Teaching Stories

The Civic University Online

A few months ago, I wrote a blogpost on urban spaces and the concept of the civic university. This topic is now reconsidered in the context a pandemic-affected world and has led me to ask some questions: what do civic teaching and learning activities look like in digital-only contexts? How can we engage our online practice with our city in meaningful ways?

‘How can students collect data and research without leaving the house?’

Data collection allows students to practice primary research (e.g. photographs, observations, air quality monitors, etc.). In digital-only settings, primary data collection could include online polls, questionnaires and crowdsourcing data from the public.  If you’re planning this, you’ll need to get ethical approval – you can find guidance, links and online ethics tools on this website.

The benefits of using primary data collection include improved confidence in handling primary data and conducting research, and transferable skills development through the process of data collection design and methodologies for data analysis.

If these options don’t fit your teaching context, use of secondary data is a great alternative while still allowing your students to respond to locally-relevant questions for the City of Bristol. A host of third-party data can be included as raw materials for teaching activities.

A good starting point to find this information is the Open Data Bristol website that is populated with data collected predominantly by Bristol City Council. Topics covered include transport, planning, housing, population, geography, democracy, energy, economy and education. This data can be compared against national datasets, such as the Centre for Cities that has a visual “cities data tool” alongside downloadable raw data.If you’re considering the use of historical information, you can find visualised historic maps of the city from 1746 via Know Your Place. This site is populated with crowd-sourced data, and your students can also contribute to the site directly.

Cities Data Tool website layout

If you’re considering the use of historical information, you can find visualised historic maps of the city from 1746 via Know Your Place. This site is populated with crowd-sourced data, and your students can also contribute to the site directly.

Know Your Place website layout

How can we communicate and reach out to communities during this period?

In 2019, the University of Bristol was one of 31 institutions to sign the The Civic University Agreement. One of its leading ambitions is to understand the local population and ask them what they want. Outward-facing engagement can take many different forms, such as festivals, public talks, exhibitions, research papers, blogs, videos, school educational events and resource development with many disciplines already engaging outreach activities as part of their degree programmes. Ideally, these projects employ two-way communication and co-collaboration – co-creating with the community, rather than at the community.

How can we embed this ethos into our teaching practice when we are constrained to the digital world? At this pandemic juncture, how do we adjust our teaching and learning approaches to be responsive to the current crisis, while also preparing students for a post-pandemic world?

We also need to consider equitability. How confident are we that the communities we engage with all have equal access to digital devices and reliable internet? If we only communicate digitally, does this exclude parts of the community? How can we circumvent these issues? These are questions that can be contextually situated within your degree programme, to fit your disciplinary boundaries and existing methods, and serve as critical prompts for your students to grapple with.

It’s worth noting that one of the recommendations made in the civic university agreement is to remove the suggestions that local research is inferior to international research. We can ask ourselves, is this something that implicitly or explicitly emerges in our teaching? Do we teach our students to value our civic ethos?


How does this relate to the curriculum framework? 

The University of Bristol’s curriculum framework includes six dimensions, one of which is global and civic engagement. We can see how this can take shape from both teachers’ and student’s perspectives: 

Ideas for what teachers can do Ideas for what students can do 
Make links to community projects and identifies opportunities for student involvement Work with stakeholders, identifies needs and contributes to novel solutions 
Partner with civic organisations for social good and mutual benefit, expanding and applying knowledge Participate in engagement opportunities such as careers fairs and internships 
Develop ‘live briefs’ with external clients for student participation Commit to actions and behaviours which align with values 
Teach about disciplinary conundrums and breakthroughs in relation to global challenges Sign up to relevant Bristol Futures units  
Work with employers, SMEs and voluntary organisations to shape aspects of the curriculum Conduct research related to grand challenges  
Create research projects which use the city as a lab for innovation Volunteer and feed external learning into curriculum outcomes 
Global and Civic Engagement for teachers and students

Civic curriculum thematics and activities that resonate with the city of Bristol provide our students with opportunities to apply their knowledge to real world problems. This civic platform enables students to explore their local environment and communities in engaged ways, offering opportunities for them to make a difference.  

