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Mark Allenby's Design Narrative

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Mr Mark T Allenby
2 April 2018

1 - Title - From Badgers to Beavers

Supporting students to become authentic learners not grade seekers

The Title Explained

This account uses two metaphors for student behaviour. Badgers are those who see learning primarily as being about passing assignment and getting good grades. These are like badges of achievement that show that a task has been completed successfully – “I passed that module” or “I got an A.” They collect badges.

Beavers are those who break the trees of knowledge (including practical skills-based knowledge) into useful and useable chunks that they can manipulate into something that lets them achieve a goal, like a badger building its lodge to live in or a dam to help it store food. Beavers are less interested in passing modules or getting good grades, but in mastering a subject area and being able to apply learning in everyday situations.

2 - Narrator

I am a module lead on a BA in Social Work course at my local university. The specific module is a Social Work Skills module. My role it to help design, deliver, and assess a module that will help students to become the kinds of social workers that they want to become. The module is assessed using a portfolio of evidence that the students gather over the course of the module, from October to May.

But that is not really who I am. I am a human being, a messy, messed up, confused and confusing individual, caught up in a system I don’t like; with a strong sense that we can do better than this, but with no real idea of how to change the system to one that stops serving the needs of the economy and starts creating a fairer, freer, healthier, and more just world.

3 – Situation

The Big Picture

The university I work for is more from a two-campus university to a single, purpose-built university. The new site will have substantially fewer teaching spaces, and no large lecture halls. To accommodate this move, the university is attempting to develop a form of blended learning called ‘Active Blended Learning’, which focuses more on small-group teaching with most content delivery being online whilst classroom time is used for the active application and integration of learning. This means that existing teaching formats must change to fit into the new campus.

The move will be completed by September 2018, so the 2017-18 academic year has been a year of trying to get our modules ready for the new campus.

a.     The People

The Students

The students on the BA in Social Work are overwhelming female (there are 33 female students and only one male student). Over half of the students are over the age of 21, with a substantial group being 30 or older. Around 40% of the group are from ethnic minorities.

University Staff

As well as me, this module has had input from several academic colleagues and extensive support from members of the Learning Design and Learning Technologists.

Social Work Practitioners

There has been input from a few people currently working as social workers. These have been involved in both the teaching and the assessing of students’ work.

Service Users

At several points in the module service users have been involved in the teaching and assessing of students’ work.

b.     Learning Spaces

The Classroom

The module is taught over three terms with 2 hours contact a week in the first term, 4 hours a week in the second term, and 6 hours in the third term.


The module is supported using Blackboard as the VLE.

Communal Spaces

The students are also encouraged to meet, discuss, and engage in a variety of activities in spaces they find or negotiate for themselves. These may be physical spaces, like a free room in the university, or electronic spaces, such as social media or using their phones.

c.      Relationships

Tutor – Student

In my experience, the relationship between tutors and students has tended to be hierarchical in several ways. Students tend to either over-estimate the knowledge skills and experience of tutors. They see tutors as ‘the experts’ who know and will give them the answers. Students also tend to see tutors as ‘graders’, passing judgements on the students, not just on their work. This leads to a relationship based on power differences, instead of one based on the idea of co-learners grappling together to make sense of a complex and chaotic subject area.

Student – Student

This is a very serious problem in the group. Older students tend to devalue their own lived experience whilst assuming younger students are more academically skilled, whilst younger students over-value the lived experience of over students whilst devaluing their academic skills. Students who have English as a second (or third or fourth language) report being excluded or belittled in group activities, especially those from a Black African background. Students tend to form cliques, and these can either help or hinder learning. The quality of student relationships is very mixed in the group.

Student – Subject

It often appears that students take a very passive relation to the subject area. The student’s focus appears to be mostly on what will be assessed, not on what will be useful for them. Students seem to need assignment briefings based around giving tutors what the tutor wants rather than on showcasing their knowledge or ability within the subject area.

Students – University

A final key relationship is how students interact with the wider university environment. This is about how students interact with things like the VLE and the Learning and Library services. I suspect that many students see ‘the lectures’ as the heart of the university experience, and fail to engage effectively with the wider resources and opportunities the university provides.

d.     Desires and Beliefs

I am deeply disillusioned by the Higher Education system. I believe that education is a primary tool for liberation. I believe that learning how to think for yourself, how to set your own problems and research your own solutions, both individually and in communities or groups, is vital for society to function at its best. What I see around me is education as a tool for social control, learning feeding the needs of the economy, not the human spirit. I see the excitement of learning being swamped by the fear of failing. I see racism, classism, sexism, all alive and lived out in the classroom and the wider institutions of learning. So, my desire is to kick in the whole system and build something better.

But I still have a mortgage to pay, and because of this stupid system I still need to have enough resources to help my adult children survive in a system that cares nothing for their needs, so I have to find ways to build this new system of open, equal, and collaborative learning within a system that seems to be happy to take tuition fees off people whilst processing them through a grades-mill driven by ‘metrics’ not humanity.

