Too Fast To Think? Harnessing Digital Wellbeing in the Shift to Digital Technologies 

The advent of social media presented a revelation to me, as an avid media consumer with varied interests, social media offered an opportunity to glean micro news updates on all of my interests at once. To be able to horizon scan in an instant to see what is happening in multiple, and often complex worlds, offered a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to fend off the fomo and pick all of the teams at once. Previously careful choices had to be made about where I was willing to expend my energy. Social media has allowed me to ‘be’ in multiple places at once from the comfort of my fireside armchair. However, just recently, for all of the convenience and extended play that my engagement with social media has offered me, I have found myself caught in a conundrum, exposed to the demands of being in two (or even three!) places at once, it is a challenge that I have, as yet, to find the answer for.  

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Extending my social network from the fireside Tweetdeck

So what triggered this culture shock? Recently our daughter got her first mobile phone, and I was struck by the all-consuming power that modern technology has over our lives. Hyper-reactive to every beckon, as a new initiate to the insta-connected world, I liken the constant call of a new mobile phone to the care and attention required of the Tamagotchi (remember those?), needy little plastic time-suckers that they were. Too loud ring-tones, ringing too often in the endless chitter-chatter-just-because-nonsense of the teenage hive mind. It’s positively exhausting to watch, but simultaneously alarming to see just how completely, and in a seemingly overnight-instant, modern technology has taken over my daughter’s life (and mine in the constant calls for refrain!). Not so long ago, I contributed to an edited collection, An Education in Facebook? Higher Education and the World’s Largest Social Network however, I am beginning to think that there is a need for an initiation into the world of mobile phone ownership and self-care.  

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Tamagotchi – aka plastic time-vampires! (c) Tamagotchi

As I watch my daughter, I wonder whether it is an exaggerated reflection of myself that worries me more? Through the opportunities that mobile phone technology offers, we can be in more places than one – physically ‘present’ in one location, whilst really present in another conversation on the other side of the world, as we actively choose the better offer of the more interesting conversation. There, but not really there. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the extended networks that social media has made possible for me, and I would be a weaker academic and friend without them, but I find myself asking at what cost? Coming from a different perspective, would I give up my own social media engagement? Absolutely not. Will I be careful in the choices that I make around when I engage and what I am ‘supposed’ to be doing at the time? I will try!!   

In fact, you don’t have to try hard to notice the difference in communication across the last decade. With our students now planning every aspect of their lives on their phones, including accessing learning resources and making lecture notes in some instances. People are connected by technology in ways that had seemed improbable (I worked at Sony Ericcson in the days when mobile technology was being developed – mobile phones were huge!! My boss at the time commented, “It’ll never take off, I can’t fit it in my handbag!” I have a network of colleagues across the globe that I regularly test ideas with, conversations that stretch my thinking in ways that would never have occurred to me, and I have learnt how to do things that I would never have tried were it not for You Tube (I refer to a recent conversation with a colleague about self-teaching intarsia knitting). Personally, I am struck by the power of social media as a strategic enabler and a social leveller, giving access to knowledge and networks that would have been previously inaccessible. 

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You know how Neo can do Kung Fu, well I can do Intarsia, get me! 

Recently I have been asked to lead the Digital Wellbeing workstream for Nottingham Trent University’s #NTU2025 Strategic Plan, and in the interests of balance, I have found myself considering not only the opportunities offered up by an engagement in digital technologies, but also of the impact that this has upon our everyday working practice. Hence my recent hyper-critical eye. In Too Fast To Think: How to Reclaim Your Creativity in a Hyper-Connected World, Chris Lewis (2016) warns of the constant interruptions of technology and cautions how this ‘contributes to feelings of stress. It can make us feel like everything is slightly out of control.’ This is a comment that I have heard with more regularity across the corridors in the last few years, where colleagues, at times, feel genuinely overwhelmed by the volume of electronic communication that our digital technologies have afforded us. I get up to 200 emails a day (I know there are others who receive more than me!), and I am still struggling to find a way to manage that volume without missing the important stuff along the way (see an earlier post here). By way of reassurance to myself though, no-one has died as a result of me missing an email. This, however, is in marked contrast to the reaction of my daughter – the new initiate – who reacts as though the world might end if she doesn’t get to her phone within 20 seconds of it going off. 

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Credit: Whitson Gordon

Not only do we have a responsibility to manage our own use of digital technology, but we also have to commit ourselves to managing the expectations of those around us about our engagement with those technologies. I am fortunate to be working at an institution that cares about the Digital Wellbeing of its employees and is actively taking strategic measures to manage and support staff engagement with digital technologies. However, managing my own daughter’s navigation of the perils of a hyper-connected world is one that we will journey together. There are so many personal extensions to life experience available through the social network and I will continue to encourage those with relish. The tricky bit is how to manage them without feeling that you need more life to be able to do so!  

Keep up with the developments of the Nottingham Trent University’s Strategic Plan developments at #NTU2025  


Managing the Sophomore Slump, Or How to Motivate Second Year Students as the Middle Child of the Higher Education Experience?  

In the last decade, student engagement has become synonymous with innovation and re-design of the Higher Education learning experience, with much attention being paid to the transition, retention and progression of first students (and, of course, the associated financial implications for both the individual and the institution!) (Stuart Hunter et. al., 2010).

But, what happens when our students successfully transition and progress into their second year of study?

Many students report feelings of alienation and isolation as the social integration activities drop off, the expectations of their growing academic capability increases and the looming pressures of career choice exposure foretell the coming closure of the excitement of their higher education lifestyle. Termed the ‘second year blues’ in the UK and the ‘sophomore slump’ in the US, Yorke (2015) highlights how ‘the lack of focus, the drift, the seductiveness of socialising, the difficulties with relationships and a limited commitment to second-year work’ are characteristic of this period in a students’ higher education experience.

