Remembering My Hat

22nd June 2016

Learning Design categories – a list of ideas

This is one of my posts that will probably make no sense at all to people beyond the OU, so apologies if that is you. But for those who are at the OU, and especially those who are academics involved in the production of our materials…


(cc) Rain Rabbit


I run a group within the HSC department on production for academics new(ish) to the OU. We were talking recently about working with the Learning Design categories, and decided it would be useful to try to generate a list between us of different ways in which you could design activities of each type. This isn’t exhaustive, nor definitive, and we make no promises that these are always good suggestions – some of them would have to be done very carefully to to get over the bar of ‘but why on earth would students actually bother to do this?’. But we hope it’s useful to other people scratching their heads to think of non-assimilative activities (although we did include those too).


  • Readings – academic and more everyday kinds of texts
  • Audio
  • Video
  • Poetry
  • Maps and infographics based on maps
  • Images and artwork
  • Newspaper headlines
  • Personal stories
  • Case studies
  • Diagrams, inforgrahpics and graphs


  • Filling in a grid (gives more structure than free text ‘take notes’)
  • Numerical calculations
  • Make a powerpoint or other presentation
  • Do an elevator pitch
  • Draw a spider diagram or concept map
  • Write a briefing for a named audience
  • Write a tweet or headline
  • Write a blog entry
  • List of key points
  • Use the existing sticky notes tool on the VLE
  • Diagram which you can write on or manipulate or put sticky notes on
  • Make some notes (boring!)
  • Precis activities (e.g. rewrite in your own words, not more than 200 words)
  • Take a photo
  • Caption competition or cartoon bubble filling
  • Curating a collection of images or something else
  • Highlighting parts of text (highlighter tool in Word or offline versions)

Finding and Handling information

  • USE THE LIBRARY’S EXISTING TUTORIALS ON Digital Information Literacy
  • Access databases and other data sources and then extract some information
  • Finding a journal article or book from a catalogue
  • Doing a citation search
  • Following up a reference of your choice from a set reading
  • Generate your own data (avoid anything that’s close to interviewing people because of research ethics!)
  • Finding and evaluating infographics
  • Working with graphs and other pictorial data



  • THIS ONE IS HARD TO DO and we were least happy about the definition of this one
  • Reflective activities
  • Trying out a productive output on someone you know and getting feedback on it.
  • Trying an activity on yourself e.g. relaxation techniques, you could even include a pre and post test.


  • Drag and drop where it bounces back if incorrect
  • Quizzes with feedback on incorrect answers
  • Choose between two positions on a complex (often ethical) issue, feedback says ‘that’s valid, but have you also thought about …’ and then summarises the arguments for the opposite position.
  • Games and simulations (very time consuming to develop though)


What have we missed? Please do suggest more. And of course let us know if you think we’ve got anything completely wrong.

18th June 2015

Module Workload Workshop

Encouraged by the positive responses on Twitter to my liveblogging of the Queer Kinship conference, here are some notes from a workshop I attended this morning at the OU about managing student workload. Written in slightly fuller sentences, but still a quick and partial account based on what interested me and what was said in my group, rather than aiming to be representational of the whole workshop, still less the OU position. And most likely to be of interest to other educators, especially OU-types.

The workshop was aiming to address these questions:

  1. What factors impact on perceived student workload and how can we manage these to effectively support our students in keeping up with their workload?
  2. How do we effectively manage student expectations around workload?
  3. What elements should be included in IET guidance to module and production teams around managing student workload?
  4. How do we effectively categorise study texts in terms of ‘easy’, ‘medium’ or ‘difficult’ and how do we ensure module teams adopt consistent norms in relation to these?
  5. What should student-directed learning look like and how do we support students in effectively engaging with it

It’s clear that lower workload increases retention (I think the statistic cited was that you get about 4% drop-out per extra hour of content per week) but how low can you go and still deliver graduate-ness by the end? We at the OU still work with the QAA norm of 600 hours per 60 points of credit, but some other HE institutions are moving towards 480 hours. But it’s not always clear how that relates to student-directed study v. module-directed activity.

It is also clear that consistency of workload helps retention. [I’d come across this statistic before and we’d wondered whether that meant you shouldn’t have break weeks, but the people I spoke to today said that this wasn’t the case. Phew.]

