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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Rethinking Teaching and Learning at RIDE 2021


Written by
Daksha Patel, Clare Sansom and Julie Voce

The fifteenth in the CODE’s acclaimed series of Research in Distance Education (RIDE) conferences was the first to be held wholly online. It took place over three half-days in June 2021, with the overall theme of Learning through Disruption. The third daily RIDE theme of ‘Rethinking Teaching and Learning’ was introduced with an inspiring and research-focused keynote lecture by an old friend of the CODE, Neil Morris. Neil is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds, a National Teaching Fellow and an experienced practitioner and researcher in digital learning technology.

Enhancing student learning and engagement through effective use of digital technologies and online learning

Watch a video of the day 3 keynote.

Neil Morris began by asking us to think about three things, presented as an interlocking Venn diagram: Covid’s impact on education, a vision of the future and our role as researchers. It is very easy to prioritise technology, but learning and learners should be our priority. Digital technology can increase flexibility, accessibility, engagement and enjoyment, but – particularly if adopted for its own sake – there will be issues with digital literacy and digital exclusion. We must use this opportunity to use technology to decrease inequalities, not to widen the gap.

A survey of student experiences during the pandemic published by Jisc earlier this year showed that 62% of students reported problems with their WiFi connections, but that a majority of students (68%) rated the quality of online learning that they had experienced as ‘good’ or better. Reflecting on this, Neil posed a challenge for all universities, with five things to think about if digital learning is to engage all students:

  • Ensuring universal digital literacy
  • Removing digital inequalities
  • Reimagining assessment
  • Reviewing the course portfolio, curriculum and pedagogies
  • Reimagining who their students are – many more have non-traditional backgrounds

He identified assessment and digital inequalities as particularly important areas, and digital literacy as well as access to connectivity and suitable kit within the area of inequalities. We need to look at the learning experience, spaces, content and technology through each of these ‘lenses’ and to support everyone who engages with us, including professional and lifelong learners.

Neil Morris speaking to camera

Digital and online learning is now part of a university’s core business, and it needs to be embedded in it. The higher education sector in the UK is home to world-leading researchers in digital and distance education, and we must not miss the opportunity to put this research into practice. We have been provided with a once-only opportunity to transform the sector for a digital age; we should use future research to create the evidence base needed for long-term, systemic change and evidence of its efficacy will be crucial.

He ended by recommending three questions for researchers in distance and online learning to think through:
Staff and students can be resistant to the active learning approaches that research has shown give optimum learning outcomes. How can research and innovation overcome this resistance and support active learning?

  • How can research help improve the application of data-informed learning analytics for all students, and overcome the valid questions about data protection and privacy?
  • How can our experience during the pandemic help us innovate to improve new online provision, avoiding re-inventing the wheel?

CODE Fellow and session chair Stephen Brown responded to Neil’s ‘thoughtful, well-informed and frank’ keynote lecture by stressing, again, the importance of tackling inequalities: both digital and general. The fact that staff and students seem are resistant to active learning is worthy of further research. If change is to be lasting it cannot just be driven from senior management (‘top down’) or from enthusiastic individuals (‘bottom up’): could it be both of these, or, perhaps, ‘middle out’? He threw the questions open to the audience, which provoked a lively and wide-ranging discussion covering assessment, active learning and how to prepare new students (perhaps particularly new school leavers) so they can benefit from the techniques and technologies available. Commercial digital training out-performs what many universities currently offer.

The session ended with a short presentation by the 2021 Roger Mills Prize winners, Sarah Sherman and Nancy Weitz of the Bloomsbury Learning Exchange. Sarah and Nancy described the digital skills awareness courses that they have developed for incoming students and now, teaching staff.  These are open source and should be widely used; much of the content is common to all institutions but some, such as the use of the library, can and must be adapted for local use. Each course has four units; both were designed with input from potential users and include videos, ‘tips and tricks’ and useful links.

Demo versions of both courses can be obtained by email from the BLE; further information is available on the BLE website.

Humanising Pedagogy

Watch a video of the 'Humanising pedagogy' session.

The matter with interaction: supporting a pedagogy of care for online teaching and learning 

Eileen Kennedy, UCL 

Creating interaction and engagement online has been a substantial theme in education during the Covid-19 pandemic. The MOTH (Moving to online teaching and homeworking) study captured experiences in 412 survey responses and 32 follow up interviews with University teachers. Comparisons of online to classroom-based teaching were viewed through the lens of verbal and non-verbal clues (‘the caring relation’) that informed about student understanding and engrossment in learning.  The challenges faced by teachers in moving to online were in not being able to “read the room” for understanding student needs, or how content was being received when cameras were off. Some teachers discovered opportunities and learnt techniques to draw out and include students. 

