How do we know if we have the right blend? Some reflections on SQAA’s Future of Learning & Teaching event.

I really enjoyed attending the SQAA The Future of Learning and Teaching: Planning and Delivery of Digitally Enhanced Blended Learning on 20 September in Glasgow. Here in Scotland, there is now a focus on developing approaches to learning, teaching and enhancement across tertiary education. You can read more about the work on developing a common approach here.

The event was very much focused on the learning and teaching aspects of the wider quality framework work. And, as the title suggests, exploring approaches to the planning and delivery of digitally enhanced blended learning.

Over the past year, SQAA have led a cross sectoral agency project around defining and delivering and inclusive digital/blended learning for across tertiary education. This is the first cross sector enhancement project, as well as the first cross agency one, including CDN, ES-HMIE, and sparqs. Thework includes Scottish universities and colleges.

The team shared the an outline of the research they have been undertaking to discover the current balance of delivery across the sector. They are using the terms f2f, hybrid, and online, but were very clear that they recognise that there are issues around definitions – or perhaps it is contextual use of definitions. Hybrid in particular has quite a range of practice interpretations. The overall aim is to establish what the current balance of delivery is across the sector. A key question the partners are hoping to address is how can institutions re-balance their provision to “get the blend right” for all students.

Using a mixed methods approach of desk research and interviews the team have been exploring 4 lines of enquiry with colleges and universities, namely: what they state they are offering, what learns want, what learners are experiencing and what does the evidence suggest is best for learning. A report with the initial research findings is due for publication soon.

The focus of this year is to establish the effects of different modes and to facilitate national conversations, around the theme of designing and delivering blended learning to improve leaner outcomes in a tertiary landscape. The meeting on Wednesday was the start of those conversations.

The team shared some of their early findings which included:

  • Need to focus on getting the blend right
  • All provision should be accessible and inclusive
  • Digital poverty is recognised and being addressed
  • Sense belonging key to learner engagement regardless of modality
  • Active and peer learning are essential
  • Learners and staff need clear, consistent info about what blended means
  • Ongoing promotion of digital literacies with a shift to pedagogical understanding for staff and learners
  • There are tensions between institutional estates and learning and teaching¬†
  • Institutions need to build in times and have a particular strategy for designing and delivering high quality blended learning

These findings resonated with the research Helen Beetham and I have been doing with Jisc around curriculum and learning design. In our recent “Beyond Blended” report we share our findings particularly around evolving understandings of the changing relationships of time, space and place of learning post pandemic. In terms of tensions between estates and learning and teaching, we have recognised this and have developed a series of strategic lenses one of which is focused on use of space. These lenses provide a series of prompts which we hope will foster richer, curriculum focused discussion between stakeholders.

The day was designed really well in terms of engagement and discussion. A big shout out to Susi Peacock and the SQAA team for that. There were plenty of opportunities for discussions, and I was delighted to be asked to be participate in the lightening presentations to share our Beyond Blended work. Though I was slightly out of breath running up and down the stairs to each group!

In the plenary session the perennial issues of time, finding and developing evidence, senior management support were all raised. Simon Thomson highlighted the need to explore the value of different modalities of learning so we can share them with students. If we want students to turn up and participate in any mode of learning, they need to recognise the value of it. Equally at institutional (and sectoral ) levels we need to ensure we aren’t making knee jerk reactions to perceived issues. Foro example stopping lecture capture to get students to turn it could actually disadvantage students. I just spotted this excellent paper from Emily Nordmann which provides evidence of the benefits of lecture capture.

In terms of senior management support, I have been reflecting on how quickly that has changed again. From research and conversations I had with colleagues here in the UK and in Ireland, it was very clear that during the pandemic senior management were very focused on learning and teaching. So many people told me that “they had a seat a the table” they never had before, that they were listened to and supported. And now . . . well I’m not sure if the seats have totally been removed from all the tables, but the “back to normal” mentality does seem to have meant that senior management focus isn’t as sharply focused on the key issues of delivering flexible, accessible, equitable learning and teaching opportunties.

