Digital Teaching and Learning Review

Gravity assist: propelling higher education towards a brighter future

Last updated: 01 March 2021

Case studies

According to a survey conducted by the University of Cambridge of 550 disabled students, significantly more students found the switch to online assessment to be positive than negative, when compared with in-person exams sat in 2019.

Students commented on what they felt to be the improved accessibility of the exams.

As one student respondent said, "I feel like the extended exam approach finally levelled the playing field for students with learning or mental disabilities."

The Open University’s OpenSTEM Labs enable students to remotely engage in authentic experimental and practical learning, which has been in operation since 2013.

The OpenSTEM Labs provide an authentic learning environment, connecting students to instrumentation, data and real equipment for practical experiments and analysis over the internet, accessible from anywhere and at any time.

For remote-controlled activities, users access real equipment through a web browser. They can book an online session, undertake an experiment or activity, send real-time control commands, monitor real-time performance and download data for subsequent analysis.

Remote-controlled activities include microscopes, instrumented engineering test rigs, lab-bench experiments and analytical instruments. Students can also remotely conduct experiments in environments including a mountain-top observatory in Tenerife and use a robotic rover to explore a Mars-like landscape.

OpenSTEM Labs allows the university’s distance learning students around the UK and globally to access an authentic practical learning experience. The Open University is developing formal access partnerships with other universities, particularly in view of the opportunity to rethink traditional practice following the disruptions of coronavirus.

Teesside University has developed a learning framework that places digital at the heart of learning design.

As part of this framework, staff in the School of Health and Life Sciences developed simulations as an alternative to accessing specialist facilities. Second year radiography students would normally be expected to undertake experiments using on-campus x-ray facilities. This year, experiments were carried out remotely using the university’s simulation tool.

Prior to the experiment, students were asked to read a research paper, share findings and devise a spreadsheet to capture data for a rerun of the experiment using the simulation. The experiment session was delivered via Microsoft Teams, with the simulation displayed on the facilitator’s screen and students directing the experiment and collecting the data.

The activity worked extremely effectively and was well received in student evaluation:

"This module has been the most useful one this year. It has been interesting being able to get an understanding of why we do what we do in practice."
The external examiner commented that the level of guidance was exemplary and that students were "able to develop a fuller understanding of the knowledge base and prepare them[selves] for their roles [as] practitioners of the future."

Unlike on-campus delivery where the experiment can be dominated by one or two more confident students, the remote session meant that all students got involved. Despite the coronavirus crisis, 39 of 45 students submitted their formal assessment on time in May 2020 and the marks for the module were comparable with, and slightly improved on, the previous year.

The team is preparing to host familiarisation sessions with first year students and is also exploring the possibility of using the system in the nursing curriculum in the future.

As all activity is now taking place digitally, Multiverse has been able to expand and automate many of its measures of its apprentices’ engagement and performance.

These measures are relatively straightforward, such as lesson attendance, and have led to a much larger group of lead indicators to direct attention and interventions.

The basket of measures that correlate with a higher risk of non-completion include training hours, employer feedback and attendance. The system collects and collates these measures and flags to coaches when apprentices have one or more risk factors.

Data-informed automation is, however, always supplemented with human judgement, and coaches also collect and discuss detailed notes on a weekly basis in order to inform their prioritisation, support and intervention activities.

The combined approach creates a more effective safety net and instils a greater degree of objectivity – ensuring support goes to those apprentices who need it as well as those who are most willing to seek help.

Early indicators suggest that this system is leading to a meaningful improvement in student outcomes. Although Multiverse sees the in-person elements of its approach as central, it is ‘certainly clear that there will be a much greater level of online integration’ even after the pandemic subsides.

Southern New Hampshire University places a lot of emphasis on fostering a sense of community, drawing on Gregory Elliott's work on the importance of a sense of mattering.

Paul LeBlanc described how staff and leadership "spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate that 'it matters that you are here' to students", and creating a sense of belonging in doing so. These efforts are important for wellbeing – especially during a pandemic – and have academic benefits too, including improving student engagement and reducing dropouts.

The university's academic advisers – who in some ways are more akin to life coaches – play a central role in engendering this sense of belonging among students.

Supported by learning analytics tools (see chapter 5, ‘Harness technology effectively’), advisers proactively reach out to students to catch issues early and support them in finding solutions. For example, if a student seems distracted in class, an adviser will be in touch – the student’s ability to engage matters, and this feedback loop is designed in part to convey that to the students themselves.

Nanyang Technological University has used learning analytics to enhance its delivery of ‘Teams-Based Learning’ (a ‘group-based active learning method’).

To support Teams-Based Learning, the university has built a circular learning studio that can accommodate over 250 people and has multiple round tables to facilitate group working. Each table has a microphone at the centre that can be used to communicate with teaching staff and with other teams. Students can also wirelessly project relevant information to large projection screens which are hung around the room.

Teaching staff can access real-time learning analytics data that allows them to see both individual student and team performance, identify knowledge gaps that apply across the whole class, and then tailor their teaching to address these knowledge gaps during the class.

Basingstoke College of Technology has developed a ‘student digital leaders’ programme that enables students to be co-creators of the design and support of digital teaching and learning at the college.

The student digital leaders start as volunteers alongside the in-house digital team (themselves former student digital leaders), and many of them have graduated to become apprentices, technologists and facilitators at the college.

Having students involved in the design process has helped to ensure that design and format fits the needs of students. These student digital leaders have also been involved in the delivery of a ‘flipped learning hour’ that has integrated one hour of timetabled blended learning into all courses over the last five years.

Over the long term, Basingstoke College of Technology plans to bring people from local industry into the college to co-design alongside the in-house digital team.

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