Ramblings on educational research, reflective learning, powerful pedagogy and educational technology

Defining who we are: The Office of Teaching and Learning at Utah Valley University

The Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL) is a central unit within Academic Affairs at Utah Valley University. The OTL is a new department that merges three existing areas: Faculty Development, Instructional Design, and Support Services for Distance Education. The integration of these areas is both important and complex. The OTL is tasked with key Presidential Priorities, including 1) raising the bar on teaching and learning and 2) increasing flexible learning opportunities. To achieve these objectives, the OTL cannot operate as merely a combination of three former departments. Rather it is vital to establish an identity of its own.

The first Team Development Workshop was designed to explore various aspects of OTL’s identity. Sixteen members of the team attended this session.



The first activity was a ‘speed dating’ session, designed to quickly explore several key questions (in 2 minutes or less):

  1. Why does OTL exist?
  2. To whom is OTL responsible?
  3. What does OTL do?
  4. Who does OTL serve?
  5. What spells success for OTL?
  6. What spells danger for OTL?
  7. How is OTL ‘engaged’?
  8. How is OTL ‘serious’?
  9. How is OTL ‘inclusive’?
  10. How does OTL support ‘student success’?


Several other fun activities followed, including:

An exercise in futility (a guessing game of some not-so-great corporate mission statements), which Ursula and Karen won.


A ‘first date mash-up’ activity, where couples were matched based on their speed-dating scores. On the first dates, the couples had to come up with Adverbs, Verbs, Adjectives, and Nouns to describe OTL. Then, they used the mission statement generator ( to come up with automated mission statements! Some of these were surprisingly very good! Jean and Janel won the prize for the best generated mission statement.



A ‘mission statement freestyling’ competition. Sadly, no one ‘performed’ their response. Maybe next time…


And, an reduction exercise to write a three word mission statement for OTL. These were used to generate this word cloud.


We concluded the session with a team-based competition to design the best email signature and pitch the idea to the rest of the team. The winning signature, along with the draft mission, vision, and philosophy statement, will be unveiled next week!

These activities gave us a fun, team-oriented, opportunity to explore how words shape our organizational identity.



The Quality Enhancement of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education


In November 2014, the University of Northampton approved its Approach to Quality Enhancement that outlined three broad categories of quality enhancement:

1. Responsive-reactive: enhancement of learning and teaching prompted by data

2. Developmental-incremental: (the more organic) enhancement of learning and teaching prompted by reflection on one’s own practice

3. Radical-innovative: the enhancement of learning and teaching prompted by new ideas from elsewhere in the sector or from other industries

It was theorised that these categories overlap to form additional categories of enhancement, as shown below.


Figure 1. The University of Northampton’s Approach to Quality Enhancement (Armellini, 2014)

To disseminate this approach and to prompt faculty and staff to reflect on their own practice, the Institute of Learning and Teaching facilitated a series of ‘QE Roashows’ across each of the six Schools. Over 200 faculty and staff attended these events.

QE Roadshow 2014_2015

Following the success of these Roadshows, a web area was launched that provided a set of Open Educational Resources (OER) for understanding this approach to Quality Enhancement. A short video and the diagram are available as CC-BY-SA-NC and would be ideal for others to use to facilitate a similar session. Reflective questions are included in the video and these can form the basis of a small group discussion.

 Click here to access the site:

QE of LT in HE

We hope you enjoy these resources and find ways to use them in your own institutions.


Alden Rivers, B. (2015) Quality Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, Webpage and OER. Available at:

Armellini, A. et al. (2014) ‘The University of Northampton’s Approach to Quality Enhancement’, Paper to University Senate Committee, University of Northampton.

The Assessment & Feedback Portal: Our latest resource for HE faculty and academic staff

Introducing the:


[click image to enter site]

In July 2014, a revised Assessment & Feedback Policy was approved by the Senate Committee of the University of Northampton. At that time, it was proposed that the Policy would be supported by a set of guidance on assessment and feedback practice (i.e. an online ‘handbook’).

The Assessment & Feedback Portal was developed from August-October 2014 and a prototype went live in November 2014. The link to the prototype was circulated across various sub-committees and the prototype was used in the C@N-DO Assessment & Feedback Workshops.