Eileen Kennedy speaking to camera

It is recognized that it takes a lot of preparation to make online work – on how best to present oneself as teacher and the content suitably.  The “emotional labour” associated with the experience ranged from exhaustion, loneliness, heightened awareness of inequities and the long-term effects on forming communities of learning, especially in practice based training and burnout. Supporting students also took longer because of a range of personal caring responsibilities linked with homeworking. Creating relationships online was described as a “horrible experience”. 

There are tools available to improve interaction and universities need to provide tools that can reduce stress, including interactive white boards, polling, pinboards. Making provisions for these tools is essential for both students and teachers. Technology investment and procurement should not take place without the meaningful consideration of teachers’ practices and feelings. Understanding the pedagogy of care is important and this needs to feed into the campaigns that call for reducing fees for online education, which is mistakenly seen as less onerous work. 

The Conversational model as a framework for rethinking teaching, learning and decolonisation 

Oscar Mwaanga, University of London 

This talk examined student learning and continuous decolonisation of the curriculum of the University of London Worldwide online PG certificate in International Sports Management, which has students from over 50 nationalities. The evaluation looked at the content (“what is taught”) and Pedagogy (“how and why”) using a conversational framework (CF) and a decolonisation framework (DF). Decolonisation is a highly contested term and must have a clear reference; e.g history, global economic system that favours the global north, political and cultural systems, coloniality and how this shapes the programmes. Therefore, empowerment of students to control their own identity is central to this. 

Oscar Mwaanga speaking to camera

The impact of poor (colonised) scholarship has been the creation of false implication, e.g black persons are seen as strong athletes but not good for admirative or management roles. Promoting pluriversity (epistemic diversity) and scholarly imagination needs to be part of the design process.  The “lived experience” informs the approach that students can bring to their learning. The conversational framework lends itself with the learner at the centre, with a concept and the practice. This is supported by teachers in acquiring, inquiring and producing and by peer discussions. This can lead to practicing and collaborating. It is not all about teaching but builds on learning types: acquisition, discussion, practice, inquiry, collaboration, practice and production. What is the content silent about? Who is researching and who is being researched? Having a clear prompt can provide important direction on inclusivity, empowerment, digital literacy, gender and power relationships. 

Transforming education

Under the strapline ‘Transforming Education’, one of the parallel sessions in Friday’s RIDE heard from practitioners in two inspiring distance learning projects with the potential to transform the lives of disadvantaged learners worldwide. First, Sally Parsley and Tana Wulji from the World Health Organisation presented the work of the WHO Academy, and then Maynor Barrientos Amador, from the Universidad Estatal al Distancia in Costa Rica, described a project to transform social learning in Latin America through digitisation. The session was ably chaired by CDE Fellow Daksha Patel, who had been a colleague of Sally’s when she worked at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Watch a video of the 'Transforming education' session.

WHO Academy: Transforming lifelong learning for health impact 

Sally Parsley and Tana Wulji, WHO

There is no better time to improve learning than a crisis. The World Health Organisation has been constantly on our screens since the start of the pandemic but its new work in education is not yet as well appreciated. Tana introduced the WHO Academy, which was established in 2020 to provide lifelong learning to the health sector worldwide; it aims to engage with 10 million learners by 2023. It will provide a flexible, varied programme of learning focused on competences: ‘Lego pieces’ of learning material that can be combined in many ways. Subject teams of experts from all over the world have been assembled to pull together programmes using innovative digital learning technologies, including simulations and serious games.

WHO Academy presentation slide

Sally then described two case studies taken from the Academy’s initial set of programmes, released in May 2021, on mass casualty management and acute respiratory infections. The first course aims to build emergency teams’ capabilities to respond immediately after a mass casualty incident has occurred. It runs over several days, is designed to be independent of both the country and the context and uses a variety of simulations and serious games that can be performed either in person or online. The timely course on respiratory infections is a self-paced, two-week long programme for health leadership teams with the aim of building competences and improving a country’s outbreak response. She also mentioned some other courses briefly, including one on contraceptive provision in pharmacies which, she said, addresses a big gap in access to family planning worldwide.

(Re)Imagining Social Learning in Latin America: Digital Transformation in the Heart of Collective Learning 

Maynor Barrientos Amador, Universidad Estatal a Distancia, Costa Rica 

Much post-school education in Latin America takes place informally, in social collectives. These started to introduce a digital component to their education programmes in 2018, but progress has remained very slow. Now, as the pandemic has forced much education online, an ambitious programme of digital transformation is being planned. Maynor described how this transformation can be expected to fit into the collective educational ecosystem in Latin America, which is ‘worlds apart’ from that in Europe and North America.   

