End of the Crucible blog

Just a note to say that this blog will not be updated any further, though old posts will remain as an archive.  The Academic Innovation team does not exist anymore as an entity. Thanks for reading!


Envisioning future learning platforms

By Susannah Diamond and Stuart Hepplestone, Academic Innovation.

Change is inevitable for the e-learning platforms and tools we constantly use.  For example, students are increasing familiar with a range of Web 2.0 tools, businesses expect interns and graduates to have a certain level of preparedness and digital fluency, and staff are becoming aware of the new requirements for digital fluency.  However, web 2.0 tools are not the only changes becoming possible alternative tools to the commercial Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).  There is debate among leading voices about the future of the VLE in education (see for example, Steve Wheeler’s post: The VLE Sucks). Models proposed include replacing the commercial VLE with freely available Web 2.0 tools, with Open Source VLE software created by the educational sector, or with externally hosted applications (see Cloud Computing made simple).  

Enticing alternatives beyond the chains of the VLE?

Enticing alternatives beyond the chains of the VLE? Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

Whatever happens, it’s important for us to be aware of the possibilities for and implications of change.  Whilst such alternatives may seem enticing in comparison to the restrictions of commercial VLEs, these alternatives need to be brought into critical focus and evaluated.  Here is a shortlist of issues:

  • Inclusivity and diversity. There will always be a range of preferences, trends and expectations among students from those comfortable in embracing and remixing with their online personalities across both their social, working and academic lives, as compared to those who welcome the safety and transparency represented by the institutional VLE. Likewise we cannot expect staff to be familiar with all the different tools, so there needs to be a compromise position that allows flexibility for students but does not put undue expectations on staff.
  • Practicalities. In practical terms, the institutional VLE requires large investment of staff support time, but provides a consistent service and set of tools available to all staff and students. At the same time the online tools and mobile technologies are overtaking the VLE in their attractiveness, ease of use and functionality. These provide powerful incentives for allowing flexibility where appropriate. However the use of Web 2.0 tools raises further issues of privacy, reliability of the service, backup of information and security and authentication. And we need to consider access for those students in placement settings where access to social software is restricted.
  • Cost. This will potentially be the major driver for change. In an age of budget cuts, large investment in commercial software will come under increasing scrutiny. The possibilities of using cheaper alternatives such as Web 2.0 and Open Source software seem alluring but have uncertain funding models and hidden costs in terms of support. Also, there are likely costs for staff and students in the time taken in evaluating and choosing from a diverse range of options. 

Final thoughts: Surely there’s the possibility of an optimal compromise here, taking the best elements from commercial, open source, Web 2.0 options. We need the reliability of locked down software for mission-critical aspects of enrolment and accreditation. If, as seems likely, cost becomes an overriding issue for the sector, the major Open Source players seem to have achieved maturity as affordable and well-supported options. And in terms of flexibility, staff and students will use 3rd party software on the web as and when they feel confident and competent to do so. As educational developers, we’ll continue to encourage staff and students towards digital fluency, maintain awareness of the evolving landscapes of options, and be ready to recommend change if we spot a tipping point.

Approaches to staff development

By Brian Irwin

Swansea HDR by matthewgriff (EmmGee) on Flickr

Swansea HDR by matthewgriff (EmmGee) on Flickr

I recently attended the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference in Swansea. One thing that I paid special attention to at the conference was the approaches to staff development in e-learning used at other institutions.

The University of Twente was migrating from one virtual learning environment (VLE) to Blackboard, and they wanted a staff development programme which would give lots of personal attention for academics and help them master the necessary skills. The solution they had was to employ part-time a group of 20+ students to meet individually with academics. These students taught them how to use the new software and helped them migrate content from the old VLE to the new one. This proved an effective strategy for their migration, but they had only 400 staff members that needed this level of support. This suggests there might be problems with scaling this approach to a larger university such as Sheffield Hallam. In addition the professional development tended to focus on technical matters. While this is important as a first step, advice on using the technology for effective teaching is probably beyond the natural intuition of most student employees.

