Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference 2019

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Attended, and more importantly, presented at the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference held this year at Northumbria University. Day 3 of the conference was themed around STEM and the keynote was given by Debbie McVitty, editor of Wonkhe, who talked about the impact the TEF has had on the sector and how to really measure teaching excellence.

A highlight of the day for me was the post-lunch Ignite Sessions which saw 8 presenters speaking for 5 minutes about their work or project. “Pride and Prejudice and technology (that enhances learning)” from Katie Stripe of Imperial College London will stay with me for her unique approach, as will the brave soul who used audience response in an Ignite presentation by asking people to stand or remain sitting in response to questions. Also from Imperial, Drs Tiffany Chiu and Freddie Page presented on their work around what an ideal student looks like which attempts to address the disconnect between how students see themselves and what they want out of their HE experience, and what staff want from, and want to get out of students. And Dr Helen Kaye from The Open University discussed how they are supporting final year psychology students to complete an empirical research project which possess unique challenges for distance learning students.

I also came away with ideas and additions to my reading list. For my own teaching on our PG Cert I’ve been inspired by the University of Strathclyde’s Dr Patrick Thomson to include a session around peer instruction, expanding on what we’ve done around peer assessment. I also want to expand what we have traditionally taught around rubrics and online marking, to include a discussion about the value and role of marking and the different ways it can be done. To my reading list I’ve added Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and Taking Up Space by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi.

By far the most important thing to happen today however, was that I presented for the first time with my colleague Dr Katrin Jaedicke on the work we have done to convert her statistics for biomedical sciences students course into a full fledged massive online open course (MOOC). It was mostly Katrin’s talk, as it is of course the content that is key, but I was there to contribute to any discussion around the technological and pedagogical considerations in the conversion of the course from a flat web page into a MOOC. I also ran a live quiz at the end of the session, giving people a taste of the MOOC. Katrin had initially wanted to give people a handout of one of the self assessment quizzes, but I suggested doing it live using Poll Everywhere and awarding participants with a digital badge, just like the MOOC students receive, and I’m pleased to be able to say that it all went very well.

ALT Webinar: Equality in Learning Technology

The Glass Ceiling

Another good webinar, two in a row, crikey, this one more for the ideas and thoughts it stimulated. So, ALT’s annual survey results came out in February, findings here, and this webinar was a follow-up discussion on a new area of focus for ALT, equality.

The webinar explored the differences in answers between survey responders who identified as male or female*, and asked questions about why there are those differences. For example, on the question of ‘What are the enablers / drivers for learning technology?’, there were significant differences in ‘Dedicated time’, which was ranked less important for women, and ‘Recognition for career development’, which women scored much higher than men. Maren and Martin then went on to discuss representation in ALTs governance and leadership (good, fairly balanced), and other areas including honorary lifetime member awards (very poor – 6 male, 2 female).

Slide 23, which I’ve cheekily screenshoted and annotated (above), is interesting. The number of women with ‘Senior’ in their job titles is quite a bit higher than men, but not so with titles that contain ‘Head’ and ‘Director’. Is this where our glass ceiling is then?

I asked a question in the chat, has there been any research into the gender balance of learning technology teams, and if they are imbalanced (my suspicion and experience), does that have an impact on the nature of the materials we develop and the services we provide? The answer was ‘not that anyone was aware of’. Very interesting… as I continue to inch closer to doing my own PhD and seek ideas…

Martin Hawksey’s blog post about this topic and a link to the slides can be found here, and are worth reading.

* No mention of the ‘Other’ category, which is highly problematic. I get why that is the case – relatively small survey size (c.200 responses per year) – but that doesn’t mean you can literally ‘other’ the ‘Other’. It’s not okay, and there needs to be an acknowledgement of this and justifications explicitly provided. There must be inclusion of people with diverse gender identities, even, and especially, when research splits people along binary lines. This feels rambly, a topic to be explored in a much longer post I think.

New Job

As a result of a mini restructure in the CELT my job, the Senior Learning Technologist, will cease to exist in a few weeks. That was a little disconcerting when I found out, but I am thankful to have been slotted into a new role in the new structure at the same grade, so on the 1st of August I will become the new Learning Technology Coordinator for Learning Materials Development. Longest. Job title. Ever.