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

News

The Active, Collaborative Cookbook

A collection of ‘recipes’ to try with your students to introduce more active learning activities into your sessions. With a specific focus on digital engagement, this book is a must-have for any lecturer teaching students online! The cookbook was created by Toby Roberts, one of our BILT Student Fellows, and published in June 2020.

View the cookbook here.

News, Teaching Stories

Our Digital Champions’ Do’s and Don’ts

We’ve established a network of Digital Champions to support you in the transition to blended education. There are Digital Champions in each school and can support you:

  • By contributing their own perspectives and expertise to central guidance, courses and advice; 
  • By feeding school- or discipline-specific perspectives of the types of teaching that they need to do, or the challenges they are facing into BILT and the DEO so that it can be considered in the digital environment, guidance and exemplars; 
  • By gathering and sharing examples of effective online approaches from and with colleagues; 
  • By advising colleagues on suitable tools and approaches, and directing them to further relevant advice, guidance and support. 

We asked our Digital Champions what their online teaching do’s and don’ts were and have shared them below.

Emma Slade (School of Management)
Do: emphasize interactivity. Content is everywhere online, it’s the interaction between students and between academics and students that is unique.
Don’t: try and do everything online that you would face-to-face.

Jon Symonds (School for Policy Studies)
Do: speak to colleagues about what ideas you are trying out and what is working for you.
Don’t: feel you need to use tech tools until you’ve decided what you want to use them for.

Andy Wakefield (School of Biological Sciences)
Do: consider onscreen fatigue for your students, as well as for you and your colleagues.
Don’t: be afraid to ask colleagues (champions) for help/advice.

James Freeman (School of Humanities)
Do: use breakout groups (although only with super-narrow tasks/questions).
Don’t: hunt for a single magic formula – things that promote engagement one week don’t necessarily work the next week.

Sean Lancastle (School of Civil, Aero and Mechanical Engineering)
Do: leave the chat box open in BB Collaborate – students seem more likely to ask questions online than in a face-to-face setting.
Don’t: stick to the conventional 50 minute slots – shorter is better!

Andrew McKinley (School of Physics)
Do: create space for asynchronous discussions to prompt ‘background thought’ about material for longer periods.
Don’t: spend your contact time transmitting information that students can find in other places online.

Robert Sharples (School of Education)
Do: use the opportunity to ‘curate’ learning that cuts across units (and disciplines)
Don’t: over-complicate the tech. If you’re comfortable with it, your students probably are too.

Rebecca Vallis (Bristol Vet School)
Do: spend time engaging with individual students – it is still possible to get to know students online!
Don’t: deliver a 40-minute lecture – students much prefer it when content is split into chunks.

Tom Hill (School of Mechanical Engineering)
Do: let students follow their own path of learning in the online classroom
Don’t: try and maintain the hierarchy of the classroom

Peter Allen (School of Psychological Sciences)
Do: use Zoom – a surprisingly good proxy for a tutorial room!
Don’t: keep everyone on mute – synchronous sessions are much richer when everyone has their cameras and mics on.

Kathryn Allinson (Bristol Law School)
Do: think carefully about what the best tools or platform is for your teaching outcome and build in opportunities to check in with students so that they can share feedback and questions with you. Recorded lectures are great but it is important that students still have the opportunity for ‘live’ interaction with you.
Don’t: be inflexible – just as with teaching in person, things will happen that will require you to think on your feet. This isn’t a disaster and if you have planned in alternatives and back-ups then you will be prepared and able to ensure students still get the best teaching possible.

To find out who the Digital Champion is in your school, visit this page.

Teaching Stories

Forums: five ways to get your students talking online

In these ‘unprecedented times’ (yes, I said it) one thing at least is certain…like it or loath it, online teaching is here to stay.

This ‘new normal’ requires us as educators to consider new and innovative ways of engaging students with course materials. Simultaneously, we are challenged with fostering a sense of community and connectedness at a time when we have never been more isolated from one another. Online forums are just one tool that can help tackle both these challenges at once.

Forums can play a big part in providing peer-learning opportunities for students, strengthening relationships, lessening the effects of social isolation and empowering students to develop a social presence. From an educational perspective, forums provide students with space to reflect and apply their learning which in turn aids knowledge retention.