What factors impact on perceived student workload and how can we manage these to effectively support our students in keeping up with their workload?

Perceived v. objective is an important distinction, but perceived is very important.

Materials designed to be supportive but non-core (such as guides to referencing, assessment guidance) can add to perception of workload. The trick is to be clear about what it core and what is ancillary or just for support if needed.

Anxiety, stress and feeling of lack-of-control all contribute to perceived workload. Collaborative working can be especially problematic in this respect. So it’s really important to make clear to students the benefits they gain from collaborative working.

Things the module team thinks are easy can be surprisingly hard for students and add to workload unintentionally (e.g. getting to grips with eTMA submission for new students, taking a screenshot).

Referencing module materials! Especially when different modules have slightly different conventions due to having different types of materials.


This picture, from Normanack thanks, is actually relevant to this post, because a librarian in my group said that he had been asked by a student how to reference a seed packet. An excellent example of unplanned workload for students.

How do we effectively manage student expectations around workload?

At different points – pre-registration, before module start, early weeks, TMA preparation, EMA/exam preparation, for the whole qualification. Knowing what students’ expectations are is itself challenging. Helping them to be realistic without making them think they can’t succeed.

ALs have a crucial role to play here. Module teams can include activities encouraging students to plan out their workload. Peer accounts can be useful (like on the Moon MOOC, apparently, which has a real student popping up throughout). Being explicit about workload.

What elements should be included in IET guidance to module and production teams around managing student workload?

[nothing noted here]

How do we effectively categorise study texts in terms of ‘easy’, ‘medium’ or ‘difficult’ and how do we ensure module teams adopt consistent norms in relation to these?

[I was a bit sceptical of the project of this question. I do think the distinction is really important and one that authors have to constantly think about. Some texts are clearly easier (e.g. newspaper articles) and other harder (journal articles) and this then affects student workload. But it’s very contingent on the student, the module, the level, the qualification context, what the activity is that surrounds the text and what the student has to do with the text. I’m not persuaded this is the kind of thing that can be categorised a priori or assessed without seeing the context]

What should student-directed learning look like and how do we support students in effectively engaging with it?

What do we mean by student-directed anyway? How is it different from ‘studentship’? University norms are 80% module-directed and 20% student-directed at level 1, 70:30 at level 2 and 60: 40 at level 3. We need to tie student-directed study into assessment, otherwise why should they bother? We also need to be clear to ALs that they should give credit for materials which the student has found (especially at higher levels).

24th October 2013

Designing collaborative learning activities better

Notes from a workshop I attended today, organised by the METIS project. Appropriately enough, we were working collaboratively in groups to design a collaborative learning activity. Because this is The Open University, we were designing for an online distance-learning context, where the issues are quite different from face-to-face settings.  But I suspect some of the principles could also be applied to face-to-face teaching.

The first activity we were asked to undertake involved thinking about how to *ruin* a collaborative learning activity. I really liked this form of activity – it made you act as a kind of devil’s advocate to your own favourite ideas. I might reuse this form at the start of my next workshop with the K118 team, but in relation to a different topic (probably assessment).

How to ruin a collaborative learning activity :

  • Unclear about what students need to do so they spend all their time as a group debating this
  • Award credit to whole group regardless of individual input
  • no clear link to learning outcomes
  • make it too big or too small

Barriers to collaborative learning for students:

  • time – students can’t see benefit and see collaborative activity as optional extra so don’t do it.
  • technological problems
  • confidence/anxiety
  • why should they bother? Is more complex than working on your own for many people – needs to have a bigger pay-off
  • group dynamics – some people being unsupportive to others, some people not pulling their weight.
  • students’ different timetables (and possibly time zones)

Possible solutions:

  • Make benefits very clear e.g. in Module Guide, in teaching materials whenever collab activity is introduced, assess it (although this creates its own problems), tie-in to learning outcomes and assessment (even if actual activity is not assessed), workplace benefits.
  • Build confidence through starting with an easier collaborative activity (but make sure it isn’t facile – maybe something a bit reflective (but not too personal) would work well at this stage).
  • Have some flexibility in what technology they can use – email as a back-up?
  • Build up to it carefully
  • Include an example of what the end product should look like, so they know what they are aiming for.
  • Some discussion of group processes and roles.
  • Allow group to form a little before they start work (or include introductory activity as part of task)
  • Careful grouping – people in interest groups? Nation/region/area groups? [Anything more fine-grained creates significant work for ALs or central academics]
  • Clear guidance on what they need to do and when.
  • Possibility of individuals swapping groups?
  • Signpost significant collab activity v clearly in module description.