What it means in practice is that my role has effectively been split into two, and there is going to be another role at the same level with responsibility for managing the VLE. The team is also being split, and I’ll have two people working on learning materials with the third learning technologist working with the VLE coordinator. In reality there will continue to be a lot of cross working within the team, especially until the VLE coordinator is appointed, but I’m positive about the possibilities the new structure offers. I can make something of this new position both for myself, to push my career in the right direction, and for the university to support our drive into new areas of independent distance learning by working with academic teams to produce appropriate high quality, pedagogically sound content.

In Defence of the Open University

While every university claims to be unique and special, the Open University truly stands out. The OU alone accepts students regardless of prior qualifications and at any time of life, and until recently was fairly unique in providing all of its courses as part time, distance learning, allowing students to get a university level education while balancing work and family life. It is one of those unique, fabulous, and brave institutions that define our country, and it’s my alma mater, so seeing what’s been happing over the past few months and years has been particularly hurtful.

I’m one of the hundreds of thousands of people the OU’s given a second change to, having had to leave school at 15 before completing my Highers. When I started to put my life back together in my early twenties one of the first and best things I did was start studying again through the OU, moving from 10 credit ‘Openings’ courses to undergraduate diploma, degree, and finally Masters in 2016. Over ten years of study, all part time while working full time, and paying for each course as it went, avoiding debt. This was only possible because I was able to squeak in the completion of my undergraduate degree before the 2012 changes to student fees.

That change, which trebled student ‘top-up’ fees to ¬£9,000 per year was disastrous for the Open University in particular, and part time study in general, because it was founded on the premise of full time study for people leaving school. The needs of part time learners and mature students were largely ignored. The government complacently claimed that it would be fine as part time students were for the first time being given access to loans via the Student Loans Company on the same basis as full time students, but they were warned that this wouldn’t be the case; that part time and mature students would be more averse to acquiring such a huge debt burden due to other responsibilities – their homes and families.

Furthermore, an earlier change made in 2007, under a Labour government shamefully, withdrew funding from students studying for a second degree at the same level, making it much harder for people to retrain and change careers later in life. This was another group of students whom the OU excelled at supporting.

The result of this has been utterly and depressingly predictable. Part time study across the UK has plummeted with the Open University taking a particularly heavy hit. This is in turn having a massive impact on their revenue, staff and programmes have been cut in response, and student satisfaction is diving. The former Vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, had to resign earlier in April following a failed attempt at making further cuts and an unfortunate and distasteful comment about the nature of OU lecturers’ work. That remark aside, it’s a little harsh to blame Peter Horrocks for the OU’s current woes. He was, after all, only attempting to save the institution as best he thought he could in the face of government policy and the marketisation agenda.

The government’s hand-wringing response to this situation is laughable, with no acknowledgement that it is their own policies that have directly brought about this situation. The fee review announced in February fails, once again, to consider the needs of part time students so it’s hard to imagine how it will resolve anything. The review seems to be in response to Labour’s pledge to scrap tuition fees, something that a Conservative government could never possibly do. The review is unlikely to accomplish anything other than tinkering at the edges, possibly introducing subject variable fees which will likely result in the further devaluing of the already heavily hit humanities. After all, no Tory government wants a well-educated and critically thinking population who might question them.

I think optimistically the best result for the Open University now is for it to be recognised as the uniquely valuable institution it is, and that a separate method of funding is made available to it. On a larger scale, it would be wonderful, even if it is wishful thinking, to pause and challenge the neoliberal dogma that the free market is the solution to all problems. A university education, and a well educated society has its own intrinsic value. For more thoughts on how the OU could be saved, see Mark Brandon, Joe Smith and Martin Weller’s blog post in Times Higher Education.

