Monday, 7 September 2015

Notes from a 2009 presentation on Ultraversity.

Notes from a workshop presented to Anglia Ruskin Faculty of Education in 2009 on the Ultraversity approach to Personalised Learning.

 Personalised Learning is a tricky beast to talk about as it means very different things to different people. For the purposes of this workshop the term 'personalisation' will be used to indicate the process through which individuals learning together in a diverse group adapt their approaches 
within the constraints of their work context to achieve the same learning outcomes. This discussion describes aspects of the Ultraversity approach to designing a cohesive curriculum that enables this process.

 Since 2003 we have used a cohort team delivery model where a team of facilitators take the lead role in supporting the development of a cohort throughout the three years they are with us. The implications of this for our practice are that each and every one on the pathway has to become adept at delivering every module and assessing every module. The benefits we hoped this would provide for the students and the facilitators include the development of deep and trusting relationships and a sense of continuity and stability for the students while providing richness through the range of skills and perspectives of exposure from the contrasting viewpoints of a team of academic researchers.  Many of the students keep in touch with their facilitators after graduation and this provides an opportunity for long term data collection and the evaluation of impact beyond delivery. A few days prior to this workshop I received an unexpected mail from a recent graduate who shared her experiences of a potentially stressful interview for a place on a Masters course.....
Hi Ian, hope you are enjoying the spanish sun.
Just thought I'd drop you a post to say my Speech and language masters interview went really well on the 1st. We had a short written piece, role play, critical reflection on a video clip and individual interviews.
I got so carried away talking about theory Dr. Wilson (lecturer) lent me a book which he thought I'd enjoy! I just hope they didn't have a headache post interview.The knowledge and understanding I'd acquired through my degree was so relevant that I was "singing" all the way through. It didn't feel like an interview at all! I didn't want to leave!
In the second year there is a research project to be undertaken and action research is an option. I nearly fell off my chair with happiness: )
I was so better prepared than some of the other applicants and I needed to be as there were nearly 400 applicants, 100 got interviews and only 22 places. So I've done pretty well already.
Keeping everything crossed now, should find out my fate in a couple of weeks.
I think the reality of what I can achieve is really kicking in now, especially the habit of picking apart every experience I encounter. I never fully realised how infinately relevant these modules were. I now realise why our facilitators made us work for the answers.
Wishing you and your family well.Love Kate x
"It's not who you are that holds you back, it's who you think you're not".  ~Author Unknown
PS. My last thought on leaving the Uni. was "I wish my Clanger mates ( Kate's learning set ) were with me now...they would love this".
Lifelong learning and lifelong friends! 

Kate was a support teacher working with autistic spectrum 5-7 year olds, and was interested in work focused learning she studied in an online community alongside:

A handful of TAs
1 University administrator
1 building projects manager in Spain
1 swimming instructor
 Several librarians
Several other students in a range of equally diverse work contexts.

What did Kate say to these people; what was their common ground; what did they learn together - how did they learn together?
The Ultraversity project provides access to formal accreditation through a BA honours pathway that is delivered fully online with no face-to-face contact between staff and students or between students and students. Everything they said to each other was communicated through internet enabled technologies. The dominant approach to communication is one where students have high visibility in online conferences that are presented as communal mail boxes. Messages are threaded and personalised fonts and colours enable voices to be easily discerned. Voice recordings are integrated into the communications system.
The curriculum design locates a significant proportion of study in work-focused experiences so enabling students to remain in full time employment while they study.
 Learners are required to act together to support each other in an online community of inquiry exhibiting the characteristics of a Community of Practice (COP); see Wenger (1999). This is not just another online space where students can talk to each other and the course tutors; it is a carefully facilitated scholarly community. Tutors encourage socialising as a means of bonding and developing trust, we also model and encourage high level dialogue – particularly critical reflection amongst peers on each others' work in progress. Many of the modules require evidence of participation in this process to meet learning outcomes. 