In short, ‘forums construct a learning experience around collaboration as a means of deepening understanding.’

Assuming my powers of persuasion are strong, and you are now itching to set up a student forum, here are some simple suggestions for establishing and managing forums to maximising student participation and connectedness.

  1. Don’t keep it a mystery

Ensure early buy-in from your students by being explicit about the benefits they can enjoy by being an active participant on the forum (see above). If these are made clear, students will be much more motivated to get- and stay- involved.

2. MIND YOUR Ps & Qs!!!!!! – online etiquette or ‘netiquette’

Good forums provide a safe space to openly share ideas, opinions, questions and considerations. This can only be achieved if students feel that it is a respectful and supportive environment. Take some time to consider some simple ground rules you expect students to follow. This could simply include asking students to avoid excessive use of capital letters and explanation points – no one likes to feel they’re being shouted, whether it be online or in person.

You could also provide more structured guidance to encourage a positive culture based on thoughtful and constructive engagement, this will help create an inclusive environment which encourages reluctant students to engage more freely.

Example: the ‘3CQ method’ suggests contributions should include compliment, a comment, a connection or a question.  This helps to keep discussion constructive and supportive whilst also avoiding dead-end comments like ‘I agree’.

3. Creative contributions

Make your forum somewhere that students want to come to by making it interactive and fun. This can be achieved by encouraging contributions which use multi-media, such as pictures, weblinks and personalised videos, YouTube content and PowerPoint presentations. Lead by example by contributing multimedia yourself. Your contributions will help set the tone and demonstrate to students that the forum can be a place for creative contributions outside of the traditionally academic.

4. Get involved

Forums are driven by discussions. Your active involvement on the forum will have a big impact on student engagement. Take the time to respond to comments and messages to keep the forum dynamic and lively. Follow up on questions, both privately and publicly, and provide affirmations, prompts, feedback and pose open-ended questions in order to encourage students to think deeper and more critically. Your involvement may also help identify any students who are less engaged and you can encourage their participation.

A word of warning – although your contributions help keep the forum dynamic and active, it is also important to give students space to discuss and share ideas. Try not to dominate.

5. Lose the lurking

Research shows that introverts are more likely to engage in forums than contribute in class. You may still find however, that some students are more eager to get involved than others, you may even get the odd ‘lurker’ – someone who views the forum but doesn’t actively contribute.

Lurking can occur because of a perception that those students who confidentially contribute have a better understanding of discussion topics. More often than not, active contributions have little to do with greater knowledge acquisition and far more to do with a student’s general confidence to engage with forums as a learning tool. Encourage lurking students to participate, contact them privately to tease out and challenge any preconceptions they may be harbouring about active contributors and encourage them to get involved by reiterating the benefits that can come with active engagement.

If you would like any help with setting up a forum please get in touch with DEO or attend one of their drop-in sessions details of which can be found here.

Caroline Harvey

computer keyboard

TA Talk – What can DEO do for you?

This session will introduce the wide range of digital tools available for you to use in your teaching and research and provide an idea of how the Digital Education Office can help you navigate and utilise them.

By the end of the session will have a better understanding of the training, support and tools provided by the University, and who to approach to help you make the best use of technology in your teaching.

Please visit the BDC’s website for more information on support for Doctoral Teachers, or get in touch with Dr Conny Lippert.

space raiders
Teaching Stories

Three super low-tech ways to gamify your learning

Adding game design and mechanics to your online content can make it more engaging, motivational and enjoyable. Online educational content is competing with social and entertainment content, and so now is as good a time as any to start adding a bit of fun to your teaching.

We’re going to look at three very simple ways to add game design elements into teaching online to encourage students to engage with your content and activities.

1. Challenges rather than tasks.

By framing work as a ‘challenge’, ‘quest’ or ‘mission’ rather than a ‘task’ or ‘activity’, you can completely change the tone of a piece of work, even if the content is exactly the same. Adding an element of team work to this further creates a sense that they are playing a game together, rather than just engaging in another dreaded piece of group work. The work could also ask you students to assume a certain role(s) to help them complete the challenges.

