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It’s going to be an odd Easter break this year, with egg hunts limited to back gardens (if you’re lucky enough to have one!) and with the looming transition to online teaching on all of our minds. If you’re looking for some light reading/ listening to ease you into the new way of working, browse our Easter Reading List for blogs and podcasts from BILT staff, Student Fellows and others in the sector.
Chinese higher education institutions are ahead of the rest of the world in adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic, testing new approaches and technologies to identify the best ways to help their students. AdvanceHE welcomed staff and students to a live webinar earlier this week to share these experiences and lessons learned. This “Lessons from China” webinar was broadcast to over 400 hundred global participants using the Zoom platform.
The conversation started with some tips on motivation: helping others and sharing how to succeed can be a source of encouragement; along with staying patient and focused on the work.
The range of technologies employed was next on the agenda. The experience was described as “a technology experiment” that employs a broad swathe of learning resources and digital tools. Social media is a useful backup facility if core teaching systems are having difficulty. Each platform has its own strengths, but students can become confused when switching between platforms. So it’s best to stick to one or two core platforms. At Bristol, we may consider how this advice plays out within Schools and especially within programmes that run across Schools, such as our Innovation degrees.
The experts highlighted the need to ensure that students understand how to use the selected online platforms by providing dedicated tutorials. This extends to individual support that falls outside normal timetabled hours. It was not clear how these additional hours were balanced against academics’ overall workload, so this is something that should be highlighted with one’s line manager and School for review.
The panel noted that getting continuous feedback from students ensured that this new way of learning was effective, and any issues could be remedied quickly.
Students were observed to communicate together effectively on social media platforms. They also used these platforms to collaborate on social good projects, such as a celebration video in support of those in Wuhan. While outside the formal curriculum, this activity gave them a sense of belonging within the cohort.
Learning materials are accessed differently in different regions of the world. In China, there was a need to open up access to online learning resources, using VPNs (virtual private networks), direct provision of e-text books and PowerPoints, and additional source materials. Some academics even mailed books to students’ homes, especially when those students had limited internet.
Teacher-student relationships changed as a result of this situation. Student panellists noted that when the academic’s camera was turned off, they felt more disconnected. However, this was typically done to reduce bandwidth issues for those with limited internet. Students also noted that they were aware of the stress the academics were under and were reticent to ask questions or make additional demands on their teachers. One reflected how he felt the experience made him a better, more independent learner, more able to study by himself. However, students also noted that at the start of a new term two areas were negatively affected: (1) they were unable to make new friends easily and (2) newly-assigned teachers were unable to forge a bond with their students. While making friends became more challenging, the change in the way students interacted also led some to develop more intimate relationships.
For subjects that require practical labs, a number of new techniques were employed. At one institution, a pre-existing three-year VR platform project allowed basic experiments to be completed online covering almost every discipline that uses practical labs. These labs are not recordable however, and difficult to include in student reports. Another approach required students to use their mobile phones to take photos and video. The panellists recommended conducting a survey in the first instance to see what tools students have ready access to, what physical space they have (such as a garden), and that can help inform what tasks they can complete. For some subjects, such as Chemistry, those students may need to return to campus earlier than others and complete more paper reading and writing assessments in the meantime.
The question of how to track or understand engagement on online platforms was addressed by using interactive activities, such as yes/no questions during live sessions. Most platforms also provide analytical tools that can help inform participation queries.
Patience was identified as “our most powerful weapon” wherein both staff and students should aim to do their best to participate, and use this as an opportunity to explore existing online learning opportunities like free online courses. At Bristol, several such courses are available via the FutureLearn platform, see https://www.bristol.ac.uk/bristol-futures/open-online-courses/.
The panellists spoke of their hopes and expectations for the future. In China, the focus is on employment, distribution channels, and how the government can provide more opportunities. The student panellists reflected that they cherish the opportunity to study even more and look ahead to when they graduate and can better serve the community. Career planning sessions and counselling services were expanded by their institutions and were gratefully received by students.
