Overview of the research project

This project assesses the learner experience of first year students following a module on ‘English for Creative Writing’ to be taught via blended learning. This module was previously taught face-to-face, but now one section is being developed for blended learning, and in future years all materials should be in a blended learning format to be ready for strategic changes the University of Northampton is embarking upon. Significantly, this pilot project aims to make students to become  co-creators of future blended learning materials by gathering their feedback. Findings of this research will be used to generate dissemination activities for other staff to enhance their pedagogic skills development for blended learning.

‘Enhancing Student Learning Through Innovative Scholarship 2017: Learning Through Collaboration (Sheffield)’ 20/21 July.



Accessing the Student Experience concerning blended learning activities in English and Creative Writing: LESSONS LEARNT

The first lesson learnt was the value of taking the approach of ‘students as co-creators’ – recruiting participants to be active agents, rather than just eliciting feedback. This resulted in full and frank criticisms to enable redesign of the module omitting mistakes in the pilot. 

The second lesson was a reminder of the value of the interpretivist framework: to remind ourselves that the research was not to find out what actually happened, but rather to find out what different students perceived to be happening.

Thirdly, there is an enormous difference between creating on-line materials for distance learning (intended to be more stand-alone) and blended learning. Complexity of activities must be avoided: an aspect of the new digital literacy is that instructions should be unnecessary, ‘what-should-be-done’ should be intuitive, tasks should be self-evident.

Finally, it is necessary to be cautious of asking students to do online group work, we should not make students dependent on other students: even formative tasks asking students to comment/collaborate in order to produce a Wiki. In this pod the activities were all deliberately not summative, but this still did not remove the unease of having to work with others who have different agendas and needs.

Draft of amended module plan following the research

Overview of revised module


# Pre-workshop tasks Face-to-face workshop tasks


Online workshop tasks Post-workshop tasks
1 Email the students to read the module guide. 2 hours

Activities 1.1 -1.7




Grammar Review Slice 1 (Nouns & adjectives)

  Personal Language History: your early years and first uses of language.



Grammar Review Slice 1(online tasks)


2 Chapter 5 in Thorne: ‘Some basic concepts’.  2 hours

Activities 2.1 -2.6




Grammar Review Slice 2 (verbs)

  Personal Language History: your first experiences of of variety and variation.



Grammar Review Slice 2 (online tasks)

3 Chapter 6: English a living language.   2 hours

Activities 3.1 -3.5




Grammar Review Slice 3 (Pronouns, etc)

  Personal Language History: think of at least one occasion when someone tried to influence your use of language


Grammar Review Slice 3 (online tasks)


Academic reading

Binary Opposition: http://www.englishbiz.co.uk/extras/binaryintro.html




4 Chapter 6: English a living language, pp 117 – 125 2 hours

Activities 4.1 -4.7



Grammar Review Slice 4 (Morphology).

  Personal Language History: You need to reflect on how World Englishes have impacted on you.


(No online grammar tasks)

5 To get ready for the first assessment: review the work we have done so far, and look at the ‘mock’ texts/materials in the ‘Assessment information’ folder 1 hour Scaffolding activity: Academic Writing  / Structuring an argument .


1 hour

Mock for assessment 1.


How to submit an online assessment.

Grammar Review Slice 5 (Function & Form)










You need to complete the first assessment.





Grammar Review Slice 5 (online tasks)


6 Chapter 8: Language variation, regional and social 1 hour

Activities 6.1 -6.5



Set up online task










Grammar Review Slice 6

(Clauses and Sentences)

1 hour

(taken from 6.4)

Small group online exploration task: regional voices http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/regional-voices/



Personal Language History: You need to describe some features of a regional accent/dialect you are familiar with












Grammar Review Slice 6




Academic reading: Sociolinguistic Research

The following link will take you to a brief article concerning sociolinguistic research.


7 Chapter 9: Child Language – Learning to Talk. 1 hour

Activities B1, B2, B3


Set up online task

Grammar Review Slice 7 (Mood and Cohesion)


1 hour


Small group online task:

video jigsaw task around Horizon, ‘Children learning to talk’ – bring presentations to next week’s workshop

Personal Language History: You should reflect about the first examples of reading that you can remember.




(No online grammar tasks)


Academic reading: You should look at the following article about the importance of literacy practices involving parents reading with children. http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0000/2038/Why_families_matter.pdf


8 Chapter 10: Spoken English. 2 hours

 ‘Children learning to talk’ presentations.

Activities B7, B8, B9

  Personal Language History: how does swearing relate to you?
9   2 hours

Activities B11 – B14,

  Personal Language History: Prefabricated lexical phrases & speech acts
10 Chapter 11: The language of Newspapers 2 hours

Activities 11.1 -11.8


  Personal Language History: experiences of attempting to learn a foreign language at secondary school
11 Re-read Chapter 1. Module review   Review all the ’60 second sound bites’. (See previous week 14)
12 Chapter 12: The language of Advertising. (pp 293 – 309)  2 hours

Activities 12.1 -12.7


  Personal Language History: reflect on your own rhetorical skills: how persuasive are you?


Academic reading: You should look at the following article about why people swear: https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/03/30/why-do-we-swear/


13 Chapter 13: the language of literature. also Chapter 3: Style.  1 hour

Activities 13.1 -13.4


Set up online task


1 hour



Small group online task: Reworked Activity 13.5/13.6 Group writing.

Personal Language History: What have been your experiences as a creative writer.
14 Subject Futures Week      
15 Chapter 15: the language of law 2 hours

Go through the group writing passages.

