OU blog

Personal Blogs

Picture of Christopher Douce

Horizons in STEM education conference 2019

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 Sep 2019, 11:49

I’ve been to a couple of the HEA Horizons in STEM conferences. The last one that I went to was in Newcastle, which I found it to be an interesting event; it enabled lecturers and students to talk to one another about their experiences of teaching and learning. 

The event in 2019 was held at Kingston University, London between 3 and 5 July. I was looking forward to this event; I worked at Kingston for 6 months just over ten years ago on a contract to help develop some educational technology systems.

What follows is a rough blog sketch of points that I took away from the event. I’ve edited these notes together from the notes that I made in my analogue laptop (my work note book, and pen). Just as with many of these blogs, I’m sharing the post on the off chance that it might be randomly useful for someone (and so my line manager, and anyone else who knows me, can see what I’m doing with my time).

Just to put everything in one place, the hashtag for the conference is #UKSTEMconf19, where you can see pictures and opinions from delegates.

Opening and keynote

The conference was opened by Trish Reid and the opening keynote was by Nona McDuff, director of student achievement who spoke about: Closing the BME attainment gap through an institutional approach. 

Nona asked as an important question: why are the outcomes of some student groups so different? A part of her talk looked at the student journey. There are a number of arguments: BME students start university with different tariff points (points gained from various entry qualifications, such as A levels). There is evidence that suggests that the higher the entrance tariff points, the higher the degree classification. Looking at what is expected at what is expected and what is attained, it appears there’s a clear gap between BME students and white students.

Since there are many factors involved, an institutional wide approach was developed. I noted down the words that “equity considerations [are] being embedded within all functions of the institution and treated as an ongoing process of quality enhancement”. A part of this embedding has been raise awareness of diversity issues amongst course teams. Importantly, closing the attainment gap was considered as a university level key performance indicator at board level.

A publication that was referenced was “Inclusive curriculum framework” by McDuff and Hughes (2010), and I also noted down the words: “pedagogy, curricula and assessment that is meaningful and accurate”. This includes the importance of considering the broad concept of the teaching, its content, delivery methods, assessment, how to approach feedforward and feedback. 

There’s an obvious point in all this: considering diversity means using good practices for all students, since whatever is done or created appeals to a wider audience

A final note I made during Nona’s presentation was to another reference, a paper entitled: “Closing the attainment gap for students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds through institutional change” (Kingston University research repository), McDuff et al. (2018), published in Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning  (Open University).

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 1

The first session I attended was by Rebecca Barnes from the University of Sheffield, who spoke about developing a “Sense of belonging in science undergraduates”. Her talk was based on a model that had been developed from research carried out for an MA in education dissertation. 

Sense of belonging can be linked to self-efficacy, goals, relationships with others. 150 students were surveyed, focus groups were run, and there was something called a ‘free working activity’. Rebecca looked at BAME students, interactions with staff and other students, and asked the question: “what do students’ value during their induction?” I noted down points about opportunities to meet with staff informally and opportunities to gain more detail about what academic work they will be doing.

Next was a presentation entitled: “Exploring differential attainment by assessment type in mathematics, chemistry and life sciences” by James Denholm-Price from Kingston. James presented a quantitative study that asked an important question: do students do differently when they take exams in comparison to other assessment approaches. I noted down the phrase “we didn’t find much”, but the following sentences in James’ abstract is interesting: “The sample data show statistically-significant differences in the attainment of certain groups of students in some assessment modalities, but not all”.

My colleague, Anne-Marie Gallen presented the next talk: “How to develop and embed a discipline-specific accessibility expertise in your teaching”. Disciplines are different, sometimes those subjects introduce barriers, i.e. mathematics has some very specific barriers for students with visual impairments. Anne-Marie was included with a mathematics and statistics accessibility working group which comprised of different members: academics, support staff, disabled student services. Anne-Marie also mentioned module accessibility guides and production of resources, policies, goals and even a video.

