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Using discussion forums to create ‘Stretch and Challenge’ activities

I am currently working with various different clients, helping them to develop their use of the VLE system Moodle.

Discussion icon One of the techniques that I show people is how a discussion forum can be used to create an effective ‘stretch and challenge’ activity. Stretch and challenge, is a term that is used by Ofsted, and relates to ‘does the tutor provide an opportunity for the more able learners to be sufficiently challenged – beyond the core learning objectives that they expect everyone in the class to meet?’ A few years ago – this area of work seemed to be one of the key questions being asked by inspectors, and something that caused many tutors problems. Other factors in the Ofsted inspection regime are currently more important, but stretch and challenge is still observed and commented on.

When I was teaching, I used the VLE extensively to support my delivery. I would organise each course by topic, which was often (but not always) structured with 1 topic per week. Within each topic, I would provide certain common items – e.g. some notes related to the topic, relevant links, some form of activity and as the last item within each topic, I would pose a challenging question related to that topic. For this I used the discussion forum mechanism to pose the question. This was for me a convenient mechanism as easy to set up, and I was providing an opportunity for the learners to engage in discussion during or after the session. In reality – in most cases no actual discussion took place within the forum itself, however this didn’t matter – as I knew from observing the students behaviour and from verbal conversations that took place during the session or at the start of the following session that they had read the question, and some had thought about an answer to it. On some occasions discussion within the forum did take place – which was great as it gave the ‘quieter’ learners a chance to air their opinion, as well as giving learners access to other learners opinions (which then helped with their assignment writing where they had to present a balanced viewpoint on a topic – not just their own viewpoint).

Examples of some of the questions that I used in my teaching were:

  • There were discussions in the media about sexual inequality within sport, and it was highlighted that women tennis players at Wimbledon got paid significantly less than the men. Tim Henman then contributed to this debate, by stating that it was right that men get paid more as they play best of 5 sets, compared to women playing best of 3. I was able to use Tim Henman’s opinion as an opener for the discussion – which did evoke a huge response from both the males and females in the group – without me having to offer my opinion on the topic.
  • In biomechanics (science of sports movement) I carried out an experiment to estimate the force that the bicep has to exert to move the forearm. The reality is that the muscle itself has to exert a much greater force than the end movement (as this is a type 3 lever which gives mechanical disadvantage) – so the challenging question was ‘Why has the human biceps muscle evolved as it has which gives such huge mechanical disadvantage – which hasn’t evolution moved the muscles attachment to the forum further from elbow, which would allow greater forces to exerted by the forearm? (Please comment on this blog post if you want to offer an answer).

The hard part of this process was thinking of a good challenging question, here are a few tips:

  • When starting a discussion, making a statement and then ending it with the word “discuss” – often doesn’t open a discussion. Instead ask a more specific question to open the discussions.
  • If applicable – asking topical questions (e.g. relating to something currently in the news) will more likely evoke a discussion.
  • It is possible to ask a question from a viewpoint that isn’t your own – which allows you to ask more ‘risky’ questions (see the Tim Henman example above).
  • Asking a question from someone else’s viewpoint also allows you to ask a question that is more likely to create an emotional response – which in turn is more likely to attract an answer.
  • If students do post – you can contribute to the discussion to further develop it, explore other avenues/opinion, reference articles or webpages that are relevant.
  • If you do respond to posts – be careful not to ‘kill’ a discussion by giving the students the ‘correct answer’ straight away, instead try to lead them through further questions.
  • Questions don’t have to have a right and wrong answer (again, think about the Tim Henman question.
  • Think of a series of questions in one go – rather than one at a time. This is much quicker, and it is often possible to relate questions together. Most VLE systems will have the option to time release the dicsussions, or you can manually hide them, and make them visible as required.

If  you can think of other tips, then please add to the comments below.

