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Studiosity Partner Forum 2024

I attended my third Studiosity Partner Forum today, which kind of began last night with a dinner and discussion about generative artificial intelligence led by Henry Aider. Generative AI and Studiosity’s new GAI powered Writing Feedback+ service was of course the main topic of conversation throughout the event. Writing Feedback+ launched in February, and they have reported that uptake is around 40% of eligible students, which compares with 15-20% for the classic Writing Feedback service. The model has been built and trained internally, using only writing feedback provided by Studiosity’s subject specialists, no student data. The output of WF+ is being closely quality assured by those agents, and they estimate that quality is around 95-97% as good as human provided feedback.

David Pike, from the University of Bedfordshire presented on their experience with the service in the afternoon. They made it available to all of their students in February, around 20,000, and usage has already exceeded usage of the classic Writing Feedback service since September last year. The average return time from WF+ is around one and a half minutes, and student feedback on the service is very positive at 88.5%. However, he did also note that a number of students who have used both versions of the service stated that they preferred the human provided feedback.

On the flip side of AI, last year Studiosity were exploring a tool to detect submissions which had been written by generative AI. That’s gone. Nothing has come of it as they found that the reliability wasn’t good enough to roll out, especially so for students who have English as a second language. No surprises for me there, detection is a lie.

The keynote address was delivered by Nick Hillman from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), who talked about their most recent report on the benefits and costs associated with the graduate visa route. It’s overwhelmingly positive for us as a country, and it would be madness to limit this.

Other things which I picked up included learning more about Crossref, a service for checking the validity of academic references; a course on Generative AI in Higher Education from Future Learn was recommended; and Integrity Matters, a new course developed by the University of Greenwich and Bloom to teach new students about academic integrity.

Finally I was there presenting myself, doing my Studiosity talk about our implementation at Sunderland and the data we now have showing a strong positive correlation between engagement with Studiosity and student outcomes and continuation.

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UoS Learning and Teaching Conference 2023

Learning and Teaching Conference, 2023
The big boss up on stage, doing the introductions

Another out of this world conference this year, but alas nobody who was one degree of separation from walking on the moon this time, as our attention instead turned to… yes, you guessed it, generative artificial intelligence.

The morning keynote was given by Thomas Lancaster of Imperial College London who has done a lot of research over the years on contract cheating, and who has now turned his attention to the new AI tools which have appeared over the past year. Interestingly, he commented that essay mill sites are being pushed to students as much as they ever have, but I suspect that these agencies are now themselves using generative AI tools to displace already low paid workers in the developing world who were previously responsible for writing assignments on demand for Western students.

The first breakout session I attended was ‘Ontogeny: Mentoring students to succeed in a world of AI’ by Dr Thomas Butts and Alice Roberts who discussed how medical students are using GAI and the issues this is causing in terms of accuracy, as these models are often presenting wrong information as truth, which has particularly serious consequence in medicine. There was an interesting observation on culture and social skills, that students now seem to prefer accessing the internet for help and information rather than simply asking their teachers and peers.

The second session was ‘Enhancing the TNE student experience through international collaborative discussions and networking opportunities’ by Dr Jane Carr-Wilkinson and Dr Helen Driscoll who discussed the Office for Students’ plans to regulate TNE (trans-national education), though no-one quite seems to know how they are going to do this. Including the OfS. This was an interesting discussion which explored the extent of our TNE provision (I don’t think I had appreciated the scale before, over 7,000 students across 20 partners), and the issues involved in ensuring quality across the board.

There was also a student panel discussion who were asked about their use of GAI and understanding of the various issues surrounding plagiarism. They demonstrated quite a robust level of knowledge, with many of them saying that they are using ChatGPT as a study assistant to generate ideas, but I did groan to hear one person talk about the "plagiarism score" in Turnitin and how "20% plagiarism is a normal amount", and they don’t worry until it gets higher. The myths penetrate deep.

