Using screencasts to deliver skills training: a Part One English Literature module

Dr. Nicola Abram, Literature and Languages
n.l.abram@reading.ac.uk

Year of activity: 2015-6

Overview

camtasia-in-action

This entry describes the use of screencasts to deliver skills training on a compulsory Part One English Literature module. As a result of the changes outlined here, every student taking English Literature at the University of Reading will have access throughout their degree to a bank of online resources teaching key skills.

Objectives

  • To train students in the practical skills needed to succeed in an English Literature degree.
  • To induct students into the independent learning required for an English Literature degree.
  • To increase students’ engagement in skills training.
  • To improve students’ understanding of and adherence to academic conventions.
  • To make best use of the contact time (lectures and seminars) on the module.

Context

Over 200 students enter English Literature programmes at the University of Reading each year, from a range of educational backgrounds. To ensure they all have the key skills and theoretical understanding needed to succeed throughout their degrees, we run a compulsory module in Part One (first year) called ‘Research & Criticism’ (EN1RC).

In the previous incarnation of the module, the Autumn Term had been used for a series of 50 minute lectures on research methods, such as ‘Using online sources’, ‘Using published sources’, ‘Citations and referencing’, and ‘Academic writing’. Students also attended a 50 minute seminar each week, the content of which was determined by the seminar tutor. The Spring Term lectures and seminars then inducted students into foundational critical ideas like ‘narrative’, ‘reader’ and ‘author’, as well as issues such as ‘gender and sexuality’, and ‘race and empire’, via a series of set texts.

I was tasked with convening this module from 2014/15. On my appointment, I sought to engage students as more active participants in the skills training component.

Implementation

The process for developing this module began with an informal conversation with another tutor. We identified a disparity between the module content and the mode of delivery: the traditional lecture format did not seem to be the best vehicle for delivering skills training.

Believing that skills training is most effectively conducted through practical and interactive activities, I set about constructing a series of short formative tasks that would enable students to learn by doing. These were designed to break down the process of research and writing into its component parts, so that students could amass the necessary skills bit by bit. Feedback would be given quickly – usually the following week – by their seminar tutor, meaning changes could be implemented prior to attempting a summative (assessed) essay. The specific formative tasks set were: assembling a bibliography, integrating quotation into a short critical commentary, preparing an essay plan, summarising a fiction text, précising a critical text, and drafting an essay introduction.

Students were supported to undertake each task by a screencast: a short (3-5 minute) animation giving the key information about a particular skill and signposting further resources, which students could watch at their own pace and return to at leisure. Screencasts were released to students on a controlled basis via a dedicated area on the module’s Blackboard pages, accompanying the instructions for each formative task. Upon completion of the module, students had therefore engaged with a bank of ten different screencasts. They retain access to this throughout their degrees, via Blackboard.

Most of the screencasts were prepared using the screen capture programme, Camtasia, for which we have multiple departmental licenses. Colleagues who had previously delivered the skills lectures were given the technical support (where necessary) to repurpose that material into a screencast, and others were invited to volunteer new material. A colleague in Study Advice also contributed a screencast tailored to the needs of English Literature students. This collaborative approach produced a welcome range of different outcomes. Some colleagues used PowerPoint to present written and visual content, while others used Prezi, which better represents the spatial arrangement of the material. Some recorded a voiceover, which provided a welcome sense of connection with an individual tutor, while others chose to use a musical soundtrack downloaded from a royalty-free website such as www.incompetech.com. A few colleagues used the animation tools PowToon and VideoScribe, rather than simply recording a presentation onscreen.

A meeting with staff teaching on the module was held at the end of its first term and after its first full year. Their reflections on students’ submitted tasks and classroom engagement proved invaluable for the module’s iterative design.

Impact

As a result of this module, students are evidently more alert to the many components of professional writing and are better equipped to perform good academic practice. Selected comments from qualitative module evaluations affirmed the usefulness of this immersive model of skills training: “The first [formative] tasks such as the bibliography were very useful to bridge the gap into HE”, “All the feedback I received was very helpful and helped me improve my work”, and “The screencasts were also a fantastic idea”.

