In support of my first FLEX 30 activity, I observe and participate in a student seminar, using the opportunity to consider the dynamic between myself and my academic colleague – and looking at how I can learn from this as part of my own teaching journey.
Activity 1 – Engaging in observation of teaching and peer narrative activities
A key focus for my approach to FLEX 30 is understanding how my experience as a marketing practitioner might translate into an academic role. I have many years of guest lectures, workshops and seminars under my belt thanks to my involvement with the Film and Media BA, but through FLEX 30, I hope to engage with this on a more critical level, using my findings to develop a practical pathway to teaching.
Having taken part in an initial Microsoft Teams meeting with second year students undertaking the Media Industries module of the Film and Media BA for 2021/22, I was invited to join an in-person seminar, to discuss their group work so far and provide feedback. I decided this would be a valuable opportunity to observe a teaching colleague at work, while reflecting on my own interactions with students to better understand my strengths and weaknesses in a classroom scenario.
Fundamentally, my involvement with the Film and Media BA over the last seven years has been structured around my professional knowledge and experience. From lectures about copywriting, social media or industry careers, to custom designed workshops intended to take students through a ‘live brief’, my teaching has always been inexorably tied to my profession. Supported by storytelling, this work has always placed students at the heart of a marketing ‘problem’ to help them understand the roles, tools and content forms deployed in the delivery of an appropriate solution. However, while my contribution has often helped to shape the design of the module, it has always been in close collaboration with the academic lead. With this in mind, I was keen to explore this dynamic and connect our collaborative approach to the literature around such modern teaching techniques.
Dalrymple et al. (2021) discuss the concept of co-designed learning programmes and how these can lead to real learning benefits for students. They notes that when carefully designed, these initiatives target student development through “specific skills, attributes and identities”. Further to this, a range of examples and studies are put forward which suggest enhanced collaboration between universities and employers results in students the development of transferrable skills that can be easily deployed in a workplace context. Indeed, it seems discussion around such approaches, which are reliant on involvement from an ‘external’ practitioner able to authentically contribute to the learning of students through a ‘live brief’, are the subject of great debate in the academic community – with differing opinions on their effectiveness.
Referred to as ‘problem-based learning’ (PBL), Biggs (2011) considers this technique as very different from traditional ideas of apprenticeship learning, as it is less about having students performs tasks in an arbitrary manner so that skills can be developed though experience and is more concerned with setting clear problems that relate to a specific profession, based on an understanding of how that profession functions. However, while Biggs does praise PBL for its effectiveness in the classroom, he also draws attention to the inherent challenges it brings for educators. PBL, he argues, asks teachers to step outside of a framework where they acquire and disseminate “separate bodies of knowledge” that traditionally would establish them as the experts, and instead accept that the expertise comes from the practitioner or industry in question. “Many find this hard to do” Biggs concludes, “their very career path is expedited by demonstrating their specific expertise. It is much easier for experts to give lectures on their speciality, leaving integration and application as the students’ problem to solve.”
It’s perhaps no surprise then, that PBL is considered controversial by some, even with empirical evidence to show it has real benefits. Sutton and Knuth (2017) consider Sammamish High School in Bellevue Washington, which spent five years collaborating with University of Washington to develop a framework entitled 7 Key Elements of Problem Based Learning Classrooms. This seven-stage process emphasises the importance of creating authentic problems and assessment processes which require professional knowledge, while also drawing on academic expertise in the deployment of culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy, as well as discipline-specific academic discourse. Through collaboration and the development of expertise, the framework seeks to position the students as the leaders in the process, using their feedback and input to directly influence lesson design and classroom activities. According to its authors, the key learnings in the development of the framework were around the importance of fostering “creativity, communication and leadership in students” (2015), but that this was only possible where applied to a truly authentic problem.
Looking at the subsequent data around the implementation of the framework, Sutton and Knuth (2017) note the benefits of PBL appear to be wide-ranging where students are given rich, comprehensive learning experiences. In particular, attention is drawn to how these benefits “extend to all students, regardless of socioeconomic or linguistic status, or special learning needs”. Additionally, it was observed that the process of learning through collaborative discussion and group problem solving also encouraged “social, emotional, and civic development” in students. This assertion, that PBL has the potential to augment learning, enhance employability and create “better people” ties directly in Manchester Metropolitan University’s own Education Strategy. Published in 2017, this document considers the teaching goals of the institution, prioritising innovative and flexible learning, as well as close collaboration between students, academics and external partners. That it does so across such a broad spectrum of student types, also seems to support the university’s commitment to widening inclusion, by removing barriers to higher education for that exist with pupils from backgrounds who might not typically enter higher education.
The session itself on this occasion began with an overview of the students’ work so far, and an opportunity for me to feedback on their research findings. In previous sessions, the students had been introduced to their ‘client’ Odeon Cinemas and were taken through its specific ‘problem’ – low footfall at its Manchester Great Northern location and low take-up for its ‘Limitless’ membership programme. With data collated from a variety of sources including surveys, focus groups and the impact of existing campaign activity, the next phase for the students was to start looking at ideas that would help tackle the problem. My natural instinct as a professional was to look at these findings for connective tissue that might inspire a creative marketing idea. However, I was conscious that my ideas were irrelevant in this setting – and that my role was purely to encourage the students to assess their findings and understand there was connective tissue to be found. In the 7 Key Elements of Problem Based Learning Classrooms, this would be perhaps most reflective of the the fifth stage in the process, which encourages Student Voice and Leadership by asking teachers to “build student capacity for reflection, inquiry, and curiosity through the course of solving a problem” (2015).
There are a number of things I take from the experience of observing my academic colleague, which also give me an insight into how I interact with students in this environment. Generally speaking, I feel my engagement with students is natural, conversational and often based around a shared passion for not just marketing, but the broader elements of the degree. However, I do recognise that more thought and pedagogical structure is essential if I am to use this as a genuine tool for teaching. It’s clear we bring different things to the table (me, real-world experience that brings the module to life and her, the necessary teaching and academic structure to deliver it), but essentially, it is a respect and understanding of one another’s skillset which make it a true collaboration. That said, while the latter is undoubtedly based on years of valuable teaching experience, I hope and believe these are skills that can be learned in a way that, arguably, my experience can not.
Later, as the discussion moved away from the specifics of the client problem and the students response to it so far, my academic colleague encouraged the students to ‘ask me anything’ and take advantage of my industry knowledge and career experience. Schön (1983) talks of a “crisis of confidence in the professions” that is manifest in “a skeptical reassessment of the professions’ actual contribution to society’s well-being through the delivery of competent services based on special knowledge.” I can’t say whether my own “special knowledge” has the power to change society for the better, but if it can improve a student’s employability prospects, then I’ll take that as a start.
Biggs, J. B. and Catherine So-Kum Tang (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does. Maidenhead, England; New York: Mcgraw-Hill, Society For Research Into Higher Education & Open University Press.
Schön, D. A. (1983), The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Employability: a review of the literature 2016-2021 | Advance HE (2021), www.advance-he.ac.uk. [Online] [Accessed on November 22nd, 2021] https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/employability-review-literature-2016-2021