In effect, our second year students have become the middle child of the Higher Education experience. The honeymoon is over and now it’s time to study!


In our LTHEchat, we are interested in exploring the research experiences and expertise of colleagues who are invested in supporting and reinforcing the second year student experience in higher education. This is an area that is achieving some critical attention in the US, as supported through the work of the National Resource Center for First Year Experience and Students in Transition, while many UK institutions are looking to extend the engagement work conducted around the first year experience, and to adopt the resource and support developed in support of the second year student experience. These developments include approaches to academic advising, development of career pathways, curriculum development, inter-disciplinary and inter-faculty projects, undergraduate research, study abroad programmes, opportunities to participate in undergraduate research and extended residential engagement.

Come and read the conservation that took place on Wednesday, 8th February 2017 8-9pm (UK time) at: #lthechat here:

Read the Storify


Stuart Hunter, Mary, et. al. 2010. Helping Sophomores Succeed: Understanding and Improving the Student Experience. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Yorke, Mantz, 2015. Why Study the Second Year? In: Milsom, Claire, Martyn Stewart, Mantz Yorke & Elena Zaitseva (Eds.) Stepping Up To The Second Year at University: Academic, Psychological and Social Dimensions. London: Routledge.

Raising the Game: The Teaching Excellence Framework is Upon Us

With the approaching Teaching Excellence Framework and the now national (if not international) priority for enhancing the student experience and by association student engagement, the RAISE Network special interest group for student engagement met back in March 2016 to discuss current best practice emergent from the home institutions of our membership, to consider exciting opportunities elsewhere and to investigate potential collaborations and future developments.

Student-led inductions, transition mentoring, embedded workshops for student development, the role of personal tutoring and the role of student engagement in learning and teaching. Some of the highlights included Nottingham University’s Advantage Awards which offers a means of co-designing projects with students, and serves as a means of expanding engagement whilst enhancing the profile of both staff and students. It’s also pretty exciting stuff to be a part of, when considering the shifting nature of the current HE landscape.

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Flickr: Adam Bindslev

At Newcastle the conversations around student engagement were very much about examining what this means from the student perspective in order to ensure that they maintain inclusivity for all members. Their interest here lay in investing in collective collaborative projects, including ‘option modules’ for collaboration in a combined honours programme. Glasgow shared some positive examples of co-curricular design practice and in particular with their discussion of how these collaborative processes generated shared terminology as used by students and staff alike, which helped to develop and build upon their individual motivations for participating.

Within institutions like Lincoln and Birmingham City University, the student voice has now become a clear and directing voice which carries weight when considering the way that the universities are run, an approach that Dan Derricott (then Student Engagement Manager, University of Lincoln) describes as ‘rare and exotic.’ Far from the antagonistic historical political relationship that has existed between unions and their institutions, there has been a move in recent years for a much more collaborative approach to resolution management, particularly in areas where we have a shared investment for success. That’s not to say that our unions don’t have teeth, as so they should in their representation of our students, but in instances where partnership working will achieve the most desirable outcome, collaboration should be our first choice. Much of this work has involved the development of staff capacity for leadership in student engagement. Here much of that activity has been about working with staff enthusiasts to become institutional change agents and future leaders in this area, or as Luke Millard (Head of Student Engagement at Birmingham City University) puts it, momentum in this area is gained through a process of infection with enthusiasm.

Much of this development work has necessitated a renewed approach to staff development, with Portsmouth currently working with their Students’ Union to consider their own staff development. However as a part of that process, they are also exploring a route to the professional development of their students. When examining initiatives such as those being discussed here, some of the inherent concerns being raised emerged in particular in institutions where they do not have such a positive working relationship with their Students’ Union. In fact one of the key issues raised by the student partnership special interest group was to ensure that our ongoing dialogue did not just explore our glorious successes and ‘victory narratives’ as Cherie Woolmer (Glasgow) put it, but instead expressed a need to continue to be clear in an open, honest and frank discussion about the dangerous territory that these venture might take us into.

Here, in response to some of these concerns, great stride have been taken in the development and fostering of staff capacity and leadership in approach to student engagement when considering the approaches taken by both the University of Lincoln team and the Birmingham City University approach to Student Academic Partnership. Victory narratives aside, elsewhere concerns were raised about the need to get staff on board and the levels of institutional support required to ensure that ventures and projects of this nature were sustainable. Student Partnership in this respect covered a wide variety of approaches from those such as BCU and Lincoln’s approaches to partnership models of working, design and decision making, to the shared agenda setting of Newcastle’s Teaching and Learning Forum.

With the launch of the Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal scheduled for September 2016, this conversation is set to continue with many of these case studies being shared amongst the wider HE community at the forthcoming RAISE 2016 Excellence in Student Engagement Conference (Loughborough, 8-9 September 2016).

But, what about the staff experience? Tutoring, Mentoring and Coaching for Effective Student Support

Higher Education with its increasing focus and investment in support of the student experience has at times, dare I say it, overlooked the investment in staff necessary to ensure that they are able to perform effectively in both the academic and pastoral support of the students in their care. Across the country, contracts have been rewritten in light of the inherent need for enhanced support for students and in the main, these changes have included reference to an immediate need to address and take responsibility for their welfare. However, formal training and support for academics performing in this capacity is either non-existent or patchy at best, and often at an extreme deficit when compared with the training and formal support provided for professional service teams with a responsibility for student support.

