Inquiry through Blended Learning

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Location: Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Study Trip to England

The past ten days in England have been very exciting for me on a personal and a professional note. I thought I would take a moment to share some of my impressions and photos from the trip.

Friday June 8th to Sunday June 10th - Wimbledon
The first part of the trip was spent with Rick & Diane, friends from Queen's University, at their home in Wimbledon. I had a chance to visit the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on Friday June 8th where the first English Tennis Championship was held in 1877. Looking forward to watching this year's Championship on TV (it begins on June 25th to see Roger Federer defend his Men's Championship Title).

On Saturday we headed for the countryside of Southern England where we "sped" through the hedge and tree lined country lanes on road bicycles. This was the first time I had ever been on a road bike and the "speed" sure is addictive. I'll have to look at purchasing such a bike when I return to Calgary (if I can find the $$).

Sunday was spent visiting the "hub" of the former British Empire and currently the "financial capital" of the world - London. The last time I had visited was in 1988 and there has been lots of new construction since then - especially with the Millennium projects (i.e., the giant British Airways Eye - ferris wheel and the Tate Modern Collection - which has been re-located in a renovated power plant along the Thames). Great to see some olde traditions - such as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and that all the National Museums & Galleries still have free admission (i.e., British History Museum, Portrait Gallery) - just like the Smithsonian Institute Museum and Galleries in Washington, D.C. What I was surprised about was the lack of security screening to enter these institutions as in Paris last summer - we had all our bags X-rayed and we had to walk through a metal detector (exactly like airport security) whenever we entered a Museum or Gallery.

Monday June 11th - The University of Oxford
I got down to business on Monday when I took the train/subway from Wimbledon to Oxford. The University of Oxford is considered to be the oldest university in the English-speaking world. There is no exact date of the University's foundation but teaching has existed at Oxford in some form since 1096 and developed rapidly from 1167, when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. I had a chance to view some of the 39 colleges that accommodate, feed and tutor the close to 30,000 students that attend Oxford. I'm sure that Oxford would score VERY high on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) as ALL students live on campus in a college (VERY supportive campus environment). You really do feel that you are "living history" when you walk along the cobblestone streets and view the formally attired students entering and exiting the Examination Halls (final exams were taking place during the second week of June). The purpose of my visit was to chat with Graham Gibbs, the Director of The Oxford Learning Institute. The Institute was located on a side street in a modern, secure office building. I had to "buzz" the receptionist in order to gain access to the building and the Learning Institute (not sure how inviting this would be for your average faculty member). The entrance hallway to the Institute has a glass framed showcase - which displays the current publications that have been produced by the academic staff of the Institute. The physical space consists mainly of work cubicles with really no area for faculty workshops or discussions. The core areas of the Institute consist of Management and Leadership Development (Graham's focus) and Teaching Development Support (Lynn MacAlpine's focus - she is originally from the McGill Centre for Teaching & Learning). Graham believes that transformation can best be achieved at the University of Oxford by working directly with the Department Heads (leadership development) to experientially demonstrate the importance of linking research, teaching and service practice (holistic perspective).

Side Note: A constant theme in each higher education I visited was the emphasis on "learning" . Such as the University of Oxford's Learning Institute (rather than Teaching & Learning Centre).

Tuesday June 12th - Oxford-Brookes University
I woke up on Tuesday feeling pretty groggy. Over the past couple of years I have begun to experience hay fever in the spring (pollen & grass allergies). Give the climate of Calgary (often lots of rain and sometimes snow in the spring) I have been able to manage but WOW -with all the vegetation and flowers in England my hay fever has really been acting up. Any medication I take just makes me feel dizzy and tired. I've just got to "suck it up" - the true British way :) After a wonderful English breakfast at the Galaxie Hotel on Bambury Street (highly recommended but a bit far on foot from the train station) I took a city bus to the Wheatley Campus of Oxford-Brookes University. This is where the story begins to get interesting. In 1992, the Conservative Government, under John Major, automatically converted all the Polytechnical Institutions (i.e., SAIT, Mount Royal College) to universities in order to try and increase the number of students participating in higher education (the goal was 50% and it sounds like currently 43% of the 18 to 24 age population attend a higher education institution). I think with this "shift" came greater pressure for improving the quality of the learning experience for students (i.e., improving the quality of teaching). In order to achieve this goal the Higher Education Academy (HEA) was formed in May 2004 through the merger of the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (ILTHE), the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN), and the TQEF National Co-ordination Team (NCT). The HEA mission is to help institutions, discipline groups and all staff to provide the best possible learning experience for their students. One of the ways to achieve this objective was to help establish Centre's for Excellence in Teaching & Learning (CELTs) and mandatory higher education teaching certificate programs with National Standards and Accreditation (at many of the new universities - not The University of Oxford).

