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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Redesigning learning, innovating in assessment, and dealing with decolonisation


Written by
Clare Sansom

The Centre for Online and Distance Learning’s RIDE conference has been held every year since 2006, including 2020 and 2021. A jittery just-pre-lockdown conference was followed by a fully online event last year that took place over three half days. This year’s conference used a hybrid model, with two online half-days and one full day face to face in the University of London’s Senate House. This innovative mode of delivery matched its theme, which had been chosen as higher education began to move out of the pandemic into what has been too often referred to as a ‘new normal’: Accelerating Innovation. Each ‘day’ – Wednesday afternoon, Thursday morning, and Friday – was well attended, with a rich and varied programme including an unprecedented number (17 over the three days) of parallel sessions.

Redesigning for blended and connected learning at scale

Wednesday’s session began with a keynote talk by Ale Armellini, Dean of Digital and Disrupted Learning at the University of Portsmouth. Ale, who is no stranger to CODE (formerly CDE) events, had moved to Portsmouth in 2020 from a similar position at the University of Northampton. He drew on extensive experience of designing wholesale and, at times, disruptive changes to the educational programmes at both institutions in a fascinating lecture entitled Redesigning for Blended and Connected Learning at Scale. The session was chaired by Stephen Brown, a CODE Fellow and a member of the executive team.

Ale had divided his presentation into four sections. He started by outlining the basic principles of blended and connected learning, then presented changes introduced at Northampton (under the strapline of ‘ABL’, or Active Blended Learning) and at Portsmouth; and concluded by stressing that there will be no return to a pre-pandemic ‘normal’. He began with five principles that underlie blended and connected learning:

  1. Content is not king; context is. The information that we give the students matters much less than what, how and why they work with it, and who they do it with.
  2. ‘Active learning’ implies both doing and thinking about what we do, and, after we have thought, doing it better next time.
  3. Integrity is vital, or, as he put it, ‘3a): Integrity, always. 3b): if in doubt, see a).’
  4. Technology does not ‘equalise’, it is what we, as teachers, do with – and without –technology that can establish equity between students.
  5. There are many things that we can do with, in, on and about learning, but we shouldn’t just ‘deliver’ it: we are not ‘Teacheroo’. 

In this context, he dislikes the phrase ‘technology-enhanced learning’. Instead, we need to normalise technology in such a way that it is almost taken for granted: no-one has ever used the phrase ‘book-enhanced learning’. He quoted a definition of active learning given by Bonwell and Eison thirty years ago: it ‘… involves students in doing things and thinking about the things that they are doing’.
He then moved on to describe Active Blended Learning as developed at the University of Northampton when he was Dean of Learning and Teaching there. This system of learning exposes students to the teaching materials before, during and after live sessions, providing a ‘scaffold’ of activities that, indeed, encourages students both to ‘do’ and to ‘think about what they do’. Each course and module is designed to include both synchronous and asynchronous activities. This builds on, but goes beyond, the original definition of ‘blended learning’ that was developed in the 1990s as simply a mixture of face-to-face and online. There is no exact definition of the ‘blend’, but blended learning must be multi-layered. There is, even, an ‘official’ definition of ABL, as developed at Northampton:

Active blended learning is a pedagogical approach that combines sense-making activities with focused student interactions (with content, peers and tutors) in appropriate learning settings – in and outside the classroom.

The University of Portsmouth has adopted the principles of ‘blended and connected learning’ in a similar way to Northampton. There, the curriculum is designed so that students engage with their studies through activities that enable them to take charge of their own learning, in and outside the classroom, and in a way that encourages them to apply their knowledge and skills (including digital skills) professionally. 
One advantage of the ‘emergency reset’ brought on by the pandemic is that it provided lecturers who had previously learned how to teach by teaching with a unique opportunity to study pedagogy. The changes in practice that have been introduced might be ‘responsive-reactive’, ‘radical-innovative’ or ‘developmental-incremental’ or, indeed, all of these at once, and at Portsmouth, at least, they have proved very positive. They are summed up there in the development of a ‘Digital Success Plan’ that revolves around six ‘P’s: Prospect (setting graduates up for their professional lives); Portfolio (of future-focused priorities); Partnership (of students and staff, including learning technologists); Place (physical and virtual); Principles for Practice; and Pedagogy, which is ‘digital by design’.