Having got this rant over, my pedagogic practice has several roots. Firstly, it is person-centred, based on a profound believe in people’s capacity to be the best that they can possibly be. Secondly, it is informed by Self-Determination Theory. This suggests that the self-(and other-)actualising tendencies of our humanity will lead to intrinsic motivation when we can make active choices, when there is a clear sense of developing competence, and when it is build on our relationships.

Finally, I draw heavily on solution-focused practice and narrative theory. I believe that the stories we tell, and which are told about us, have a strong impact on how we live and how we learn. I believe that we can use ‘small-wins’ to build on our strengths, to help us achieve our goals.

4 - Task

The key goal here is to help students become the kinds of social workers that they want to become. At a more practical level, I am seeking to help students engage more actively with the classroom and online activities, with each other, and with the wider resources provided by the university. But perhaps the meta-goal here is to support the students to engage in active, authentic, self-directed learning.

The measure of success is two-fold. Firstly, there is the quality and quantity of engagement. This is measured by the number of activities students complete and the quality of their work, both as they go along and at the end of the process.

5 - Actions

1.      Review Current Practice

The first stage was to review the current module specifications and review the module evaluations from the previous year. This helped ensure that any plans would be compliant with the university rules and regulations, but that any proposed changes would be based on the students’ experiences of what had worked and what had not worked.

The module specifications are relatively clear. The module evaluations are more complex. Some of the quantitative data was contradictory and the qualitative data was often too vague to be sure what the students meant by their feedback. I moved on to step two to try and resolve this.

2.      Consult with students

Having reviewed the module, I then got more detailed feedback from the students. This took the form of an online discussion where the students could both raise issues and propose solutions, and I could respond to those and test ideas until we arrived at an overall plan for the module.

3.      Consult with Learning Design and Learning Technologists

The next step was to take the feedback from students and from reviewing previous teaching and consult with the Learning Design and the Learning Technologists at the university. This was an ongoing process that is still happening, both in planned phases and as the need arises. The key issue here was how to most effectively blend the teaching with the online learning environment.

4.      Draw up initial plan

The first three steps enabled me to draw up an initial plan which showed what activities would take place in the class, which would happen online, and which the students would collaborate with outside of the classroom, either online on in face-to-face peer contact.

5.      Consult with Practitioners

It is a long time since I was a social worker, so I checked the plans with current social workers to see if the skills covered were appropriate for preparing students for their practice placements.

6.      Consult with Service Users

At the same time as step five, I consulted with service user (people who use social work services) to see if the skills were ones that their experience of being on the receiving end of social work services suggested were the right ones.

7.      Refine Plan

Through a repeated looping through steps 2 to 6, I was able to draw up a refined plan, considering the different needs of the stakeholders.

8.      Design the VLE

This then led to the early development of the Virtual Learning Environment, aiming to create an online environment that made intuitive sense to the students.

9.      Deliver Learning Activities

The ninth step in the process was to deliver the learning activities, both in class and online. This involved taking the ideas developed in the earlier stages and delivering them to students as well as encouraging students to actively engage in the activities.

10.  Provide Feedback

One central idea for this project was to try an introduce more feedback to students. Feedback took a range of forms, including tutor created feedback, peer feedback, and feedback from practitioners.

11.  Obtain Feedback

Feedback was developed as a two-way process so that Learning Technologists obtained student feedback from students, and students were encountered to offer feedback on feedback as well as engaging in discussions on the module discussion boards.

12.  Refine Plans

The final step was to use the learning from the activities and the feedback to develop the plans for the following year, doing more of what worked and changing those parts that didn’t give the desired results of supporting student engagement and learning.

6 - Results

1.      Student Engagement

I was quite disappointed with the level of engagement. Many students did not engage with the activities without repeated reminders, which meant that many time-sensitive tasks were not as effective as possible. However, engagement was not related to academic performance. Some students who achieved good grades did not engage, and some who struggled academically actively engaged, and gained a lot from the activities.

2.      Student Learning

There was a clear and on-going divide between students who focused on grades, who tended to engage superficially as most of the activities were not directly related to grades, and students who focused on their learning. The latter tended to report more gains from the activities and could see how they linked to their personal learning goals.

3.      Quality of Feedback

The quality of the feedback varied. Overall, the feedback from practitioners was most valued by the students and had the quickest turn around time. Peer feedback varied greatly in depth, and was limited by the lower than hoped for level of engagement. I was much slower in providing feedback than I had hoped for, with feedback slowing down as the demands of summative assessments taking priority over the formative feedback.

4.      Effective Networking

This was probably one of the highlights of the project. I build much stronger links with the Learning Technologists and the Learning Design team, as well as the practitioners (who were excellent) and the service users, although I did not give as much time to this last group as I would have liked. The project also enabled me to network more effectively with some of the students.

