters degree for as little effort as possible. After all, our intention is to prepare students for a role that helps organizations to achieve excellence, and that is hardly suitable for students who are not motivated to study. When I suggested that for next year we should return the modules to a conventional taught format, the response was an emphatic no! She felt that this approach was resulting in deep learning which would be lost if we reverted to more traditional practices.

All of these points lead to an interesting dilemma. If we are unable to attract sufficient students to enrol on the programme because of its reputation for being difficult, the programme may become unviable and be withdrawn as was its predecessor, the Q&R degree. Somehow we have to get over the message that although the course is challenging, the gains are also great. Where better to face and succeed in challenges than in the safety of the University? Mistakes, if they happen, are opportunities for learning, are without censure and cannot harm anyone. I am really impressed with the EEE students. Their performance exceeds expectations. The trouble is that the reputation for difficulty is likely to be the message received by potential students rather than the great achievements of those who undertake the course. Perhaps some student profiles/testamonials on the EEE homepage might be a way of balancing the messages received by would be students and those considering taking EEE modules as electives.

Enough for this blog. I am pleased that I had this conversation and received the feedback. There is much to think about and do.

November 30, 2005

Leadership & Excellence module

Yesterday was a very intensive day of seminars and presentations and today was only slightly less intense. I am most impressed by the commitment to learning consistently demonstrated by the participants in this module. A couple of groups are making considerable use of forums – one extensively. The other groups appear to be meeting to discuss and make progress on their projects. The Learning Grid appears to be a popular venue.

There is some concern that there should be more time available to prepare for the seminars. The seminar subjects are decided on Monday morning and because there is a lot of work to be done to complete the projects, little time is available to research seminar topics. One suggestion was to decide the seminar topics the previous week. Another is to reduce the number of seminars. We seem to spend about 11/2 hours on each topic.

Looking at the output of the seminars I am starting to think that there is more to their composition than just common sense. I feel that the research done over the past week has informed their knowledge. Even if much of it is common sense, is that a problem? If common sense was in common practice then the practice of leadership would be greatly improved in many organizations. Need to think about this more – leaving it until the module has run its course and studying all of the opportunities to enrich the learning environment.

Today the groups presented their findings on performance appraisal and promotion and firing policies. There wasn't anything of significance that was missing in their presentations which were delivered with conviction and followed by intelligent discussion. Methinks there is a lot of learning going on at a deeper level than is often found on a 60-hour module.

November 24, 2005

Leadership definitions

Yesterday the groups working in the Leadership & Excellence module presented their definitions of leadership. I was impressed by the effort that had been put into this task, which was reflected in the quality of the output and their ability to discuss with passion and understanding the nuances associated with the practice of leadership.

I feel that this mode of learning through research/discovery rather than through lectures is leading to a better understanding of the topic being studied and certainly more energy is apparent.

November 22, 2005

Lifeboat leader

Yesterday the participants on the Leadership and Excellence module took part in an exercise named 'Lifeboat Leader'. They worked in groups of 4–6 and the scenario was a cruise ship that was expected to sink in just over an hour. Lifeboats were plentiful and the task was to select one from 6 people the group would prefer as their leader. The groups had to select a second choice as well. They were given short biographies of the candidates for leader and based on this information they had to make their choices.

I thought that the outcome was most interesting. Three of the four groups chose candidate A and the fourth group chose candidate B. This is not a question of right or wrong choices. The needs of the members of the fourth group were different to those of the other three groups, based on their expectations of a leader in that particular situation.

What are the implications of this for the practice of leadership?

If a leader is appointed to lead a group rather than be elected by the group as leader, the appointee should be conscious of the needs of the people following to ensure maximum influence towards the achievement of the goup's (leader's) goals.

Candidate B was second choice as leader for one of the groups but last choice for another. Therefore, if you find yourself in a position of leadership in which you would be the least natural choice of leader for the people you are intending to lead, there is some work to do to develop a positive influence in your group. On the other side of the coin, if the appointed leader remains blissfully unaware of the needs of the group, what is the probablilty of the group performing well?

This exercise was conducted as part of a study of what is leadership. Definition of leadership to follow tomorrow's presentations.

October 16, 2005

Early reflections (continued)

Writing about web page go.warwick.acuk/eee

The first module in the EEE programme has finished. Practices and Principles of Excellence (PPE) deals with the concepts that underpin the European Excellence Model.

The students on this course have risen to the challenge of a different style of learning. The module has run over 2 weeks instead of the usual one. Instead of lectures, the students have tackled seven team projects that collectively enable them to achieve the learning objectives of the module. Rather than attend lectures they have worked together to explore the PPE website and the library to answer the questions set. Thus, they have achieved learning through discovery and synthesis.

In the early days of the module, one of the students asked how this differed from a distance learning course. Although PPE encourages the use of the web through the PPE site, forums and blogs, there have been a number of student designated seminars and an interactive presentation from an external speaker. The total contact time with staff on this module has been about 27 hours, so hardly distance learning.

So has this module worked? My view is an unqualified yes. In the space of two weeks the students are able to work together in teams and they discuss the subject matter as though they were at the end of their modules, not the start. I have been most impressed with the quality of thought behind their presentations on their projects. They are clearly engaging with the material and not learning by rote.

I am sure that they have worked harder than expected at the beginning of the course, but equally I feel sure that as they hone the skills that they develop during these early weeks, they will become increasingly effective and they should start their major project with a greater degree of confidence than if they had been learning through lectures.

October 11, 2005

Early reflections

Writing about web page

The last two weeks have seen the start of a new masters degree in WMG called Engineering Enterprise Excellence or EEE. My colleagues and I have been workiing on this programme for about a year now and I have had the privilege of running the opening module which is called 'the Practices and Principles of Excellence' (PPE).

The framework upon which the degree is based is the European Excellence Model and we have developed 6 100-hour modules on various aspects of developing excellence. These, together with three exisiting modules comprise the taught part of the degree. One of our primary objectives in creating this degree was to guide the students towards the achievement of deep learning and critical autonomy.

We believe that the most effective way of doing this is to reduce transmission type learning to that which is essential. In this first module there is only one lecture session; an external speaker will share his experience of self-assessment practices leading to his company winning the EFQM. The majority of the module's learning objectives will be achieved by the students undertaking team projects in the form of questions to be researched and presented either orally or in writing. The remainder will be achieved through study for an individual assignment.

In my next entry I shall post some of my thoughts on the PPE learning environment. Is it different to a conventional taught module? There are early signs that it is, but more later.

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