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Centre for Online and Distance Education

RIDE 2024 - Day 2 Morning

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Professor Diana Laurillard and Dr Eileen Kennedy, both from the UCL Knowledge Lab, University of London, argue that what is needed is professional development that will change professional practice, undertaken at a global scale to meet global challenges such as poverty, inequality and climate change, and open to all.

The eighteenth annual conference of the Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE) at the University of London: Research in Distance Education – or RIDE – was, for the second successive year, a hybrid meeting. The face-to-face meeting was held in Senate House at the University of London and every session was also streamed online. This year it addressed the theme of Learning: Anything, Everywhere, but How? The world’s knowledge is ‘increasingly available with the swipe of a finger on a mobile device’: but what does this mean for learning? How can learning online and at a distance be best facilitated for students and those who teach them?

The second conference day began with a keynote session on collaborative professional development. Fittingly, given that theme, it was a collaboration between two distinguished educators who are long-standing friends of CODE: Professor Diana Laurillard and Dr Eileen Kennedy, both from the UCL Knowledge Lab, University of London, It was chaired by Dr Ash Cox, the newly-appointed deputy director of CODE, who announced that the lecture would be followed by a World Café session in which delegates would discuss some of the questions raised in table groups. Delegates watching online were invited to contribute their thoughts on the same questions to a padlet

Diana began by highlighting the range of shared ideas that she always experienced at CODE events. However, she had noticed a focus on undergraduate teaching in the previous day’s sessions, and she and Eileen were now changing the focus onto learning for professionals, looking at how collaborative educational practices in this group could be key to inclusive learning. The conference strapline included ‘learning everywhere’ and she wanted to start at the largest possible scale: the global one, with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. She echoed one of Thursday’s keynote speakers, Nicolaz Foucaud, in highlighting Goal 4 – Quality Education – and particularly its focus on universal lifelong learning, as underpinning the other goals for those working at a professional level.

Diana Laurillard
Diana Laurillard

Quality education and lifelong learning should allow professionals to make a difference in a world that is changing very rapidly: you only need to think about climate change to realise how important this is. And if you look at universities’ mission statements, they do seem to take this seriously. UCL’s, perhaps typically, proclaims the university as being ‘engaged with the wider world and committed to changing it for the better… for the long-term benefit of humanity’. But is it achieving this objective? The Times Higher Education Supplement generally ranks UCL in the top 10-20 institutions for excellence, but much lower – somewhere between 101st and 200th in the world in 2022 – for ‘impact on the Sustainable Development Goals’. In fact, none of the institutions ranked in the top 20 overall came anywhere near the top in this metric.  

She went on to explain how universities’ impact on this goal is measured. Five separate measures are listed in the area that we are most interested in, lifelong learning: 

  • Access to educational resources for those not studying at the university. 
  • Educational activities that are open to the general public. 
  • Events providing vocational training for those not studying at the university. 
  • Outreach activities into the local community, including schools. 
  • Policies to ensure that these activities are open to all, regardless of gender, disability, ethnicity, religion or immigration status. 

Many activities that fit into these categories will attract professionals of all disciplines. In the UK, universities currently provide some 4.4 million ‘training days’ of professional development each year, which can be costed very roughly at about £2 billion. This, however, is dwarfed by the £42 billion/year invested by employers. And these are current figures: much more investment into professional development will be required if these people are to rise to the extraordinary challenges that will be posed in the near future. A postgraduate education strategy linked to the SDGs would match universities’ mission statements and improve their rankings, but, more importantly, be key to truly inclusive learning. 

What is needed, therefore, is professional development that will change professional practice, undertaken at a global scale to meet global challenges such as poverty, inequality and climate change, and open to all. In this context, developers at UCL have moved on from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to develop what they have called CoMOOCs, or Co-designed Massive Open Online Collaborations. These are social learning platforms that are built with the collaboration of the professionals who will become the learners, building on community knowledge and practice. They offer video-based case studies, discussions between peers, and exercises in research and practice in areas such as energy policy, teaching in a refugee community, and perioperative medicine, and they support learners doing their own research and discussing it with their peers. In fact, peer review is an important feature of CoMOOCs that is valuable for the reviewer as well as the reviewee. There is a good example of this in a course on learning design where participants are invited to submit their own designs for evaluation by each other. The edited and curated designs are then made widely accessible.  

UCL has already released CoMOOCs that are reaching tens of thousands of people each, and the team has put together a template, five-stage process for creating one in which each stage involves collaboration with the stakeholders that they intend to reach. Diana ended her section of the presentation by outlining these: 

  1. Engage: collaborate with relevant NGOs to demonstrate research in the community to be reached (e.g. teachers in refugee communities in the Lebanon). 
  2. Develop: work with the professionals involved to produce materials for the CoMOOC. 
  3. Extend: professionals join the CoMOOC and contribute their own experiences to the resources available.  
  4. Embed: participants combine the CoMOOC resources with those available locally, so colleagues without access to the global resources can still benefit. 
  5. Sustain: take responsibility for maintaining the course and its resources for the longer term. 

Eileen then took over, going into more details of the methodology involved in creating CoMOOCs. She began with a basic definition: a CoMOOC must be both designed for social and collaborative learning, and co-designed by the professionals that it targets. These are important because social and collaborative learning is key to quality pedagogy, particularly for mature professionals who are able to learn from each other. It can work online for large groups, but – as we discovered during the pandemic – social interaction between teachers and learners, and of learners together, is crucially important. Replicating this online includes the use of digital tools to enable meaningful discussion and social learning. It is important, however, to choose topics and methods that enable all learners, including the less confident ones, to get involved. It is often useful to start with a simple, low risk activity such as asking learners to contribute to a word cloud. 

