Current Learning and Teaching Developments Within the School of Social Sciences and Law

Paul Catley

Focus

In September 2003, the School of Social Sciences and Law made three permanent appointments at principal lecturer-level (PL) with a view to enhancing learning and teaching and to support widening participation. Penny Brooker was appointed PL with responsibility for quality enhancement, a position which she had previously held on a temporary basis, Sin Yi Cheung was appointed PL with responsibility for widening participation and student retention, and Simon Carr was appointed PL with responsibility for e-learning. This article will focus on developments which have flowed from these new appointments.

Quality enhancement

Review of practice

The school had undertaken a comprehensive review of teaching, learning, and assessment practices in 2001-2002 and this, together with the revalidation process for semesterisation, demonstrated that imaginative and exemplary approaches to quality enhancement had been adopted throughout the school. A range of different strategies for enhancing student learning were identified as were a range of ways in which these developments were disseminated within subject groups: in particular annual ‘teaching away days’ and regular meetings when teaching practice was discussed.

The review identified that academic staff and course teams employed a multiplicity of approaches to learning teaching, and assessment (LT&A) at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Course design differed both across and within each discipline, this being reflected in the variety of methods adopted – from workshop activities, group work, reflective learning, laboratory work, and field-work, to utilising more traditional approaches of lectures and group seminars.

Quality enhancement

A primary objective of the school LT&A strategy is to identify, support, and disseminate best practice throughout the school. This is achieved in part through the Annual Quality Enhancement Review. The review seeks to identify exemplary and innovative practice, recognise and maintain quality enhancement measures already adopted in departments across the school and disseminate good practice throughout the school and University. To achieve this a number of initiatives have been put in place to encourage and disseminate good and innovative practice in support of high quality learning and teaching.

Staff development programme on learning and teaching

Regular seminar programmes and workshops on learning and teaching issues have been in place since 2001. These programmes are designed to provide staff developmental opportunities, recognise excellence in teaching, enable the dissemination of good practice, foster discussion across disciplines, encourage staff involvement in LT&A and e-learning, and encourage pedagogic research.

Seminars have considered such areas as:

  • learning outcomes and assessment
  • the development of study skills
  • reflective practice in course design
  • linking teaching and research
  • distance learning
  • international students’ cultural perspectives on higher education
  • giving constructive feedback in peer observation
  • embedding e-learning within modular redesign

The aim of the seminars is to allow staff the opportunity to learn about initiatives taking place both within the school and outside and discuss those developments in an informal setting. Meeting are generally held at lunchtime and all staff within the school are invited. Some sessions have been led by staff from within the school, others have been led by staff drawn from elsewhere, within the University and outside. The general format has allowed a period of discussion and debate in which staff have been able to explore ways in which the ideas presented could be utilised in their own teaching. A particular focus in the past year has been e-learning.

Supporting and encouraging developments in e-learning

In addition to the appointment of Simon Carr as a principal lecturer with responsibility for e-learning the school, the school has also created ‘e-champions’ in each subject area. Simon Carr, Richard Huggins, David Elsmore (the school’s IT Development Manager and Learning Technologist) and the e-champions were responsible for developing the school’s e-learning policy. The policy’s primary aim for 2003-04 was to have an online presence for all modules. Additionally each undergraduate field had to identify a module which would have a significant e-learning element. It was decided by the e-learning group that ideally these modules should be first-year, first-term compulsory modules that could serve as an effective introduction for students to the use of WebCT. In addition to helping to develop policy, the e-champions disseminate news of e-learning developments to their colleagues and pass on to the school’s e-learning Committee news of any innovations that have been taking place in the use of e-learning in the teaching of courses in their discipline. This approach has led to significant expansion of the use of e-learning across the school, with particularly significant developments in Law, Politics, and International Relations. The most notable single development being Richard Huggins and Barrie Axford’s successful bid, in collaboration with Coventry and Warwick Universities, for a 250,000 FDTL project. The project will focus on the scholarship of engagement and a major element will centre on the development at Brookes of a resource-based website.

CourseGenie

Another development has been the adoption of CourseGenie as an easy way of creating online materials from Word documents that look professional and can incorporate many additional features such as the inclusion of audio or video materials and the use of self-test questions. This software has now been purchased by the University after lobbying by Simon Carr and David Elsmore amongst others. Carr and Elsmore have given a number of talks on the use of CourseGenie including to the School of Social Sciences and Law’s school board, at the Law Departments ‘teaching away day’ and at this July’s Brookes Virtual conference. They have also provided invaluable assistance to staff wishing to get to grips with CourseGenie and use it in their courses. Carr and Elsmore can claim to be pioneers in this field, their work on incorporating student use of CourseGenie in the undergraduate module U21182 Virtual Physical Geography demonstrates the commitment of the school to embed e-learning within teaching and is possibly the first example of such student-centred incorporation of CourseGenie ever undertaken.

Online materials

A further e-learning development has been the creation of materials to support teaching across disciplines. Staff with special expertise in areas such as the use and assessment of verbal presentations have been working with Carr and Elsmore to produce web-based materials that will be of value to colleagues in other disciplines and should help in both the dissemination of good practice and the development of consistent approaches across disciplines. A wide range of topics are to be covered. The following are nearing completion:

  • referencing in academic writing (Penny Brooker and Simon Carr),
  • research ethics (Mary Boulton),
  • spoken presentations (Adrian Parker),
  • questionnaire design (Sin Yi Cheung and John Carter).

When each guide is completed it will be featured on the school’s home page for learning and teaching.

Development of a school home page for learning and teaching

The school is currently developing a school home page for learning and teaching. The principal objectives are to raise the profile of learning and teaching and to provide a focus for the activities undertaken in the school on quality enhancement, e-learning, and widening participation.