Activities 15.1 -15.2



16 To get ready for the second assessment: review the work we have done so far, and look at the ‘mock’ texts/materials in the ‘Assessment information’ folder 2 hours

Scaffolding activity: Critical thinking & synthesis of ideas

(see Claire)



You need to complete the second assessment.


17 Chapter 16: the language of religion 2 hours

Activities 17.1 -17.2

Set up ‘Language of broadcasting’ online tasks


18 Chapter 18: the language of broadcasting.   2 hours

‘Language of broadcasting’ online tasks

(Reworked Tasks from 19)

19 Chapter 17: the language of politics 2 hours

Activities 18.1 -18.7


  You might want to take this interactive quiz:


Interim Report

Assessing the Student Experience concerning an experimental sequence of blended learning activities, in order to disseminate good practice within the department of English and Creative Writing (ECW).


Interim report prepared for UCU Learning & Teaching Show Case: 14 March 2017.

Note: these are what can be thought of as provisional key learning points, and other lessons will follow after more scrutiny of the research data.

First an example of a series of activities – concerning child language acquisition – which was one topic we covered during a four-week online pod. Note: the students had chosen (or had been placed in) groups of around four. This particular series was expected to take one week.

The resources were:

  • a section of the textbook being used in the module (3 pages);
  • a group wiki on Nile (3 distinct questions);
  • a recorded ‘voice-over’ PowerPoint presentation (12 mins);
  • three 60-second video ‘sound bites’;
  • two open access video clips on YouTube (10 mins and 3 mins).


The process followed in this series was:

  • Step One: Read pages 181 – 184, and as you read REFLECT on this:
  • Because so many children acquire language effortlessly, it is easy to underestimate the complexity of the process taking place’ (Thorne 2008, page 181). 
  • The theories relating to this are classified in four headings: behaviourist, cognitive, nativist, & interactive approaches, so as you read NOTE what the key features of each approach are.
  • Step Two: Make your first Wiki entry[1]: What are the key features of each approach? (behaviourist, cognitive, nativist, interactive) and what are any weaknesses – feel free to add your own opinions.
  • Step Three: Watch the recorded ‘voice-over’ PowerPoint presentation, which gives a critique of some of the ideas presented in the text book.
  • Step Four: Second Wiki entry: How would you distinguish between ‘training’ and ‘education’?
  • Step Five: Access further resources; three 60-second video ‘sound bites’ covering key theories; language acquisition device; zone of proximal development; scaffolding.
  • Step Six: Access two video clips on YouTube (language acquisition device: 10 mins, and zone of proximal development: 3 mins).
  • Step Seven: Third Wiki entry:  Have your ideas changed about the strengths and weaknesses of the four approaches?
  • Step Eight: Tutor feedback: a clear deadline (and promise) that: Your tutor will give formative feedback to the wiki after 18.11.2016.

Note: These materials were trying to apply the university’s understanding of blended learning as outlined in this online lecture[2]:

While the experimental pod was running the team carried out research concerning the student experience as a part of a Learning Enhancement and Innovation project.


  1. The first lesson learnt was the value of taking the approach of ‘students as co-creators’ – i.e. recruiting participants who would be active agents, in contrast to just eliciting feedback. We recruited and employed (via Unitemps) a post-graduate research assistant and 8 undergrads. They all signed contracts and were paid for their involvement. The post-grad researcher enabled us to place a buffer of anonymity between staff and students. LESSON LEARNT: The results of these steps were that the comments were extremely full (20,000 words on discussion boards and emails) and very frank (a wide range of emotions) which will enable us to redesign the module omitting the major mistakes in the pilot. 
  2. We had to remind ourselves constantly that the research was not to find out what actually happened during the pilot, but rather to find out what different students felt/believed was happening. So, for example, concerning a claim that when students emailed the teachers for guidance but were just told ‘it’s all on Nile’: there is no value in countering this with the tutors’ disclaimer that this request/response sequence never happened. LESSON LEARNT: What is important is the belief (and the sharing of that belief amongst students) that it did happen. It is important to remember that this research was carried out in the interpretivist framework
  3. In our experiment we created a ‘pod’ of several interrelated online tasks leading on to each other. This was influenced by our previous experiences of preparation of on-line materials for distance learning (i.e. materials intended to be more stand-alone than those in blended learning), and we were hoping to satisfy the university’s definition of blended learning. The student reaction to this complexity of tasks of was extremely negative. LESSON LEARNT: we should not try to use any extended chunks of online learning, we can get students to ‘visit’ some online activities, but this will only be a short get-away not an extended stay.
  4. For the above series of activities we believed that we had supplied clear instructions, however an aspect of the new literacy of the virtual world seems to be – thanks to Steve Jobs and Apple[3] – that instructions should be unnecessary, ‘what-should-be-done’ should be intuitive. People do not read instructions, the expectation is rather that tasks should be self-evident. LESSON LEARNT: Hence online activities should not be too complex – in terms of designing an activity it is better to think of the architecture of a chapel, not of a cathedral! The more the complexity (e.g. number of steps in a task) the greater is the need for explanation; and explanations/instructions will ALWAYS be ignored or misunderstood.
  5. It is necessary to be really cautious of asking students to do online group work, we should not make students hostages to fortune (or rather dependent on other students: even with something as simple as asking students to comment/collaborate in order to produce a Wiki). In this pod the activities were all deliberately formative not summative, but this still did not remove the unease of having to work with others who have different agendas and needs[4]. This was a very frequent criticism, and connects to the next, and largest, dilemma, relating to ‘contact time’ (see 6 below). LESSON LEARNT: Group work should be designed to try to avoid creating dependencies, and should not (as with a Wiki) mean that individual contributions are subsumed in a collective ‘whole’.
  6. We were naively confident that the materials – and the structuring of the materials – would satisfy the institutional requirements as to what amounts to contact time, and at the same time would be liked by the students. There seems to be, however, a fundamental (and ideologically based) disagreement: the institutional view is that contact time ‘can occur both face-to-face and online’[5], and the project team thought they had achieved this. The students, however, really restrict their definition of ‘contact time’ to direct contact with tutors, not with the materials, not with other students.[6] Connected to this is a clash concerning tasks related to materials: the institutional view is that allocating something to read/watch without a specific task using this material would not count as contact time, in contrast some students were suspicious of such engagement activities and really preferred just to access the materials and bring that learning to the next seminar [7]. LESSON LEARNT: Resolving this is an institutional issue beyond the remit of an individual module team: but it seems that a change of language is necessary, particularly when added to the next lesson learnt below.
  7. The students’ academic appraisals of their experience are heavily influenced by their economic appraisals. There were frequent references to what can be thought of as a ‘value-for-money’ discourse, and this of course is linked to a more general marketization discourse and the implied possibility of looking at (or recommending) alternatives[8] (which is what markets are all about). Linked to this was a finding that teacher input to the creation of online activities remains invisible to students: face-to-face activity is seen, but online materials preparation (and even online feedback) passes unnoticed[9]. LESSON LEARNT: Again this is an institutional issue beyond the remit of an individual module team: but it seems that it is vital to reassure students that the attention they receive is not being watered down. Once again it is necessary to remind ourselves that in this context it is the ‘interpretivist’ framework that counts.