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It is possible to be outstanding in an Ofsted inspection

I am really pleased that in the last few weeks, Walsall College have become the first FE college to get an overall grade of ‘Outstanding’ in a Ofsted inspection following the new inspection framework. I am pleased because this has raised the bar for other organisations to aim for, and proves that it is possible to achieve this magically (and at times mythical) level.

Over the last few years as I have worked with different organisations, it becomes quite clear that Ofsted is quite simply the single most important feature of an FE college, followed secondly by financial stability and thirdly by issues realting to the quality of teaching and learning. Personally I would prefer it if the 1st and 3rd items were to swap positions, but this is the reality that we live in. One thing that I have found interested is the different ways that senior management talk about Ofsted.

  • Some colleges that I have worked with, have quite clearly believed that getting an overall grade 1 (Outstanding) was in fact impossible, as if it was some kind of El Dorado that you could spend all life searching but never find, and as such they have accepted and aimed for an overall grade 2 (even if they talk publicly about aiming for grade 1). This strategy although not one that I personally like, did work when an overall grade 2 was the highest that had been achieved by anyone else.
  • The other strategy that I frequently come across (which I like even less) is the one where senior managers insist that all areas of the college have to work towards a grade 1, but without putting in any steps, strategy, guidance or leadership in how to get there, or without being able to tell people what grade 1 would actually look like, if they were to get there.

Personally I am driven by a desire to achieve quality, so I always aim high, so for me aiming for anything less than a grade 1 doesn’t interest me, however I recognise that to get there requires strong leadership, a coherent strategy, and most importantly communication up and down the hierarchy of the organisation so that all know what is expected and aimed for and also how will they know when they get there.

Now that Walsall College have achieved this, provides 2 advantages to everyone else:

  1. We now know that grade 1 is possible, so aiming for and being content with a grade 2 is no longer a feasible long term objective.
  2. We can look at what Walsall College have done (and other colleges that I anticipate will follow suit in the coming months) to get to this level, and use this to help shape the strategies and practices that are required.

If I use a sporting analogy, Back in the early 1950s a lot of people thought that it wasn’t physically possible for a human to run a 4 minute mile, until Roger Banister in 1954 famously achieved the feat. Once he had proved that it was possible to break this ‘speed barrier’ many people over the next few years achieved the same and bettered Roger’s time considerably. I am hoping that now that Walsall College have broken this ‘Ofsted Barrier’ that other colleges will follow suit accordingly.


Post edit on 10th April 2013

…and within a week of me writing this post, predicting that there will be other colleges following suit, Swindon College achieve the same feat. http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/provider/files/2203819/urn/130849.pdf

A good practice guide for PowerPoint

Many people think that PowerPoint is old hat – there are lots of negative posts about the bad use of PowerPoint, and I have noticed that many organisation are no longer offering PowerPoint training to staff as there is a belief that everyone knows about PowerPoint nowadays. Sadly this is not the case; I regularly have to endure really bad PowerPoint presentations – often from people that are very high up in organisations promoting either the use of technology or quality in education – yet their PowerPoint use is appalling.

A few years ago when I was running PowerPoint training regularly, people often asked me for some guidance information about what they should or shouldn’t do when using PowerPoint, and so I pulled together a document, detailing the things that I do, when I am using PowerPoint. Most of the considerations are based on straight forward good teaching and learning practice, and things that make the presentation more accessible to disabled learners. My document isn’t intended as a step by step ‘how to guide’ (as this would then become obsolete every time a different version of PowerPoint came out) – instead it says what should be done and why. This means that this document could be used for any presentation medium not just PowerPoint.

I struggled to think of a good name for my document, so in the end I just called it ‘The Dave Foord Guide to PowerPoint’ – simply because that is what it is – it is the set of rules/practices that I personally follow when using PowerPoint.

The guide is available for others to download, print and reuse from the PowerPoint section of my website http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources_powerpoint.php

If any organisations would like me to run training for their staff on the effective use of presentation tools such as PowerPoint, then please contact me, my details are at http://www.a6training.co.uk/contact.php

Below is a short video introducing ‘The Dave Foord Guide to PowerPoint’