After this initial review, the AFP was revised and the current version was launched in January 2015.

The AFP is embedded in the Institute of Learning and Teaching website and can be accessed through the ILT homepage at under ‘Quick Links’. The URL for direct entry to the AFP is:

We are in the process of reviewing the site as part of our cycle for systematic quality enhancement of learning and teaching. We are also in the process of revising the site so that it is suitable for use as an open education resource (OER) with CC-BY-SA-NA licensing.

We hope other will be able to use and inform the continuous improvement of this site. Please email with any questions or comments!

Curriculum Enhancement for Employability and Social Impact (CEESI)

CEESI is the University of Northampton’s new and exciting HEA-funded project!

See for more information.


  1. Background

The University of Northampton (UN) is proud of its commitment to developing students’ capacities for social innovation and social impact. In 2013, the University was awarded status as the UK’s first ‘Changemaker’ campus by AshokaU—a global network of universities who catalyse positive social change.

This year, UN is leading a multi-faceted campaign to embed principles of social innovation and social impact across the disciplines. This is a challenging project, as it requires the University to achieve several objectives: 1) to establish a shared discourse around Education for Social Innovation and Social Impact, 2) to create mechanisms for sharing good practice within and beyond the Institution, 3) to develop and embed tools, resources and staff development into UN processes and 4) to propose a robust, sustainable framework for embedding Education for Social Innovation and Social Impact across the disciplines.

To date, this project has yielded important research findings, including a conceptual understanding of the different ‘ways of knowing’ social innovation and social impact (Alden Rivers, Nie and Armellini, in press) and a set of 14 Attributes for Positive Changemaking (Alden Rivers, Armellini and Nie, in press). Additionally, two mechanisms for sharing good practice have been created: 1) a case study publication called Changemaker in the Curriculum Case Studies 2013/2014 and 2) a web area for Education for Social Innovation and Social Impact.

A recognised opportunity…

Through this work, the project team has recognised an important opportunity to bring together a separate, yet interrelated, discourse on Employability Attributes and Outcomes (Irwin, 2014), which currently underpins an array of extra-curricular and co-curricular activities across the Institution. The two sets of attributes (for Positive Changemaking and for Employability) are inextricably connected, and it is important to the University that teaching and learning activities reflect these skills and behaviours as key learning outcomes. Moreover, it is a priority within the University’s Teaching and Learning Plan to engage staff and students in the reconceptualisation and redesign of taught provision for 21st century learning. The team has recognised a significant opportunity for an integrated and embedded approach to Positive Changemaking (i.e. Social Impact) and Employability—referred to in this document as Employability for Social Impact—to drive curriculum enhancement.

  1. Project aims

The Curriculum Enhancement towards Employability for Social Impact (CEESI) project aims to embed employability and positive changemaking across the disciplines in a meaningful way.

The CEESI project achieves this aim by working towards the following objectives:

Objective 1—Drawing on recent research findings and existing frameworks, to develop an integrated model of graduate attributes and outcomes for Employability for Social Impact [Work Package 1]

Objective 2—To engage staff and students in a pilot programme of curriculum enhancement for embedding Employability for Social Impact into teaching and learning activities, as a way to pilot the draft framework and to enhance current taught provision [Work Package 2]

Objective 3—To share good practice toward Employability for Social Impact emerging from the curriculum enhancement pilot programme within and beyond the Institution [Work Package 3]

Objective 4—Through insights gained from Work Packages 1-3, and in collaboration with the Higher Education Academy, to develop a toolkit for Employability for Social Impact that is of benefit within and beyond the Institution [Work Package 4].

  1. Methodology (including milestones, timeframes, quality measures and risk)

3.1 Work packages

Work Package 1: Integrated framework

This work package addresses Objective 1 by reviewing and bringing together two separate, yet interrelated, pieces of work on Attributes for Positive Changemaking and Employability Attributes and Outcomes. This work package aims to achieve a shared understanding of an integrated approach, referred to as Employability for Social Impact.

