#HEblogswap My PhD Journey by Chrissi Nerantzi

blogswap logo with image of Chrissi Nerantzi

Bought to you from Chrissi Nerantzi, Principal Lecturer in Academic CPD at the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, MMU.   


Thank you Santanu Vasant (@santanuvasant) for bringing #HEblogswap to life. It is a great way to share and connect experiences among practitioners.

Doing something in tandem with Sue Watling (@suewatling) came to my mind as soon as I received the information. We first met at Lincoln University in 2012 during an HEA OER Change Academy project. Since then we both changed institutions. But we stayed in touch, have worked together in the open and are both PhD students. When Sue invited me to write about my PhD journey for this blog swap, I thought do I really want to reflect on the experience of the last 4.5 years at this moment in time? I just survived my viva last Friday. Everything was still very fresh in my mind… I decided to go ahead and am looking back not at the whole experience but specific aspects of it.

Ok, how did it all start?
When I was an academic developer at the University of Sunderland, I started an MSc at Edinburgh Napier University in Blended and Online Education. My dissertation brought me to experiment with academic development initiatives that had a cross-institutional and collaborative dimension. I immersed myself into this study. The seeds for my doctoral study are in there and for the many open projects that followed. I was encouraged to consider a PhD by my personal tutor. That was then Dr Keith Smyth was leading the programme and who moved to a different institution and is now a Professor. The PhD I started was at a distance, part-time, self-funded, while working full-time and with a young family. Even before I started it was evident that it wouldn’t be a smooth ride. In fact it became a rollercoaster ride. There were ups and downs… Good times and bad times. I will focus only on a few aspects of the journey today.  

highs and lows of a PHD journey

Closing my eyes and transporting my self back in time, the following fills my mind…

Loneliness
Community, or the lack of community, during the first years. I felt lonely and in the dark for a long time. I had no cohort, no peers to turn to. I was doing this study on my own and really felt it. It was hard, super hard. I missed the conversation with peers, other PhD students. People I could share my struggles with and my ideas. The lifeline came when I joined the Global OER Graduate Network for PhD students in open education from around the world. A project led by the Open Education Research Hub at the Open University in the UK. The network literally saved me and helped me grow and believe in what I was capable to do. The network has a face-to-face and online dimension and both are equally important. My own research has illustrated the importance of community in the context of professional learning. Find your network and if there isn’t one consider creating one. My colleague Penny Bentley did exactly that. She needed help with phenomenography, the methodology we both used in our study and decided to create a FB group, which has become a small but useful hub for phenomenographers, where we can support each other. So a sense of belonging was important to me and when I found my home as a PhD students, I started growing and gaining confidence in who I was and what I could achieve. 

Oh, no, what time is it?
There were time pressures from work, my studies and often I felt that I neglected my family. I felt guilty. Guilty for coming home switching on the laptop and working. Guilty for working during many many weekends and holidays. “Mummy will you get that PhD?” Is a question that my boys often asked. I needed to be disciplined, determined and stubborn, I guess, to keep going and bring this study to fruition. The discoveries I made during the study fascinated me, helped me to look beyond time. I did find time where there was none. In the end everything came together. It was an exhilarating process and I wanted to share my findings with others. I started sharing my work in progress with others through conferences and articles but also used my learning to develop open initiatives. Some might thing/say that these were distractions but in reality they helped me test some of my ideas and were invaluable for my development as a researcher and practitioner. I could do all this as my study was linked to my work. Some might not have this opportunity. 

Writing is super hard!
It is one thing to do the research and another to write about it and articulate it so that it makes sense and is appropriate for a thesis. I am not an English native speaker, so conducting the whole research in English was not easy. However, I am not sure if it would be any easier in Greek or German, as my professional language is actually English. Whatever the language, academic writing does not come naturally to me. My background in teaching languages and translation literature, means that some of that more playful flavour was making its way into the thesis. What helped me was sharing early drafts with colleagues and friends. Even my husband read multiple versions… They could see much quicker what didn’t make sense, what needed to be explained better… Write everyday a little bit, set realistic targets so that you get a sense of achievement. Stick to the routine. Write, write and rewrite. We are all getting better at it through writing. I accepted criticism and learnt through this process. More recently, I have started helping other PhD students unofficially and I can see that I have grown and can help others. Something else, I did to get a break from academic writing… I started writing children’s stories again, especially near the end when I was preparing my thesis for submission.     

