Engaging undergraduates in independent research: LSE Groups

This week my LSE colleague, Esther, and I  will be off to the Engage 2016 conference to talk about LSE Groups. This initiative takes place at the end of the Summer Term when undergraduate students from across the School can opt to take part in a two-week research project.

Yes – a research project completed in just two weeks! As a relatively recent arrival to  LSE I thought the idea was more than a little bit mad… But then I saw it in action.

Students come together in interdisciplinary, cross-year groups to develop a research question, decide on an appropriate methodology, collect and analyse data and write up their findings. And when I say ‘write up’ I mean a full paper and conference presentation!

Of course they don’t do this entirely on their own. There is a group of supervisors who are on hand to advise the students, and other staff present workshops on research ethics and methodologies. But the idea that underpins the project is that this should be independent research – the students call the shots.

The abstracts from last year’s projects illustrate just how ambitious students can be when given this independence. One of the groups (Hipsters and Spikes: mapping gentrification and defensive architecture in Tower Hamlets ) won the prestigious Booth Prize at the recent LSE Research Festival. The judges commented “The judges felt that this work touched closely on both themes and methods featured in Charles Booth’s pioneering work, combining state of the art mapping techniques with qualitative research to enhance our understanding of how inequality is produced in urban contexts.”

And the video below illustrates the process in more detail.

But there is an inherent tension in trying to provide students with this independence within the two week timescale and trying to encourage the students to think about the public engagement role of social science research. Do we try and enlist the help of certain organisations in advance and risk narrowing the possible choices students can make when designing their projects? If we are going to ask the students to do more to disseminate their findings to relevant organisations, which would involve a much bigger time commitment on the students’ part, might we reduce the number of students willing to participate? These and many other questions have shaped our thinking as we have tried to envisage LSE Groups as a more publicly engaged project. And we are hoping that our colleagues at the Engage conference will help us to find some answers! We are also hoping that people who can’t attend the conference will also share their thoughts, and you can do this by using the comments section of this blog.

Thanks in advance for your advice and support.

postcard

 

 

 

Do, think, share #64millionartists

Junk modelling
Junk modelling

New Year’s Day. The day when everyone makes those resolutions to start dieting, take up more exercise and just generally be a ‘better’ person. Years ago I stopped making those resolutions because I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I would never keep them.

So why was this year any different?

Searching on Twitter (I know!) for ideas about the role of creativity in learning and teaching, I came across the account for 64 Million Artists and decided in  a mad moment to sign-up for their January Challenge. Still haven’t really unpacked what prompted that impulse, but I’m glad that I did.

Put simply, you get an email to your mailbox every day throughout January outlining a different creative challenge. You do, then think, then share.

Over the month I have, amongst other things, compiled a picture of the year ahead,  made a junk sculpture, danced myself silly (nothing new there!), documented my day through taking a photo every hour (goodness my life is boring!), carried out a random act of kindness and, written a story a line at a time in partnership with fellow Lacunae blogger, Natasha.

I won’t claim to have completed all the challenges.  But I had a go at most of them. You can see my responses to the challenges, and those of many others, on Twitter via #64millionartists.

So what did I take away from this experience, and how is it relevant to learning and teaching?

Do

Talking to my 8-year old self.
Talking to my 8-year old self.

It’s amazing how much time you can spend thinking and writing about creativity, and yet not actually do any creative activity beyond the thinking and writing.. I think this can be a real issue when working as an academic developer. I have certainly spent more time showing people how to make rich pictures and explaining the theory behind them than I have ever spent doing them myself.

Putting aside 20 minutes a day to complete the challenge, and allowing myself some more time if I was enjoying the activity, was a real treat.  And I did feel like I had achieved something everyday. I don’t consider myself to be any good at certain types of creative activities but I am quite competitive, so turn the activity into a challenge and I’ll give it a go!

I think this points to the first take away message from this challenge. Having a go was what mattered. And having someone else telling me what it was I had to have a go at gave me permission to not be very good at it.