Work Package Leadership

Dr Bethany Alden Rivers, Wray Irwin and Chris Durkin will lead this work package.

Work Package Deliverable(s)

The key deliverable of this work package is an integrated framework of attributes and outcomes for Employability for Social Impact (similar to that shown in the Education for Sustainable Development (2014) publication, pp. 10-12). This will be achieved through a mapping and reframing workshop facilitated by the three leaders, with input from the rest of the project team.

Work Package 2: Curriculum enhancement programme

This work package aims to engage staff and students in the reconceptualisation and redesign of existing curriculum. The University’s current curriculum development workshops (called CAIeROs: Creating Aligned Interactive educational Resource Opportunities) are a well-researched and integrated feature within the Institution’s HEA-accredited professional development scheme.

A set of CAIeRO workshops dedicated to embedding Employability for Social Impact will offer an important opportunity to engage staff and students in using the draft framework delivered in Work Package 1. CAIeRO workshops, typically, are two-day events that engage several members of a programme team, as well as students, in creating a constructively aligned ‘storyboard’ of their course. The second day of the CAIeRO process focuses on creating aligned learning activities for use across multiple modes of delivery. These are referred to as ‘e-tivities’ but, in face-to-face settings, they are referred to as ‘activities’.

There is a risk that programme teams will not engage with this enhancement programme. However, the University enjoys a fairly high rate of engagement in the CAIeRO workshops, and these are embedded in the the University’s Validation and Review processes for academic programs. As an incentive to programme teams to participate in this particular project, they will be invited to showcase their work in the University’s annual case study publication and will be recognised in the Employability for Social Impact Celebration event (both of which are deliverables of Work Package 3).

Work Package Leadership

Dr Rachel Maxwell and Professor Ale Armellini will lead this work package.

Work Package Deliverable(s)

  • Four dedicated CAIeRO events (for four separate programme teams and students) that focus on embedding Employability for Social Impact.
  • A resultant set of ‘e-tivities’ or ‘activities’ (depending on the mode of delivery) that can be shared across the Institution (as part of Work Package 3).
  • Evaluation of the draft framework for Employability for Social Impact (from Work Package 1) by CAIeRO participants.

Work Package 3: Sharing good practice

This work package runs alongside Work Package 2 by capturing the case studies and e-tivities (or activities) emanating from the curriculum enhancement programme. These case studies will form the 2014/2015 Case Study publication, continuing the established annual report from 2013/2014. Also, as part of this work package the University plans to host a celebration event to recognise its work towards Employability for Social Impact. The celebration/dissemination event will take place post-project, in September/October, when staff and students have returned to the campus for the Autumn term. This will give the team enough time to print the Case Study Publication and Toolkit Publication, and to plan the event. Also, it will provide maximum impact at the start of an academic year, rather than at the end of or between the academic year(s).

Work Package Leadership

  • Dr Bethany Alden Rivers and Dr Sue Allen will compile the case studies.
  • Professor Ale Armellini and Wray Irwin will lead and host the celebration event (post project).

Work Package Deliverables

  • A case study publication resulting from the curriculum enhancement programme
  • A celebration event to disseminate good practice within and beyond the Institution (post-project deliverable)

Work Package 4: Toolkit

This work package reflects the culmination of learning from the previous work packages. The toolkit is a key project output and a way of communicating the University’s work toward embedding Employability for Social Impact. Contents of the toolkit will include the validated framework (Work Package 1), the Case Studies and set of e-tivities/activities (Work Packages 2 and 3).

There is a risk that delivery of the Toolkit will extend beyond the end of the project. To minimize this risk, the Toolkit will be compiled in draft form alongside Work Packages 1-3.

Work Package Leadership

Dr Bethany Alden Rivers, Professor Ale Armellini, Wray Irwin and Rob Howe will lead this work package. However, it will be reviewed and require input by all members of the team.

Work Package Deliverable(s)

A toolkit jointly produced by the University of Northampton project team and the Higher Education Academy.