Some of this distinction lay historically embedded in terms of the professional disjoint between staff who are primarily academics, heavily invested in research and subject discipline knowledge dissemination, but who alongside that activity also perform a pastoral and academic signposting role, versus that of our trained professional service teams who are often formally qualified to perform specific functions in direct support of students’ health, wellbeing and professional skills development (including student support units, academic skills development teams, library service staff and employability developers to name just a few). There is a big distinction, and the training deficit is immediately apparent when considering the differing levels in confidence when dealing with the complexity of pastoral and academic issues that our students present us with.

So, having recently made the move to join the Centre for Professional Learning and Development team at Nottingham Trent University, I was delighted to have been successful in a Seedcorn funding application from the Trent Institute of Learning and Teaching (TILT) to lead on a project in this area. The need for staff support in relation to the role of tutoring is an issue that has come up repeatedly in my dealings with both students and academics alike across a number of institutions; with students complaining about the ability of academics to deal effectively with the issues that they are facing, and academics expressing concern and anxiety over their preparedness and ability with which to handle these issues. This apparent mismatch needs to be managed efficiently through a combined approach of addressing staff training and student expectations of the pastoral role if both parties are able to get the support and development that they need to perform effectively.

At Nottingham Trent University the current expectation, as formalised within academic roles and contracts, is that staff will be able to signpost students appropriately to the services that they need. In reality though, students will want to share their problems, often in graphic detail (and sometimes whether we like it or not!), as they come to trust us and have faith in our ability to help them. It is worth taking a moment to recognise this for the honour that it is, particularly in light of our individual capacity to inspire trust – welcomed or not. No one is in a more powerful position to help a student, than those at the immediate front-line, the academic and professional staff that teach them. Recognition, reward and training in relation to the personal tutor role is long overdue in this respect.

That said, add that to the increasingly complex demands faced by academics in the current HE climate, with student numbers going up and the associated increase in teaching commitments and marking, coupled with the growth in administrative responsibilities alongside pressures to publish, there is no wonder that academics are feeling the strain and intensity of these competing demands when it comes to providing quality pastoral care. As student engagement and the student experience have become an area of significant Higher Education investment in recent years, largely in response to the demands presented by the current metrics-driven HE economy, the pressure to perform pastorally has taken its toll through the weight of expectation for ensuring that we retain students and the associated responsibility for ensuring their progression. All of that on top of the day job, and this position is only set to become heightened with the imminently approaching Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

With all of this in mind, my own interest lies in how we can best support our front-line staff to perform effectively in a tutoring, mentoring and coaching capacity. So how do we support our staff to survive and thrive, as they support their own students to stay the course? As a keen advocate for student engagement initiatives, I really do value institutional approaches that invest energy in providing a rich and supportive home community for its students, and I am fortunate to have worked at two UK HE institutions (Birmingham City & Nottingham Trent) that really do engage in student partnership and collaborative design in this respect. However, it is one thing to design exciting projects and activities to enhance student engagement (see the Level Up Transition Mentoring programme I designed at Birmingham City University for instance), but it is another consideration entirely when thinking about the training and professional development needs of the academics, administrative and support staff who will be expected to perform in the roles that we create for them.

The TILT funding is being used to research, develop and plan one such training programme for staff at Nottingham Trent University, with the aim of offering staff who are expected to deliver in these roles, the appropriate training and development opportunities in order to ensure that they are adequately prepared and confident to do so. Academics are by their very nature specialist in their professional and respective fields, however if we are to ensure that they are able to cope with the additional pressures of academic and pastoral support provision, we need to ensure that they are ready for the job in hand. This innovation for future tutors initiative, led jointly by Nottingham Trent University’s Centre for Professional Learning and Development and our Students’ Union, represents a collaborative partnership between the Centre for Academic Development and Quality, our Student Services and Library teams as well as our data-handling Student Dashboard team. It is anticipated that both our staff and students will benefit, with tutors receiving the training that they need in order to perform effectively in these pastoral and academic roles, and with students getting the help that they need in order to stay and succeed at Nottingham Trent University.

Future Tutors

In line with the NTU Strategic Plan ambition for creating the university of the future, this collaborative approach to developing the future tutor empowers our existing tutors with next generation skills, equipping them for the complex and competing demands of quality pastoral and academic support and providing credit and accolade where it is due. With the burden of responsibility for a personalised approach to the student experience, the need for student retention and the induction and integration of students into higher education falling at the feet of personal tutors across the HE sector, the next significant step is to invest in the training and stewardship of these roles so that they too can survive and thrive if they are to continue to perform as super dooper future tutors.

Myself and Jelena Matic NTSU VP Education will be presenting our collaborative approach to the development of tutor training at the SEDA Annual Conference in Brighton (November 2016). Hope to engage in some further collaborative conversations there.

Digifest 2016: Taking Over the Pyramid Stage

My last day at Birmingham City University saw me troop on over to the ICC with a wonderful army of student engagement activists (or that’s what it felt like), marching out to share our story of partnership working, and our use of technology in the creation of shared learning experiences. Digifest 2016 represented a divergent catalogue of digital innovations which spanned the use of robotics, smart technologies and the collision of educational utilisation of all that is good in the world of digital technologies.

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Level Up Mentors Assemble: POD1 Digifest2016

As such Digifest 2016 represented a pretty cool investment of our time in exploring available new technologies and considering their potential for application within a learning and teaching context. Armed with a small group of research minions (namely our wonderful students!), myself (as then Senior Lecturer in Learning and Teaching for Birmingham City University) and Jamie Morris (an Associate Lecturer in Learning and Teaching) , we were fortunate enough to have shared a close working relationship with our students in the design and delivery of out Times Higher Education Award shortlisted Level Up Student Transition Mentoring programme. In fact back in 2012 Jamie was one of our original Level Up Venture mentors (or LUVMs as they came to be known).