The final talk of this first session was also by another OU colleague. Chris Hutton and Julie Robson spoke about “breaking barriers, building community: improving student engagement with preparation for studying online science by distance learning”. They addressed a familiar topic: how to use forums to engage students to help them to prepare for first year modules. Chris and Julie introduced something called a S112 preparation site (S112 being an in interdisciplinary science module called Science: concepts and practice). A key idea was to encourage students to participate in a social activity before the start of the module. 

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 2

The first presentation during this session turned out to be a workshop entitled: “Exploring ‘belonging’ at university from the student perspective: what it is and how can we facilitate it?” facilitated by Daniela Dimitrova and colleagues from Kingston. We were presented with some questions: is a sense of belonging important? Also, is a sense of belonging important to all students? This led to a discussion that it can be thought of in terms of social group, module, societies, institution, discipline or subject, and that notion of personal identity could change over time.

The next presentation had a title that presented a question that was central to an ongoing study: personal tutoring – is there one size that fits all? These questions were explored by Baljit Thatti and Nicholas Freestone, both from Kingston University who had designed a questionnaire study.

The Open University presenters in this session were Diane Butler and Cath Brown who spoke about “students as partners in scholarship in STEM open and distance learning”. Diane is an associate dean, and Cath is the president of the OU student’s association (the equivalent of the students' union). The benefits of including students are cited as being: engagement, commitment, ownership, opportunities for collaboration with staff, and contributing to an opportunity to make things better for future students. The benefits for the university includes: increased understanding of the student experience and access to authentic feedback, and the possibility of increased levels of student satisfaction and retention. There are, of course, some challenges; it’s hard to work with students at a distance.

Technology Enhanced Learning/Computer Science

Neil Gordon, from the University of Hull, began with a presentation about “Flexible approaches to teaching programming”. I seem keep bumping into Neil quite regularly; the last time I saw him was at a Computer Science education conference at the start of the year, and another time was at one of these HEA events. 

Neil made some interesting and important points: CS student numbers are increasing, but there is a poor pass rate in GCSE Computing. In Neil’s words, this represents a ‘leaky pipeline’. There are other concerns too, which are concerned with the relatively low employability rates of computer science graduates. One way to approach this is to look at the teaching of the subject. Neil introduced a CS teacher training case study that used something called Crumble https://redfernelectronics.co.uk/crumble/  (Redfern Electronics website), a programmable controller that could be used to simple robots and buggies.

A session wouldn’t be complete without an OU delegate. This session had two. The first presenter was Anton Dil, from the School of Computing who spoke about “Layered online feedback on code quality”. Anton is the module chair for M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming (OU website). Anton wants to improve the feedback that is given to students, since he mentioned that there is something that is particularly difficult about programming. Regular practice is considered to be important. How could we support tutors to test code that has been written by students? Two automated tools have been created which assesses different dimensions of code (or software) quality: whether code can compile, whether it meets the task requirement, whether it is efficient, and is presented in a way that can be read by fellow programmers (has good style). 

The second OU presenter was myself, where I spoke about “teaching interaction design teamwork at a distance”, where I drew on my experience of co-facilitating an event that is known as a Design Hackathon for TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience. If you’re interested, there’s a blog tag called Hackathon that might (or might not) be of interest. 

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 3

This third session took place at the start of the second day of the conference. First to present was Cristina De Mattels from the University of Nottingham, who gave a presentation entitled: “Come on into our research labs: promoting interactions of early-year undergraduates wit researchers to gain insights into the research community of practice”. Underpinning this was the idea of attempting to help undergrads to get more of an insight into what scientists actually do. One way to do this is to try to facilitate some interaction between undergrad students and researchers. I noted down that there was a programme of extra-curricular activities such as an invitation into the research labs, the making of films, and an activity called ‘sharing my bench space’.

