Facebook, iPads and ‘extreme’ microbes in Iceland by Dr Becky Thomas, Dr Alice Mauchline and Dr Rob Jackson

This post relates to activities carried out on the EU ERASMUS Intensive Programme grant awarded to University of Reading to fund 10 students from each of Belgium, Germany and the UK, plus 5 staff in total from the three countries, to travel to Akureyri in Iceland. Once there, the grant funded a 2-week residential field course, including Icelandic students and staff, plus other lecturers from Reading, Iceland and Spain.

In July we set ourselves the challenge of combining technology enhanced learning, with a field trip to Iceland to sample ‘extreme’ microbes, with 34 students, many of whom had very little field experience. Also mix a multi-national environment with students from Belgian, German and Icelandic universities and you can see why we wanted to develop an effective online learning environment. The field trip had taken place previously in 2012 (see:http://ow.ly/A0EBo) and 2013, but this was the first year with so many nationalities involved. Our general objectives were to bring this diverse community together to teach them about microbiological techniques and processes, and to introduce them to environmental microbiology, by taking them into the extreme environments of Iceland to collect their own samples.

Group photo at Aldeyjarfoss waterfall
Group photo at Aldeyjarfoss waterfall







We chose Facebook as our platform for an online learning environment as we had experience in using it in previous modules, and with 1.23 billion active users, we hoped it would be something that many of the students were already using! We created the private group in February, and invited the students to join (making it completely voluntary). Initially we wanted to use it as a way to prepare everyone for the trip, posting relevant information and encouraging the academic staff who were involved in the trip to participate so that the students had a way of getting to know them before their arrival.

In the next stage we wanted to see whether we could use this Facebook group as a way of getting students to feel comfortable in preparing and posting a reflective blog post about their experiences on the trip. To do this we staged their learning, asking them to add short reflective posts within the private Facebook group, which could include photos and links. Not all of the students did this at first, but by the end many of them had done, or had at least commented on other peoples posts. The group also became useful for so many other aspects of the course. Simon Clarke ran a seminar, where students broke out into small groups and answered questions within this group by posting on the Facebook page. Simon was then able to discuss each group’s answers with the class, leading to some very active discussion. We also posted ‘breakfast quizzes’ which again lead to some very interesting discussion between the academic staff and students.

One element that worked very well was the use of iPads on the trip. We benefitted from investment made by the School of Biological Sciences into purchasing iPads, so that we were able to provide each student with their ‘own’ iPad facilitating many aspects of the field and lab work. For example we geo-logged each sampling location enabling students to record the conditions where their samples were taken, which helped when they came to interpret their findings.The iPads also meant that the Facebook group remained inclusive, not disadvantaging anyone who hadn’t brought along their own laptop, smartphone or tablet device.

Students using iPads in the field
Students using iPads in the field








At the end of the trip we ran focus groups with the students and staff to evaluate their perceptions of the use of the Facebook group during the trip. We are still going through all of the results, but the feedback was generally positive from both sides. The students and staff created their own safe learning environment, enhancing the experiences of both groups and enabling a different kind of learning which we couldn’t achieve otherwise.

As part of the assessment for the Reading students we set them the task of writing a short blog post about the benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multi-national setting. They also produced short videos to demonstrate the process of collecting their samples through to their lab work. They created these entirely on their iPads and the results are really impressive. If you are interested then the blog posts are available here: http://ow.ly/A0OrW and we are currently organising a TEL showcase where we will discuss this project more, later in the new academic year.

Group work: sure, but what about assessment? By Heike Bruton (a TLDF project)

Group work has many well-documented benefits for students, but it also provides considerable challenges. A frequent complaint from students is that differences in contributions are not recognised when everyone in the group receives the same mark – the free loader issue. However, when students are working unsupervised, it is very difficult for the tutor to gauge who contributed to what extent. This is where peer assessment of group work can be a key part of the assessment framework.

What’s this project all about?
Cathy Hughes from Real Estate & Planning has developed and implemented her own online system of peer assessment of group work, and has given presentations about it at various T&L events. With the help of an award from the Teaching and Learning Development Fund, Cathy appointed me as Research Assistant. Our hope is to find a sustainable system for those colleagues who wish to use it. This may mean developing Cathy’s system further, or possibly adopting a different system.

What peer assessment systems are staff currently using?
The first step of the project was to find out what peer assessment (PA) of group work tutors at the University of Reading are currently using. We conducted a number of interviews with colleagues who are currently using such systems, and we found a variety of systems in use (both paper-based and digital).  Most systems seem to work well in increasing student satisfaction through the perception of fairer marking, and encourage reflection. However, all such systems require quite a lot of effort by those administering them. While lecturers are unanimous in their estimation that peer assessment of group should be done for pedagogic reasons, unsurprisingly they also say that a less labour-intensive system than they are currently using would be highly desirable.

