Developing students’ digital skills through placements – Maximising student engagement by Rachel Glover

I have previously blogged about my trip to ALT-C in Manchester. In the same week I went to the RAISE Conference in Southampton. The Researching, Advancing & Inspiring Student Engagement day was my first opportunity to speak about some of the findings of our research so far.

At the last-minute, my supervisor Nadja Guggi had to take sick leave, but I felt confident enough to talk about our research and step up to the challenge of delivering our presentation on ‘Developing students’ digital skills through placements’  on my own.

RAISE presentation

I focused on five key areas that had stood out for me so far, addressing each theme in turn: confidence, time, participation, social media and value.

After my presentation I opened the floor to questions. This was a particularly valuable experience. One member of the audience queried a point I had made about students’ social media skills. With hindsight, I could have made a clearer distinction between skills and practices – the difference knowing how to use social media, and using social media in a professional context, as part of a communication strategy. This is something to take forward for future presentations.

RAISE Students

Another delegate wanted to know if I had asked students about how they initially heard about their placement opportunity. I had indeed done this, with the majority of students hearing about the placement from a friend. The delegate had also done some research with similar findings. It was really valuable to hear about other research projects and to discover similarities between them.

See the clip below for a summary of the common themes addressing my RAISE presentation.

Staff Development and Internationalisation: learning from each other by Clare McCullagh

The term internationalisation is thrown about very easily in HE nowadays, so I enjoyed a recent opportunity to sit around a table and discuss pedagogy and policy in detail with two visiting academics from the Sudan University for Science and Technology (SUST). As Academic Staff Development Managers in CSTD my colleague Nina Brooke and I were invited by Dr Tabarak Ballal, Director of undergraduate programmes and Lecturer in Building Technology, to develop and deliver a tailored and condensed introduction to T&L in HE. We were tasked with providing a focus on teaching large groups, curriculum design, quality enhancement and application of learning technologies.

Our visitors, Dr Yassir Mohammednour Elfadul Abbas and Dr Elsadig Elhadi Elhassan, are in the process of establishing at SUST a new MSc in Construction Management. The School of Construction Management here at Reading is supporting them in this process, led by Dr Tabarak Ballal and funded as part of the British Council funded Sudan Higher Education Quality Improvement project (SHEQuIP). SHEQuIP supports links between Sudanese and UK universities focusing on the theme of quality improvement under the Internationalising Higher Education Programme (IHE). IHE establishes new generation partnership models to develop global knowledge economies.

Nina and I enjoyed learning about the teaching context in Sudan, drawing comparisons and contrasts with our own situation here, and discovering that we share many similar challenges. Other staff from SCME, including Tabarak, joined the programme and also contributed to the content; these real examples are what bring a workshop to life. For example, Dr Emmanuel Essah charted his journey in setting up a new Career Development module involving industrial placements for undergraduates and Steve Mika demonstrated how his Building Pathology students develop the skills required to assess causes of building decay through ‘virtual’ site visits. Tabarak demonstrated a variety of teaching and learning strategies that she adopts in her delivery of Construction Technology, including the use of Blackboard, to inspire her students to be active learners. We also had the pleasure of meeting a Part Three student, President of the Construction Society and co-founder of ConstructionChat website, Connor O’Connor, who is a shining example of student engagement with so many exciting ideas about student support, employability and module design that he hardly paused for breath.

Our visitors said that they had learned a lot and were taking away plenty of ideas and food for thought. I also felt that I learned a lot from everyone who contributed. When you work in a central department it is a great privilege to spend some time within a School getting to know some of the staff and their work in a little bit more detail.  Many thanks to Tabarak for all her work in organising the visit, and to everyone who contributed.

Learning Technologies in the UK HE sector: Some highlights from the ALT-C2012 Conference by Maria Papaefthimiou

The 19th international conference of the Association for Learning Technology ( University of Manchester, UK, 11-13 September 2012) was buzzing with 700 participants, where I had the opportunity to attend some excellent sessions and to keep a watching brief on what is happening in the HE sector in terms of learning technologies and pedagogy. Below are some highlights of the themes, the technologies and the pedagogies that are prevalent in the UK HE sector.