(cc) Brenderous

Verbs that might be particularly relevant to Learning Outcomes for collaborative learning activity:

  • build on
  • co-create
  • contribute
  • debate with
  • discusss with
  • engage with
  • enhance
  • improve on
  • motivate
  • perform
  • share
  • challenge

Then we did an activity designing a collaborative learning activity. Luckily for me, my group was asked to focus on my module, K118 (Perspectives on Health and Social Care), so I chose something form the Ageing and Later Life block that I thought it would particularly benefit students to do collaboratively.

Learning outcome – share different experiences  to increase awareness of the diversity of older people and challenge preconceptions.

Learning output – create shared wiki (resources and experiences of using wikis at Level one in Arts A150) [My hunch is that this is too technically complex to actually use on K118 but I will investigate it] Simpler output would just be discussion within the tutor group forum. Further discussion of this later in the day.

Presentation from Mary Thorpe, IET, The OU

Some forum-based examples of good-practice.

Simulation / role play

Students have been learning about 3 main theories about X in first 12 weeks of module.

  1. Tutor allocated one of three ‘hats’ to each student in their tutor group.
  2. Students watch a DVD clip and have to answer a question, wearing their particular hat. Given structured questions to help them do that.
  3. Post answers to forum and discuss, use clip timings to be clear. [Nice way of getting them to think about different theoretical perspectives, and possibly making them engage with ones they are not naturally attracted to].
  4. Then tutor group forum discussion.
  5. Then watch another clip, wearing the same hat.
  6. Post answer to forum in same way but also adding reference to other module materials to support arguments.
  7. Take off hats. Watch clips again, think about your own practice. Which theory best fits your practice?

Another example:

Pyramid or snowball – individual study of problem, then compare discuss, propose shared solution, all agree shared solution.

Do individual report on topic of choice (or allocated by tutor) and upload to tutor group forum. Then role play some kind of meeting where have to argue the case for their topic/group. Get marks for participating and reflecting on process, as well as for outputs.

[Stuff I’m already very alert to about importance of making it possible for students to pass assignment even if don’t take part in collaborative activity. And benefits of marks for ‘reflecting on the process’ as well as the outputs]

In example discussed, students hadn’t met before worked together – day school was culmination of activity, not beginning. Did some evaulation – students were fine about working with people they didn’t know because it was so clearly structured. Didn’t need much input from ALs because was so clearly structured. Students felt able to disagree (which is often a worry about collaborative work, that it ends up being too bland and consensual), because of ‘hats’/simulation kind of nature  – it wasn’t personal. They supported their arguments well with evidence [key skill! Great if you can enable that through this kind of thing].

Notes of caution from MT: be very clear about why collaboration is beneficial. Have to have a very good reason to cause students to loose the benefits of individual and flexible study to their own timescales. A tall order at level 1. Optional collaboration can be better (but then of course you’ll get much lower participation rates).

[My thoughts about how we could apply this to K118 – could maybe do ‘hats on’ kind of activity in Mental Health Block where they are looking at competing explanations for mental distress (and hence conflicting prescriptions for help and support). Or in Ageing activity idea, could be asking students to take on persona of particular older person from a set of case studies / characters they have already met (Molly and Monty?) and arguing for what is most important for them for good quality of life in later life (or similar). This could work well in the final week of the block, when they will have already met all the characters.]

Then we had a very brief lunch break (this was a hard and long day’s work, hence the rather long post)

(cc) Terence S. Jones

Back to the design of the possible activity for K118:

We were given a large sheet of flip-chart paper and some special Learning Design post-it notes which are coded as ‘resource’ ‘activity/task’ ‘learning outcome’ and ‘tool’. We then had to categorise all the parts of the activity appropriately on the post-it notes and storyboard them.