Piktochart and Academic Posters

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Adding to my many niche specialisms, I seem to have become infographic and poster girl. It’s a rubbish super hero name tbh, but not a bad niche. I’ve done a couple of sessions recently that were very mixed experiences. The first, if I’m honest, wasn’t good at all, but the one I did on Tuesday went down a treat. The difference? The venue. The first time around I was teaching in a funny semi-open access area we have in one of our buildings which has banks of computers in long rows. It’s loud, it’s hot, and even with me shouting at the top of my voice the people at the back couldn’t hear me. That meant I was having to walk up and down, repeating things to different groups of students which meant getting them all at the same place was nearly impossible. It was so bad that the academic and I decided to do a re-run which was on Tuesday, this time ensuring that we booked a proper computer room. What a difference it made. You could see, and hear, things clicking into place for the students. It was incredibly satisfying, and goes to show the power of providing the right environment which is conducive to learning.

What I was teaching was how to use Piktochart to create infographics which could then be used as part of an academic poster. The students’ brief was to create something similar to the country profiles used by the New Internationalist magazine, but with an emphasis on health. My example used Wakanda for topical, pop-culture fun. It’s a little rough, terribly plagiarised, and I made up all the stats, but it served it’s purpose well. The poster template itself is a PowerPoint template from Poster Presentations, a cracking little resource I wish I had known about a few years ago instead of creating my own.

This was to level 6 sociology students and more than one commented on how useful the tool was and how they wish they had been taught it in their first year as they could have used it in other work. It was great feedback, and I strongly suspect that the programme leader is indeed going to build this into the programme at an earlier stage in future. At which point, to my mind, instead of providing ad-hoc sessions directly to students, what I’ll do is teach the programme team who can then build it into their teaching.

ALT Annual Survey Results 2017

The results of ALT’s 2017 Annual Survey have now been released. Unsurprisingly interest in VLEs, content management systems, and eAssessment remains extremely high. I like looking at the changes more. Assistive tech, web conferencing, and collaborative tools all growing areas.

Interest in social networking on the wane. Interesting. Will social networks one day be regarded as some strange phenomenon that gripped people for a couple of decades? I’m seeing more and more disengagement on, well, social media mostly. But is that because I’m writing and reading about that kind of thing lately? Oh the paradox!

ALT Accessibility Webinar

Joined the ALT South webinar on online learning materials and accessibility, in which Tharindu Liyanagunawardena, Chair of the Online Learning Research Centre‚Äč at the University College of Estate Management, presented a case study of their experience in adapting online learning materials to improve accessibility for students. This was initially in response to students who were having difficulty with particular items within a MOOC, but the lessons learned were adapted and implemented in new templates which were subsequently shared across the institution.

There was some discussion about Blackboard Ally, a tool, or ‘revolutionary product’ according to Blackboard, which can validate the accessibility of learning materials and in many instances convert them into alternative formats such as audio, electronic Braille, and ePub. Ally is available for multiple VLEs, not just Blackboard Learn.

The webinar was also my first experience of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Well, it’s certainly an improvement as it no longer uses Java, unfortunately is uses Flash instead. I would hope that that is a stopgap measure in the transition to HTML5, but with Blackboard who knows. In keeping with the theme of the webinar, there was mention of a feature in Collaborate Ultra which allows an individual to enter live closed captions. That is a nice feature.

PG Cert AP: Day 8

First day of my optional module, Assessment and Feedback for Learning, began with a discussion of how assessment can be used for learning, rather than as a tool to measure learning. The module has this concept at its core and, as such, the main assessment of this module is to critically analyse two assessments that you have used or written previously. There is also a second assessment, to write a personal reflective report on how you have found the problem based learning approach taken in this module, and how what you have learned impacts on your own academic practice. Very meta.

After setting out the learning objectives and the assessments of the modules, the remainder of the day was spent discussing the various factors and contexts which influence how assessments are set and marked. These included how student expectations have changed as a result of the marketisation of the sector, the university’s generic assessment criteria and how that relates to the learning outcomes on individual modules, and the cascading down of risk onto lecturers, e.g. pressures around graduate employability and how that influences the assessments which are set.

We also discussed the difference between formative and summative assessment, and how and why students often see formative assessments as options. There was a little about Foucault’s ‘regimes of truth’ (got to love a bit of Foucault!), and the concepts of the hidden curriculum and expectations – that everyone has a certain baseline IT literacy for example.

