What does competence and confidence with current technology mean? 

At the University of Brighton Digital Literacy is described as “Competence and confidence with current technology and the ability to keep up to date by evaluating the appropriateness of new technology and acquiring new skills as necessary”. 

As part of a session at the annual Learning and Teaching Conference 2016 I asked this question and these are some of the responses. 



From this snapshot view it seems that some key issues are around using multiple technologies at the same time, and around communication, with colleagues, friends or students. This sparks off a whole series of thoughts about what this could mean for understanding how to support people’s use of digital literacies. I’ll be thinking some more about this…..

Reflections on… UCISA Spotlight on Digital Capabilities

UCISA Conference – Spotlight on Digital Capabilities 2

Birmingham, May 25-26th 2016.

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Results of a group exercise – our vision for digital in HE
At this conference I presented a paper on the University of Brighton’s Digital Literacy Framework, and was an invited speaker on the panel “Do we still need IT Trainers?”. I also participated in the final panel of the day summarizing the conference where the final question from the audience was what our key take away from the event was.

I focused on shifting identities as my key take away from the conference. Identities suggests more than roles and job titles, which we talked about a lot and are related, but are more to do with relationships and the distribution of power. The key expression is flexibility – we all agreed that IT trainers do much much more than ‘train’ and the term is pretty much redundant. But it is also about the ability recast identities to allow, for example, IT staff to work with students as partners, and to promote both technological innovation and the support of poorly skilled staff. The contexts to this are the increasingly ambitious strategies of institutions in the face of diverse levels of engagement from staff and students.

Some of the discussion was about powerlessness in the face of swings of institutional priorities, and about the low value of roles and IT skills. But there was also a strong thread of empowerment – that as IT people position themselves more closely to the teaching, research and admin aims of the university, and move into supporting people to make choices about technology and practice digital wellbeing, they are supporting the ‘critical’ aspect of digital capabilities that emerged as the key element of digital futures.

In academic development we talk a lot about finding a new role for the lecturer away from ‘chalk ‘n’ talk’, to expert facilitators. The lecturer remains the key source of knowledge, but her or his aim is to facilitate students’ learning towards that understanding, through a social constructivist approach based on exploring through active learning and contextualization within students’ own experiences. This is the kind of learning that is needed to develop ‘critical’ digital literacies, and this was what much of the discussion at the conference was indirectly about. Yes, it involves the facilitator having extensive technical knowledge, but the aim is for students to purposefully gain those skills and embed them into personal practice and identity. Recasting the role of IT trainer towards this kind of ‘expert facilitation’ could be key to the future development of digital capabilities in HE.

Feedback – is it completely broken?

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Feedback – is it completely broken? All the discussion at the SEDA Spring Conference 2016, especially after Margaret Price’s keynote, made me feel quite depressed. Sometimes it feels like every tweek we make to current feedback practice or suggestion about how we can make it better will just not make it do what we want it to do. Is it time to delete it and start again?

Well, I think Margaret Price’s comments about not over-focusing on the feedback artifact i.e. the actual thing which does transmission of the feedback is key. Like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic tweeking the structure and wording within the feedback from staff to students is missing the bigger picture. Beyond texts which are so incomprehensible, or upset students so much that they are useless, the suggestions about how to make feedback artefacts ‘better’ are compromised first by being able to identify what ‘excellent’ written feedback is, second, the reality of staff facing 50 essays to mark being able to put this training into practice, and third, by the fact that the best written feedback in the world will only have an impact on learning if it is read and acted upon. And that, as it is increasingly becoming apparent, is dependent on a multitude of independent factors starting with whether it is accessible to students when they need it, their emotional state on receiving it, their motivations to learn etc etc. So my thoughts turned to how to engage people with text.

