All posts by James Clay

It wasn’t online learning!

laptop and headphones
Image by Regina Störk from Pixabay

One of things I have noticed is how often much of what was done during the numerous lockdowns was described as online learning.

Let’s be clear you can describe what was happening as an emergency response to a crisis, even simplistically a pivot, but what was happening across schools, colleges and universities could in no way be described as online learning.

That’s not so say that universities took advantage of the web tools and other online services to deliver teaching online, and the students were learning, whilst online. However, to describe what was happening using an existing term such as online learning, has resulted in the term online learning now tarnished with the less than satisfactory experiences of staff and students during the pandemic

Prior to the pandemic, the term online learning was used in a positive way to describe how learning could happen online.

During the pandemic, there was an emergency response to the crisis. Students and importantly the staff were in lockdown, with all the requisite baggage that came with that, in terms of isolating, looking after family and all the other stuff that was happening as a result of the pandemic.

I do think, having spoken to students and staff who have been through this process, how hard everyone worked during the pandemic to do their best to deliver teaching and support learning.

The reality is though that despite the hard work, there wasn’t the training, the staff development, the research, the preparation undertaken that would have been needed to deliver an outstanding online learning experience. Combined with that, the fact that the academic staff were also in lockdown as well, the actual experiences of students and staff are in fact quite amazing. However it wasn’t online learning. What we saw was translation of existing in-person practices to online versions; they lost the nuances of what made the in-person experience so good, and didn’t take advantage of the affordances of that online and digital can bring to the experience.

Zoom
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

What is online learning then?

Well, for one thing highly effective online learning is designed from scratch, it isn’t about converting, translating or digitising an original in-person programme. Experiences from universities across the UK have shown that, though this can be done, it isn’t necessarily the best and most effective way of designing an online course. Starting from a blank canvas and thinking holistically about the whole experience, and from a student perspective should result in a better student experience. It should not be constrained by the physical requirements of an in-person programme, such as rooms and timetables, likewise it can use the opportunities of asynchronous activities that digital can being to the table.

Designing and delivering online learning does require skills and knowledge, but over the last couple of decades there has been lots of papers and research on this topic, as well as people sharing their experiences of doing it.

Omicron on our doorstep, time to prepare for another lockdown

discarded mask
Image by Roksana Helscher from Pixabay

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I wrote about the possibilities of in-person teaching now that 90% of university students had had at least one Covid jab.

One thing we do need to recognise though, is that the pandemic is far from over. We may not go into another lockdown situation, but are universities prepared to pivot again to online delivery and teaching? Hopefully we will start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we do need to be prepared, as that light may be further away than we think it is.

I also wrote

Also new variants can reduce the efficacy of the vaccines, as well as the fact that the efficacy of the vaccine declines over time.

On Saturday morning I was reading the news about the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

I posted this tweet.

By the afternoon the government announced that mask wearing in shops and on public transport would become mandatory again on Tuesday the 30th November.

The government also announced that face masks would be compulsory in educational institutions.

The measure, which applies from Monday, covers all education establishments including universities, as well as childcare settings such as early years care.

That light at the end of the tunnel now seems a litter further away than it did back at the beginning of November.

Zoom
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

I also wrote in that earlier blog post:

We may not go into another lockdown situation, but are universities prepared to pivot again to online delivery and teaching?

What we do know about the Omicron variant is that it is highly transmissible and with some of the population deciding to refuse to wear masks, I think it will only be a matter of time before we see rising infection rates and the possibility of another lockdown.

So I ask again are universities prepared to pivot again to online delivery and teaching?

Are we in a better position than we were before?

Well much of those early teething issues will have been resolved, and people will have a better idea of what to do. However I still think we will see just more translation, or lift and shift of existing in-person practice to remote delivery. What we won’t see is the transformation to what is possible, taking full advantage of the affordances of online and digital delivery. With a lift and shift approach it shouldn’t be a surprise that we will see complaints from students, zoom fatigue and so on…

Hopefully the vaccination rollout and mask wearing will reduce the chance of lockdown, but I would still be preparing for the possibilities of another lockdown regardless.

Crisp – Weeknote #143 – 26th November 2021

crisps
Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

More leave this week, so again a shorter week.

I was asked to produce some crisp presentation slides, crisp as in sharp I believe and not ones on a savoury snack.

