• Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge in distance education. Assessing the potential for enhancing facilitation and course design

    Janet Macdonald, Ben Craven and Aileen Black
    Open University in Scotland

    Research seminar

    Themes: the student experience and learning

    Tuesday 2 September 2008, 10.10-11.10 in Penthouse B

    Distance education is characterised by a separation of course design from support, tuition and facilitation (known in the OU as course presentation). While course material is written and extensively edited to a high quality by a team of academics, students’ understanding of course content is facilitated at scale by part-time tutors who may be geographically highly distributed. In fact, these tutors are in a unique position since they have first hand knowledge of the course as experienced by the students, which may be rather different to the course as envisaged by the course teams who design the courses. Tutors also have responsibility for supporting the process of learning, which is sometimes developed as an integral part of course content through the design of assessment, but at other times must reflect individual needs, or sometimes universal needs which were not envisaged during course design.

    We are therefore piloting a methodology for describing course presentation through the eyes of established tutors who tutor multiple presentations of the same course with different cohorts. The systematic study of course presentation would then be shared in seminars with those who design the courses. We hope thereby to raise awareness of parts of a course where students particularly need support, and where there might be scope for enhancing course design through constructivist activity.

    We have drawn on threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (Meyer and Land, 2005; Perkins,1999) in order to stimulate and inspire tutors to reflect on the teaching of their course in a structured way; having done so it is then logical to consider constructivist approaches to helping students with the difficulties which have been identified.

    In two initial face-to-face workshops, tutors from first level Maths and second level History were introduced to threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge and then asked to reflect on their own courses and look for resonances. They identified difficulties commonly encountered by their students and then shared activities and interventions which could help students with particular parts of the course. The workshop outcomes have been stored in two wikis, for the interest and contributions of other tutors and the course teams. Tutors are now required to access the wikis throughout the course in order to try out, and modify their observations on difficulties and associated activities. We have planned two final seminars for tutor representatives to meet their respective course teams.

    This seminar will:

    • introduce the theory of troublesome knowledge and theshold concepts;
    • demonstrate the project’s Troublesome History and Troublesome Maths wikis;
    • and invite participants to engage in reflection on the application of this methodology to their own context.