In my previous life working in developing the content for museum exhibitions there was a whole sub-set of consultants who specialised in writing texts for exhibition signage. They just focused on how texts engaged and communicated with audiences. It was a full time job for them. The way it works is that curators or people like me sent through text which we all thought was pretty good – we’re intelligent people with higher degrees and we all like to think we write well. A few days later, the text would come back – reorganised, restructured, reworded, but the meaning 100 times clearer, and synthetic with all of the other language in the exhibition, from marketing materials, to the audio on an AV installation, to signage in a completely different area of the exhibition, to the evaluation questionnaires. It costs a lot of money, but this would be key to engaging, say half of the exhibition visitors, which is roughly how many would read that piece of text – say 35,000 people. Through reading about half the materials, and engaging with some of the rest of the display (objects, images, multimedia installations, exhibition layout and atmosphere), we would hope that visitors would leave with the key 3 or 4 messages of the exhibition. My point here is that communicating important messages through a 200 word piece of text is really hard, that this is something professional writers are best at, and that communication relies on context – which when you’re writing for an exhibition you can have some attempt at controlling.

The fact is that we don’t know what the words are that will pull in the student to read and engage with our feedback. We might know what will definitely not work, but we have almost no idea what definitely will. The fact is that there may be no words at all that will be able to do that. Our only hope is controlling the learning environment, our ‘context’, to make this more likely to happen. And while this is currently as broken as the feedback artefact, the good news is that this probably is reparable.

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Reflections on…. the SEDA Spring Conference 2016

SEDA Spring Learning and Assessment Conference 12-13 May 2016 The Carlton Hotel, Edinburgh – Innovations in Assessment and Feedback Practice

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Tansy Jessop pausing before hitting the nail on the head about assessment practice

This was an exciting and vibrant conference – like many attendees this was my first SEDA conference and it had the highest proportions of new-to-SEDA folk – and it had proved very popular, selling out before the end of the early bird discount finished. So there was definitely a vibe of change rather than complacency, and openness and willingness to share – factors welcomed by speakers all the way through the conference.

The conference kicked off with a presentation from the University of Edinburgh’s own Ian Pirie. This was a scene-setting discursive presentation that ranged across topics relating to assessment as diverse as employability, standards, and student engagement.

My interests lie in digital approaches and curriculum development, so there was plenty for me to engage with. For example, Edinburgh Napier’s presentation on the Digital Dissertation highlighted the importance of the alignment between subject and assessment – this new dissertation form is the capstone project on their MA in Blended and Online Learning. However there is no assessment ‘type’ – the form the assessment takes is negotiated in the same way that the subject matter is. Amy Barlow and Tansy Jessop discussed the various ways that the University of Winchester had used students writing blogs as part of formative assessment, and discussed some of the positives (it helped student learning) and negatives (did it take place at the right time in the course?).

Reflecting on assessment was also encouraged in Laura Ritchie’s session which involved groups sitting down together to re-enact the thought processes students would go through when starting to write an essay. The most striking memory of this session was when one participant tweeted “we are writing an essay” and immediately received a reply from an essay writing company of “can we help?” A moment no one there will forget.

Deena Ingham’s presentation on students setting summative assessment sparked a lot of debate – how can this work in practice, and at what point in the student journey? And revealed the multitude of ways that students are involved to varying degrees in defining their own assessment experiences. Margaret Price’s keynote gave a down to earth discussion about feedback and the challenges we face in dealing with it, and this was echoed in many papers – for example Linda Robson talked about analyzing feedback comments at the Open University, and there was a presentation on a big project being run across several Irish universities to encourage technology-enhanced feedback.

Tansy Jessop’s final keynote was a striking finish to the conference – the overview of the success of TESTA and its impact drew together many of the themes of the conference around student experience of assessment and feedback, course level approaches, and the balance between innovation and clear goals and standards.