After an AMAZING English breakfast (lots of bacon, sausage, egg and cooked tomatoes) I took a bus back to the City Centre and then another one of the Oxford-Brookes University - Wheatley Campus (about 8 miles from the City Centre). Rhona met me at the front gate and I was VERY impressed with the itinerary that she had set up for me. She works with the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development. This office provides ALL the staff and academic training for the Institution (everything from safety training to teacher & research training). We started the day by chatting about Rhona's programs (a combination of research/evaluation studies, consulting and a designing for learning program). I was particularly interested in the Designing for Learning program which is a course redesign program. There are faculty development champions embedded in each department of the University and they work with the Dean's and Chairs to identify strategic courses and programs for redesign. Faculty at the departmental level are then selected to attend a two day "intensive" workshop to begin the course redesign process. Rhona passed onto me the outline for this workshop - which emphasizes the use of a critical friend and a series of questions to provide a reflective element to the program.

I then spent some time with the eLearning Coordinator for the University. He had been the Head of the Engineering Department and involved in computer managed learning for a number of years. We had a nice discussion about how information and communication technologies had been a "catalyst" in our own teaching practices to focus on creating active & collaborative learning environments for our students. Next up, was a chat with Deanna who is responsible for the mandatory teacher training program. Each new academic staff member must be part of a year long "certificate in teaching in higher education" program. This program is accredited by the Higher Education Academy and can be credited towards a Master's degree in Teaching in Higher Education. The probation (not sure if they have tenure) period at Oxford-Brookes University is one year. Deanna passed on to me a couple of excellent papers (one by Chris Rust at Oxford-Brookes and one by Graham Gibbs at Oxford) that demonstrate the positive impact that teacher training programs have on student learning (everyone ends of up taking a "deeper approach"). I then had lunch with Rhona's "office mates". They have lunch everyday together - a great chance to regularly connect on a personal and a professional level. I got the sense that they are a "real" community of educational development practionners.

After lunch, Rhona drove me down to the city centre campus of Oxford-Brookes. I met with their eLearning development and support group. They are currently very involved in supporting and researching the collaborative students use of wiki-based technologies. I really have got a better job at helping students using wikis to summarize online discussion forums. At the moment I think the key is to get each team to explicitly document the inquiry process that took place during the week (defining the key triggering event, what forms the exploration took, how integration and a sense of resolution/application was achieved).

Too quickly, it was time to head to take another city bus to the train station and through a combination of trains and the underground - I made my way to Hatfield. Peter Bullen, the Director of the Blended Learning Unit (BLU) for the University of Hertfordshire, met me at the station. We went directly to a reception for the Aerospace and Automotive Engineering students who were celebrating the launch of their new Student Formula One car. Peter is also the Ford Automotive Engineering Professor at the U of H (and former head of the department). The Engineering Department emphasizes a project based approach to learning and student teams are involved in a number of projects (i.e., racing cars, rockets and hovercrafts). This approach has also spread to the K to 12 sector with the team based development of "green vehicles". After the launch reception (which included a testing of the vehicles in a nearby parking lot) we had dinner with Peter Chatterton (and eLearning Consultant) and Trish Andrews from the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Unfortunately, I became increasingly congested with my hay fever and I didn't have much energy to participate in the discussion.

