Stories & Streams: overcoming the student as consumer mindset through peer-to-peer learning
Jon Hickman and Paul Bradshaw, Birmingham City University and Jennifer Jones, University of the West of ScotlandStories & Streams’ is a case study in delivering student-led, problem-based and peer-to-peer media education. The case study focuses on an experimental teaching and learning programme in which two groups of students, working towards different learning outcomes, negotiate their learning in a common problem space. This structure was proposed as a way of addressing issues of motivation and enga...
Keywords: employability, soft skills, student consumer, peer-to-peer, problem-based, student-led
‘Stories & Streams’ is a case study in delivering student-led, problem-based and peer-to-peer media education. The case study focuses on an experimental teaching and learning programme in which two groups of students, working towards different learning outcomes, negotiate their learning in a common problem space.
This structure was proposed as a way of addressing issues of motivation and engagement with learning and as a response to the instrumental consumption of media education framed by the employability agenda; in action the structure actually enabled deeper learning of soft skills which are known to contribute to employability of graduates.
Context & Rationale
This case study outlines a teaching and learning experiment which ran during the 2011-12 academic year at Birmingham School of Media, Birmingham City University, as part of the delivery of the BA (Hons) Media & Communication programme. The programme offers students an equal emphasis on theory and practice. Students on the programme are able to elect a named specialism (for example journalism or new media) which reflects their main media interest or maintain a ‘broad course’ profile which leads to a generalist degree; specialisms are reflected in the final degree award, e.g. BA (Hons) Media & Communication (Journalism).
Is this in the job? The consumption of media education
We arrived at this project through a series of observations around the ways in which students approached their learning on two second year media production modules: ‘Online Journalism’ (part of the journalism pathway) and ‘Alternative Media’ (part of the new media pathway). In both cases students tended to focus on products rather than processes when in fact tutors were emphasising the practices over the artefacts. As a teaching team we spoke about why this might be, and how we might seek to change things. Preparation for a job is a key determinant shaping students’ learning experiences. One hypothesis we had is that students come to their learning already holding certain ideas of what media practice is and what media practitioners are like and so, in the pursuit of employability, they seek opportunities to demonstrate that they have attained those qualities; the common question ‘is this in the exam?’ has become ‘is this in the job?’
Consumption of education: online journalism
‘Online Journalism’ is a level 5 / year 2 module offered as part of the journalism pathway. It offers students an opportunity to explore new approaches to journalism afforded by online technologies and changes in patterns of consumption of media. Two problems recur in students’ work in this module: a reversion to traditional print journalism practice (writing to ‘the story’ rather than the more iterative and networked practices that online journalism makes possible); and ‘processing content’ rather than digging deeper into issues. These are also wider issues in journalism education and the journalism industry itself as it moves to converged production practices. Some students are unable to break away from established production practices (which by this stage they may have seen reinforced through work placements in newsrooms). They do not take up the opportunity to interrogate those practices and reflect on their own sense of identity as a journalist, instead they seek to negotiate the unknown (online) through the known (journalism) without synthesising a new position.
Consumption of education: alternative media
‘Alternative Media’ is a level 5 / year 2 module offered as part of the web and new media pathway. It offers students an opportunity to explore the relationship between new media technologies and media alternativeness.
The student group seemed to understand the affordances of new media technologies in the context of alternative and community media production. However, in application they tended to get too lost in setting up platforms and implementing tools, and didn’t engage with messages and causes. We summarise this position with the maxim: ‘if you teach Posterous, you get Posterous’ (Posterous being a blogging platform which was offered as an example of a technology that could engage non-technical people in media publishing). This typifies a tendency amongst web specialists to slip into a service mode: they often see new media as instrumental, as something that you build, which is technical in nature; they see the web as serving other parts of the media ecology and not as a primary text in itself. In consuming their education to attain the expertise of web designer, students believe they must build platforms, to a brief, that will be filled with the content of other media workers.
Description of the Activity
Support and administration of the project
With the support of Birmingham City University’s Centre for Enhancement of Learning & Teaching and the Course Director for the BA (Hons) Media & Communication we set out to explore new ways of delivering journalism and web education that deepened the students’ learning through a project we call ‘Stories & Streams’. ‘Stories & Streams’ brings together the teaching and learning activity for the ‘Online Journalism’ and ‘Alternative Media’ modules into one classroom and one common framework of directed study activity. Students are still enrolled on specific modules - from the point of view of assessment and university administration - but study within an environment that is not so tightly tied to a narrow field of experience. Both modules are unchanged in terms of their learning outcomes and summative assessments, so no revalidation or minor modifications were required to the module specifications.