Project milestones


Activity/milestone Date to be achieved
Submit bid to the HEA 13 January 2015
Bid approved/project begins Week of 26 January 2015
Call for programmes to participate in curriculum enhancement workshops (WP2) Week of 2 February 2015
Draft framework delivered to team to review (WP1) Week 16 March 2015
Draft framework in place for WP2 Week of 30 March 2015
Orientation sessions for participating programmes (to become familiar with the draft framework and aims of project) Week of 13 April 2015
Dedicated CAIeRO workshops to take place (WP2) Week of 13 April through 25 May 2015
Evaluation of CAIeRO workshops and draft framework and input for case study To be collected by 5 June 2015
Draft Case Study Publication to team for review By 12 June 2015
Draft Toolkit to team for review By 19 June 2015
Final Case Study publication in place By 30 June 2015
Final Draft of Toolkit in place By 30 June 2015
Celebration/dissemination event September 2015 (post-project)

Apart from the final deadline for the Case Study publication and the Toolkit (30 June 2015) all other deliverable operate within a tolerance of +/- two weeks.

  • Quality measures

The project will be quality assured by the Changemaker Core Group, which is an established steering group within the University. The Case Study publication will be peer reviewed by colleagues within the Institution. The Toolkit will be a collection of items that have been previously peer reviewed and evaluated, through the work on this project. Changes to existing programmes or modules arising from the curriculum enhancement workshops (CAIeROs) will need to be approved through the University’s Change of Approval Panel. Dr. Bethany Alden Rivers is Chair of this panel and, as part of her normal role, will offer advice and guidance to the four programme teams through this process.

3.4 Risk management

Risks and issued will be managed through the project management protocol. Dr. Bethany Alden Rivers will serve as project manager. She is a qualified and experienced PRINCE2 Project Management Practitioner.

  1. Anticipated impact

The CEESI project aims to embed employability and positive changemaking across the disciplines in a meaningful way. The anticipated impact of this will be realised over time, as programme teams continue to develop a shared discourse around Employability for Social Impact. By piloting the draft framework (from Work Package 1) in these dedicated CAIeRO events, the project team will be able to validate the framework while, at the same time, embed attributes for employability and positive changemaking within four existing academic programmes. The case studies and repository of e-tivities will provide useful examples for other programme teams, and will be a source of pride for the University as it shares its work and commitment to social impact beyond the Institution. Ultimately, however, this project establishes a framework for further embedding of Employability for Social Impact through curriculum enhancement workshops.

  1. Alignment with the framework

The CEESI project aligns with Stages 1 and 3 of the HEA’s Employability Framework (Cole and Tibby, 2013). We anticipate that our work will help to refresh the framework as we enhance our definition and shared understanding of employability (in terms of social impact) and as we learn from our curriculum enhancement programme.

APPLE: Analytics for profiling and promoting learners’ epistemologies

Investigating learners’ epistemological beliefs has been driven by the notion that a learner’s way of knowing is an important factor influencing their higher education experience (Richardson, 2013). Frameworks for understanding learners’ epistemologies have been proposed over the last 50 years. Even so, there is still a call for universities to care more about developing learners’ epistemologies (Lucas & Tan, 2013).

In conventional learning environments, learners’ ways of knowing may be understood through interactions and rapport-building with individual students. However, in an online learning environment, this information may be difficult to capture due to the transactional distance of the learners and teachers.

The Knowing and Reasoning Inventory (KARI)

The initial version of the analytical tool was constructed as a 35-question web survey and included features of existing epistemological development frameworks (i.e. Kuhn’s (1990) scale of reasoning and Baxter Magolda’s (1992) ways of knowing. Surveys were completed by 77 students at the UK University of Northampton. Findings showed that the two sets of questions (i.e. those related to Kuhn and Baxter Magolda, respectively), each had high internal reliability. Through factor analysis, four constructs were found for the ‘Knowing’ questions and 2 possible constructs were identified for the ‘Reasoning’ questions.

Finding from the first phase of testing were presented at the Higher Education Academy’s Annual Conference 2014. Slides from this presentation can be found here.


Learning Design for Threshold Concepts: can the KARI help us?

Findings from the first phase of KARI testing were meant to inform subsequent phases of the APPLE project. Specifically, the aim is to explore personalised visualisations and pedagogic uses, such as curriculum mapping, for these analytics.