Finally, the session looked to assessment. The biggest challenge is how to conduct exams. For some disciplines this was considered straightforward, such as live face to face oral exams for language programmes. However, for physics, medicine and other subjects, decisions are still in flux as to how to assess. A major concern is about equality. When staff and students do not have reliable fast internet, and not every home has a laptop, the panelists reflected that a “no detriment” approach should be taken, and no student should feel left behind. Assessment regulations were freed up to allow a greater degree of assessment flexibility. For example, exams could be cancelled, assessments based on weekly assignments and quizzes could be used for grading, and individual professors would decide what is best for their cohort. Bristol has taken a similar approach by introducing a “no detriment” policy to our students, creating a safety net that will ensure no student is disadvantaged by the current crisis.
Engage students from the beginning by asking them to write a
question they’d like to be answered during the session, drawing a picture of
their initial impressions of the topic or even take a selfie of their
expression towards the day’s session and sharing it with the group! By doing
this they make an initial investment in the session and you can use it to come
back and reflect on these contributions at the end of the session.
2. Outline the session.
People want to know what they’re in for before investing
their time. Have you ever checked out the menu at a restaurant before you’ve
been? Looked at the running time for a film before you’ve watched it? The same
applies here. Outline each activity, what materials are needed for it and how
long you expect it to take – that way students can plan around how much time
they have. Don’t forget to include those all-important ILO’s!
3. Break it down.
Just because your students can sit through an hour-long
lecture you give doesn’t mean they can do the same online… Try and make any ‘passive’
activity (videos, podcasts, narrated presentations, reading (without note-taking))
no longer than 10 minutes at a time.
4. 50% active, 50% passive.
This is ambitious, but a great target to aim for when you’re
designing your content. ‘Active’ includes anything the student has to do:
write, type, draw, play, interact, take quizzes; passive includes everything
else. Studies have repeatedly shown students benefit from a mix of both of
these activities but try and keep the balance in check.
5. Keep telling your stories.
Moving content online doesn’t mean you have to become a
robot in your delivery. Stories enrich teaching, creating a personal and emotional
connection to the content and therefore make it more memorable and engaging. Try
and keep your delivery as close to your classroom style as possible – this is
what students are used to and we want to continue that where we possibly can.
6. Gamify it.
Gamifying content shouldn’t be reserved for the super-techy
and it doesn’t mean just turning your content into a game. Adding game-like
elements to sessions can have a massive impact on engagement and makes the
learning more fun. Simple implementations include students moving up ‘levels’
as they move through content, adding quizzes to ‘unlock’ secret content and
even having a leaderboard for top contributors to online forums.
Please get in touch with the BILT Team for more
information about how to do anything we’ve mentioned above, or have an idea you
want to discuss further with someone on the team.
From Thursday 19th March
Professor Tansy Jessop, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education, will host a short
“daily digital” on a range of themes relating to online learning and teaching.
Tansy will be joined by a number of colleagues, including from BILT and the
Digital Education Office, on this digital journey. Topics will include
building pedagogic relationships, facilitating discussion, personal tutoring
and supervision, co-creation with students, assessment and more.
is the daily digital?
On some days the
“daily digital” will be a short live event. Live sessions will be
recorded so you can catch up later if you can’t make them.
other days there will be opportunities to engage asynchronously, for example to
review a short video or reading and then join an ongoing online discussion.
long will it take me?
Each “Daily Digital”
should take you between 15 and 30 minutes.
does it start?
programme starts with a live session on Thursday 19th March at
10am, and will last 7 working days.
can I access it?