Like the other students, at the start of each module Kate discussed her own ideas for how she would approach the module, she then presented an individual learning plan to her learning facilitator who reviewed, negotiated and validated the plan. Kate went on to discuss what she found in her literature search and strategies for reviewing and writing up her literature review. Locating these discussions in a COP exposes all students to a wealth of literature and encourages autonomous searching for contemporary and seminal sources. Kate provided regular updates as to her experiential learning and what she was discovering by applying theory to practice. The students compared and commented on each others' experiences. They offered new ideas, collaborated on problem solving, argued about meaning, agreed or agreed to differ and consolidated personal epistemological understanding. They explored methodologies and associated methods, reviewed each others' interpretation of data and discussed validity of findings in the light of the small-scale and contextualised nature of their research. They supported each other when life work or study presented unexpected difficulties. They worked and studied together to develop the personal and professional characteristics that the project aims set out.

Initial project aims (taken from validation documentation)Develop the student as a critically reflective problem solver who is able to take effective action for improvement within their work-context as a part of their ongoing studies:

  1.  To develop a personal philosophy of learning that includes the use of technology and research and relates to their own work setting
  2.  To acquire the ability to analyse and synthesise knowledge of practice so as to solve practical problems and situations
  3.  To maintain a flexible approach to change as a participant, and awareness of their own power to influence change
  4.  To appreciate the enriching nature of working collaboratively in communities of inquiry that share insights and perspectives
  5.  To develop a continuing concern for their own professional development and the appropriate strategies to achieve this
  6.  To provide an appropriate foundation in professional and technical understanding, and knowledge and skills on which they can build through continuous professional development
  7.  To develop the skills of action inquiry as an enduring capacity for lifelong learning and improvement in the workplace
 (Ultralab, 2003)

The 2008  HEA report into Workforce Development highlights a potential difficulty for higher educational institutions (HEI's) when working on employer-led learning initiatives by drawing a distinction between professional training and professional education where:
  "There will be an emphasis upon higher level skills that embody the essence of higher education - for example, reflection, analysis, problem solving, creativity, evaluation, and an open-endedness about what emerges from the learning" (HEA, 2008)
There is a strong alignment between the HEA statement and the Ultraversity initial project aims above - although this presentation does not have the scope to explore how we build in opportunities for creative expression, creative use of technology, creative approaches to action planning and to constructing assessment products I can confirm that we do do creativity too and open-endedness is an intrinsic concept - as Kate indicated in her email she perceives herself as a lifetime learner with life-time friends - we also see that the inquiries used for module work go on and on beyond the closure of the module.  It seems to us that we have captured the essence of HE and that we instil in many of our students 
a zest for lifetime learning and key skills for their life beyond the course.

Kate mailed me a week later...
They have offered me a place so I'm well and truly "in". One of the lecturers made the journey into my school and told me I was "top of the pile" and I gave her a big hug and promptly burst into tears.

I am so pleased and relieved I can't tell you. I owe you guys so much.

My dear headmaster said that when I finish in 2011 the first thing I must do is pick up the phone as he wants me back. We shook on it and it is the first thing I shall do.

The curriculum requires graduates to have:

1. Developed a deep understanding of their work place and their role.
2. Become adept at applying theoretical knowledge to solve problems and improve practice.
3. Become competent and self-confident contributors to the organisation.

What kind of problems do they solve ?

in the voice of the students - 
 Third sector – Project leader in New Media Design and Development Unit
    I wanted to carry out an inquiry that would have some impact and benefit on the work that I do, and also involve my blind and partially sighted was designed to investigate how I could improve the product evaluation process for blind and partially sighted colleagues."

Nursery School - Manager 
 My aim was to look into how I could implement a better system of working with parents, using accessible homemade activities, which would not only help and reinforce their role as the baby`s prime educator but also create working links between home and Nursery”

School - Office Manger
The aim of the project centred on finding out whether the process of two-way communication flow between classroom-based staff and office staff is efficient, and if not, to investigate ways and means to effect an improvement.