Compare these two examples below:

Example 1: Today’s mission asks you to analyse the following intercepted telecom for hidden messages sent to the Nazis by renown double-agent Eddie Chapman (‘Zigzag’). In your role as linguistic analyst, you need to report back your findings in less than 500 words summarising what you have found and the reasoning behind your answers. You have just an hour to complete your mission.

Example 2: Analyse the following telecom for hidden messages in less than 500 words, including reasoning for your answers. The telecom was intercepted by MI5 from Eddie Chapman to the Nazis. (1 hour task).

You’ll need to scaffold this sort of activity around similar others, or you could just choose to have a week dedicated to ‘missions’ rather than your traditional content and get feedback on how your students have found it.

2. Progress indicators and difficulty levels.

Seeing out how much content you’ve made it through on a certain day or week’s worth of learning can create a sense of achievement and like you’ve progressed in your learning.  

In many games you know how much you have left to complete the level either by a percentage or star system. Each ‘level’ or stage is often divided up into more manageable chunks of increasing difficulty for you to progress through. Once you get to the end of that stage you feel a sense of achievement and are motivated to carry on and complete the next level.

We can apply similar mechanics to online learning and a similar effect will occur. All you need to do to add this sort of engagement is structure the content in a way that looks like students are moving through stages or levels, rather than just completing one activity after another. Adding a ‘%’ to each task also helps students understand how long they should be spending on different activities

Consider the three different ways this week’s activities are presented and think about which one attracts you the most and why. What don’t you like about them?

Understand what this week’s learning outcomes are. (10%)  

Join the live webinar (watch the recording if you can’t watch it live). (30%)  

Complete the week’s challenge. (50%)  

Feedback and share using the discussion board. (10%)  
BONUS: Complete this code-breaking game to unlock the secret material.  
Level 1 (Easy): Understand what this week’s learning outcomes are.  

Level 2 (Moderate): Join the live webinar (watch the recording if you can’t watch it live).  

Level 3 (Moderate – Difficult): Complete this week’s challenge.  

Final task (Easy): Feedback and reflect on the discussion board.  

*Optional extra: Complete this code-breaking game to unlock secret content.    
Understand what this week’s learning outcomes are.  

Join the live webinar (watch the recording if you can’t watch it live).  

Complete the week’s task.
 
A checkpoint/ opportunity for feedback.  

*Extra activity – complete this  game for extra material.

Go one step further…

  • Consider adding questions or quizzes students have to complete before moving onto the next ‘level’.
  • Add ‘secret’ content students have to unlock by completing small challenges.

3. Healthy competition.

One of the more controversial aspects of gamifying education is the use of competitive elements, such as leaderboards and rewards. However, if integrated sensitively, they can provide light competition and drive among students, furthering engagement with the materials.

One way to do this is to allow students to vote on their favourite contribution to a discussion board, or a prize for the student who has engaged the most with the discussion.

You can also have a leaderboard for any quizzes that students take as part of the online content.

To bring some team work into your online teaching, consider hosting a weekly ‘pub quiz’ for students to show off what they’ve learnt during the week.

If you’re interested in gamification and game-based learning, you can join the Digital Education Office/ BILT ‘Learning Games’ learning community by getting in touch with either BILT or DEO.

BONUS: Further reading.

Read about ‘Gamifying History’ at the University last year here.
Watch this TEDx talk on ‘How gaming can make a better world’.
Take the ‘Lifesaver’ game – a brilliant example of using a game for learning.

Amy Palmer.

News

Moving Assessment Online: Key Principles for Inclusion, Pedagogy and Practice

This AdvanceHE webinar was chaired by Patrick Baughan with presenters David Carless, Jess Moody and Jess Stokes discussing different aspects. The format of the webinar was that each presenter gave a 10-15 minute presentation (some followed these guidelines more closely than others) and at the end questions were taken and the panel had a discussion.

Screengrab of the three speakers and panel chair on Zoom.

David Carless was the first to speak, covering assessment and feedback in online learning environments. His recent tweets (@CarlessDavid) cover a lot of the material discussed below, but I’ve summarised the main points he addressed below.