There were sunny times too
Some might get the impression that it was all a struggle… Yes, there were moments when I thoughts this is never going to happen. But I kept going. My supervisors kept saying “keep going”. I kept going. They were right, I got there in the end and much sooner than the supervisory team expected. And the feeling was amazing. You just need to get through the challenges and you will. A massive portion of determination and stubbornness is of course needed. And support! So so vital. Becoming a member of a  community really helped me and filled my batteries with determination and self-belief. I can do this and so can you. 

Viva o’clock
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I just had my viva on the 8th of September. There were many moments where I thought this day would never come. But it did. Today, I feel a real sense of achievement and can see that I have contributed a little something that can make a difference to my own practice and help others consider collaborative open learning in cross-institutional academic development settings through the cross-boundary framework I developed and released under a creative commons license and the specific new insights I have gained into collaborative open learning and the course characteristics that play a key role in shaping that experience. If you would like to read about my viva experience, the preparation I have done for it, check out https://chrissinerantzi.wordpress.com/2017/09/09/i-have-survived-big-friday-go_gn/ and related posts to the viva.

I hope some of these reflections on the journey will be useful for other PhD students, potential and current ones, especially those at the initial stages of their studies.

If you need help, remember to reach out! I think this is key!
Through the PhD journey you will discover who you are and who you are becoming.

I hope some of the above will be useful for you.

If you would like to get in touch with me, feel free to tweet me at @chrissinerantzi.

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2017 looks like an interesting year

2017

2017 will be an interesting year. The Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight. Penguin order a 75,000 reprint of Orwell’s 1984. Council for the US President invites debate on the nature of ‘alternative facts’ while the alleged influence of social media during the US election suggests ‘critical digital literacies’ warrants attention.

Should Media Studies be taken more seriously? Narrowly escaping Gove’s bonfire of the subjects the MS GCSEgives students the chance to develop a critical understanding of the role of the media in daily life’  while MS A level includes ‘understand and evaluate how meanings and responses are created’ alongside ‘develop and formulate… its influential role in today’s society.’ The only thing wrong with a well taught Media Studies programme is it isn’t mandatory!

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It’s not too far fetched to suggest truth and knowledge are under attack. The internet is awash with speculation and fake news masquerading as truths. To counter balance this we may need to re-frame ontology and epistemology in everyday language, encourage examination of media beliefs and interrogate preferred sources of news – be it the BBC, Daily Mail or Twitter. Words like ideology and discourse can be challenged but should at least be discussed. A baseline dose of Foucault with Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World wouldn’t do anyone any harm.

Following the US election I blogged about the media in The Truth is out there somewhere . Today, just 8 weeks later, it seems even more important to address issues of truth and knowledge. Regardless of personal politics, the US election is a wake-up call.  Who do we believe and why? Suroweiki’s Wisdom of Crowds and Gladwell’s Tipping Point have supported the development of Communities of Practice – where relevant knowledge is situated within the connections we make  – and these concepts remain true; the risk is when wisdom and tipping points are based on fakery rather than evidence.

community

2017 will be a busy year.

I’ve begun to let go of wider commitments to create space for the PhD and shhh…. complete the dissertation for my p/t creative writing degree which no one knows about so far! The timing is not perfect but when it comes to doctoral research there’s no such thing. A time-table is mapped out for the PhD transfer process to the University of Northampton, a week with NVivo booked for April and I’m loving the educational research conversations with my supervisors, Director of Studies and fellow students.

On the work front there’s an exciting new focus on Learning Design. This will inform development of a digital capabilities framework for staff who teach and support learning and I want to develop the world of the TEL-People. The only downside is withdrawing from projects like #creativeHE and it was really difficult to put #poetryfeedHE to one side – albeit temporarily – but something had to give.

Lastly – the allotment lies waiting – as it did last year, and the year before that. At some point I need to find my allotmenteering hat and wear it again.

So here’s to 2017.

Did I say it looks like an interesting year? 🙂


 

 

TEL-People, language and poetry

social media icons pixabay

With regard to TEL-Tribes I’ve gone a bit anthropological. Not as in going back through the centuries because TEL-People are relatively new but other defining features of an anthropological study include physical characteristics, environmental and social relations, and above all, culture.

