Teaching to learn; learning to teach

As my time as a PhD student (hopefully) winds to an end, I am beginning to look towards my career as an academic. My hope is that part of that career includes teaching, which is why I eagerly accepted the opportunity to teach a module at Edinburgh Napier University this term.

More accurately, I accepted the opportunity to co-teach alongside a more established and experienced educator, Professor Hazel Hall.

My official title is Associate Lecturer on a module called Knowledge Management (KM). The module, which is half-way over, is being delivered to a group of 4th-year honours students in the School of Computing.

The module’s content includes lectures and activities related to approaches to KM, knowledge capital, KM infrastructures, and techniques for the creation, capture, classification, exchange, dissemination, and use of knowledge for competitive advantage and corporate growth.

By the end of the term, students will be able to: critically assess the general principles of KM; make effective use of the principles of KM in organisational settings to increase effectiveness; examine KM processes and tools for organisations; develop KM teamwork activities in organisations; and demonstrate sound understanding of theory and practice in KM.

I am sure that the students felt overwhelmed when these learning outcomes were shared on the first day of class. And I cannot imagine how overwhelmed I would have felt if I were teaching the module on my own.

However, whilst my role is one of “teacher”, I am also there as a learner. That is, a learner of teaching through co-teaching.

Some of it is quite easy though. For example, I feel quite confident in the task of speaking in public and sharing knowledge to an audience. I find delivering presentations and workshops to be energising and enjoyable. And I feel that when I deliver learning events, people do learn.

However, delivering a one-off workshop is not the same as delivering a multi-week module to a group of undergraduate students. And that is part of what I am learning from my teaching experience.

Thankfully, I am learning from someone who has a proven ability to deliver the module!

Hazel has taught the module for a few years now and has developed a strong programme of lectures, readings, personal study assignments, and in-class activities. This means that I have been able to see what a well-developed module looks like from beginning to end. Being able to see the entire term’s plan set out in front of me eliminates much of the unknown “fogginess” that I would expect if I were starting from scratch. Instead, Hazel knows what works well (and what doesn’t) and has learned through experience how best to deliver each segment.

From the administrative side, Hazel and I are both well-organised which means that her way of preparing for each class (and the module as a whole) suits my own working style—even though our overall organisational styles are not identical. Seeing how Hazel has organised materials (print and electronic) has given me a lot of ideas for how I can combine her methods with mine to improve on the ways I might have managed things without that insight.

Over the next few weeks, there will be more learning on my side as we near exam time. I am a tad nervous about marking all of those essays, but I imagine the students writing them will be a tad (or more!) nervous, too.

One of the things I’ve learned from teaching so far is that I was right in thinking that I would enjoy it. Although I know that the never-ending planning and administration that goes along with the role will bring a bit of stress and chaos on occasion, I feel that the rewards will far outweigh those (potential) negatives.

So, that’s another feather in my CV-hat (which you can view here).

Planning the annual retreat

The annual School of Computing PhD Retreat took place earlier this week, and I am exhausted from all of the fun (and the planning!).

Traditionally, the retreat is planned and organised by a member of staff, but due to other commitments, the task was passed off to me and my co-student representative, Andreas Steyven. However, the short notice meant that we didn’t really have time to be planning a three-day retreat, so we decided to get a little creative (with the blessing of the Director of Research and another “responsible member of staff”).

With limited time both in our busy schedules before the retreat was to take place, Andreas and I decided to make the trip a bit relaxed and fun. We also knew that the rest of the students were pushed for time, so we decided to make it easy for them, too, by not giving participants anything to prepare in advance. Instead, we asked students to just show up ready to share their research in an informal environment.

We did, however, ask a couple of members of staff to run a couple of casual sessions. But as we had a “no technology” theme going, no one needed to prepare PowerPoint presentations. Instead, they were asked to share their knowledge, wisdom, and experience in a casual manner. We had staff-led discussions about preparing for the viva and the thesis process, administrative processes within the university, and a discussion about how best to utilise the PhD study spaces and collaborative research room.

We also ran two sessions that were designed to get students talking about their research in a casual manner. The idea was to help people build communication skills so that they could explain their research without preparation—and to a general audience.

On the first evening, Andreas ran a session called “Parrot Party”. For this session, we paired off with someone from outside of our research group. The first person then had three minutes to explain their research to a “listener”. After the three minutes were up, the listener had to explain the first person’s research to a member of staff. The idea being that listening is an important part of communication! (It was harder than it sounds!)

I ran the session on the second evening which was the main presentation opportunity for the retreat. It began shortly before dinner when I produced a box of random items: batteries, yarn, old phones, a tin of beans, a stuffed bear called Randolph, and an odd selection of other things I had laying around my home. The idea was that after dinner, everyone would have five minutes to present their research using at least one item from the box as a prop. Everyone had 15 minutes to look through the box before I closed the lid again. Then, after dinner the presentations began.

Randolph was the star of the show, and was used by nearly all of the presenters as a way of sharing their research. But people used several other props and mostly seemed to enjoy the challenge. Importantly, I think everyone learned new ways of thinking about how best to communicate their research. (A hard task, when you’re not given much time to prepare!)

Overall, I think it was a great retreat. I know it took some students outside of their comfort zone (presenting without PowerPoint!!) but I think it was a good experience for all of us!

Next week is another busy week as I prepare for the School of Computing PhD Research Conference, for which I am a co-chair. I suppose that means I should start thinking about my presentation. After all, I plan to win first place and I can’t do that without a bit of preparation!