Image of feminists protesting for education

Digital transformation has been defined as a series of five ‘deep and coordinated’ shifts in culture, workforce and coordination that, together, cause a complete change in an institution’s operations, strategy and values:

  • Digitise information
  • Organise information
  • Automate processes
  • Streamline processes
  • Transform the institution

So, how would this apply to social collectives in Latin America? In collectives, learning is seen as a pathway to social justice, but it is not ‘one size fits all: there are different types of collective. Sometimes you are born into a collective, as in indigenous collectives in Brazil; others arise after conflict or through a shared ideology, such as feminism. They all develop their own paths while sharing a justice-based agenda, addressing social exploitation through education. Historically, collectives have made good use of inexpensive technology in, for example, setting up community radio stations and using participatory video. They are beginning to create a new, collective digital voice.

However, the social divide in Latin America is deep-rooted and severe, rooted in the historical context of the region. Inequality has grown further in recent years and this has been making it difficult for collectives to grow and develop, including through digital transformation. Communication between the collectives and the formal education sector, which includes Latin America’s universities, has also been difficult. However, Maynor concluded optimistically that a digital transformation of collectives could have the benefit of bringing these sectors closer together.

Innovation through disruption

Watch a video of the 'Innovation through disruption' session.

Enhancing employability and careers education through innovation

Laura Bramer, The Careers Group, University of London 

Laura Bramer introduced us to the careers and employability education that has been delivered by the Careers Group to around 50,000 University of London students. The Careers Group were winners of the 2020 Roger Mills prize for innovation for their work in this area.

Since 2018, they have delivered live webinars twice per day on a range of employability and professional development topics, plus drop-in sessions to ask careers-related questions. Laura emphasised the importance of student voice in guiding the development of their careers resources. For example, through understanding what students want to learn they have developed resources on how to promote a distance learning qualification to employers. They capture student voice through working with a student voice group and evaluation data. They also use pre- and post- webinar surveys to identify whether student confidence has increased as a result of attending the webinars.

This feedback is used alongside careers registration data which provides insights into where students are in their career planning. Laura talked about the diversity of UoL students in terms of their work profile and their objectives, which has led to the development of three categories of students: careers starters, careers developers and career changers. They use this knowledge about students to target interventions at different career stages, including providing advice on self-employment.

Laura Brammar speaking to camera

Laura talked about the development of two micromodules within Moodle that are available for all students. These include a combination of activities to work through and quotes from alumni and employers. Students can opt to have completion of the micromodules added to their degree transcript and student evaluation has shown that the modules were helpful and helped students to hone new and old skills. 

Laura noted that whilst the content is important, the mode of delivery is also important as it enables students to develop their digital literacies using the virtual classroom. This is important as recruiters and employers are looking for staff who have the skills to work in a virtual world. Building on this, the University of London (UoL) partnered with Bright Network for their virtual internships scheme, which provides students with a 3-day internship with high profile employers, such as Google and PWC (PricewaterhouseCoopers). This opportunity was offered to all students and UoL had the largest group of students participating. This scheme is being offered again this year and will be offered on-demand, so students across all time zones can take part.

Next steps include learning more about employability practice within academic programmes, expanding work with the student voice group around the career registration data and building on career stage segmentation.

Education 4.0 - what have we learned from the pivot to on-line?’ A case study of QMUL

Stephanie Marshall, QMUL

Stephanie Marshall, Vice President Education at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), talked about the University's experiences of moving online due to the pandemic and plans for the coming academic year. They have been gathering student feedback via pulse surveys and fortnightly online student/staff liaison committees. Key findings have included: 

  • Most students preferred asynchronous delivery to large lectures but missed the social time before and after lectures. 
  • Using the asynchronous materials, students preferred being able to go at their own pace and the ability to rewind/revisit learning materials. It was suggested that deeper learning was taking place as a result. 
  • Students enjoyed online synchronous sessions when interactivity was built in, such as small group tasks and polling, and found these more intellectually challenging, more engaging and fun. As a result, students asked more questions.
  • Students liked the confidential approach to student wellbeing, e.g., attending mental health and careers sessions from the comfort of their own home.
Stephanie Marshall speaking to camera

At QMUL over 50% of students are ‘commuter students’ and they appreciated not having to travel to campus (in terms of cost and time), being able to organise their week around other responsibilities/activities and having a better work/life balance, when they had proper study space. However, Stephanie noted that there were issues with digital poverty, a poor working environment and a lack of social interaction. To respond to this, QMUL surveyed students about equipment needs and posted it out to students and ensured that library and other social spaces were opened as soon as possible to provide on campus spaces. 