The University of Alberta faced the challenge of low attendance at staff development events around e-learning. They tried many approaches to making them more attractive and convenient such as making sessions shorter and providing online resources. However, they decided to experiment recently with the opposite approach – making it a bigger commitment. By running an ‘e-learning academy’ for a week in the summer, with a required commitment to participate all week, they were able to get. Activities in the academy allowed staff to apply conceptual frameworks for e-learning to their own practice, then experiment hands-on with the tools in a supported environment towards the end of the week. Having this larger commitment which you got more out of was appealing to many staff, and they filled up all the places they offered. This sounds an interesting prospect, but I wonder about how transferable it is away from North America. In North American universities lecturers finish teaching responsibilities much earlier and as a result have more free time in the summer. Many actually aren’t employed officially all summer. In the UK there is a smaller period where staff have few scheduled responsibilities, and many will take annual leave during that time. However, there is a possibility worth exploring around a part-online academy concept to offer flexibility for staff members if they cannot commit to a whole week worth of staff development.

Another approach was taken by the Southwest Wales Partnership, which included three institutions. Each institution has only one or two staff members supporting e-learning. So they have a partnership and share some of their staff development programmes across the staff at all three institutions. At Sheffield Hallam the faculties employ their own staff to support e-learning. If they work together it could extend the opportunities for our staff beyond the resources of each faculty, but there are issues around cost and equity which would need to be resolved.

In the Southwest Wales Partnership the e-learning staff joined-up activities were paid for from a central fund rather than by each institution. One final approach that was highlighted was at Aberystwyth University. They have been pulling together case studies of various uses of e-learning. They are available at http://nexus.aber.ac.uk/xwiki/bin/view/Main/casestudies. The case studies they have are in different formats, but we have been working on creating case studies with a consistent level of information. I’m not sure which is best, as it is probably quicker to get inconsistent case studies, but there is a question of if they provide all the information needed when inconsistent.

So this raises the question of if we should try any of these approaches or other new ones inspired by these at Hallam.

How would I, as a student, want academic innovation to affect my studies?

As a student I didn’t really know much about the Learning and Teaching Institute (LTI) and even less about Academic Innovation. However, after spending the placement year of my Computer Networks course working in the Academic Innovation team I’ve come to realise just how important it is for producing employable and informed graduates.

Academic Innovation seems to be based around several key themes: e-learning, digital fluency, and new and emerging technology and pedagogy. Creativity is also an important strand to the work of the Academic Innovation team.

Take digital fluency as an example. This isn’t just being able to use technology; it’s about being able to critically decide how to trust information, when to use technology and what technology is appropriate. Since many employers rely on their graduates to help them decide on the best way to make use of technology, the ability to critically evaluate technology is a valuable graduate skill.

Developing an awareness of new and emerging technologies is essential for most graduates, particularly those on my type of course. If lecturers make use of new and emerging technology in their modules, and provide students with the opportunity to do the same, then students will be better prepared for careers where they need to always be on the cutting edge of technology. Not only that, but courses that make use of new and emerging technology can add variety and depth to the way students are taught and assessed.

Courses that support and use e-learning are often more engaging than those that don’t. Students can learn when they want, where they want, and fairly recent developments in technology have opened up whole new ways to be assessed and learn, one example of which would be wikis. Knowing that there are many ways to learn, students can find the approach that suits them best, and take that knowledge with them through life.

Creative thinking leads to innovation and is a key theme throughout all of these topics. I feel that if a course helps to prepare a student to be creative academically they will have a strong foundation for creativity in the world of work, which can only be a good thing.

Charles – LTI Placement Student

Challenges to media advocacy

By Susannah Diamond and Andrew Middleton, Academic Innovation

Media in their hands: Over the last five years digital media has become easy to produce using everyday gadgets and software, and is easy to share through YouTube and similar sites – in the outside world at least. Staff and students at Sheffield Hallam and beyond, as ‘user-generators’ of media, are demonstrating the benefits that media-enhanced approaches can bring to teaching and learning.  Audio feedback and student podcast assignments are two of many techniques being used here.

Intervention required: However, our ongoing work in this area leads us to believe that universities and colleges are struggling to make the most of the opportunity because their infrastructures still present too many barriers to most staff and students.  The problem is that in comparison to the days when academics were dependent upon specialist production units, user-generation of media places quite different demands on the institution. For example, technologies inside university for user-generation of media should be as click-and-play as the tools that many now experience at home when they are not studying. Institution-wide support for user-generated, media-enhanced approaches to learning needs to be underpinned by a wide range of organisational, technological, and cultural elements, and the opportunities and associated requirements need to be understood by all the people responsible for these elements. Otherwise the danger is that investment in obsolete approaches or services may continue.