We have become well-rehearsed at sharing our student progression and retention story, but this time around we were armed with new recruits and with fresh blood comes fresh ideas, with the aim of maintaining that closeness and proximity to the student experience. Each year we recruit new mentors for our Level Up programme from those who have experienced the transition process themselves as new students to BCU, as their experiences are the freshest and closest to the student experiences of a new student joining the institution. Our mission at Digifest 2016 was two-fold, i) to search out new ideas, technologies and approaches that could be adopted as a part of the Level Up experience and ii) to share our experiences of the partnership approach to learning with new audiences. Our mission was a success on both fronts.

With a mind on the induction and introduction of our international students, we were particularly impressed with the use of a lived translation application that made use of your phone camera to produce live and immediate translations on screen. In a similarly inclusive approach, the use of a pen e-reader offered the potential to make ease of reading accessible for all regardless of text size or quality. By hovering over text using the e-reader, written text or handwriting could be adapted and enlarged to ease the accessibility to read for the user. However my own personal favourites were the use of a camera, video and animatronic technologies to extend the space within which a lecturer can be present. With an iPad mounted on a robot, the lecturer could be aphysically present through the use of an animated robot and reverse Facetime technology, allowing you to view your audience and engage while presenting remotely. These are all ideas that allowed you to extend the opportunity of access for learning to all, but also enable an active extension of the learning experience outside of the usual parameters of the classroom. So, with our brans filled, it was time to share our own experiences and I have to say that this represented a particularly rewarding activity for us.

We were particularly excited by the prospect of presenting in the inflatable pop-up pod classrooms being demonstrated at Digifest 2016. Attending a session earlier in the day delivered by Dr Esmat Mirzamany (JISC), I was surprised firstly by how well (as roofless installations) they insulted against the sound from the busy market place arena of the Digifest demo space. Secondly, I was impressed by the intimate community-feel created once inside a pop-up space which was effectively supported by hot air. The pods were a real hit with both me and the student team where we envisioned a number of uses from pop-up teaching spaces, to open-day events and social activities. In fact we liked them so much that we have since pestered the Head of Student Engagement, Luke Millard, to invest in a set for institutional use at Birmingham City University.

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Imagine our joy when we arrived 15 minutes early at our own pod to find it full already with colleagues from across the sector keen to engage in dialogue with us about our partnership approach to sharing the design process with our students.

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A quick pitstop to collect a glass of water later and we returned to find our inflatable learning space full to capacity, fit to pop and with delegates eager to get into our session crammed at the doorway, so much so that we struggled to get into the room ourselves. How lovely that we should receive such a warm welcome in our institutional home town.

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With a bit of careful deliberation and industrial complex planning on behalf of JISC and the Digifest team, we were bumped up the bill to play the main stage, as our colleague, Dave Monk from Harlow College put it so nicely, “It’s just like Glastonbury, I’ve always wanted to play the Pyramid stage!” and as we took stock, it really did feel like our collective gathering of like-minded souls from across the education sector had temporarily stolen the show.

Mains stage

So we made the main stage, and hats off to the events team for crowd control and people management skills writ-large, but it was a little nerve wracking to be flying solo without our slide notes and with key control relinquished to the technical team. I guess that was a small price to pay in order to lay claim to a monster audience, and to gain an opportunity to share our experiences with what felt like the entire Digifest audience.

While the conference itself was primarily focused upon the potential offered by the use and development of new technologies to extend, enhance and shape the education landscape of the future, the primary driver and motivation for our work lay around how you engage students in that process of selection and development for the use of appropriate tools and technologies that the students themselves will take charge of and continue to engage with, this was an approach shared by our co-presenter, Dave Monk, in his own work which explored a similar process for using technology whilst working with his own students. Same tools, same conversations, working with our students to harness appropriate methods for encouraging an active and engaged audience of lifelong learners.

All hail future teachnologies!




Does Smartphone Technology Really Make Us Smarter?

Participation in a research project with Nottingham Trent University’s Psychology Department was a real eye opener this week. Focused around the use of smartphone technology, the study threw up some really interesting points of discussion (and moments of self-realisation for me) relating to our relationship with our mobile phones.

Not big on the whole selfie thing!

Already very aware of the extent to which I rely on my phone as a means of communicating with my family (we only have a land-line as it came with the TV package), maintaining and developing my professional network. I use Twitter a lot for both professional and personal relationships, as well as staying on top of current affairs. It is probably worth noting that I no longer read a newspaper and consult the BBC, Guardian and Times Higher Education online once a week instead. I keep up with professional practice within my field through Twitter and I do all of this through my phone.

Having been resistant (only until very recently) to linking my email to my phone, as one last bastion or protecting home life from the ever-encroaching slippage of the work-life balance, I do see the benefit of being able to keep on top of the seemingly endless email onslaught – deleting the irrelevant, archiving for reference and acting on the urgent (even if it is outside of work hours). I also see the benefit of being able to use dead time – waiting in line, riding the bus, waiting for others – with productive activity that will save time when I need it most and make sure that I have met the expectations of family as well as work colleagues. That said, from 8am to 8pm, I take 12 quiet hours, when I silence the noise, only allowing close family members and friends to break through. While our mobile phones have the capacity to keep us connected and enables us to work a little smarter when it comes to managing the pressures of demanding workloads, we do need to protect a little time to day dream, outside of the connected world, but then when we are online or using technology to extend our networks, we also need to remember to protect ourselves from attack, protecting our property by avoiding sharing those details in the active prevention against unwittingly giving them up.


