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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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2nd Annual STEM Teaching Conference 2021

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 13 Apr 2021, 08:21

On 3 March I found some time to attend an internal OU event that was called the 2nd Annual STEM Teaching Conference 2021. The event has an accompanying conference website  and a detailed programme (PDF). For those of us who were not able to attend, and can access some of the OU web pages, there are also recordings of the various sessions, for anyone who might be interested.

A further note is that this conference was a STEM Faculty event organised and sponsored by Diane Butler and Carlton Wood, who are associate deans. What follows is a quick summary of the sessions that I attended, and a short reflection section that is towards the end of this blog. I do hope this summary might be of interest to some of the follow delegates.

Keynote: Changing the attainment gap

The keynote was given by Dr Winston Morgan, Reader in Toxicology and Clinical Biochemistry, and Director of Impact and Innovation, School of Health Sport and Bioscience, University of East London. An abstract for the keynote is as follows: “Changing from the attainment gap to the awarding gap is an attempt to shift interventions away from fixing the students and their deficits; a strategy which has failed over the last 25 years, to fixing the tutor and their biases. … the presentation will show that making changes to the design and delivery of assessments and assessment practices will not change outcomes, primarily because they assume a student deficit. A more effective strategy would be to highlight the role and impact of tutor bias linked to racialised stereotypes. This is particularly important to the allocation of privileges to students which will enhance performance, the marking of assessments and who is accused of academic misconduct. Finally, the presentation will provide examples of how we can minimise or mitigate the impact of racialised bias on BAME student outcomes, particularly the awarding gap.”

We were introduced to the concept of the awarding gap, and an important question: how do you teach through a racialised world? The point was made that our biases have real impact, and denial about the gap is not an option: we have both a collective and individual responsibilities. Related to this point, I noted down the words (which I hope I’ve noted down accurately): “reflect on how much time you invest in your BAME students, and make genuine effort to engage your BAME students“.

Another point was: within your scholarly activity, seek out people from different groups. I also noted down a “take back to the classroom slide” which presented the point: we live in a racialised world, this leads to bias and inequalities, and this means that we much allocate academic privileges in a fair way.

A few days before editing this summary, I noticed a newspaper article that related to some of the themes that were presented within this keynote: I'm quitting as an academic because of racism and joining Surrey police. The following sentence jumped out at me: “I have found a serious diversity problem; I have been unable to get past overt and subtle prejudice in order to make a difference to BAME students and potential future academics.”

Proactive help for ill-prepared Level 3 students

The first main session I attended was by three colleagues from the School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences: Louise MacBrayne, Fiona Moorman and Janet Haresnape. Their session was described as follows: “A new proactive support scheme is being piloted for S317 and S315 20J. Students deemed to be ill-prepared were targeted for proactive support. This presentation will update on ongoing results and will reflect on the potential usefulness of such an approach to increase student retention and success at level 3.” For reference, S317 is Biological Science and S315 isChemistry: Further Concepts and Applications

Different criteria were used to identify students that might be potentially at risk, and may potentially benefit from support. One group was students who have a weak pass on important level 2 modules, such as S215 Chemistry: Essential Concepts, and S294 Cell Biology. Another group were students who were new to the university, having transferred academic credit from another institution, or students who may have a limited background in science. Pass rate for these group of students is less than half that of other students.

Two different groups of students were identified: one that was high risk, and another group that was a moderate risk. Students were provided proactive support through one-to-one sessions. There were further plans to develop drop in sessions.

I didn’t make notes of any firm findings, but I liked the approach of attempting to identify groups of students that may potentially benefit from additional support or guidance from tutors.

Caps, quotas and standby lists

The second presentation I attended was facilitated by my Computing and Communications colleague Frances Chetwynd. Her presentation had the subtitle of “a guide to managing student waiting lists (and reducing your stress levels)”. Her abstract description presents the challenge clearly: “with the University seeing unprecedented rises in student numbers … ensuring we have enough tutors on each module is an increasing problem.” One her (and our) aims is to reduce the student waiting list.

Frances offered a definition of a quota. It is something (a number) that limits registrations and reservations, and is set by staff tutors and module team, and is set by academic services. A quota is important since it gives university colleagues time to carry out tutor recruitment, reduces costly deferrals, and can ringfence module places for certain reasons (such as apprentices), and reduces legal challenges. The point was simple: “if you have any uncertainty over student numbers, do have a quota”.