Assessment principles:

  • Flexibility and choice to enable – we want to give students opportunity to show best knowledge and performance.
  • Assessment needs to be a partnership with students, rather than something that is done to students.
  • Assessment during this period should be of ‘no detriment’ to our students. We need to provide alternative assessments that can meet the learning outcomes we are looking for – David offered examples of these but you can see a similar list on this DEO page.

Feedback principles:

  • Pedagogy even more than technology should guide planning feedback.
  • Students need to be active in the feedback processes, making meaning from, and acting on, feedback
  • There needs to be a social and interpersonal and relational aspect to feedback, which is even more pertinent at the moment.
  • There also needs to be opportunities for acting upon feedback. Proof of feedback pudding is in the eating! Timing of feedback needs to allow for opportunities – think about peer feedback and internal self-evaluation.

Suggested practices for doing this:

  • Audio and video peer feedback;
    • enables students to make academic judgements and they can compare their own work with peers. In this climate, it can also help develop a sense of community (Filius et al, 2019). In research done with peer assessment in MOOCs, it was shown that multiple peer reviews aligned with self-evaluation of own work were most effective. It can be a really rich process in the composing of peer review.
  • Collaborative writing, e.g. Google Docs – multiple sources of feedback and action works in process.
  • Online quizzes with automated feedback
  • Teaching screencast or give video feedback to students via online conferencing tools. Allows us to build rapport, nuance, trust and builds social presence. Also encourages students to take action and helps develop shared responsibilities.

Workload needs to be wisely deployed – we need to reduce teacher commentary at times when it cannot be taken up.

To summarise:

  • Pedagogy drives technology use
  • We need students to have active involvement in assessment and feedback
  • Social presence, care and trust is of upmost importance
  • Support and coaching for feedback literacy should be available.

Jess Moody then went on to deliver her short presentation on inclusion and online assessment in the Covid-19 pandemic.

She identified the key aspects of the challenge:

  • Decisions about assessment must ensure that all students are equally enabled to demonstrate their learning.
  • The key factors in decision making are changing or unknown (both delivery and health concerns, economic distress).
  • The danger of compounding existing structural inequities – award, progression, grants and careers.

Jess then went on to discuss some priority issues:

  • Digital equity – students do not have equal access to home to both learning materials and access to feedback. Things like internet at home, space and a place to work, privacy at home, access to resources. We need to enable software and hardware for students at home they would normally use on campus.

Safeguarding – Not all of our students are safe at home, need to think of stress of that on top of assessment. Also the online spaces present different challenges (gendered/ racialised issues) for our students.

  • Temporal equity – students are craving normalcy but time is not available equally to students. There are issues around caring responsibilities, health religious observance and access. Students need option to disengage where they can not prioritise assessments. Not all days are equal – students may have part time jobs etc that means they need extra time to complete tasks. We also need to consider how we check in with students wellbeing during this time.

This is not a binary switch from assessment ‘A’ to assessment ‘B’. We need to understand the diversity and uncertainty of individual needs and we have to support their informed choices about things like delaying exams, taking assessments in a different format, etc. We need to give agency and sense of control to student who may otherwise be feeling powerless.

Policy, procedure and impact analysis – we should embed equality impact analysis in decisions about change. Priorities are changing and we need to ensure we have more streamlined extenuating circumstances, resits, progressions rules and deferral and interruption procedures. Certain groups are likely to apply for these more than others, so be prepared for this. Built into all of this needs to be a commitment to reviewing the impact of decision on different groups.

Key principles

  • No one should be left behind – 0identiy our most vulnerable groups
  • Do no more harm – don’t compound existing inequalities in the crisis
  • Be transparent and flexible
  • Support should be first
  • Make sure you understand the impact of your decisions.

Geoff Stoakes – special advisor in advance HE and close involvement in TEF

At this point in the webinar my neighbour came round to drop off some shopping he had picked up for us so I missed the first part of Geoff’s presentation. When I rejoined the webinar, Geoff almost immediately lost his connection to the internet so all I can do is post the slide we were on! Please speak to the AQPO about any quality questions you have.

We then started the discussion element of the webinar while Geoff sorted out his internet connection.