The research being conducted had a couple of foci, one of which lay around the use of an app that tests general knowledge against set criteria. With a number of test parameters including the use of a male pixelated-voice and a nurturing and a nurturing female voice, I was surprised with my own prejudices and preferences for the female voice (call me stereotypical!) but then given the nature of the two quizzes, I was reassured to discover that I knew a reasonable amount about fashion and the fashion industry (not past it quite yet then!), and less surprised to discover that I knew nothing about football, but I can live with that (call me a double stereotype)!

With an eye for learning and teaching, and my educational brain in gear, I could see some real value for this application as a tool for students to self-test against set criteria. The quiz requests a response to likert scale-like queries around levels of awareness in relation to each of the statements given. However, this stimulated my own response, which was not measured on the self-test quiz, “I didn’t know that, but I do now!” In terms of learning and teaching this offers up an immense wealth in terms of student self-support in preparation for assessment. With carefully guided questions, this approach could be tailored as a valuable application in the revision of core concepts, ideas and terminology, and would be relevant to the learning experience of all students to become more independent in their studies and self-supporting in their learning journey. It would allow module tutors to highlight and provide additional resource around key topics to allow more room for students in the active approach to learning during taught sessions, but it would also allow students to extend the physical space of the classroom as they take their learning on their phones with them wherever they go – allowing them to time shift their learning to a time and place that suits them (and at no time more relevant that now, when students are working to support themselves through university and in some cases pay their own fees).


So app-based learning and the gamification of knowledge gets a thumbs up from me. However, I can see a real value for the use of this with the elderly and for rehabilitation, for cultural training and assimilation, as well as acting as self-test indicators of professional skill and areas of competence (and also weakness) out in professional practice across any area of professional expertise. As an approach it lends itself readily to a variety of different scenarios and applications. I wish the research team the best of success with this project as I can see its potential for so many uses alongside the primary curriculum and right through to higher education.

With all of the benefits of applications of this type for extending our capacity to learn and delivering learning opportunities as new experiences and within revised time frames, perhaps the most revealing part of the activity for me was the post research debriefing session. Here it was revealed that in addition to the research into the applications themselves, additional research was being conducted into the ease with which we would be willing to share our personal data. I surprised myself with the readiness with which I would lie to protect access to my phone. As a part of the study, we were asked for the password for our mobile phone lock screen. I lied! Going into the study, I was aware that the purpose was to examine smartphone use and to test out some apps. I figured that if they really needed access to my phone, they’d come back and ask me. So I lied, to no consequence. But the debrief was particularly telling as this willingness to reveal personal data was a part of the research. Perhaps not passing with flying colours, and challenging this request from the offset, I had enough nouse to present false data – phew!


This post research activity debrief got me thinking critically about my own relationship with my phone – the realisation that my phone was pretty much always within a 5 metre proximity radius of my person, that I accessorise my phone case to my work station colour scheme, but that the primary decision around the recent purchase of handbag had not been whether I could fit my purse or day-to-day items, instead the deciding factor had been the ease of access with which I could get to my phone. As I prepared to leave the session (£12 richer for my contribution to the research, I should add), I patted myself down to check that I had my phone – the first thought on my mind. And as I entered the lift, I opened my email to see if I could see if there was anything that I could deal with in the 5 minute walk back to the office.

Smarter working, or more sucker me?

Flash forward and technology has the potential to offer us live online updates for our every activity. In a recent Tech Crunch article, Westcott highlights how augmented reality head mounted displays are already in development, allowing Terminator style data scans will appear before our eyes, imprinting on our brains with an immediacy of action that comes with it, and further allowing an increase in the speed with which we can switch from information download to purposeful action.


We are all become cyborgs (but wait, didn’t Donna Haraway already predict that?)!

A Post-Antibiotic Era is Upon Us? Prof John Watson presents at NTU Distinguished Lecture Series

Global concerns over anti-microbial resistance was the focus of Prof John Watson’s distinguished lecture at Nottingham Trent University this evening. As Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Health, Watson shared a candid and revealing account over the growing concerns for global health in the face of the uncertainty and challenge presented by the resistance to antibiotics presented in some microbes. Watson shares how his own professional training in respiratory medicine led to his interest and investment in public health, and how ultimately that passion drives his current professional practice through his work for the UK government.

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In a refreshingly accessible scientific public lecture addressing ongoing impacts, research futures and troubling world challenges, Watson highlighted how the concern for a post-antibiotic era is already upon us. While developments in healthcare provision are advancing all the time, the focus of tonight’s lecture lay around somewhat darker matter and worrying developments identified around a decline in susceptibility of some diseases due to the successive use of antibiotics. Watson highlights how through a process of natural selection, some bacteria survive exposure to antibiotics an become resistant against modern medicine. Identifying how the fears of  post-antibiotic future represent a very real concern largely as a result of the systematic over and misuse of antibiotics. Recognising the difficulties represented by this need to readdress the issue of antibiotic use and prescription, Watson identified some of the discrepancies at work, and particularly at a time which science recognises a need to minimise the use of antibiotics, but many countries have experienced a marked lack of access to antibiotics in the first place. Drawing attention to Dame Sally Davies’ TEDx talk on the subject, Watson raises concern for the gravity of a need for global debate and action.