PG Cert AP: Day 1

The first full session of the course introduced us to the UK Professional Standards Framework, or UKPSF, not to be confused with the UK Paintball Sports Federation. This framework is published by the HEA and defines 15 criteria in three sections – Activity, Core Knowledge and Professional Values, against which professional practice can be mapped. To gain Fellowship of the HEA you have to demonstrate ‘a broad understanding of effective approaches to teaching and learning support as key contributions to high quality student learning’ across all of the criteria.

Guidance given to complete the Fellowship application was to provide two examples, backed with evidence, for each of the 15 criteria. So 30 points in total, and for each one you need to answer the questions: ‘What do I do?’, ‘Why do I do it?’, and ‘What impact does it have?’ Helpfully, the mere act of being on this course demonstrates that you have met A5 on engaging in relevant CPD. One down, 29 to go.

In the afternoon we started to discuss how to design courses, and the QAA Quality Code was cited as the starting point if you ever have the problem of having to start from scratch. This was followed by a discussion on how to write good, relevant learning outcomes and how to design the course so that students are guided towards meeting those outcomes. This discussion will be picked up again at the next session.

Festival of Learning and Teaching

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Last year we had a conference, this year it was a three day festival, run by our colleagues in Academic Development with support from ourselves in Web and Learning Technology Services. We are too cool to be involved in the main festival itself, so we had a fringe which included a Twitter treasure hunt, a stall where we enticed people in with fun stuff on the Oculus Rift and then hawked our services to them when they were captive, as well as providing live streaming of the keynotes from each day and the closing ceremony.

I was proud of the treasure hunt we put on, I thought it was very well thought out with some fun tasks for people which made them engage with our service, Tweet a selfie with a member of Academic Development for example (which we kept secret from them!), but there was little uptake unfortunately, which I think can be put down to the relatively low numbers and insularity of an internal conference. Our stall which was strategically positioned outside key sessions was more successful, attracting a decent number of people and even allowing me to connect with someone who has a project ripe for further development in virtual reality.

In spite of running various things in the background, I was still able to attend a number of sessions over the three days:

Lego Serious Play
Serious Play is an innovative and creative way to facilitate discussion about a typically difficult or abstract topic. In keeping with the theme of the conference, our discussion was focused around what it means to be a student. The foreground model shown in the photo above is a reflection on my experience as a student, thinking back to where I started from. I’m the skeleton, symbolising my lack of knowledge, and I’m leaning back slightly from an overwhelming fear of the daunting barriers in front of me – including a Stormtrooper boss level (my dissertation!) – before I can reach my goal of enlightenment and joining the educated and the successful.

Cultural Diversity and Effective Teaching
A discussion and workshop on the many meanings behind the word ‘internationalisation’, led by external guest Dr. Marita Grimwood, an educational developer. This was the keynote from day 2, and not a session I was originally attending, but due to a last minute room change we were unable to live stream this session, so I improvised a recording solution using my iMac instead of running the WaLTS stall. After the event I edited the recordings, inserted her slides as an overlay at appropriate points and then posted the resulting video to our streaming media server.

Showcasing Learning and Teaching in Arts and Design
A series of short ten minute sessions from various members of departmental staff who discussed approaches to learning and teaching in their area. This was a really interesting talk as it made me realise how many great art events are happening in and around the city of Sunderland, and how deeply involved the university is in almost all of it. A particular highlight was the session from the National Glass Centre who talked about the experience of an off campus event where students had to work with very limited resources and no access to their usual tools.

Spectral Visions Press: Engaging Students Through a ‘Real Work’ Environment
Spectral Visions is product of the university’s English and Creative Writing programmes which aims to give students real hands-on experience with all aspects of writing and publishing. In additional to the blog and a number of student-led projects, Spectral Visions Press has also now published two volumes of work which are available from Amazon – Grim Fairy Tales and The Collection: Volume 1.

Student-Generated Induction
The keynote session from day 3 was delivered by Nick Bowskill who has developed the Shared Thinking Consultancy, an off-shoot of his doctoral research at the University of Glasgow which was designed to improve student induction processes based on social psychology theory and practice.