  1. Start with explanation of benefits of this activity: revision, employability skills of team-working, what else?
  2. Module team identifies 4 or 5 diverse older people students have already met during Block (Molly, Monty, others)
  3. AL allocates students to characters (or students choose for themselves? Might not get a good range then).
  4. Students review material on characters and fill in a set of questions to help them think about that person and their experiences.
  5. On forum (organised by threads) students discuss salient features of this person.
  6. Then they are posed a question that gets at diversity (something like ‘what is the most important thing in ensuring their quality of life?’) and have to argue that from the perspective of their character.

After we’d done this, I got a bit worried that this was too character-driven, given that we are already worried that students remember the characters, not the theories they are supposed to make intelligible. Also that it might be too easy. We then talked about how you could make it more challenging by getting students to come up with new case studies. Perhaps something like ‘write a short description of an older person who is completely different from [some stereotyped media portrayal of an older person]’. Then, once they had posted their case study, they would have to answer the same question about ‘what’s most important’ or whatever. Or, even better, could get them to find a real-life example from newspapers, publications from voluntary organisations or people they know. Write a summary, read other students’ summaries (this gets them some immediate benefit from . collaborative activity – they get to read more case studies of diverse older people than they could research themselves). Then debate the question (about quality of life or whatever) in the persona of their case study, in groups of 4 -6 within their forum.

So when we came to the next bit of the workshop, which was translating the storyboard into a prototype online tool called ‘WebCollage’, we further refined it to this last idea. This is all captured on the tool, but I don’ t think that’s publicly visible. I can see it here

After we’d done this (in our collaboratively-learning groups, naturally), we had some whole group discussion of our experiences. There was a theme of people finding the tool quite difficult to get to grips with. Several people said that the tool helped them design better activities by forcing them to be systematic and sequential [I don’t think that is a huge benefit for me because I’ve always designed activities in a fairly structured and systematic way, without using such a tool. I worry there might be a bit of a Hawthorne Effect going on here]. The tool did force me to think about what the tutor would be doing to support this activity, because that was one of the fields you had to complete, which was a useful prompt. In my group we thought that there might need to be some separate guidance for tutors on how to run activities like this [investigate whether we are allowed to do this nowadays].

Then we did a ‘heuristic evaluation’ which was defined as team of experts assessing by using a set of heuristics (or ‘rules of thumb’). A low-fidelity rapid evaluation to pick up design flaws at an early stage. Experts ‘walk through’ activity as if students. The rules of thumb were the ‘ways to ruin a collaborative activity’ and ‘barriers’ we identified at the beginning of the workshop. The heuristics we picked out to be evaluated against were:

  1. Clear benefit to students
  2. Build skills gradually in small steps, to prepare for collaborative learning activity
  3. Learning Outcomes need to be clear so students can see what the benefits are (?link to assessment)
  4. Be clear about time needed and ensure this is explicitly built into week’s workload

The rest of my team evaluated another group’s activity but I stayed with the potential K118 activity, to explain it to my evaluators. We used a basic grid: where’s the problem, what’s the problem, what heuristic does it violate, how severe is the violation, recommended action. The potential K118 activity came out pretty well, except what they thought was a minor issue about needing to be a bit more specific about the time needed by students and how many weeks this activity would be spread across. I thought that was fair enough. This would have been a more valuable activity to do once the author thought the activity was fully-designed – it was too easy for me to say ‘we were going to cover that, we just hadn’t had time to get on to that bit yet’!

At the end of the day we had to fill in a lengthy evaulation questionnaire (of course). I managed to press ‘reset’ instead of ‘submit’ at the bottom. That was a very bad end to what was otherwise a good and useful day.

7th May 2013

Showing my workings: Early and late drafts of teaching materials

Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 18:18
Tags: , , ,

Alongside 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 here with a little commentary on why the later version is (IMNSHO) better.

It was a section on the place of protocols and guidelines in health and social care practice. Initially I wrote:

In the previous section we looked at what is meant by the phrase ‘evidence-based practice’.  We also considered how evidence is created and what sorts of evidence are valued by different people. We saw that there are several reasons why evidence-based practice is important in current health and social care services.  One of these reasons is that many people trust care workers less than they used to partly because of some of the difficulties and scandals discussed in Block 5.  In this section we look at one of the main ways evidence can be put into practice – protocol and guideline-based care.