One of the key messages I took away was around this tension between assessment innovation and student understanding of standards. There are varying amounts of pressure from pedagogy, widening participation, digital literacy, etc etc to diversify assessment types. On the other hand there is the negative effect of this on student understanding of how their effort aligns with achievement, what they are supposed to do for particular assessments, or how their work could be improved. Obviously, increasing student involvement in setting and/or working goals and standards is seen as the key way of ameliorating this, but the curriculum package of less assessment points, more opportunities for students to work alongside staff on these issues, and the development of staff and student skills needed to make the most of these new learning opportunities seems a long way off.  Perhaps the first step is to deal with what Tansy Jessop described as the “trivial platters of assessment” which dominate student learning and staff time, to free up some space in the curriculum to allow these bigger changes to take place.

Reflections on… flipping my classroom

This post was first published on the Centre for Learning and Teaching, University of Brighton’s website in February 2015.

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Horchata & Watermelon, Illuma Ring Focus, Mix, No Gradient, Inked: India Ink

Last year, I tried an experiment with flipping the teaching I was doing at the time. Over the years of my teaching I’d been whittling the amount of time dedicated to lecture style delivery from 100% of my teaching slots to about 33% as I shifted to a more active learning approach.

The next logical step was to move to 100% active learning, and move all of the content delivery outside the classroom. My cohort were a small group of masters students, fairly tech savvie, who I thought would probably happily engage with some short videos. I had had experience of using the iPad app Explain Everything, and this seemed the obvious media to use. It’s based on slides, but has lots of features such as being able to highlight areas, move things around the screen and embed video.

I wanted the presentations to be pretty short – I come from a background in designing museum exhibitions where 7 minutes is the absolute maximum for a video display. However, that would be for a very well scripted and edited delivery with effects to help make points, for an audience with a shortish attention span. My feeling was that given that I would not be so focused, 10-12 mins would be more realistic. I also felt that keeping it short would increase the reusability of the material.

I had to do the recordings in good time to send out to students to give them an opportunity to watch them before the sessions, and tried to get them out shortly after the previous week’s session, so about 5 days in advance.

This is how it worked out in practice. Normally when I’m preparing a presentation, I gather the slides together and as I’m going through I work out what I’m going to say for each one, perhaps making some notes on the powerpoint or in the lesson plan. This gives me a sense of timing, and gives me some fluency particularly when I’m talking about something I may not have expressed in my own words before.What I did with the flipped sessions was once I’d done that first mental run through of what I was going to say, filled in the odd gap and got my ‘voice’ together, I did the recording. It probably therefore didn’t reduce the time involved in preparation this time round, but of course, the resource is there to be reused.

So, some positive things
1. The reusability – it’s amazing to think that the resource is there to be used next year, or that you can edit out little interesting bits and reuse them too
2. Shortness – what seems like a good length to make is also about the right length for easy viewing.
3. The tech to do it is getting easier and easier – stuff like video file sizes being automatically huge is no longer the case – everything is geared for easy sharing
4. The students seemed to really like it – they were much more likely to look at it than do a reading for example.

And a few less positive things / thoughts
1. Without the rush of adrenaline from a live presentation, sometimes I thought I was a bit boring though students didn’t mention it!
2. The quality of the audio/video was fine for devices and pcs, however, when blown up on a lecture theatre screen they were less good.
3. This is really an observation – as a result of doing the flipping, there was nothing to record what went on in the session apart from my lesson plan. So when a student who’d missed the session asked for the notes to catch up I didn’t really have anything to give her.

I’ll be definitely be doing more flipping, and I think the next stage is to look at OERs for the flip – then the prep time would really be reduced!

Easy flips using OERs

This blog post originally appeared on the Centre for Learning and Teaching, University of Brighton’s website in November 2015.

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Open Educational Resources (OERs) cover a range of teaching materials that have been placed on the web for anyone to use. OERs can play a useful role in flipping the classroom, a pedagogic approach where some content is taken out of face-to-face time and given to students to look at before the session. One of the challenges of doing a flip is finding the time to turn the presentation you used to give in the face-to-face session into something that students can access at home, foe example a Powerpoint with a voice-over. A much easier and faster way of giving students access to content is through using an OER.

