News, Student Voice

Sustainable Development Goals and the University of Bristol: Are they the future?

The Covid-19 crisis has unleashed a hunger for verifiable evidence, rigour in evaluation and independent critical thinking of a high order – in sum, what typically a broad university curriculum delivers.” – Lucian J Hudson 2020

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established in 2015 provide the world with a unified direction. There are seventeen major goals that cover climate change, gender equality, no poverty and the list goes on. Love them or hate them, they are here to stay, with COVID-19 demonstrating the importance of collaboration and unity between organisations, governments and nations.

At a local level, the One City Plan has taken the SDGs and used them to demonstrate how Bristol will contribute towards these ambitious targets, but unfortunately, the progress has been thrown into jeopardy: everything from childcare to climate change has been ground to a standstill and suddenly what was an attainable goal last year seems like it is slipping out of reach.

However, the SDGs, battered now they may be, present an opportunity for Bristol University: to collaborate, to transform education, for research and to demonstrate clear goals and vision for the future as we emerge from lockdown. Many individual units already use the SDGs: in computer science, they are used to teach about sustainable businesses, they are widely taught throughout SPAIS and the unit Sustainable Development which is open to all students uses them extensively. Yet, in order for them to be truly beneficial to all students and the city of Bristol itself, the SDGs must be imbued at every level of decision making, and not just the global goals, but the local ones as well. Nikhil Seth, Head of UNITAR, said this week “Imagine a world where every university in the world supports learning throughout their city”, imagine if Bristol was not isolated on top of its lofty hill but instead connected with all local schools in true partnerships. By using the SDGs Bristol could not only solidify its status as a leading university but contribute to making Bristol the best city on earth (I already think it is but I’m biased). There are literally hundreds of goals in the One City Plan, but for the purpose of this article, I want to demonstrate the particular importance of engaging in two: Quality Education (SDG4) and Partnerships (SDG17).

Quality education SDG 4: The thirst for knowledge at the moment is clear. The number of people signing up for online courses since lockdown began has been staggering, with universities globally making many of their modules free at the point of use. Courses on climate change, photography, pandemics, wellbeing, happiness have all become available due to the sudden ease of access to online courses. Bristol is a university that already offers quality education, but the question becomes, what is this education being used for? Who is it being used by? Is it reducing inequalities embedded in our city? And perhaps most importantly, is the education we are providing making the world a better and more sustainable place to live?

By 2025 the city of Bristol aims for “Every older person in Bristol will have the opportunity and support to participate in an intergenerational learning activity”. With the support of the University of Bristol, given the new tools available for mass learning and courses of upwards of 500 people, this is a clear and demonstratable way that the university can significantly impact the future of Bristol’s citizens outside of the university bubble. Particularly given the success of Linkages with Bristol Hub, there is a demonstratable keenness on both sides for intergenerational learning. This is one of many goals that the University of Bristol could use to strengthen both opportunities for students while also helping to support the city achieve and thrive.

Partnerships SDG 17:

The University of Bristol has had some truly extraordinary research published since the outbreak of coronavirus from a wide range of disciplines. The make-up of the virus, campaigning for equality of access to testing and how lockdown effects gender-based violence. Yet, the way that knowledge is disseminated is fragmented and often only accessible to academics. Knowledge gaps can only be overcome by the co-operation of universities, governments, businesses and community organisations, which means that knowledge should no longer be viewed as a commodity but as a tool for bettering society. Programs like the VSCE (Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise) run by the Black South West Network encourage all of the voluntary sectors and community organisations to collectively pool their research in order to create the best responses and service delivery as possible. In order for responses to COVID to be truly evidence-based this has to be the attitude of academia as well: how can we pool our knowledge, how can it be used most effectively, how can it be available to everyone who needs it.

This brings me on to my favourite Sustainable Development Goal (yes, the lockdown has made me into quite the party starter): “Bristol universities are active community learning hubs for people of all ages and backgrounds”. This goal is not set to be achieved till 2043, and yet COVID has demonstrated how quickly communities can pull together, how dramatically curriculums can change over the course of a month. This shouldn’t be a distant goal; this should be interwoven into the recovery of Bristol University. Through collaboration, knowledge sharing and true partnerships that are long-lasting and mutually beneficial, it will not just make the recovery from COVID easier and more effective but will ensure that the university is benefiting the community that it thrives upon.

