Remembering My Hat

7th May 2013

What I learned from working on K101: Old reflections

Just after I had finished working in production on K101, I wrote these reflections on what I had learned about writing distance teaching materials. I had a vague idea of working them up into an article, but that never happened. At the time, I didn’t keep a blog so they just sat forgotten in a folder. Now, as I’m chairing K118 (hot news! New (provisional) title: Perspectives in Health and Social Care), I’m collecting together my various musings on module production in case they are useful to the K118 team. It occurred to me that this too might be of interest. It should be read with the proviso that I wrote this in ?2007 and some terminology and practices have changed since then. But not, I think, the general principles.

(cc) ecotist

What I learned about writing distance learning material while working on K101

It’s really important to have a compelling logical arc for the academic content of a Unit. You can try to retrofit one onto a miscellaneous hodge-podge of topics which you’ve got to cover because they have to be in course and you got the short straw, but it’ll never really be satisfactory. At best, you might end up with an effect like the silver line through a banknote – “oh yes, there’s a theme, no, it’s gone again, oh no, here it is, I can see that’s a development of the other thing, oh but then again that doesn’t really seem related although maybe I can see a sort of tenuous link”. If you do manage to create such an arc, it becomes a thing of beauty and a joy to behold (well, if you have a taste for that sort of thing).

The best teaching material combines a compelling logical arc for the things you are trying to teach with a compelling narrative arc about the characters or issues you are using as the vehicle for your teaching. The Unit of mine that caused by far the least trouble and underwent the least revision was the one where I managed to hit on a way of combining those early on and it just always worked. But this is hard to get right. You can easily end up with a forced and unnatural narrative arc that just isn’t convincing.

For this level (1st year undergrad, lots of students with very little experience of formal education), really strong case material is crucial. It’s concrete and real and meaningful to students in a way that theoretical principles seldom are. Once you’ve seduced them with the case study, then you can reel them in on to the theory. They remember the case studies and, you hope, some of the theory because it’s attached to something concrete.

Show, then tell (I don’t think I agree with ‘show don’t tell’ because I think some telling is helpful, but certainly ‘telling without showing’ is all wrong). I struggled with this one because, as someone who is used to thinking abstractly, my own preference is to have a general statement first which gives me an idea of what we’re talking about, then an example which elaborates and makes it crystal clear, and then some more abstract discussion of how the example relates to others and the general principle. But the consensus seems to be that the students on this course skip or are turned off by abstract statements at the beginning of a section. Instead, it works much better to start with the example, then use that to introduce the general principle.

Real life case studies almost always work better than things you make up. You may know the area really well and think that if you write it yourself you can make it say exactly the things you want to cover, but it never reads as authentically. Yes real life material is often more complicated that what you had thought of writing yourself, but that complexity often helps you to get into really useful areas and makes you realise that you were oversimplifying the issue.

It is (almost) impossible to have too much signposting in your text. And I say this as someone who is already prone to lots of signposting.

(cc) Andrea_44

If you are aiming to have Units 15,000 words long, make your first drafts 10 – 12k. By the time 8 people have commented on 3 drafts and 30 people have commented on the middle draft you are bound to have a lot of suggestions for things you have left out and really must cover. Most people don’t suggest cuts.

Critical reader and developmental tester comments are really really useful. Of course it’s hard to have your carefully crafted masterpiece torn to shreds. And yes it’s initially frustrating and annoying when they contradict one another. And if you know some of the readers it’s tempting to dismiss comments you don’t like with ‘they would say that, they’re always going on about x’. But one of the points of having this many people critiquing your work is that you get that diversity of response and a deliberate attempt is made to have readers who are like the students who will be taking the course. If you’ve got a reader saying ‘that’s outrageous, you can’t say that’, the chances are you’ll also get students responding like that, so you need to either explain better what you meant or change what you’re saying.

And many critical readers are astonishingly ready to help you deal with the problems they have identified. I had one who said he ‘hated, hated, hated’ one particular section and I was approaching the issue from entirely the wrong angle. I contacted him to ask for advice on how to improve it (it was clear from his comments that he was a bit of an expert in the area and I certainly wasn’t) and I got a quick tutorial on the topic, a case study from his own experience and some really useful suggestions about literature.

It’s very easy to spend far too long googling for material and case studies. If you haven’t found what you’re looking for in 2 or 3 serious tries, you’re not going to find it like that. Instead try looking in the literature (qualitative studies often contain quotes you can lift and grey literature reports often contain case studies), using your contacts (I spent years looking for some suitable real life guidelines for a particular activity, coming up with various ones that were too technical or too medical or didn’t fit the particular criteria of my use for them, before at the very last minute I realised that my local Women’s Aid, of whom I am a Trustee, has a guideline that would do the job nicely. And because they know and trust me they were quite happy to let me use it) and develop a list of generalist websites that you seem to keep returning to.

When working with a producer and/or director on audio visual material, recognise that you inevitably have somewhat different agendas. Their highest priority is making something which has artistic integrity and dramatic coherence. Your highest priority is making something which conveys the theoretical points that you want to teach. These are sometimes in conflict, and recognising this difference can really help you to resolve it.

It’s tempting not to think about the pictures and cartoons until the end, because you’re not made to specify them until that point. But actually, it makes much more sense to start looking early because then they can support and even drive your text much more effectively.

(cc) brentdanley

By the time I got to the fourth and final handover draft, many of the sections which had always been problematic could simply be cut out and that improved the whole thing. I don’t think I could have cut them out earlier, partly because I wouldn’t have had the deadline-inspired courage and partly because I didn’t have such a clear sense of what I was trying to say.

It really pays to be a bit of a generalist, or at least to be prepared to turn your hand to anything. Approximately 1/8th of what I wrote was in an area where I have done any research (and that only 6 months work leading to one rejected journal article and a failed funding bid). The rest was topics about which I had a general clue, because they’re major themes in my discipline, but no research record at all. But if you enjoy literature searching (I do) and can get a handle on things fast, it can be lots of fun. I’ve got so many interesting ideas about some of these topics now. Who knows, that might turn into future research directions.

But also, don’t forget your non-academic knowledges. My material ended up having quite a lot of case material about domestic violence and new parenthood (both in combination and separately) because I have non-academic knowledge of those (although not in combination) so it was easy to use those in interesting ways.

It’s a completely different voice from research writing. You have to be much more direct, use much more everyday language and generally think (broadsheet) journalism rather than academic voice. It’s okay to lay down the law and be directive and prescriptive about what students should do pedagogically as in ‘do this Activity’, ‘think about this’, ‘turn to the Reader’. But it’s really tempting to overextend that authoritative voice into making unjustified assertions about the subject matter. This can be tricky, especially in my field where it’s easy to get into a moralistic voice. And some of the things you want to say are really difficult to do academically. One of my co-authors had written that ‘punishment is ethically unacceptable in health and social care’. I wanted to at least support this claim with some research or policy statements. But it turns out to be so widely accepted that nobody’s writing about it. I found material on the corporal punishment of children and in relation to prisoners, which are still somewhat debated, but nothing as generalised as this statement. I hadn’t got space to go into ethics and punishment properly, so I ended up rewriting it out, which was not entirely satisfactory.

ETA 2013: At that point, you will be relieved to read, I ran out of steam.


1 Comment »

  1. […] my reflections on what I had learned working on K101, I also found my first and late drafts of some of the material. I’ve stitched them together […]

    Pingback by Showing my workings: Early and late drafts of teaching materials | Remembering My Hat — 7th May 2013 @ 18:18 | Reply

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