The Stories & Streams Process
Students are assigned roles within teams as part of a class-wide project. As they pursue that project (‘stories’) they encounter problems, and in attempting to solve those problems they choose to sign up for one of several short teaching sessions (‘streams’) taught at the class’s halfway point. These ‘streams’ replace the traditional lecture-driven format, and can be delivered by students as well as lecturers. In the final part of the class, students rejoin their teams and exchange learning. By scheduling the project work at the start of the class and as the driver of the process, teaching is related to students’ own problem context (whereas traditionally the relationship is reversed). By requiring students to make an active choice in the learning that they experience, we push them to explicitly opt-in to their learning, and identify its relevance. And by giving different students different skills – and the opportunity to host their own ‘streams’ – we are encouraging peer-to-peer teaching.
Students are allocated to specific roles. Roles are initially allocated for the first half of the module using a Google Docs survey tool in order to establish students’ strengths, weakness and preference. The roles available are Editor (who took an overall group management role), Network Journalist, Data Journalist, Community Manager and Multimedia Journalist. Only the editor is concerned with ‘the story’, other roles are focused on the constituent parts of that story. A data journalist, for example, is typically responsible for gathering data and documents around the issue (sometimes through Freedom of Information requests). A network journalist gathers background and context; a community manager finds community concerns and case studies; and a multimedia journalist finds and creates media to ‘enrich’ the telling of the story (for example, video interviews, maps, galleries).
Groups are allocated members from across the roles. Each initial group includes students from both module cohorts. The groups brainstorm topics in order to come up with an investigation for them to undertake for the first six weeks of the module. As the investigation proceeds, groups are required to publish the results of their own activity as part of progress towards a final long form piece of journalism, making ‘product out of process’ in doing so.
In order to maintain focus and to guide the students through their investigations, they are presented with a limited set of thematic concerns, which are relevant contemporary social and political contexts. The lecturers delivering the class have a level of expertise and standing within the thematic areas. This enables them to easily facilitate and mentor students, removing the potential barrier of access to specialist knowledge and allowing students to focus on process. Lecturers are also able to afford access to networks of contacts which lifts the activity beyond the classroom and into the ‘real world’. The themes frame the group-led investigations which constitute the ‘stories’ element of the project.
Stories & Streams is designed to engage students more in processes than in products, and to focus them on their own learning, something which problem based learning can offer.
It gives us a useful methodology for looking at how we can shift the focus of assessment away from the final product and towards the process of production (Hanney, 2005, p.111).
Theme-based (story) discussions pose problems and the classroom adapts to this. Lecturer observation, and student feedback allow the process to be monitored, and the teaching to be directed.
Students are used to working within a narrowly bound activity (a module) which has been explicitly designed for them to obtain knowledge and competence. By working in one common space which does not seem purposely designed to instrumentally train them for tasks, Stories & Streams asks students to negotiate their field of expertise alongside others’ and to shape their learning to achieve common goals. Stories & Streams dispenses with the usual lecture/workshop format that is often expected by both students and administration and instead curates a more flexible space which not only reflects practices in the creative sector, but also allows for adapting, responding and adopting changes based on the skills and identities of the people taking part in the module(s).
Peer-to-peer teaching is a particularly important element in this pedagogical design, as it offers a number of opportunities for increased student engagement and learning. Firstly, students will bear some responsibility for passing on their skills to other members of their teams, which should encourage greater attention. Secondly, this transfer of skills will reinforce their learning. And thirdly, the status conferred by this responsibility should encourage further independent interest in their particular field, as well as personal confidence, preventing disengagement with their studies.
In addition to peer-to-peer teaching in the physical classroom, students can continue to support one another through the university’s virtual learning environment. Groups are asked to form a thread within the forum, allowing for them to discuss the topic. Lecturers can contribute to this space, sharing links, opportunities and contacts who would be able to support the activity. Additional forum threads feature general calls relating to the themes. After the module, mid-point threads are available to discuss roles; this allows peer-to-peer mentoring on practice within a production role.
Finally, it is worth emphasising that students are working on a live news site, so their investigations are growing and evolving online and in public, offering a third level of online support where lecturers, peers (and potentially the general public) can comment and feedback on their topic.
Design of the project evaluation
Stories & Streams ran as a pilot project during the 2011-12 academic year. The pilot is being evaluated with a view to refining the approach and informing debates on media education, in particular those regarding employability, the student as consumer, and the future of media (higher) education. As such our project will be disseminated both as pedagogic research and as a resource handbook.