A study of 10 faculty and staff from the University of Northampton explored how KARI profiles may support personalised learning design. Importantly, the study was designed to test how KARI profiles might support students’ conceptual development. Themes that came from this study included:

1. ‘Threshold concept’ is a threshold concept for some faculty and staff.

2. There is a perception that learning is designed for the cohort, rather than the individual.

3. Visualisations of data need to be more meaningful.

Findings from this study were presented at the Higher Education Close Up 7 Conference in Lancaster in July 2014. Slides from this presentation can be found here.

For the full paper, see:

Alden Rivers, B. and Richardson, J. T. E. (2014) ‘Exploring data-driven learning design for negotiating troublesome concepts’, paper presented at the Higher Education Close Up 7 Conference, University of Lancaster, Lancaster, July 2014.

Would you like to use the KARI to carry out a practice-based study exploring the use of learners’ epistemological profiles? Please get in touch!




Baxter Magolda, M. (1992) Knowing and Reasoning in College: Gender-Related Patterns in Students’ Intellectual Development, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

King, P. and Kitchener, K. (1994) Developing Reflective Judgement, San-Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Kuhn, D. (1991) The Skills of Argument, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Lucas, U. and Tan, P. L. (2013) ‘Developing a capacity to engage in critical reflection: students’ ‘ways of knowing’ within an undergraduate business and accounting programme’, Studies in Higher Education, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 104-123.

Perry, W. G. (1970) Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A scheme, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Richardson, J. T. E. (2013) ‘Epistemological development in higher education’, Educational Research Review, vol. 9, pp. 191-206.

Care more—share more—dare more: Three ways to enhance online pedagogy (Part II)

In a recent blog post, I addressed the first part of this trilogy for enhancing online pedagogy (Care More). Part two deals with ways to Share More. What is exciting about this segment is the opportunity to share (!) some of the awesome work that a few of my colleagues are doing. In particular, I’d like to highlight work related to sharing resources and to sharing ideas for enhancing online teaching practice.

1. Sharing resources

My colleague, Dr. Ming Nie, has done a wonderful job developing this web area about Open education resources (OER). As she summarises, OER are defined by UNESCO and OECD as:

Teaching, learning and research materials in any medium, digital or otherwise, that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions. (UNESCO, 2012).

Digitised materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning and research. (OECD, 2007). 

While OER can be used across all modes of learning and teaching, a paper written by Dr. Nie and another of my colleagues, Professor Alejandro Armellini, (Armellini and Nie, 2013), explores how the reuse of OER can enhance online teaching practice (and curriculum design for online learning) in four ways:

  1. Planned enhancement
  2. Strategic enhancement
  3. Just in time enhancement
  4. Reflective enhancement

Figure 1 is provided by Armellini and Nie as one way that these types of enhancement can be understood. This framework was developed and used in other projects, including EVOL-OER, part of the SCORE programme, and in learning design, as part of the Carpe Diem programme (University of Leicester).

OER to enhance online teaching

Figure 1: Four education practices for curriculum enhancement during design and delivery (from Armellini and Nie, 2013).

Dr. Nie currently delivers workshops at the University of Northampton on how to convert existing teaching resources into OER and on developing awareness of OER and OEP (Open Educational Practice).

Other exciting work for creating, sharing, evaluating, and measuring the global impact of OER is taking place at the OER Research Hub, at The Open University. Colleagues there (including Dr. Rob Farrow, Dr. Beck Pitt, Dr. Leigh-Anne Perryman and others) have worked to develop The Open Education Handbook to support the use of Open Education. This handbook is a collaborative, living, web-based resource that provides guidance for understanding and engaging in Open Education.

The framework proposed in Figure 1, along with the guidance provided in The Open Education Handbook, offer an excellent foundation from which to understand how creating, using, and reusing OER can be impactful to one’s own teaching practice. However, there are multiple other benefits to OER, including global reach, brand recognition, heightened institutional profile, peer reviewed/tested content available freely for use in MOOCs and other online learning contexts.

2. Sharing ideas

Here, primarily, I wanted to highlighted the excellent work that my colleague Shirley Bennett has done in exploring online peer observation—both in theory and in practice.