As teachers do we give ourselves time to do something each day (or even each week!) that we might not be very good at? By this I don’t mean the ‘worthy’ activity of identifying areas for CPD and working on them. I mean just having a go at something where the outcome itself is of little consequence. Given we are all so time poor, it isn’t surprising if we don’t. But perhaps we should.The actual ‘doing’ bit of the tasks, which in many cases involved very tactile experiences, felt very satisfying. This was definitely more about process than outcome.

And it is that focus on process that might make this a very useful learning tool when students can be so very focused on outcome. It’s difficult to introduce tasks into learning and teaching that aren’t directly related to the context of their desired outcomes (their qualifications) – “If it doesn’t count towards their grade, they won’t do it”. And because of this we do take the time and effort to try and contextualise activities that don’t involve direct scored assessment by explaining how they might help them do better in that type of assessment. Once again we drag their thinking back to outcome rather than process.

But what if we didn’t try and do this contextualisation? What if we just provided a short, sharp bit of creative ‘doing’ each day? Would they do it? They might if it were fun!

But why would we, as teachers, bother?

Think

Memories of summer
Memories of summer

Now you don’t need me to reiterate here all the arguments about the role of reflection in and on learning – hopefully we can all agree that this is a ‘good thing’. But it is not always easy to get students to engage in reflection in a consistent and constructive way. In order to somehow structure the activity we provide templates or series of questions that require a response.

Perhaps we should think about how we can use a much more ‘free association’ approach (going all Freudian!) to encouraging the development of these particular academic muscles. The prompts given by the 64 million artists team were What was it like? Did you enjoy the experience? Did it feel difficult?

The qualitative researcher in me baulks at the inclusion of some closed questions as a prompt for reflection, but actually I found they worked well. When short of time or feeling a little alienated by any of the activities, I could respond quite simply no/yes, but often I found that afterwards the question of ‘why that response?’ spent time percolating through my thought processes. Sometimes even eliciting more sophisticated responses! At other times I felt I could just stick with the no/yes response with no need to justify my response in any way.

Might students, especially those only just beginning to shape their academic identities, find this a more engaging prospect when compared to the more directed reflection we tend to offer them?

Share

Instructions to an alien. How to mend a broken heart.
Instructions to an alien. How to mend a broken heart.

Sharing your thoughts and reflections – always a ‘deep- breath’ moment! The focus here was on sharing the feelings and thoughts about doing the activity rather than sharing whatever you had produced. Again, process rather than output. Lots of people did share what they had produced, however, and I found that sharing very affecting.

You could share via a project space on the 64 million artists website, or via social media. Mostly I engaged via Twitter, and as the month progressed I felt a real sense of community developing.

I have been reading and thinking a lot recently about student self-efficacy and resilience. And I keep returning to a piece of work that Simon Cassidy wrote about on the HEA learning and teaching blog. Specifically, the issue that students who are more resilient for themselves also have the potential to support the development of other students’ self-efficacy and, as a result, their resilience. As Simon points out, this has encouraging implications for peer-led learning and mentoring.

Again, there is a tendency to formalise this type of learning and mentoring, but is there space for a much more fluid engagement in a learning community? One of the things that struck me about the January Challengers that shared via Twitter was just what a diverse bunch we were. In most instances the only connection was participating in the challenge, but that connection still enabled learning from each other, and a supportive and encouraging space.

One aspect I include in workshops I facilitate that focus on providing learning and teaching beyond time and space is the need to provide opportunities for learners, who may never meet face-to-face, to create a social space for peer-support. In my work as  a tutor with the Open University that space was a ‘Cafe’ forum within the module space on the VLE.

Interestingly, during the rounds of introductions that characterise the beginning of the module students seem to want to be able to situate each other both in terms of space and time. Contributions usually started with “Hello my name is xxx and I live in xxx”. Subsequent discussions – discussions where people were continually presenting and (re)presenting their identities – usually included some elements relating to the the contexts in which they were attempting to study.

But these spaces, confined as they were within the VLE and linked to specific modules, were formally informal! Is there the potential for students to come together around a theme like creativity and an aim like completing the challenges to develop a learning space that encourages peer learning and support? Would that space be the richer for having students from different disciplines and at different stages of their academic careers contributing?

