University Regulations Workshop

This was a bespoke session run by the academic development side of the CELT for the benefit of us on the learning technology side, in response to some issues we raised at our team away day back in April.

A problem we have is that often, when encouraging academics to change some part of their practice, to use online quizzes instead of paper based forms for example, we are met with resistance in the form of being told that changes can’t be made because something in the University’s regulations prevents it. There seems to be a lot of myths in the institution about what people are and aren’t allowed to do, so we asked for a session of this nature to give us a better overview of what the rules actually are so that we can better help academics, and what we need to do to ensure that polices are followed lest we spend hours working on something which can’t then be used.

And very useful it was. We covered the key areas of the University’s Academic Quality Handbook, particularly on what changes module and programme leaders can make unilaterally, and what needs to be approved through either the ‘Minor Modification’ process or revalidation. We also discussed the Module Catalogue and why that needs to be the single source of truth for students on what they can expect from their studies, how assessment can be reworked to reduce the number of individual assessment components in a module, and how, contrary to one common myth, you can use custom assessment marking criteria and rubrics, you just have to make sure that it maps against the University’s generic assessment criteria.

LTA Workshop: Running up That Hill


Listening to this while reading this post will have no therapeutic value

This was the second Learning and Teaching Academy workshop I attended this semester, to give it it’s subtitle: Engaging Students to Learning Through Teaching and Assessment. (The big boss, who put the programme together, has a penchant for naming events with a musical theme.)

The workshop was given by Prof. Terry Young, Emeritus Professor of Healthcare Systems at Brunel University, who talked about his experience in academia over the past 15 or so years, having come from industry where he spent a similar length of time, giving him an interesting take on the academic world and conventional practice. On assessment, he asked us to consider what are the actual tangible benefits of, for example, spending time on decided on whether or not a given piece of work is worth 82% or 85%, and could this be time better spent elsewhere? Terry argues that there is little value in time spent this way, instead advocating for threshold based marking, first deciding whether a piece of work is a pass or a fail, and then asking either if it’s a fail, is it a good fail and can the student therefore be guided to a pass in future assignments, or if it’s a pass, is it just a pass or a good pass?

Terry also reflected on the nature of work academics are going to need to do over the next 20-30 years in the face of changes driven by automation and artificial intelligence. He concluded that there are three key tasks which will continue to be necessary: writing and specifying the requirements for programmes and assessments, curating and filtering content, and working closely with students to ensure their development and wellbeing.

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.

Web Accessibility for Leaders

GDS Posters - Link in Post

This was a really good webinar from Jisc and Government Digital Service (GDS) on the new accessibility regulations which are coming into force and which apply to all publicly funded bodies, building on our obligations from the 2010 Equality Act by adding a new, higher, standard for compliance with new levels of monitoring and enforcement. What this is going to mean for learning technologists is that we are likely to have to an increased burden on ensuring that learning systems and their content is compliant with the legislation. At Sunderland, I can see us being tasked with writing the accessibility statement, or statements, for the VLE and our other systems, as the University is far too complex for a universal statement covering all of our websites and apps.

Accessibility statements are the key new requirement, and are quite prescriptive about what they need to contain. They should detail how accessible the system is, what problems there are with it that you have identified, what end users can do to mitigate those or access the content in a different way, and most importantly the statement has to include a plan about what we are going to do to improve the current situation, however good, or bad, that may be.

There is of course some concern about additional workload requirements for us, but I’m fully behind this. It’s all excellent stuff and should drive an improvement on the quality of our learning materials across the board, something which will benefit all students. Jisc are putting together statement templates which HEI’s will be able to use, and GDS, who will be the monitoring body for the legislation, have a huge range of support materials on their site, including some excellent posters.

LTA Workshop: Transitions into Higher Education

Attended the Learning and Teaching Academy’s workshop which was given by an external speaker, Dr Debbie Porteous from Northumbria University. The talk was around her research in how to support nursing students in their transitions first to students and then into professional practice, and how to maximise their potential for success.

She began by leading a discussion on how the student experience differs for new students in the 21st century – that study is often now only one of many commitments which can also include work and caring responsibilities, and that the relationship between students and institutions has changed as a result of funding changes which have resulted in students becoming customers, consumers and partners also.

From that position she moved on to how best to support students and ensure their success at University, which includes quality of teaching, clear career pathways, student support services, and, most importantly, the availability of staff at the key level 4 stage. This led to a discussion about how, in reality, that is often the point at which the core programme team are least directly involved with their students in favour of TAs and contract staff.