Two previous posts The Invisible Tribes and Territories of the TEL-People and Why don’t I speak French explored what it means to be afflicted blessed with the acronym TEL. The story continues and today’s post is about communication.

TEL people speak a number of languages.

There are layers of technology language starting with code and ending with Help-desk-speak. TEL-People might be positioned anywhere on this continuum. Then there are the languages of teaching and of how students learn from multiple perspectives i.e. staff who teach and support learning, everyone else and students themselves. TEL-People need to be multi-lingual and segue from one to another in chameleon fashion. The problem is how the language of technology tends to align to a positivist view of the world while everyone else tends towards more interpretative approaches.

Compare these.

  • Illegal object
  • Address violation
  • Bad Command
  • Abort – Retry – Fail

with

  • Well, it all depends what you mean by
    • technology enhanced learning
    • student engagement
    • pedagogic innovation
    • excellence in teaching

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Where language complicates issues the TEL-People can get caught up in the misunderstandings of others.  In a sector where words matter, there is a tendency for some to seek out a more obscure vocabulary in order to demonstrate their academic significance. At a time when more people than ever are being offered the opportunity to experience a higher education, should we not be seeking to simplify communication. rather than complexify  it.

There’s an art and a skill to clear writing. Not dumbing down but looking for ways to transmit messages unambiguously which don’t have the reader reaching for a dictionary or simply giving up. TEL-People tread a fine line between the binary approach of technology, black or white, yes or no, and the endless shades and permutations of educational research.

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Image by Simon Rae 

Academia is an environment which is always looking for new ways to say old things. On the CreativeHE Community this week  the topic is Exploring Creative Pedagogies and Learning Ecologies. One question asked was the difference between ‘pedagogies‘ and ‘ecologies‘ compared to ‘creative teaching methods‘ and ‘learning environments‘. As a TEL-Person I thought they were different ways of saying the same things. Crossing disciplines in my work I see this often. Maybe by re-framing what we already have in new sets of clothes we can encourage people to review and rethink what has gone before. Or maybe it just alienates. This is the problem with language. Meaning and interpretation are not always the same and when it comes to learning and teaching the TEL-People have to be at home within the full range of potential possibilities.

It’s not too far a leap from the elitism of words to poetry. Yes, TEL-People can be poets too…

School nearly killed verse for me.  Alexander Pope did not translate well to an inner city comprehensive.  The curriculum today is more contemporary but for too many people school was the beginning and the end of poetry for pleasure and fun.

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Sam Illingworth and I aim to change this. Every Friday lunch time we will be bringing you a poem to have with your sandwiches or chips. Subscribe to our site https://poetryfeedhe.wordpress.com or find us on Twitter #poetryfeedHE for opportunities to read, reflect and share your thoughts. Yes, PoetryfeedHE begins today.

‘You could do much worse than have lunch with a verse.’

We hope you’re hungry!

War of the Words #nationalpoetryday

Image of the tripod from H.G. Wells War of the Worlds

War of the Words

Now Barthes once said ‘The author is dead’
so I have to let go of my prose,
however redeeming, whatever the meaning,
it’s only the reader who knows

how words which are read (like things that are said)
can take on a whole different meaning,
as issues of who (and knowledge and truth)
depend on who’s doing the reading.

All writers will find, below each bottom line,
there’s a host of mixed interpretations,
with lots to be learned from the postmodern turn
and its crisis in representations.

As we start to unravel the roads we have travelled
which bring us to our destinations
we see how the ‘asks’ in our research-based tasks
are linked to our social locations;

but what matters more are the battles and wars
which are fought between structure and agency,
where so much depends how we manage this blend
between selfhood and who self might-want-to-be.

It’s the same for the poet and life as they know it,
reflected in all their renditions,
where words try to strive, to catch and describe
all the quirks of the human conditions,

so I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s not hard to see
how research and poetry blend,
how issues of seeing, of truth and believing,
are similar things in the end,

and the skillset to write what is clear and concise
is all part of the art of creation,
whether PhD thesis or poetry treatise
they both have the same motivation.