It may be that not all of your topics will have a suitable OER available – if you’re doing something really specialized or really want to get a particular point across, it may be that you have to rely on your own materials. However, there are lots of circumstances where OERs can fit the bill. Here are some ideas.

“The introduction”
There are many courses across the country which include very similar ‘introductions to’ … you can probably think of some in your discipline, and some are available online. For example this Introduction to Bookkeeping written by the Open University or this on signs and semiology by the University of Portsmouth and stored in HUMBox.

Practical skills
Another key way that OERs can be used is to get students to become familiar with a practical skill before they practice it in a face-to-face situation. Online videos may have an advantage over face-to-face teaching in that they can be repeatedly watched and may have close up detail that would be lost in class, for example threading up a sewing machine.

A virtual visiting lecturer
You might not be able to afford the fees for a celebrity speaker to come and talk to your students, but there are plenty of resources such as this talk by Brian Cox that you might find useful. And it may well be that the important conferences in your discipline have recent keynote presentations online – although they maybe quite long.

Discussion topics
Some OERs can be starting points for discussions in class, and there are many current affairs resources to choose from. TED talks are brief (less than 20 minutes) by high profile speakers and will probably have already attracted comments from the wider public which your students can also engage with. For example this TED talk on Alzheimer’s.

The image on this post is from Pixabay which is a great source of copyright free images.

Using social media in teaching – tricky decisions and how to make them

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I’ve been leading staff development sessions on using social media in teaching and learning for a couple of years now. The sessions are run in collaboration with a learning technologist and follow the typical format of my staff development sessions – a flip activity, then in the face-to-face session the institutional background, pedagogic rationale, a ‘hands-on’ activity and some case studies. The overall aim of these sessions is to get staff to think about how to use social media in their teaching – but over time, I’ve realised that the aim is actually to get them to use social media in a very controlled and thoughtful way.

Some of the infographics that represent social media show a complete smorgasbord of apps/social media that suggest infinite learning potential, or alternatively, an overwhelming amount of evaluation and choice before you find the right thing. (I’ve curated some of these here – social media infographics scoop-it). Now I’ve come to realise that the easiest route to encouraging staff to use social media is to think less is more – restrict the choice to make it clearer what considerations need to be taken into account before investing the time and energy developing activities. I visualise this in terms of ‘circles of trust’ – at the very centre are social media or their institutional equivalents where the data is controlled by the university, there is learning technologist support, staff can access user analytics, and there will be continuity. Outside this are well-known external providers who have a relatively consistent product unlikely to change from year-to-year and that are partially supported by the university. Beyond these are the fun, well-designed, who knows-how-long-they-will-be-around apps which may spark off a good learning activity, but that have no commitments in terms of data use, stability or sustainability.

So the cards we put together for the hands-on activity in the sessions err on the side of caution – out of the 10 suggested social media, only 5 are trully external (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest), with 4 being in-house (Blackboard’s discussion board, blog, and wiki tools, and studentfolio, our Mahara based ePortfolio tool), and one – Edublogs – a sort of cross over. We’re still working on these and thinking about how to develop whole session activities around them, but creating them has really crystallised my thoughts on the how, what and why of using social media in learning activities. Social-Media-Decision-Making-Cards-for-web

The Hour of Code

This blog post was first published in January 2015 on the University of Brighton’s Centre for Learning and Teaching website.

Source_code_in_Perl-crop-15gsu3lIf you used any kind of social media in December 2014 you may have come across the ‘Hour of Code’. This international computing initiative was developed by the US-based organization code.org  and is designed to promote writing computer code to people of all ages, but especially school children. The December UK event was launched at Downing Street by David Cameron surrounded by a group of children having a one hour lesson in computer coding. Participants in the Hour get a taste of some basic coding techniques such as loop structures and conditional statements through watching short videos and playing some simple games. Over 3 million people participated in the UK in 2013, and worldwide many millions more have joined in. According to the code.org website it is supported by people as diverse as Mark Zuckerberg, will.i.am, and Boris Johnson, all of whom emphasise that writing code is a skill that will be increasingly valuable in the future.