Highlighting the issue of concern as a very real and ‘thoroughly global problem’, Watson identifyies how what can begin as an isolated problem in a very specific part of the world can very rapidly become a problem for the United Kingdom, like a game of Pandemic writ-royale. However, while measures of address are being put into place to encourage the restriction of antibiotic use within healthcare provision and medicine, Watson provides us with a timely reminder that the use of antibiotics is not restricted as a problem for humans, but that it is important to be aware of the use of antibiotics within agriculture and the environment mapping how the presence of antibiotics saturates the environment within which we live and immerse our lives, Watson discussed the gravity with which such an issue is addressed by the UK government in terms of policy, practice and funding investment in support of future strategy for risk management in this area.

UK government strategy of recent years has focused its energy around research development and policy production in order to address these concerns. Presenting the UK Five Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy, Watson identifies how the government strategy publication sought pursuit of a holistic approach to dealing with the threat presented by serious disease which included preventative measures, a focus upon the preservation of the effectiveness of existing treatment, and an identified need for prioritising the need for new developments. Underpinning the entire approach was an identified need to use disease surveillance as a means of targeting essential areas for development through which, what he terms a ‘one health approach’ was adopted in order to pursue internationally collaborative efforts in the development of strategies for serious disease management, prevention and cure.  One such research fund identified, targeted around combating serious disease is available through the Ross Fund. Using the findings of such research offers an opportunity to work directly with companies to develop ‘promising products’ to use in the fight against serious disease.

Part of the problem being addressed by Watson was the need not only for a recognition of the impact of the over-use of antibiotics, but also in the hidden impacts of antibiotic use that as a consequence of taking antibiotics we are not only attacking harmful infection, but we are also, often unwittingly, damaging a large body of friendly microbiome that make up a healthy and functional system. In so doing, there is collateral damage evident in the use of antibiotics and as such future research into the design and delivery for antibiotics needs to account for opportunities for targeting effectively and specifically the infection that you’ve got, and a faster route to identifying the right antibiotic needs to be developed so that antibiotics of the future can be administered quickly and effectively.

When considering work being conducted in the field so far in the UK, Watson identifies that although there have been some increases in drug-resistant infections, including a decline in susceptibility to gonorrhea to successive antibiotics (so watch out students!), there have also been some successes. Watson highlights how prescriptions for antibiotics has gone down, which is a step in the right direction for responsible antibiotic management. Future planning is focusing around the movement to a place where medicine practice is able to diagnose a faster route to the right antibiotic use targets infection specifically in order to avoid the collateral damage of hitting healthy microbiomes.

So is a post-antibiotic era upon us? Quite possibly. Perhaps we should think twice before we ask for a course of antibiotics, otherwise, in the words of Dame Sally Davies, we might wake up to a future where put quite simply, the drugs don’t work!

(So make sure you wash your hands!)


Re-Record, Don’t Fade Away: The Future of the Online Lecture

Recorded lectures have become a go-to assemblence in the lecturer’s toolkit of recent years. With some universities investing heavily in lecture capture technology, and others taking a more individualised approach to encouraging academics to participate in the delivery and preservation of online content, the online lecture it would seem is here to stay.

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A recent Times Higher Education article by Nicholas Morton of Nottingham Trent University explores the merits of the online lecture and while his account was predominantly focused around the use of the recorded lecture and lecture capture as a concurrent supplement to the existing scheduled lecture, my own interest in flipped classroom is focused around what can be done instead with the available time if the lecture itself is flipped to become the pre-requisite pre-learning activity to the scheduled session.

Concerned about the loss of ‘the passion and the inspiration’ that is experienced as part of a really great lecture, Morton’s concern is not entirely unjustified here, but then not all lecturers are passionate or indeed inspiring. Lecturing is a form of performance but one that is equally possible from your kitchen table as it is from a 350 seat lecture theatre. The 350 bodies might not be present, but your passion for the subject and levels of enthusiasm should be, and if they are not, then perhaps it’s time to consider whether you are in the right profession? Like any skill though, recording lectures requires a bit of practice and the discomfort of starting to review your lecturing practice acts as a flashback reminder of starting out on the route to lecturing in the first place. Recalling my own first lecture back at The University of Nottingham in 2004, this was distinctly characterised by pre-sessional nerves, a mild dose of panic, sweaty palms and an odd out-of-body experience as I lectured from meticulously planned, and well-rehearsed notes. Twelve years of teaching practice on, and the anticipation of lecturing and presenting no longer has such a visceral impact. However discomfort zones anew have emerged, and every time with a keen awareness of how that discomfort is largely the result of an accompanying expectation for a change in practice. That said, we wouldn’t be developing our own professional practice, if we were unwilling to experience the discomfort of life outside of the familiar and the comfortable. For me, the first forays into flipped classroom learning and online recorded lectures represented an equally uncomfortable development. But that immediate discomfort very quickly moved on to become comfortable practice that afforded a wide range of new possibilities.

I am reassured that academics are exploring the benefits of using online lectures themselves. And while Morton identifies the need to maintain the actual ‘experience’ of the lecture, there exists a wealth of much more immersive and richly active learning experiences that the live lecture can be replaced with. To be fair to Morton though, he does raise valid points about the concern expressed over dwindling attendance and an over reliance on online content over any development of the offline experience. However, none of these suggestions is more on point than when he highlights the need to move beyond thinking of ‘lecture capture as a dangerous replacement for lectures and more of an accompaniment.’ As I see it, there are two possible approaches to the online lecture, the simple lecture capture that allows you to record a live lecture in-situ or the purposeful pre-recording of lecture content using any number of new technologies that allow you to do so and to prepare a purpose-built learning environment that extends beyond the parameters of the traditional classroom.

flipped classroom

While the benefits of both outweigh the live-only alternative, both forms are appreciated as students are given the capacity to time-shift their engagement, to repeat view as they approach assessments and the exam period, and to refresh their knowledge as they prepare to articulate their own learning. However, the biggest area of excitement for me is the capacity that is offered up for hands-on learning when the online recorded lecture acts as the replacement for the traditional static lecture. In response to suggestions from my own students, during focus-group discussions, who had joked about getting rid of lectures altogether in order to make room for the hands-on learning and active experimentation that we have been engaging in within the workshop sessions, instead they made a case for us trying out new technology to record the lectures online in order to free up more session time to have an opportunity to test out their own ideas in a supported workshop environment.