How not to write a literature review: Part 1

2014.11.07.not-lit-reviewWhen I began my PhD studies nearly a year ago, I did so knowing that the first year would be, essentially, writing a literature review. I was told over and over again that it was all about reading, reading, reading, and writing.

Everyone I spoke to assured me that I would feel lost and confused. I was told to expect to feel like a failure; to expect to doubt myself. I was told that I would be reading more than ever before—and that some of the reading would be a waste of time.

Keep reading. Keep reading. Keep reading.

Those words echoed in my mind over the first eight or nine months.

But then—all of the sudden—I realised I wasn’t doing enough writing! In fact, I was doing very little writing.

Why? Because I didn’t know how.

I had done so much reading that all of the ideas were running wild in my head. I couldn’t corral them; I couldn’t control them.

When I attempted to express my ideas on paper, I felt that I wasn’t “good enough” to critique the works of others. I felt that I wasn’t clever enough to put my words and my opinions into the mix.

Eventually, I found a bit of confidence to start writing but it was a challenge. There were so many thoughts in my head—so many references to reflect on—that it was overwhelming. It was so overwhelming that I didn’t know how to organise my thoughts.

Soon, the overwhelming feelings morphed into fear which morphed into serious self-doubt—which only made the writing more challenging.

But I needed to write. So I did. I just wrote and wrote and soon I had 6,000 words. But the structure was confusing and there were lots of repeated ideas. Still, I kept writing. And eventually, there were more than 10,000 words. But the structure was still too confusing and there were still too many repeated thoughts.

The solution? Stop writing!

Yes, by that point the document was so confusing that I needed to start from scratch. I needed to build a new structure and start from there.

With the help of one of my supervisors, a new structure was determined. And then I started my word count over at zero. Oh, what a sad day that was!

With the new structure decided, I opened up a fresh document and began moving text across from the old one. I moved it bit-by-bit, starting from the top of the new document, working my way down. By the end of the first day, I was back up to 3,700 words. And by the end of the first week I was up to 6,000.

But the words were better quality; the words flowed better and actually made sense.

Eventually, I found myself with a literature review of nearly 12,000 words, which has formed part of a larger annual review report of nearly 17,000 words (that’s 68 pages, if you wondered).

I’ve sent the annual review report off to my advisory panel and now I have a week and a half to wait and wring my fingers whilst I stress and panic that it won’t be good enough.

And I will stress. Every single day. Because I am now so convinced that my literature review is absolutely horrible and there’s no way I’ll pass my annual review.

But just in case I’m wrong, I will continue to reflect on the document so that I can improve upon it for my main PhD thesis.

Of course, if I could start all over, I know what I’d do differently. And I’m going to try to remember those lessons when it comes time to start on my methods chapter (up next!).

So what’s my advice to someone starting out today? That’s easy: Start today!

Start putting your thoughts on paper immediately. They might be wrong; they might be conveyed in a casual or even half-baked manner; they might get deleted later. It doesn’t matter. Write! And write right now!

Why? Because you’ll get your ideas out of your head and onto a piece of paper (or a computer screen). Because you’ll have something to show your supervisors, who can help guide you in the right direction. Because you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. Because you’ll have something to look back on later, showing how far you’ve come from Day One!

In between now and my annual review meeting later this month, I will be taking some time to read more about research methods for my investigation. But I’ll be reading with my pen and pad handy so that I can write as I read.

As you can tell, I’m running a little massively short on self-esteem just now. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some positive outcomes soon though!

Defining and organising the Internet

organising-the-internetIt’s been a while since I’ve blogged here, in part because I still haven’t figured out how best to use this space and in part because I have too many muddled thoughts in my brain to know what to share.

To address both of those issues, I’ve decided to use a tactic that works for my personal blogging habits: I’m going to attempt at using this space to work through some of the confusion I’m facing. The hope is that the act of writing my thoughts down will help me to clarify them, but that it will also give me the opportunity to seek feedback from others.

So, here goes!

Two of my goals for the next week are to 1) source some simple definitions of a few technical terms and 2) create an organisational chart of the Internet (highlighting my main areas of research).

Both of these things will be used in my thesis to guide the reader in their understanding of my approach to the topic of personal online reputation management.

First, the terms I want to define. Initially, I want to start with the broad terms found in the middle of the organisational chart. Those are:

But I may also need to add other definitions such as blog, forum, comments section, etc.

Or maybe those belong in a table somewhere?

Or maybe in a glossary?

How do I decide what terms to define within the main body of my work and which to simply relegate to a glossary?

Now, onto the organisational chart. (Full-size PDF here.)

(Don’t worry: the cat won’t be on the final version, despite theories that the Internet is actually made of cats*.)

I am starting with cats “The Internet” then attempting to identify the main areas under that umbrella. For now, those are the World Wide Web; interfaces for email and SMS; and peer-to-peer file-sharing, FTP sites, and VoIP services.

I am only planning to expand on the sections I’m investigating, so will only be expanding on the World Wide Web category from there.

Under the World Wide Web, I have listed social media (Web 2.0); databases and organisational and informational websites; and static websites (Web 1.0).

And from there, I’ve placed social networking sites under social media.

Here are some of my questions:

What am I missing from each level?

How much detail do I need to go into?

Do I list examples on the chart on in the descriptive text?
(Example: Blogs under social media; Facebook under SNSs)

Am I completely off-base in my thinking?

Any thoughts and opinions you have to share would be greatly appreciated. And hopefully, I’ll have my head fully wrapped around this all by next week, at which time I’ll share an update.

Thanks for helping!

(Oh, and I suppose I should make a joke about how organising the Internet feels a bit like herding cats, too.)

* There’s a video about it and all! Please note that there may be questionable language used around the 1-minute mark.