I have been working on a (revised) implementation plan for the HE sector strategy: Powering UK higher education at Jisc. This is very much about operationalising the strategy, so much so that I started planning a blog post about operationalising strategies based on the content of a session I use to run on the digital leaders programme.

lens
Image by 育银 戚 from Pixabay

I did write a blog post this week, Looking through that digital lens which is also based on a session from the digital leaders programme, the strategic work I have done with universities and working with Advance HE on a leadership session back in the summer.

The digital lens approach can enable effective and transformational behaviours to emerge by helping staff to understand and develop their capabilities and confidence in the context of their own work.

Looking at strategies through a particular lens isn’t a new thing, but as we move beyond the pandemic, the use of digital has become so embedded into practice and working that the concept of a separate digital strategy is no longer the option it once was for organisations.

I have spoken about transformation a lot over the last year, so it was interesting to read this article talking about the importance of transformation when it comes to embedding technology. Though it does talk about generational generalisations it does talk about transformation.

Faculty roles and the processes of teaching and learning are undergoing rapid change. Most faculty members did not seek careers in the academy because of a strong love of technology or a propensity for adapting to rapid change; yet they now find themselves facing not only the inexorable advance of technology into their personal and professional lives but also the presence in their classrooms of technology-savvy Net Generation students.

Then you find it was published fourteen years ago in 2007….

Ah well transformation can be slow.

slow
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Wednesday I went to our Bristol office, though my train into Bristol was delayed by half an hour. That was something I haven’t missed during the pandemic.

I booked a meeting room for my calls, so I wouldn’t disturb others in the office. Still nice though to be back in the office now and again.

I had planned to go to the office on Thursday as well, however plans were changed at the last minute. Had some interesting discussions about thought leadership though it is a term I don’t like, the concept of articles and blog posts that inspire transformation is very much part of Jisc’s strategy. For me a coherent and planned approach that engages with our target audience is key, but easier said than done.

I was on leave on Friday.

My top tweet this week was this one.

Looking through that digital lens

lens
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The pandemic crisis has provided universities with serious challenges and required creative thinking to provide solutions. Universities have needed to act at pace and scale. They’ve needed to do this whilst staff and students are coping with yet another lockdown, social distancing and continuing restrictions. All of this whilst trying to navigate a highly charged political landscape, with often conflicting advice and guidance from central government. Despite the positive news of the rollout of vaccines, it will be sometime before things get back to normal, and we don’t yet know what that normal will be. Things could get worse before they get better. However we are seeing more in-person activities on campus and a sense of normality compared to the last eighteen months.

One aspect of education that has gained more prominence during the emergency response to the pandemic is the importance of online and digital in responding to the situation, and the use of technology to meet the changing needs of students and staff. There have been issues with hardware, software, remote technical support, and planning a blended hybrid curriculum that ensures a quality student experience, but they have, by and large, been overcome through the support of our teams across a range of professional services and with the experience and knowledge of all our staff.

Knowing that digital has been critical to dealing with the challenges of the pandemic, the question now remains: how and what role will digital play in the post-pandemic strategic priorities of the university?

There are two key questions facing universities?

Does the strategy still meet the needs of the university in this new, changing and uncertain landscape?

What role does digital play in helping universities achieve their [new] strategic aspirations?

There are various ways in which you can respond to these questions, you may want to create new strategic priorities, which reflect the new landscape in which universities will operate. Some universities will want to consider creating a digital strategy, or giving their existing one a major overhaul. A question that you may want to reflect on, do universities need a separate digital strategy? There are challenges with having additional strategies that are an addition to the core strategic priorities, and with more strategies in place it is sometimes easy for things to fall between them.. Additionally , the provision of a new strategy, with new digital priorities, may be seen as some kind of extra or addition to what staff are already doing. The end result is that the digital strategy is often ignored or left to one side. If you are tasked with writing a digital strategy, you could write it in isolation, but prepare for it to be a low priority for people higher up. Also expect people in other directorates or departments to ignore it as they focus on their own strategies.

Lens
Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

I would argue that in order to get stronger “buy-in” by stakeholders there is a need to apply a digital lens to all strategies. What I mean by this, is reviewing and reflecting on the strategic priorities in turn and exploring and explaining how digital can be used to enable and achieve those priorities. This moves the emphasis away from a focus on a technology or a tool and onto the core focus of the business.

