This is the edited version of a short presentation given by Helen Murphy on CamGuides [the new name for the Master’s OER project] at the Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning’s Teaching Forum, held on 17 April 2018, at Murray Edwards College. The accompanying slidedeck can be seen online here.
CamGuides is a product of the Cambridge Information Literacy Network, which launched about two months ago. This is an ambitious, collaborative and wide-ranging network of library staff from across the university, in a variety of roles, who are actively engaged in research and projects related to information literacy, and to current and future provision of information literacy teaching in the Cambridge context. There are several concurrent projects, of which CamGuides is just one, accelerated by funding from the University’s Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund, for which we are very grateful.
CamGuides stands for Cambridge Graduate Information and Digital Essentials – and yes, we’ve played fast and loose with that particular acronym! It is a pre-arrival course for taught Master’s students, regardless of their discipline, background or mode of study. Its aim is to support these students in their transition to Cambridge, to graduate study, and to graduate study in their discipline at Cambridge. It focuses on information literacy, digital literacy, and transferable academic skills. It will be delivered entirely online, and entirely openly, with content licensed as an open educational resource, and hosted so that no Cambridge credentials or authentication is required to access it. And it’ll be launched in time for Michaelmas 2018.
The plan for this short presentation is to introduce CamGuides through two of its main features: the audience, and its pre-arrival nature. But there’s a need for a shout-out to technology, too, considerations of which have formed an enormous part of the research and planning for CamGuides so far, and which is excluded from this presentation only because many of the major technology decisions have already been made.*
The first thing, then, is the potential audience for the course. All taught Master’s students, regardless of discipline, background or more of study and so, evidently, a hugely diverse range of people.
Now, here we have a problem. When it comes to the teaching of subject-related practices like information literacy or academic skills, the overwhelming consensus in literature is that subject-specific is always better than generic courses, and that generic courses are seen to be less ‘relevant’ to student (cf. Wingate, 2007; Northedge, 2003a).
a holistic, subject-specific approach is needed to support all students in the complex process of learning to learn in higher education […] generic, decontextualised courses imply that [skills] are context‐independent techniques that can be practised in the void
And obviously this issues quite a large challenge for us – the challenge to be universally ‘relevant’ to all of these students. This isn’t a challenge we should ignore, nor assume that we will transcend simply because we’ve recognised it. But there are ways through it, or around it, and the pedagogical approach adopted to this course shines a light on these.
This approach is situated learning and communities of practice, strongly informed by the work of Etienne Wenger-Traynor (cf. Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998) . Forgive me for my blatant oversimplifications, but these sociocultural theories see learning as social, as participatory, and as situated in a specific social and cultural context. The context fundamentally shapes the nature of what is to be learned, the processes of learning, and the identities of the learners. So, in the context of these theories, taught Master’s students are members of multiple, intersecting communities of practice, in which they (legitimately) have different levels of participation. They will have different levels of privilege, and of power, too, within these communities of practice. And so this works, if nothing else, as a very useful reminder that the complexity of identity and the situatedness of the potential audience for this course must unambiguously go beyond divisions of discipline, background or mode of study.
But I think it also works to underline the futility of striving for, or valorising, ‘universal relevance’ as the golden ticket for success here. If we’re honest about what it means to strive to be relevant, then we probably mean being ‘as relevant to as many people as possible’, which inevitably excludes certain groups or certain people. So although it feels very odd to say that ‘relevance’ isn’t high on the list of priorities for this course, it isn’t. Instead of aiming for relevance, we will instead aim to support and encourage participants to draw connections between their own situatedness, and their own social and cultural context, and the Cambridge graduate community of practice they are about to join.
Which sounds rather grand, but here are three practical ways in which it might be achieved:
- Some gentle, formative assessment, threaded throughout the course. Some of this will be reflective, some very practical, and it will be designed to encourage participants to draw out these connections and to validate their experiences.
- Legitimising a variety of approaches to the course – both systematic or selective – as well as a variety of directions to it, whether a student accidentally stumbles across it or is directed to it by an academic.
- Multimodal content which elevates the voices of current taught Master’s students and positions them as the experts in this community of practice.
Moving swiftly on, then, to pre-arrival. This is a term which crops up in discourses of resilience, or alongside the metaphor of ‘hitting the ground running’: the purpose of this course isn’t to ‘get people up to scratch’, or to meet some idealistic, impossible goal of entry to Cambridge being a level playing field (as if). Instead pre-arrival here is being interpreted almost singularly in terms of transition to graduate study. But, rather oddly, there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of research into transition to postgraduate study or postgraduate learning – this is particularly noticeable as there’s so much out there on learning transition, from pre-school to the workplace.