Challenged:  Having identified the issues, our next step is to become advocates for change – both in our internal strategic roles, and externally across the sector.  We have been working together on the topic of ‘Media Infrastructures’ for some time, consulting others in the HE sector, and writing and presenting on the topic.  As a result of a workshop at Alt-C 2009, we were recently asked to run something similar at a JISC regional event.  This seemed like a good opportunity to push our ideas forward, particularly as we’d been set a challenge to create a tool that could make the issues explicit for senior management across the sector after leadership and co-ordination was identified as an important stumbling block at a meeting of the Podcasting for Pedagogic Purposes Special Interest Group at the University of Leicester last year.

A cartoon about the difficulties of sharing media within the university.

Outcomes: In the process of preparing for the workshop we tried to find a good way of communicating the challenge facing institutions using various visualisation techniques including diagrams, a grid-based matrix, and even a cartoon. We concluded that face to face conversations are the most useful way to communicate the issues, but that a briefing doc and an evaluation tool could be used by others to assess their own institutional context and press for change.  The workshop (see presentation) was a waymarker in producing this briefing doc, and provided positive feedback on its usefulness as an effective communication tool on which to base further work.

Just-in-time podcasting

By Andrew Middleton, Academic Innovation

Last week I set a challenging assignment for students studying a computer science module. Unusually for this group it required them to work autonomously on a project that was very open-ended. I knew the assignment would provide them with a rich and valuable experience, though I was not surprised by the anxiety I picked up on in email following the posting of the assignment brief in Blackboard. I decided to dedicate the next face-to-face meeting with them to talking through the brief: what was I really looking for? Was it really as manageable as I suggested? How should they go about the assignment?

I’m really glad I put that time aside. It seemed to do the trick. That is, for those who turned up.

A number of students hadn’t turned out for the session. What should I do? Should I say “That’s their loss?” Should I make myself available later so I could give them a repeat briefing, maybe several times? Should I cover the same ground next week? Should I leave them to speak to those who had turned up? I decided, because this was critical to an assignment due to run for four weeks, that I had to give them access to the class briefing as soon as possible and that this could be achieved by recording my talk through of the brief and the discussion around it using the MP3 recorder I always carry with me ( though I could have used the iPhone I also carry as it has a good recorder built into it).

The recording was posted to the module podcast before I left the class. Those who turned up were consulted about this and they had the benefit of being able to ask questions that were important to them in the session and were able to make s start on the assignment planning whilst the class was in session with further support from me. I was able to advise the non- attendees to consult their peers on this and it is entirely up to those who were there to decide what else they will share.

Having gone through the brief and answered questions about it, I became aware that input from a Careers adviser would help to add authenticity in establishing this particular task. I should have thought of this before, but I hadn’t. That input would be valuable now and can’t wait til next week. I’ve arranged to buy an adviser a coffee later today and to get their input in MP3 format. That will be posted to the module podcast from my iPhone as I walk back to my desk.

This post has been written on my phone on my way into work. I feel much more responsive and effective with this technology in my pocket and I can see how such interventions can make all the difference to the student experience and their capacity to immerse themselves in their studies.

Enhance student engagement with feedback

by Stuart Hepplestone, Academic Innovation

As part of the Higher Education Academy Evidence Based Practice Seminar Series 2010, Sheffield Hallam University is hosting Enhancing Student Engagement with Feedback on Wednesday 17 February 2010, 13.00-16.00.

This seminar will share the methods and outcomes of Technology, Feedback, Action!, a 12-month Higher Education Academy funded project undertaken at Sheffield Hallam University investigating the potential of technology-enabled feedback to improve student learning.

The audience will consider how evidence from the project can be used to enhance and transform feedback practice in the context of their role within their institution. The seminar will offer practical advice to academic tutors, encourage staff to make effective and efficient use of technology-enabled feedback, and promote strategic thinking for senior managers around enhancing student engagement with feedback.

This seminar will be presented by Stuart Hepplestone (Senior Lecturer Curriculum Innovation) and Helen Parkin (Lecturer Strategic Development and Evaluation).

Further information and booking details. There is no charge for this event.