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Teaching and Learning News, May 2015 Teaching Ideas 

Highlighting good practice within the University

Articles by Michael O'Donoghue (Manchester Institute of Education), Andrew Gale (Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering), Tine Breban (Arts. Languages and Cultures).

The first cohort of participants on Manchester's new PG Certificate in Higher Education (PgCertHE) commenced their studies in October 2014. Most participants will opt for two or four course units, each of which requires the completion and submission of coursework for assessment which meets specific learning objectives. For the course unit 'Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Higher Education' the form coursework may take is not limited to the traditional essay; participants may couple together online, video, or other resources they are already developing with a piece of writing which examines the design and purpose of these materials through the lens of teaching and learning theory.

Being the tutor of this course gives rise to a unique situation as you get to hear about and see all kinds of ideas and initiatives from the different Faculties and areas (academic, e-learning, and administration) across the University. The themes selected for assignments often reflect the issues or concerns colleagues are working to address; as a result, the set of assignment themes selected becomes a kind of institutional barometer against which one can see common themes and initiatives. This process also highlights cases of good practice within the University which are worthy of sharing outside of the TLA course unit, not least because they may offer solutions or approaches to issues other colleagues are addressing. This process is echoed in one of my other roles as one of two coordinators of the Faculty of Humanities New Academics Programme (HNAP).  

Two colleagues highlighted from these programmes are Andrew Gale (Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering) and Tine Breban (Arts, Languages and Cultures). Andrew Gale has explored his own practice with social media for study on the PgCertHE, whilst Tine Breban's initiative examines the value of involving students in research studies. Both colleagues offer approaches to practice which may enhance the student learning experience with the possibility for adaptation to other fields and disciplines.

The contributors, Andrew Gale, Mike O'Donoghue, Tine Breban

Left to right, Andrew Gale, Mike O'Donoghue, Tine Breban

The potential for blogging and micro-blogging in teaching: Personal reflections on practice

Professor Andy Gale - Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, EPS

This article is about my perceived need to critically develop teaching practice in relation to blogging and tweeting. It is derived from an assignment I wrote for the new UoM PgCertHE course. The conclusions constitute practical suggestions for future habits.

Four trends appear to be driving the use of new technologies in higher education (Horizon Report, 2010): high levels of online resources; an
emphasis on meeting the expectations of students and informal personalised learning; an increase in the application of cloud computing and students’ academic work being increasingly more collaborative. Continuous developments in Web 2.0 practices within higher education are leading to a more scholarly and reflective approach to university teaching and support in terms of training, eLearning coaching and course design (Horizon Report, 2010; OECD, 2008).

Ramsden (2009) discusses the application of micro-blogging (e.g. Twitter; shorter than blogging, less reflective and somewhat detached). He argues that the two styles of blogging may be used together in education, particularly within portfolio based learning, where an e-portfolio: "a purposeful aggregation of digital items - ideas, evidence, reflections, feedback, etc; which 'presents' a selected audience with evidence of a persons learning and or ability". He introduces two applications of micro-blogging: dissemination of readings and the facilitation of discussion, between students and lecturer, in and outside of the classroom.

I started micro-blogging four years ago, triggered by a new young colleague using Twitter in and outside of the classroom. I found that Twitter began to serve as a major source of news and enabled me to "push" articles and relevant public domain digital items to students, which they liked. I concluded that it was worth keeping up the habit of tweeting. Eventually, I embedded my tweeting habit in Blackboard, collaborating with colleagues to stream Twitter in the VLE on individual course units and whole courses via hashtags. Another young blogger colleague, with whom I had experimented and published on social media in teaching and learning (Saunders and Gale, 2012) said that she started blogging after having a paper rejected; determined to publish regardless and so I started too, seeking support from a Faculty eLearning specialist. She began regular coaching sessions with me to build my blog site. In hindsight I would have worked on the pedagogic advantages of blogging before starting.

Intuitively, I realized that I needed to be clear about how blog posts can be used within a pedagogic framework, realizing that blog posts can be classified by type. At a two-day workshop with the University of Cumbria and Sellafield Limited, I had a profound reflective experience when discussing the "silo" structure of Sellafield Limited; typical of the nuclear sector. The organisation has a classical role culture structure. During discussions on how to design an education and training framework, it dawned on me that by using Bruner’s learning theory (Theory Fundamentals), a spiral approach to additive learning, we could configure the Sellafield functions (disciplines) as a cylinder, with core knowledge and practice at the centre, shared by all functions at all levels (see figure). I realized that we could use blog posts to pace learning within the structure, creating a cumulative body of knowledge, supporting a fundamental learning spiral.     