The final afternoon keynote was given by Dr Irene Glendinning of Coventry University who talked about her research on the factors which lead to plagiarism and cheating. This included a dense slide on various factors such as having the opportunity, thinking they won’t be detected, etc., but nowhere on there were cultural factors identified, and the way that higher education in the UK has been marketized over the recent past. I’ve certainly came across comments along the nature of, if students are paying £9,000 a year on tuition, why not just pay a few hundred more to make assessment easier or guarantee better results? But I’m noticing more and more that people don’t seem to be willing or able to challenge the underlying political decisions anymore.

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Studiosity Partner Forum 2023

Studiosity usage at Sheffield
Photo of Sheffield’s Studiosity Dashboard

Attended the second Studiosity Partner Forum in London today, which had representatives from 14 UK HEIs out of the now 23 who are Studiosity users. The opening keynote was delivered by Rebecca Bunting, Vice Chancellor at the University of Bedfordshire, who talked about issues current in HE, with a focus on access and participation. She made good points on the limitations of students going to university, which includes not only things like entry requirements and location, but also what people are able to study once there and how the cost of living crisis is impacting choice. She talked about how this can impact on student retention, which HEIs are held accountable for, but there are often very good reason why students may have to leave their study. Finally, she talked about the concept of the “sticky campus” – keeping students on campus – which is something else universities are often held accountable for as a desirable thing, but which doesn’t work for students in their 30s or who have fulltime jobs, families, etc. Those students want, and need, to be on campus to do what they need for their studies and then get away again as soon as possible. At Bedfordshire, the majority of their students are over 30.

Next was a product update session from Isabelle Bristow, Studiosity’s Managing Director for the UK and Europe. The peer support service which was in early development last year will be available in July as ‘Student Connect’, in which third year students can mentor and guide first year students after training from Studiosity and the university. These mentors are paid at a rate set by the university, and all chat and calls are managed through Studiosity to ensure privacy and confidentiality. Unfortunately this isn’t something we will be able to explore at Sunderland, as we are continuing to keep Studiosity focused at IFY and new undergraduates. Isabelle also talked about a new Writing Feedback feature which will help students to identify where they have used higher order thinking skills – at least in part designed to counter and mitigate the use of generative AI writing.

Simon Reade and Matthew Hare from Sheffield Hallam University then presented on their data dashboard which uses data from the Studiosity API and other sources, and outputs to Tableau. One such chart, showing usage changes over a number of years, is shown (badly) in the photo above. This was a very interesting session for me, as we have just done this ourselves using Power BI. Some of their findings / experience felt very familiar – high usage in Health subjects, low in their Business, Technology and Engineering College (strange bedfellows, but our Business folks can also be hard to engage with new technology and interventions). Another observation they made was that Studiosity seems to hit more demographic groups than those which traditionally access support services, a good thing.

After lunch, Dr Andy Gould from SOAS talked about how they are responding to AI which led into an open discussion. Andy referenced Jisc, who in their response said that a crisis could be used as a driver for change, similar to what I and others said about the pandemic response. The problem is the sector seems to be in perma-crisis. They have co-created a student guide containing a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ as best practice. Andy also talked about the idea of academics using ChatGPT to write student feedback, something students were very against, unsurprisingly, and finally noted that some students have reporting using a paraphrasing service I won’t name to try and ‘launder’ AI produced writing.

Other random points and observations made throughout the day in discussions with colleagues included a note from one institution that has seen Studiosity seemingly widen their participation gap, possibly as a result of higher achieving students engaging with the service to a greater extent. Much of our discussions were on the nature of students wanting to have a personal connection when it comes to seeking support, something Studiosity delivers well, and which may indicate strong use of the new Student Connect service when it goes live. Referencing was noted as by far the most in demand area for support, and again something that may draw them to peer support. Finally, there was a comment about how in some subject areas, such as engineering, students may not get any conventional written assignment until their 3rd year, with 1st and 2nd year assignments focusing on group work. This is an important point for me, and Sunderland, to be aware of as it may help to explain weak uptake in certain areas.

