Shaping the Student Learning Experience

In June, I was invited to open the final day of the Jisc Change Agents Network 2021 conference held (virtually) at Keele University. This blog post is a reflection on the experience and a summary of what I said.

It was a real honour to be asked. The next question was, what to speak about?

What is the Change Agents Network?

The Change Agents Network is a network of staff and students who are working in partnership to support curriculum enhancement and innovation with technology. The network is supported by Jisc. The network publishes a journal, holds events and an accredited course in change leadership.

The network is not my ‘usual’ audience. So, what to speak about?

structure

I decided to focus on:

  • What I had witnessed over the past year+
  • To speculate on the future
  • What we would need to do to get there

I also gave a bit of context about Warwick at the start for those who didn’t know Warwick well. I always think it’s helpful to preface this sort of thing so that the influence of my context is clear to the audience. I also gave a shout out to Warwick’s unofficial mascot, Rolf, natch.

Looking back

I suspect many of you will concur with this; I described the past year+ with the following gif.

A rubbish dumpster on fire floating down a flooded road.

The past year+ has been a dumpster fire in a flood.

How Warwick responded

We moved what we did in the classroom online. Simple as that. I got quite irritated at the time with all off the ‘Mr. You-don’t-want-to-do-it-like-that’s’ who emerged during this period. Well, duh. If we had a choice, we wouldn’t have forced an entire University to move to a mode of delivery they were unfamiliar with but a little pandemic got in the way of ‘doing it properly’.

Anyway, we moved lectures and seminars online (predominantly using Teams with some using Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate, don’t ask). Assessments were changed and delivered online. We used a ‘blended’ model with a mix of asynchronous and synchronous activities. Academics put in a herculean effort to create asynchronous content during this time and I don’t think they have had the credit they deserve. We released bridging activities for students. Professional Services adapted to delivering their support and contact online.

And, despite what the Daily Mail and this Government would have people believe. NO ONE STOPPED TEACHING.

We saw massive increases in the use of tools we offer in Academic Technology. As an example, our eStream service (one of three video hosting platforms, don’t ask) saw video uploads increase from 5468 up to March 2020 to 10857 by Jun 2021.

Terminology

We also had to navigate the frankly baffling array of terminology being thrown around at the time. Blended, hybrid, hyflex, synchronous, asynchronous etc. Every discussion saw the terms have less and less meaning. What we failed to do was find a way to describe what our approach would mean to students. If we don’t understand it, how can they? I illustrated the point with several quotes.

1. the integrated combination of traditional learning with web-based online approaches.

2. the combination of media and tools employed in an e-learning environment; and

3. the combination of a number of pedagogic approaches, irrespective of learning technology use

Oliver and Trigwell (2005) What Do We Mean by Blended Learning?
Whitelock and Jelfs (2003) Journal of educational media special issue on blended learning

Blended (also called Hybrid) Classroom Course – Online activity is mixed with classroom meetings, replacing a significant percentage, but not all required face-to-face instructional activities.

Online Learning Consortium (2015) Definitions of E-Learning Courses and Programs Version 2.0

The term ‘blended learning’ describes a teaching style that employs a combination of technology and online educational exercises to assist in the classroom, whilst students also reap the benefits of ‘traditional’ hands-on and in-person lessons.

Blended learning consists of a teacher physically in the classroom with students, with the student holding the power to direct the place, time, path and pace of their own learning.

Panopto (2019) What Is Blended Learning?

Blended learning (also known as hybrid learning) is a method of teaching that integrates technology and digital media with traditional instructor-led classroom activities, giving students more flexibility to customize their learning experiences.

EdTechnology (2020) Ultimate guide to blended learning

I have more but I’ll stop there.

Make do and mend

I likened what we did, in terms of our technology response, to the old make do and mend campaigns of the war. That’s what we did. We looked at the tools we had and thought about how they would be used in an online context. We rewrote our guidance and created new information focussed on teaching online. Warwick is a campus University and our guidance was geared to that. More fool us.

Teaching online challenges

I have no doubt we had the same challenges as everyone else, although, I suspect we may have had further to climb than many other institutions with more widespread and established online programmes.

  • Debate over cameras on or off.
  • Establishment of ‘netiquette’.
  • Concern about fostering a sense of ‘community’.
  • Concern about engagement.
  • How to provide whiteboards and visualisers?
  • How to facilitate labs and practical workshops?
  • How to support performative disciplines?
  • How to screen films etc.?
  • How to provide office hours?

Assessment

We replicated what we could online and changed the assessments that couldn’t be replaced. Safety nets were put in place for students and expectations changed.

