I attended the UCISA online event Embrace Digital: promoting the use of digital technology in HE. It was interesting to hear how the university presenting were promoting and embedding digital technologies across their staff. In response to a question about why a university did not use the Jisc Digital Capability Service, their response was that the questions in the digital capability tool weren’t quite right, so they wanted to write their own questions and tailor them to meet the needs of Lancaster. I can quite understand that reasoning. I suppose what I would question, is that when you have limited resources, is the best use of time improving something that exists, or actually implementing that something with staff? If something isn’t quite right, then yes, create your own, however if it is, say 80% right, isn’t that enough? A lot of this falls down to what you are trying to achieve, are you trying to build the best tool ever, or are you trying to use a tool to improve the digital skills of your staff? What is your key objective? How much does it matter that a tool isn’t perfect, if it is good enough, is that good enough? Another reflection on this is, looking at this from a sector perspective. If every university goes down the route of creating their own tools, then there will be a lot of duplication of effort and significant resource allocated. We then have to ask for what gain?
A story I use to tell during presentations and workshops was about someone who wanted to write some poetry on their computer but wasn’t sure how to start. One person said they should use Microsoft Word, as that was the standard word processing tool. Another person said that Google Docs was a better choice, as it was in the cloud and enabled collaboration. Meanwhile another person said that, they should avoid proprietary software and should use OpenOffice as it was free. There was also a Mac user, who said they should use Pages, as that is what creative people used. One person in the corner said, don’t use a computer and that maybe they should just use paper and a pencil. All well and good, but someone wanted to write some poetry and that is what they needed help with, was writing poetry.
The objective of building digital skills is not about building digital skills, that isn’t, nor should be the aspiration. The reason behind building the digital skills of staff, is about enabling and empowering them to use digital technologies for something else, such as enhancing the student experience, improving student outcomes, efficiency, and so on. By focusing on the tool, you may miss the point of why someone wants to know how to use the tool.
This doesn’t mean that everyone should use the same tools and services, and everything should be centralised, far from it. My opinion is much more that when we think about what we want to achieve, we should ensure we have clarity about the aims and the objectives of what we are trying to do. In some cases that may mean using a sector wide service, other times it may mean creating our own institutional tools and services.
Had a few meetings about Jisc’s HE bespoke consultancy offer and next steps.
On Tuesday I did originally plan to go into the office today, but according to the desk bookings there were very few people in, so in the end I worked from home.
I delivered a presentation to the IHE Heads of Finance Network on LTR, Powering HE and how Jisc can support and help Higher Education with a particular focus on investment in digital.
Wednesday saw myself deliver the second session of an online Digital Leadership programme to a cohort of university staff. Despite the fact I had to do most of the session by myself, it did seem to go well.
On Thursday I did go to the office in Bristol. There was a lot more people in the office than normal, however as I had a fair few online interviews and meetings, I spent most of the day in one of our meeting rooms. However I did enjoy the change in routine and scenery, and I had a few happenstance conversations, which I don’t generally have online.
We had a debrief about the Advance HE/HEDG shareshop we did on transition. We also thought about future ideas, including dual mode delivery and curriculum planning.
Friday saw myself deliver a repeat of the second session of an online Digital Leadership programme to a cohort of university staff. It was a slightly shorter session as I had a conference to present at later that morning.
The conference was a Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference: Next steps for reforming the TEF and ensuring teaching excellence in HE. My session was entitled Driving up standards and supporting teaching excellence in remote and blended learning.
I talked about definitions, background, the emergency response and the implications of differentiating between translation and transformation. I also discussed the topic of digital poverty.
In the afternoon I did some analysis of the planning that universities were taking in respect to transition that came out of the shareshop we did on transition.
The main themes that came out of the online padlet discussion were:
Building online communities
The importance of student (and staff) wellbeing
Supporting and developing academic skills
Developing inductions and planning welcome weeks
Building digital skills
Returning to on campus delivery
One of the key themes that came out of the padlet discussion was the value and importance of building online communities. As one delegate pointed out in their planning, they felt it was important in supporting them to socialise and feel part of the community. One university wanted to increase connectedness and a sense of belonging to the university community.
As with academic skills (but slightly less commentary) the disruption to both new students and returning students, many comments were made about supporting and developing the digital skills of students. There was a recognition that many students did not have the (academic) digital skills to successfully engage with online and blended learning. As one participant said there was a need to be supporting the digital skills needed to access the course and related services. Another said we overestimated the students ability to use and engage with online content.
My top tweet this week was this one.
Maybe this isn’t the problem. Maybe the problem is too many meetings.
We are living through a period of unprecedented disruption, it isn’t over, so what do we need to do in the short term, the medium term and how will this impact the long term?
Last week I delivered two presentations, one was a planned presentation for a QAA workshop, the other, well it wasn’t supposed to be a presentation, but due to a lack of response from the audience in the networking session I was in, I quickly cobbled together a presentation based on the slides I had used for the QAA.
This post is a combination and an expansion of the presentations I delivered about my thoughts of what happened, what then happened, what we need to think about and what we could do.