How will we take this forward?

  • The module will be redesigned for 2017-2018, and the lessons learnt will be shared with other members of the English and Creative Writing team, and at the ILT conference in May.
  • An overall plan of the redesigned module will be shared with the students who participated in the research.
  • We will seek to publish several journal articles arising from the research.
  • The redesigned module will make a more limited use of online activities than had initially been planned (around 15 – 20%), and these will be dispersed throughout the course in order to maintain student:teacher contact.
  • Online activities will each only involve one or two steps, rather than chunks of interconnected tasks.
  • Any group tasks will be in self-elected groups, will only involve one or two steps, and will not be summative.
  • Tasks will be designed to be as intuitive and self-explanatory as possible, with any instructions being embedded within the tasks, as and when needed.
  • We will try to escape the megalithic imposition of VLE-thinking, and keep things simple! Just because you can (technically) do it does not mean that you (pedagogically) have to do it!


[1] The instructions on the Wiki included: ‘You need to add comments/ideas to all three sections, but in addition you should respond to the postings by the other people in your group: for example you can ask for clarifications, or give examples, or start a discussion if your ideas are different. As a group you are collaborating to create one finished text, so you should add your ideas directly onto this evolving page using the ‘Edit Wiki Content’ button.’

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xatkdyFXf4E.

[3] http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2011/10/steve-jobs-and-design

[4] One example: ‘I feel as though it would be much better if it were individual tasks as online activities. It is more practical and not as frustrating as group work. I prefer the discussions we have in class, as it’s more interactive and fun to hear everyone’s perspective’. Another example: ‘The issue for me is the online group work, I find this ineffective. It requires a level of responsibility, the fact that the grades arent individual, based on group input means that many wait for the next person. Discussing has its benefits yes, but I feel that the submissions should be individual, however they are submitted.’

[5] There are lots of caveats concerning this: the lecture referred to earlier states the need for ‘structured, integrated, scaffolded, tutor-designed learning activities that enable students to meet learning outcomes within a specific timeframe’ … ‘Expected to include an appropriate balance of learner-tutor, learner-learner, and learner-content interactions’.

[6] One example: ‘Contact time for me is basically the time in which I am getting information, explanations and help from the lecturer, either in lectures themselves in direct form or afterwards face-to-face or on email in conversation form.’

[7] One example: ‘I just felt as if I was copying out the textbook and reordering the words, which didn’t really help me learn any more than if I had just read the textbook. … . All that the lectures and the Online pod do/did, is just reinforce/restate what the homework reading already told me.’

[8] One example: ‘I didn’t pay thousands of pounds to watch videos on YouTube when I have been doing this for years now. I did, indeed, learn things, but for free. I would rather be in class for two hours, do research and get something done, or make these online activities a little more ‘challenging’. If anything, I opt for one-on-one tutorials.’

[9] One example: ‘Also why are we paying money to the Uni and to lecturers when they’re technically not teaching us but relying on us to teach ourselves? If that’s what I wanted to do I wouldn’t be here. I should be paying myself instead’. Another example: I think it will be an element to teaching, but won’t replace face-to-face. As a student (of any age) there is nothing better than face-to-face with a teacher. You can be fully engaged with lessons, your work and teaching as a whole if you have someone explaining it to you, rather than have it written on a screen. People are less-likely to be motivated (to learn) if they see that all the teacher has done, is put the work on a computer.’



Q&A with Chris Ringrose

In 2010 Chris Ringrose, then of the University of Northampton, now of Monash University Melbourne, you wrote the introduction to a HEA Subject Centre ‘Online discussion in English Studies: good practice guide*’.  I asked him the following questions (arising from his 2010 introduction) to see if his ideas around this form of delivery have changed.

Q 1: You mention the possible use of a ‘pre-module discussion board to break the ice.’ Would you recommend trying this for a first year BA module; i.e. to try to get the students engaged before they have actually meet their classmates face-to-face?

It was a bright idea, and I had seen it used elsewhere to establish contact with students before they arrive, set a little induction task something like the ones they get in Induction Week, and hope that they read each other’s responses. But now I wonder if it might be too much pressure — displaying your responses before an audience of strangers….