(Geoff did then go on to finish his presentation but at this point I had been listening and writing notes for 50 minutes and was finding it very difficult to concentrate. There was a great deal of text on his slides and he was going through them too fast for me to take good notes. You can see all of his slides on the AdvanceHE website, which provide a good enough summary of what he was saying.)

I walked away from my computer for a couple of minutes to get a drink and have a quick conversation with my husband. This seemed to reset my concentration ready for the final discussion/ questions part of the presentation.

Discussion following the talks covered:

How lecturers could minimise their own bias when marking online – Jess talked about how bias impacts our decisions more when we are stressed, tired, hungry, etc – which is more evident now at the moment. Institutionally how do we support out staff, deadline for markings could be extended, as well as when and how anonymisation is helpful, how you design assessment mitigates bias and continuous monitoring to ensure that we minimise bias where possible. David discussed evaluative judgements and what we can learn from art and design communities and make professional judgements, it is part of their subject to discuss this and so we need to bring it into other discipline conversations.

How to make it easier to record video feedback – David says that sometimes hard-working staff do too much with feedback (and students can find it overwhelming!) – less is more. We need to train students to self-evaluate and make use of peer feedback.

Resources for students for peer feedback – David has covered this is his previous writings (Carless and Winstone, 2019 – ‘meaty’ chapter on it) – we need to train and coach students in how to do it, model our own experiences, sell the benefits, negotiate with them how to tackle the challenges.

Increase in student anxiety with the flexibility offered in assessments – students are worried they might make wrong choice – how do we mitigate this? David has seen this in his research and encountered this – the more choice, the more confusing for students! We need to negotiate choices with them and asking them to think it through. Jess discusses informed choices and how we communicate in different ways – how can we make things as clear as possible? And consider – are there certain choices that may impact on certain groups more than others?  We also need a space where people can come and have that conversation. Why and how are people making certain choices in these times too?

Issues with internet connections – can’t give feedback online – is responsibility of HEI to provide internet access or they need to provide alternative feedback and resources? Jess starts the conversation and says there are legal requirements here that need to be considered depending on where you are in the world. There are moral questions – who are we leaving behind? Other institutions are making funds available for students but internet access is a really difficult one – there are things around proportionality in implementing the Equality Act. Geoff adds that some universities are partnering with a company to ensure students have laptops. We also need to consider alternative forms of assessments that allow for students that do not have internet access.

Recording of this webinar is in the Advance HE Connect membership benefit series, also in Teaching and Learning forum. Advance HE Connect is available as an app on iOS and Android.

If you’re thinking of a doing a webinar, make it shorter than an hour unless you build in long enough breaks for people to have a concentration reset!

Amy Palmer

News

Out of the ordinary: Tips to create authentic online teaching and learning

 “The value of authentic activity is not constrained to learning in real-life locations and practice, but that the benefits of authentic activity can be realized through careful design of Web-based learning environments.” – Lombardi  

Well, I can safely say this is not how I thought I’d be spending my year but the quest for authentic learning continues. As we all struggle to get our learning and teaching online, I’ve created a handy guide on how to do authentic learning and teaching via the magical medium of the internet. It bears noting that although many of us would rather return to life, as usual, this is a time of considerable opportunity to change the way we teach and learn. The traditional format of lectures and seminars has been broken down and if ever there were a time to try something new, it is now. 

Real-world relevance is critical for authentic learning, but it is important not to fall into the trap of making everything about coronavirus. Now is an excellent time for using studying as a form of escapism. However, it is also an excellent time to be teaching about adaptability and how to manage a crisis. 

Using stakeholders has become tricky and nearly impossible. With many organisations furloughing their staff, now is not the best time for partnerships but to give an authentic experience, stakeholders can be imaginary. This can be anything from an imaginary business giving them a task, or more broadly how would they tackle an issue and who would it affect. For the unit Managing and Evaluating Development, students usually partner with NGOs, but now are being asked to create their own business plan to start up their own organisation. This allows students to create their own value and assess what is important to them and wider society. 

Working collaboratively is something that is now more crucial than ever. Social distancing can be lonely and feeling disconnected from your peers can be very isolating. Giving students an incentive to have regular communication with their classmates, be that via video call, normal call or even email, is an excellent way to not only improve their collaboration skills but also to maintain a sense of community. Also; as online communication is increasingly looking like the future of work, collaborating via online platforms is a crucial way of improving these skills. 