Next was a presentation entitled: “how does a vocational qualification (BTEC) prepare students for a degree in biomedical sciences?” by Liz Hurrell and colleagues from the University of Central Lancashire. They reported that there were an increasing number of students taking BTEC courses. The consequences of this could mean a higher drop-out rate and a lower degree classifications (particularly at research intensive universities) for some students. We were told that widening participation students are more likely to take BTEC than A levels but the more applied nature of the courses can have benefits. During degree programs the point was made that some BTEC students may struggle with exams and revision in comparison to A level students, and some may have a sense of accompanying stigma if students have to attend additional classes for maths and chemistry.

I found Liz’s presentation especially interesting, since I used to be a BTEC student. I really enjoyed the course that I studied, and I felt that it equipped me well for the practical computer lab sessions that I had on my undergraduate degree. Although there was an excellent maths teacher during my BTEC, I struggled as an undergraduate. In some respects, the remedial maths classes that I attended felt as if they were an afterthought. There wasn’t much teaching. Instead, we sat in a room and worked through yellow worksheets (which I think I have kept hold of).

The next session was a workshop: what does an inclusive timetable look like in STEM? It was facilitated by Nigel Page and colleagues from Kingston. To be honest, when I saw the title of this session, I was looking for the door for the simple reason that I really don’t like planning my module timetables (and many of them are online). After five minutes into the introduction, I realised that there was no immediate escape without embarrassment for everyone. 

The facilitators looked at a number of different factors, such as commuting patterns and differences in demographics between students studying different subjects. An interesting point was that BME students have to travel further to Kingston than other groups. One of the reasons for this might be the demographics of Kingston and the surrounding areas.

It was also interesting to note that they university had a policy where student’s couldn’t arrive in class after it had started. If classes start early in the morning, and last an hour, all these individual factors have a potential to create barriers for learning. The point was made that there’s a link between timetables, pedagogy and course design. Sometimes barriers might not be obvious. Unexpectedly, this session became one of the highlights of the conference. 

Professional practice session

The penultimate presentation was by Sonia Kumari and colleagues, who spoke about ‘Pedagogy through civic engagement: three case studies from geography’. Their case studies were about the intersections between academic study, practical experience and community involvement. Students went out into the community and carried out an investigative journalism project.

The final presentation had a very long title: how could teaching observation schemes adapt to meet students’ demands of what high quality teaching is expected to be in the STEM subjects? Penny Burden and Nigel Page’s presentation was about the context of the national students’ survey and the teaching excellent framework. We were given two activities: to define high quality learning, and what it might look like, and what does a good teaching observation scheme look like?

I made a note of top 3 points that you might want to look for: checking of learning, tutors and lecturers doing different things (running activities), and delivering materials that meet the needs and culture of student groups. A further point that I noted down was: look at the whole picture, beyond the four walls of the classroom; students may appreciate guest speakers who bring the outside to the classroom. 

Closing keynote

The closing keynote was by Samantha Pugh who spoke of Re-imagining Assessment in Higher Education. Samantha spoke a 12 month project about connecting assessments between programme learning outcomes (PLOs). I was curious about this concept, since I’m more used to the world of module learning outcomes. There was a link to graduate attributes and skills, such as critical thinking skills, able to work critically with knowledge, and effective communication.

We were presented with an example from Chemical Engineering. A phrase that I noted down was: “we need to demonstrate that learning outcomes have been meet at each levels, along with programme level outcomes, but how do we do this?’ We were all asked a question: “what assessments could be used to allow students to demonstrate achievement of programme learning outcomes for your subject?”

We were directed to something called a ‘research-teaching nexus’ by Healey and a report that had been written by Samantha and published by the Leeds Institute called Teaching Excellence: A compendium of assessment techniques in higher education: from students’ perspectives (PDF).

I made a note of some conclusions: assessment is an integral part of programme design; clear programme learning outcomes help with aligning assessment to study, formative assessment should inform teaching and help student success in summative learning, and students need opportunities to revisit learning.

Reflections

Nearly two months passed between attending this conference and writing these reflections. Since the event, my work has become muddied with interviewing, quite a bit of study, and taking on a new role in the university. 