Wednesday June 13th - University of Hertfordshire
Rats, I woke up this morning even more congested. I was based at the De Haviland campus - former site of British Aerospace buildings and airstrip. Sigh, it must be tough on the UK ego to no longer have their own airplane or automotive industries - as everything is now owned by former companies (Mini-Minor by BMW, Jaguar and Land Rover by Ford). This campus is VERY modern with lots of glass buildings which I love because of all the natural light. I had breakfast in the Sports Centre (complete with a major climbing wall) and then walked over the original Country Lane campus to meet with Mary Reid, former Head of the School of Education and Acting Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT). The Blended Learning Unit was funded from another Higher Education Academy grant and I think there is a bit of tension between CELT and BLU. The plan is to create a new Institute for Learning & Teaching which will integrate both units. Mary has applied for Director of this new Institute and everyone seemed pretty confident that she would get the position. I had a wonderful chat with Mary. I could tell that we were both "kindered spirits": from our K to 12 roots. Two "take aways" from our chat were the importance of integrating student's part-time work into their studies (work for connections rather than separations) and the use of "critical friends" to help in our teaching practice. There is a Learning & Teaching Narrator position (Joy Jarvis) in the School of Education and this person facilitates this process.

Joanne Teague, the eLearning Coordinator for the School of Education arrived at 11am and we had a nice coffee together in the Centre for Creative Arts building. Joanne is off to the EdMedia conference in Vancouver at the end of the month and she was curious to learn more about life in Western Canada. Sounds like she works with BLU and Joy Jarvis to help instructors in the School of Education redesign their courses. She drove me back to the De Haviland campus after our chat. I went for a swim at the Sports Centre (lane swimming from 7:30am to 10:00pm each day during the spring semester). I then spent the afternoon catching up on email and documenting this trip.

The evening was spent at the pre-conference reception for the Blended Learning Conference. Peter Bullen made some opening comments about BLU. He emphasized that the goals of the unit were to:

  1. Minimize barriers to the use faculty and student use of learning technologies
  2. Foster and support innovative practice of using these tools
  3. Evaluate and document the progress of the unit
  4. Dissemniate the results locally, nationally and internationally

Thursday June 14th - University of Hertfordshire
Today was the 2nd International Conference on Blended Learning. Grainne Conole from the Open University was the keynote speaker and she spoke about how we are now focusing on the "C" rather than the "I" in ICTs (Information Communication Technology) because of the increased focus on active & collaborative learning which is being supported by Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs & wikis. I made a series of conference notes throughout the day - a lot of reporting of action research studies (which also included my own presentation). Personally, I found everything a tad bit rushed with the one day format. The sessions were broken into a series of "back to back" 30 minute time slots - 20 minutes for presentation and 10 minutes for Q&A. I was very tired by the last session (an Elluminate connection with the U of C for Irene's presentation on using Blackboard to support student critical thinking) and I'm not sure how much I absorbed.

I had a nice evening in St.Albans with Trish from Australia and Vivian & Amy (my former graduate student) from Simon Fraser. We had a pub dinner at the Waterend Barn - an olde historic building. It was currie night - so we all indulged a spicey currie with a British Ale :)

Friday June 15th - University of Hertfordshire
I spent most of the day with Peter Bullen and members of BLU. BLU is located within the Learning Resources Centre of the Country Lane campus. This is similar to how the Teaching & Learning Centre will be located in the new Library building at the U of C. The BLU teachers spend three days a week in their home departments and 2 days a week with the blended learning unit. Peter, Jon and Mark provided me with a tour of their two teaching spaces - complete with interactive whiteboards and projection screens on all four walls of the classroom. We chatted about collaborative projects regarding the assessment of the redesigned courses, development of case studies and involvment in the annual Blended Learning Conference (two day event at the U of H in the spring of 2008 with the potential of the U of C hosting the event in 2009).

I took the train from St. Albans to Gatwick International Airport late in the afternoon and relaxed at a hotel in Crawley before departing for Calgary on Saturday June 16th (Queen Elizabeth the 2nds birthday as well as my sister Beth's).