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Supporting innovation in teaching, learning and learner development at Roehampton

Research and Innovation in Distance Education conference

The tenth annual Research and Innovation in Distance Education conference was held at Senate House on 11 March 2016. Although the event is focused on distance education, the discussions and workshops are interesting for any type of education that uses eLearning, whether it is fully online distance learning or blended learning on campus.

Open Badges: the missing link in open education

Ilona Buchem’s keynote looked at the open badges movement. These are little badge images, which contain complex metadata spelling out exactly what the badge stands for. They are free, shareable and accessible. The movement is still in its infancy in higher education, but it could be that in the future, the university certificate itself has less value than badges showing the specific skills and ideas the students have learned.

Enhancing the Student Experience: Assessment

Assessment toolkit: a case study of curriculum change and community building on distance learning programmes

The first discussion was about the assessment toolkit by Claire Gordon, Jane Hughes and Colleen McKenna for the UoL international programmes. This toolkit contains a list of assessment methods (comprehensive but not exhaustive). Each has a description, the affordances and strengths, how to design a quality assessment task in this method, and a section on how to prevent misconduct. It was originally designed to encourage teaching staff to move away from time constrained exams towards more pedagogically engaging forms of assessment. The guide is currently in simple PDF format, but they hope to make the guide more interactive and include more case studies on practical use of different assessment types.

Building a feedback journey through use of cumulative reflection and digital portfolios

Denise Hawkes, from the UCL Institute of Education, spoke about her experience in getting educational doctorate students to use feedback more effectively. One of the main strategies was to leverage an administrative tool that was already in place: the coversheet. They added sections which made students reflect on their use of feedback, asking them to complete some simple questions such as:

  • What (if any) feedback from previous assignment helped you?
  • Are there any areas you would particularly like feedback on?

The feedback questions were explicitly linked to the reflective portfolio that students had to complete after their second year, which incentivised them to fully complete the sheet. Analysis of the students’ reflective statements suggest that they are making more references to their feedback (though this may be due to the increased references by staff to feedback) and a more positive view of its use (that is, they reported feedback had helped them and what they had learned from it, rather than focusing on their grades or particular remarks that aggrieved them).

The end of distance education?

The afternoon session was a panel discussion asking whether the distance education model remains alive and well. Alan Tait from the Open University argued that it is indeed dead, but only as an independent entity separate from campus based learning. Education generally has become more flexible and open in where and how students learn, and even many on-campus students do studying at a distance these days.

Jeff Haywood, the vice principal of digital education at the University of Edinburgh, continued in the same vein and concluded that distance learning is thriving. UoE has technology infused across the campus and runs large MOOCs. An idea that caught my attention was the importance of place in distance learning. Their marketing, even for distance courses, focused on the great city of Edinburgh. Indeed it turned out that students felt they were a part of that place despite never setting foot there. But what remains if the place is removed from the marketing? He also pointed out that a clear divide, however artificial, must remain between distance and on site students for as long as the UK government requires Tier 4 visas.

Stephen Haggard talked about his experience working in Africa with virtual learning, where distance learning is not used as a term. There it is simply a necessity for learning, and the typical Western idea of a distance student learning studying after work at home on their own computer doesn’t apply.

Finally Graham McElearney spoke about the state of distance learning at the University of Sheffield, which runs a large number of mostly postgraduate courses in niche areas. His view is that it is growing within a broader milieu of increased flexible provision including CPD, and the challenge is to maintain a focus on pedagogy. The materials developed for distance learning students also benefit campus based students, especially rich multimedia.

In the Q and A, it was pointed out that the same people are delivering distance and face to face learning, and that in the near future, all staff are going to be involved in both modes. Lecture capture was called out as a technology that actually reinforces old pedagogy, by showing that the traditional lecture is the ideal teaching method. Yet students still attend – perhaps out of the desire for the traditional university experience, and partly out of their early schooling experience which has not prepared them for independent learning. The slightly more cynical view is that perhaps the demand for more contact hours comes out of a desire for more quantity to make up for the lack of quality! The need to use the expensive real estate of lecture theatres may also explain the unwillingness of universities to institute wholesale change.

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