The screencasts have been watched multiple times by students, suggesting that they are a useful resource that can be returned to and referred to repeatedly. The current most-watched is ‘Incorporating quotations’, which has had 969 views since it was uploaded in January 2015.

Using screencasts as a teaching delivery tool has also provided the opportunity to develop the content of the course. Removing the skills content from lectures freed up contact time to be given to important theoretical material and set texts.

Reflections

The model of interactive skills training harnesses the power of constructive alignment, where teaching process and assessment method are calculated to maximise students’ engagement with the subject and/or skills being taught. Even for a discursive discipline like English, the QAA Subject Benchmark Statement encourages assessments “aimed at the development of specific skills (including IT and bibliographical exercises)”.

Although I did not have a particular student demographic in mind when making these changes, the staged development of writing skills seems to offer specific support to international students and English as additional language (EAL) learners, who may be unfamiliar with UK academic conventions and benefit from an atomised approach to writing with regular formative feedback. However, all students benefit from this formal induction to academic literacy. Running a core skills module has an equalising effect on the cohort, compensating for disparities in prior educational contexts and attainment.

Embedding the screencasts to view on Blackboard Learn was awkward since they could not be watched inline by users whose devices did not support a specific plugin. Screencasts were therefore hosted on www.screencast.com, with stable links provided in Blackboard Learn. Both uploading and viewing were easy and effective, but the cap on bandwidth (2GB per month) meant a need to upgrade to a paid-for subscription (currently £8.36 per month) in months where traffic was particularly high. In future I will consider using YouTube, with appropriate privacy settings, to continue the periodic release of screencasts through link-only access.

Follow up

As of 2016-17, the module continues to run using screencasts as a key teaching method. Additional screencasts have been added to the suite as need arose, for instance to support students’ use of Turnitin as a formative tool, in line with University of Reading strategy. Some screencasts have been replaced as a result of staff turnover. But most remain in use, meaning that the initial work to prepare the content and conduct the screen capture continues to pay off.

Various colleagues in the Department of English Literature have found screencasts to be a useful method for wider skills training. We are now preparing a suite of screencasts to support prospective students and new entrants with the transition to higher education, on topics like ‘What is a lecture?’ and ‘How should I communicate with my tutors?’. We also use screencasts more widely, including as a student assessment method: some of these, along with our public-facing promotional videos, have been given British Sign Language interpretation (contact Dr Cindy Becker for details).

Work is now being undertaken to enhance the training component of the module further through Technology Enhanced Learning, by using quizzes on Blackboard Learn to provide students with immediate feedback on their understanding of skills like proper referencing practice.

Links

Academic Writing: Essay presentation & proof-reading:http://www.screencast.com/t/EXn2au7r8Wj7

Writing a critical precis: http://www.screencast.com/t/83Wz0I4rA

Citations and referencing: http://www.screencast.com/t/aT8PolyDuH

English Literature at the University of Reading YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/EnglishAtReading

Embedding Employability Through Collaborative Curriculum Design

Amanda Millmore, School of Law,  a.millmore@reading.ac.uk

Overview

This is a practical case study focusing upon the process of carrying out a collaborative partnership project with students to embed employability attributes into a new module.  Not only do we now have a module with employability attributes built-in, but the student partners have gained a range of employability skills themselves by virtue of their involvement in the process. PLanT project funding was awarded, and used to provide refreshments for focus groups and to enable students to travel to conferences to disseminate the project.

Objectives

I identified 3 key challenges that the project aimed to address:

  • Employability – how to equip students with the skills and attributes to succeed in employment.
  • Curriculum Design – how to embed those graduate employability attributes into a module.
  • Student Engagement and Collaboration – how to work effectively with students in partnership.