Student engagement, interactivity in the classroom, assessment and feedback, Open Educational Resources, and Digital Literacies were some of the main points of the presentations I attended. VLEs are still dominant in institutions, with increased use of Mobile Devices, and classroom interactivity systems;  Augmented Reality in Teaching and Learning has attracted attention as a powerful tool for learning.

Eric Mazur, in his keynote” The scientific approach to teaching: Research as a basis for course design”, provided evidence for the “flipped classroom”, where students’ interaction and engagement during the lecture had a significant impact on their learning. Appropriate design of course delivery and the use of voting systems has been instrumental for the learners.

An interesting aspect for me was the recognition of new roles within support staff in institutions (such as Teaching administrators) that have a major role to play in the student experience and are in a position to enable institutional change especially within a rich technological environment. UCL have presented on their project The Digital Department [Identifying new “blended” support roles: Identifying new ‘blended’ support roles to enable institutional change] which is running in parallel to our own Digitally Ready project.

Two sector surveys were presented. The UCISA TEL Survey 2012, highlighted that knowledge of academic staff is considered far less of a barrier influencing technology enhanced learning (TEL) development than in other years but lack of time and insufficient financial resources are the top barriers to TEL. Although institutions had conducted studies on the impact of TEL on the student experience, the evaluation of pedagogic practices is less common (with Scottish universities appearing strongest in this arena). Finally, the survey highlights the notable progress of services for mobile devices by institutions, especially for supporting access to library services, email and course announcements for iPhone, iPad and Android devices. The second survey of 44 HEIs has revealed that 50% of HEIs are working on developing policies on e-submission, a topical subject among learning technologists.

Finally, in his talk “Research about Technology Enhanced Learning: who needs it?”, Prof Richard Noss, from the London Knowledge Lab, convinced us that “thinking about TEL is good at encouraging us to address deep educational issues that may themselves have little to do with computers – including reappraising what it is our learners need to learn, why, and how.”

More about ALT-C can be found on our Digitally Ready blog.

Turning study skills learning on its head by Dr Michelle Reid, Sonia Hood and Dr Kim Shahabudin

The Study Advice team found David Nutt’s post (Preparing to turn the classroom upside down, 14th Sept 2012) very timely as we too are embarking on a project to ‘flip’ the classroom.

Flipped learning has been a significant driver in the increase in open online courses for higher education. It has been used in higher education in the US with great success, particularly in science and maths subjects and has become widely used in teaching in US secondary schools. Discussing the approach with learning development colleagues at other universities alerted us to the potential benefits for teaching study skills.

Students are often reluctant to commit time from a busy schedule to developing their study skills, despite the prospect of greater success in learning. The flipped learning model allows students to explore key concepts or theories via videos, podcasts or screencasts, whilst freeing up contact hours for interactive application of these key concepts. This means that:

  • students practise independent learning from the start;
  • they can learn at their own pace and at a time to suit them;
  • problems with understanding can be spotted and addressed quickly.

The Study Advice project, funded by a grant from the Annual Fund, will apply the model to generic study skills teaching on topics including essay writing and referencing practice. We will be developing suites of ‘bite-size’ animated teaching resources using Camtasia to produce screencasts, accessed via our Blackboard Organisation. These will be followed by ‘Workshop Plus’ sessions to practise the skills taught in the screencasts. The screencasts will also be made available to University of Reading students and staff to use for their own purposes.

Challenges include persuading students to watch the screencasts before attending the hands-on sessions. Previous examples of flipped learning are course-based, with a specific cohort of students in one subject area. This means students are more motivated to access resources, while tutors can target the ‘just in time teaching’ mentioned by David to the needs of the group. In contrast, our teaching will be generic, on key study concepts which have a significant, but less visible impact on grades.

We would be very interested to hear the experiences of any other staff taking this approach in their teaching, and will be happy to share our own experiences. If you would like to know more about this project, contact any member of the Study Advice team (Sonia Hood, Kim Shahabudin, Michelle Reid and Judy Turner).