I remember that a few things struck me: the extent to which diversity was featured and discussed throughout this whole conference, the number of university colleagues that I met there, and the clear opportunity of sharing (and discussing) practice with colleagues – which is, of course, one of the great benefits and advantages of this type of event.

Also remember being impressed by Kingston and the work that they’re doing. There was a time when Kingston used to be my ‘local’ university. Rather than choosing to study there (which I could have easily have done), I went to another university in another city. 

Unexpectedly, the session that I found most interesting was also a session about a subject that I find the most boring: timetabling. I took away the point that, when it comes to education and equality, geography really does matter and that it is really important to make the effort to get to know who your students are. You can’t fully understand diversity without taking some important steps towards understanding.

Addendum

When I was sorting out my papers a couple of weeks after writing this blog, I noticed a handout that I had forgotten about. It had the title "Taxonomy of 'high quality' teaching: the students' perspective". I'm not quite sure where I got the handout from, but I think might have been Burden and Page's session. Rather than recycling the handout and risk forgetting about it, I thought it would be both worthwhile and useful to summarise it here.

The taxonomy was split into three sections: attitude, methods and scaffolding. The elements of each are summarised below:

  • Attitude: respect; ability of relate to the student experience; high responsiveness; building a rapport; enthusiasm; engagement.
  • Methods: engage students from the beginning of lectures; design of reinforcement activities; connection of past, current and future knowledge; detailed explanations during lectures; PowerPoint slides as a guide, not script; workshops to support lectures.
  • Scaffolding: updated technologies; mandatory recording of lectures (voice); exams after every semester which counts for 25%; breakdown of workload for both parties; involvement of outside resources to supplement learning.

From my own perspective, the entries under attitude and methods are really familiar (and are important to remember).

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Digital accessibility in higher and further education conference, April 2016

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 May 2016, 12:06

I’ve been to a couple of events at the British Computer Society (BCS) before. This one was especially interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are over ten thousand students with disabilities studying at the Open University, and it’s important to know what is going on in the field. Secondly, accessibility in higher education is central to a module that I tutor (H810 accessible on-line learning). Another reason, of course, was to catch up with colleagues in other institutions who work in the digital accessibility sector.

This blog post is intended for internal (and external) colleagues, and students who are studying this area. What follows is a quick summary of all the talks I attended. I also hope this summary might be useful for anyone who was at the conference.

Introductions and opening talks

The conference had the subheading: ‘meeting the needs of the increasing number of students with disabilities’. Lord Addington, spokesman for Special Educational Needs (SEN) at the House of Lords, introduced the event. He spoke about the political context, highlighting the importance of employers. A really important point was: ‘please make sure everyone knows what you can do, to make someone’s life slightly easier; let them know you have practical solutions when you talk to people outside this room’.

Accessibility for students with disabilities

The first speaker was Majid Kahn, who spoke about his experience as an undergraduate student who has a visual impairment. An early point that directly resonated with my own knowledge was the difficulties that can surround acquiring assistive technology through the UK Disability Support Allowance (DSA). Due to delays that are inherent in the process, Majid had to obtain a ‘loan’ computer from the RNIB, which arrived one month after the start of a course.

Majid said (according to my notes) that some software not was accessible through a screen reader. An accompanying challenge was accessing text books (and some books that published in PDF format are not accessible). A practical solution was to directly email the author, who could send a Word version (which would then be accessible). Since many documents and resources are accessed through institutional learning environments, Majid commented that ‘Moodle seems to be inaccessible at the moment’. This was a point that I found interesting, since I know the OU has been putting a work into trying to make Moodle accessible. Perhaps there might be differences between how Moodle is set up and used by different institutions.

Another key point was that the training available at university (in terms of how to use systems, products and assistive technologies) is not adequate. This was connected with the view that although things are heading in the right direction, there is a long way to go, and there is a lack of awareness. Awareness is connected to the importance of communication, and the acceptance that every student is different. In some situations, students may be reluctant to ask for help and advice, and some lecturers might be unwilling to offer additional support. To help to facilitate understanding it was considered important to share information; to help university staff to become more aware of the needs of students. 