For wordsmiths and seers and text engineers
and dabblers in quests and hypothesis,
for teams of reformers or lonely explorers
of credence and theories of consciousness,

what your words mean (and how they are seen)
is based on the world we’re all living in,
and this knowing in turn depends how we’ve learned
to interpret our social conditioning

At the end of the day whatever you say
or do to express creativity,
people will moan, and grumble and groan,
for you can’t control their subjectivity.

So I have to conclude all meaning is skewed
as we all possess unique philosophies,
and what we receive and what we believe
helps build our creative ecologies.

Our epistemology and our ontology
all affect our observations,
so you might write the words but it’s clearly absurd
to expect to rule interpretations.

Researcher or poet it’s not how you know it,
it’s all about setting it free,
because Barthes spoke true and whatever you do…
the meaning is all down to me!

 

Review, Reflect and Remember – Playful Learning #playlearn16 @playlearnconf @ucisa

playful learning

The Hull team arriving at the Playful Learning Conference, 13-15 July 2016.

team hull

On arrival* participants were inducted into the marble game which ran throughout the three days. Clutching our marble winnings we were able to register and inspect the construction – a bit like mousetrap for marbles – which we were invited to add components to.

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This was supplemented with text message tasks and challenges in return for – yes – more marbles. It was indicative of the amazing amount of preparation work which must have gone into planning and setting up the Playful Learning Conference.

Everywhere you looked  on the Spanish Steps on the ground floor of MMU’s Birley Campus there was something to do.

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The steps homed an assortment of objects and board games while over on the registration desk the ‘Sea You Sea Me’ activity buckets were waiting. Each bucket contained 30 items, all designed for teams to create a beach (with real sand, shells and water!) while having conversations and solving puzzles. 30 buckets = 900 individual component parts! Did I mention the phenomenal amount of work which went into setting up this conference?

Three Keynotes over three days and a total of 25 parallel sessions were interspersed with whole conference activities like the Storybook. I wish I’d recorded Nikky’s vibrant retelling of the process of  creating stories.  It ended too soon.

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Unsurprisingly Storybook involved yet another set of challenges. This time it was to unlock the chest whose treasures included a set of keys for yet more games!

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It was difficult to choose from the variety of parallel sessions; I went to six in total. Having recently experienced Lego Serious Play, https://digitalacademicblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/17/bricking-it, I was interested to compare this with the PlayDoh Plaza. Maybe it’s in the name but it felt strange to be asked to take part in activities so reminiscent of childhood yet they were both underpinned with constructionist and kinaesthetic pedagogies. When PlayDog was introduced to bio-medical students they’d also been unsure. The words in the images below show their feelings before and after a PlayDoh session. It shows the value of being prepared to try something different. We were asked to choose a colour and make a model which represented our work. The purple chains are my digital networks while the face is the digital monster – the one which appears in our worst technology nightmares when everything goes wrong in front of a room full of students. Interestingly, everyone I spoke to knew exactly what this felt like!

It was a time of new discoveries. I came across the word Shonky, discovered Makey Makey clips, answered questions with clues gained from QR Codes, used Poll everywhere and competed in a quiz using Kahoot. One of the most memorable workshops was Ugg-Tect; a game which uses gestures instead of words to give instructions for building models from coloured shapes. Ungungdo!

I also learned about data encryption; one of those topics you know about without really understanding the detail. We began with the Caesar Cypher; a mono alphabetic transposition code (and we got to keep the encryption wheels). We then moved onto the Diffie-Hellman Ken Exchange to generate an encryption key which was theoretically more difficult to intercept. This used an app which didn’t seem to be working as well as it could do or maybe it was just the digital monster rearing its scary PlayDoh head again!

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Other sessions included a digital form of Exquisite Corpse as an aid to creative storytelling, the application of pedagogical theory to a teaching practice card game, and exploring creative methods for solving learning and teaching problems. These involved dressing up (hat and sunglasses to go incognito), choosing objects (it had to be the ammonite) and making things (not sure what my pipe cleaner mesh represented but I found it therapeutic to shut out the world and focus on its construction).

There were also the escape room experiences, the Board Game Cafe demonstrations, different sporting activities including Neon Badminton, and Inbox Zero – which I missed completely – as well as the Treasure Hunt on the last morning. Meanwhile the marble challenges continued to run alongside everything else.