There are a number of resources that can help (within the OU world) that can help to make decisions about the setting of quotas. There are tools called PowerBI and Ratatosk which can provide useful numbers and summarise a trend of student registrations. Also, academic services colleagues also produce weekly/daily data.

Some useful early actions include send messages to ALs about modules that may be advertised, have pre-application briefings to help tutors with their application process, ask to advertise internally and externally, and try to get adverts out to external sites.

It’s important to keep everyone informed, and trying to increase the quote all the time; speaking with staff tutors to get a handle on what potential capacity there might be. Other actions: you can ask the SST to ring around to see if they can register, and interviewing.

After final enrolment date: reserve students will drop off, so standby can be moved to reserve status. We got money to call ALs to call students to remind them to register, and the only way to register, is to ring into student registration services.

A collaborative framework for associate lecturers to enhance student and tutor satisfaction 

Next up was a presentation by my Computing and Communications colleagues Marina Carter and  Richard Mobbs, who spoke about how they provide student support through “the adoption of a collaborative framework” which “enables students to benefit from consistent, coordinated, and enhanced support and the sharing of the tuition workload among associate lecturers (ALs).” They go onto explain that “the framework involves the staff tutor working closely with ALs using tutor forums to support the collaboration.”

An important aspect of this is a tutor forum: “the tutor forum facilitates peer support amongst tutors, sharing of experience of all the key elements of module tuition, including consistency and accuracy of correspondence tuition right through to broader teaching philosophy and pedagogy issues.” Also, “the framework is enhancing student’s tuition provision by the inclusion of topic focussed tutorials hosted by subject experts. Additionally, a weekly teaching email is sent to all students (via their tutor), with one tutor responsible for composing the email each week.” Tutor also share students’ activities, “keep track of student engagement, progression and retention analytics”.

I noted down that some threads were set up on the tutor forum, such as a student cluster forum posting plan, and a TMA marking guide thread that is designed to encourage tutors to share good practices. I also noted down that working together has the potential to mean less work. Through the forum tutors are able to working together to create a set of tutorials and share tuition tasks, such as sharing what needs to be done. When reviewing tutorial attendance, those tutorials that have a focussed topic may be ones that are most popular.

Other benefits of the tutorials are that tutors can cover each other, new ALs paired up with more experienced tutors, and a team approach means that there are high registrations and attendance at tutorials. Collaboration encourages different tutors to do different things and encourages the development of a community of practice.

Producing a module outside the VLE 

Sticking with the theme of Computing modules, the next presentation I attended was given by Michel Wermelinger and Oli Howson, who are also based in the School of Computing and Communications. Michel and Oli have been working on an update to a module called M269 Algorithms, Data Structures and Computability.

Here’s how they introduce their session: “We're producing a Computing module to be fully delivered (study materials and TMAs) via Jupyter notebooks, not the VLE. We're authoring in a simple text format (not Word), automating the process as much as possible, and hosting the production materials on a version control platform to work together.”

They go onto say that: “a new edition of M269 is being authored in a different way to provide more programming practice to students  … [The module is being] authored entirely (both book and TMAs) in Markdown, a very simple and widely used text-based mark-up format. A set of scripts written by [the module team] transforms the Markdown files into Jupyter notebooks, which will be the main medium for students to study M269. … Using freely available software we convert the Jupyter notebooks to PDF and HTML to provide alternative read-only formats to students. Traditionally, the module team, students and ALs work with multiple documents: the TMA questions, the student's solution document, the tutor notes and additional code files. This leads to inconsistency errors and time overhead in authoring, answering, and marking TMAs.”

There’s a lot of technical abbreviations to unpack here, but all makes complete sense. I’ve heard it said that an attribute of a good programmer is laziness, in the sense that good programmers want to find efficient ways of solving problems. Sometimes programmers and developers create (or curate) what might be known as a ‘toolchain’ to solve certain problems. This is exactly what Michel and Oli have done.

One of the most important bits of their toolchain (since students will be using this too) is something called Jupyter notebooks (Jupyter.org). Michel and Oli describe it as follows: “Jupyter notebooks are interactive browser-based documents, allowing students to read the text, run the example programs and solve the exercises without the overhead of switching media.” In essence, can use it to play with (and learn from) a programming language.