Q2: You mention: ‘Online discussion, together with blogs and wikis, provide spaces in which students can share insights, readings, discoveries and creative work.’ In an pilot experiment I have just been running I think I did not give enough thought to the choices I needed to make: have you any suggestions for matching types of task to specific platforms (discussion board; wiki, blog)?

We used short critical responses to passages (literary and theoretical) and obliged students to reply to at least one other posting by another student. We also posted images (posters, paintings from the period in question etc. with a short snappy question). We tried definitions of literary and theoretical terms, but the answers tended to be ‘cut and paste’ ones. I should mention that these activities were part of the module assessment, and that it would probably fall into disuse if that were not the case.

Q3: You mention: ‘e-spaces are open 24 hours a day throughout the year and supplement the kinds of dialogue that take place in face-to-face seminars and workshops.’ This seems to refer very much to the kind of blended learning approaches we are developing to become ‘Waterside ready’, BUT, (notice a big BUT) there seem to be few suggestions about acceptable ratios of face-to-face seminars and online activities. Do you have any instinctive ideas about what you think would be an acceptable ratio?

I had not thought, at the time, of such activities replacing face-to-face contact. They just supplemented it through assessment. But of course there is not reason why one hour of on line work should be combined with (say) three hours of seminar/lecture. Any more than that and the tutors would be involved in massive amounts of monitoring.

Q4: You mention: ‘technology-enhanced learning, far from downgrading academic discourse, puts the spotlight on students’ writing skills, and their ability to subtly adapt their discourse to a variety of contexts and audiences’. I had feared, in my pilot experiment, that student contributions to online discussion would veer towards social media texting styles, yet found that in fact their writing was generally of a good academic style. I am thinking that an outcome of this project might be a reusable online ‘guide to appropriate styles for student discourse’, i.e. indicating in a whole range of written & spoken texts, online and face-to-face, and with a range of different interlocutors, what levels of formality/editing would be acceptable. Would you endorse this idea, or should we just let them experiment (‘suck it and see’)?

I think I’d go for some ‘sample responses and styles’. It may sound prescriptive, but when I did an online course myself the sample pages provided by the tutor allayed certain anxieties about expectation.

Q5: You raise the concern (shared by many teachers) resulting from: ‘previous experience of online discussion has been of an embarrassing dead end, petering out after a few entries by only the most committed students’. You suggest that this can be avoided if discussions are: ‘well designed and expertly moderated’,  and go on to give 4 pointers about achieving this (summarised below). Would you now have any changes or additions to these pointers?

(a) to work successfully, discussion forums must not appear half-hearted; they need to evidence genuine commitment and imagination on the part of the tutor;

(b) as tutor-moderator, you don’t have to go overboard and comment on every entry as it shows up. […] if you are aiming at a “student-centred pedagogy”, don’t fuss – make your interventions focused and just sufficient to make clear your interest in the work underway;

(c) there is no reason why contributions to boards cannot be summatively assessed, given the right strategies.

[d] […]students need to be eased into the process of posting, through gentle introductory activities that establish their presence on the discussion board.

Did I write all that? It seems to make sense, even when read in Melbourne. Summative assessment — probably essential. One of the online discussion forums that worked best for us was that on the MA in the Arts, where part-time students planned their group presentations via the discussion board, and posted relevant material and images. It meant they were able to keep in touch even though they met only once a week. Of course, they could have done it on their own initiative via email, but with the online platform the tutor was able to monitor, advise and intervene.

* http://humbox.ac.uk/2389/


Thinking Aloud/Allowed


Thinking Aloud/Allowed

This paper attempts to connect a research project, concerning the development of blended learning activities for a first-year module on linguistics, to suitable theoretical frameworks of dealing with change, in particular change within Higher Education. Such musing is a necessary stage of researching, a kind of thinking aloud, and is not intended to be thought of as a finished piece. The innovation in question was a response to an institution-wide strategy which required staff to ‘redesign modules and programmes and reconceptualise learning and teaching practices in order to deliver an effective, tailored, learning experience through a blended mode of delivery’[1]. Blended learning in the QAA definition is: ‘​​​​​​Learning delivered by a number of different methods, usually including face-to-face and e-learning[2].  The anticipated outcomes of this strategic change can be summed up in the following aspirational sentence taken from an online presentation prepared by the Institute of Learning and Teaching at the University of Northampton: ‘In order to be a productive member of the group students will see the need and the benefit to engage with online tasks in advance’[3].  The members of this project team therefore became engaged in two simultaneous tasks: firstly to prepare a pilot set of blended learning materials, and secondly to research the acceptability of these materials for the students following the module. This second task can be seen as trying to test out the institutional aspiration mentioned above – ‘students will see the need and the benefit to engage with online tasks’ – in one specific module with one specific cohort of students.

Students as co-creators

In our initial bid we had identified projects where students had initially been seen as ‘pedagogic consultants’ to review course amendments proposed by academic staff (Money et al 2016), but who then became more proactively involved in the construction process. McPherson & Heggie (2015) stress that involvement of students in these ways makes them active agents, engaged as active learners, and pedagogic partners. The team were determined, when applying for research funding from the innovation fund managed by the Institute of Learning and Teaching, to ensure collaborative engagement of students not simply as a passive sample to respond to the experimental learning activities, but rather as agentive co-creators of the eventual redesigned module. Hence, in order to ensure full and frank reporting of the student experience, the project employed a postgraduate researcher to collect data, so placing a buffer of anonymity between the teachers and the students in order to comply with ethical considerations. From the outset, then, our image of the research relied on accessing the viewpoints of multiple stakeholders, yet over the period of delivering these learning activities our understanding of the full range of stakeholders has expanded considerably. This paper then, written at a time when the student engagement with the materials is complete but before receiving and analysing the anonymised data from the PG researcher, describes the search for suitable theoretical frameworks to use in the data analysis, in order to make sense of them.