Most students missed the social interaction, meeting the staff and taking part in sport and other social activities. Looking forward, transition activities are going to be embedded over a year with more community building to help students to develop confidence and communities before they arrive.

What would Education 4.0 look like at QMUL? They plan to ensure the best of both worlds through using blended techniques to reinforce learning and support autonomous learning, focusing on community-building, supporting students to direct their own learning, and ensuring that assessment facilitates learning and builds in more interactivity, joy and fun in the learning process. Stephanie concluded by stating that innovation should be in learning design, and therefore learning design teams are crucial.


Supporting innovative teaching

Watch a video of the 'Supporting innovative teaching' session.

Borrowing Evidence-Based Practices from Online Learning to Enhance Teaching & Learning in all Classrooms: A Faculty Developer’s Perspective

Julie Phillips, Thomas Jefferson University

Julie Phillips from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, USA explained that her institution was eight months into a transition to a new learning management system (LMS) when lockdown occurred in March 2020. The online learning principles and approach used for the move to the new LMS greatly assisted them when they had to move teaching online.

Thomas Jefferson is a mid-sized university with around 8,000 students and 1,400 faculty with a pre-disposition to professional education, in particular health sciences education. Previously, adoption of technology had been fragmented, so Julie’s team surveyed faculty to track it during the early stages of the pandemic to find out more about the technologies that faculty were using and how, and to understand the resources and support needed. Julie reported that 19% of faculty weren't using the LMS prior to lockdown and, unsurprisingly, there was a large uptake in video conferencing as a result of the pandemic.

Comparison of technology use levels pre and post Covid-19

Prior to the transition to the new LMS, they had looked at the barriers to faculty adoption and had previously delayed the transition due to anxiety about the change. Other barriers included time and access to effective support and development. Julie emphasised the importance of having a clear vision about why the change was necessary and noted that the focus was about improving teaching and learning across the university.

To support the transition, Julie’s team created a scaffolded series of workshops with in-person and self-paced learning, supported by one-to-one consultations with experts, express and just-in-time support sessions as well as 24/7 support via chat and phone. This was provided by the LMS supplier for times when the in-house team were not available. To design their development programme, they borrowed heavily from existing online learning principles with demonstrable success in improving teaching and learning. Their guiding principles were:

  • Organize and contextualise the learning – faculty were given a sequenced path for the workshops to gradually improve practice and develop skills, supported by resources and templates.
  • Provide opportunities for practice and feedback – practice and feedback was built into both the live and asynchronous training sessions with support from experts.
  • Use exemplars and models – they used a demo course to demonstrate the full functionality of the LMS and focussed on what faculty would be doing in the classroom. In addition, a variety of templates were provided for faculty to use. They also developed video testimonials from early adopters talking about their use of the LMS.
  • Use multiple means for sharing content – their development programme consisted of both synchronous and asynchronous, with use of multimedia alongside text and provided both expert to peer and peer to peer support.
  • Curate technology tools for maximum impact – they emphasised a core set of tools to prevent faculty from becoming overwhelmed by all the options and ensured that these were integrated into the LMS.

Julie concluded by saying that whilst they weren’t intending to prepare faculty for online learning, their approach did start to develop core skills that prepared staff for a readiness to teach online, and this helped provide a much smoother transition.

Informal approaches of helping peers to support wellbeing and development in lockdown (and beyond)

Sarah Sherman and Julian Bream, Bloomsbury Learning Exchange

Sarah Sherman and Julian Bream from the Bloomsbury Learning Exchange (BLE) started by introducing the BLE – a partnership working across six London universities to support staff in the acquisition, development, and support of digital learning. 

Considering the impact of the pandemic, Julian noted that staff responded to acknowledging what had happened and identified two key experiences - Zoom fatigue and lockdown fatigue – with a focus on emotional labour as people adapted to the new situation alongside trying to do their work. In recognition of this, the BLE reorganised their support to make it less formal and provide ways to bring people together through regular drop-ins, webinars without agendas. The aim was to establish an open, safe and comfortable online space. In addition to platforms like Zoom, Teams and Blackboard Collaborate, they also experimented with other platforms like Wonder, GatherTown and Spatial where people can move around more.

BLE virtual room

In terms of acknowledging the fatigue, they made space for relationships by connecting with each other, checking-in on wellbeing and agreeing how face-to-face sessions would work. Julian then asked the session participants to consider how they were feeling and what their needs were from the online experience. Participants were asked to reflect on their experience of being at RIDE2021 with several commenting on how nice it had been to hear other people’s experiences. There was a general feeling that we were all facing similar issues and it was reassuring to see that they were not alone and to hear how others had tackled things. Julian then invited participants to visit the social gathering platform to continue to share their experiences of RIDE2021.