The evaluation of the project takes a case study approach. Case studies are particularly useful for ‘preliminary, exploratory stage(s) of a research project’ (Rowley 2002, p.16). This article discusses just one case study, and as such we cannot claim that the results can be generalised, however we offer it here to stimulate debate and encourage further investigation of this mode of learning; this case study may be used not in a positivist sense but as an indication of a working hypothesis (ibid. p.25). The approach taken to collecting research data is replicable with other groups of students and further case studies will indicate the extent to which this material might be generalised. Whilst the activity under study represents an innovation in our teaching and learning, this research project is not what Roblyer (2005, p.196) refers to as ‘objective’ or ‘experimental’ research, rather it is what he terms ‘naturalistic enquiry’ (ibid.); our mode of teaching and learning is an experiment, but our research seeks to gather qualitative data about student and staff experience.
We have implemented a mixed-method of data collection to inform the case study. It is in the spirit of this project to give the students an active voice in the evaluation of the project, so we have designed data capture with this in mind. Data has been obtained through the following means:
- A team of students were offered the chance to work on the evaluation, as paid partners in the project.
- One student was specifically asked to record and edit elements of the class using video recording equipment (informal recording using Flip cameras).
- Two students were specifically asked to write weekly (minimum) blog posts reflecting on their learning experience.
- Two lecturers wrote weekly blog posts reflecting on the project.
- We looked at students’ results in summative assessments.
- An interim questionnaire was used to gather feedback from students prior to the final assessment.
- After the final assessment, a focus group is being convened to discuss the project in more depth.
Evaluation of the project is still ongoing, however, we have gathered enough information to offer some initial findings. One of the most interesting observations we have made so far relates to assessed work. Objectively measured through grades, there has been little change in student attainment, however, subjectively we are able to say that the students have produced work that is more in keeping with our expectations and ambitions for them. The work is more distinctive, succeeding in breaking away from the ‘churnalism’ that had characterised previous cohort’s efforts; work is now original, unique and in-depth.
The use of stream workshops, rather than whole class lectures, appeared to be successful in generating more activity in the students than we might normally expect. A workshop on making Freedom of Information requests, for example, resulted in more students using FOI requests as part of their investigation than had happened in two previous years when the whole class were given the workshop.
In addition to ‘formal’ streams, ad-hoc stream workshops emerged to work through issues as they occurred, allowing peer-to-peer learning to cascade more effectively than it might through one-to-one discussions. Students told us:
We have much more opportunity to get into groups and discuss our roles and difficulties we have had.
We have learned a lot about how to overcome problems from each other. We can help others overcome the challenges that we have faced, by sharing our experiences.
Another added that they had learned more because:
We are helping each other out with problems that we come across, giving each other tips and ideas on how to find information and how to present information in a better way. Also we are working in groups with people we may not work with, so I think this has helped the class communicate a lot more.
We were particularly interested to find an unexpected emphasis on soft skills was enabled by peer-learning.
From fellow students I have learned skills that other modules cannot teach. For example, learning how to manage and work with difficult people or those who do not want to do as well as you.
As we have mentioned, the project is ongoing at the time of writing, and as such this article represents a waypoint in the project. Our interim findings suggest that Stories & Streams has been a useful intervention in media pedagogy. It has not produced higher grades or increased student retention, but it has produced richer learning. We hope to offer the approach for refinement and adoption in other institutions and we invite feedback and critique of our approach.
Project blog: http://bcumedia.com/storiesandstreams/
Jon Hickman is a Lecturer and Researcher at Birmingham School of Media, Birmingham City University. He is Degree Leader for New Media. http://www.theplan.co.uk
Jennifer Jones is a Research Associate within the Creative Futures Research Centre, University of the West of Scotland. She is interested in Media Activism, Mega Events and Feral Education. http://jennifermjones.net/
Paul Bradshaw is Course Leader of the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University. He publishes the Online Journalism Blog and is the co-founder of HelpMeInvestigate, an investigative journalism website funded by Channel 4 and Screen WM. He has written for journalism.co.uk, Press Gazette, the Guardian’s Data Blog, InPublishing, Nieman Reports and the Poynter Institute in the US. http://onlinejournalismblog.com/
Hanney, R. (2005) ‘Competence or capability: Work-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning’, Journal of Media Practice, 6(2), pp.105-112.
Roblyer, M. D. (2005) ‘Educational technology research that makes a difference: Series introduction’, Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 5(2), pp.192-201.
Rowley, Jennifer (2002) ‘Using case studies in research’, Management Research News, 25(1), pp.16-27.
Listing photo: Brick paving sourced from morgueFile.com
Header image: Screen grab of Stories & Streams Project blog, accessed 20/6/12.