More questions than answers there! I’d love to hear your thoughts – or to hear about any similar strategies you already have in place.

So, the January Challenge is done and dusted, but I have signed up for the Friday Challenge – a creative challenge sent to your email box every Friday. Why not join up and join in? http://64millionartists.com/pledge/

How not to be ignorant about the world

I’m sure that many readers will be familiar with Hans Rosling – one of the best TEDtalkers around I think. But perhaps not everyone will be familiar with the Ignorance Project.

The mission of Gapminder Foundation is to fight devastating ignorance with a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand. We started the Ignorance Project to investigate what the public know and don’t know about basic global patterns and macro-trends. We use surveys to ask representative groups of people simple questions about key-aspects of global development.

There are teaching materials produced as part of the project, but they are aimed more at schools than HE – but with some recontextualising they could be useful.

But the main reason I highlight this resource, and in particular the video below, is because I think it could be useful to engage students in active and critical thinking and analysis.

The ‘set-up’ by Hans will be familiar if you have watched any of his other TED talks – comparing the understanding of groups of people, in this instance starting with the audience, with what might be achieved by chimpanzees through random responses rather than through knowledge or understanding. But for this talk Hans is joined by his son Ola, who gives us tips on how we might adapt our thinking so that we can ‘beat the chimps’.

The principles of questioning our everyday ‘taken-for-granteds’ and underlying influences on thought such as the popular media could form the basis for many different types of lessons, and the context of world development makes this especially useful for anyone trying to engage students in education for sustainable development and/or global citizenship issues.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

Understanding data visualisation

seeing dataFor those of us who enjoy teaching research methods  (yes, we do exist!) and so spend time searching for ways in which to encourage students to engage with data and evidence, the advances in data visualisation methods have been a godsend!

You don’t have to search far on the ‘net to find excellent examples that can be used in classroom settings, and the tools to create your own visualisations are becoming more accessible.

But sometimes, when asking students to engage with a topic for the first time, it is useful to be able to go back to basics. This resource Understanding data visualisations from the Seeing Data project does just that.

Why do we need to understand data visualisations? There is more and more data around us, and data are increasingly used in decision-making, journalism, and to make sense of the world. One of the main ways that people get access to data is through visualisations, but lots of people feel like they don’t have the skills and knowledge to make sense of visualisations. This can mean that some people feel left out of conversations about data. This resource aims to overcome that problem, by helping people to develop their ability to understand – and enjoy! – data visualisations.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

Up periscope!

OU social media toolkit: http://www.open.ac.uk/community/social-media-toolkit/

http://www.open.ac.uk/community/social-media-toolkit/

There are a number of guides to using social media in academic settings, but what I love about this toolkit is the breadth of media covered and the focus on learning and teaching.

I blog (obviously!) and use Twitter, LinkedIn and SlideShare – but having looked at this toolkit I am making a New Year’s resolution to explore Periscope and SoundCloud.  Well, it will give me something to blog about 🙂

It is primarily designed as a guide for OU staff, but don’t let that put you off – the advice is useful for anyone working in an academic context. And the case studies section has some insightful observations and tips from OU staff.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

Digital storytelling: free webinars

Digital storytellingStoryCenter (previously The Center for Digital Storytelling) run a series of webinars aimed at people planning to use digital storytelling in educational settings, but these cost money!

An investment worth making if you are definitely incorporating digital storytelling into your learning and teaching, but if you would just like to explore this approach in more detail before taking the plunge, there are a series of free webinars throughout next year.

Details of the workshops are available here.

One of my favourite examples of the power of digital storytelling

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

Spin, Weave and Cut: cartoons and creativity

comicsThe Spin, Weave and Cut website from Nick Sousanis contains so many useful resources it will take you a while to explore – but it will be time well spent!

Not only are there resources from a course on using comics in learning and teaching, Nick has also posted the syllabus and readings from a module that he is currently presenting – Comics as a Way of Thinking.

If you are interested in a broader focus on visual thinking and the role it can play in supporting creativity and developing writing, there’s a section full of links to resources.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.