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Sonya's Blog Posts

On the Death of Twitter

Simpsons Meme - Already Dead
To be clear, it was already dead before Musk, he’s just been killing it more

I’m done. I’m out. Twitter descended into a miserable hate-filled hellsite long before Musk took over, but good gosh every time you think it can’t get any worse he finds a way. I’ve barley used it over the past few years, but last week I received a lovely, friendly email telling me they were revoking my API access for the bot which auto-Tweets posts I make here which is, perhaps bizarrely, the final straw. I am mothballing rather then deleting my account outright as I wish to cyber-squat my name, but the WordPress app is gone, my apps are gone, and the account will now sit dormant save for maybe once a year when I log in on a browser to make sure I still have access. Just like LinkedIn.

It’s lamentable. It didn’t have to be this way, and I’m old enough to remember when Twitter was fresh and exciting and a great place for building communities, but those days are long gone. Killed by a profit incentive that prioritises outrage and antagonism. Just like Facebook. Imagine a world where it was run as a public service, with rules and etiquette derived from consensus and putting wellbeing first. It’s been done. Once. That glorious shining light of the internet: Wikipedia.

And something like that is happening with Mastodon, which is not a centralised profit driven service, but a collection of communities that share a technical standard that allows people to talk to each other across those communities freely. Wired has a good, recent article all about it and how to get started, and if you’re reading this you probably work in higher education, so a good community for you to join would be the one I’m in: scholar.social.

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UKAT Annual Conference 2023

The University of Sunderland has done a lot of work over the past few years to standardise and professionalise our personal tutoring provision and align it with UKAT, the United Kingdom Advising and Tutoring association. It was from this that the Studiosity project began, and when our Pro VC for Learning and Teaching put out a call towards the end of last year for us to attend and present at this year’s conference en masse, I submitted a proposal for my Studiosity pilot year presentation – now in what I hope is its final form, including impact on attainment and progression for the pilot cohort.

Conference sessions I was able to attend as a participant were:

  • UKAT Curriculum Taster Session, by Karen Kenny of the University of Exeter which allowed me to complete an introductory module.
  • Empowering Under-Represented Voices, by Rachael O’Connor from the University of Leeds which included a discussion on how tutors can reach and support those students.
  • Considerations Around Academic Misconduct, by Luke Jefferies from the University of East Anglia – a really good session that deconstructed notions of ‘cheating’ and discussed some of the unspoken and unacknowledged factors which feed into academic misconduct. I had not considered, for example, that in some cultures it is a sign of respect to directly quote others, rather than being taken as plagiarism as it is in UK HE.
  • Lighting Talks on the significance of graduate attributes, an evaluation of the impact of mindset interventions, and the impact of specialist academic tutors from my colleagues at our London Campus.
  • Technology in Advising SIG, by Pete Fitch of UCL who led a discussion on what technologies we are using to support tutoring, including learning management systems, ePortfolios, and bespoke timetabling and appointment booking systems.
  • Understanding Student Finances, by Charmaine Valente from the Student Loans Company who talked about the current loans system in England and Wales which is helpful for PATs to know about to be able to inform students.
  • Academic Coaching at the University of Wolverhampton, by James Jennings who talked about the dedicated academic coaches they are employing at Wolverhampton to provide dedicated support and pastoral care for students.
  • Critical Thinking and Tutoring, by George Steele of Ohio State University which was an interesting session to see some of the differences in perspective in the US system, such as students choosing an institution first without knowing what they want to major in. Part of the role of tutors there is to guide students and help them make that decision.
  • Active Listening for Effective Personal Tutoring, by Angela Newton from the University of Leeds who led an interactive session exploring and evaluating our listening skills.

Attached photos are from the opening keynote speech, George Steele from Ohio State talking about reflective thought, and examples of the Welsh language not trying very hard (I feel like I can get away with this joke by being Scottish).

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Studiosity Research Outcomes

Screenshot showing improved attainment for Studiosity users
Screenshot showing improved student attainment where Studiosity was used

In this presentation Professor Liz Thomas, who has previously done impact analysis for Studiosity, presented her latest research on the experience of UK institutions using the service since it launched here in 2016/17, and now includes 22 UK HEIs.

The screenshot I’ve included above shows improved attainment rates of students who have used Studiosity versus those who did not, and looks very similar to the charts we produced here after our pilot year. Caveats abound of course. I’ve said “correlation ≠ causation” more times that I can count of late, and it is perfectly possibly that the students who engage with Studiosity would have been high achievers in any case, or would have engaged with other interventions to improve their work. But it certainly seems like there is something there, and the research also showed that in the groups of students who engaged with Studiosity, the attainment gap between white and BME students was reduced, and for one institution completely eliminated.

Other findings from the research included that 54% of usage takes place outside of conventional office hours, usage peaks in April (and on Wednesdays), and both professional and academic staff reported a benefit of the service as being able to refer students to a specialist service which freed up time for them to concentrate on other areas.

