PDF Domain 1: The ‘Self’ in Teaching and Learning

Last month I blogged about my involvement in the National Forum Professional Development Framework (PDF) pilot scheme. Now I find myself leading two pilot groups and, after the kickstarter workshop here on 16th January, I am feeling a little more confident in the role.

Each member of the pilot group, including myself, will develop a professional development portfolio (or PDP). Quite what form that will take is flexible, in that each person is being encouraged to use a format they are comfortable with, and one of the goals of the pilot project is to identify potential formats. For my part, I intend to openly blog my PDP.

Already, without even starting, I’m finding this a challenge. The first domain (of five) in the PDF is the ‘Self’ and it involves a lot of self-reflection. It’s not easy to do this openly. So bear with me.

Domain 1: the ‘Self’ in Teaching and Learning

It’s interesting that this domain is included in the PDF as a result of student input. The National Forum has run Teaching Hero awards over the last few years, and it was noticed that the words students use to describe a ‘teaching hero’ tend to be personal attributes — caring, amusing, supportive, committed. It is true that every teacher brings something of themselves to their teaching practice and approach. So starting with the ‘Self’ does make sense.

There are five elements to this domain, according to the PDF documentation. Rather than start with the first element, which is a reflection on personal characteristics, I’m going to start with the second.

Element 1.2 Reflection on prior learning and life experiences that contribute, or are barriers, to teaching, i.e. prior experience and knowledge: as a student, as a teacher, as a researcher and in life.

I never saw myself as a teacher; that evolved. I was the first in my family to go to University, so it was an alien landscape for me. But I loved it. I loved academia and I loved the academic community. My father was very proud of my academic achievements, but it was difficult to tell him after 4 years of an undergraduate degree (BSc in Computer Science & Mathematics) that I intended to stay on and not enter the workforce immediately.

Initial tutoring experiences

My first experience of teaching was when I was a MSc student at UCD in the early 1990s. I was asked to teach a course on Information Systems to students in a Library Information Systems programme. I knew nothing about the students or about the programme. I just had to turn up and give 6 lectures. Somebody else was taking care of tutorials. It was a strange, disembodied experience. It’s not a highlight of my teaching career. I’m quite sure that I was awful.

I also gave tutorials to final year undergraduate Computer Science students. At least I had an idea of the context, and the material was suitably advanced that it interested me. I put a lot of effort into producing materials for the students. I guess they were good because I heard that another tutor was still using the materials 3 years after I left, under his own name. That was the first time I really understood plagiarism.

But the teaching experience I really enjoyed, during that time period, was giving one-to-one tuition to second and third year students who were struggling with the course. My MSc supervisor (a most wonderful teacher named John J. Kelly) recommended me to students, and I found it a very rewarding experience. It required me to put myself in the student’s place, to understand where they were coming from, and to use my understanding of their existing knowledge to build upon.

Teaching as a PhD student

I moved to Glasgow University and was a PhD research student at the Department of Computing Science. I wanted to immerse myself in research and initially had no intention of tutoring, but I needed the money. I tutored groups of first year Programming students, about 20 per group. There was a highly efficient tutorial system in place, so I was provided with materials and lesson plans. To my surprise, I found I really enjoyed the experience, particularly the bonding with the students and the interactions we had. They had a problem with my Irish accent initially, and I had to learn to stop swearing (I grew up in Dublin — where swearing is part of the language) and tone down my accent to be understood.

I particularly remember one student, in about the 10th week of term, who came to me for help. The poor lad was really struggling. He just could not understand the concept of a variable — which is fundamental in computer programming. I spent hours with him, but he could not get over this hump. He eventually disengaged from the programme, which I think was probably a good thing. I hope he found something more suited to him. I didn’t know anything about threshold concepts back then, but I recognised that this was certainly one of them.

In my second year I got the opportunity to work with one of the lecturers on a Formal Methods module — my area of research. Students, in class (about 80 of them), were given problems to solve, while we circulated the room, clambering over benches in the old-style lecture theatre, to support, guide and prompt. I had never seen anything like it before. It was huge fun and I loved the interactions and helping the students to really explore the topic. We had to think on our feet, because you never knew what someone might ask, or what inventive solutions they might come up with. I realise now that this was a form of a flipped classroom approach.

As a lecturer

In December 1995 I took up an academic post at NUIG as a lecturer in Information Technology, a job I stayed in until August 2006. I believe that I was a good teacher, well prepared and organised. I don’t believe I was an outstanding teacher. I struggled with many of the issues that lecturers still struggle with: increased class sized (up to about 180); organising tutorials and labs; assessment; group work; balancing teaching with admin and research. I made a big effort to know every one of my students, by name at least, especially in the really big classes. And I became interested in the area of how to teach Computing subjects.

My approach and underlying philosophy was entirely teacher-centred. I was in complete control, of my teaching at least. At the same time, it was clear that teaching was not the priority of the environment within which I worked. But there were a few experiences that influenced my development as a teacher.

Increased student numbers. The first class I taught had 13 students (7 male, 6 female). That was the first intake of the BSc IT, who graduated in 1999. It rapidly increased to over 100 first year students, plus first year Electronic & Computer Engineering, who took the same first year programming course. The gender balance wasn’t so good, by then. My organisation skills improved during that time, but I suspect I reverted to teaching-by-transmission mode.