If you consider a strategic goal such as this one

We will respond flexibly to the challenges and opportunities ahead. Flexible modes of study will support our students to succeed and allow them to engage with a greater range of opportunities in education, extra-curricular activities and work experience.

You can start to see how a range of digital and online technologies can enable this to happen. The importance of digital platforms to enable flexibility of access to learning. Using online social platforms to increase engagement in extra-curricular activities.

The lens is made up of different aspects that need to be considered when applying digital to existing and intended structures.

It is necessary to identify which element will be looked at in digital contexts – for example, a particular teaching practice. Different digital options should then be explored to gain a thorough understanding of the range of possibilities. The benefits and risks of each possibility should be carefully weighed before deciding to deploy. As with all change, it is important to reflect and evaluate the nature and impact of the changes caused by the incorporation of digital.

The digital lens approach can enable effective and transformational behaviours to emerge by helping staff to understand and develop their capabilities and confidence in the context of their own work. The results can include an improved status quo and the identification of new goals for individuals and their organisations.

There is a history of people talking about applying a lens to challenges, to look at things differently. To give a different perspective on what has been written or talked about. These are sometimes called strategic lenses and can cover different area such as design, customer focus, resources, cultural amongst others.

Any departmental or methodology strategy should always link back to the organisational strategy and how the objectives and actions will support the organisational strategic aims.

If you apply a digital lens to the corporate strategy, you can demonstrate how digital technologies can enable that strategy. So rather than talk about how you are going to increase the use of digital technologies, the strategy talks about how the use of digital technologies will enable the strategic aims.

Digital does not exist in isolation and there may be other strategies, such as teaching and learning, assessment, environmental, wellbeing or community. The concept of a lens can be used here as well. Either placing a digital lens over the environmental strategy and exploring how digital and technology can enable the university to achieve it’s environmental strategic goals, or even using the same concept and applying an environmental lens to the core strategic priorities.

I have worked with universities across the country helping them to utilise the concept of the digital lens to enable transformation and more effective use of digital and online technologies that are aligned with their strategic priorities. A strategic digital lens allows universities to better understand how digital and technology can enable them to achieve their core strategic priorities. It can help inform staff how they will use digital in their work to meet the institutional priorities.

References

Jisc, 2018. Delivering digital change: strategy, practice and process. [online] Bristol: Jisc. Available at: https://repository.jisc.ac.uk/6800/1/Jisc_Digcap_Senior_leaders.PDF

Clay, J., 2018. Why does no one care about my digital strategy? – eLearning Stuff. [online] eLearning Stuff. Available at: https://elearningstuff.net/2018/05/09/why-does-no-one-care-about-my-digital-strategy/

Phasing in and out – Weeknote #142 – 19th November 2021

So this was my first full week back at work. Well I say that, but due to having to use a fair amount of leave  carried over from last year, I only worked three days this week. Still recovering from Covid this was actually a blessing as it meant I didn’t need to exhaust myself out.

I am spending time catching up with what’s been happening while I was off sick.

I went to the office on Monday, it was quite quiet. I am still phasing back into work (not quite a phased return, but certainly a slow return).

I worked from home on Tuesday and spent much of the day reading and writing.

I also headed to Bristol on Wednesday. I went in later and then met an old colleagues for drink after work, which was nice.

I wrote a few thought pieces this week.

I put down a few thoughts about transformation.

Success in digital teaching and learning is much about understanding about what is required for transformation to take advantage of the affordances and opportunities that digital can offer and not about taking what works in-person and making digital copies of existing practices.

I have written quite a bit about transformation and translation, but this post was more about the reasons why we more often just copy rather than transform.

The first Polish language dictionary (published 1746) included definitions such as: “Horse: Everyone knows what a horse is.”

One thing I have noticed working in further and higher education, is the assumption that everyone assumes that everyone knows what terms mean. The reality is that often there isn’t a shared understanding of key terms such as, digital transformation, digital university, online learning, blended learning, hybrid learning and so on…

I wrote another post about this shared understanding and working towards a clear (and shared) understanding.

The definition doesn’t need to be definitive, but the relevant stakeholders need to have clarity and a shared understanding of that definition.

At the beginning of the week I wrote some thoughts about student cameras.