In her paper, (Bennett and Barp, 2008), the authors make a case for collaborative peer observation of online teaching. Advancing previous theories on peer observation, which commonly focus on an ‘expert’ supporting a ‘novice’ teacher, Bennett and Barp suggested:

Thus the Peer Review Model typically involves teachers observing each other’s practice, and specifically assumes an underlying dynamic of equality and mutuality of learning where feedback from the observer is non-judgemental and constructive, in a spirit of coparticipation reminiscent of Lave and Wenger (1991) locating professional development within Communities of Practice. Hence the trend within Peer observation mirrors developments within Peer Learning (Topping 2005). (Bennett and Barp, 2008, p. 563)

Shirley has designed and currently delivers workshops for online peer observation at the University of Northampton:

Peer observation for development

These two areas of work and the insights shared by these colleagues are very inspiring. How can we increasingly and systematically draw on the principles of Open Education and on the collaborative learning that happens through structured online peer observation to enhance our own online teaching practice?

Navigating the dynamic higher education landscape: A possible strategic framework

A possible strategic framework for navigating the dynamic higher education landscape

A possible strategic framework for navigating the dynamic higher education landscape

How can we provide quality assurance around the design and implementation of strategic programs for higher education? Increasingly, higher education institutions are implementing programs that address: distance and online learning, strategic partnerships, student success, as well as many other topics.

Here, I’ve attempted to develop a quality framework, based on my own principles for strategic program design and delivery, that rests on three overarching principles:

  1. The strategic program is meaningful.
  2. The strategic program is robust.
  3. The strategic program is sustainable.

Each of these principles has certain characteristics and can be approached broadly in the ways shown in the diagram. For me, this framework has served as a design tool—that that has focused my thinking around certain programs, such as the University’s current programs for: Education for Social Innovation and Social Impact and its new Student Success Project called Managing Transitions. However, I believe this framework could also be used as a reflective tool, to evaluate existing programs and to ensure they are able to cope in an ever-changing (and therefore, uncertain) context.

Introducing: Education for Social Innovation and Social Impact!

The University of Northampton has a significant profile as a leader for social innovation and social impact. In 2013, the University was recognised by AshokaU as a ‘Changemaker Campus’—a designation that reflects the University’s commitment to catalysing positive social change.

As we seek ways to embody Changemaker values as an institution, it is vital that we consider how to embed social innovation and social impact into the curriculum. Ultimately, it is our mission to develop students as agents of positive social change, and we have a tremendous opportunity to support that development through our learning and teaching activities.

Being named a Changemaker Campus has been a source of pride, as well as a source of continued momentum, for the past year. I lead a project to embed Education for Social Innovation and Social Impact across the disciplines (called EmbedCM), which has four objectives:

1. Nurture a shared discourse
2. Develop mechanisms for sharing good practice
3. Create innovative tools and resources to support learning and teaching
4. Develop a sustainable model of education for social innovation and social impact.

Here is our 2013/2014 Case Study publication with examples of how we are embedding principles of Social Innovation and Social Impact across the disciplines.

Changemaker in the Curriculum Case Studies_2013_2014

Please see this website for video case studies, more information about this project and our summary research findings!

Care more–share more–dare more: Three ways to enhance online pedagogy (Part I)

It may sound gimmicky and a bit too obvious but when I was recently asked to share my views of  how we (as educators) can be better at online teaching, it was a no-brainer. Simply put, there are three key ingredients for facilitating powerful online learning: caring, sharing and a dash of daring.

Part I: Care more.

This really means what it says. I think this ingredient could be broken down even further into these components: be present, be responsive, be a teacher.

Be present.

While this all sounds like stating the obvious, I think it deserves to be said and, reflecting on my own practice, I can certainly identify a few times when I could have been more present. I’ve been known to sneak a cheeky glance at my asynchronous forum after being occupied with other things for over a week (very bad practice, by the way, unless you’ve designed a savvy online protocol that does not require you to check in often!). I have experienced that intake of breath, that waiting for the screen to load, that exhale of relief when it appears nothing much as occurred during my time-out.