Always willing to try new ideas, even if I was slightly apprehensive about my ability to support student learning from afar, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the result and particularly with the willingness with which these students went on to carve out their own learning journey from the options and opportunities made avail;able to them. That was four years ago and I have since employed flipped classroom learning across both my undergraduate and postgraduate delivery. Most recently I have adapted some of the online delivery for the PGCert  at Birmingham City University. This represented an innovation for the 2015/16 PGCert cohort and has allowed for an enhanced emphasis upon the employment of new technologies, the embedding of employability skills and an increased focus upon exploring the opportunities for student engagement and partnership working. Certainly our initial cohort of flipped learners seemed to evaluate the practice favourably with one participant commenting, “I enjoyed the sessions and interaction with my peers. The opportunities and activities for deeper learning were great!” while another highlighted the “Practical application of teaching methods and facilitation” as one of the strengths of the module.

However it would be dishonest to suggest that the entire cohort welcomed the practice so positively, indeed one participant admitted to hating the flipped classroom practice as a result of the disruption and challenge represented to up until that point familiar areas of practice as offered by the lecture/seminar/workshop model. In the case of our 40 strong intake, it is also important to acknowledge that our PGCert participants were not given a choice over the delivery pattern. While this had been the case for my undergraduate delivery, where students were familiarised with the delivery pattern and practice in advance and given the opportunity to opt out if it didn’t suit them, the same could not be said of the PGCert and the associated professional staff development programme, as there is an expectation that new staff members joining BCU will complete the programme within 3 years of their arrival. Part of the rationale for teaching in this way was to foster an approach in which our new academics commence the learning journey for their own students with the flipped classroom, fresh from their own experience as a recipient of the flipped class. With a vision to enhance the student experience, our approach to professional staff development includes opportunities for new colleagues at the university to experience first-hand some of the opportunities for learning that such activities extend themselves to.

Flipped classroom practice has had a massive impact upon my classroom delivery and in the design and planning for those experiences for participants of the courses to which I deliver. This activity has had a transformative impact upon my practice and has changed the way that I view the learning experience. The flipped classroom offers an opportunity through which to hand over the reins of the learning environment in a way that allows us to be much more responsive to the immediate needs and interests of our learners, offering an opportunity for a personalised learning experience and enabling a much more active learning environment in which our participants are involved in live enquiry and active exploration. Going beyond the possibilities of live lecture capture and the archive activity of recording lecture activity for future reference, the flip side of the flipped classroom lies in the possibilities that are afforded for the space and time that would ordinarily have been occupied by the traditional lecture. It would seem to me that it is here that the most exciting exploration of the learning and teaching environment and the possibilities implicit in such a shift afforded by the online lecture. Offering more than an opportunity to re-record lecture content, the practice of flipped classroom learning offers a real possibility to design learning experiences that don’t fade away, but rather bring the learning experience to life in a way that becomes meaningful and extends way beyond the life of the taught classroom environment.

A Love Letter to BCU

Last week it really hit home that I would be leaving BCU to start a new role with Nottingham Trent University and having taken the time to reflect a little (on a long train journey home!) I came to realise just exactly how many of my professional formative relationships have been forged at BCU. As a result, I am sad to be moving on from the warmth of my extended BCU family, but excited for the start of a new adventure at Nottingham Trent, a new direction for me, which I am hopeful will result in the development of many new collaborative relationships.

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As I venture off however, I leave BCU with an immense sense of pride and accomplishment for all of the opportunities that I have been afforded in my time in Birmingham and more importantly for all of the successful collaborations that I have been a part had the privilege to be a part of, many of which have gone on to live and develop way beyond my involvement, taking shape under new leadership and responding to nuanced demands as they arrive. If there is one thing that I can hand-on-heart say say about the staff and student interactions that I have had at BCU, it is that every person that I have encountered on my journey at BCU have had the best interests of our institution at heart. When students complain, it is because they have a belief (rightly or wrongly informed) that there is a better way of doing things, but where the magic really happens is when these voices meet in dialogue to discuss the issues that matter to them most. That’s when shared solutions emerge, from a fully invested community of academics, professional support staff, administration teams and our students themselves.

Many of our adventures have been fuelled on good-will and a shared excitement for the journey, but what continues to amaze me is just how much can be achieved when you get the right people together with a shared mind-set for development and a willingness to try something new, to have an adventure along the way and all the while run the risk of ‘getting it wrong’. There’s always a back-up plan and there’s always the option to revert to the ‘old’ way of doing things, but in my experience we’ve rarely reverted to the original method, as need for change is only ever identified where a need for change in practice is necessary.