[p]ostgraduate students, by definition, have been successful undergraduates and so there is an implicit assumption of competence in negotiating and performing in the HE environment
Tobbell and O’Donnell, 2013
Tobbell and O’Donnell (2013) attribute this scarcity to assumptions of graduate competence, because graduate students already have a proven record of success in higher education and are subsequently positioned as experts. This, and perceived similarities in teaching and assessment at undergraduate and taught postgraduate level within a discipline means that it isn’t always considered to be a particularly large leap.
A study at a university in Scotland (McPherson et al., 2017) into taught postgraduate transition identified three barriers that students face:
- workload and confusion: competing demands on time and difficulties in prioritising tasks, uncertainty about success at PGT level, fast-approaching PhD funding deadlines, and a lack of experience or competence with skills and practices such as time management, organisation, or knowing how much to read
- anxiety, integration and belonging: concerns about being part of a smaller, more able group (especially for those without external funding), and anxiety experienced particularly among those new to an institution
- peer and staff support: feelings of isolation given difficulties in establishing social networks
The research above was very institutionally contextualised, but there is significant overlap between their findings and those from the (unpublished) self-evaluation reports from Master’s students. The problems identified here were not necessarily transitional in nature. But in the image below, the overlap with workload and confusion is in blue, with anxiety, integration and belonging in green, and peer and staff support in red.
This is also reinforced by (as yet!) unofficial insights from the FutureLib project into the student learning journey at Cambridge.
But how do we turn this into a course? Into something which, as above, assists participants in drawing connections between their situatedness and the Cambridge context?
The ‘barrier-level’ categorisation of McPherson et al. is extremely helpful, but it’s necessary for CamGuides to leave it behind and think about different ways of categorising transition, or elements of transition, as students prepare to begin their taught Master’s degrees. In the context of CamGuides, transition is being thought about in three ways:
- subject-specific transition – elements which are so deeply embedded in subject discourse and subject knowledge as to make little sense when separated from it – such as language skills, engagement with knowledge at a deeper level
- subject-contextualised transition – elements where the subject has an impact on how something is done, or understood, but the core principles are often shared – such as balancing workload, time management, organisation
- identity-based transition – what it means to be a graduate student, self-directed working, managing anxiety, understanding expectations
CamGuides will be leaving that subject-specific stuff well alone, and focusing on the other two. It means encouraging these connections (as above) to be developed and shaped within the context of the student’s chosen discipline.
So, the content. The course incorporates four topics, divided into six overlapping nodes. There’s an introduction to Cambridge, to the physical and online institution, providing both very practical information (i.e. what is Moodle) and information to generate a feeling of insider knowledge or belonging. Another focuses on what it means to be a graduate student, and how to develop, rehearse and enhance transferable, subject-contextualised practices like time management or self-directed learning.
Software, technology and the digital form a major part of this, with nodes on being a digital student, using digital tools as part of study practices but doing so critically, academic networking, and signposting to pre- and post-arrival support for the development of particular IT or software skills. And, of course, a focus on information literacy, mapped to and influenced by the university’s information literacy framework, which defines it in terms of four key competencies allied to a subject – finding resources, assessing them critically, managing them, and creation and communication.
[i]nformation literacy competencies are not intended to be linear, but be allied closely to academic subject skills and individual student development, thus supporting the collegiate education Cambridge students receive
Cambridge Information Literacy Framework, 2017
CamGuides, it is hoped, will leave students more confident, more aware of expectations upon them, more aware of the nature and flow of their course, its milestones, and more knowledgeable about Cambridge itself. Or that’s the plan, anyway…
*In the Q&A after the presentation, I was asked about technology and – specifically – how technology decisions could have been made before the content was written. This is a really helpful and insightful question. My official answer is that it shouldn’t have been. Ideally, it wouldn’t have been. But also that technology decisions shouldn’t be made after content is written. They should develop together. Technology is not neutral, nor are the choices we make about it, but neither does technology have independent pedagogical value that we tap into just by using it. One of my favourite articles on educational technology (yes, I do have favourites) deals with just this, and I recommend that everyone reads it: Hamilton & Friesen, 2013. We need to be critical of these choices at all points – if I ever find the time, I’ll write more about the implications of using the LibGuides platform for this course.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McPherson, C., Punch, S. and Graham, E. (2017). Transition from Undergraduate to Taught Postgraduate Study: Emotion, Integration and Ambiguity. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 5(2), 42-50
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wingate, U. (2007). A Framework for Transition: Supporting ‘Learning to Learn’ in Higher Education. Higher Education Quarterly, 61(3), 391–405.