But, that’s wrong. We WANT things to occur in our online learning spaces, with or without us being there. Online learning tools are not proxies for being present, nor should they merely serve as an alert mechanism for teachers to check whether their students are having problems. Would a teacher in a face-to-face learning environment leave the classroom for seven days, only poking their nose through the window to see whether any disasters had befallen the students? No. I doubt it.

Be responsive

We need to be present so that we can be responsive. I like the word responsive. I’ve seen words like intrusive, authoritative, pervasive, used to describe the dark side of virtual presence. We want to stay away from behaviour that could be described in these ways. However, students need and expect support, even in online environments. Some may argue that students need even more support in virtual learning contexts because they feel isolated.

This transactional distance of which Moore (1993) theorised may represent the often-large, geographical gulf (and temporal, modal gulf if we consider more flexible pedagogies (see Gordon, 2014)). As Moore suggested, one role of the distance educator is to reduce this gap. One way to do this is to enhance the learners’ autonomy: providing tools and developing students’ metacognitive capacities to work in self-regulated ways. Another way to reduce this ‘distance’ is to be present and to be responsive to the needs of distance learners.

Be a teacher.

In a paper I wrote with colleagues (Alden Rivers, Richardson and Price, 2014), I highlighted some literature to support the notion that principles of online and distance teaching should be no different from the fundamentals of face-to-face teaching (cf. Johnson and Aragon, 2003). So, really, the misconception (and subsequent bad practice) that online teaching involves a few posts on a discussion board and a few PowerPoints uploaded as content is simply bogus. Sure, those things are nice (and often important) to do, but they are no where near enough. Just as you would do in a face-to-face session:

  1. Design learning activities that introduce students to key concepts in a variety of ways. Check out Baillie et al.’s (2013) Threshold Capability Integrated Theoretical Framework and think about all the different ways you can help students explore concepts.
  2. Help them to explore ways of applying new ideas to real-life experiences through collaborative problem-solving. Have a look at online teaching protocols in McDonald et al.’s (2012) book ‘Going Online with Protocols’. Find or create online protocols for joint meaning-making.
  3. Encourage the development of their epistemological beliefs by working on critical thinking and reflection. Baxter Magolda (1996) promoted a constructive development pedagogy whereby teachers seek to understand their learners as knowers and then to support the development of their epistemologies (or views of knowledge) throughout the learning experience. In 2014, I developed the Knowing and Reasoning Inventory (KARI) to see whether we could reliably create an epistemological profile of a learner (see Alden Rivers and Richardson, 2014). The study looked at how, armed with these insights, educators could devise learning opportunities (tasks, experiences) that would be more suited to learners’ individual epistemological positions. Perhaps we don’t need to go as far as diagnostic testing (or should we?) but certainly, it is plausible (and in line with Perry, Belenky, Baxter Magolda, Kuhn, Schommer, Lucas and Tan, and many others) that learning can be designed in a way to develop capacities for critical reflection and more sophisticated view of knowledge.

Care more. The return on investment when developing high-quality, impactful online learning protocols and engaging in actvities to support the advancement of critical thinking will be far more rewarding for your teaching practice and for the student experience.

Caring more, in this respect, involves more time: at first. But, well-designed learning activities can engage students as co-producers of ‘content’ and can be presented to students in a way whereby the teachers’ actual presence happens very efficiently throughout the week. See more about this in McDonald et al. (2012).


Alden, B. (2013) Book Review of McDonald, J. P., Zydney, M. J., Dichter, A. and McDonald, E. C. (2012) Going Online with Protocols, in the Journal of Interactive Media in Education, April. Available online at:

Alden Rivers, B. and Richardson, J. T. E. (2014) ‘Illuminating the student experience within the liminal space: exploring data-driven learning design for negotiating troublesome concepts’, paper presented at the Higher Education Close Up Conference, 17 July 2014, Lancaster, UK.

Alden Rivers, B., Richardson, J. T. E., Price, L. (2014) ‘Reflection in asynchronous learning spaces: tertiary distance tutors’ conceptions’, International Review of Research into Distance Learning, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 215-235.