Text for M269 is written in Markdown (Wikipedia). I found this really interesting, since I hadn’t heard of Markdown before, but it does look pretty easy to follow and understand. Markdown documents are converted to notebooks, which can also be used to create zip files, HTML and PDF files.

I noted down that they also used something called Nbsphinx which is Jupyter Notebook Tools for Sphinx. This is where everything gets a bit recursive, since Sphinx (Sphinx website) appears to be a documentation tool that is used with Python.

Everything that is created by the module team is saved to GitHub. Michel and Oli described Github as “the worlds largest repository of software; we know who has changed what and why – no more emailing around of Word files”. Plus, each Github repository has a wiki, which is used to document who has changed what.

Since learning the principles behind algorithms isn’t easy, the module team have tried to reduce cognitive load on students. Previously students have to change between different documents and resources. With the current version of the module, using Jypiter notebooks, everything is kept in a simple document. The module team also wanted to reduce the cognitive load on the tutors too. 

The takeaway points from this presentation were simple: automation is important and useful, have proper version control, use Markdown to focus on content, and consider using Jupyter notebooks for interactive content.

Plenary session

The final session of the day was facilitated by Dr Diane Butler, Associate Dean Academic Excellence, from The Open University, Dr Neil Williams, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Faculty of Science, Engineering and Computing, Kingston University, Professor Sally Smith, Head of Graduate Apprenticeships and Skills Development, Edinburgh Napier University and Dr Elinor Jones, Associate Professor, Department of Statistical Science, University College London. 

The broad focus of the plenary was about what “other STEM practitioners and institutions have experienced the last year and how they feel their teaching practices may be permanently altered as a result of the pandemic and the switch to digital delivery of curriculum”. There is an accompanying question, which is whether there have been long-lasting implications for STEM Higher Education both in traditional and distance learning institutions.

Diane began by asking all participants to reflect on the impact of the pandemic in each of their institutions, and also asked: what would you not do, what you might keep, and how has the delivery of HE changed?

A point was that everyone has become learners, since everyone has had to learn new skills. In UCL practice has changed, moving from traditional face-to-face lectures “flipped” learning. I noted down the word “trying” a couple of times: trying to replicate some of the things that happens on campus, and trying to actively facilitate peer-to-peer activities. Assessments have had to be done in a different way. There have been impact on staff. One participant reported that “some are on their knees”, but it has also driven forward staff development activities; staff know more about technology enhanced learning.

What hasn’t worked? It has been harder to ‘connect’ with students, and harder for students to connect with each other. Some students really liked pre-made materials. Difficulties exist since students often have their microphones and video turned off. 

There are contrasts: some students like working in their own time, but not everyone has faired well. There might be a gap between those who have flourished, and those who haven’t. The sudden short term change in practice might lead to a longer term change: more use of the flipped classroom.

What will happen to Higher Education after everyone returns? What is going to stay and what is going to go? I made a note of something called a “blended learning task force”. There might be more independent learning and changes to assessments. The sudden shift to online has also accelerated professional development. There is also a concern that the pandemic has magnified digital divides. 

With everyone, and every institution emerging from the pandemic, there was the suggestion that it may be necessary to find ways to give student and staff reasons to come to the campus.

A final question: is there still a place for the OU if other intuitions are now doing what the OU does? A face-to-face institution isn’t a distance learning university; it’s all about creating a blend with more materials being placed online. One of the final points was that the OU has nothing to fear, since the OU continues to innovate. 

Reflections

For this conference, I mostly stuck with the computing sessions. Looking back, I think there were two reasons for this. The first is that I wanted to support them, and secondly, there were some colleagues that I have not had much contacts with some of my colleagues over the last year, and so it is good to catch up with what they have been doing.

Like with the previous AL development conference I wrote about, I would have much preferred to attended a face-to-face session, rather than an online session. I miss the coffee chats, and when you’re actually attending a conference, you can’t get so easily distracted by emails and phone calls. In a virtual event, it’s too easy to drop out or to move away to do something else. These things said, Dr Winston Morgan’s keynote set the right tone, and presented messages that continues to resonate. I really enjoyed Michel and Oli’s presentation about M269. Finally, a very interesting plenary session.

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