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Summary of Recent Work / Practice

As a curse, “may you live in interesting times” may be apocryphal, but nevertheless it feels very true of the years since my review of December 2016 (sidenote: I don’t know how or why I’ve not been asked to submit another review before now, but I won’t ask that too loudly given my workload!). I’m still at the University of Sunderland, but I’m now the CELT’s Learning Design Manager following a restructure and promotion. Back in 2016 one of the challenges I faced was raising awareness of the team and what we could do for academics, but the pandemic certainly solved that problem. Almost overnight in March 2020 CELT became pivotal in ensuring the University was able to continue its teaching, learning, and assessment commitments throughout the pandemic, utilising existing technologies like Canvas and Teams, and methodologies like Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2018), while finding new solutions to solve novel problems, for example HonorLock to enable high stakes exams to be run remotely.

One of our tasks was to help academics adapt their content for online teaching, and to assist with this we created a new team of instructional designers and content developers, doubling the capacity of CELT. As we transitioned to hybrid teaching for academic year 2021/22 we were able to make four of the new team permanent, and the department was restructured into three strands: TEL Systems, Learning Design, and Academic Support, with me stepping up to lead the new Learning Design team.

The other major change for me is that I now have significant teaching responsibilities, taking over as Module Leader for “Introduction to Digital Learning and Assessment”, a 30-credit module which is a mandatory part our Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice. In 2018 this was a scary prospect thanks to imposter syndrome (PDF, 794 Kb), but it went well and my confidence grew with success (Clance and Imes, 1978). Something I consistently received positive feedback on was about how the module provided students with tools and ideas about how technology could be used in their own teaching, as in this photo of the outcomes of a nominal group technique (PDF, 151 Kb) feedback exercise which I always do at the end of a module (Chapple and Murphy, 1996). Following a programme revalidation in 2020/21, the module changed to “Designing Learning and Assessment in Higher Education“, but I remained Module Leader and to date have taught eight cohorts across both iterations.

Finally, I have been pushing on professional writing and academic engagement outside of the University. I have presented at six conferences now, another daunting experience when I started, published two guest articles on the #ALTC Blog, and made a number of contributions. A full list is available in the side bar here, under the heading ‘Professional Writing’.

One piece of useful feedback I received in my 2016 review was that the CMALT page, and my blog in general, were too text heavy. This is something I really took to heart, and I don’t think I’ve published anything since that wasn’t accompanied by a relevant photo or video. While this review sticks to the same basic format previously used for my CMALT, I have lightened the tone with a whimsical sprinkling of ‘bad-ass medieval bunnies‘ which I hope you enjoy.

An axe-wielding medieval rabbit at the stern of a ship
This axe-wielding Northumbrian rabbit is on their way to appeal the university’s TEF rating.


Overview of CPD Activity

I continue to keep a full CPD record here on my blog, with each entry linking to a post with details and reflection. I say ‘full’, but continuous professional development is so deeply ingrained in my day-to-day practice that it’s sometimes difficult to separate out. In truth, what my CPD record really contains is a list of conferences, events, and distinct development sessions, typically provided by third parties, which I have attended. Among the things which I don’t formally record are the regular webinars and ‘tea and chat’ sessions facilitated by HeLF, the ‘Heads of e-Learning working in HE‘ and the skills sharing sessions I arrange internally for CELT, a fortnightly meeting to share our experience, best practice, and tools and services which we have discovered and are enjoying.

The three activities which are discussed in this portfolio have been chosen because they are representative of broader areas of my work over the past three years, covering Studiosity, generative artificial intelligence, and accessibility.

Two giant medieval rabbits beating a man
These two buns have finally caught up with Reviewer 2. On dear.


Example 1: Studiosity Partner Forum 2022

I’ve written about Studiosity many times now, so to just to recap quickly, this is an external student support service which provides students with personalised feedback on the quality of their academic writing, covering things like grammar, spelling, referencing, use of academic conventions, and so on. I’ve led the University’s project to implement Studiosity since 2021 (Word, 14 Kb), with the system going live for the start of academic year 2021/22.

In 2022 I was invited to attend Studiosity’s Annual Partner Forum on behalf of our Pro VC for Learning and Teaching, my first in-person conference since the pandemic, and it is this event which I have chosen for my first case study. The Studiosity project has been such a major part of my working life for the past few years that it would feel remiss not to choose an activity supporting the project for reflection, but also because if offers me the opportunity to reflect on the value of in-person events and networking with colleagues. At this event I was also interviewed by Studiosity, discussing our approach and early indicators of success. This video was added to the University of Sunderland case study which has been published on Studiosity’s website.

The conference afforded me the opportunity for both formal and informal learning, both of which would have an impact on how the project has proceeded. On formal learning, the conference included an opportunity for Studiosity to share their development roadmap and plans with the group, which on this occasion included two major new features. The first was the additional of short ‘snippets’ of multimedia explaining given concepts that could be inserted into students’ feedback. The second was a new service to facilitate peer feedback, with new students receiving feedback from those in later years who would be trained (and paid) by Studiosity. Advanced knowledge of these features allowed me first to cascade this to colleagues at the University, and then as the launch became imminent, I was able to draft announcements and emails to students to build excitement around the new features and help drive continued usage and adoption of Studiosity.