An industry perspective on what to teach and how

David Sloan is an ‘accessible user experience engineer’. I know David through his publication on the notion of holistic web accessibility (Word doc, University of Bath). David’s job is to provide advice on how to develop and support digital accessibility, which is something that is often thought of ‘very late in the day’, or is considered as an afterthought.  Put another way: ‘organisations pay us to give bad news’. Rather than reporting on what doesn’t work, organisations and universities shouldn’t really focus on ‘evaluating and repairing’, but should instead focus on ‘improving practices and processes from the beginning’.

Some key problems include the lack of web development skills, understanding that not everyone uses a mouse for access, the use of colour, and media accessibility, i.e. offering alternative (useful) descriptions for graphics.

A fundamental problem can relate to the organisational perspective; accessibility not being connected to good experience design, or accessibility being ‘hived off’ into another part of interaction design. The key point is that accessibility needs to be built into development processes, and this relates to the idea of an ‘accessibility design maturity continuum’ http://uxfor.us/mature-it (Paciello group); accessibility shouldn’t be added as an afterthought.

There are a number of challenges for educators: the importance of integrating accessibility into the curriculum, that digital literacy and accessibility communication should be embedded into all subjects (and not just information technology or computing sciences), and that it should be integrated into learning activities, experiences and assessment. It is also important to include accessibility as a core professional skill.  David went on to suggest that there might be increased professionalization of accessibility, and mentioned something called TeachAccess.org (TeachAccess website).

As David was talking, I had a thought which relates to the complexities that are inherent in accessibility. Whilst it is possible to create accessible resources and accessible software, every learner is different in terms of their personal needs and their learning strategies. Learners need to develop expertise and mastery over their tools. This is, of course, something that takes time.

Accessible STEM: Anticipating and resolving barriers

Emma Cliffe works in the accessibility resource centre in the University of Bath. Emma helps to provide accessible solutions for maths, computing, and subjects that present a lot of diagrams.

When it comes to maths, a really important point is that students are expected to produce assignments that their lecturers can read; students invariably need to show their working to demonstrate their understanding of mathematical concepts. One of the issues is that some digital formats (such as PDFs, for example) are ‘lossy’, which means that they lose some of their important semantic information when PDF documents are created.

Lecturers need to provide materials in a format that retains the ‘semantic structure’ (or meaning) of the maths that they aim to teach. Emma mentioned a range of tools and formats: structured Word documents, structured HTML documents, MathML, or Tex plus something called MathJax, Markdown, or ePub3. 

As a brief aside, Tex is a typesetting language which is used with Latex, which mathematicians often use to write technical papers. I’ve used Latex in anger only once, and found it very difficult! I hadn’t heard of something called MathJax before.

 A key question is: how do you author mathematics? The answer is: it is a skill that needs to be learnt (and, of course, takes time to master). This area is one that is rapidly changing, and is difficult for disabled support allowance (DSA) assessors to keep up.

Emma moved onto looking at a subject that that cropped up in my undergraduate studies: finite state automata, which are usually represented through diagrams (using circles and arrows). A finite stage machine is an abstract machine that moves between different states of operation. The thing is, it’s pretty difficult to describe them. To emphasise this point, we were shown different types of descriptions, some more descriptive and wordy than others.

Reflecting on David’s session, I noted that we need to help students to find a choice of tools that work for them. We also need to embed accessibility into procurement processes, and figure out how to integrate accessibility in our teaching (since non accessible students can also benefit from any adjustments that we make). Collaboration is, of course, important too.

Accessibility and MOOCs

EA Draffan from the University of Southampton spoke of a range of different issues that related to accessibility. One point (and I don’t know whether this is true) is that the majority of learners are either middle aged, or elderly.

EA made the really important point that all technologies can be assistive. Some important questions to ask those working in the academic context are: why are we using certain types of multimedia? What are its barriers for use? Do all learners need it? Is personalisation possible?