As you saw in the previous section, finding and evaluating the research on a particular topic is time-consuming and complex.  Individual care workers rarely have the time or the resources to find out what the evidence says about an issue they are facing in their job.  Protocols and guidelines are designed to help with this by collecting together the evidence on a particular topic and then turning it into a way of working.

  1. What are Protocols and Guidelines?

Protocols and guidelines are authoritative statements about what should happen in health and social care settings. They are usually written down and staff are expected to be aware of them in their everyday practice. Guidelines are usually general statements of principles whereas protocols are usually more specific and particular to a place of work.  However, sometimes the terms ‘protocol’ and ‘guideline’ are used interchangeably and sometimes they are used differently in different workplaces.  Just to further complicate the issue, sometimes people also use terms like ‘integrated care pathway’ to describe something that looks very similar to a protocol.  But don’t worry about this because the underlying principles are very similar and the underlying principles are what we are focusing.

Many guidelines and some protocols are developed as a national level by organisations such as the National Institue for Health and Clinical Excellence, the Royal College of Nursing and the General Social Care Council.  Protocols are more likely to be developed specifically for a workplace or a group of workplaces, like all the GP practices within a group or a multi-agency team.  They are more commonly found in health care than in social care settings.  Social care settings are more likely to use more general guidelines.  A typical health care protocol might cover, for example, which medication should be prescribed, what treatment should happen when, and which staff will be involved in providing care.

In the next activity, you are going to use a very simple protocol to help you decide what treatment to offer to a patient, Iain.  Don’t worry if you don’t understand all the technical terms in the protocol – we’ve put explanations at the bottom and you don’t need to understand them all.


Iain Ferguson is 13 and has felt ill and had a sore throat for about a fortnight.  His stepmother has brought him into the GP practice because she is worried.  In this practice, patients arriving with symptoms of common ailments like colds, sore throats and ear infections see a nurse first and are only referred on to the GP if necessary.  Iain has a fever and his tonsils are inflamed.  He does not have a runny nose or cold symptoms, nor does he have any signs of meningitis.  Use this protocol to work out what treatment he should be offered and whether he should see the GP

[Here there was a diagram, which showed the protocol]

Explanations of medical terms:

Rhinorhoea – runny nose!  (usually spelled rhinorrhoea)

Afebrile – no fever

Meningism – symptoms of menigitis

Paracet – paracetamol


Circumoral Pallor –


Erythromycin – an antibiotic

Paul Bunnel for Glandular Fever – a test for Glandular Fever


Unlike many of the activities you have done on the course, there is a ‘right’ answer to this activity.  According to this protocol, the correct response to Iain’s symptoms is to recommend that he be given penicillin, or erythromycin if he’s allergic to that, and if that doesn’t clear it up, to check for glandular fever.  At this stage, he doesn’t need to see the GP. Here’s how you get to this answer [add no.s to decision points on diagram and then talk through].

We will look at the advantages and disadvantages of this sort of approach in more detail in the next sections but for now make some notes on what you thought and felt while you were doing this activity.

I’ m not ashamed to have written this, but it’s not very good. It’s very wordy and not very attention-grabbing to start with. It starts with general principles, rather than the case study which I think is part of what makes it seem waffly and dull. There’s too much ‘we’ voicing. Who is this we?! The discussion of terminology is deeply offputting! The idea of using a real-life protocol for the Activity is a good one but the protocol chosen doesn’t seem very suitable if all those terms need explaining. The instruction to ‘make some notes on what you thought and felt’ is vague and not very helpful.

Here’s a much later version:

2      Working with protocols and guidelines

One of the ways in which Marie and Isabel are made accountable for their practice is that they have to follow guidelines which tell them what to do in particular situations –  for example, if a resident has a fit or if there are serious worries about someone’s safety. In this section you will look in more detail at protocols and guidelines like these and you will consider whether they do help make care better and safer – whether they contribute to getting care right.