The “Daily Digital”
will take place in Blackboard. We invite you to enrol on the
Blackboard space for full access to the programme. (Content will be
released over the 7 days)
So, I will be honest, I have been dwelling on this blog idea for a while now, and the reason I haven’t written it is because I was stuck. I was struggling to come up with the perfect name for my idea. I hope the name I have come up with makes sense. But first some background…
I have been dwelling
on the idea of Authentic Learning for a very long time now, probably as far
back as 2003 when I started teaching, having worked for a few years as a
practicing engineer. I have developed ideas and strategies, based on my own
experience, that I have tried across a number of units. Then, at some point
last year I read Marilyn Lombardi’s paper on Authentic Learning (2007). It was
such a beautiful moment as it summarised my own practice so clearly and
succinctly. She articulated what I had innately known. I made a matrix of the
10 facets of authentic learning and mapped my own units against them. With the
exception of reflection (and more on that in another blog post I hope) I had been
doing everything she listed for years.
Note: If you would like a further explanation of authentic learning I wrote a blog post on the subject last term as part of my “The Office” project, which you can read here.
However I also noticed
a gap. An 11th facet of authentic learning, if you will. Providing
feedback whilst staying ‘in role’. I started to call it authentic feedback. But
a quick internet search of the term ‘authentic feedback’ shows that the term
was already taken, by another idea on feedback. And so I floundered and my
ideas paused. Until now.
And so here it is, my
idea. Providing feedback in an authentic
context. I know it’s not as snappy as authentic feedback, but I think it
says what it does on the tin. I don’t need lots of paragraphs explaining what I
So how have I (and in-fact
we in engineering) been providing feedback in an authentic context. Below are
just a few examples.
The Design Team Meeting
A few years back I
created a unit called Understanding Architecture. It teaches Civil Engineers to
understand what the architect is trying to achieve by placing them in the architect’s
shoes. The unit is very practical and includes the students developing a
conceptual design for a building. I wanted to create a formative feedback point
within the unit to help students as they developed their ideas. However rather
than just ask them to submit their ideas up to that point I put it into the
context of professional practice and asked them to lead a design team meeting (known,
rather unimaginatively, in industry as a DTM).
A design team meeting
is a staple of the building design process, all the different disciplines come
together, with the client, and discuss their progress, problems and conflicts.
It is an interactive design space where the team then solve the problems moving
the design forward.
So, we created this
context. We invited engineers, architects and client representatives to be part
of the meeting, and our students had to both present their ideas and chair the
meeting. It creates a space for constructive feedback, where the design can be
pushed and pulled. The client can confirm if the brief is right, the engineers
can challenge some of the practical aspects of the design and the clients
architect can question some of the design decisions. This way students are
given feedback whilst staying in role and in an authentic manner.
The Quality Assurance Review
In Timber Engineering
– a unit I blogged about obsessively last term (see https://bilt.online/the-office-episode-0-trailer/) I carried out a similar exercise to the above
Design Team Meeting, but took it in a different direction. This time I recast
the formative feedback as a Quality Assurance Review. Every project I worked on
was subjected to internal reviews as part of our practice. These ensured the
design was safe, was fulfilling the brief, but also looked for opportunities,
how could we do this better, how can we learn from this project and share these
ideas etc. The review was carried out by a director not directly involved in
the project and there was a checklist of items which we had to ensure we had
I used the same
approach for my fourth year timber engineering unit. I created a series of
Quality Assurance forms and a procedure. Students then presented the different
projects they had worked on and I was able to provide feedback across a number
of facets. One of the strengths of this approach was that all work presented
should have been reviewed by another member of the students team, this form of
peer review is both helpful for learning, and normal practice in industry. The
Quality Assurance Review then checks has this has been carried out and what can
we learn from this process?
The Stakeholder Presentation
At the other end of our programme, in the first year, my colleague Jeff Barrie runs a project in our design unit, where students must come up with an engineering solution to an authentic brief. The only problem is that there are three stakeholders, with conflicting interests. It is therefore very difficult to create a solution that satisfies all three stakeholders. This is brought to life when students present their schemes (including fantastic models) to the stakeholders (three assessors each play the role of a different stakeholder). Some stakeholders are delighted with the design, others not happy that their needs have been met or their concerns have not been heard. The aim is not to create a solution that works for everyone but to be able to articulate why the solution is the most suitable when there are conflicting requirements.