I initially reminded ourselves of what we had experienced back in March.
We know people talk about a pivot to online learning, but we know this isn’t what happened. As others have written about, this wasn’t some planned gradual shift to a blended online approach to teaching and learning. It was a abrupt radical emergency response to physical campus closures in the midst of a national crisis.
As universities closed their campuses to staff and students, they were forced to isolate and start to teach and learn remotely. Staff who previously had offices and desks to work from suddenly found themselves in lockdown, working from home amidst all the other stuff which was happening. They may have been lucky and had a working space they could use, but many would have found themselves in a busy household with partners working from home, children being home schooled with all the pressures that brings to space, time, devices and connectivity.
Likewise students were suddenly faced with stark choices, should they stay on campus or go home, for some home meant a flight home. They too would find themselves in strange environments in which they had to learn. They would be isolated, in potentially busy households, potentially without the devices and connectivity they could have used on campus.
In addition to all this the landscape and environment was changing rapidly. Lockdown forced us to stay at home, only allowed out for essential supplies and exercise once per day. There was the threat of infection and with the death rates rising exponentially, it was a frightening time.
The emergency shift to remote delivery also was challenging, without the time and resources, or even the support, to design, develop and delivery effective and engaging online courses. We saw many academic staff quickly translate their curriculum design from physical face to face sessions to virtual replacements using Zoom and Teams. What we would see is that this simple translation would lose the nuances that you have with live physical sessions in learning spaces without taking account of the positive affordances that online delivery can potentially have. Without the necessary digital skills and capabilities staff would have found it challenging in the time available to transform their teaching.
I still think as I was quoted in a recent article that this rapid emergency response and shift to remote delivery by academic staff across the UK was an amazing achievement.
In the presentations I gave an overview of some of the support Jisc had been providing the sector, from providing a community site, various webinars, blogs, advice and guidance as well as direct help to individual members of Jisc.
Over the last few months I have been publishing various blog posts about aspects of delivery translation and transformation. I have also reflected on the many conversations I have had with people from the sector about what was happening, what they are doing and what they were thinking about going forward. I’ve also had a fair few articles published in the press on various subjects.
So as we approach the end of term, the planning for September has been in play for some time as universities start to think about how they will design, develop and deliver academic programmes for the next year.
We know that virtually all universities are planning to undertake some teaching on campus in the next academic year, but will combine that with elements of the course delivered online.
Though in the past we may have talked about these being blended courses, though they may consist of a blend on face to face physical sessions and online sessions, they were planned to be blended and not changed over the course. They didn’t need to take into account social distancing, so could combine physical lectures with online seminars. In the current climate, we are expecting to see large gatherings forced online and smaller group activities happening physically face to face.
Blended programme are generally designed not be changed over the time of the programme, so I think we might see more hybrid programmes that combine physical and online elements, but will flex and change as the landscape changes.
I published a blog post about hybrid courses back in May, my definition was very much about a programme of study which would react and respond to the changing environment.
With a hybrid course, some sessions are physical face to face sessions. There are live online sessions and there are asynchronous online sessions. In addition there could be asynchronous offline sessions as well. You may not want to be online all the time!
Some sessions could be easily switched from one format to another. So if there is a change in lockdown restrictions (tightening or easing) then sessions can move to or from online or a physical location.
Listening to a conversation someone was talking about hybrid courses as a mix between online and face to face, but didn’t mention the responsiveness or the potential flexibility. Without a shared understanding we know that this can result in confusion, mixed messaging, with the differences in course design and delivery, as well as problems with student expectations. I wrote about this last week on a blog post on a common language.
Some courses do lend themselves to an online format, whereas others may not. As a result I don’t think we will see similar formats for different subjects. Lab and practical courses may have more physical face to face sessions, compared to those that are easier to deliver online. As a result different cohorts in different subjects will have different experiences. Some universities may find that due to nature of social distancing that classes may have to be spread across a longer day and these has been talk of spreading over seven days as well, to fit in all the required classes and students.
Designing, developing and delivering online courses, or even just components of online courses doesn’t just happen, it takes time and time is something we don’t have. In a conversation about the issues of planning, one senior manager said to me that what she needed was six months and more money.
We have seen that some universities in response to this kind of challenge are recruiting learning technologists and online instructional designers to “fill” the gap and support academic staff in creating engaging and effective online components of their courses.
Maintaining the quality of such components will be critical, and merely translatingexisting models to a simple online format using tools such as Zoom will lose the nuances of physical face to face teaching without gaining any of the affordances that well designed online learning can bring to the student experience.
Building and developing staff skills and capabilities in these areas is been seen as a priority for many universities, but how you do this remotely, quickly and effectively is proving to be a challenge and a headache for many.
Normally when I mention time, I would have talked about how I don’t have a dog, but in this case this is not the case, the development of new designs for the next academic year is not just the main priority, but as we don’t have the time and the skills in place to make it happen.
We are not merely adding online elements to existing courses. We are not going to be able to deliver the physical face to face sessions in the same way as we have done. Everything has to change, everything is going to change.
So what of the future? Well we know for sure it’s going to be different.
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