Eileen Kennedy
Eileen Kennedy

Online-only courses are inaccessible to learners who lack connectivity, equipment, or confidence with technology.   These people may, however, participate in blended courses with a combination of synchronous and asynchronous, and online and in-person activities.  Eileen described an example of how this can work well in a crisis situation. They have just finished a blended CoMOOC for about 55 MA and PhD students at Lebanese University in Beirut, the only public university in Lebanon. That country has experienced many crises in recent years and the students typically have only a few hours’ access to electricity a day.  This CoMOOC combined a series of asynchronous tasks with synchronous webinars, and the students greatly valued the mix of online and in-person events. The participants found this enjoyable and rewarding, and one commented, tellingly, that ‘the success of a blended learning format depends on… how well the online and in-person components complement each other’. 

It is also important to note that ‘co-design’ means different things to different people. For some, it means consulting all stakeholders carefully; for others, building the learning experiences together. No pattern will work in all circumstances, and it is sometimes necessary to make the most of very limited opportunities to work with people. They have taken insights from the project in Lebanon to the border between Thailand and Myanmar, where there are large numbers of refugees from Myanmar. There are very few teachers there, many of those who do teach are untrained and turnover is very high. The community thought that a CoMOOC approach might help solve these problems and invited a group from UCL to run co-design workshops there. These started by brainstorming the topics that they would like covered, which included the development of online accreditation for migrants and refugees. They came up with a sophisticated model of engagement that built on the materials that they had used in Lebanon, while also taking content from educational systems built by some of the ethnic groups there. 

This general approach can be transformative in that it is designed to build up participants’ skills through involving them in co-creation. The examples in Thailand and Lebanon form the start of a series of CoMOOCs in diverse locations, and the team intend these to engage with the University of London PGCE to develop an internationally recognised qualification. This would be about an eighth of the cost of a typical UCL course and could provide a route to study at Masters level.  

This is an exciting and potentially important development, but this form of study won’t be for everyone – no one approach could be. They are investigating how they could build more ambitious professional development for all, by using 

  • Emerging pedagogies and methodologies of co-designed teaching and learning 
  • Emergent technologies of large-scale global online collaboration 
  • Internationalisation of lifelong learning 

This concluded Eileen’s presentation and led into the world café activity. Participants in the room were asked to discuss four questions at their tables, while those online had the opportunity to contribute their thoughts on the same four questions on the padlet. The questions were: 

  • What groups could benefit most from designing blended, hybrid and hyflex support for online collaborative professional development?  
  • How can co-design methods transform teaching and learning design into research on practice?  
  • What changes to the ways universities operate are needed to provide pathways from professional development into professional education qualifications?  
  • What evidence is needed to demonstrate the impact of online professional development for sustainability? 

CODE director Linda Amrane-Cooper drew the world café to a close with the comment that the conversations at the tables had been so lively that they had decided not to move people between tables (as often happens at these events).  

Then, many of the points raised were highlighted in a general discussion. Linda started by picking out a point from the padlet: a response to the first question that was simply that ‘all kinds of groups’ could benefit from these developments. They had discussed that question at her table, where ‘isolated’ people were mentioned: in particular, professionals who had taken on a role that was unique in their organisation, for example, the one special needs teacher in a school, or the one who is responsible for their organisation’s policy on climate change. 

Interestingly, most of those who spoke from the floor addressed the final question, on the evidence of impact. Delegates took different approaches to this question, making points including: 

  • If these courses are to be both flexible and scalable it will be useful to include ‘train the trainers’ programmes, and as the courses grow there will be opportunities for research (perhaps citizen science research by participating professionals) to evaluate their impact. 
  • Formal accreditation will be important, particularly if this is provided by a reputable outside organisation. 
  • Feedback from participants, both qualitative and quantitative, can be used to evaluate open courses, and this should be taken into account in further iterations of a course. 
  • Case studies and impact assessments can be published. 
  • More philosophically, if a course is designed for and run in the Global South, impact assessments should not be carried out from the Global North. 
  • Any impact assessments should be more than ‘just numbers’. 
  • One of the measures of impact is whether there is an observable power shift to the local leaders, or to local people leading the design process. 
  • Funding – particularly government funding – will require real evidence of change. 
  • Several delegates mentioned measuring the impact on individual attendees. One suggestion was that they could be asked to send themselves an email to be opened in six months’ time to remind themselves of key points of learning and follow-up questions. Another was that each participant could have a mentor or buddy in their institution who would remind them of their learning, and that this could be linked to the appraisal process. 

Following a comment from the floor that it was ethically important to discuss the fundamental issue of what co-design was ‘before co-designing anything’, Diana summed up the discussion. She began by pointing out that many of the people they worked with had no previous experience of co-design, so they had to listen to them and take their ideas on board wherever possible. Applying Wenger’s value assessment format with its five levels of impact, the most difficult – but important – of these is ‘realised value’ which relates to the participants’ own assessment of the value of their learning. She quoted survey results in which 94% of participants thought a course had made a difference to their professional practice, but only 42% had discussed its ideas with their colleagues.  

We have been talking about both the local and the global context. Participants will invariably bring their local experience to a course and engage at different levels; they may have poor access to technology, particularly in low and middle-income countries, or be time poor. Solutions to the problems with engagement and impact that were mentioned can be found, but many of these will depend on the level of support for this approach from the leadership of an institution or a profession. 

Ash ended the session by thanking the speakers and presenting each with a copy of the CODE book.