This is along the lines of what I would expect to get out of a conference, but what I didn’t expect, or perhaps what I had forgotten after lengthy lockdowns, was the spontaneous, informal learning opportunities which sprang from conversations with colleagues, an experience which online events, though valuable in their own way, aren’t quite able to replicate. At this time, Sunderland was still in a pilot phase with Studiosity, and the service was only available to targeted student groups. What I learned from colleagues at other institutions at the Partner Forum was the true costs of making the service available to all students, and the expectations which arose as a result. I recall one person telling me that students had become so accustomed to having the service, that if they were to lose it there would be an outcry (high praise for Studiosity, of course). With this information I was able to brief our Pro VC and the Studiosity Working Group (Word, 19 Kb), which I chair, in order to set expectations and inform plans for continued rollout. Now in our third year, Sunderland continues to target Studiosity at new students entering study at undergraduate level or on integrated foundation programmes as a means of maximising value while balancing different needs of the institution.

A longer-term impact for me has been a renewed willingness to engage with in-person events, which has grown alongside increased safety as life has returned to something like normal. I have since attended the Partner Forum again in 2023 and plan to do so in 2024, and I’m pleased to report that the ALT North East User Group, which I now co-chair, has returned to full capacity, running three in-person events a year at different host institutions around the region.

A frightened medieval rabbit being confronted by a sword-wielding knight
This poor unfortunate lagomorph was shocked to receive “major corrections”.


Example 2: Using AI in Education: A Student Voice

Writing a portfolio submission in 2024, it would also be remiss not discuss generative artificial intelligence, and the impact it has had on our working lives and academic communities. I have, once again, attended many CPD events to further my knowledge of generative AI, and have selected for reflection here ‘Using AI in Education: A Student Voice‘ from April 2023, which considered the technology from a student perspective. I always find it insightful and useful to get the student perspective on things, as they have different priorities and concerns from their teachers. Also, now that the age gap between myself and the typical undergraduate student is growing at a rate I can only describe as highly disturbing, I am finding that there is an increasing divergence in how they use and perceive digital technology which is often fascinating to me.

While we in Higher Education and the media at large were worrying about students using ChatGPT to write their essays, and scrambling to try and adapt assignments to be generative AI proof, I learned from this session that students were using it more as a revision aid, to generate ideas, and as a replacement for search. This last point I found alarming, but was pleased to note that at least one of the student presenters were aware of the issues around the veracity of ChatGPT’s output. This has always been one of my chief concerns about generative AI, the ease and willingness with which these systems will spout anything in an authoritative way, without citing sources, leaving you no way to verify the accuracy of the information; or, what is worse, when these systems ‘hallucinate‘: “[c]ontent generated by AI tools like ChatGPT, Bing, and Bard have been found to provide users with fabricated data that appears authentic.” (MIT, 2024)

This session has informed my practice as, starting with the 2023 cohort, I added a session on generative AI to my PG Cert module. The session, which I titled ‘Learning to Avoid Academic Pitfalls‘, covers all forms of contemporary academic misconduct, including the use of essay mills and so-called text-spinners which will rephrase passages of writing, as well as generative AI tools. For the Sunderland cohort of the PG Cert I offered this session to a colleague with a particular interest in this area to teach the session, and for the subsequent London cohort, which was taught as an intense block in July 2023, I lead this session myself, and as such the discussion was more heavily informed by my own philosophy and learning. Therefore, perhaps a little more sceptical about some of the claims of generative AI, but also a little more positive about students utilising these tools in the right way, citing examples of activity which I learned about in this session.

In my previous CPD example I reflected on the benefits of in-person events and the networking which can occur, but in contrast this example allows me to reflect on the benefits of what I call the ‘side chat’ which often takes place in online events. This on top of the fact that many events of this nature now take place online using now standard tools like Blackboard Collaborate and Microsoft Teams. This has the effect of widening the audience and allows many more participants. Without the changes brought by the pandemic, the University of Kent’s Digitally Enhanced Education Webinars may not have sprung into being, but these have become a fantastic and highly useful resource, and I’ve gotten a lot out of all of the webinars I have been able to attend live. For example, I believe it was in this session that, through the ‘side chat’, that I learned about a Chrome plugin which uses ChatGPT to autocomplete multiple choice questions! This is something which I then shared with my team for awareness, and frequently bring up in teaching and in conversations with academics about generative AI.

A joust between medieval rabbits, one riding a snail, the other being ridden by a dog
Here we can see the annual salary negotiations getting a little spicy.