Preparing to turn the classroom upside down by Dr David Nutt

I think it was at the HEA-STEM conference (London, April 2012) in a talk given by Prof Simon Bates from the University of Edinburgh (now at the University of British Columbia) that I first heard of the “flipped” or “inverted” classroom. The basic premise really appealed to me: contact time with lecturers is limited and precious, so why do we so often use them simply to present material? Given clear directions, the students can read things for themselves! Instead, the timetabled lecture slots can be used to create a dialogue: addressing areas of difficulty or common misconceptions, applying the material to real-life examples and so on.

There are all sorts of ways to flip the classroom, but the most common approach seems to be use video podcasts, like those from the Khan Academy, combined with “just in time teaching”. Students watch the videos in their own time in advance of the timetabled lecture and are assumed to have covered the material. This is often checked by getting them to complete an on-line quiz, with a number of questions based on the material, plus a final open-ended question asking whether there are things they have found unclear or particularly difficult. The day before the lecture (this is the “just in time” bit), the lecturer collates the data, finds out what areas are causing difficulty and prepares material for the class which addresses these issues.

I’ve decided to take the plunge and flip two of my lecture courses this year, a second year course on spectroscopy (5 lectures) and a fourth year course on biomolecular modelling (5 lectures). The second year course contains many fundamental concepts and equations which just need to be learnt. In this case, the lecture slots can be transformed into workshops, in which the concepts can be put into practice. I anticipate that the lecture slots for the fourth year course will become much more research-focussed, for example discussing a paper from the literature which uses the theories and approaches described in the video podcast to address a real scientific problem.

I’m currently starting to prepare these courses. Using a web-cam, Camtasia Studio software and a Yeti microphone (purchased as part of a previous HE-STEM project on developing video resources), it’s straightforward to produce good quality video podcasts. That’s the easy bit! The next bit is seeing how it all works in practice… I’ll let you know how I got on after Christmas!


My introductory video podcast for the students:

Introductions to the flipped classroom approach:

Other interesting web resources:

Using OneNote to support collaborative group field work by Dr Alan Howard

Technology has played a core role in supporting learning and teaching on the GG2FC Crete Field Class module. The module typically enrols 30 students who work in small groups collecting data and evidence to solve Human and Physical Geography related problems in Sfakia, SW Crete. In previous years groups have completed daily blog entries or produced short video presentations in which they reflect on their academic and other experiences.

Students always maintain hand-written field notebooks which contain the evidence that forms the basis for writing their individual reports. Given that data collection is a collective group exercise, technology was used this year to try to enhance the collation and sharing of evidence. Each group was therefore required to maintain and update a shared OneNote notebook. By the end of the week the completed notebook formed a shared evidence base to support individual report writing.

Students in Sfakia, Crete: June 2012

OneNote is part of Microsoft Office 2010 and is available as a free Office Web App saved in cloud storage (SkyDrive). OneNote allows the user to create a notebook containing text, pictures, document print-outs and other multi-media. The software enables efficient filing and organisation of entries and may be a helpful aid to student note-keeping in general. The online version (which can be synced to the desktop application) enables easy shared access for collaborative working.

The user interface is similar to other Office 2010 applications and students required no special training. Groups enthusiastically updated their notebooks each day but perhaps focused more than necessary on production quality.  However the use of OneNote represented an enhancement because group members were able to share evidence easily including rich content such as photos and video clips.

For other colleagues interested in using OneNote to support collaborative group work I recommend utilising the Office Web App version. This is free and works in all modern browsers and can be viewed on mobile devices. The Office application version offers greater functionality but necessitates all group members having easy access to Office 2010.

A summary of my experiences on the PGCAP Course by Dr Samuel Laryea

When I got appointed as a Lecturer in 2010 I found that I had to do the PGCAP course as part of requirements for my probation. Initially I did not feel happy about this. I had quite a heavy teaching workload and also the pressure to develop research papers and grant proposals. I certainly felt the PGCAP course was a distraction to the ‘core’ aspects of my work in the university and unfortunately, I had no choice but to do it. Today, my view of the PGCAP course is completely different.