Interestingly, concerns about academic integrity really increased during this period. without the in-room exams with invigilators roaming the aisles, staff were concerned that poor academic conduct would increase. We talked about how to reduce it by using more authentic assessment methods etc. and that led us to…

Proctoring

I am completely averse to proctoring. I have strong concerns about the ethic and moral aspects of this software. I am concerned by its lack of inclusion, its racism and its impact on student wellbeing at a time of incredibly high stress for them anyway. Imagine sitting for hours unable to move your eyes for fear of the software flagging it as ‘cheating’ and imagine how much worse that must be for those who are unable to control their movements.

If the moral and ethical considerations aren’t enough they are also extremely letigious. One company is currently suing an ed-tech specialist who critiqued their product.

However, some regulatory bodies insisted on it. The University, I am pleased to say, came out with a policy to allow its use only under exceptional circumstances. The use of proctoring in one department lead to a student petition and later withdrawal.

We got ninety-nine problems and the library is one

Our library had to close. So how the heck do you give access to materials and the services a library offers?! Well, our library was incredible. There was a project to get all module reading lists online (I know, how is that not a thing already) and they undertook the mammoth task of buying what online materials they could. Although it is not news to many of us, the predatory pricing of ebooks has been highlighted during this period.

Inclusion

One of the things I found most heartening during this period, was the overwhelming concern for students expressed by academic colleagues. I suspect there’s a gender bias there but I don’t have any data. Every academic I spoke to wanted to ensure students were able to participate fully.

We had a huge increase in the use of video which required transcription. EEK.

For many disabled students the benefits of the switch to online outweighed the challenges and we certainly haven’t got it right yet. I really hope we don’t go immediately back to the way things were before and lose the benefits that have enabled disabled and BAME students to thrive.

Our students have given us some really interesting insights in to the positives and the challenges of the move online.

Student Feedback

Student feedback has been surprisingly positive. I am not surprised, given how hard staff worked to keep everything going, but I am surprised given the upheaval that there wasn’t more negative sentiment shared.

Students were sympathetic to teaching in an emergency. There were calls for accommodation and tuition fees to be refunded. Students missed the social elements of University life on-campus. They wanted to able to interact with their peers and staff.

3,700 students were surveyed in term 1 20/21 and 61% said blended learning was good/very good.

They still wanted ‘face-to-face’ when possible. They wanted more immediate feedback on work.
Pre-recorded lecture were well received and something they said they’d like to keep. They also wanted earlier communication of changes (thanks Government).

Across the sector:

44% agreed overall quality of online and digital learning was good.

Quality of online learning materials

55% well designed (35% neutral, 10% disagreed)

36% engaging and motivating (41% neutral, 23% disagreed)

45% at the right level and pace (38% neutral, 18% disagreed)

Jisc (2021) Student digital experience insights survey 2020/21

Looking forward

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

The Open University has existed since 1960. Australia has been doing distance education since the early 1900s. WHAT WE HAVE BEEN DOING IS NOT NEW. Your institution’s leaders have not discovered some new innovative mode of delivery, I’m sorry to disappoint them.

It’s going to be tricky

Considering I did this keynote in June, I can say now that we are STILL not ‘there’ yet and no one-size-fits all. We need to better understand and manage student expectations. We need to respond to fundamental issues like digital poverty and accessibility. We need to invest and improve our technologies.

Doing online and flexible teaching and learning well, will require investment.

Let me repeat that. IT WILL REQUIRE INVESTMENT.

How will students make choices about which institutions they go to? Especially, if they can go to any of the 100s on offer because they all offer online and/or flexible programmes now. How do they compare institutions and programmes when we are all using the same words to mean different things? What impact will all of this have on recruitment?

Well, I can answer the latter question now. It hasn’t for Warwick. Many of our programmes are over subscribed.

Everyone is at different stages

Some just want to go back to normal. Others, want to embrace the new modes of delivery. Everyone will be different. However, necessity is the mother of invention and we still need some of the things we’ve learned because practically speaking we are not back to normal. Even if Boris says it’s cool to cough on your Nan again, or whatever*.

*don’t cough on your Nan under any circumstances.

Short Term

In the short term, we can’t underestimate the task that remains at hand (remember I wrote this in June). Warwick still has reduced capacity in teaching spaces so some blend or hybrid is necessary.

  • Students learning will be hybrid/blended.
    • Mix of asynchronous content with ‘live’ sessions.
    • In-classroom and remote online audience.
  • This is a necessity due to social distancing.
  • Assessment will be delivered online.
  • We will continue to ‘make do and mend’.
  • Further support to transition students.
  • Ethical implications and privacy of technology use.