The videos and games have been written by various providers including code.org itself, and other online learning platforms such as the Khan Academy. Many UK Apple Stores also ran face-to-face coding sessions in December. The online games are carefully designed and targeted, for example there is a Disney sponsored Frozen game aimed at girls, presumably to address the shortage of women programmers, and there are other resources for more adult or engaged users, for example those by the Khan Academy which introduce JavaScript.

Behind this hour of fun designing snowflakes or creating shapes that move across the screen is a more important issue – the increasing need for more people, and more diverse types of people, to fill a skills gap in software development. Encouraging school children to code is the obvious place to start and the Hour of Code is more accessible and more clearly organized for non-tech-savvie staff and students than other recent initiatives such as Scratch and Raspberry Pi.

What does this mean for Higher Education? Generally speaking, initiatives that focus on schools will eventually become a concern for Universities. At the very least, students will be arriving at University with a minimum of a few hours of experimenting in writing simple code – and under the recently revised GCSE computing curriculum many will have substantially more, even when they are not studying computing subjects at HE level. In most disciplines this means that students would have more experience in coding than staff who have grown up in a world where any interactions with code were left firmly to “technicians”. But soon we will all need to be techies – at least to a degree. And in terms of transferable skills in HE, being able to code will not be just the preserve of the computer scientists, but will be a skill that needs to develop alongside subject specialisms – and the rise of Code Poetry and DevArt shows how broad this can be.

As well as the disciplinary changes, students who arrive at university being able to code will probably have also taken part in the online communities where the open sharing of knowledge about code is the norm. They will be expecting easily to find information in online communities and resources, and to share their findings freely with others. In more formal terms, they will be confident users of Open Educational Resources, have well developed problem solving skills and be experienced peer learners. Perhaps the most important thing the generation of coders can bring to Higher Education is this sense of possibility and openness that comes from learning online in this way. It is up to universities to find ways to capitalize on these learning skills.

In the meantime, while we work out how universities are going to address the need for more confident coders without just creating more computer science graduates, it is worth taking some time to explore the Hour of Code’s resources – whether to find out a bit about coding, or to join the 90 million people who have participated, or to find out what current issue unites characters as diverse as will.i.am and Boris Johnson. The Hour of Code UK.

Planning Assessments at Programme Level – Key Initiatives

This blog post was originally published on the University of Brighton’s Centre for Learning and Teaching blog, as a resource for staff development.

From 2005-2012 two initiatives took place each involving a key thinker and writer on assessment and feedback in the UK. The Re-engineering Assessment Practices in Higher Education project (REAP) was led by David Nicol, while Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessment (TESTA) involved Graham Gibbs.

Both of these projects were interested in moving the focus of assessment design away from one-off interventions on individual assessment tasks which had little impact on student learning to course-level planning of assessments. TESTA used a methodology based on consultation with staff and students and desk-based examination of assessment practices to formulate interventions, while REAP used a similar, though less formal set of tools to create interventions which focused slightly more on the use of technology. Both obviously drew heavily on the work of Gibbs and Nicol, and the broader assessment for learning movement (for example the work of Oxford Brookes’ ASKe), especially the importance of students getting feedback, whether from each other or staff, that aimed to improve their performance. This could either for assessments where submission contributed to their award (generally called summative, although Nicol has tended to call assessment where there was feed-forward as formative), or not (generally called formative assessment). Both initiatives were keen to implement changes that did not add to staff workload. Both also recognized that institutional change could only be guaranteed through policy modification and changes to quality assurance processes.

While both of these projects have officially finished, the resources on their webpages continue to be used, and in particular the TESTA methodology is being adopted and adapted to different programmes in universities around the world.