By the end of the conference I’d joined in so many different activities yet still only experienced a part of the whole event. I’d arrived with a number of questions about the role of play in learning and teaching e.g. how digital would it be, had the organisers assumed we’d all have wifi connected devices, how inclusive and accessible were the activities, as a non-game player would I have ‘fun’ and above all else what would I learn.

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Play is a misnomer. Because of its association with fun and games, rather than the ‘serious’ business of higher education, you almost need to ‘permission’ to do something so different. Yet what is play other than an alternative way to describe creative approaches to learning and teaching? Getting around the discontinuity can be a simple as re-framing an activity within a pedagogical theory. Maybe we need to find more ways to play in disguise!

Stepping outside the box – or recreating the size and shape of the box – can often mean taking a risk but if we don’t take risks now and then, everything stays the same. It’s only by challenging ourselves that we can develop and grow. A key message I took away was how it can be good to venture outside your comfort zones and do something you wouldn’t normally do. A ‘feel the fear and do it’ scenario. Only then do you discover what feels strange at first can soon become normalised if we repeat it often enough. The conference participants were a unique mix. They included computer scientists, gamers, creative writers and other artists, academics, academic developers and librarians. This made for some interesting exchanges of thoughts and experiences.

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I’ve taken away not only new connections but reinforcement of the value of having time and space to discuss learning and teaching. I loved how the parallel sessions were so interactive. There was very little traditional sitting and listening and I don’t think I’ve been to such an activity based conference before. For me, this definitely added to its value. With regards to the play element, if you interpret this as creative thinking then all educational conferences would benefit from its inclusion. At minimum it could be a strand or a themed component while at best it would be threaded throughout.

When we engage with ‘playful’ situations we seemed to have more discussion than we would have otherwise. It was particularly useful for beginning and continuing conversations with strangers. Whether you were staff or student facing, involved in supporting the student experience or working with CPD/academic practice elements, there was something at Playful Learning for everyone.  It was an inaugural conference. For something so new and innovative, this first time around felt like a resounding success. I’m sure I’m not the only one to hope there will be more to come.

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My thanks to UCISA for the bursary which funded my attendance. 

creativity as aerobic excercise for the brain #creativeHE

Creativeity takes courage blue badge

I was going to retire the Friday blog for the summer. Focus on the PhD I said. Do less social media and get back to my ‘…ologies’. But it’s been a #creativeHE week which deserves a blog. So here it is.

The #creativeHE  community is open for anyone interested in the subject of creativity in education. What is it? How does it manifest? In which ways can creative thought and action be embedded into curriculums and practice?

The week began with a request to offer an example of creativity.  But there is a question to be answered. What does ‘creativity’ mean?

creativity definition

Accepted interpretations include difference, innovation and originality. To step outside of the box of conventional thinking, be unrestrained by social expectations, demonstrate uniqueness of thought and action.  Lots to work with there! But then it gets more complex because where do our measures of diversity come from? How is difference defined? Who controls what is considered to be creative action in the first place? This rather beautifully segues into my Phd where I’m building a conceptual framework which seeks to explain how our attitudes and behaviours are influenced.

alert

PhD alert!!!  The teaching on my first MA was influenced by postmodernism’s insistence on the social construction of reality. At the time I found PM a useful explanation for diversity and difference. The limitations of language and power of cultural expectations fitted well with my research into parameters of gender. But there was philosophical trouble ahead.

Postmodernism was an intellectual attack on meta theory without seeming to realise the irony of  presenting an alternative meta-meta theory. Yet PM was all about irony so maybe it didn’t mind how within its single narrative around the validity of truth and knowledge (i.e. there wasn’t any) it carried within itself the weapons of its mass destruction.

Postmodernism was followed by critical realism. This conceded social structures were callable of generating discourse. Their causal effects had a realist quality but our knowledge of them would be forever fallible. Traditional conceptions of structure and agency were inseparable. They were linked in an invisible mesh of convention, expectation and belief. PhD alert end.