What peer assessment systems are out there?
Cathy and I investigated available peer assessment systems. After examining several digital tools, we identified one system which seems to tick all the boxes on the wish list for peer assessment of group work. This system is called WebPA. WebPA is an open source online peer assessment system which measures contribution to group work. It can be used via Blackboard and seems to be very flexible.

Where to go from here?
You can try out a stand-alone demo version here: http://webpaos.lboro.ac.uk/login.php. This site also contains links leading to further information about WebPA. We are currently putting our findings together in a report, and we will disseminate the results throughout the University.

Making Screencasts: It’s enormously fun and rewarding! by Dr Emma Mayhew

Screencasts 2 20.11

Have you ever wondered if students actually read their handbooks? Many probably don’t get all the way to the end and miss out on crucial information. If handbooks aren’t always delivering then how can we communicate with our students in a more engaging, captivating and accessible way?

One solution is video. It’s much, much, easier to make your own videos now than it was even five years ago. A whole range of software has been developed and made absolutely free on the internet.

So I started to use this software. And I had a lot of fun. I made 10 short screencast videos using really eye-catching graphics where the viewer zooms around a full body x-ray, a huge wave, a gigantic iceberg and a row of coconut macaroons. Viewers hear my voice talking them through the extenuating circumstances process, sources of pastoral and academic support, wellbeing within my School, the Student Charter, how to write a great essay, essay marking criteria, plagiarism and referencing, pre-arrival information for first year undergraduates, a rough guide for MA students and dissertation writing within the department. They all sit together in a prominent section of the department’s webpage and have been widely publicised to all of our students.

I’m not just blandly repeating information that’s already accessible. I’m adding to it-my highly detailed ‘How to write a great essay’ is a good example. But I’m also responding to new issue areas. The clarity of essay marking criteria was highlighted by the National Student Survey so now we have a five-minute screencast where we zoom around the human body outlining the 5 key criteria we’re looking for when we mark and detailing exactly what a high first looks like, a low first, a high 2.1 and so on.

Students can watch these screencasts exactly when they need them. They can access ‘How to write a great essay’ when they are actually writing their essay. They can access ‘Extenuating circumstances within the School’ when they are ill at 2 a.m. the night before an exam. They can watch ‘Student wellbeing’ if they are experiencing a crisis on a Sunday afternoon. Students can pause, rewind, watch again and click on embedded links within the screencasts for more information. And they are watching-the screencasts have recorded over 700 views over the last few weeks.


This is great but I didn’t stop there. I started to use screencasts in other ways. I sent out a ‘lecturer update pack’ to all politics staff in September. As colleagues zoomed around the world in this screencast I updated them on feedback turnaround times, NSS results, TURNITIN and our T & L priorities. ‘Unravelling the mysteries of the personal tutorial system’ allowed new staff to tumble around a giant Crystal ball covering key aspects of the role. No narration this time-they simply enjoyed a mystical soundtrack instead.

But I didn’t stop there. I made a 2 minute promotional screencast in 2 hours in September for use at our Open Day talks. I used more captivating graphics to highlight all the things we do well as a department and this is all set to rather catchy ukulele music.

I’m now using the same screen capture software to record video feedback on Part 3 essays. My students don’t get an A4 feedback sheet. They get an MP4 file via the Blackboard. They see my face, hear me speaking and watch me scroll through their essays in real-time, circling areas that I want to draw their attention to. The feedback from this has been fantastic.

There is a real potential here to use free, user-friendly technology to enhance the way that we deliver information to students, staff and prospective undergraduates. This is really fun, we can be really creative and we will be pushing forward technology enhanced learning.

Moving forward with Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Reading… by Vicki Holmes

The Digital Development Forum in July was an ideal opportunity to begin sharing some of the thinking and planning around Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) that has been happening over the last 6 months.

In January 2013 the TEL Strategy Group was established, chaired by Professor Gavin Brooks and with representation from across the University.   The Strategy Group has met 4 times to date.  In addition, Professor Julian Park (Associate Dean Teaching and Learning for Faculty of Life Sciences), Kara Swift (VP Academic Affairs 2012-2013) and myself have been part of the ‘Changing the Learning Landscape’ programme, a national initiative to help universities develop their thinking and practice around TEL.  This has involved participating in a series of workshops, and meeting and sharing practice with colleagues from other HEIs.

So what has been the output from this?  

We have identified 3 strands of activity that we feel are crucial to Reading’s TEL development:

  • To further embed existing technologies, underpinned by expectations of use – we want to ensure that our current technologies are fit for purpose and being used to the full
  • To develop and explore new areas of TEL activity and other technologies – we want to look to the future and ensure that we keep pace and, at times, lead the way
  • To embed and support the above with foundational and cross-cutting initiatives – we want to ensure that all TEL initiatives are appropriately supported and underpinned

Within each strand, we have identified 2 priority areas and created projects to take these forward.  All 6 projects will have a nominated lead; the lead will then involve other staff to support and progress the project.  Some projects are well underway, while others are in the early stages.

In addition, an audit has also been undertaken (drawing on the Digitally Ready project, as well as interviews with other universities and national surveys) to help understand our current position.