Diagram representing spiral learning

Spiral Learning and Blog Posting

The emerging categories of blog post might be:

  • Help and tips on Learning to Learn
  • Clarification of Core/Threshold Concepts
  • Explanations: theory, process, practice
  • Revision support: education and training
  • Repository of knowledge

The advantage of Web 2.0 based blogging, compared with a VLE blogging tool, is that a cumulative "repository" of knowledge can be developed over time, allowing future access to blog posts – open, available, easily updated and re-posted. The posts can, for example, suggest drawing on an experience reflectively. However, another post might start with an observed phenomenon, tangible event or case study. Abstract concepts could be postulated and students encouraged to experiment.

In conclusion I decided on an Action Plan:

  1. Develop and maintain a framework for blogging.
  2. Create a “reservoir” of blog posts and micro-blog posts.
  3. Collect evidence of benefit to students and myself.
  4. Seek a community of practice.
  5. Turn everything I produce into a blog post - a tip from Saunders (2015).
  6. See personal development in terms subject matter expertise.


NMC Horizon Report, 2014 Higher Education Edition, Educause.
Accessed 19.01.2015.

NMC Horizon Report, 2010 Higher Education Edition, Educause.
Accessed 19.01.2015.

Learners: Initial 
the effects 
o f
School­-Aged Learners.
Paris: Centre 

Accessed 19.01.2015.

Ramsden, A.(2009) Using micro- blogging 
in your teaching 
An introductory 

Unpublished Discussion 

Accessed 19.01.2015.

Saunders, F. C. and Gale, A. W. (2012), Digital or didactic: Using learning technology to confront the challenge of large cohort teaching. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(6): 847–858.

Saunders, F. (2015) Personal communication.
Accessed 19.01.2015..

Theory Fundamentals Accessed 19.01.2015.

Organizing a course unit to optimise student research

Dr. Tine Breban, Linguistics and English Language

Challenges that many of us struggle with are balancing teaching and research and keeping research-active in semesters that are teaching-heavy. One solution is to do research with your students. Level three undergraduate students in English Language and Linguistics can choose from a range of course units that have a research component. One of those units is The Grammar of English Noun Phrases (LELA31001). This unit is concerned with the accurate description and modelling of the English noun phrase and all its components, or “writing your own grammar of the English noun phrase”. The bulk of assessment (70%) is awarded to a research project executed in group or individually. The core idea is that students have to research a previously undescribed or misunderstood phenomenon in the noun phrase. The project brief is that a suitable topic requires very little or no literature review. The students collect data from the British National Corpus (BNC), which is freely accessible through the university. The quality aimed for is that of a conference presentation.

In the three years I have been teaching this course unit, I have gradually altered the course outline to optimise the conditions for the research project and to follow its timing. The structure of the contact hours was radically changed. Instead of tutorials in even weeks spread out over the semester, a first set of tutorials focussing on learning how to use the BNC and on how to translate a research question into a corpus query are scheduled in weeks 1-5, and a second set is used for a presentation afternoon in week 10. The week 1-5 timetabling ensures students know the methodological tools before having to submit a project proposal featuring the research topic, questions and BNC queries in week 6; the week 10 presentation afternoon provides a milestone and an opportunity for feedback. The content of the lectures was swapped around so that the lectures in weeks 7-9 cover easier to understand content and open up time for exercises on detecting patterns in data and interpreting and explaining them.

Research teams are given the opportunity to sign up for a 45 minute long individual feedback session to discuss data analysis. Office hours are another (well-used) opportunity for feedback at any time in the project. Even with a small cohort of 15 to 30 students, guiding the research projects is time-intensive. However, the investment pays off as it enhances the quality of the students’ work. This in turn makes it more likely that the students’ research directly contributes to my own research. Past projects have led to a paper on proper noun modifiers in which the reports of three students taking the course units were cited and a joint paper presented together with a student. The main advantages of the research project for students are that they can work at their own level with different and tailored guidance, which very often results in them achieving a high final mark. But more importantly, they are given the chance to contribute pioneering research and to create knowledge.