Context of Situation

A key concept on sociolinguistics is ‘context of situation’ derived from Malinowski (1923/1994), which is used to explain that any analysis of language (in this case including the strategic directives emanating from the university centre, or the contributions of individual students to online discussions of acceptability of materials, or texts such as this written by academics trying to make sense of what is going on) is never in itself adequate to carry complete meaning: it is necessary to know what is going on around the specific use of language. ‘Context of situation refers to the whole set of external-world features considered to be relevant in the analysis of an utterance…’ (Crystal 2008).

Institutionally the ‘context of situation’ of this requirement for staff to redesign their learning & teaching activities is itself a corollary of the university preparing to move to a new campus, to be called Waterside, and hence this redesigning of learning materials is known within this university as ‘Waterside readiness’. This pedagogic requirement is but one of many facets of a much larger project involving major financial investments and implicating every aspect of the institution. It should be noted, though, that the impetus for this pedagogic change was from the institutional centre, yet the responsibility for compliance was placed on the finest grains within the academic framework: individual module leaders.

For academic teaching staff at least two other sets of constraints – beyond the institution itself – contribute to creating their professional ‘context of situation’; one is ‘The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education’ led by the Higher Education Academy[4], the other is ‘The UK Quality Code for Higher Education’ led by the Quality Assurance Agency[5]. Although both of these are concerned with assuring the maintenance of quality in Higher Education, their interaction can place individual academics – in this case the module leaders charged with introducing changes in learning & teaching materials and approaches – on the horns of a dilemma.

The HEA framework intends to promote excellence amongst individual practitioners, for example it includes in ‘Areas of Activity’ to ‘Design and plan learning activities and/or programmes of study’ which is clearly relevant to the team’s materials development activity described above; and also to ‘Engage in continuing professional development in subjects/disciplines and their pedagogy, incorporating research, scholarship and the evaluation of professional practices,’ which is relevant to the project team’s researching the acceptability of the innovations. The overall ethos which this belongs to is that of reflective practice, and of continuing professional development, which can be thought of as outward-directed, entrepreneurial activities. These developments are encouraged and supported in this university by the Institute of Learning and Teaching, and described in this mission statement: ‘To enable transformational learning experiences through inspirational teaching. This is achieved by developing capability in learning design, innovation and excellent teaching practice, underpinned by the latest pedagogic research.[6]  The HEA framework also states that such activities, however, must also conform to ‘Professional Values’ including ‘Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice,’ and an expected area of ‘Core Knowledge’ including ‘The implications of quality assurance and quality enhancement for academic and professional practice with a particular focus on teaching.’

This links directly to the other horn of the dilemma, the QAA quality code, which impacts on teaching staff by its application in rigorous procedures to be followed, in this case by a tightly prescribed process which must be followed prior to obtaining approval for any changes in teaching approaches. Although individual module leaders are following a directive to introduce such changes from the highest levels of management, they are still held accountable for the responsibility of ensuring compliance with quality assurance standards. This process necessitates consultation with a wide range of stakeholders including: colleagues, line managers, current students, prospective students, external examiners, collaborative partners, professional bodies, and benchmarking statements. The overall ethos of quality assurance processes, in contrast to that of continuing professional development, can be thought of as inward, as conserving, and as reluctant to change.

Learning organizations, Complex systems, & Systemic Change

One possible (positive) perspective for observing and reflecting on this situation is that of a ‘learning organization’, which has been advanced as an ideal to be emulated by organizations responding to changing situations. Features of learning organizations (firms / universities) include operating in situations of continuous change which need to managed and guided: ‘Learning organizations are characterized by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted, collectively accountable change directed towards shared values or principles’ (Smith 2001, 2007). This commonality and collectivity invokes a need for what are often referred to as systemic activities (systemic thinking, systemic change) which if achieved brings alignment and coherence throughout a complex organisation.

Looking specifically at Higher Education, a university is a complex system: ‘The core concept of a system is that it is composed of relationships among interdependent components that together comprise the whole’ (Watson & Watson 2013, p44). It can be understood that large-scale changes necessarily involve all component parts of the system, ideally acting in harmony but possibly at times conflicting and creating tensions. Watson & Watson (2013) propose that systemic change is a pre-requisite for universities to respond to current pressures to fit a new paradigm, and their description would seem to include the paradigm of Learning and Teaching described above as ‘Waterside readiness’: ‘Systemic change is a body of thinking concerned with the design of an entirely new system rather than trying to “fix” a system that was never designed to deal with the challenges and processes it currently faces (p43)’.

Researching complexity

Cohen et al (2007) describe one approach to educational research as coming from a ‘paradigm of complexity systems’ which has a focus on interconnections: and

complexity theory suggests the need for case study methodology, action research, and participatory forms of research, premised in many ways on interactionist, qualitative accounts, i.e. looking at situations through the eyes of as many participants or stakeholders as possible (p33).

Their description of research within this paradigm is dense with lexis which chimes with the intentions of this project team, who from the outset were determined to involve the students as active participants. They talk of ‘interconnected networks’, ‘necessary dynamic interaction of several parts’, ‘collaborative and multi-perspectival approaches’, ‘research to catch the deliberate, intentional, agentic actions of participants.