Debbie then talked about her research findings in which she has identified five themes in the journey of students’ first year of experience: uncertainty, the challenges of transition and developing coping strategies; expectations, how they match experience and, for us as educators, the need to set clear and realistic expectations of what support we can provide; learning to survive, in which resilience emerges and where peer support can be invaluable; seeking support, from academics, mentors and peers, as well as the student support services offered by the institution; and moving forward, at which point students have improved confidence, belief and efficacy. This was followed by an exercise in which we, in groups, tried to identify how students can be supported through each stage.

Finally, Debbie shared how at Northumbria they are using technology and learning analytics to engage with all students throughout their studies. This is going beyond targeting students who may be at risk to include positive message of support and encourage to students who seem to be doing well also.

How to Design and Deliver Successful Webinars, Part 2

As I suspected, this follow-up and primary session on webinars made frequent reference to part 1 which had been designed and delivered to serve as an exemplar of best practice, as identified by Emailogic from their experience in the field. It was a good session, very worthwhile, and I took a lot away from it.

On preparing for and starting a webinar, an idea I really liked was having an activity or exercise that you could pre-populate for people who join the webinar early, such as a simple word search with terms related to your content. It was recommended to start the webinar around 20-30 minutes before the official start time in order to prepare for early arrivals, test audio and video as required, ideally on a different computer, and to welcome people joining early. However, it was recommended that you don’t start for 2 or 3 minutes after the start time to account for people who may be having problems joining.

Once people are in, get them to engage early by checking-in using some of the available tools, such as putting a hand up or using the chat tool. There was a claim that research has shown that 92% of people multitask, by, for example, checking email or replying to texts during a webinar. This wasn’t cited, but it feels credible from my experience. To keep people’s attention it was recommended that you need to speak at a faster pace than you would use in a classroom setting, that you eliminate pauses and gaps as much as possible, use text reveals so that people only see what is immediately relevant in slides, and to persistently make people interact by asking questions via polls or using the chat. On the non-technical side, repeating good points and participant’s names was recommended, along with using personal disclosure and humour to create bonds.

Regarding the inevitable technical problems, they recommended having two people on a webinar, one actively leading it and the other person picking up any technical problems raised by participants, something which I have seen many times. To mitigate bandwidth problems they recommended using only slides, not live technical demos, and sending these out prior to the webinar so that in extreme cases participants can still join in via telephone.

We completed a number of exercises throughout the day also, including ones on how to design open and closed questions, and constructing a simple webinar based on a topic we currently teach face-to-face. Finally, we were given some good handouts for future reference – a standard opening script that’s content neutral, and a detailed checklist for preparing sessions.

ALT North East User Group – 2019

In a first, I didn’t just attend the meeting this time round, I hosted it at one of the University’s nicer enterprise suites at Hope Street Xchange. Working with Graeme and Julie who are the North East’s key contacts with ALT, I took care of the practicalities – venue, IT, parking, lunch – while they organised the agenda and speakers.

In the morning we had presentations from our regional Turnitin account manager who presented on their new Authorship Investigate tool which is designed to help detect instances of contract cheating, followed by a presentation and discussion from Jisc on changes to the EU’s Accessibility Regulations which we as an institution will need to respond to over the next year.

In the afternoon representatives from each institution attending gave a short presentation or talk about what interesting projects we have going on. I talked about using Trello with the team to better organise our workload, and the rollout of Panopto across the University which is now in full swing.

I’m pleased to be able to say it all went very well, with only one minor lunch hiccup which was quickly resolved. Hopefully this will be something we can do on a regular basis going forward.

How to Design and Deliver Successful Webinars, Part 1

Attended a one hour webinar which was meant to be about, as per title, how to design and deliver successful webinars. What was actually delivered was a session on how to get the most out of meetings, covering topics such as providing a detailed agenda, setting expectations prior to meetings, and getting minutes and actions out promptly.

Of course, that was the explicit content. I have a lot of thoughts about this and how it was delivered – it was a little bizarre – and I expect it is all going to be deconstructed at part 2 of this thing next Thursday.

CELT Team Away Day and Belbin Evaluation

Had our first proper away day as the CELT today at The Word in South Shields, a time to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses as a team and discuss our development priorities.

A large part of the day was given over to a Belbin Team Inventory evaluation, a kind of management-orientated psychometric testing designed to discover people’s preferred roles within a team. I’m sceptical of all such testing, I wonder how useful such simplified exercises can really be, but it was nevertheless quite interesting to see where other people came out, especially the awkward sod who scored evenly across almost the entire spectrum. No surprises for myself at where I came out, a Resource Investigator and Implementer.