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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Archive for the 'General Learning Technology' Category

Minimise eye-strain with the BeeLine Reader alternative format

EliotHoving31 March 2020

The BeeLine Reader alternative format is now available on UCL Moodle for students and staff.

You and your students have almost certainly felt eye-strain from too many hours reading online, or confusion at staring at a wall of internet text and not knowing where to begin.

The BeeLine Reader provides an innovative solution. It works by adding a colour-gradient to text which allows the eye to focus and move along one line to the next. It designed to make reading online quicker and easier on the eyes. Here’s an example.

With the BeeLine Format:

Beeling alternative format. Font colour of text has a colour gradient to help with reading.


Text before Beeline format. Font colour is black.

Example Text: Aerogel by Dr Zoe Laughlin licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

I personally found that it took a while to get used to the BeeLine colours, but thereafter I was able to identify key headings and sentences much more effectively.

You can try out the BeeLine Reader on your UCL Moodle course now. Simply locate a Word or PDF document, click the Ally download icon net to the file name and select BeeLine Reader. Ally will convert the document to an HTML file for you to read in your browser with the BeeLine colour gradient.

Due to COVID-19, students are likely to be reading more content online now that they don’t have access to UCL printing services. BeeLine Reader and Ally’s other alternative formats can greatly assist all students, especially those with specific needs, to effectively engage with digital content whilst supporting their health and wellbeing, so please recommend Ally’s alternative formats to your students. You can learn more about Blackboard Ally by reading the staff guide or promote it to students using the student guide.

Digital Wellbeing: A guide for staff and students

SamanthaAhern27 March 2020

Tea pot with sugar pot & milk jug

To borrow some words from Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

No doubt, this is very much how the current period feels for many of us. There are some fantastic things happening in local communities and in our sector, but for many of us it is also the worst of times. Some of us are away from home, or our usual support networks, our routine has been disrupted and there is a constant air of uncertainty.

Its ok, to not be ok. More now than ever. We are being asked to increasingly engaged with digital tools and media, some for the firat time, and this can have a massive impact on our wellbeing. So how do we support our wellbeing whilst adapting to new ways of learning and working?

Teaching Continuity

Guidance for staff

One of the recurring themes in the wellbeing literature across all student groups, K-12 and Higher Education, is the importance of being known by their teachers. Students who feel that their teachers know them and their capabilities are less anxious and perform better than those that do not. Being seen.

With many students distributed across the globe, how do we let them know that they are seen? Both in our support for them and in planning our teaching continuity activities.

It is hard to know where your students may and what technologies they will have access to. They may have a laptop, but may also have limited access to a good internet connection. You also need to consider what additional needs your students may have, see our post on Accessibility and Teaching Continuity.

At the same time, you will be working from home, often not at a proper desk and may be looking after others in your household. It’s important to factor in and support your own wellbeing.

Some things to think about:

  • Be kind. To yourselves and your students. Expect to be less productive, there’s a lot going on.
  • What are the key things your students need to know – the key learning objectives and threshold concepts?
  • What is the simplest way of enabling that learning to happen?
    • Talk to Arena and Digital Education colleagues. Check what support is available via the Teaching Continuity pages.
  • Video is great but its exhausting and requires good internet access.
    • Does the session need to be live? Pre-record where you can, its both less stressful and exhausting.
    • Keep videos short.
    • Do you have students that need captions or transcripts?
    • Can you provide the information in an alternative way e.g. a reading or set a research task.
  • Show your students you care – send them an email, arrange virtual office hrs – doesn’t have to be video, could be an advanced forum or chat in Moodle.
  • Don’t try to replicate everything online, it isn’t the same and shouldn’t be.
  • Be clear with your expectations.
    • Remove or hide any unneccessary content on your Moodle course. Some of your students will try do or read everything.
  • Write yourself a schedule, include plenty of breaks and non-screen time.
  • Talk to your colleagues – virtual coffee mornings or meetings, make use of the chat in MS Teams. Why not take part in an #LTHEChat or catch-up on previous chats?

