Friday, October 22, 2010

Project SOAR

River Soar I'm delighted to announce that the University of Leicester Student Experience Enhancement Group has funded the following project. I've just registered the domain name, but you'll have to wait for a few weeks while we build the back end before I ask you to start participating as a beta tester. And yes, once we're up and running, of course the project will be open to all:

Project Title: SOAR - Student's Online Attention and Reading lists: navigating the river of student attention
Pilot project will be run in the School of Biological Sciences to explore the academic potential, scalability and sustainability for roll out across other Colleges facilitated by project partners.

Start and completion dates: 1st November 2010 – 31st July 2012.

To encourage students to engage with curated reading lists, I will create an interactive website with a familiar format allowing students to leave star ratings, reviews and recommendations. Books on the list will be published at relevant times during the academic year to ensure appropriate module-related release of information rather than overloading students at the beginning of term. The online list will be reinforced by regular face to face student-led meetings in the format of a book discussion group. These will be casual twilight sessions held in informal learning spaces such as ARC in the refurbished Students Union to maximize the opportunities for interactions with students provided by new learning spaces within the University. Utilizing low cost existing tools which enable the student voice to be heard and powerful analytical software coupled with direct feedback from students on their opinions of the effectiveness of this approach, we will test this approach to increasing engagement with academic literature. This proposal fits well with the University Learning and Teaching Strategy by promoting awareness of and involvement in the informal curriculum and opportunities for academic and personal development.

Educational Issues:
In the School of Biological Sciences, all the available evidence suggests that very few students engage with the curated reading lists given to them in the blizzard of information they are faced with at the start of Year 1. Although they are given a printed list, conversations with students reveal that they do not even recall receiving it, let alone reading any of the books listed (without an explanation of why they should). After their training in secondary education and the strategies they have adopted to be successful at A level, all the evidence suggests that these students fail to engage with non-assessed extension tasks when they transition to HE. A generation ago the sources of information available to students were comparatively few. Academic staff curated and channeled information to students through lectures and reading lists of carefully selected books. In some disciplines, literature has remained the focus of study, but in others, science in particular, the burgeoning sources of online information have out-competed traditional sources. As the ubiquity of online interactions has increased with services such as Facebook and Twitter, important information becomes submerged in the chatter. Non-assessed reading to broaden knowledge does not compete effectively with just-in-time sources such as Wikipedia. The literature surrounding the contribution of online resources to academic literacy has been well summarized by Charles Crook (Crook C. Addressing research at the intersection of academic literacies and new technology. International Journal of Educational Research. 2005 43 (7-8): 509-518). Wildridge et al suggested requirements for successful uptake of reading lists (Wildridge, V. et al., 2004. How to create successful partnerships – a review of the literature. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 21 (Supplement 1), 3-19):
  • attainable goals and objectives
  • members see collaboration as in their self-interest and share a stake
  • clear roles and guidelines
  • flexibility and adaptability
  • open and frequent communication
  • informal relationships and communication links
In response to these guidelines, this project will emphasise the collaborative nature of both social media and social gatherings to build a sense of community around the process of selecting, reading and thinking about additional reading, moving away from the isolation of the physical act of reading and towards a deeper collective understanding of important texts. Providing access to and information about extension reading materials from multiple access points, i.e. Wordpress, Blackboard, and social networking sites offers students choice and flexibility. Exploiting the Web environment to create a dynamic "reading list" by joining up access to disparate but relevant resources for students e.g. on the Web, from the Library, etc, offers much more "added value" than static paper-based reading lists. A pilot project will be conducted within the School of Biological Sciences during which evidence of effectiveness will be collected prior to consideration for roll-out by other Colleges within the University, and to inform selection and implementation of an electronic resource/reading list system by the Library currently planned for 2011/12.