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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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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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UUK Access, Participation and Student Success Conference 2022

I was honoured to be invited to attend the UUK’s Access, Participation and Student Success Conference 2022 by colleagues at Studiosity, to present a case study on why and how we have implemented Studiosity at Sunderland over the past year. This was a variation of my presentation for InstructureCon, with the technical slides de-emphasised and new sections added about how the Studiosity project ties in with our wider personal academic tutoring project and the University’s Student Success Plan 2025. My presentation was well-attended and I got some good questions and feedback, and as an attendee at the conference I got a lot out of the other sessions I was able to attend.

Kaushika Patel, Deputy PVC Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at De Montfort University, presented on closing ethnicity awarding gaps, something which is an issue for us at our London Campus in particular which has a much more diverse student intake. Kaushika’s talk was about what progress has been made since the 2019 UUK and NUS ‘Closing the Gap‘ (PDF, 2Mb) report. My first photo above shows that there has been some progress, with the overall gap decreasing from 13.2% to 8.8%, but there is also a particular issue with 1st class awards, where the attainment gap between BAME and white students is 9.6%. Kaushika made some practical suggestions about what we can do going forwards, including signing up for the Race Equality Charter. I’ve picked that one out as I was disappointed to find that Sunderland was not a member, though I’ve spoken with our EDI lead and been assured it is on the agenda of our BAME staff group.

I also got a lot out of Nathalie Podder’s passionate talk about how the cost of living crisis is affecting students. Nathalie is the Deputy President (Welfare) at Imperial College Union and her presentation was based on consultations with students at Imperial College London. My second two photos show their ‘Findings’ and ‘Government Recommendations’ slides. Among the findings are that 95% of students are concerned about the cost of living crisis, 58% are worried about their ability to pay rent, and 20% about being able to pay utility bills. Their recommendations for the government included starting a new hardship scheme for students, reinstating maintenance grants, raising NHS bursaries and regulating landlords who own student properties.

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InstructureCon 2022

It’s that time of year again, Panda spotting day in the midst of new student chaos at the busiest time of year: InstructureCon! I didn’t spot the panda until late on, during one of the final corporate keynotes which all seemed to have an Indiana Jones / wilderness theme, because education is a journey I believe.

After the corporate shenanigans, Simone Giertz delivered the opening guest keynote which I enjoyed and had been looking forward to as an existing fan of her YouTube. She talked about the value of problem solving and searching for unique or different solutions to problems, such as her unique rollable jigsaw table. Simone also talked about how important it is, in STEM specifically but it applies in all areas, of visibility of people that children can project themselves onto as part of their development.

This was followed by Sidharth Oberoi, Instructure’s VP of International Strategy, giving the more hands-on business keynote on Instructure’s vision of the future of education. Very heavy on alternative teaching methods and hybrid learning, so he’s definitely going to be on the Office for Students’s naughty list. He also talked a lot about the need and value of micro-credentials, something that would be a bit of a theme of the conference, and I’ll share my thoughts on that at the end.

After the morning keynotes we had time to build our own experience by sampling a range of pre-recorded on-demand sessions from the community, of which clearly the greatest and best of all time was yours truly on Sunderland’s experience of integrating Studiosity into Canvas.

The sessions which I actually attended were I’ll Have to Say ‘I Love You’ in a Survey” by Ben McGrae and Will Moindrot at the University of Liverpool which covered their experience of developing and analysing a survey after transitioning to Canvas.

Blackpool and The Fylde College’s Canvas EASL (Educational Analytics for Student Lifecycle) by Stephen Taylor and Kerry Steeden stood out to me as I used to live there. They shared their experience in moving from using a module template to the Blueprint tool.

Product Spotlight: Canvas Credentials by John Boyle of Arizona State was a case-study of use of Canvas Credentials, the newly re-branded Badgr tool, following Instructure’s purchase of Concentric Sky, the main developer of Badgr.

Impact by Instructure Updates was another update on an Instructure purchase, this time Eesysoft. This is another one I feel close to as I spent a lot of time at Northumbria cosying up to Eesysoft as they were very interested in its possibilities, just not enough to actually spent money on it. Impact looks very much like I remember, giving administrators the ability to provide context-aware help throughout the VLE. The big difference now of course is that it’s a Canvas exclusive product, whereas Eesysoft had integrations available for all the major VLEs.