So what next? 

In the Autumn term there will be some formal communications to the whole University from the PVC Teaching and Learning about the TEL vision and activity.

With respect to the 6 projects, expect to hear more as they gather pace.   We will be inviting you to get involved – your input will be crucial in informing the direction and ensuring that TEL meets your and your students’ needs.

My presentation from the event is available on Yammer

Opening our eyes to technology….how students can teach the educators! By Dr Samantha Weston

An eye-opening T&L seminar, presented by Dr Neil Morris (University of Leeds) outlined how terribly, terribly easy the majority of our undergraduates find using technology…of all kinds!

Having seen his short video clip about how one of his students used his tablet to video record a lecture, whilst simultaneously annotate lecture slides provided on the University’s VLE, and instantly share his thoughts and indeed the whole videocast of the lecture with his Facebook friends, made me consider how much technology my own students use. As if by magic this week, it has been as if the students knew I was looking for such evidence, as the majority of the Therapeutics Problem Based Learning sessions I have been working in, demonstrated use of tablets, laptops, netbooks and mobile phones in numbers I had barely registered present in the room previously! One group even asked me to check through their Power Point presentation and promptly handed over an extremely professionally finished product….. on a mobile phone!

Anecdotal chatting with other students, introduced the concept of social media working groups. Many of them have set up Facebook Groups to share their PBL materials instantly with each other, and the issue of copyright and confidentiality was raised by Dr Morris in his talk. Having had such a clear demonstration from both Neil and the incredibly technologically-savvy University of Reading student population, I think it is essential now for staff to raise their game to meet student expectations, and begin to engage them in their electronic universe as well as face-to-face.

Technology in teaching: Reflections on Dr Neil Morris’ Seminar, 19th November 2012 by Dr Natasha Barrett

Last week’s T&L seminar, by Dr Neil Morris, on the use of technology in enhancing the student experience was a superb overview of the array of technology that our students seem to be familiar with and that many institutions are incorporating into teaching.  A key highlight for me was the data that Neil was able to share with us to dispel some of the myths and highlight some benefits of a relatively simple addition to our teaching (that many of us may already be using) – the use of audio recording lectures.

Based on a sample of 120 students (data yet to be published):

  • 76% have listened to more than half of the lecture audio recordings available to them
  • On average students listened to audio recordings of lectures twice
  • 73% indicated that the availability of audio recordings did not influence their attendance
  • 93% thought they were important.
  • 60% were happy with the unedited version
  • 84% used the recordings to write detailed lecture notes (ideally the students want the recordings available within an hour of the end of the lecture as this is when they are writing their notes up).

Add to this the published data that use of audio recordings improves exam results (Morris, 2010) and it really did hit home that this is an “easy win” in the use of technology in enhancing the student experience.

Morris, N.P. (2010) Podcasts and mobile assessment enhance student learning experience and academic performance. Bioscience Education. Vol. 16. http://www.bioscience.heacademy.ac.uk/journal/vol16/

You can view the slides from Dr Morris’ seminar here

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 http://altc2012.alt.ac.uk/talks/28131] 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.

The Enhancing Fieldwork Learning Project by Dr Alice Mauchline and Professor Julian Park

Fieldwork is an important component of Higher Education in a number of subjects. As a Learning Space it provides good educational opportunities for students; including the teaching & practice of skills such as observation, data recording & analysis to report writing and teamwork.

Two University of Reading staff members, Julian Park and Alice Mauchline (together with colleagues from Chester & Sheffield Universities) have received HEA funding for the Enhancing Fieldwork Learning project which aims to develop and share ways to enhance fieldwork learning using technology. Incorporating appropriate technology into fieldwork teaching can be enabling, fun to use and can be cost effective. Importantly, it gives students problem-solving opportunities in the field and provides a vehicle for the development of a variety of subject-specific, generic and employability skills.

An important aspect of this project is about reaching and engaging fieldwork practitioners in Higher Education and creating a community to share ideas and good practice. The team regularly attend both subject-specific and T&L conferences to engage people with the project and run workshops to demonstrate the potential transferability of technology into practitioners’ own teaching.

Additionally, the team run their own events. A two-day ‘Transforming Fieldwork Practice Workshop’ has just been taken place at Hornton Grange, University of Birmingham. Four teams from different institutions each came along with their specific requirements and were supported in finding ways to develop, facilitate & sustain change in their fieldwork practice. Also, a Showcase event is taking place in September 2012 at which there will be demonstrations of a number of simple technologies which can enhance fieldwork learning e.g. how to shoot and edit videos using only a smartphone & applications of iPads in fieldwork.

The website for the EFL project contains a wealth of resources including literature on fieldwork learning, case study reports on the use of technology to solve pedagogic issues encountered during fieldwork and a blog & social media streams.

Therefore, we invite you to engage with the project; use the resources, attend a talk/workshop or come along to the Showcase event in September 2012. Enjoy!