Guidance for students

First, breathe. There’s a lot happening and a lot changing on a daily basis. We understand that you are doing your best in very difficult circumstances. Keep in contact with your friends and loved ones as much as possible, remember we are physically distancing.

We recommended that you regularly check the Contunuing to learn remotely guidance as it is being regularly updated. It provides some basic guidance around how to get started and learn effectively online as your tutors switch to teaching in a digital format.

The student mental health charity Student Minds have produced some additional coronavirus guidance on looking after your mental health.

Please also check the Support for Students FAQs on the UCL Advice for staff and students who may have concerns about the outbreak of coronavirus web page.

There is additional guidance and support available from Students’ Union UCL including FAQs.

Staff wellbeing

Working from home can be difficult. Whether you’re teaching, researching or in an academic-related role things can be difficult and at times isolating. It’s ok to be less productive than usual.

Firstly, check out the Support for Staff FAQs on the UCL Advice for staff and students who may have concerns about the outbreak of coronavirus web page. This is the key information hub.

Review the Remote working – tools and best practice guidance, this is generic guidance for all those working from home. In addition, UCL Workplace Wellbeing have produced some support resources. In addition, SLMS have collated some nice resources for coping with Working in a Crisis.

Childnet International have a range of guidance on digital wellbeing for children and young adults, including a Digital Wellbeing pack for parents. It is increasingly important that we are mindful of everyone’s digital wellbeing at this time. Especially as we are spending increasing amounts of time online. You may also want to review this Jisc blog post Looking after your own, and others’, digital wellbeing .

General guidance

5 ways to wellbeing: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning and Give

Taken from: https://whatworkswellbeing.org/about-wellbeing/how-to-improve-wellbeing/

At this time its important to remember that we are actually being asked to physically distance ourselves from colleagues and loved ones, not socially distance. Remain socially connected is essential to our wellbeing and will help reduce and sense of loneliness or isolation.

The first thing is to limit your exposure to the news. Only check the news once or twice a day for key updates, any more than this is unneccessary and may only increase any anxiety.

Secondly, take a break from your smart device. Put it in a box for an hour. Go do something else: read a book, do some colouring, if you have one go out into the garden. This will help reduce the sensory and cognitive overload.

Thirdly, if you are fit and healthy and its permitted, get outside. Exercise, even if it’s just a walk around the block can work wonders to enhance your mood.

Fourth, check out the Blurt foundation’s resources, inparticular the Coronavirus Helpful Hub.

Fifth, the NHS Every Mind Matters website now has 10 tips to help if you are worried about coronavirus.

UCL has published a range of guidance aimed at both staff and students to support you during this time:


  • Dickens, C. (1859). A Tale Of Two Cities By Charles Dickens. With Illustrations By H. K. Browne. London: Chapman and Hall.
  • “Not by degrees: Improving student mental health in the UK’s universities”. (2017), IPPR, 4 September, available at: https://ippr.org/research/publications/not-by-degrees (accessed 6 September 2017).
  • O’keeffe, P. (2013), “A Sense of Belonging: Improving Student Retention”, College Student Journal, Vol. 47 No. 4, pp. 605–613.
  • “PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students' Well-Being”. (2017), , Text, , available at: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/pisa-2015-results-volume-iii_9789264273856-en (accessed 13 November 2019).
  • https://whatworkswellbeing.org/about-wellbeing/how-to-improve-wellbeing/


Teaching continuity: Accessibility and remote working for staff

SamanthaAhern27 March 2020

As most of us will not be working remotely, online collaboration tools and meetings will becoming an increasing part of our working pattern.

How do we ensure that all colleagues are able to participant in online meetings and collaborate effectively with others?

With regards to the documents and content we create and share with each other, these should follow the Accessibility Fundamentals guidance. The same as if you were creating documents and content to share with students.

But what about virtual meetings?