2.1    Introducing protocols and guidelines

Here is part of the guidelines about child protection from Isabel’s organisation:

Child protection guidelines at Women’s Aid

8     If a child discloses abuse to a member of staff or a volunteer

8.1  Women’s Aid staff or volunteers will:

  • Stay calm and listen carefully.
  • Reassure the child that s/he was right to disclose what happened and that the abuse is not her/his fault.
  • Explain to the child that in these circumstances confidentiality cannot be maintained.
  • Assure the child that the issue will be taken seriously.
  • Fill out an incident form immediately stating what was said by both the child and the member of staff, and recording facts rather than opinions.
  • Discuss this with the member(s) of staff responsible for dealing with child protection issues, decide on the appropriate course of action and record this decision.

8.2  If the abuse is recent or continuing, staff or volunteers will also

  • Tell the child what action is likely to be taken, who will be informed and what the consequences may be.
  • If the child has sufficient understanding, discuss options realistically, including talking with the mother/carer with a staff member present (if the mother/carer is not the abuser).
  • Keep the child informed throughout the entire process.

8.3  The staff member will then discuss the allegations with the designated person or child protection team, who will decide on a course of action depending on the nature and seriousness of the abuse and consult with Children’s Services at the earliest opportunity regarding whether a referral to Children’s Service is needed.

This is one section from a larger set of guidelines which tell Isabel how to proceed if she has worries about the safety of a child. As you have seen, this particular section tells her what to do if a child lets her know that they are being abused. The guidelines contain general advice on how to behave (e.g. ‘stay calm and listen carefully’, ‘reassure’, ‘[record] facts rather than opinions’) as well as specific steps to take (e.g. ‘fill out an incident form’ and ‘discuss this with the member(s) of staff responsible for dealing with child protection issues, decide on the appropriate course of action and record this decision’). Isabel can refer to these guidelines to check that she has done everything necessary. Written instructions like these can be particularly useful when dealing with an upsetting issue like possible child abuse. The guidelines also are one of the ways in which Isabel is made accountable for her actions. If, for example, it later came to light that she had not filled in an incident form or she had not discussed it with her colleague, she could be disciplined.

A protocol is another term for this sort of guidance. It is more often found in health care settings than in social care organisations. It is sometimes used to describe quite detailed step-by-step instructions or rules by which organisations agreeto be bound. However, one study, which examined how people used the different terms for this sort of guidance, found that the terms ‘protocol’, ‘guideline’, ‘guidance’ and ‘pathway’ were all used interchangeably in different contexts (Ilottet al., 2006). For the purposes of this unit the distinction between protocols and guidelines does not matter.

Guidelines and protocols tell you what to do in a particular set of circumstances. They are designed to standardise some aspects of care in order to improve care outcomes and make care safer (NHS Modernisation Agency / National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, 2002). They formalise the ways in which health and social care workers are supposed to carry out their jobs. Of course, there have always been procedures and instructions within workplaces. But in recent years there has been an increased emphasis on formalising everyday work into guidelines and protocols. There has also been more emphasis on making care workers accountable for whether they have followed their guidance.

Protocols and guidelines make it possible for staff to undertake more complex tasks. So, for example, many home carers nowadays change catheter bags. Traditionally, this was a task for nurses but protocols have been written which detail the process to be followed and the problems to look out for. This makes it possible for home carers to change catheter bags safely without having specialist nursing knowledge. And this in turn gives district nurses more time to work with service users who need more complex care, enabling people to stay at home rather than going into hospital or into residential care.

[Insert Picture AX1T2B here: close-up of someone connecting two tubes]

Picture caption: Home carers can safely change over catheter bags because they have access to written protocols which tell them exactly what to do

Of course this is far from perfect  (and it’s much wordier than we would write nowadays for online working) but it’s much better. It starts with a concrete example involving people they have already met (Isabel and Marie). The protocol chosen is much more comprehensible to a general audience. It makes much more explicit links to why they are learning about this stuff (links back to the Block themes of making care safer and the previous section on Accountability). The discussion of variant terminology is handled much more elegantly and the assertion that the terminology doesn’t really matter is backed up with an (at the time of writing) up-t0-date citation to the literature. The voice is more direct and clear (and without all those ‘we’s)

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.

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