Meet the BILT Community

Meet the 2021 BILT Associates…Suzanne Collins

The following post is from Suzanne Collins who started her BILT Associate role in supporting students transition to University in August 2021.

In 2017 I joined Bristol in what was the Technology Enhanced Learning team, and is now the Digital Education Office, to work on the Bristol Futures open online courses (still running on FutureLearn). Since then, I’ve worked on various projects around Bristol Futures and online and blended pedagogy as part of the frankly brilliant DEO team. I came to digital education from a combination of a teaching background – I taught English for Academic Purposes in the University of Turku, Finland – and a natural curiosity around technology and what it can do for us. I completed an ME Ed completely online via the Open University, and also ended up teaching for the OU as an online tutor, so education and technology always seem to go hand in hand for me.  

In the DEO, we’ve been working around online and digital teaching and learning for many years, so last year wasn’t new for us. However, as it dawned on us that the COVID pandemic was going to fundamentally disrupt the way that education was being experienced in the university, we realised that we needed to do more to directly support students – as well as staff – in this transition. But this isn’t a one-off transition, for returning or new students, as the world seems to be fundamentally shifting towards an increasingly digital future. The transition to being a confident, capable digital learner, creator, or communicator may well be life-long. We’ve all been having to develop skills and strategies to adopt new ways of working and being over the past year – an accelerated window into the transition to a more digitally-enhanced world.  

It’s easy to assume that our students are ‘digital natives’, that they can seamlessly adopt new technology or digital practices. However, this isn’t always the case. We know that there is a huge digital divide which has only deepened during the pandemic – with not all students having adequate access to the internet or devices to complete their studies well. Even for those with good access to technology, using that technology to learn at university is very different to using it for other purposes. It’s already challenging to adapt to new ways of thinking, having to be self-motivated and organised, and participate in group work at university. Now students are also trying to get to grips with a new digital environment, various tools like Blackboard, Teams, Collaborate, Zoom, Re/Play, Mentimeter, Padlet, and expectations around what participation and engagement online looks like. Some students may also be using assistive devices to help them access materials, or find that some of the ways they are being asked to participate create barriers for them due to a lack of digital accessibility.  

When I think about technology in education, I see it as a dynamic, enabling, facilitating player on the stage. For many students as they start out, it feels like anything but that – exclusive, daunting, complicated, isolating. As a BILT Associate, I’m hoping that we can further explore what the student experience is of our digital learning environment as they transition, and look to create a softer landing for them. We’re now seeing a huge increase in research and reports into the experience of students in both FE and HE settings. What can that tell us about our students’ experiences? As we look at their first year of study – or indeed only year for many PGT students – how can we help students develop the digital skills and capabilities they need to confidently access and participate in their learning, and the wider university community? What can we provide schools, personal tutors, or other support staff with which will better equip them to help students during this transition time? How can we take some of the load off individual staff members, who are often the ones trying to help students in real time in sessions – also recognising that they are often also transitioning to digital, blended, hybrid teaching at the same time?  

Some interesting reading around digital experiences of online learning include: 

Blower, A. and Marsdin, N. Education, widening participation and the digital divide. WONKHE 24/03/2021.  

JISC. (2017). Using assistive and accessible technology in teaching and learning.   

JISC. (2020). Learners shaping their own digital experience. Member Stories.   

JISC. (2021). Student digital experience insights survey 2020/21: Findings from UK Higher Education., shared under Creative Commons licence: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

McVitty, D. (2021) A curriculum for a complex world – students’ views on digital literacy in the curriculum. WONKHE 28/06/2021.  

Killen, C. (2018). Enhancing the student digital experience: a strategic approach. JISC.   

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