Rather than presenting research findings, the main point of EA’s presentation seemed to be: MOOC designers and developers need to be mindful about the importance of accessibility. EA went onto talk about different types of accessibility checkers. (There is, of course, the accompanying issue that it can be sometimes difficult to understand and interpret the results from these checkers).

On the subject of MOOCs, I have a couple of research questions (one of which was touched on by EA). The first one is: what do MOOCs about accessibility actually teach? And, secondly, are MOOCs themselves accessible? What are the practical barriers that learners face, and what do they do to get around them?

Parallel session: accessible and adaptable materials and content

The afternoon parallel session consisted of three presentations. The first talk was about ‘how to make PDF documents accessible in virtual environments’, and was given by colleagues from AbilityNet (AbilityNet website). The advice was simple, familiar and effective: create documents using accessible tools, know your audience, don’t use long paragraphs, use headings, use bullet points to break up text, avoid graphics of text, don’t use colours to provide information, and use alternative text for images. Importantly: always consider the semantic structure of a document.

Next up, was an accessibility consultant called Ted Page, who said there were differences between technical accessibility and content accessibility. I think this means that event though something might be accessible through assistive technology, the corresponding content, if read out by a screen reader, might not make any sense at all. PDFs are, apparently, a reasonable solution, but I was interested to hear that MathML is coming to PDF documents (which should add more semantic structure to documents). This echoes Emma’s point that this is a fast moving area.

The third presentation from this session was by Joanna Hunt, from Blackboard. Joanna spoke about a new on-line real-time conferencing system that may replace Elluminate (which is the basis of OU Live, the OU’s real-time tutorial system), which relies on a Java plug-in. This additional bit of Java software can sometimes be a barrier for users. This connects to a wider point that usability and accessibility are intrinsically connected. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a feel for how the new Blackboard system may work (and its accessibility) since it is still under development.

Closing Keynote: Employment prospects of STEM graduates with Disabilities

Peter Looms, from the Technical University of Demark addressed a range of wider issues. Not only is accessibility important in terms of learning resources and classroom activities, but equal access to social activities (of course) is also important. This point is related to the social model of disability. There should be a movement away from solving problems, to removing barriers.

Other points related to the costs of exclusion: there are societal and economic impacts. Assistive technology and digital tools can often be expensive. There are also benefits to inclusion. Peter mentioned Kyle Schwanke, a Microsoft Xbox engineer who has ASD, and touched on the importance of diversity and recruitment. (More information about Kyle Schwanke can be found in a Microsoft People article). The point is that diversity should be viewed as an asset, not a burden. 

Discussion and reflections

During each of the two parallel sessions, each group was asked to consider what might be four points (or steps) to digital accessibility.

Here is a list of the combined points: the importance of consultation (with students), professionalise good teaching practice, improve access to information, put skills before disability (and use the social model of disability), consider using game technology for educating tutors, the importance of doing things the right way, the importance of standards, the importance of involving users, training tutors, and working together.

The final discussions centred upon whether the BCS could embed more accessibility into its core mission, and the extent to which the Teaching Excellent Framework (Times Higher article) may influence practice.

My main concluding thought is that there was one aspect to the conference that wasn’t a surprise, and another aspect that was a surprise. In some respects, all of the subjects and issues that were discussed were quite familiar to me: I am aware of the challenges that surround mathematics, and that we should not be ‘retrofitting’ accessibility to digital materials (but should, instead, think about accessibility from the outset). The surprise was the feeling that there is still a long way to go when it came to educating people about the importance of accessibility.

There are (at least) two reasons why it is important. Firstly, making something accessible, makes things easier for everyone. Secondly, we a moral and a legal responsibility to do something about it. 

For those who are interested, resources from the conference have been made available on the BCS website.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post

This blog might contain posts that are only visible to logged-in users, or where only logged-in users can comment. If you have an account on the system, please log in for full access.

Total visits to this blog: 953415