Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Event Report: White Rose Learning Technologists’ Meeting, 17th July 2012

Image by Rejik CC-BY-NC-SA
On Tuesday 17th July we had the privilege of hosting a meeting of the White Rose Learning Technologists’ Forum here at The University of Sheffield. This was the fifth meeting that the group has had since April 2011, and as with other meetings, we had a number of presentations offered up by the group’s members, which we co-ordinate using a shared Google Doc for each meeting.

The first presentation was from our very own Sarah Horrigan, leader of the Learning Technologies Team here at Sheffield. Sarah led us through a series of initiatives she has instigated around how we communicate the team’s work to colleagues within and outside the University. Central to the team’s communication strategy is the philosophy of modelling good practice as learning technologists, and this is mediated by use of the team’s blog. We host the blog using Google’s Blogger service. There’s good reason for using this rather than one of the other blogging platforms - we are one of the eight or so HEIs in the UK who have implemented Google Apps for Education, and as such the Blogger platform integrates well with this. For example, as team members, we can easily access the blog to create and manage posts using our normal University usernames, without having create and remember yet another set of credentials for yet another service. We also have regular articles from colleagues around the campus, which means we’re able to share the experiences of academic colleagues and practitioners and their current work with you, our readers. 

 The platform also enables easy integration with our personal and team’s Google+ page. Google+ is definitely growing in popularity, and whilst it’s not yet Facebook big, it certainly gets a lot of readership from the learning technology community. This makes it an ideal place for posting a quick note or update about things that catch one’s eye and that are worthy of sharing but aren’t our own work, or not quite substantial enough to warrant a blog posting. Too much to do it justice here, Sarah’s presentation had lots of other good advice and tips for blog post writing and general use of social media to support the team’s activities, and there is a link to it below. One final point to mention here though was the importance of using a standardised hashtag to act as “glue” that links all our various comms channels. Ours is #cicsltt, and Sarah has just blogged about how this integration can be automated in her article Making life a little simpler........(http://learningtechnologiesteam.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/making-life-little-simpler.html)

The second presentation was from Jak Radice and Maureen Readel from the University of Bradford, who reported on how they have been implementing an e-assessment initiative. Last year the University’s Senate had approved an e-submission policy, which driven largely by reasons of sustainability, demand that wherever possible, all work for assessment should be submitted electronically, with a 20 day turnaround for providing feedback. This is facilitated using a fairly common mixture of tools, including TurnitinUK and PebblePad, adding comments in Microsoft Word, and some homegrown tools. 

 Perhaps not surprisingly, implementing such a system across an Institution provides plenty of issues to resolve. Part of the problems encountered stemmed from existing “business processes”. The whole assessment process, especially when viewed across an entire Institution, is a highly complex one, and one that entails much inconsistency between schools, courses, and even within individual teams. These existing issues can easily be exacerbated by introducing technology. Some of these could be due to deficiencies in certain systems being used, such as the way that Turnitin’s Rubric will only apply a band of marks to a piece of work, rather than a specific mark within that range. Others were perhaps more attitudinal, such as people being concerned about health and safety issues (specifically stress) arising from more time being sat at a computer, or problems with being able to mark in the absence of a decent Internet connection. 

Jak and Maureen’s recommendations to help resolve these issues included providing a programme of training and support to academic staff, the importance of resisting getting drawn into the complexities of the existing processes by concentrating on the “1st marking” stage, and being very clear and assertive about what could reasonably be supported. Finally they stressed the importance of ensuring that there was a plentiful supply of valium and whiskey on hand for all those supporting the process. Wise words indeed, and those which e-learning managers should only ignore at their peril.....

Next up was another one of our colleagues from Sheffield, Gary Wood, from the School of English. Gary’s presentation took us through a really inspiring project he’d done in the last semester with his first year linguistics students. The project is based around a new module, calle Introduction to Linguistics. Like my own discipline (archaeology), linguistics isn’t really taught very much at school, so this first year is designed to give students an overview to the diversity within the subject. Gary wanted the course to provide students with an opportunity to explore the discipline collaboratively, by giving them topics to research in some detail, and to be able to share their findings amongst the group. In addition Gary wanted to see if he could also alleviate some of the problems that students seem to have in co-ordinating their group work, due to conflicting timetable commitments, and streamline a few other administrative processes too. A tertiary aim of the project was to develop a resource that could be used for outreach, so as to help school students understand more about the subject too. 

Gary tackled all of these using a combination of Google Apps, which as stated above, to which all our staff and students have access. Students used Google Docs as a means creating and sharing the source material amongst their groups that they would ultimately put into their web pages. They also used Docs for general project management tasks, and Draw to originate graphical materials. The problems of not being able to physically get together were partly mitigated by using Google + Hangouts, which as well as providing web conferencing allows editing of Docs and Sites pages. Finally, Sites was used to composite the final deliverable website, All About Linguistics, with Gary managing their access to the pages in such a way that allowed each group to collaboratively work on their section, but also allowed read-only access to other groups’ work at the same time. This latter feature helped introduced an amount of healthy competition and seemed to provide a great source of motivation.

I had also heard Gary give a presentation about the project a couple of weeks previously, at our own internal Google mini-conference, and on listening to it second time round, it strikes me as the sort of project that the more I hear about it the more impressed I am. Gary also brought some of his students along to this earlier presentation, and it really is amazing to hear how positive they were about their experience. I think that getting the student voice into our forum meetings is something we should aim for in future meetings.

Our final presentation was an update on a couple of matters, given by Robin Gissing, a collegue from Sheffield Hallam with whom we are fostering closer links on a number of areas of common interest. Robin had co-presented the session at our last meeting on creating mobile apps using Buzztouch, which we reported on in May (http://learningtechnologiesteam.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/event-report-white-rose-learning.html). He told us how their apps were coming close to official release via the iTunes store, and how they were also providing 40 iPads for use by their health science students, which they were going to manage using a system called “iPad Configurator”, which allows simultaneous uploading of software to multiple devices. Robin also gave us some initial feedback from the first meeting of the North England Blackboard User Group (NEBUG). This group are to meet on a biannual basis, and can be contacted for more information at nebug@jiscmail.ac.uk.

We closed with some lively discussion, mostly centering about copyright issues and how we handle them whilst teaching students, as this was an issue that Gary had encountered with his project. I personally found the meeting very rewarding as it addressed a number of areas that I’m currently working on - how we support the use of Google Apps in learning and teaching, and as a significant part of that, how we address some of the potentially thorny issues in using these tools and others for e-assessment. It’s worth noting that this latter topic is a pretty hot one for many of us at the moment, and a recent survey by the Heads of e-Learning Forum (HeLF) has discovered that over 30 Institutions have recently formulated some degree of e-assessment policy, whilst another 65 are working their way towards this.

The next meeting has been provisionally arranged for Wednesday December 12th. We are currently looking for hosts and a venue. If anyone is interested in finding out more about WRLTF, or thinking about setting up your own regional forum, do please feel free to contact me at g.mcelearney@sheffield.ac.uk. It is also worth remembering that anyone who is currently preparing a CMALT portfolio will almost certainly be able to include participating in activities such as these in your submission.


All About Linguistics Website
Gary’s previously recorded talk about the project, and other presentations from our recent Google Apps conference:

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