Primary School  Administrator     ...existing culture in school for Teaching Assistants seemed to me to be that of the underdog... there was an underlying theme of being undervalued. As a consequence morale was low... from previous research I found that Teaching Assistants on the whole felt undervalued and not part of the ‘team’. Lack of communication seemed to be a recurring gripe, almost a feeling of being excluded"

Analysis of final project foci 

Table 1.
Final project submissions of 325 students (the first 6 cohorts) were examined to identify the focus of their inquiries. What we see is 9 broad areas of work context and 18 inquiry topic areas. 261students worked in schools or college; these include roles such as librarians, TAs, administrators and  lunchtime supervisors so still very different roles within the organisation. 
A brief insight into how one student approached action for improvement.
This student works as an administrator in a primary school setting with expanding staff numbers.

1. Reconnaissance and reflection

An evaluation of the workplace uncovered a range of potential inquiry contexts.
“Lack of information regarding – staff structure and responsibilities, school policies and resource areas”

2. Identifying an inquiry focus and research questions

Further evaluation focusing on the Teaching Assistants uncovered an area in need of improvement suitable as a focus for an action inquiry.
The key area identified though was the lack of communication between the rest of the school and the Teaching Assistants…
…The existing culture in school for Teaching Assistants seemed to me to be that of the underdog... there was an underlying theme of being undervalued. As a consequence morale was low – this had become more apparent with an increase in staff from just 2 Teaching Assistants 4 years ago to a total of 11 Teaching Assistants now. From my research I found that Teaching Assistants on the whole felt undervalued and not part of the ‘team’. Lack of communication seemed to be a recurring gripe, almost a feeling of being excluded.

3. Identify learning/research activities that lead to the development, implementation, and evaluation of an action for improvement

An inclusive and iterative approach was used to explore the impact of change.
I used the cyclical process of action research (Kemmis and Wilkinson 1998) plan – do – review. This provided me with scope to conduct my research over 3 cycles…Improvement and involvement are central to action research. Collaboration between researchers and those who are the focus of the research, and their participation in the process, are seen as central to action research. This relationship fits well with the approach of flexible, qualitative design.

4. Implement the plan and take action

The cycles of inquiry focused on investigating how communication within the school could be developed for Teaching Assistants. A set of strategies for improvement was introduced and a positive impact was provoked.
 By introducing a point of contact, holding regular weekly meetings, passing on information about school events, having a proper induction process for new employees, even giving Teaching Assistants the opportunity to all hold First Aid certificates has empowered them enough to feel more useful. They now feel more valued by the school which has gone some way to raising morale.

5. Share selected parts of the inquiry with fellow learners for critical feedback
The student shared plans and invited critical feedback…
I chose to present activity 3 to my fellow researchers  whose critical feedback forced me to rethink my impact study. Had I only considered the evaluation issue in my defence? I struggled during this module to put my ideas into the correct ‘category’, and subsequently had included my thoughts on reliability of data into activity 1 and now see that this is part of my defence and should be incorporated here. I defended the reason for exhibiting twice and included this because it has impacted on me and other people’s attitudes towards me in school. By including criticism from my exhibition this led me to reflect on changes that had happened to me in school, I think, as a result of my heightened profile.

6. Construct a final account that identifies learning in relation to module intended learning outcomes

In the final account the student describes how her research has introduced significant change and developed her role within her workplace.
In the past I have felt that I am only a small cog in this great wheel that is this educational establishment, but my efforts so far have changed procedures, developed communication, raised morale and formed a cohesive group which offers support to each other. What began as a small idea has now become a set order where the Headteacher does not want to ‘lose the impetus’. My research area has developed my school role beyond what was first perceived as my role as school administrator.
The research activity has also resulted in new responsibilities being offered and professional recognition by the workplace.
As a consequence of my research the Headteacher has asked me to look into co-ordinating the Investors in People project for our school this year. He has seen the value of my research and how successfully and professionally I have approached it and I think that this has had an impact on him in that he feels I will be able to successfully steer the school through the Investors in People programme.

The whole experience provoked a significant level of personal satisfaction for the student.
I now have extra responsibility for the Teaching Assistants and I see the cohesion of this group as my doing, which gives me a lot of satisfaction. By empowering Teaching Assistants with knowledge, they feel more valued, indeed one member of teaching staff has said that the Teaching Assistants seems to know more about school events than she does.

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