As stated earlier, this paper is akin to thinking aloud: we will shortly get our hands on the data collected by the research assistant from the student participants, and then our analysis, and importantly our plans for going forward, will need to acknowledge the constraints, contexts, and complexities we are in. Watch this space.


Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2007) Research Methods in Education 7th Ed. Abingdon: Routledge

Crystal, D. (2008), A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics 6th Edition. ISBN: 978-1-405-15296-9)

Malinowski, B. (1923/1994), The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages. In J. Maybin (Ed.) Language and Literacy in Social Practice. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

McPherson, N. G. & Heggie, G. (2015) Transitioning to Students as Partners, Producers, Collaborators and Co-creators. Are We Serious? Enhancement Themes: Researchgate.

Money, J., Dinning, T., Nixon, S., Walsh, B., & Magill, C. (2016). Co-Creating a Blended Learning Curriculum in Transition to Higher Education: A Student Viewpoint. Creative Education, 7, 1205-1213. http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2016.79126 

Smith, M. K. (2001, 2007) ‘The learning organization’, the encyclopedia of informal education, http://www.infed.org/biblio/learning-organization.htm.

Watson, W.R. & Watson, S. L. (2013) Exploding the Ivory Tower: Systemic Change for Higher Education. TechTrends Vol 57 Number 5.

[1] https://www.northampton.ac.uk/ilt/current-projects/waterside-readiness/

[2] http://www.qaa.ac.uk/Pages/GlossaryEN.aspx#28

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOwbqaoJUoc&feature=youtu.be

[4] https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/downloads/uk_professional_standards_framework.pdf

[5] http://www.qaa.ac.uk/assuring-standards-and-quality/the-quality-code

[6] http://www.northampton.ac.uk/research/research-institutes/the-institute-of-learning-and-teaching-in-higher-education-ilt/

Anthony’s description of the research approach

Experimenting with Blended Learning in ECW:

From Participant Recruitment to Research Methods – Experiences of the Postgraduate Researcher


Below is a description which details the process I undertook through the recruitment, registration and research methods stages of the project.  I explicate the process, explaining how each decision relating to these areas were made, and explain the justification for my selected methods and approaches.


step one

At the start of the project recruitment process, it needed to be advertised in order for possible participants to apply. The module tutors for the LIT1035 English Language and Creativity module mentioned the project and gave my email address as a way for interested students to get in contact. The module tutors explained to the student body of the module that they could not have direct contact with  any participants for ethical reasons and the possibility of data being compromised – the latter especially a risk if students were being asked to give feedback on the online pod by those who designed it and teach the module.

step two

Soon after the project was advertised in the LIT1035 module, interested persons started emailing me. After waiting until all the LIT1035 groups on that week had taken place to ensure all students had a fair chance at expressing their interest, I replied to any interested persons with an email which included an information sheet which had been constructed by the project leaders and approved by the project team. After a discussion with the rest of the project team it was decided that, as there were no particular requirements for participants beyond being a student on the LIT1035 module, that the only fair way to select the 12 participants would be the first 12 to complete the online consent form.


step three

Once all interested persons were sent the information sheet, they were all happy that this provided them with everything they needed to know. It outlined what was expected of them and informed them that any data they provided me with would be made anonymous before it can be analysed by the project leaders, as well as the fact that they would need to register with UNITEMPS for the payment that they were entitled to receive for taking part in the project. Once I was assured everyone knew what was expected, I sent them, via email a link to the online consent form.

step four

After a discussion among the project team, it was felt that in the spirit of the blended learning focus of the project, that the consent form should be an online one. Rob Farmer came up with the idea of using a Google form which he created, and I went ahead and sent out a link to this form to the interested participants. At this stage 10 persons had showed interest, resulting in there being no need to deploy the ‘first past the post’ approach to participant selection. 8 of the 10 interpreted persons filled out the consent form – agreeing with all its conditions, the other two wanted further clarification on the anonymity aspect which I provided over email. Following this all 10 completed the consent form and I was sent their completed forms as pdfs. 

step five

Once all the participants were completely satisfied with what the project would entail and the ethical processes put in place, I then needed to ensure that they were all fully registered with UNITEMPS – the temporary worker employment agency through which the participants would be employed and thus where they can claim their payment. I managed to liaise with UNITEMPS via email to receive the information about registration and then feed this back to the participants. Within a two week period all candidates had fully registered with UNITEMPS.

step six

Alongside the UNITEMPS registration process, and with the support of the rest of team, I suggested a non-compulsory focus group with myself and the participants.  I expressed my feelings to the team that it would be beneficial to have one face-to-face meeting to officially start the project and also handle any issues or concerns that the participants hadn’t mentioned. Finally , the opportunity to converse, which the focus group provided, enabled the participants to realise shared views and thoughts as I gently introduced questions about blended learning on a very general basis – asking them if they have heard of the term and what they think it means etc. Due to varying timetables I ended up hosting two focus groups with 8 of the participants taking part overall.


step seven

Once all the participants were fully registered with UNITEMPS I could start the data collection section. The project team had agreed that an online discussion would be the best means but in relation to the particular form this would take/site or programme employed to host this discussion – the decision was left to me. I first considered the social networking site Facebook, but felt that despite the ability to set-up a private group chat, the site lent itself too much towards the informal end of the spectrum and thus not suitable to be associated with the project and the themes I would be discussing with the participants. I approached fellow team member Rob Farmer with the idea of a NILE (the University of Northampton’s integrated teaching and learning environment) discussion board which would be hosted on a NILE site which the participants could be enrolled on solely for the purpose of the discussion board. This ensured the privacy required for the discussion and also a suitably academic associated platform which I felt was vital for encouraging the mind-set required for the themes that would be discussed.