During and just after the pandemic, I talked quite a bit (well in one keynote at least!) about pandemic amnesia. By that I mean forgetting the experiences of lock down, of thinking that everything will be like before. It can’t be and it isn’t. If we are going to provide flexible, accessible and equitable learning that really engages our students, an meets all the claims of various strategic goals, then we need to be changing our practices and attitudes to planning and designing learning and re thinking our workload models so we can allow educators (and students) to develop, engage with, reflect and share evidence around the different modes of learning we are using. That needs serious senior management engagement. But it might also take a little bit of bottom up subversion of “normal” practice too.

The SQAA work is a such an important part of developing and sharing evidence and practice and I’m looking foward to seeing their report and being part of the discussions moving forward.

Pedagogy, place and pragmatics

Following on from the report that has just been published on Approaches to Curriculum and Learning Design in the UK HE sector, Helen Beetham and I are exploring some of the key issues that were highlighted through the survey and the interviews we conducted. Central to this are issues around time, space and place. Earlier this week we were able to start to share some of our initial thinking during a workshop at the Jisc Student Experience Experts Meeting.

In the interviews I conducted as part of the project, there was a general consensus that after the first lockdown most organisations were quite keen, even quite ambitious about their future plans for new approaches to learning and teaching. There was a sense of an appetite to embrace some the changes to practice that being forced off campus had brought about. Assessment was a huge part of that.

Rapid changes to assessments had to be introduced, along with rapid changes to assessment regulations. Student care was high on the agenda – a visible sign of that was the no detriment practices that many adopted. Again in the interviews, it was clear that lots of the changes from f2f exams to online submissions of various types including open book, authentic assessments have now been adopted.

In terms of wider curriculum change, it was also clear from the survey responses and interviews that the appetite for changes to other aspects of curriculum design and delivery had been divisively impacted by the UK Governments’ insistence that everyone needed to be back on campus, at lectures and doing “proper” in person exams. Never mind the lessons that had been learnt from students about the benefits of more flexible, accessible and inclusive approaches. Strategic statements were subtly altered to reflect as a pragmatic response to that political driver.

However, back in the real world, we can’t ignore that our understandings and use of the spaces, places (both physical and digital) and times for learning and teaching have been altered by the pandemic experience. Students have been off campus, on campus, off campus, on and off campus for a bit . . . and now on campus. Typical 1st and 2nd year students have had their final years of school turned upside down in the same way.

I think how “be” a student has changed, and that might be one of the reasons there have been so many issues around engagement. Where (and when) you actually need to be isn’t as clear cut as it was in the “before times”.

Going back to assessment, some of the comments student interns on the Irish EDTL project made during one of their webinars really struck me. Including the student who very eloquently shared how being able to take assessments off campus, in a space that was comfortable for them, massively reduced their stress levels; another who felt that the design of some of the online MCQs exams they had taken were “mean” as they didn’t allow you to go back to a question to answer it. That experience was making them want almost long for pen and paper exams. In the panel discussion at the experts meeting, Deborah Longworth from the University of Birmingham shared how some changes to assessment are now having impact on the mental health of students. She described how some students can think that a 72 hour open book exam means that they need to be working on it for 72 hours. Does this mean taking time to develop more scaffolding around time expectations, or is it an “in” to go back to fixed, in person exam that everyone understands the conventions of ?

Whilst terms such hybrid and hyflex are commonly used and, are they really fully understood by both students and staff? Do we really have effective examples of how these approaches work in practice. This is one area Helen and I want to explore from a pedagogical lens.

We are starting with time, and thinking in terms of synchronous and asynchronous. Then considering what types of activities/interactions that work best in these contexts, and then starting to map the spaces and places that students and staff need to be in as these activities are instantiated. In terms of broadening our approaches to learning design, do we need to be more explicit about time, space and place expectations in?

As the cost of living crisis starts to really kick in, what additional changes do we need/ are we making to make to our physical estate to support our students (and staff). Warm areas, areas with kettles? What choices might commuting students have to make about how many times a week they can be on campus?

As we discussed these issues in the meeting, a dose of pragmatism was injected into the conversation. Whilst it is often said that pedagogy should always come before technology, in reality it’s pragmatism, and the contextual constraints that everyone has to work with that really make have “the power”. Pragmatics always win over everything else.

I know I have run many learning design workshops where some really innovative approaches have been planned, only to find out that 2 weeks before the start of term, the plans have been changed because of timetabling issues or more commonly not enough staff resource or time.