The Green Pen
Finally, in industry,
people red pen everything! Every drawing I drew, every report I wrote, would
reappear on my desk a few days later covered in red pen. Taking in drafts and writing
comments on them is actually incredibly authentic. However, I would like to
suggest going a step further. An ex colleague of mine used to work for a
practice called Alan Baxter’s. As was common practice everywhere else people
would red pen each other’s work as a way of checking and providing feedback.
But in Alan Baxter’s no one was allowed to use a green pen. No one, that is,
except Alan Baxter. When Alan reviewed a drawing or report he wrote in green!
What I like about this
idea is that we can, and should, encourage students to red pen each other’s
work, to support each other’s learning (and learn themselves in the process)
but we should also provide feedback, and we can differentiate our feedback from
thier’s by simply using a different colour pen. This way we can create feedback
in an authentic context.
What feedback in an authentic context have you
I would love to hear from other authentic learning practitioners who have stayed in character to provide feedback. You could email me, or even better, tell the world by adding it to the comments below. I think there is so much space for innovation and creativity in this area and I would love to explore it further.
“Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview”, Educase, 2007.
In Autumn 2019, Professor Lee Marshall from SPAIS was awarded a BILT Teaching Innovation Grant to organise mindfulness lessons for 1st year Sociology students. In this blog post, Lee answers questions about the project.
Why did you set up this project?
There were two
reasons. The first is that, like a lot of academics, I am concerned about the
levels of stress and anxiety that students today seem to experience. I know
from my own experience that mindfulness can be an effective strategy for managing
stress and I wanted to give new Sociology students the opportunity to learn
some techniques that may help them in the future, even if they didn’t consider
themselves ‘stressed’ at the time.
So this wasn’t just for students who were stressed?
No. In fact, I
told the students that if they were suffering from high levels of stress and
anxiety, or if they had experienced any kind of trauma in recent months, then
this scheme may not be appropriate for them and I offered to help them find
more appropriate forms of support available within the university. For this
project, I emphasised mindfulness as a pre-emptive
technique, a way of proactively looking after your mental health rather than
responding to any particular crisis. You don’t just start going to the gym when
you’re recovering from a broken leg. I wanted them to start thinking about
mental health as something that could be positively managed.
What was the second reason?
reason is separate but connected. I have been involved in teaching sociology
first years all of my career and I know that it can be very difficult for
students to create friendship groups with others on their course. This isn’t a
new issue – it was the same when I was a sociology undergraduate many years
ago. The emphasis on independent study within sociology and other subjects like
it means that students spend much less time together than, say, medics, and
this can be a contributory factor to loneliness and anxiety. I hoped that by
creating an extra-curricular activity that they would do with other Sociology
students, it may help create a group identity which reduced any feelings of
How did you organise the project?
I used the money
from the BILT grant to buy in a professional mindfulness company, Positivemeditation.com,
who ran 6 sessions along with a short taster session for people to get a sense
of what it might be like. These sessions ran on Thursday afternoons, and there
were drinks and snacks afterwards to enable more of a social situation.
Initially, I had intended to participate in the mindfulness sessions along with
the students, but then I realised that having an old professor hanging around
may put a dampener on any kind of group bonding! So, in the end I recruited
some third-year sociology students to manage the sessions for me. I publicised
the project via the first-year unit that I teach, which all sociology students
have to take.
Did you get a lot of interest?
There was quite a
high level of interest. When I emailed third years recruiting volunteers to the
project, almost a third of students responded. Some of that would have just
been people thinking about ‘employability’ opportunities, but a great many
talked about what a good idea it was and how mindfulness had helped them deal
with periods of stress and anxiety. After I publicised it to the first years,
about a fifth of them – 30 or so – turned up to taster session. Following that
session, 19 signed up to take the course.
