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    Joint Faculty Best Practice Event on Digital Education, February 2018

    By Mira Vogel, on 1 March 2018

    Arne Hofmann and Helen Matthews from the UCL Joint Faculty (Arts and Humanities and Social and Historical Science) have hit on a successful format for a practice sharing session. Speakers make brief presentations and then disperse to ‘stations’ around the room so that participants can circulate and discuss. At the end of the event is a plenary discussion.

    The third event in this series had a digital education focus. Sanjay Karia who heads up IT for SLASH kindly contributed display screens for the stations. I matchmade colleagues in Digital Education with the presenters based on interest; they made notes of the conversations (using MS Teams as recommended by IT for SLASH) and I largely owe this blogpost to them.

    The splendid presenters and their presentations, some of which include links to examples of student work:

    • Mark Lake (Senior Lecturer, Archaeology) described undergraduate students blogging for ARCL3097 Archeology in the World  – a particularly gutsy initiative given it was a compulsory module for final year undergraduates in the NSS zone [Mark’s slides as PDF].
    • Riitta Valijarvi (Senior Teaching Fellow, Finnish) talked about her Wikipedia Translatathon, a cultural and linguistic event marking the centenary of Finland which brought together students, Finnish or Finnish speaking staff from UCL, members of the public, and Wikimedia UK staff.
    • Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen (Senior Lecturer, SELCS) discussed students producing digital objects for the Qualitative Thinking module of the BASc [Jakob’s slides as PDF];
    • Jacky Derrick (Deputy Module Convenor, History) described how first year undergraduate student groups produce web sites together on a subject which gets them engaging with London;
    • Nick Grindle and Jesper Hansen (Senior Teaching Fellows, Arena Centre) reviewed their experiences organising peer feedback via the fearsome-looking but actually wonderful Moodle Workshop activity [Nick’s slides as PDF];
    • Maria Sibiryakova (Senior Teaching Fellow, Russian) talked about how the multimedia discuss app VoiceThread can advance the four skills of language learning [Maria’s slides as PDF];
    • Jonathan Holmes (Professor of Physical Geography) and Nick Mann (Learning Resources Coordinator, Geography) on designing digital multiple choice exams [Jonathan’s and Nick’s slides as PDF];
    • Clive Young (Digital Education Advisory Team Leader) on meeting the UCL minimum quality standard known as ‘the UCL E-Learning Baseline‘.

    Here are some of the themes from the event.

    How should students be inducted to new technical platforms? For some cohorts this was hardly an issues and staff soon felt comfortable abandoning the training session at the beginning of the module in favour of a drop-in as the deadline approached. However, there are disciplinary differences and not all groups can be guaranteed to have somebody particularly comfortable with using technologies, so the drop-ins are important.  Based on my own experience inducting some large cohorts to Mahara, if it’s done at all then it’s best done when the students have some vision about what they want to do there – i.e. not at the very start of the module, and close enough to the deadline that there is no hiatus between the induction and putting the knowledge to use. In addition, students seemed to know less about copyright and intellectual property than the technologies, so some modules had incorporated sessions on those.

    How do we assess digital multimodal work? Formative assessment was considered very worthwhile, especially where students were new to the activity. Currently there is sometimes a criterion related to appropriate use of the mode or format, such as “use of text formatting and good quality images and/or multimedia which clearly enhance the text”. Often there is an element of writing in the work which would be run through Turnitin according to departmental policy. I think it is probably fair to say that (like most of the sector) we are in transition to explicitly recognising the distinctive qualities of digital multimodal composition. I have seen how, in many cases, new and potentially challenging practices need to be eased through teaching committees by anchoring them to the accepted standards and criteria – at least for the first few iterations. With time and experience comes new awareness and recognition of distinctive practices which work well in a given context. Jakob’s slides are particularly detailed on this – the BASc have been giving this kind of thing consideration from day one.

    Where should digital multimodal work be positioned in the curriculum? There was a general sense that modularisation tends to isolate digital activities within programmes. This could lead either to them not being built upon (where they happened early) or having their academic validity questioned (where they happened later). Support includes showing students exemplars of blogs and creating opportunities for them to carry out guided marking to help them grasp standards and apply the assessment criteria to their own work.

    What if students question the academic validity of a digital activity? Where new forms of digital assessment are introduced later in a programme, expect students to query whether it is really necessary for their degree. The challenge, summarised by Mark, is to pre-emptively “tackle student perception” by advocating for the activity in terms of student learning and success. Archaeology in the World saw their evaluation questionnaire results slowly improve as the tutors learned to advocate for the activity, and students came to recognise it as useful.

    When can students’ work be public? In cases like the Wikipedia event, the work is born public. In other cases this is something to be negotiated with students – but there is often groundwork to do beforehand. Students need guidance to use media that is itself licensed to be made public. Where the work happens in groups, licensing their work needs to be a joint and unanimous decision with a take-down policy.

    How can different skills levels be accommodated? The intermediate Russian language students were at different levels, which meant that multimedia production such as recordings of poetry read aloud helped them practice speaking (one of the four skills of modern language learning), and the individualised recorded feedback they were given helped them with listening (another of the skills). VoiceThread brought a privacy and timeliness to the feedback which had not previously existed – exposing students to the risk of embedding their mistakes. Another approach to different skills levels is to create groups of students on the assumption that they will either sustain each other in acquiring the skills or divide the labour according to skills, and a third is to give extra guidance to students who need it (as with the Finnish-English Wikipedia Translatathon).

    How can the new practice be made to work first time? When the Arena Centre pioneered large scale use of the Moodle Workshop activity for peer feedback, they worked closely with Digital Education – we made those early deadlines our own, and together we prepared for different contingencies. As well as working closely with Digital Education, Geography subjected their digital examination to a number of rigorous checks involving academic and professional services colleagues, students, and internal and external examiners. Digital Education has produced the Baseline to support the quality aspects – these are not intuitive. One participant remarked to me later that he had been skeptical, bordering on resentful, of the Baseline until he started working through it, at which point he realised how useful it is.

    What do students get out of the digital side of things? Some indicative comments from Jakob’s students: “learnt to consider digital content in a very different way”; “through creating a Digital Object rather than a traditional essay, I was able to engage with our topic at a much deeper level”, and “I have also developed transferable skills”. Mark received correspondence that the activity “really made me think and synthesise in a new way”. Nick’s and Jesper’s Arena participants have been very positive about giving and receiving peer feedback.


    There are a few things I’d change about how I organised the event. One is that either it should be extended by half an hour (to two hours) or else the number of speakers should be reduced. As it was, we overran and I was very sad to have to cut off a very interesting plenary discussion just as colleagues were beginning to really want to talk with each other. Another is that teaching languages has a distinct set of needs which justify a dedicated event. I might also consider asking the presenters to circulate rather than the participants (though I can see pros and cons there).

    That aside, it was a lively, spontaneous, humorous, sophisticated event which balanced different sets of needs – educational, disciplinary, colleagues and students. It is so often the case that when colleagues have the opportunity to seek each other out based on mutual interest, the fruits soon make themselves evident. One participant told me he went from the event straight to his department’s Staff Student Consultative Committee where he proposed an idea which was accepted. “That’s impact”, he said.