By the time I completed the programme successfully in July 2012, I found that participation in the course had helped me to develop greatly in all aspects of my career and academic aspirations. First, participation in the PGCAP course helped me to learn new ideas about teaching and learning and my role as a lecturer – including personal tutoring, supporting student learning, classroom teaching, assessment and feedback. One word I quickly became familiar with was ‘Pedagogy’. I began to develop a better understanding of the purpose of teaching which is to facilitate learning. I found the workshops extremely useful and by the time I was through a few of them, I felt that the course was right and very beneficial in terms of my own personal development as a lecturer and my understanding of the higher education environment and engagement with students. In short, the whole PGCAP experience was very developmental and I could feel its positive impact on my teaching, research, administrative duties and relationships with people across the university.

Participation in the course helped me to meet other new lecturers across the university so I made friends and this enabled me to share ideas and experiences. The course was clearly time-consuming but certainly worth every bit of the time invested. It is professionally useful to have the PGCAP qualification and Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Perhaps the two most useful aspects of the course for me were the project and portfolio. I learned much from my T&L project on feedback provision and use and fortunately the work was of significant benefit to my School. I enjoyed both project and portfolio equally – but I found the process of writing my reflective teaching portfolio very developmental, in that, the process enabled me to give more serious thought to my routine activities as a lecturer, reviewing my personal development over time, and identifying new ways to improve. The portfolio and project have helped me so much to develop in my understanding of pedagogical issues – and generated in me a permanent interest to engage in teaching and learning issues.

Today I am based in the School of Construction Economics and Management at University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. I serve as Director of our undergraduate programme and the ideas and experiences gained on the PGCAP course are serving me extremely well. I fully understand pedagogic issues in a higher education environment and this plays a central role in the development of an effective approach for teaching and supporting student learning. The PGCAP experience has been hugely useful, making a difference, and providing an advantage not only for myself but also for the 400+ students I teach in my new university.

Heading to the Arctic to teach students about the wonderful world of “extreme” microbes by Dr Rob Jackson

In July, Rob Jackson and Ben Neuman led nine Part 3 students from the School of Biological Sciences to the University of Akureyri in Northern Iceland, about 100km south of the Arctic circle. At UnAk, they met with Dr Oddur Vilhelmsson, his PhD student Auður Sigurbjörnsdóttir and 8 Icelandic Masters and undergraduate students. This was the inaugural joint UK-Icelandic module, Arctic Microbiology Field Trip. One might wonder, why Iceland? Simply put, Iceland is a land of extremes – summers are mild and winters can be severe; the land has different types of geothermal, volcanic regions as well as permanently frozen glacial zones. Unlike many organisms, microbes thrive in these zones, and in doing so they have evolved remarkable tolerances eg some microbes can live in boiling mud pits at 120oC, while others are still living in glacial ice after being deposited there 1000 years ago. So this is a great place for students to see first-hand the types of environments the microbes live in – rather than just being given a culture on a plate. Moreover, students learn in-field sampling techniques as well as the practical applications of using the novel microbes. Of course, the students see some amazing countryside and sights.

University of Reading and University of Akureyri staff and students at a lava cave after sampling microbes living on the cave walls and floor.

Designing the course was hard work, especially for three microbiologists who have never led a field trip let alone designed one, especially a joint module. For example, Dr Vilhelmsson translated an entire 20-page coursebook from Icelandic into English. The course was structured as a mixer starter event for all the students followed by three field days and 7.5 lab days to analyse samples taken during the trip. Interspersed were 8 lectures (some by guest lectures from different institutes in Iceland), a free day, a preparation day followed by a student symposium where students gave oral presentations on their experiences and results. At the end, a feedback session was held to discover how the course could be improved. The students were assessed for their symposium talk, and later their lab books and a dissertation.