In that time, I have watched the School of Media develop into a force majeure when it comes to all things student engagement, largely as a result of listening to what the want and working in partnership with them to achieve beneficial change for all. This shared practice has resulted in the design of a personal tutoring system that is linked directly into the delivery on the academic programme. It has fostered the development of a student transition mentoring and induction programme that carries immediate relevance for the new students as it is designed by the students themselves. Working in partnership with students has also seen the development of an embedded workshop series through which to enable students to enhance their research, writing and critical thinking skills in a way that is linked directly to their subject-specific discipline. The design for all of which was arranged collaboratively and delivered in working partnership. As I move on to work at Nottingham Trent, I am conscious of how much my time at Birmingham City University has shaped my professional outloo. Two weeks into my new role at NTU and I am already finding opportunities to get involved and offer alternative perspectives and approaches, so thank you BCU for the all of the experiences, it’s been a blast and the impact will last.

But I won’t miss the stationary M6. This was the view from my last journey to Brum!

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European First Year Experience Conference, Norway 2015

Taking a team of students to the European First Year Experience conference in Bergen, Norway this year gave me a renewed perspective into their view of our world. As one of my students, Ross Whitehouse, candidly put it as he looked around the conference keynote session, “It’s amazing to see the secret life of academics and that so many of you from all over the world come together for a meet up because you really do give a sh*t about making sure you give us lot [your students] a good experience!” After 13 years in academia, I hadn’t really thought about it like that until now, but actually what a great approach to recognising the value of our activities, and why we are constantly seeking to develop our offering. Because we genuinely do want our students to have a good learning experience, forgetting the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework for a second. In fact, aside from sharing our experiences of the design and delivery of our Level Up transition mentoring programme, our primary motive for attending conferences and events such as this one, is to expose ourselves (and our students) to new opportunities for learning so that we can go on to make good use of best practice within our home institutions.

With 3 years as the standard duration for an undergraduate degree, that’s not an awful lot of time to gain trust, develop positive working relationships and to build a shared learning community. With shorter Masters’ programmes, that is even more difficult! However, with a little effort and some carefully crafted room for flexibility, it is possible to relinquish a little control of the classroom and their learning experience in order to allow the talents and learning ambitions of our students to flourish. In my experience, creating these opportunities easily makes for a much more productive time across those years, in which both parties will learn a thing or two (me included!). Does it require a little more work? Of course it does. Does it bring unexpected joy to your classroom every single day? Absolutely!

Bringing some of our students with us to Norway to talk about this partnership approach in practice, as ever, was a treat and on this occasion our little group fell into a cohort of internationally engaged students, all of whom were keenly ambitious to have their views heard, to make a positive impact upon the student experience and to use their own experience as students in their role as change agents across the Higher Education sector.

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Student engagement-focused conferences for me are always an enlightening experience, offering new ways of reaching out to and engaging our students, which is in direct opposition to Henderson’s recently argued case for conference fatigue as found in Havergal’s recent Times Higher Education article here. At Birmingham City University, we have long promoted partnership working practices with our students, and they have become a firmly embedded part of our routines and practices for achieving change. However, recently I have become fascinated by the attitudes and approaches to achieving change by students of other institutions, and indeed other cultures. I have come to recognise that variants of partnership working practices are now coming to the fore in other institutions and that a range of different approaches for incentivising these practices are in operation. Our Student Academic Partners programme, however, offers the most persuasive approach that I have encountered – true partnership between our students, academics, professional services and administrative staff. But then, perhaps I am biased. So instead, I will let another of our Norway team speak for herself, as quoted by Emily Brammeier below.

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Emily Brammeier, Level Up Mentor 2015

In Norway we were promoting our Times Higher Education Award short-listed, Level Up Transition Mentoring programme, however the value of our engagement in Bergen came through our collaboration with students and colleagues across the HE sector as a part of our workshop discussions. The realisation of our achievements became evident as we were applauded for individual discrete aspects of the Level Up programme including the strength of our mentoring opportunities, our collaborative cross-service embedded workshop activity, personalised tuition and personal tutoring, and our student-led induction programme, with participants of our workshop taking different enquiring approaches to our Level Up programme. The breadth of our delivery programme stands testament to the demands made by our student partners and the areas for support that they felt were essential to our new students’ integration. Our presentation can be found below:

As ever, we left with more ideas than we arrived with, but perhaps none more attractive than the idea of allowing our incoming students to design their own induction activity.

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Much of our Level Up activity has been primarily focused around using our existing students to plan induction and welcome activities for our new cohort. Allowing our incoming students to participate in the design of their own integration into Birmingham City University would represent a new direction for us, but one that is already in practice in Norway, where as we left, one of the University of Bergen students, Marie Lien, was in the process of designing welcome and induction activities with the incoming UIB students. We ended our soiree with the dream of setting up the University of Bergenham, with Professor Stuart Brand as our general pied-piper and King of Student Engagement.

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Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 11.42.27 However, perhaps for us the best bit was having our presentation voted best by the most important delegates of all, the international students themselves. All in, I’d say it was a pretty successful adventure where we conquered insanely large crabs in Bergen’s harbour, scaled mountains to dine at the Floyen restaurant and conquered Vikings to be granted entry to Haaken’s Hall in the process.

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Enormous Crabs at Bergen Harbour (note hand for perspective!)
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Birmingham City University Team: Haaken’s Hall, Bergen

Aside from the usual conference collaborations, we were also warmly adopted by the UIB conference student delegates, who inducted us into Norwegian social culture with a tour of Bergen’s social scene and a trip to Norway’s TV2 station.

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We left with memories of breathtaking scenery and armed to the teeth with ideas that we will go on to put into practice as our Level Up programme is introduced and delivered across our institution as our training programme takes shape.

Norway by Night
Our view from the Floyen Restaurant

Goodbye Norway, hope to see you again soon. The 2016 European First Year Experience event is in Ghent, where no doubt we will meet up with friends old and new. Join us here.