During the pandemic there was a widespread culture of “cameras off” by students. As part of research we did,  in interviews, this was commented on by both staff and students. Staff felt that often they were talking to a blank screen as all the students had their cameras off and unlike in an in-person session they couldn’t see and read the students’ reaction to their lecture.

Though as the pandemic recedes (I know), maybe this becomes less of an issue for universities, but certainly going forward if universities are going to take advantage of the affordances of online and blended learning, the issue of cameras does need to be addressed.

My top tweet this week was this one.

Transformation

solitary
Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash

Universities have traditionally designed courses for in-person face to face teaching. This process is based on years of experience in delivering programmes of study to cohorts of students.

The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns required a rapid emergency response and there was a swift transition from in-person delivery to remote delivery.

Most of the time this remote delivery took the form of that traditional delivery format been converted (or translated) into a remote delivery format. It was not converted to reflect the opportunities that online pedagogy can bring to the table.

This was not unexpected, academic staff had to quickly respond, they didn’t have the time or the resources to design, develop and delivery excellent online teaching and learning. Often they would not have the requisite and necessary digital capabilities as well. The end result was a translation of teaching and learning rather than transformation.

Moving forward, there is a need to reflect on the skills and capabilities required to deliver on the possibilities of digital teaching and learning.

Digital skills are only part of the challenge. Jisc’s work on digital capability has demonstrated again the need for a more holistic approach to the use of digital tools and services.

As well as the technical skills required for the various tools that are available, other skills are also required. These are skills around curriculum design, pedagogy, creativity, production, and innovation. The pandemic demonstrated that the technical skills were relatively easy to acquire, however for the other skills, training, development and application are more complex and challenging.

Success in digital teaching and learning is much about understanding about what is required for transformation to take advantage of the affordances and opportunities that digital can offer and not about taking what works in-person and making digital copies of existing practices.

Shared understanding

horse
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

The first Polish language dictionary (published 1746) included definitions such as: “Horse: Everyone knows what a horse is.”

Within the world of digital and online learning, assumptions are often made that everyone knows what is being discussed and there is a shared understanding of the terms being used. The reality is that often everyone has their own understanding of a term, such as blended learning, but they are not the same.

This lack of shared understanding can result in very different experiences for students.

It is critical when planning a shared curriculum and programmes of study that there is a common definition of key terms being used so that across all academic staff and the student body are working from the same understanding.

This shared understanding becomes even more critical when additional terms, such as hybrid or hyflex, are used. As across the higher education sector, there is a lack of consistency in how such terms are used.

A simple exercise that can be undertaken is asking a room of people to write down their definitions of a key term, such as blended learning onto a post-it note and then for people to share and like which definitions they agree with. Second part of the exercise is to come up with a single clear definition that everyone understands, which will then be used going forward.

The definition doesn’t need to be definitive, but the relevant stakeholders need to have clarity and a shared understanding of that definition.

Ground rules – student cameras

webcam
Photo by Emiliano Cicero on Unsplash

During the pandemic there was a widespread culture of “cameras off” by students. As part of research we did, in interviews, this was commented on by both staff and students. Staff felt that often they were talking to a blank screen as all the students had their cameras off and unlike in an in-person session they couldn’t see and read the students’ reaction to their lecture.

This is perhaps most starkly and consistently illustrated by the delivery of lectures through video and the use of cameras by students. Lecturers have generally, with a few exceptions, been praised for their delivery. However, while most students clearly have access to the required equipment they have been very reluctant to use their own cameras. The result has been that lecturers have often been left with little visual feedback of the type available in a lecture theatre, indeed they even wonder if the audience is engaging at all.

“I like to have my camera on when it’s just me and the lecturer with the camera on. And no one else,…”

Staff were often unaware why the students were reluctant to turn their cameras on.

“They’ve been very, very reluctant to have cameras on. I don’t know why that is.”

It certainly had an impact and some staff attempted to rectify and change the culture.

“I’m sat here, lecturing away for two hours to a blank screen, which is disconcerting. And if you read through the literature out there, lots of academics have started to say, “look, guys, I’m actually quite lonely. Can you please be cameras on?” That seems to work.”