How did it go?
went quite well. The first two sessions were very well attended, and the
students told me that they were enjoying the sessions. But there was then a
break because of reading week, and the strike action seemed to have an effect
on students’ attendance. The later sessions had much worse attendance, between
4 and 8 students.
So do you think the project was a failure?
That’s hard to
answer. Obviously, it didn’t do what I hoped it would do – there is not a
blooming sociology community growing out of this project in the way I hoped.
Nor have I managed to persuade many first years to proactively look after their
mental health. But, at the same time, it is clear that the project was really helpful for those who stuck
with it. The feedback I got at the end was very positive. One student wrote
that “the mindfulness sessions were brilliant. They were run very well and
supportively. I feel like I have new tools in my toolbox to handle being human.”
That’s important, and I am happy that those students got something out of it. So,
I don’t view the project as a failure, but it didn’t succeed in the way I
What lessons have you learned from the project?
The main one –
which I knew from prior experience, if I’m honest – is that if you try to put
on extra-curricular activities, you need an individual – normally a member of
staff – to continually act as a cheerleader, motivating students and
encouraging them to attend, otherwise momentum fades away quickly. This was one
of the problems I was trying to address with the project, but I didn’t resolve
it. When I made the decision to not take part in the actual lessons myself, I
lost the position that might have enabled me to keep more people committed to
the project. If I ran the project again, I would think hard about that
Would you run the project again?
No, at least not
as it was constructed this year. It required too much organisation, and the
financial costs were too high, for the small number of students who benefitted
from it, even though I’m happy for those individual people. I’m also not sure
that one individual, or one individual project, can do much to change students’
orientation to a more proactive management of their mental health, even though
I do think that is really important. It needs a more institution-wide approach,
I think. At the same time, the initial responses I got from the third-year
students especially indicate that there is potential interest in more
mindfulness-style activity, perhaps at a subject or school level. It would be
good if something could be developed that addressed that.
Last week we hosted the third of our Digital Accessibility events, this time with Dafydd Henke-Reed, Senior Accessibility Consultant with AbilityNet. Dafydd has been diagnosed with Autism and Dyslexia and spoke about his personal experiences of Neurodiversity.
was engaging and open about his experiences growing up, going to University and
the technology he uses day to day. From the very start he highlighted that
Autism is a spectrum and that we were hearing what Neurodiversity means to him.
From Cognitive Brick Walls to being horrified when friendly lecturers asked him to move forward from the back row of a lecture theatre, we heard about the barriers and obstacles he had faced.
What stood out for me…
“Dyslexia could be solved with tools; Autism was about learning how to thrive in a seemingly hostile culture.”
Dafydd had refused support related to Autism at University. Tactics such as large yellow “appropriate allowance when marking” stickers felt like a brand. This is pertinent; many students may not disclose their “disabilities” due to previous experience or because they find allowances intrusive or counterproductive. In fact, with conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder may not consider it a disability in the first case, it’s just the way they are. If we are to be truly inclusive, then we need to design our learning experience to remove barriers and everyone benefits.
“Come over for group study and we’ll get beers and pizza in? Hell no!”
spoke about how he found groups and teamwork challenging. He’ll use digital
tools like Slack or instant messaging to communicate rather than walking to a
colleague’s desk. He also praised electronic tickets (“I won’t lose them”)
He showed us the Speech to Text (STT) and Text to Speech (TTS) systems he uses every day along with the spelling correction functionality.
Do’s and don’ts
The excellent UK Gov “Do’s and Don’ts” guides were given a name check again, this time for Dyslexia and Autism. If you haven’t seen them, check out these lovely visual guide posters. I think they should be printed out in every office!
University of Bristol students have come together to host a free wellbeing conference open to students, staff and members of the public.
The conference, which is themed ‘Looking
to the Future’, is being held on University Mental Health Day and will feature
a mix of discussions, workshops and creative exhibitions.