Widening participation

The school is very anxious to assist in the University’s drive to widen participation. Dr Sin Yi Cheung was appointed in September 2003 to take up a school-wide PL role in widening participation and student retention. In consultation with Assistant Dean Richard Huggins, she has strategic responsibility for developing, updating, and monitoring the school’s widening participation (WP) strategy. She attends WP forum meetings and provides a key link between the school and the University, learning partnerships, and corporate affairs in co-ordinating WP initiatives.

In addition to the appointment of Dr Cheung as a principal lecturer with responsibility for widening participation, Dr Helen Walkington was appointed in April 2004 as WP co-ordinator to assist in the implementation of the school’s WP-action plan. She provides a link between the school’s recruitment and marketing group and the new marketing administrator and gives advice on the development of WP-informed marketing materials. Working closely with Dr Cheung, Dr Walkington co-ordinates staff development sessions to increase staff understanding of WP within the school. They also liaise with Universitys’ learning partnerships on HEFCE Summer School, taster sessions, school visits and HE conferences at colleges.

In this role Walkington and Cheung have taken the lead in the school’s involvement in visiting schools and colleges as part of the University’s strategy for raising aspirations. These activities will not only include staff but will also involve school student ambassadors. A similar initiative in relation to ‘visit days’ has already proved very successful, where they and the student link co-ordinators have helped provide more of a student-centred focus and thereby assisted prospective students gain an understanding of what studying at Brookes will be like.

Open day and summer school

Walkington and Cheung in conjunction with Richard Huggins, the school’s assistant dean for academic affairs, have also been working on a school ‘open day’ to be run at Easter and a local summer school which will incorporate all the subject areas within the school and which provisionally is intended to be on the theme of ‘The Age of Global Threat’.

Centre for Youth Ministry

The school is also keen to learn lessons from the school’s collaborative partner, the Centre for Youth Ministry, which has achieved excellent WP rates. For example in 2001 all their undergraduate programme student intake was from state schools and 25% were from low participation neighbourhoods (the University target is 10%).

Curriculum development

The school has an active interest in developing a WP-informed curriculum. Work on the design of e-taster courses is already underway. One of the aims of these e-courses is to integrate WP and e-learning strategies in the school. Dan Ferrett was appointed to take a lead on developing e-taster courses. He has worked closely with the school’s web technician, Firas Naji, in designing these electronic resources. Contacts were also made with local partners (e.g. Oxford City Council) who agreed to collaborate in disseminating these e-courses. This will continue to be a key priority in the coming year.

Strengthening external and community links

The school continues to maintain strong links with local and regional partners. For example, school staff are actively involved in the Leys Learning Network and this is likely to continue into the future. There had also been increased contacts with the Single Regeneration Broad and South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) to develop joint projects. The school has also worked with the Centre for Youth Ministry closely. Ongoing discussions continue to be held to draw on their experience in achieving good WP-performance. Furthermore, the school has maintained strong links with Oxford City Council. A collaborative funding proposal on e-taster courses in the social sciences has been submitted to the LTSN centre (C-SAP).

Other initiatives include:

  • A seminar on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (SENDA) was held to provide training for staff on disability and equal opportunity legislations.
  • A teaching and learning seminar on WP-issues was held to raise awareness of WP-issues amongst colleagues within the school and to provide an opportunity for discussion.
  • Staff were also encouraged to attend ‘visit days’, school visits and University-wide WP-training events such as the WP workshop, which many colleagues from the school attended.
  • A senior school management ‘away day’ on widening participation was held to discuss school’s strategy and response to the disappointing WP-statistics.

All these new initiatives require co-ordination and to this end a Widening Participation Team has been established in the school. This consists of the assistant dean (academic affairs), the principal, and senior lecturers in widening participation, the senior tutors (Nicky Johnson and Anne Lee), and the newly appointed marketing administrator (Nicola Anderton).

Student retention

The school is also very anxious to maintain and improve its student retention rates and Cheung’s role as principal lecturer encompasses both WP and student retention. As with WP, a number of new initiatives are being undertaken in this area. Several of these are focused on particular courses such as Paul Catley’s work on using e-learning to enhance student performance, progression, and retention featured elsewhere in this edition in the journal. One initiative that is school-wide is the increased role of student link co-ordinators in improving student retention. This changed role is reflected in the change in their job title to ‘student support co-ordinators’.

Student support co-ordinators and student retention

The Student Support Co-ordinator posts in the school have been extended (from 25 to 30 hours per week) to offer more assistance to students and thereby hopefully improve student retention rates. Activities are being targeted at first-year students. Students who do not make satisfactory progress after the first term are invited to informal interviews with the Student Support Co-ordinators. Support and guidance are provided to help these students improve their academic performance. The change to a semester-based system will mean that students who fail to make good progress in their first semester will only have one chance (instead of two under the term-based system) to improve their performance. Support for students (including WP students) after the first semester is therefore crucial to student retention.

Conclusion

The three appointments in September 2003 have enabled the school to go forward with a wide range of initiatives aimed at enhancing the student learning experience, widening participation, and improving student retention. All these developments are on-going and the aim is that over future years the school will be able to build on what has already been achieved.

Biographical note

Paul Catley is a senior lecturer in the law department and is currently researching the effectiveness of e-learning in enhancing student retention and progression as part of his University teaching fellowship.

Contact Details

Paul Catley
Law Department
School of Social Sciences and Law
Oxford Brookes University
Telephone: 01865 484906
Fax: 01865 484930
Email:
pccatley@brookes.ac.uk
Posted in Short Article

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