5.      Impact on Workload

There were clear impacts on workload from this project. The complexity of adapting the module to the new way of working in the university was very time-consuming. The more collaborative nature also meant that I had to fit my work around the availability of key stake-holders and partners, which added to the pressure.

7 - Reflections

My emotional response to this experience is mixed. I am proud of what I have achieved and believe that it has the potential to become an excellent module. I feel guilty as I did not give the speed and quality of feedback that I would have liked. I feel frustrated by the lack of understanding and support I have received from my immediate peers. I feel excited as everything I have learned this year will be useful for next year.

The first of the transferable insights I gained from this year is the power of peer feedback. I did not plan this in carefully at the beginning, but it evolved over the course of running the module. I now have the technical skills to set these up well. Next year I will introduce these much earlier and scaffold them better. For example, the first few peer assessments will be completed in classroom time and will be relatively simple. They will then build in complexity as students develop the skills to do them well.

The second transferable insight is to cut down the number of tutor assessed elements and focus these on the ones that will go into their portfolios. This will enable me to give more rapid feedback on the pieces that are of most interest to students (whether they are approaching their learning as badgers or beavers).

A third transferable insight is to build in gaps. This year, every taught session was planned. This meant that when the unexpected happened, like snow closing the university, or when new opportunities cropped up, like a guest speaker, there was no space in the timetable to respond to that. By having fewer activities and more spaces it will be easier to keep to the plan whilst also responding to the unexpected.

I think this is only a fraction of what I will learn from this experience. I have not finished the teaching yet and the students have not submitted their portfolio. But if I wait until I have done everything, it will be too late for H800, so I am not finishing this, I’m abandoning it.


Extra content

Embedded Content


Glynn Hinchcliffe
11:05am 2 April 2018 (Edited 11:07am 2 April 2018)

I have to comment on your little rant in section 3d. Unfortunately there are times when I and many others I speak to feel this way. If you can get this new way of delivery working and show them that it works with positive results then, maybe, just maybe you can change things and I sincerely hope that happens. We do not want to (and should not) continue with the Victioian, archaic, methods of delivery (sorry, was I ranting there?).

The idea of active blended learning is a great one and I have tried some limited application with varied responses, much like yourself. Research has proved it works and gives benefits of flexibilty, personal learning (differentiation, to quote the teaching handbook), makes better use of the limited time we ahve in the classroom and can facilitate fast feedback where it is needed, to mention a few.

This discussion shows your commitment to this approach and willingness to put in the effort. There have been lots of stakeholders involved and it has to work given all this effort and input. Although I do see the diificulty of student engagement and collaboration being the hardest part to overcome.

Mr Mark T Allenby
3:21pm 2 April 2018

You are right, 3d is a bit of a rant. It is also odd that I know that this is a current that cuts across many subjects and institutions. I sense that there is a 'huddled masses' of discontented students, educators, parents, and employers who know that this current system is badly broken, but we just haven't all got together yet to build a better system. 

In terms of active blended learning, I suspect that the best teaching and learning has always been active in nature and has sought to blended learning from multiple sources (lectures, textbooks, small group discussions, students' prior experience) etc to create authentic learning. 

For me, a lot of my frustration comes from the gap between the way I know things could be and my sense of where they are now.

Leigh Fowkes
9:18pm 4 April 2018

I see the consulation process you enacted as real strength especially in how it informed your planning and design.  Also like the inclusion of the feedback loop.  Feels like you have a solid, logical approach that's both consultative and collaborative.  

Mr Mark T Allenby
10:28am 5 April 2018

Thanks Leigh. It is funny, although I am really excited by this project, I tend to see where it is less than I hoped for rather than where it is what I hoped for. I need to keep reminding myself that it is a 'solid, logical approach' so as long as it is moving forward in that consultative and collaborative way, I will get there in the end. Only, by then I'll have my eyes on a new 'there'. :)

Selina Griffin
3:59pm 5 April 2018

Wow, very detailed, i love it! :)

Tabitha Naisiko
6:41pm 28 April 2018

I live your project Mark. Am a social worker by training. I enjoy the innovative ways you are designing the course to make it effective. I appreciate you have a small class. Just to share our exprience as a  student myself we were 50 in class. This was a small class and we had ongoing assessment. The 3 year, course, we would attend class the whole of first year. But in the long holiday May - July, we were attached to social work agencies and were in practical work. Here, the leaders of the agency would report direct to the university. And our lecturers would pop in any time.

In the 2nd and 3rd year, we would go to class on Monday and Tuesday then Wednesday and Thursday  we would go to a field attachment in a agency. This is followed with block placement of May - July. Each time we have to change agencies. I liked this, it made us authentic social workers with theory and practice.

The challenge now is that the classes have become too big to about 200 students.  Same programs runs but i highly doubt they get sufficient supervison from lecturers.

I see several young white youth coming to volunteer in our community agencies. Do you do that in your university? I have noticed that they leave the country more mature and tolerant than they came. Honestly, your design speaks to me with interest.


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