Pedagogy that is digital by design, however, does not necessarily mean ‘hyflex’ pedagogy where the same content is delivered at the same time to students online and in the room. This is difficult to do well and we should not increase the ‘reach’ to more students at the expense of the quality of our teaching. And, in fact, the emphasis – he would say, over-emphasis – on hyflex may have had its day. An HE version of Gartner’s famous hype cycle of technological innovation from 2021 positioned ‘hyflex classrooms’ on the way down from the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ to the ‘trough of disillusionment’: it is therefore to be expected that in a few years they will find their niche and settle into a plateau of productivity.

After touching briefly on issues of academic integrity and the role of AI, Ale ended a fascinating presentation with by mapping learning activities on two axes, from high to low ‘synchronicity’ and ‘proximity’. Activities in all four quadrants have a place and teaching should be able to adapt to student preferences. In this way there will be no return to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’ – and nor should there be.
A lively discussion followed the presentation, focusing on the role of hyflex and the importance of teaching quality: a good teacher can make good use of poor pedagogy or poor technology, but should not have to do so.

Accelerating innovation in assessment

Ever since the pandemic began, assessment has been a key issue. The ‘jump’ to online assessment has shown that there are many advantages to doing away with formal paper exams, but also many challenges. CODE brought three distinguished educators together into a panel with the strapline 'Accelerating Innovation in Assessment' to discuss some of these issues.

The panel was chaired by Sarah Knight, head of learning and teaching innovation at JISC, and CDE Fellow Alan Tait. Sarah began by introducing the three panellists: Stephanie Marshall, Vice-Principal for Education at Queen Mary’s, University of London; Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow in computing at Imperial College and a researcher in academic integrity; and Ailsa Crum from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, QAA. She then set the context for the discussion with a short overview of some of JISC’s recent work on assessment. They recently published a review of the ‘assessment landscape’ in higher education that had largely been based on survey material. Respondents identified three types of challenges in assessment practice, technical, cultural and pedagogical. The published assessment guide includes many examples of good practice in both assessment and feedback in the UK and internationally.

Stephanie was the first panellist to speak, and her short talk addressed three questions: why do we want to change assessment practices; what have we done so far; and where should we go next. In answer to the first, she stressed the importance of the assessment issue for students: very often, the scores for assessment and feedback are among the lowest on student questionnaires. The pandemic has only accelerated change and we don’t want to go back to the pre-2020 ‘gold standard’ of traditional exams: but how can we get students to show that they can apply their understanding, knowledge and skills? If it is hard to design appropriate assessments in the current context, perhaps we need to think about changing our pedagogy. 

Queen Mary has set up the ‘QM Academy’ to help staff design better, deeper learning experiences using a variety of online tools. These are helping students to apply their learning more creatively, and they have been used in a wide variety of disciplines including drama, where groups of students have produced online videos, and practical biology. Staff in medicine and dentistry won an innovation prize for their use of Microsoft’s HoloLens virtual reality headsets with video taken inside hospitals for assessment.

So, where to next, if it is not to be back to 2019?  Queen Mary have produced a booklet that sets out assessment expectations for all students, with an emphasis on formative assessment. Staff in all disciplines are expected to think creatively about assessment, starting from the course and module learning outcomes. The outcome of this should be assessments that prepare students for their future careers more successfully than traditional paper-and-pen exams. We are unlikely to reach the destination straight away, but we know that destination.

Thomas presented the perspective of a senior tutor who spends much of his time supporting students directly and has held similar roles in modern universities. Assessment is a large part of his role, and he has worked with student research partners to co-design assessments and held a student research conference on YouTube. Students as partners is one of the threads that run through his work; another is academic integrity, which is much more than telling students not to cheat and teaching referencing. In his experience, problems of academic integrity can be minimised by installing an ethical viewpoint in students, designing engaging assessments and, crucially, supporting them fully, particularly in the area of mental health. Sarah thanked him for this brief presentation, again stressing the core value of integrity.

Ailsa, from QAA, described assessment somewhat picturesquely as a ‘Swiss army knife’ that needs to perform many functions: grading students, enhancing their learning and comparing them while maintaining consistent standards. This poses multiple demands that are difficult to address simultaneously. She echoed the other panellists in stressing that the pandemic must lead to sustained change rather than a return to the ‘old normal’, and then discussed four separate attributes of assessment in turn.