One point of discussion was around low engagement and how this can be improved. It was noted that students need the opportunity to be able to include a draft submission to Studiosity in good time, and it was suggested that use of Studiosity be built into assessments to allow for this. This very much echoes the findings of my colleague in our Faculty of Health, Science and Wellbeing, Jon Rees, who wrote about his experience on the University’s Practice Hub.

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ALT North East User Group: March 2023

Various responses on Padlet showing our thoughts on AI. It's a tad negative.
A screenshot from Padlet showing our thoughts on generative AI. It’s a tad negative.

We’re getting back into a stride now, with the second meeting of the academic year at Teesside. After introductions and updates from each of the core university groups, Malcolm from Durham kicked us off with a conversation about Turnitin and how we all feel about it. From a survey of the room, most of us seem to be using it rather apathetically, or begrudgingly, with a few haters who would love to be able to do away with it, and no-one saying they actively like the service. Very revealing. So why do we all keep on using it? Because we all keep on using it. Turnitin’s database of student papers pulls like a black hole, and it will take a brave institution to quit the service now. Of note was that no-one really objected to the technology itself, especially originality reporting, but rather their corporate disposition and hegemonic business model.

Emma from Teesside then talked about their experience of being an Adobe Creative Campus, which involves making Adobe software available to all staff and students, and embedding it into the curriculum. Unfortunately, Emma and other Teesside colleagues noted the steep learning curve which was a barrier to use, and the fact that content had to sit on Adobe servers and was therefore under their control.

Next up was my partner in crime, Dan, reporting on Sunderland’s various efforts over the years to effectively gather student module feedback. This was a short presentation to stimulate a discussion and share practice. At Newcastle they have stopped all module evaluation, citing research on, for example, how female academics are rated lower than male. This has been replaced with an ‘informal check’ by lectures asking students how the module is going, are you happy, etc. They are being pushed to bring a formal system back due to NSS pressures, but are so far resisting. At Durham they are almost doing the opposite, with a dedicated team in their academic office who administer the process, check impact, and make sure that feedback is followed up on.

Finally after lunch, we had a big chat about that hot-button issue that has taken over our lives, the AI revolution! It was interesting for me to learn how Turnitin became so dominant back in the day (making it available to everyone as a trial, and getting us hooked…), and the parallels which can be drawn with their plans to roll out AI detection in the near future. Unlike their originality product which allows us to see the matches and present this to students as evidence of alleged plagiarism, we were concerned that their AI detection tool would be a black box, leaving wide open the possibility of false accusations of cheating with students having no recourse or defence. I don’t think I can share where I saw this exactly, but apparently Turnitin are saying that the tool has a false positive rate of around 1 in 100. That’s shocking, unbelievable.

No-one in the North East seems to be looking at trying to do silly things like ‘ban’ it, but some people at Durham, a somewhat conservation institution, are using it as a lever to regress to in-person, closed-book examination. Newcastle are implementing declarations in the form of cover sheets, asking students to self-certify if / how they have used AI writing.

There were good observations from colleagues that a) students are consistently way ahead of us, and are already sharing ways of avoiding possible detection on TikTok; and b) that whatever we do in higher education will ultimately be redundant, for as soon as students enter the real world they will use whatever tools are available in industry. Better that we teach students how to use such tools effectively and ethically in a safe environment. As you can see from the Padlet screenshot above, our sentiments on AI and ChatGPT were a tad negative.

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Teaching with ChatGPT: Examples of Practice

Some examples of what ChatGPT is, and isn't; it is a large language model, it is not sentient!
Screenshot from one of the presentations outlining what ChatGPT is and is not: it is not human, not sentient, and not reliable!

This session on the robot uprising was facilitated by the University of Kent, and in a welcome contrast to some of the other sessions I have been to on AI recently, this was much more positive, focusing on early examples of using ChatGPT to enhance and support teaching and the student experience.

Some highlights were Maha Bali from the American University in Cairo who argued that we need cultural transparency around this technology as people are going to use it regardless of whatever regulations are put in place. This was echoed by some of the other presenters who noted that after graduation, when students enter industry, they will use, and be expected to use, any and all available relevant technologies. Someone else in the chat also noted that if you ban AI writing at university, then one outcome is going to be that students will only use it for cheating. So good luck, Cambridge. On transparent, ethic use, Laura Dumin from the University of Central Oklahoma talked about a new process they have implemented which asks students to declare if they have used AI tools to help with writing, and highlight which text has been AI generated so academics can clearly see this.

Some presenters had suggestions around re-focusing assessments along the lines of what ChatGPT can’t do, but which humans can. Some of these I feel are short term solutions. One person, for example, talked about how ChatGPT is generally better at shorter pieces of writing, so they have changed their assessments from 3x 800 word assessments throughout the year to 1x 2,000. Debbie Kemp at Kent suggested asking students to include infographics. I think these suggestions are going to work for now, but not in the long term. And the long term here isn’t even very long, given the pace of technological developments. By the time you could get changes to assessment through a programme board and in place for students, the technology may well have rendered your changes moot.