The final on-demand session I attended was Canvas LMS Updates for Higher Education by Jewel Pearson and Whitney Pesek which was very useful for seeing the features and enhancements which are around the corner. I’m particularly looking forward to the Comment Library in SpeedGrader, which offers similar functionality to Turnitin’s QuickMarks and which our academics have been after since day one with Canvas. I’m not entirely sure that integrating emojis in submission comments is necessary, but if you’re going to do it, at least having a feature to set your preferred skin tone universally is a nice touch. The fancy touches to assignment submission, such as a progress tracker, also look nice.

The closing keynote by Matin Bean was another I was looking forward to, as Martin was the vice-chancellor of the OU during my time with them. His talk focused on predictions for the future of education – the growth of micro-credentials, the increasing involvement of business and competition from non-traditional learning providers, and the use of different types of teaching methods, e.g. more hybrid learning (someone else with no fans at the OfS then.) Martin also talked about what, in his experience, employers are looking for in graduates – namely, ‘grit’, or determination.

Finally, Adam Grant in the closing keynote talked about how Instructure can help educators to avoid burning out, and the growth of people learning from non-traditional means such as YouTube and podcasts. This is very true; only the day before I taught myself how to re-silicone seal my bathroom on YouTube (outcome: it looks fantastic!).

As I mentioned above, a theme of the conference was micro-credentials, something which came up over and over again in the corporate talk, and was echoed in Martin Bean’s keynote. I first wrote about badges in 2014, and while I think the concept is grand, in the 8 years since I haven’t seen any significant real-world demand, it still feels like a solution in search of a problem. This is perhaps evident in the re-branding from ‘open badges’ to ‘micro-credentials’. I also remain concerned about long term viability, having lost half my badges in the migration from Mozilla’s Backpack to Badgr. And what is going to happen to Badgr now that Instructure have purchased the lead developer of the standard? They are already offering certain functionality – pathways – as something additional to the base standard, only available in Canvas. Sidharth talked about decentralisation, student control, and learner’s owning their educational journey and results, but who controls the “wallets?” Canvas Credentials, the purchase of Eesysoft, and the corporate talk from today don’t point towards student control and decentralisation to me, but rather to Instucture’s increasing control and consolidation of the educational vertical stack.

At least one thing which is open is the conference itself, with all sessions now available on demand.

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I’m ICONic

My Studiosity presentation title slide
Title slide of my most excellent presentation

I’m also a “Top Pick”, for InstructureCon 2022 (ICON22) – according to the email announcement about the agenda being published.

I’ve attended InstructureCon, or CanvasCon as it once was, pretty much every year since Sunderland went over to Canvas in 2017, and I’ve always wanted to present but didn’t feel like I had a good enough topic. This year I’m proud to announce that I will be presenting on our experience of implementing Studiosity through Canvas over the past year, supported by my spiritual other half at our London Campus, Evi.

Our presentation is attached below, and I’m sure our actual presentation will be available online after the conference. Alas, it is a recorded one, much as I would have liked the University to send me off to Barcelona to present in person. (Damn you, Dan!)

Studiosity: A New Student Support Service in Canvas (PPT, 5.5 Mb)

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Studiosity Partner Forum 2022

My first in-person conference in two years at the University of Roehampton’s gorgeous campus was a chance to learn about Studiosity’s plans for the future, to network with colleagues at other UK HEIs using Studiosity and compare notes, and pretty randomly, I was able to get a tour of Roehampton’s new library building during lunchtime (it’s lovely).

On those future plans, we’re going to see an enhanced version of the student feedback view in the next couple of months which is going to allow their subject specialists to insert short videos and infographics explaining particular grammatical concepts, issues with spelling, and so on. They are also introducing a new ‘Student Connect’ tool which will help to facilitate peer-to-peer student support. This is currently in beta testing, and two UK universities are part of this evaluation.

