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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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