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What can we learn from distance learning? One day conference, April 2021

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On 1 April 2021 I attended an online half day conference, ‘What can we learn from distance learning?’ which had the subtitle ‘Supporting teaching in the post-COVID world’. The conference was organised by the University of Kent eLearning group and was introduced by Phil Anthony. An accompany hashtag for the event is: #DigiEduWebinars (Twitter).

What follows is a short blog summary of the event which may serve a number of purposes: it is to share a set of accompanying resources and links in one place, to more widely share the conference to anyone who might be interested, and to remember what I did during 2021.

This summary also contains links to the various presentations, but I do expect that these links will age over time, and are likely to be available for a relatively limited amount of time. To complement the links, I’ve also shared some rough notes that I made during the event (which are provided with accompanying relevant web links). 

Going beyond ‘blended learning’ – re-imagining digital learning for higher education

The first presentation was by Professor Chie Adachi, from Deakin University, Australia. It was interesting to hear that Deakin was founded as a distance education provider.

A range of different tools are available within LMS systems. These tools can be mapped to activity types, such as knowledge acquisition, inquiry, collaboration, discussion, production, and assessment. I also noted that video has become a means to connect students, and this leads to the reflection that the concept of blended learning exists on a spectrum.

Technology and pedagogy are intrinsically connected. There was a reference to the concept of ‘critical digital pedagogy’ which relates to the idea of care, and how to embed caring within online learning. There was also reference to something called the “CloudFirst learning design principles” was said to be building on something called a “Digital First” approach. There are five learning principles: learning is supported, activity focussed, social, feedback focussed and scaffolded.

Blended learning is a concept that can take account of time, place, work and life. In terms of time, interactions can be synchronous or asynchronous. In terms of work, the blend could be a combination of professional or ‘performed self’. In terms of place, learning could take place at home, on campus, or anywhere. A broader question is: how can we create caring communities online?

Finally, we were directed to a FutureLearn Mooc called: transforming digital learning: learning design meets service design (FutureLearn).

Lessons for assessment in a post-Covid world

Next up was a presentation by Sally Jordan from the Open University, who spoke about assessment. Sally began by presenting an overview of the OU; it was founded in 1969, has around 169k students, mostly studying part time, and 30k students have declared a disability. 8k students are studying outside of the UK.

Sally is interested in assessment analytics and demographic differences and assessment. She mentioned a related presentation: Computer marked assessments: friend or foe? There was a reference to assessment strategy in the sense that students have to get over a particular threshold, and that VLE or MLE systems (such as Moodle) can make use of different types of question, such as those that make use of pattern matching. 

The themes of Sally’s presentation were the importance of fairness, clarity, that assessments should be engaging, authentic, and sustainable. An interesting reference to follow up on was provided in the session text chat: Butcher, P. & Jordan, S. (2010). A comparison of human and computer marking of short free-text student responses. Computers & Education, 55(2), 489-499.

What can we learn from distance learning?

The third presentation was by Dr Mark O’Connor who was from the University of Kent. Mark works as a Distance learning technologist, who also works with FutureLearn (FutureLearn partner link).

In response to the title question: “What can we learn from distance learning?” the answer was: pretty much anything. Course design can enhance flexibility. A point I noted down was: if something is good practice for distance learning this helps with on campus learning too.

A couple of links to note is the e-learning at the University of Kent portal and The good Moodle guide (pdf).

Different types of courses were mentioned. There was something called an ExpertTrack, which leads to a digital certificate, and microcredentials, which leads to academic credit which could be used on an official academic programme. The OU is also delivering a number of microcredentials (OU website) in combination with FutureLearn.

Microcredentials is an interesting subject. There are advantages and disadvantages, and questions about equity and access which need exploration and debate. There’s a question of how they may practically fit in and complement existing institutional programmes, and their wider role within the higher education sector.

Teachers collaborating to improve blended learning

This session, about collaboration and blended learning, was delivered by Professor Diana Laurillard, from UCL. The aim of the presentation was about helping teachers and offering them support. The presentation centred around a tool: A visually structured approach to learning design (UCL).

The aim of the tool was to help teachers to collaborate with each other to create and share pedagogic designs. Through the tool, teachers can browse existing learning designs, edit, adapt and ultimately share them. A detailed representation of a learning design can be produced as a document, and a design could be analysed in terms of what was planned. A short summary was offered: tutors do enjoy working with the learning designer, they see the point of sharing and peer review, and arguably there is the potential for improvement if ideas area shared.

Following a theme from earlier presentations, reference was also made to a FutureLearn MOOC. The one that was mentioned by Diana was called Blended and online learning design (FutureLearn)

I always find presentations about tools really interesting, partly because I used to have a full time job as an educational technology developer. Looking to recent educational technology history, there have been instances of initiatives that have aimed to create repositories of resources. Perhaps this new tool reflects an increased understanding that is isn’t the detailed content that is the bigger problem, but instead the pedagogy and the learning design. Outside any tool usage is, of course, the establishment of a culture that relates to its use within a learning community.

How are students experiencing learning online?

This important question was introduced by Sarah Knight, who joins us from JISC. The full title of Sarah’s talk was: How are students experiencing learning online? What the data from our digital experience insights 2020-1 student surveys is telling us.