As the sector moves forward is it just easier to cope with increases in student numbers, and the staff/studio ratio to just timetable in lectures? Is it just pragmatically more effective not to change workload models and notions of contact time to reflect the shifts in preparation/contact time and presence needed, and stick with the conventions we are all familiar and comfortable with?

Hopefully not, and that’s what we are working on now, to develop resources that can help provide guidance and exemplars of how the sector can, and is, evolving to allow us to think about pedagogy and place and hopefully start to change some of the pragmatics and constraints approaches to learning design, and in turn the student experience, exist in. I know Peter Bryant’s recent post on the “snapback” discusses many of these issues in more depth so is worth a look if you haven’t seen it yet.

So if you have any thoughts on this, or would like to share any examples, please do get in touch, or leave a comment. We want to provide spaces to have these conversations and hopefully provide some resource to help others have them in their contexts.

From Design to implementation – DVLE programme Strand A Showcase

Last week the three Strand A projects from the current JISC funded DVLE programme, took part in an online showcase to share their outcomes now their six month development phase is over.

The three projects are quite diverse both in scale, approach and outputs. As I’ve written about before, the WIDE project from Teesside University took a very user centred approach. The team have created a range of widgets including a ruler to help with reading on-screen which the user can control size, colour and transparency. Teesside took the W3C approach to development using the Wookie widget server. Although Elaine Pearson (Project Director) did highlight that they did decided to make some of their widgets desktop based due to the accessibility features they need to utilise. Code for their widgets is available from the project website and Jorum.

Examview, from Glasgow City College looked at “integrating key student systems with the VLE”. Focusing on linking their VLE (moodle) with their exam records system the team have created an interface which gives students access to accurate and consistent information about their grades. Now when students log into the VLE, they can click on an ExamView link on their home page and they are taken to a personalized page which displays all their current results. So far, feedback from students has been very positive and is encouraging staff to input results regularly into the records system.

The team considered a number of approaches to their technical development, and the most effective way to get results from their record system into the VLE. Initially they developed a direct back-end query to the Unit E (their exam record system) Oracle database. They have also developed a MySQL database query which other institutions could utilise to create a scheduled export of data. All the code (with extensive comments) is available for download from the project website. The team have also released code into the Moodle community it has already been picked up and is being used by the University of Bejaia in Algeria.

Finally the Framework for Rich Interactive Quizzes for Mathematical Sciences project at Glasgow University, developed a very specific application to “extend the functionality of the quiz facility of a VLE by providing a framework for widgets displaying interactive graphics.” Current systems tend only to display static graphics and/or have limited interactive features. The team have developed in javascript to give them the level of functionality and integration they require with their VLE. However they do plan to make a wookie version of the widget available and add IMS simple outcomes functionality for recording scores.

Copies of the presentations (which include more details on technical choices etc) from the session are available from the CETIS website. For an insight into what is happening in the year long Strand B projects, this recent blog post from w2c project at MMU gives an comprehensive overview of the systems and possible integration routes they are exploring.

Widget creation and learning design templates – re-use in action

Sustainability and re-use of project outputs is a perennial issue. However I was really heartened this week to see a great example of a project using and building on previously funded work from the WIDE project.

WIDE is part of the current JISC funded DVLE programme. It is one of three six month rapid development projects. “WIDE is a joint project between the Accessibility Research Centre at Teesside University, JISC TechDis and Portland College that aims to make online learning more accessible and inclusive for disabled students/learners. Our objective is to develop open educational resources that will improve or support the learning experience and can be shared and adapted by the community.”

The project has been developing widgets through a series of user engagement workshops. The workshops have adapted the learning design templates created the the RLO CETL a couple of years ago as part of their Sharing the Load project which was part of the JISC funded Design for Learning Programme. They’ve also created a widget storyboard template building from the original learning design templates.. Having been involved in the support of that programme as well as the DVLE programme, it is heartening to see re-use and progression of project outputs.

The WIDE project website has more information on the workshops as well as links to the widgets that have been built so far (28 and counting!), a tutorial “creating a calendar widget”, APIs, and lots of other great stuff. It’s well worth spending half an hour browsing resources – who knows you maybe inspired for some re-use too.

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