It’s a ‘good enough’ theory. We’re limited by social constraints and change requires an understanding of the forces which are preventing it from happening in the first place. You can apply this to creativity. The ability to solve problems through unique and innovative actions is partly what makes us human but we’re also capable of being creative for self-satisfaction. This is the internal creative drive seeking expression. However, we live within a society which is full of social conditioning and this includes behavioural expectations. It leaves two options. We offer creative action within culturally acceptable limits or apply the creative impulse to blow these limits apart. The ability to think so far outside the box it breaks all known rules seems to suggest we may be positioned in different places on a scale of creative thinking.

brain on a treadmill

The #creativeHE community is full of examples not only of creative thinking but of thinking about being creative. It’s good to sometimes step outside our boxes, practice some critical reflection and ask questions about the environments we live and work in. Taking part in something that exercises our creative muscles is as good for the brain as aerobic activity is for the heart. What we need to do is ask why we don’t all do a little bit more of it. Look out for #creativeHE the next time around!

brain on treadmill image from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201602/more-proof-aerobic-exercise-can-make-your-brain-bigger 
Alert image from https://pixabay.com/en/exclamation-mark-point-triangle-24144/ 

The #creativeHE team is led by Norman Jackson and Chrissie Nerantzi. It began as an extension of a PgCert/MA unit at MMU and sits within P2pU

Bricking it

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I haven’t played with Lego for years. I wasn’t even sure if it was ok.. Shouldn’t I be working through the TO DO list which, like the magic porridge pot, never stops, it keeps getting longer. I did feel guilty but the clue is in the word serious. This was a day about learning and teaching. If you haven’t taken part in a Lego Serious Play workshop here are some reasons to give it a try.

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Lego Serious Play is Seymour Papert’s ‘Constructionism’ in action. It’s no coincidence that Papert worked with Lego to develop its Mindstorm kits for building robots. You’re learning by making things with your hands and it’s experiential and reflective as well. These are powerful combinations.

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You share the day with educationalists from across the sector . There’s much to learn from teachers in schools and colleges. We should have these cross-over conversations more often.

You quickly learn the brickery is the smallest part if it. The real focus is the eclectic nature of educational practice.

You get to build and the colours and shapes are appealing. When was the last time you heard the clatter and click of a pile of Lego and were faced with limitless options to be creative?

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The range of Lego circa 2016 is amazing but it’s less about the modelling and more about the rationale. Build a tower. Build an animal. Build your ideal learning environment. What does action research look like in Legoland?

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Give someone a task. I had to sequence colours and sizes. In turn I asked for a digital device and was given a mouse. Yes it was fun but it was also a valuable leaning experience.

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The opportunity to do something different can be liberating but Lego places some restrictions on your imagination. It’s evolved hugely from the early days of white, red and green. In my tub were pink and orange  bricks. I had eyes, steering wheels and joysticks while the main table had boats, bikes, rocket parts and an endless range of characters. Nevertheless, you’re still more or less working with straight lines so ideas don’t always turn out as planned. Although part of the process is not to plan. Let your hands do the thinking and see what happens.  If your cat isn’t instantly recognisable as a cat but to you it’s a cat then it’s a cat and that’s that!  The purpose is why you chose it and how this connects to your understanding of learning and teaching.

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Plato is alleged to have said ‘You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.‘ Education is about developing relationships with strangers and teaching involves finding ways to make things happen for other people. Ramsden described teaching as the art of making learning possible. Rather than knowledge transmission, it should be about understanding and reconceptualising while Biggs suggests constructive alignment to achieve higher order learning. Here, providing a variety of learning activities can help meet learning outcomes. Lego Serious Play is an activity with a difference but it works. The bricks are like alternative words. Click them together and see what happens. There’s no right or wrong way to build so it equalises and because it’s a different approach it offers alternative ways of seeing and understanding.

The photos on this page show something of the range of creative thinking and outputs. It may be time to get the Lego from the attic!

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The word Lego is from the Danish leg godt, which means ‘play well’ and we did, but without doubt this LEGO® Serious Play® is serious stuff!


Thanks to Chrissi Nerantzi and Stephen Powell from MMU. Further information about LSP workshops from http://www.celt.mmu.ac.uk/teaching/lego_sp.php  


Seymour Papert (1993) Mindstorms; Children Computers and Powerful Ideas.

Paul Ramsden (2003) Learning to Teach in Higher Education.

John Biggs and Catherine Tang (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Third Edition.