It is also crucial that while the contact hours have been limited that students are given the opportunity to feedback and that lecturers can monitor their progress to ensure that students are sustaining their levels of investigation. The Social Innovation Programme run by Bristol Hub has been doing this using a Gantt Chart and tools such as Trello. This is a way of including teaching soft skills and letting students visualise their progress, along with making sure that students are continuing with their work even if they are away from campus. 

Although lockdown has it’s challenges, it provides students and staff alike with a lot of time. This time can be useful for reflection: what is going well, how do students feel their course has been affected, what could be improved. Coming out of the Easter holidays, students may find it helpful to consider what they have already learnt and how this can be applied to the final term of the year. By allowing opportunities for continuous reflection, students are placed in a position to make more informed choices about their learning, along with communicating the value more effectively. In other words, authentic learning gold. 

Given the unusual circumstances of the entire year, students may feel inclined to stick to the reading list like glue as it’s no secret that many students are driven by their academic results. However, now is not the time for conventional teaching, and by encouraging students to look at multiple sources and perspectives outside of normal reading can help to rekindle students love of their subject, in a time where they are probably not thinking about how History of Art has changed their life. By encouraging them to find sources and perspectives which students have found themselves and are therefore likely to be genuinely interested in, it can also help to cultivate a good online discussion- students (and staff) may be nervous in online group discussions so having something that they have found can be a useful starting point. 

The final way in which you can help to make online teaching more authentic is by asking students what they want to be learning. What do they want the rest of the term to look like? Are students more interested in mimicking traditional seminar formats online, or would they rather have asynchronous teaching using videos and podcasts? By asking students how they want to learn, it allows them to reflect on their learning process and think about the subjects they are particularly curious about. It also shows an acceptance that this is not business as usual; not everything about online teaching will work for every student but it is crucial to find a format that allows everyone to engage, even if it’s not in a way in which they are used to. 

I hope that this has been helpful, or at the very least food for thought. I would love to hear from students and lecturers alike, how would you change online learning and teaching? What would work for you? What do you want from the final term of this year?

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

News

Active Learning Infographic ‘Retro’ spective

Having spent many hours in quarantine fighting enemies in online games, I sat down at my computer last Wednesday to do battle with my greatest nemesis – Adobe graphic design programs. A long time later, I emerged from my room, sweaty and tired, clutching a PDF of an infographic about bringing active learning into digital teaching. During the process, I reflected on the parallels between gaming and digital teaching, and whether it could help design more interesting and engaging online teaching content.

I chose to use the retro 8-bit pixel art style for the infographic for a few reasons. Firstly, I can’t draw. But, perhaps more importantly, also because I was thinking a lot about video games when I was doing my research and writing it up. Partially because they have been my main form of quarantine entertainment (I don’t mean to brag, but I have managed to take Bristol Rovers to the Champions League final in FIFA), but also because they are the ultimate combination of ‘digital’ and ‘active’. 

I’ll admit that there is a key element missing there (learning), but video games have managed to turn even the most mundane-seeming tasks into engaging experience. For example: Papers, Please – an engrossing interactive adventure about filling out immigration paperwork, or Death Stranding – where you can live out your wildest fantasies of being a post-apocalyptic postman, or even Euro Truck Simulator (I’ll let you figure that one out). And don’t get me started on the chore-simulator that is Animal Crossing. 

Given the time frame for turning teaching digital, developing and coding in depth video games to teach your students about lubricant thickness in rolling element bearings, or Victorian illustrations of Arthurian legend might be slightly out of reach. But there’s certainly things that can be learned, or borrowed from games to make digital teaching as active and engaging as possible. 

  1. Variety Is The Spice of Life

All games have their core gameplay loops, whether it be shooting hordes of aliens, jumping from platform to platform, or Euro-Trucking. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only single thing you do, and they will all throw in new mechanics, new puzzles, or something completely different to keep things interesting and exciting.