Engagement

We need to talk about engagement. People ask for Google Analytics for Education. More concerned about how many views a video had than whether a student learned from it. I suspect engagement is more about finding out how many students use something so they don’t have to waste time making more. Engagement came up a lot during the pandemic but not in a good way.

We need to rethink our obsession with engagement. Whether a student clicked on a thing is no measure. I would love to know what the OU does, if anything.

[J]ust because a student participates and follows the rules, it does not necessarily mean he or she is deeply invested in learning.

Fredericks (2014) Eight Myths of Student Disengagement: Creating Classrooms of Deep Learning

Community

This was a big concern for staff and students and its hard to feel part of something when you are remote from it. Especially hard if you’ve never stepped foot on campus or participated in the usual bonding activities at the start of term. We need to find ways to create opportunities for students to make friends and socialise regardless of ‘space’.

Medium Term

In the medium term we need to find better ways to facilitate ‘interactions’ between remote and in-classroom students.

I also think there are opportunities for students to do paid work and roles as teaching assistants, transcribers, video producers and transition mentors. We need more support and why not give students work experience?

I also say, with reticence, that we need to move to 24/7 support models. Especially where students are in different time zones.

Long Term

In the long term we can learn from this and widen participation through greater flexibility and different programmes:

  • Online short courses, modules and programmes.
  • Learn from anywhere*.
  • Multiple routes based on delivery.
  • ‘Build your own degree’.
  • Microcredentials.

We can have a truly global reach. Staff and students all over the world contributing their experience and expertise.

I do think 24/7 teaching and support will be a thing. Sorry.

How do we get there?

The university is an ecosystem. We need to think holistically about the whole experience.

We have to think about the whole university. Every system. Every process. Every team.

Be honest about the student experience and manage expectations.

Obviously. We need to be more transparent. Marketing is all well and good but expectations have to meet reality.

Students must be involved meaningfully in shaping the future of their learning experience.

We need to involve our students in our conversations about the future. Not assume we know what they want. And token students on committees too afraid to speak don’t count.

Universities need to become more resilient to risk and create a safe space in which experimentation and failure can happen

Some universities embrace risk. Not all. We have to accept a modicum of risk to move forward. We also need to give staff the space to try and fail. No experimentation or innovation can flourish in an atmosphere of fear.

We need to get better at explaining to students what we teach, how and why. 

We need to help students understand what we do and why. If we can’t articulate that, then we should probably go back to the design stage.

Move from a position of suspicion to one of trust. Create environments where students don’t feel they have to ‘cheat’ to succeed.

We wouldn’t need proctoring then, would we?

Space agnostic learning is where mixed modes of participation allow students to undertake the same or equivalent activities of learning face to face or online. The aim of the space agnostic learning is to design teaching and learning activities so that where they occur does not limit the engagement and participation of students.

Peter Bryant (2021) Being a part of ‘Our Place’ in a disrupted world: Designing a transformative and connected learning experience at the University of Sydney Business School during and post COVID

Where students learn is irrelevant. It shouldn’t matter. We need to design teaching that enables full participation regardless of ‘where’ the students are.

Stop “letting [the] tech-tail wag the pedagogy dog”.

Lanclos and Phipps (2019) Trust, innovation and risk: a contextual inquiry into teaching practices and the implications for the use of technology

We need to return to a pedagogy first approach. During the pandemic I have certainly been guilty of looking at what we can do rather than what we should do. We need to think about the pedagogies and teaching people want to do and buy, adapt and develop the tools to support that.

Analyse our enablers and disablers to understand the gaps and focus investment.

It’s all too big to tackle at once and it’s not just about technology. Institutions need to undertake a capability review to understand where they are and what they need to do to get to where they want to be.

Universities must put in place robust workflows for iterative change and accept that change is inevitable.

Technology changes. Teaching changes. Our funding models and governance structures are not always able to keep pace with that. Until we address that, we will be left behind. Also, I don’t need finance asking me whether I need to buy something or not. I know my field, thanks.

It’s a long road

But there’s no final destination.

  1. Create structures in which students and staff can shape their future.
  2. Formulate a vision from which a strategy emerges.
  3. Compare the strategic vision against capability.
  4. Plan short, medium and long term change.
  5. Invest and act.
  6. Go back to 1.

The end

I ended the presentation on the thing I feel is most important.

We need to take a moment for care and reflection. To establish meaningful ways in which we shape our future. 

The pandemic has been incredibly difficult on us all, professionally and personally.

We cannot and must not underestimate the labour that continues to go in to teaching under these circumstances.

Everyone is exhausted.

Be kind.

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