All this week UNITAR are running free online sessions on how to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in a post-COVID era. Access them here.

If you have any examples of knowledge sharing from the University of Bristol, or occasions when yourselves or colleagues have gone above and beyond to meet the SDGs in your teaching, please let us know in the comments below so BILT can promote and share the universities efforts to achieve an inclusive and sustainable Bristol.

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

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Teaching Stories

Learning from the experience of higher education in China

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.

Staff can find further support on assessment here: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/digital-education/guides/coronavirus/assessment/.

Further guidance on online teaching is available here: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/digital-education/guides/coronavirus/.

As always, we welcome questions and requests for support, and we encourage you to share any good practice with us!

Dr Aisling (Ash) Tierney – a.tierney@bristol.ac.uk  

News, Student Voice

Teaching Beyond the Firewall

Bristol is fortunate enough to have a large population of international students, many of whom come from mainland China. Given the new form of online teaching, this presents some significant challenges in terms of the firewall. Platforms such as Skype, Zoom, Whatsapp and Google are all blocked meaning that online teaching can become extremely challenging. 

Asynchronous Teaching

The difference in time zone is a significant challenge and as many of the instant messaging services are blocked, sometimes this calls for a more staggered approach to teaching. Asynchronous teaching has many benefits; as your time is not spent giving lectures, it frees up some space for feedback on individual or group work. 

Discussions

For asynchronous teaching discussions, there are two key ways that students can participate beyond both the firewall and the time zone. Mini-podcasts are an excellent way that students can practice speaking while constructing an argument and still engage with the reading material. Using their phones or online voice recorders they can use audacity to merge and edit a podcast that you can listen to and give feedback. Set a time limit to ensure that they give clear arguments (and so that lecturers have enough time). They should be able to email this to you via Outlook, which is not currently blocked in China. 

Videos are another way to teach in a way that allows students to speak and share their point of view. This can sometimes be harder to share due to the size of the file but can allow for more innovation. Some universities have used videos to gamify asynchronous teaching by creating mini competitions. Who can make the best argument using three props? Explain the reading using an animation or infographic. 

Don’t be afraid of voice notes! 

Many people already use voice notes in place of text. In a time of isolation, hearing a voice can make a big impact both on a students learning experience and their wellbeing. Having an endless influx of emails can be overwhelming, especially when there is such an influx of bad news. Hearing a familiar voice helps to connect to the material, as well as being a nice change of pace. 

Chinese social media

China has a range of social media that is free and downloadable in the UK. WeChat is by far the most popular and will allow you to talk to the vast majority of your Chinese students instantaneously. It also has video and call functions so it will also allow for meetings if students want one on one meetings. 

Understandably, not everyone is willing to download WeChat onto their phone but in terms of immediate communication, this is one of the easiest forms. 

Tencent Video- If you’re wanting to share video content, Tencent Video is the king of Chinese video streaming. It works in essentially the same way as YouTube but has the added benefit of fun interactive games. 

Ask your students

Although the information provided here will give a variety of options different people will want different things from their learning. Sending out a poll is a good way to decide what works for the majority of students and they may have ideas that work for teachers and students alike. In a time of crisis, it is important that students feel like they are being heard so offering avenues that they can reach out is a crucial way to make sure teaching is effective and students feel valued, even if they are 10,000 miles away.

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

News

‘Daily Digital’ with PVC-Education, Tansy Jessop

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.

What 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.

On 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.

How long will it take me?

Each “Daily Digital” should take you between 15 and 30 minutes.  

When does it start?

The programme starts with a live session on Thursday 19th March at 10am, and will last 7 working days.

How 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)

Enrol on the Blackboard Daily Digital space

Alternatively use the following link to access the first live session, which will take place in Blackboard Collaborate.

Guest link to the webinar  

For the live sessions please ensure that you have headphones or sound enabled. Chrome is the recommended browser.