The reasons for this reticence from students was explored during the interview process. It is clear that for many students there is a fear of being judged by their peers. In a traditional lecture theatre attention is focused upon the lecturer while in a virtual lecture it is easy to browse across the audience. In some cases, of course, it may be that students have logged in to give the appearance of attendance but not continued to view the lecture or that they may be viewing while in bed!

In some cases students wanted to turn on their camera but felt that the precedent had been set at the start of the course, not to use a camera and it would now be difficult to go against the “no camera” culture.

Zoom
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

One potential solution is to think about setting ground rules. In order to inhibit this “no camera” culture lecturers could make it clear that use of a camera was expected from the start of the course. This needs to happen before the course starts. This will allow students to reflect on where they might attend the online session and ensure they are prepared to be in front of the camera.

The university may also want to consider ensuring space is available on campus for students to participation in online sessions.

It should also be planned on which sessions cameras are required, encouraged, optional, or not needed. Cameras should only be on when it adds to the session. Lecturers should consider why they are asking for cameras on for that session and what is adds to the learning experience.

Where lectures don’t require interaction from students, lecturers may want to consider is it necessary to deliver the session live, and a pre-recorded session may be an option.

I’m back…. Weeknote #141 – 12th November 2021

I was off sick with covid for five weeks, but I’m back now. Not 100% fit and healthy, but I was back at work for most of the week restarting work on Wednesday.

There were hundreds of emails in my inbox and to be honest I moved them all to a folder and marked them as read. It’s one thing if you are off work for a few days, but as this was weeks, I doubt there was anything useful in there, without first having some kind of update and back to work interview. I also need to understand what my priorities are for the next few weeks.

Rather than focus on the minutiae of what I had missed I started reviewing the news and other sites that I had not been to while I was off sick. What had been happening in Higher Education whilst I was away.

Well lots to be honest…

I did write about the vaccine status of students and the potential impact this could have. There were many other stories out there as well.

I was also reminded from some incoming e-mails that I was supposed to be off to speak at a conference, a real live conference, at the SEC in Glasgow (the same place where COP26 is being held). I was going to be talking at Learning Spaces Scotland. However after chatting with my manager we decided I would have to pull out.

I am taking it slowly this week and probably next week. I have concerns about long covid, I still have the cough, aching joints and get tired quite quickly.

I did however go to our Bristol office this week, which was the first time since August. It was nice to be back working in that environment.

My top tweet this week was this one.

What happens now?

tunnel
Image by Peter H from Pixabay

So the Guardian is reporting that nine in ten university students in England have had at least one Covid jab. This does have implications for in-person teaching at universities across England.

Far from being irresponsible Covid spreaders, the vast majority of students at English universities have been vaccinated at least once and would request a test if they had symptoms, according to a survey.

This is a different scenario to last autumn when there wasn’t a vaccine and students were being accused of being super spreaders.

With more of the student population vaccinated then this should result in lower infection rates. We still need to consider those who may still be at risk from Covid despite being vaccinated as I found out recently it can still be quite nasty.

We know that there has been something of a backlash against online learning as a result of the experiences during the pandemic. We know that what was an emergency response, was in no way what would be described as online learning. How could staff deliver effective and engaging online learning, with no time for preparation, lack of skills and knowledge and remember they were also living through the pandemic.

Moving forward with demand from students and staff to have more in-person teaching, I don’t really want to say, going back to what they had, but we know how much students and staff missed in-person teaching. There is a pent up demand to return to in-person teaching. In some of the research we have been doing at Jisc, the students were very clear that when they said they missed in-person teaching that it wasn’t just the in-person learning experience it was also all the resulting interactions that happen before, during and after such in-person sessions.

This doesn’t mean that universities should stop doing stuff online, more that they need to think about what their students are saying, what their students are wanting, as well as working out the best way to deliver that, whether that be in-person or online.

Our discussions with students also showed that some things worked better online, they levelled things up between staff and students and were less intimidating than the face to face equivalents.

One thing we do need to recognise though, is that the pandemic is far from over. Infection rates which rose dramatically recently have started to drop, but winter is coming, and this means that it could rise again, combine with the other challenges that winter brings. Also new variants can reduce the efficacy of the vaccines, as well as the fact that the efficacy of the vaccine declines over time. Boosters are been given for a reason.

We may not go into another lockdown situation, but are universities prepared to pivot again to online delivery and teaching?

Hopefully we will start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we do need to be prepared, as that light may be further away than we think it is.