Example 3: Online Learning and Teaching for Neurodiverse Students

I consider accessibility, in all its forms, to be a key value in, not just my career, but my life. I grew up in a council housing scheme in Scotland, first in my family to go to university, and I’m genuinely proud to now work for the University of Sunderland which has a long and proud tradition of widening access and offering opportunities to people with backgrounds like my own. Once students are inside the institution, it is one of my key responsibilities to help ensure that learning content is as accessible as possible. I wrote about this back in 2012 when I submitted my first portfolio to ALT, talking about how I taught myself web accessibility standards, and I continue to seek to enhance my knowledge and put it into practice by attending relevant staff development opportunities. On this theme, and for this case study, I have selected the session ‘Online Learning and Teaching for Neurodiverse Students‘ which was particularly relevant in mid-2021. Most teaching was still being done online then, but enough time had passed that we were, as a community, starting to process the lessons learned from the sudden and dramatic switch to online learning.

From the session I started to more explicitly consider accessibility through the lens of neurodiversity, adding to the range of considerations like: colours and contrast for dyslexia; subtitles and captions, which, while important for the visually impaired also assist people with speech processing disorders (which people with autism can experience as part of their spectrum of conditions); and the simple use alt text and well-structured documents to enable the proper functioning of screen reading software (again, used by wider demographics than just the visually impaired). Also, like my previous discussion on generative AI above, I found it highly informative to get the student perspective.

On webcams for example, I’m sure we can all remember the struggles of teaching online to a Teams session of blank windows and muted microphones. From listening to the student voices on this webinar, I learned that there were multiple perspectives on this issue, from students who found a large number of faces on their screen distracting, to those who liked being able to see faces to enable lip-reading. What I learned, most of all, is that there is no right answer, just as there is no typical neurodiverse person! One suggestion which I took away and implemented in my own online teaching was to have informal ‘social’ time before the start of formal teaching where staff and students could interact, discuss the weather, our pets, our bookshelves, etc., with webcams on, and then when teaching began allowing webcams to be on or off at student discretion, depending on their comfort levels. I note that I was, and am, in the enviable position of teaching the teachers, on a post graduate programme for academic staff. Not what I still think of as ‘proper students’! This means that my students are more likely to be active and engaged in teaching, and I found they were more inclined to have cameras on and to have the confidence to cut in with questions.

It’s 2024 now, and some of the lessons learned continue to inform my practice. Whether officially condoned or not, I continue to deliver my PG Cert module on a hybrid basis, running a concurrent Teams session from the front of the classroom for students who may wish to join a session online due to other commitments and time pressures they may have. During the most recent cohort I typically had between three and six students online out of a cohort of 34, and student feedback at the end of the module for this and the previous cohort has been very positive about this being an option for them. Also, taking into consideration that students may not be able to attend a session as it happens live, last year I started doing ‘recap’ videos. These are short videos recorded after a session which, with neurodivergence and attention regulatory disorders such as ADHD in mind, I try to keep to 5-7 minutes long, and cover the essentials and key points which I want students to take away from the session.

Two giant medieval rabbits carrying off a person
Heralding the departure of another Education Secretary, how many has that been now?


Updated Future Plans

To PhD, or not to PhD, that is the perennial question. I speculated on this when writing about my future plans in 2016, but then I was fresh from completing my MA and was keen to have a break and do different things with my life. While a part of me wants to do this to leave a mark on the world, and I am being strongly encouraged by my managers, I also find the scale of the commitment and time requirements intimidating. For everyone who is encouraging me I have someone else in my life saying, “No! It’s not worth it.” Having helped my partner (in the ‘no’ camp) with their final write up, I feel like I have a good idea on how I would structure my hypothetical dissertation, and I believe I could quite easily turn my work on Studiosity into a comprehensive chapter. In the meantime, while I continue to vacillate, I intend to continue my push into writing and publishing more widely. Indeed, I have something in the pipeline which is very exciting that I can’t talk about just yet!

I have no current plans to leave Sunderland or the profession. I’m proud of what CELT has become and the reputation it has gained within the University, especially since the pandemic. I’m proud of my role in helping to shape that, and in leading my team of enthusiastic, talented people. So, looking ahead at the next three years, I expect I will still be here, doing what I do; but I expect the team will change. I have lots of young, keen folks here now, and I know that we won’t be able to keep them all; that opportunities will beckon and as they seek career progression, and I will be more than happy to help and support them in all they do.

Two giant medieval rabbits tying someone up
Tired of not getting answers about inadequate campus parking, these hares have had enough.



CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Available at: (Accessed: 30 May 2024)

Chapple, M. and Murphy, R. (1996) The nominal group technique: Extending the evaluation of students’ teaching and learning experience. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. Jun 96, Vol.21 Issue 2, p147. DOI: 10.1080/0260293960210204

Clance, P. R. and Imes, S. A. (1978) The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. Vol.15, #3, Fall 1978

MIT Sloan Teaching & Learning Technologies (2024). Available at: (Accessed: 30 May 2024)


Confirmation and Date

“I declare that, to the best of my knowledge, the statements and evidence included in this submission accurately describe my practice and are drawn from my own work, with the input and support of others duly and clearly recognised.”

Signed: Sonya McChristie
Date: 30/05/2024