Baillie, C., Bowden, J. A. and Meyer, J. H. F. (2013). Threshold capabilities: threshold concepts and knowledge
capability linked through variation theory. Higher Education, 65, 227-246.

Baxter Magolda, M. (1999). Creating Contexts for Learning and Self-Authorship: Constructive Developmental
Pedagogy. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N. R. and Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women’s Ways of Knowing: the
Development of Self, Voice and Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Gordon, N. (2014). Flexible pedagogies: technology enhanced learning. York, HEA. Available online at:

Johnson, S. and Aragon, S. (2003). An instructional strategy framework for online learning environments. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 100, 31-43.

Kuhn, D. (1991). The Skills of Argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lucas, U. and Tan, P. L. (2013). Developing a capacity to engage in critical reflection: students’‘ways of knowing’ within an undergraduate business and accounting programme. Studies in Higher Education, 38(1), 104-123.

McDonald, J. P., Zydney, M. J., Dichter, A. and McDonald, E. C. (2012) Going Online with Protocols.

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Pedagogy for employability: teaching skills or rehearsing behaviours?

A colleague recently directed me to Len Holmes’ (2001) paper on ‘graduate identity’. While the paper was published 12 years ago, the relevance of its central themes have stuck with me over the past two weeks. I feel compelled to write a few words.

Holmes used a metaphor of theatrical performance when discussing the way in which educators (and, indeed institutions and curriculum designers) should consider facilitating employability. Learning and working are socially situated activities, which are characterised by certain expectations. The participants (or ‘actors’) in these activities are expected to ‘perform’ in certain ways. So, rather than a skills-based (tool-kit) view, Holmes talks about employability as the ability to perform particular behaviours that are required for particular contexts. In light of this view, the teacher’s role, then, is to facilitate opportunities for students to ‘rehearse’ these behaviours.

What I really liked about Holmes’ paper  were his ideas for thinking about our pedagogies.  Yes, I think the role of the tutor is to help the student (or actor?) ‘rehearse’ his/her abilities and to articulate what they’re able to do. BUT, I think the role of the tutor is to help the student develop into the higher level intellectual commitments of personal development, social thinking, contextual judgement—thereby encapsulating all the other employability-enhancing activities along the way.

So, I’ve been considering the role of higher education in contributing to the employability and, therefore, to the economic growth of society. Indeed, that is one side of the debate on the role of higher education in society. However, I tend to side with those who believe that HE serves the wider purpose of stimulating a more intellectually sophisticated society.

Two of my current research projects (and my thesis) deal with epistemological development in university students—so I guess this is close to my heart in that sense. Perry’s (1970) model of intellectual development (as well as popular frameworks proposed by the likes of Kuhn, King & Kitchener, Baxter Magolda) indicate that critical reflection, contextual decision making, evaluative judgement, etc. all happen at more sophisticated levels of one’s personal epistemology. And, as these are all ‘skills’ (or shall I call them behaviours?) that are often expected by employers, I think it begs the question of whether a stronger pedagogical focus on developing learners’ personal epistemologies actually subsumes our efforts to develop their employability…?

To this end, Baxter Magolda (1999) proposed a ‘Constructive Developmental Pedagogy’ that is guided by three principles. First, educators need to validate learners as knowers, recognising their beliefs and supporting their development. Second, learning should be situated in the learners’ own experiences. Third, learning happens through active meaning making between students, peers and teachers. Reflecting on my own teaching practice, I think I do the last two things ‘so-so’ but I think I could be more proactive in understanding my learners as knowers (i.e. their beliefs about knowing and knowledge).

Land (2006) proposed that educators should be called ‘developers’ rather than teachers because he believed our role is to develop thinkers for our society. Barnett (1994) referred to tertiary educators as ‘knowledge-mongers’ because so much of this work rests on the shoulders of the university tutor—what knowledge to present to the learner, how to present it, etc. It’s a tough job!

My APPLE project (Analytics for Profiling and Promoting LearnersEpistemologies) investigates these sorts of things more closely. Truth be told: I’ve always held  a personal definition of ’employability’ as one that includes ‘developing a set of skills’. So, this other perspective has enriched my own definition.