  • Format: Digital is ‘here to stay’, but this can take multiple forms, from simple e-submission of scripts to online assessments in real time.
  • Authenticity: This is shorthand for assessment that tests high-level skills that will be important in ‘real-life’ graduate careers. It is certainly not an attribute of old-fashioned exams, which test exam technique rather than deep learning. Exercises that encourage students to evaluate their own work and discuss it with their peers are more likely to be authentic.
  • Accessibility: Assessments must work for all students, which means they must be designed to work for students with disabilities as well as across the ‘digital divide’. AQA is funding projects to evaluate how different students are assessed. 
  • Reliability: Grades affect student progression and potentially career development, so summative assessment must be accurate and grade boundaries set carefully. There is very little difference between an overall mark of 68% and one of 71%, but there may be a grade boundary in between. AQA is also studying how detailed information about a student’s performance can be provided alongside grades.  

In concluding, Ailsa recommended the free resources for staff that are available on the QAA website.  

Sarah then led a wide-ranging discussion of the issues raised by the panellists. The topics raised on assessment in healthcare disciplines, the role of professional bodies, and how to maintain a balance in institutions between innovative colleagues and those who would prefer to return to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’.

Decolonization as a Driver of Critical Change in Online and Distance Education: Possibilities and Tensions

Wednesday’s second plenary lecture, which concluded the first half-day, covered one of the most topical issues in higher education today. The speaker was Professor Ann Lopez from the University of Toronto, Canada, and her title was ‘Decolonisation as a Driver for Critical Change in Online and Distance Education’.

Ann was introduced by Oscar Mwangaa, a programme director at University of London Worldwide and a CODE Fellow. Oscar explained that the University of London sits in a very privileged place in a global knowledge sector dominated by the English language and Western thought. Many of the students at University of London Worldwide come from Commonwealth countries with education systems that were set up in colonial times and retain something of a colonial perspective: they are now actively seeking to break free from this oppressive system. He first worked with Ann in a collaboration with universities in Zambia and Toronto and regards her as a mentor; she has received awards for her distinguished contribution to the teaching profession and, crucially, her work in decolonisation reflects her lived experience as a black woman.

Ann began her talk, appropriately, with an acknowledgement of the Indigenous peoples of ‘the land she is standing on’ in the Toronto region; she is a Canadian immigrant and grateful for the opportunity to live and work there. She is also personally connected to the issue as a descendent of enslaved peoples and is mindful of Black and Indigenous struggles for racial and social justice. She set out to explore the topic of decolonisation via the three conference subthemes: People, Practice and Pedagogy. This last is important as it drives how, why and what we teach. Decolonisation involves shifts in what we think about our teaching as well as in how it is done. It is a practical work, it is very exciting, and it is now everywhere.

Ann then presented a list of attributes for decolonising education:

  • Decolonisation is a process – likely a gradual process – of challenging and undoing colonial practices; it is not a metaphor.
  • It involves a displacement of colonial logic, and it will take on different meanings depending on its context. We need to think of decolonisation in our own context, whether that is London, Toronto, or the Global South.
  • We need to nurture our capacity to imagine alternative ways of thinking about our curricula, institutional structures, and power relationships, and to confront and challenge colonial practices in these spheres. Decolonisation involves continuous reflection on power dynamics and on our own practice.
  • It examines our connections to place and community. Teaching and learning, whether face to face or online, create vital spaces for decolonising education.
  • Education must involve healing and empowerment as much as knowledge transfer; it should meet the needs of individual students and include and validate all their experiences.

She then asked what these attributes of decolonisation might mean in the specific context of online and distance education. She suggested that the imposition of a fixed idea of ‘how it [ODE] should be done’ owes much to the colonial mindset. It is better to imagine a set of possibilities: to question what knowledge should be centred and to centre voices from the Global South. In distance education we should be attuned to our students’ lived experiences: ‘we can’t just put content online and say this is the course’. And we can only take this forward if we stay open to learning and re-learning about what makes education relevant for our students. An enthusiasm for new technologies can be a problem because the philosophy of distance education is not tech specific.

Finally, Ann summarised her fascinating and challenging talk with a quote:

The work of decolonisation entails not only our self-reflexive efforts to work through mind-numbing alienation and essentialising divides, but also the commitment to transformation in social and educational contexts.

[ Asher, N 2009, Decolonization and education: Locating pedagogy and self at the interstices in global times. in RS Coloma (ed.), Postcolonial challenges in education. Peter Lang, New York, NY, pp. 67-77.].

The session ended with a discussion that included the relationship between decolonisation and the wider social justice agenda and how it can be made more relevant to the ‘hard’ science disciplines.