If you have colleagues with hearing or visual impariments there are a few things to consider:

  • Have you checked in advance if anyone needs communication support?
  • Make sure you say your name before speaking.
  • Use a meeting agenda to give a clear reference point for everyone to follow.
  • Make sure only one person is talking at a time.
  • Speak clearly, not too slowly, and use normal lip movements, facial expressions and gestures.
  • Have video enabled for those currently speaking and look directly at your webcam.
    • Use good lighting to help everybody see each other clearly, which is important for lipreading.
    • If you are using a headset with a microphone, please be mindful of the position of the microphone. Avoid covering your mouth.

A range of video calling services offer auto-captioning  or transcription services, however these cannot be guaranteed to be accurate:


  • https://www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/how-we-help/businesses-and-employers/employer-hub/supporting-employees-with-hearing-loss/communicating-with-staff-who-are-deaf-or-have-hearing-loss/

MS Teams live captions are here!

SamanthaAhern27 March 2020

We are pleased to announce that automatic captioning for MS Teams meetings is now available.

However, it is only available to those using the Desktop App version of Microsoft Teams and captions are only available in English US at present.

The automatic captions need to be enabled at an individual user level during the Teams meeting and are not saved, they are not available in a recording of the meeting.

Note: Captions cannot be activated or recorded when starting a call from a chat.

To clarify, you can and should be able to activate captions when you schedule a meeting that is associated to a calendar or someone creates a meeting associated to a calendar and invites you. Thus, in order to guarantee that you provide the accessibility (captions) to your colleagues, give preference to scheduling a meeting instead of starting just a call from a chat.
Teams Meeting control panel.

Meeting control panel

To turn on the automatic captioning whilst is a MS Teams meeting, click on the three dots in the meeting control panel.

Select Turn on Live Captions (preview, English US only). Live captions should now appear.

To turn of the live captions, click on the three dots and select Turn off Live Captions.

As the live captions are automatically generated there will be some inaccuracies. However, you can help improve the accuracy by:

  • Speaking clearly, slowly, and directly into the mic. As your distance from the mic increases, captions may become less accurate.
  • Avoiding locations with background noise.
  • Avoiding having multiple people speaking at the same time.

Things to note:

  • If someone is speaking with an accent, captions may be less accurate.
  • Obscenities will be starred out.
  • Teams may use a meeting’s subject, invitation, participant names, and attachments to improve caption accuracy.

More information about and how to use MS Teams is available in the UCL Teams Support Centre  including more information about live captions, in addition colleagues from the Digital Accessibility Hub have produced a Teams Accessibility Guide – Teams_AccessibilityToolsGuide_v3




Games and Learning

SamanthaAhern23 March 2020


Image by Eric Perlin from Pixabay

I recently attended an Educational Technology Masterclass organised by the Moorfields Education Hub about Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning presented by Dr Matthew Barr from the University of Glasgow.

During the session Dr Barr spoke about research he had undertaken on the use of commercial video games to develop graduate skills, in particular:

  • communication,
  • adapatability
  • and resourcefulness.

In order for the students to persist with the games, the games selected needed to meet the following criteria:

  1. provide a variable feedback system,
  2. enables less experiences students to get something out of the game whilst they develop skills,
  3. and failure needs to have a cost, even though games give us a safe place to fail.

For the study, the students taking part participated in 14hours of total game play across 8 different games. The game playing took place in a specially equipped room. The games used in the study were specifically chosen and played in ways designed to require effective communication, adaptability and resourcefulness.

More information is available in the following papers:

The game play enabled students to develop both tacit and articulated knowledge, but also facilitaed the act of becoming re: graduate attributes.

This session had me thinking about my own practice. I have always used games (usually boardgames or puzzles, sometimes online games) or playful / experiential learning experiences when introducing or explaining concepts. I have also had the opportunity to test a breakout box experience designed by colleagues for their students. The premise of a breakout box experience is that there are a number of locked boxes that you need to unlock. To do this the students need to use what they have been learning to help untangle the clues that will help them unlock the boxes. This is designed to encourage teamwork and critical thinking.