step eight

I updated the discussion board with regular prompts and questions. After formatting the discussion board in large categories each containing multiple threads, I had feedback from the participants that this wasn’t a clear way of displaying the research topics, so I adapted my use of the discussion board to make each new question a new thread. I worked from a document of topics to research, which had been team authored and approved. As the discussions unfolded I did make additions to research topics where appropriate, usually when the conversations between the participants highlighted anything that we hadn’t already covered directly. I updated the discussion board usually once to twice a week with a series of new threads and used the announcements feature on the project NILE site to communicate this to the participants.

step nine

Explained in the information sheet was the possibility of individual email questions being sent to participants additional to the discussion board. Four weeks into the discussion board process on the discussion board one of the topics to research dealt with the group work activities that the participants had to complete on the online pod section of the LIT1035 module. The nature of the NILE discussion board meant that while it assured complete privacy, and thus sustains the anonymity of the participants from the rest of the project team; it did result in the participants identities being known to each other. I realised that if fellow members of a participants group were also involved in the project, the data they give in this section could be compromised due to the awareness that other group members could view any comments. To avoid this, and with the backing of the project team, I employed the email question format for three discussions points around the group work elements. I informed all participants through the NILE site of the introduction of the email questions and explained the reasoning behind the change in the process of data collection for these three research topics.



Project update

The teaching part of our experimental online ‘pod’ is now 75% completed and – although most of the research activities to gather primary data from the student participants in the project team are still to be done – there are already several interesting issues which emerge from close observation of the work of the online groups. The activities are clearly structured, with task completion dates followed by prompt formative feedback. Here are some interim thoughts.

The inputs (teaching materials) used so far include:

  • Voiced-over Prezi and PowerPoint presentations presented on NILE as videos;
  • A series of 60 second videos summarising key concepts, (such as the Language Acquisition Device and the Zone of Proximal Development) which are posted on NILE;
  • Links to open access materials from YouTube;
  • Links to clips of a TV documentary (using BoB/Box of Broadcasts) as the basis of a small group mini-project.

Many of the outcomes (student produced materials) are excellent, and indeed have exceeded our expectations. The students have completed a range of participatory tasks exploiting the materials listed above:

  • Taking part in small group asynchronous discussions using discussion boards/wikis;
  • Creating small group PowerPoint presentations as part of a jigsaw activity (using the BoB clips) where each group had one piece of the puzzle to explore and explain;
  • Sharing individual audio summaries concerning the structure of certain types of spoken language (interviews, telephone conversations and such) which are posted on the ‘file exchange’ of each small group;

Several of the wiki discussions have a lot of in-depth discussions, though some remain rather like a listing of individual points with little to-and-fro discussion. There are several audio clips in the group file shares which are really excellent. However – and this should be a surprise to no one – we are sensing that after three weeks of online interaction some groups may be showing dwindling involvement.

Hence some (interim) reflections include the following, and these indicate further topics we need to explore and also suggest some outcomes the project team could produce:

  • Perhaps the 4-week stint with no face-to-face contact is simply too much – if so we need to try to establish what kind of ratio is effective and acceptable to the students.
  • For some students the amount of contribution they feel able to give to online tasks may be MORE than if the same activities were in-class. We have to make sure that our research does not have an inbuilt bias to assume that online/face2face is de facto better/worse than the other.
  • To follow up the underlying reasons for any non-engagement there are several areas we can explore in the primary research with the student participants in this project. For example we suspect there are several ‘design’ faults of the current pod:
  1. The choices we made about using discussion boards/wikis/file sharing were not always correct. These choices need to envisage clearly what/how the students should be doing AND the form of the final output (e.g. is the PROCESS of discussion the intended task outcome, or is there a PRODUCT they are co-producing)?
  2. The instructions for how to use the different tools were not clear enough (a simple example is the distinction between asking students to use ‘edit’ or ‘comment’ when using wikis).
    For both of these we can try to produce project outcomes (OERs/RLOs) aimed at colleagues (1 above) and students (2 above)

In order to delve more deeply into the students’ experiences of this pod I am considering using a three-tier distinction of factors relating to adaptations to change which I have used in other research previously, and which we may be able to adapt of this project. The types of factors may include:

  • AFFECTIVE which would relate to an overall liking/disliking of this form of learning;
  • COGNITIVE which relates to an understanding of the reasons why such approaches to learning are employed;
  • PERFORMATIVE which relates to a ‘knowing-how’ to do the various tasks (partly IT, but perhaps other more general things like feeling confident to email other group members to say ‘hey, let’s get this show on the road’).

Sam’s Experience

I was particularly excited to help develop this research because of the rationale that lay behind it: although, with the move to the Waterside campus, there is a need to incorporate more online and blended components into our teaching, there is no consensus on the ‘right way’ to do so. Instead, we want to see which strategies, activities, platforms, and ratios work for students themselves.

Before joining the English and Creative Writing team at Northampton, I was a lecturer at a university in Australia, were I helped to first put in place, then review, a number of pilot digital learning strategies. These included:

  • using an online virtual classroom (through the program Collaborate), where lectures were delivered with a powerpoint online, and students could ask question in real time (participating synchronously), or watch a recording of the online presentation and engagement if unable to attend (participating asynchronously);
  • delivering classes through a ‘flipped classroom’ model, where students watched preparatory videos, explained key concepts, and then led discussion in class;
  • the recording of all lectures, which were available online after the class

The major drawback to this new style of delivery was that it did not factor in students’ own habits of learning, and did not phase these strategies in; it seemed to encourage a level of disengagement almost entirely the opposite of what had been intended. When these strategies were reviewed, moreover, the team was asked to evaluate the outcomes (students’ grades, attendance levels, and overall satisfaction) without factoring in students’ ideas about how they could be used more effectively, or which specific elements they found more helpful. This meant that, ultimately, no changes to the new program took place following the review, despite the lowered engagement.