I have a memory of looking up during a lecture in an old, cold lecture theatre. I watched the heads bobbing up and down as I gave the students time to write down the example from the OHP (no Blackboard in those days). It occurred to me that I was completely outnumbered, that if the students chose to revolt (or just start chatting) I was completely powerless to stop them. I can understand the fear that some lecturers have in disrupting the class to use clickers or peer learning exercises: what if I can’t bring them back to attention again?

Students in trouble. Even while dealing with such large numbers, I must have come across as being “approachable”, because students did come to me with problems. I would listen and try to help, but I felt quite out of my depth at times. Like when the young female student came to tell me she was pregnant, and couldn’t keep up with work because of morning sickness.

In my first 5 years there were 4 student deaths, all tragic. But the one that still haunts me is the young man who took his own life. He had struggled with first year. In a class of about 120, I knew his name. He had sporadic attendance, so I was concerned. He responded to attempts to bring him back into the fold, but still failed his first year. He came back again to repeat the year, and I encouraged him to sit in on lectures. I watched out for him. I was stunned when I heard (heavily pregnant with my first child) that he’d gone. He was buried in a most beautiful place. I still wonder if we failed him, or what else we could have done to help.

We are not teaching a homogeneous bunch of students. Every student is an individual, with his/her own issues and challenges. It’s important to be fair to each student, which doesn’t necessarily mean that we treat them all equally.

Teaching and Learning Scholarship. Early in my career I was given responsibility for a new programme — IT as a subject in the BA, for non-technical students. This gave me exposure to curriculum design, but also to a whole bunch of students (who were not Computer Science students). I worked with a fabulous group of people, where we had discussions about teaching methods and approaches.

One of my colleagues had links to the LTSN subject network for Information and Computing Sciences in the UK. We began to publish conference papers on the teaching of IT as a Humanities subject, and this opened up a whole new area for me. In networking with the LTSN ICS network, and eventually hosting one of their conferences in Galway, I began to discover and contribute to the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Plagiarism. Strange as it may seem, the issues surrounding academic integrity gave me a real chance to consider assessment practices in the discipline. Having supervised a student project in the area, when the University’s policy on student plagiarism was approved, I was asked to take on the role of plagiarism advisor in the (then) Faculty of Engineering. I had many useful discussions with the other plagiarism advisor in the faculty and began to digest some of the literature that was coming out of the UK at the time.

Teaching Online. Around 2003 I became involved in the development of content for module in Software Engineering, to be delivered completely online as part of the MSc in Software and Information Systems, offered jointly by NUI, Galway and Regis University, Colorado. This was my first introduction to online learning, and it completely challenged everything I thought I knew about teaching.

I became an online facilitator for the programme, for both the Software Engineering module and a Programming module. This required some training, initially from Regis University. I then undertook the E-Moderating course offered (through CELT) by All Things in Moderation, based on Gilly Salmon’s 5 stage model.

I found that the methods and approaches I was using while teaching online began to inform my practice in the classroom. In fairly large lectures (about 100 students) I began to use more interactive methods, even using the class time for small group work. The results invigorated my teaching: instead of silent classes with semi-attentive students, the lecture theatre was buzzing with the sound of students discussing, while I circulated and facilitated.

The experience of teaching online also demonstrated how online tools can be used to support a valuable learning experience for the students. Acting as facilitator meant that I was no longer the content owner, the expert. In many ways I was learning along with my students (who were based all over the world, from India to Hawaii). I began to use the VLE (initially the free course spaces offered by Blackboard, and then the local version hosted on campus) with my local students, in what I now realise is a blended format.

With this new collection of tools and methods, I promptly took sabbatical and never returned to my lecturing position.

Teaching Academics

I have previously reflected on and written about my transition from lecturer to academic developer.[1]

The biggest thing I (still) miss about my former role is the teaching of undergraduate students. I did keep it up for a couple of years, but the field of IT moves too fast, and I didn’t have the time to do it properly. I do love the opportunity to work with undergraduates, especially when they challenge my understanding and boundaries. Most recently, working with two first year students on the development of a campus mobile app was an extremely valuable experience for me.

Now I teach academics. They are not so different from undergraduates. I have the huge privilege of teaching small groups — no more than 15. Every group is different, and every year I learn so much from and with my students.

Final Words

I think I’ll stop here. Reflecting on this element of the PDF has been a difficult but rewarding experience. I think I gained some insights into my own teaching, which should help me to write a personal philosophy.

I realise that this post is very personal and I’m uncomfortable publishing it. But I did promise that I’d do this PDF task in an open format. Maybe if I just publish it quietly, without drawing any attention, maybe it will go unnoticed.

I heard a line in a tv show last night: Self examination is like masturbation; best done in private. It made me laugh, and think of this post.

[1] Becoming an educational developer: A reflection on the journey, challenges and rewards. In book: Seda Special 27, Edition: 27, Chapter: Becoming an educational developer: A reflection on the journey, challenges and rewards, Publisher: Seda, Editors: Stuart Boon, Bob Matthew, Louisa Sheward, pp.25–28