Why should we use games and ‘play’ in higher education?

There are three dimensions of learning: knowing, making and playing.  Play can be defined as trial and error with no fear of failure, we do not neccesarily know what is going to happen, the outcome, but that is of little interest. It is the process of playing that is important, not the result as it may be unexpected or  something thst cannot easily be measured but is learning that affects your personal development. We can tap into this with games.

Gee (2014) talks about the “Game/Affinity Paradigm” (GAP), what is required for this is a well-designed and well mentored problem-solving space. This can be provided by games. An example of this is the game ‘Portal’ and the online community built around the game.  The game itself is not about learning Physics, however players need to develop and apply an understanding of the physics of the game to solve a number of problems and be successful in the game. A tacit, embodied understanding, but neccesarily and articulated knowledge of physics. However, the tacit embodied understanding can give situated meaning to articulated knowledge, developing / enhancing understanding Games as a media are affective, providing a much richer interaction with the content and ideas presented in the game(s) compared to other media, allowing the player(s) explore and discover things about themselves and the world around them. This can be a very powerful learning tool, opening up richer reflection and critical analysis opportunities. This illustrated in the examples below of games-based learning.

Applications of Game-Based Learning

During the talk Dr Barr also provided a number of examples of where video games were being used as part of regular teaching, with many more discussed in Chapter 6 of his recent book Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning. These included:

  • Kurt Squire’s use of ‘Civilization III’ as the basis for a module on world history. Students developed conceptual understandings of history, geography and world politics, but also questioned the interpretation of these in both the game and their own understanding.
  • Sherry Jones’ use of the mobile game ‘Fallout Shelter’ to teach moral philosophy at Colorado Technical University. In particular ideas around egoism and surveillance.
  • Steve Connelly’s use of ‘Cities: Skylines’ in the teaching of sustainable development at the University of Sheffield. In addition to using the game to model considerations such as the economics and the environment, students were encouraged to critically reflect on assumptions made by the game and what was missing e.g. social concerns re: sustainable development.
  • Tom Boylston’s use of ‘The Long Day of Young Peng’ to elicit empathy amongst Social Anthropology students at the University of Edinburgh. Students became more confident in their understanding of the course material and associated reading as a result of interacting with the text-based game.


Barr, M. (2019). Graduate skills and game-based learning : Using video games for employability in higher education / Matthew Barr. (Digital education and learning).

Etchells, P. (2019). Lost in a Good Game: Why we play video games and what they can do for us. London, UK: Icon Books.

Gee, J 2014, Games, passion, and “higher” education. in Postsecondary Play: The Role of Games and Social Media in Higher Education. Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 171-189.

Koster, R. (2005). A theory of fun for game design / by Raph Koster. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press.

Squire, K. D. (2004). Replaying history: Learning world history through playing “Civilization III” (Order No. 3152836). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (305195950). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/docview/305195950?accountid=14511

Thomas, Brown, & Brown, John Seely. (2011). A new culture of learning : Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change / Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. United States]: [CreateSpace].

THE Journal article: Breakout! Gaming to Learn

Wired article: Meet Fallout’s philosophers who are obsessed with the game’s intense political feuds

Futurelearn How To Teach Online: Providing Continuity for Students (Join us!)

CliveYoung20 March 2020

A new Futurelearn MOOC is starting on Monday 23 March designed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The three-week course will explore practical ways to teach and support your students online.

Members of the UCL Digital Education team will be participating on this course and we hope the MOOC will stimulate ‘next step’ ideas for supporting our students..

To supplement the Futurelearn forums we have set up a UCL-specific Teams channel. Teams will be a place to discuss the ideas of the course from a UCL context and add a practical localisation to the UCL toolset. We hope you can join us.

To join the Futurelern MOOC, go to https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/teach-online/

To join in the UCL Teams discussion go to How To Teach Online (FutureLearn MOOC) – UCL community