I think a better idea is around including more critical reflection from students. Margaret Bearman from Deacon University in Australia made the point that AI is not good at providing complex, context sensitive value judgements, and that I think is going to be a harder barrier for AI to overcome. Neil McGregor at the University of Manchester talked about this in a slightly different form. Instead of having students write critical reflections, they are now generating those with ChatGPT and asking the students to analyse and critique them – identifying what parts of the AI text they agree with, and where are the weaknesses in the arguments presented.

All of these sessions were recorded and are available on YouTube.

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Studiosity: It Works!

Photo of entrance to London Campus
Photo of the entrance to our London Campus

It sometimes feels like Studiosity has taken over my life over the past couple of years, but it works! And I have the data to prove it. Some analysis recently completed after our first full year of usage showed clear correlation between student success, as measured by progression and outcomes, and engagement with the Studiosity service. I can’t exactly share University data of course, but I was recently interviewed by Studiosity about this work and a news article has now been published on their website about it.

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UK HE’s Thoughtful Response to Robot Writing

Screenshot of three Borg drones from Star Trek
Am I implying an equivalence between The Borg and ChatGPT?

There’s no escaping the robots, resistance is futile. ChatGPT has been a gathering storm since the back end of last year, and Sunderland cannot escape the pull. However, we need to learn more about this and related technology in order to be able to be able to provide a thoughtful and measured response to it for our staff and students. To which end, I signed up for this session drawing together senior academics from across UK HE to share thoughts and experience. I have a few more such sessions coming in the next few weeks, so I’ll wait and share my thoughts in a dedicated post when I have the time and space to synthesis them.

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UoS Learning and Teaching Conference 2022

Photo of Andy Aldrin with a map showing space fairing nations - it's a lot!
Slide showing every nation with a space programme of some kind – it’s a lot!

“Why I got out of bed for class today?” Because if I hadn’t, my boss and my boss’s boss would have taken turns to kill me if I had missed our first annual learning and teaching conference.

Back in those heady days of 2019, when we were all young, innocent and care-free, a couple of good friends of mine bought me a ticket to see Nightwish at the Wembley Arena in December 2020 as a Christmas present. Well, there was some sort of global event or emergency or something which means it didn’t happen. It was rescheduled for the following year, and that didn’t happen either. We never did find out why it was cancelled with less than a week’s notice the second time, but our suspicion is that someone in the band got Covid. So it was rescheduled again, for November 2022, and this time it went ahead, and it was wonderful!

Such was this case with our conference too – planned since 2019, and finally taking place two years later. It was every bit as good as Nightwish I swear. We had some 220 people sign-up from all across the University, and my team were out in force, running sessions on CleverTouch boards and working as marshals, making sure everything went without a hitch, and I did my Studiosity impact presentation in one of the breakout sessions.

The conference began with a student panel discussion, talking about their experience of online study over the pandemic, and later as hybrid learners. The OfS could learn a thing of two from them – students want both. The benefits and social connections of in-person teaching, and the convenience of being able to catch-up with recorded and online sessions in their own time. One astute comment was that “engagement is not the same thing as attendance”, and disengaged students can be every bit as much of a problem in-person as online. Their thoughts on solutions were to mix up teaching methods, and to have interactive and group activities that make students want to be there.

Sessions I attended were from Dr Nicola Roberts on ‘Failing to Progress on a Programme of Study: A Statistical Analysis of Factors Related to Criminology Students’, Dr Helen Williams on ‘The awkwardness of transitioning to Higher Education and the implications for student retention’, and Dr Elizabeth Hidson on ‘SunRAE – the Sunderland Reflective Action in Education Conference, Podcast and e-journal contribution to enhancing international initial teacher training student engagement’.

The day wrapped with a keynote by – somewhat unbelievably – Dr Andrew Aldrin, son of Buzz. I was one, single degree of separation from a man who walked on the moon. Andy, as he insisted on being introduced, is the President of the Aldrin Family Foundation which has a mission to educate people, mainly K12 school aged kids in the US, about space, the moon, Mars, and to inspire people into pursuing space-related careers. As the man said, “Kids love space, and dinosaurs, but they get over dinosaurs.” (It was a good job we didn’t have any palaeontologists in the room.)

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The Big H5P Star Wars Quiz

I am just about ready to draw a line under H5P, and mark that big two year old Trello card ‘Done, Done’. We have a dedicated WordPress site within the team for creating content, with all H5P content types available, and everything I have tested has embedded into Canvas just fine.

There are two outstanding niggles which bother me. The first is that we can’t store marks / outcomes in the Canvas Gradebook, but that feature is only available via paid and hosted H5P content which is not an option for us. The second, which I might yet be able to fix, is that Canvas strips out the H5P resizing Javascript code so it doesn’t look as nice.

In any case, to wrap this up I have spent some time today teaching myself how to use a half dozen content items that stood out to me as useful, all quiz / interactive elements, apart from the two picture slider (Image Juxtaposition) which is just really cool and useful.






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