You’ll probably have a core online teaching method too, like a pre-recorded video, online lecture, or problem sheet. But it’s important not to rely too heavily on a single thing. Consistency is great for sure, and you don’t want to confuse students by constantly throwing different things at them, but it’s easy to make small changes that stop students from feeling like they are living in groundhog day. 

Adding quizzes, polls or Q&As during or after a block of teaching is one of the best ways to do this, and there are loads of tools out to design them and send them out to students. They allow students to use a different part of their brain, and consolidate the knowledge they have learned so far. You can also get students to teach each other. Ideally, students would work together in groups, but if this is difficult to arrange, you can split topics up into separate chunks, and have students work on them individually. Then, when they bring their work together, they have a complete overview of a topic. Even small changes, like using a mix of live and pre-recorded lectures goes a long way.

Timing is important too. With the notable exception of Euro Truck Simulator, it’s very rare for a game to make you do the same thing over and over for a large period of time. Games are split into levels, and have cutscenes and minigames to break things up. The same thing goes for teaching. 20-30 minutes is the gold standard for a single task or resource; if something is going to take longer than that, try to add breaks in, like active learning activities to cut content up into smaller chunks.

  1. Difficulty Settings

It might not seem like it, but all games have some level of challenge built in. You may think Euro Truck simulator is easy, but suddenly there’s congestion on the M4, and you’ve not even got enough fuel to make it to Leigh Delamere Services, let alone deliver the cargo to Swindon Depot. That’s what makes them satisfying. You feel like you’ve achieved something when you finish a section, or gain a level – you’ve overcome a challenge. 

Active learning should be challenging too. Sitting through a 50 minute pre-recorded powerpoint lecture is difficult, but I’ve never felt particularly proud of myself for finishing one. Learning should be challenging because it makes you use knowledge in new and creative ways to solve problems. Now there’s context behind what you are learning, and you get a sense of achievement for completing something. Quizzes are one of the easiest ways to add a small challenge to lecture-based content, but there’s loads of ways to do it, and now assessment is open book, it’s going to need to test those higher skills rather than just knowledge recall. Smaller tasks embedded into teaching will help prepare students for this. 

Challenges don’t just have to mean questions either. Setting work that gets students using creativity, like making posters, designing material for different audiences, making podcasts or revision videos all adds a different type of challenge and gives students a clear goal to work towards.

But, just like a video game, the same difficulty might not be right for everyone. Especially at the moment, with some students in very sub-optimal working environments. Optionality allows students to choose a level of challenge they are happy with, or if you want to set all students the same task, reassuring them that if they don’t do it, or can’t complete it fully, they won’t be penalised for it, and, wherever possible, offering them support.

  1. Co-op

Although being the greatest manager Bristol Rovers have ever seen is satisfying, so is beating your mate 5-0 with your new European Champions for the third time in a row. Part of the magic of games is getting to interact with your friends, or even total strangers. It’s why all of the most popular games are multiplayer. And it’s important now more than ever with all of us isolated from friends and family. 

Online video and voice calling tools can be used to re-create seminars and discussion groups, or facilitate group work even though students can’t be in the same room. But, it’s important to provide a way to interact without using voice or video, like a forum, for students who might not have somewhere quiet to go, or not have access to reliable WiFi. If discussions are going to take place at a specific time, try to capture, or get students to capture, the key points so that students who couldn’t participate don’t miss out.

If you aren’t comfortable organising online discussions, that’s okay too, students will still find their own ways to collaborate. What’s important is giving them a reason to – whether it’s interesting debates or discussions, challenging work that they will need to work together on, peer learning, or specific group work.

I don’t imagine anyone’s going to throw their PS4 away now it’s been made redundant by their exciting active digital teaching. But having the mindset of a gem designer when designing online teaching can help a lot. Even if it’s just asking questions like ‘how long will this take a student to complete’, ‘how much of my teaching is pre-recorded lectures’ or ‘how am I going to keep students engaged now they are sitting 4 feet away from their Xbox, and they’ve just bought Euro Truck Simulator 2?’.

And if that doesn’t work, maybe just parachute every student into Coombe Dingle and have them fight over a single exam paper in a battle royale, Fortnite-style?

Toby Roberts, BILT 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