Context

In Law the professional pathways to careers are changing, with new routes opening up for vocational post-graduate and non-graduate training. These changes are raising questions for University law schools as to how much they should be focusing upon more practical and vocational skills.

My colleague Dr. Annika Newnham and I wanted to develop a new final year module, covering a discrete area of family law, closely allied to the kind of work that students may encounter in their early years of legal practice, with assessments mapped to legal employability skills.

Implementation

Identifying Employability Skills – I built upon previous work within the Law School which had identified (through consultation with multiple stakeholders) 11 graduate attributes. The focus was then upon how to embed them within a module.

Participant Sampling – student volunteers were sought via requests in lectures and email, and 5 joined our core partnership group.

Developing the Collaborative Relationship – brainstorming with student partners led to the idea of using student focus groups to find out what they thought of assessments and employability.

Focus Groups – the student partners were empowered to facilitate 2 focus groups, whereas I dealt with the administrative logistics (room booking, catering, preparing supporting materials to stimulate discussion). The focus groups considered their preferences in relation to a range of assessment types, then developed a plan for assessment of the new module, focusing upon the type, weight and timing of assessments. Finally they mapped the employability attributes to the proposed assessments.

Assessment Co-Design – student partners then used the information gained from the focus groups to create the final assessment plan for the new module, with more diverse timing and type of assessments than are typical for the Law School.

Impact

Employability: The student partners have all developed employability skills from their involvement, in particular improved confidence, communication skills and leadership skills. The wider student body has increased awareness of employability attributes.

Curriculum Design: The new module LW3CFS Children, Families and the State has student-designed assessments with employability attributes clearly mapped to them. Students involved have gained a greater understanding of the process of module design. The module is oversubscribed in 2019/20 and is operating a waiting list.

Student Engagement & Collaboration: Students feel that they have been listened to, and been treated as true equitable partners in the process. This has created greater feelings of community and power-sharing within the School of Law. Students are interested in extending this trailblazing process to other modules, and colleagues and I are looking at expanding it to programme level.

Reflections

When I presented this project at the Advance HE conference in July 2019 I emphasised my 4 step plan for successful staff-student partnerships:

 

 

 

 

 

 

By keeping the student-staff partnership limited to a discrete area of module design (assessments) the boundaries were clear, and students could be given greater control. The key message is that equality of arms is vital, all viewpoints need to be welcomed and considered with no obvious staff-student hierarchy.

The limitations of the project were that it was focusing upon the modular level, rather than anything broader, so its impact is limited to that module, although the goodwill that it has generated amongst our students extends far beyond this single module.

Follow up

The module is due to run for the first time in 2019/20 for Final Year students in the School of Law.

My current plans for follow-up relate to the following areas:

  1. Further evaluation of the effectiveness of embedding employability attributes into a module (see evaluation section above).
  2. Consideration of better ways to highlight the employability attributes, for example by badging them (opening up possibilities for inter-disciplinary collaborations with creative colleagues and students.
  3. Looking to scale up the process to programme level within the School of Law.  One of the challenges will be how we can widen and diversify the range of students in future curriculum design partnerships.

Links and references

Useful pedagogic literature:

ADVANCE HE 2016. Framework for embedding employability in higher education. Available from: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/framework-embedding-employability-higher-education.

ADVANCE HE 2016. Framework for student engagement through partnership. Available from: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/student-enagagement-through-partnership-new.pdf.

BOVILL, C. 2017. A Framework to Explore Roles Within Student-Staff Partnerships in Higher Education: Which Students Are Partners, When, and in What Ways?  International Journal for Students As Partners,  1 (1). https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v1i1.3062, 1.

HEALEY, M., FLINT, A & HARRINGTON, K. 2014. Students as Partners in Learning & Teaching in Higher Education [Online]. York: Higher Education Academy. [Viewed on 1 July 2019] Available from: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/engagement-through-partnership-students-partners-learning-and-teaching-higher.

Photos

Focus Groups

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mapping Employability Skills

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Assessment Co-Design

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Student Dissemination at Conferences