The keynote address was by Sir Eric Thomas, who sits on Studiosity’s Academic Advisory Board, and he made a great point that, looking at historical precedents from past plagues, people at the time always think, “this is going to change everything, we can’t go back to how things used to be”, but invariably things do go back to exactly how they were once the threat is over. He speculated that this was because plagues and pandemics leave physical infrastructure unchanged, in contrast to wars, where the physical act of rebuilding allows for societal changes to be literally built in. However, what may be different as we ‘re-build’ after Covid, is that new communication technologies such as Teams and Zoom have come into their own and already effected change in how we live and work. The permanence of these changes is something that lingers in my mind as I contemplate my future.

Good opportunities for informal chats with colleagues at more advanced stages of Studiosity use, and no easy answers to be had in terms of managing use and expectations, and showing causal links between use of the service and student retention and attainment, something I’m in the midst of grappling with now as we approach the end of our pilot.

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InstructureCon 2021

A second online only event for CanvasCon as the pandemic rumbles on, with two key differences from last year’s event: first of all, this event combined both all of Instructure’s various wares, not just, Canvas, and all regions – the Americas, EMEA, etc. And secondly, it was, to be blunt, a bit rubbish. I’ll get more positive and have nice things to say towards the end of this post, but I’ll proceed in order.

You have to go into events of this nature expecting a deal of corporatisation and marketing nonsense, but last year Instructure managed to get product and company updates to us via the means of a news broadcast style segment which worked well and was entertaining. In contract, this year felt like whatever private equity firm(s) currently own Instructure had sucked all life and soul out of them. The morning keynote was a roundtable discussion between what was effectively eight different marketing people heavily selling technological solutionism. A particular low point was reached when trying to sell the benefits of Canvas for Elementary. Do elementary school children (primary school), really need a VLE? Really?

This was followed by a ‘partner and product hall’ for corporate sponsors of the event to sell their wares, and were divided into platinum, gold and silver tiers depending on how much money they had paid Instructure to be there (I imagine). I engaged with these out of desire to try and get the digital badges and swag that were on offer (damn you psychology!), but there was very little value in the experience. They used a platform called Bizzabo to host these, and like Remo last year, it was awful, though for different reasons. They don’t support Safari, my default browser, the Microsoft session had an animated banner in the background which was completely distracting, and a number of sessions I went into just had no-one there, or, in one case, had people complaining about how the service wasn’t working for them as hosts. I did manage to have a good discussion with folks from PebblePad as I was keen to see what it looks like now and what it can do, as I’m involved in a small project looking for an ePortfolio solution for a midwifery programme that goes beyond what we can accomplish with Mahara.

In our third contrast with last year’s CanvasCon, the afternoon keynote was from will.i.am, and it was a rambling, incoherent mess, though he came dangerously close to making some salient points at times. While LeVar Burton’s keynote last year could be criticised for being a little too generic, it was well-argued and coherent, and more importantly, it was genuinely inspiring and motivational.

The conference was saved by the afternoon partner-led sessions – educators talking about education, and how they’ve used various Instructure tools to help and support them – this is what it should have been all about. I attended five such sessions in the afternoon, three of which were a bust for different reasons, but in a concerted effort to end on a positive note and take something constructive out of the day, I’ll focus on the two that were genuinely good.

“Quick Quality Guide: 10 Take-Home Tips to Make Your Course Sexy” from Florida International University, was a presentation on their top-tips for engaging and accessible course design using a metaphor of ‘sexy / fashionable’. Lots of Universal Design for Learning on show here, including using multiple measures of assessment, and a wide variety of different course materials. They also talked about using a landing page with key information, having a learner support page, and using course structure tools, like the Syllabus tool in Canvas, to aid design and navigation.

“Why Microlearning is Real Learning” by Dr Peter Thomas of HaileyburyX was another excellent session discussing the benefits of micro learning – content chunked into 2-5 minute sessions, and 15 minutes at most, as a way to reduce extraneous cognitive load, replicate real-world environments where people often have to learn tasks very quickly, and exploit attention grabbing mechanisms like Twitter and TikTok do so successfully, but for good intent!

All of the session recordings, including the other 85 peer / partner breakout sessions I couldn’t attend, are available to watch online here. Colleagues inform me that they attended some good sessions too, on the coming improved Teams integrations with Canvas for example, so maybe I was just a little unlucky in what I chose to attend. We’re all in agreement that you can probably skip the keynotes though!

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