I am attracted to different models of teaching and learning when they empower students, and give them the authority of co-creators of knowledge (for more on this, see Dave’s earlier posts). The online pods we have designed are certainly built around this idea. So too is this research: by developing teaching strategies with students, rather than for them, we give them a stake in their own education, and incentivize (rather than discourage) engagement.

Project team

Dave Burnapp has spent many years working in education and development. This experience has given him a valuable insight into what happens in education in different countries and cultures. He researches and publishes on topics relating to internationalisation of Higher Education, and to the uses of innovative learning and teaching approaches. He is a National Teaching Fellow, and he has managed several projects concerning international collaboration funded by organisations including the Higher Education Academy and the British Council. Currently he teaches linguistics in the field of English and Creative Writing, and supervises PhD students researching topics relating to Applied Linguistics and innovative education.

Sam Reese has experience teaching English across New Zealand, Australia, and the UK, with a particular focus on forms of literary expression in both his teaching and research. His first book, on the short story in mid-twentieth century America, is forthcoming with Louisiana State University Press in early 2017, while his second project, looking at jazz, loneliness, and literature, takes a broader scope, considering works by writers from the Americas, the UK, Asia, and the Pacific. He currently teaches on literary theory, language and creativity, and postwar American literature.

Anthony Stepniak completed his BA in English literature and MA in Contemporary Literature at the University of Northampton. His degree study, along with fulfilling a range of roles within the English and Creative Writing department, has resulted in him gaining a wide experience of both the teaching methods and learning experience at Northampton. Anthony is currently undertaking his PhD which investigates contemporary reinterpretations of the Wicked Queen character, originally from the Snow White fairy tale, from a gender studies perspective. His primary research area is that of representations of gender and sexuality in contemporary narratives most commonly engaging with the cultural theoretical fields of postmodernism, queer theory, poststructuralism and gender studies.

Robert Farmer is a Learning Designer at the University of Northampton. His current areas of interest, activity and research include designing and creating open online and blended learning courses, active learning, the flipped classroom, patchwork text assessment, e-portfolios, collaborative learning and communities of learning, critical/engaged pedagogy, Socratic method and the importance and use of dialogue and discussion in education.

Students as co-creators of curriculum

This project connects to the growth of interest in the role of students as co-creators of curriculum, an approach which can now be described as a robust and well-established movement with Higher Education. Burnapp (a member of the team) stated in a report of an earlier pedagogic research project concerning educational innovations that:

Put simply, even if elaborate teaching materials were written and an attractive and an up-to-date virtual learning environment was produced, this in itself could not be a guarantee of success. If any aspects of the module were not considered suitable by any of the stakeholders concerned (including managers, students, and staff) for any reason at all (including different expectations of what form the learning activities should take, or lack of conviction concerning the suitability of the learning approaches incorporated into the course materials, or issues relating to acceptability and accessibility of social networking tools) then the materials simply would not be used and the ultimate aims of the project would not be achieved.

Burnapp 2012, p 176.

Money et al (2016) report on a project similar to the one proposed here, where students initially were seen as ‘pedagogic consultants’ to review course amendments proposed by academic staff, but then moved on to become more proactively involved in the construction process. McPherson & Heggie (2015) stress that such involvement of students makes them active agents, engaged as active learners, and pedagogic partners.

This proposed project intends to enhance the sense of ownership (of both students and academics) of innovative approaches to learning which the students (who could be considered as digital natives) may be more at home with than the staff who instigate the changes. The Virtual Learning Environments which are the backbone of many HE attempts at social networking are often seen by student users to be ‘clunky’, and the online sharing activities designed by staff may be seen as missing better opportunities which may be more obvious to the natives than to the incoming migrants to this space.

How will this be achieved?

For ethical reasons the project is making use of a PhD student as a research assistant, which will allow there to be a buffer between the lecturers and the students. In this way we will be avoiding the dilemmas of the ‘dual roles’ of being both teachers/assessors as well as researchers in relation to our students.

This research assistant is responsible for recruiting the undergraduate students who will be the project partners, hence the teachers will not know which students from amongst the total cohort are taking part in the data collection. The research assistant is also responsible for anonymizing all data before giving it to the academic staff.

The project funding allows for up to 12 students to be recruited, and each will be paid for 4 hours for their participation, consisting of online discussions of aspects of the blended learning approaches which are used in the module, and responding by email to specific questions sent by the project researcher. As well as ensuring anonymity, this arrangement will also allow us to elicit from the students their frank evaluation of the materials and approaches used, and to gather suggestions concerning how things might be done better. Later in the academic year the students will be asked to look at and comment on new examples of blended learning activities which are going to be developed as a result of the earlier student input.


Burnapp, D. (2012). University Collaborative Links: Discourse and Development. In M. Stiasny, & T. Gore, (eds) Going Global: The landscape for Policy Makers and Practitioners in Tertiary Education. Emerald: Bingley.

McPherson, N. G. & Heggie, G. (2015) Transitioning to Students as Partners, Producers, Collaborators and Co-creators. Are We Serious? Enhancement Themes: Researchgate.

Money, J., Dinning, T., Nixon, S., Walsh, B., & Magill, C. (2016). Co-Creating a Blended Learning Curriculum in Transition to Higher Education: A Student Viewpoint. Creative Education, 7, 1205-1213. http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2016.79126