Specific Environment for the Project:
The pilot phase of the project within the School of Biological Sciences will be offered to all current undergraduates (approximately 550). One phase will run online, as described below, while face to face book group meetings will also be offered 1-2 times per term. If large numbers of students express an interest in attending, several duplicate meetings will be held to accommodate the numbers. Members of staff involved in the project include Dr Alan Cann, Department of Biology, Project Director, and project partners: Sam Horrell, President, University of Leicester Biological Sciences Society; Stuart Johnson, Acting Head of Student Support & Development Service; Alex Nutt, Academic Affairs Officer, University of Leicester Students Union; Sarah Whittaker, Information Librarian, Clinical Sciences Library; Ben Wynne, Head of Academic Liaison, David Wilson Library. Other members of Academic and teaching staff from within the School of Biological Sciences will be recruited as the project progresses.
The proposal fits into sector two of the Strategy for Learning Innovation: Established programmes/students + new technologies. In terms of the University Learning and Teaching Strategy, the project fits within section 2.1.5 " addition to the learning opportunities provided through the formal curriculum, the University will also promote an awareness of, and involvement in, the informal curriculum: the opportunities provided within the University and the wider environment for academic and personal development, and for students, whatever their mode and level of study, to reflect on the wider benefits of higher education." In the Aims for Undergraduate Programmes, the project will help to ensure graduates will have:
  • developed the necessary skills to learn effectively and independently in order to support progression throughout their course and into appropriate and rewarding employment; and
  • developed personally in ways which will enrich their lives and facilitate a full contribution to society in the future.
By reading widely outside the core curriculum and discussing their opinions with peers and staff, this project will also help students develop their critical evaluation and communication skills in a more informal setting than is possible in the normal course of formal teaching.

Details of the work:
I will use the familiar and attractive model of the Amazon website to create a site with a similar experience, including the potent interactive elements such as ability to leave reviews, star ratings and recommendations ("People who read this book also read..."). This is straightforward to create using Wordpress as suitable themes and plugins already exist. This will be a non-commercial site, although each page will inform students which books are available for purchase from the University Bookshop, and will also include a link to the relevant University Library Catalogue record for each book so that students can easily see whether and how they can get obtain each item from the Library.
The site will be preloaded with all the items in the Biological Sciences reading list, one item per page. Conveniently with Wordpress, this can be done in advance and the pages scheduled for publication at appropriate points throughout the academic year. Each item will be linked to the appropriate module(s) by module-specific tags and linked to from the appropriate module site within Blackboard. We will also promote each item on publication via the dedicated Friendfeed social network used by Biological Sciences students.
Alongside the online component will be a face to face book discussion group which will be promoted using the channels described above. This will be entirely voluntary and not linked to assessment. We would only expect a minority of highly engaged students to take part in this element of the project, but smaller numbers will be better suited to this activity. The meetings will be held 2-3 times a term in non-academic social spaces such as the newly refurbished areas of the Students' Union. The Activities and Resources Centre (ARC) and lower floor meeting rooms would all be suitable and are bookable. Participants would be able to buy food and drinks from the adjacent services within the Union and bring them into the meetings. The discussion at these settings will be student-led, but as many members of academic staff who wish to attend will be encouraged to do so.

Intended Outcomes:
Although students in the School of Biological Sciences are all given a printed reading list when they enroll, the limited evidence available suggested that very few students engage with the materials listed. The intended outcomes of this project are:
  • To encourage students to engage with extension reading by creating an attractive and easy to access website which competes effectively for student attention and facilitates timed release of reading recommendations for modules via Blackboard course sites.
  • To reinforce the online experience with a periodic face to face book discussion group which will meet 1-2 times per term in an informal space within the university and where students will be able to discuss a selected book from the list with each other and with members of academic staff on a peer basis.
  • To collect as much evidence as possible of student engagement with reading list materials (see below).
  • In addition to internal reports, we will publish our findings an recommendations in a peer reviewed journal and actively promote them to colleagues around the University.
The intention is that evidence collected as part of this pilot project within the School of Biological Sciences will serve as a model which can be used to encourage colleagues to roll out this model more widely across other Colleges, and inform planning for a Library supported electronic resource/reading list system.

A short online questionnaire will be run with first year Biological Sciences students before the launch of the website to capture baseline data about reading list usage. A major advantage of using Wordpress is that this software provides excellent user interaction details, broken down chronologically and by item. With the addition of Google Analytics and Crazyegg, we will have a highly detailed analysis of user behavior. I have considerable experience in the use of all of these tools. Additional qualitative data concerning student engagement and limiting factors will be collected via comments on the website, and an end of year online questionnaire. Short, informal focus groups into engagement with reading materials will also be conducted as part of the book discussion group.