From the start, one UK and one Icelandic student were paired up for the entire course – this turned out to be a masterstroke as it promoted teamwork and they were also teaching each other techniques learnt in their home university. Staff, as well as students, were also learning new research and teaching approaches, which should help for future trips and professional development. Moreover, it was great for social and cultural interaction – one of the students started learning Icelandic two days in! Also early in the course, all the students had friended each other on Facebook, and unbeknownst to the lecturers, a Facebook group had been set up by all the UK students before heading off to Iceland to help them work together on preparing for the trip. During the course, staff and students alike found the three back-to-back field days with evening labs very tiring, so we adapted to provide a morning off for recovery and catch-up time for reading and lab book completion. The feedback session was very useful and most points were fairly simple, requiring some minor changes to the structuring of the course. Importantly, feedback from the students provided an overwhelming endorsement to run the course next year. Several want to learn more about microbiology, with some finding the research aspect of the teaching experience changing their minds and inspiring them to wanting to do PhDs! The UK staff were really grateful to their Icelandic colleagues for arranging accommodation, food and transport, plus labs. Although it was physically and mentally tiring, the staff are already looking forward to running the course next year and making new discoveries!

Reading’s museum collections online by Rebecca Reynolds

Museum ethics, display design and object-based research are some of the areas for which online resources are being developed in a JISC-funded project between the University of Reading, University College London and the Collections Trust.

The project, called Object-Based Learning for Higher Education, prioritises usability and aims to make the resources part of syllabuses. On the Reading side the resources are primarily designed for the new Museum Studies joint honours due to start at Reading in October 2013, based at the Museum of English Rural Life.

human skeleton, Cole Museum

The skeleton in the picture on the left is from the collection at the Cole Museum of Zoology part of a resource on display ethics, looking at how museums make decisions about displaying human and animal remains.

In February 2012 we carried out a small-scale research study into students’ preferences regarding online learning, which found that the most important consideration for students was that online learning resources are relevant to course tasks. The report is here online learning preferences research report.

In addition, as part of the project many collections at the University’s museums are being digitised, adding images of objects and documents to the museums’ online databases.

For more information, visit the project blog at or contact Rebecca Reynolds.

Meteorology and Film, Theatre & Television unite for innovative teaching collaboration by Dr Simone Knox and Ross Reynolds

The 2011/12 academic year saw a teaching initiative that brought together two of the University’s distinguished departments, Meteorology and Film, Theatre & Television, using the excellent facilities in the Minghella Building. Second year undergraduates in Meteorology have for some time undertaken a module that partly involves ‘bench’ forecasting, when they learn, for example, how to predict, to a strict deadline, overnight minimum temperature and the risk of showers at Reading or another UK location. Ross Reynolds, who teaches the module, thought to utilise the arrival of colleagues on campus from Bulmershe to explore the possibility of students developing their work further by presenting an assessed, polished TV weather forecast. Dr Simone Knox was the television expert who enthusiastically became involved in what proved to be a very successful albeit nerve-wracking few sessions for the students.

After an introductory lecture on the cultural significance of TV weather forecasts in Britain, and with the able assistance of technician Dave Marron, cameras rolled for workshops, rehearsals and finally the telling, ‘live’ session. Students were guided in this truly experiential learning in sessions that drew on the principles for teaching critical practice that Film, Theatre & Television is renowned for. In front of the ‘green screen’ in the Minghella Film & Television Studio, the forecasters had to think carefully through both the meteorological content as well as their use of posture, voice, costume and physical use of space in order to address and effectively communicate with their audience.

This experience is an invaluable addition to presentation skills embedded in the undergraduate programmes in Meteorology. As transferable skills that generally enhance the students’ employability, they are in particular looked upon favourably by potential employers at the UK Met Office and private forecasting companies. Ross and Simone look forward to developing this teaching collaboration further in the coming academic year, when, thanks to a grant from the Teaching & Learning Development Fund, a new piece of equipment (a DVI input board) will further aid the professionalization of this learning experience in the multi-camera studio.

photos feature student Martin Oakes, photos taken by student Robbie McKane