The organisers hope that the event will
encourage an open dialogue between attendees about wellbeing in the university
and wider community.
The Bristol Wellbeing Conference is a
collaborative event which is being hosted by the Bristol SU Wellbeing and
Education Networks, and the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching.
The keynote speaker will be Dr Dominique
Thompson, an award winning GP, young people’s mental health expert, TEDx
speaker, author and educator. Having previously been the Director of Service at
the University of Bristol Students’ Health Service, Dominique has now launched
her own student health and wellbeing consultancy to assist organisations in
improving their student support offer.
Ellie Leopold, Chair of the Wellbeing
Network and one of the event organisers, said:
“We wanted to set up the
conference as a way of celebrating the progress that has been made with
wellbeing at the university, but also recognise the changes that still need to
It’s really exciting that this
is a completely student-led conference and we hope that lots of people come and
engage with this important issue.
I’m particularly looking
forward to the morning panel discussion on the student mental health and
wellbeing survey. Bristol is one of the few UK universities to assess and
report on student mental health and I think that’s something to be celebrated.
To realise the potential of the survey though, we need much greater student
engagement and the Bristol Wellbeing Conference is the perfect platform from
which to kickstart the future of wellbeing at our university!”
The conference will also feature a panel
to look at the Future of Wellbeing in the Curriculum, reflection on the
University of Bristol Mental Health and Wellbeing Student Survey results and a
series of workshops and panels.
The conference will take place on
Thursday 5 March and tickets can be booked
Inspired by her work as an occupational therapist, Eithne Hunt, a lecturer at University College Cork, has developed an eight-week programme for first year students transitioning to University. She joined us last week to share the work she has been doing and how it has impacted her students.
The increasing focus on student mental health across the globe has highlighted some of the key issues students are facing today. There is a growing body on research on the adolescent brain – now seen as the second most influential time in a person’s life (after the first 1000 days of life). With the majority of mental health disorders (74%) showing before the age of 24, it is a crucial time in a person’s development and higher education institutes are tuning into this.
Over the last few years there has been a steep rise in requests for counselling and special measures to be put in place for students. Universities are struggling to keep up with the demand. Eithne believes we should have a public health approach to supporting students mental health – starting with self-care, which forms the first ‘intervention’, with ‘informal community’ following (such as societies, course friends, house mates, families), then engaging primary care services, and then moving on to more specific care in the small number of case where it is required.
A large part of tackling the mental health crisis in universities is educating students in mental health literacy- something that Fabienne Vailes has also discussed this in her work on flourishing vs languishing students. This is an issue we can quite easily rectify within our institutions through early education with students when they come to university – Eithne’s eight-week programme is a great solution to this. The Teen Mental Health website has a wealth of information and tools to help with this.
The ‘Everyday Matters: Healthy Habits for University Life’
programme has just completed its first run with great success – 100% of the
students that started the programme stayed for the duration. The programme wasn’t
credit bearing, but did give students a ‘digital badge’ on completion (a bit
like our Bristol+ award scheme).
The programme allowed a space in the week for students ‘press
pause’, to come together as a group and reflect on their week. The weeks were
themed according to Eithne’s research on how we can best develop our wellbeing
and went as follows:
Week 1: How the brain works
Week 2: Sleep (including the science of sleep)
Week 3: Self care
Week 4: Leisure
Week 5: Studying and working
Week 6: Growth mindset
Week 7: Self compassion
Week 8: Tending joy and growing gratitude
Each week the students were given a mindfulness technique to try alongside what they had learnt in the sessions.
There are pockets of practice similar to Eithne’s programme taking in the University but we are not currently offering this to all students. It would be great to see a university-wide programme at Bristol and measure the impact it had on our students across the piste.
On a final note – adolescence is seen as a time of difficulty, stress and hardship, rather than a time of opportunity and growth. Eithne showed us this video during the seminar and it was a great summary of the opportunities this period in a person’s life can bring – I highly recommend watching!