Sarah’s talk referenced a recent Office for Students report that was entitled Gravity assist: propelling higher education to a brighter future. I noted that this report emphasises co-designing digital teaching and learning at every point in the design process, and the student voice should inform strategic planning.

The question is: what was the students’ experience? Data from 30k students was collected from October to December 2020. Most students were studying within home environment. Many students had difficulty of connectivity, mobile data cost, and a space to study. 36% of HE students agreed they had a choice of being involved in learning design.

There are questions about technology, use of technology, digital skills. Some further questions are: what can we do now: get basics right (connectivity), make sessions interactive, record lessons, train and support lecturers, consider the pace of deliver, create opportunities to ask questions, provide timely individual group support and feedback on assessment activities. Some of these points connect back to the topic of pedagogy which was highlighted in the previous presentation.

Another important question to ask is: how do you facilitate student engagement through academic staff? One answer might be to look at mechanisms to replicate a feeling of connectedness, and perhaps this links back to the notion of blended learning, and the different ways in which it can be considered.

On the subject of Jisc, I learnt about the following recent Jisc report at another event I attended: Digital at the core: a 2030 strategy framework for university leaders which has the subtitle ‘a long-term digital strategy framework designed as part of the learning and teaching reimagined initiative’. An obvious reflection is: there’s always things to catch up on, and always new things to read. 

Cutting the Rubber Band of Practice: Developing Post-COVID Pedagogies

Dr Chris Headleand, from the University of Lincoln, shared a metaphor: if you pull a rubber band back too far, it might break, or not go back to the same form. This begs a question that relates to the current experience in higher education: when everything returns back to normal, will everything snap back to normal, or will there be a lasting change? An important point is that academics and organisations didn’t really have a choice when it came to a rapid transition to online learning, and that change was pretty universal.

There are some important questions: have some things been stretched too far? Also, what changes might continue? Will there be on going changes in the use of physical space, transitions to new practice, and changes to infrastructure?

A tip I noticed down was: “engage student proactively, share practice often and with a wide audience”. A blog that might be of interest has the title: Preparing for the New Normal: Change Planning for the Future of Higher Education. Another reference was: A Framework for Innovation Management and Practice Development.

Help! I have not left yet. Engaging staff in transition journeys to online delivery – reflections from an emergent motorway analogy

Another metaphor was presented by Andrew Clegg, from the University of Portsmouth. Andrew drew on motorway analogy. On the outside lanes there were those driving quickly, who had high levels of competence, high levels of pedagogic and digital literacy. In the middle lane, there were staff working consistency, sometimes trying things out. There was also the inside lane: those who were slow to start, but were getting there and gaining confidence. An important point was that it is necessary to have a journey plan, and have opportunities for communication and sharing practice.

Other points I noted down were that blending learning is, of course, a spectrum. There is also a link between engagement and innovation.

Dealing with dissonance: digital education in crisis and beyond as a challenge to mindset

Associate Professor Martin Compton from UCL was interested in what works, and draws on a context of institutional cultures and leadership. A reflection was that departmental cultures can frame and shape what is done. The rapid shift to online learning represents a challenge of identity to those who may have teaching as a performance, and appreciation of the familiar: lectures and examinations.

Martin draws on the familiar and important ideas of cognitive dissonance and fixed and growth mindsets. When faced with new challenges the concept of cognitive dissonance is connected to anxiety, since there can be dissonance between what we know and what we do.

Keeping it good and simple

The final presentation of the day was by David Baume (personal website), from the University of London. I noted that graduates should be competent, communicative, collaborative, creative, critical, comfortable with complexity, conscientious, confident and computer literate. David referred to a paper called: what the research says about learning co-authored with Eileen Scanlon from The Open University.

The notes I made represents a nice summary of some really important themes about teaching and learning. Learning ‘well’ requires a clear structure and framework, the expectation of high standards expected, and the ability for learners to acknowledge their prior learning. Also, learning is an active process where learners spend time on task. Learning is also (ideally) a collaborative activity, and learners use and receive feedback on their work.

I also noted down some key elements that related to simplicity: activity should be aligned to attractive learning outcomes (I know this as the notion of constructive alignment), there should be pointers to good resources, opportunities to gain peer support, and the provision of helpful feedback. A paraphrased concept that I noted down was: “give them interesting stuff to do, and ask them what it means for them”. That “stuff”, of course, should aim to develop key skills, knowledge and behaviours. 

Reflections

What I liked about this online event was there was emphasis on sharing of practice between institutions, but there was also space to ask those important searching questions about the characteristics of higher education teaching and learning. I also appreciated the metaphors that were presented in a couple of the papers since they facilitate reflection and sharing. 

There are clear and direct implications of moving teaching online. One of those is about mental health, both of students and of teachers. 

It’s also always important to remind oneself that it’s never only about the technology, but always about how the technology is used, and in what context. A further question is also: who is the technology used with? This applies both on the student side as well as the educator side. All this links back to an option that I have always maintained: it is always people that matters most, never the technology.

I would like to acknowledge Phil Anthony, the University of Kent, and all the speakers. It was a really thought provoking event. It will be interesting to see the extent to which the rapid shift to online teaching and learning has ongoing and lasting consequences for the sector.

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