X Close

Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Archive for the 'Fiona’s Findings' Category

What (American) Students Want

By Fiona Strawbridge, on 30 October 2016

Infographic of ECAR Survey - https://library.educause.edu/resources/2016/6/~/media/files/library/2016/10/eig1605.pdf

ECAR infographic

One motivation for enduring the jet lag and culture shock of a long haul conference is the chance to find out what the big issues are in a different HE environment; Educause is a very good opportunity to do that as it reports on a number of surveys in the world’s largest higher education sector.

So, at this year’s Educause in LA, I went to sessions reporting the results of two very different surveys. One – the ECAR (Educause Center for Analysis & Research) Student Survey – asks students themselves about their attitudes to, experiences of and preferences for using technology in HE – a bit like a tech-focused NSS. The second – CampusComputing.net – surveys IT Directors’ views on e-learning; this seemed, to me, to be a rather odd perspective (why ask CIOs and not heads of e-learning who are closer to the area?).  This post looks at the ECAR student view. To find out what the directors want I’ve written a more sketchy post…

The student survey was completed by a staggering 71,641 students from 183 institutions in 37 states and from 12 countries. The survey is a good benchmarking tool for participating institutions – they are able to compare their results against those from other institutions. Christopher Brookes and Jeffrey Pomerania from Educause presented a whistle-stop tour of the main findings. The full report is at the survey hub, and the infographic shown on the right is a nice summary. There weren’t too many surprises; in a nutshell, students own a lot of devices, and they view them as very important for their learning.

Their devices

In terms of devices, 93% own laptops and a further 3% plan to purchase one, and almost all say they are very or extremely important for their studies. 96 % own smartphones. Tablet ownership is much lower at 57%, and students rated them as less important to their studies than their smartphones. 61% of students have two or three devices, and 33% own four or more. Challenging for wifi, as we know…


ECAR looked at techiness (sic) as measured by students’

  1. disposition to technology (sceptic vs cheerleader, technophobe vs technophile etc);
  2. their attitude (distraction vs enhancement, discontented vs contented etc) and
  3. their actual usage of technology (peripheral vs central, never vs alway connected etc).

Since 2014 all three measures have increased – so students are more techie now, and men are more techie than women. As I said, no great surprises.

Students’ experiences of technology

We were told that there was good news about students’ experiences of technology – 80% rated their overall technology experience as good or excellent. Now, it strikes me that if our scores for question 17 in the National Student Survey which asks about technology had been this low (we score 87%) we’d be very seriously concerned – but of course the questions are different so a direct comparison isn’t valid. But a good question is what is actually meant by “students’ experience of technology”. We were told that the main determinants were wifi in halls of residence and on campus, ease of login, having skilled academics, students’ own attitudes to technology, and it helped if technology used in class was perceived as relevant to their career.

Technology in teaching

Around 69% of students said that their teachers had adequate technical skills. More than half reported that technology was being used to share materials (61%) and collaborate (57%). There was less use which encouraged critical thinking (49%) and only a 34% of students said they were encouraged to use their own technology in the classroom.

82% of students reported preferring a blended learning environment over a fully online or fully offline one. Since 2013, the percentage of students who don’t want any online education has halved from around 22% to 11%. The number wanting a fully online experience has dropped slightly, but the number wanting a ‘nearly fully online’ experience has increased; the number wanted a more traditionally blended approach is stable at around 60%. Those who have previous experience of fully online courses are more likely to want a more fully online experience, and women were more likely than men to want to learn online – it was suggested due to a reluctance to speak up in a face-to-face environment.

Students found technology helped them with engagement with academics, with one another, and with content. There were some other interesting demographic effects. Women, first generation students, and non-white students were more likely to say that technology had a positive impact on the efficacy of their learning – it empowered them; it was helpful for communication, for helping them with basic terminology, and for getting swift feedback from others. It was found to enrich the learning experience in many ways.

And finally, students want more:

  • Lecture capture – this mirrors experience at UCL
  • Free, supplemental online content
  • Search tools to find references – this has digital literacy implications as tools exist so perhaps students are unaware.

But, I guess, not more engaging or challenging online learning experiences. Ah well…

Introducing Digital Education – the new name for E-learning Environments.

By Fiona Strawbridge, on 21 January 2016

We’ve changed our name! RIP E-Learning Environments; welcome to the world, Digital Education!

Why have we done this?

Our remit has broadened in the last year as the IT Training team has joined us, so Digital Education better reflects the scope of the whole team’s work. The

Your Name here - Image credit Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

Image credit Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

name change also aligns better with our institutional Education strategy. More broadly, ‘digital this’, ‘digital that’ and ‘digital the other’ seem to be replacing IT, ICT and e- in common parlance and our sister teams in ISD have also now renamed for 2016 – Creative Media Services are now Digital Media, and Web & Mobile Services are now Digital Presence.

What does it mean for your services and support?

There have been no changes to the teams or the brilliant support from us that you have all be accustomed to. Only the names of the teams have changed:

  • Digital Education Core Services (formerly E-Learning Services)
  • Digital Education Advisory (formerly E-Learning Advisory)
  • Digital Education Futures (formerly E-Learning Developments)
  • IT Training (watch this space – name change coming…)
  • Learning Spaces

If you need to contact us to get support, our email is now digi-ed@ucl.ac.uk (this replaces ele@ucl.ac.uk)
Our blog is now: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/digital-education/
And we’re still wading through our website editing links, but for now you can still go to http://www.ucl.ac.uk/isd/services/learning-teaching/elearning-staff to find out more about the team and our services.

What’s next?

Of course changes like this take a while to bed in – we still catch ourselves referring to ELE, and we’re having to update lots of links and documentation (ok – there have been quite a few unforeseen consequences!)  But we are very pleased to bring in the new year with our new name.

For now, we hope the change to Digital Education acts as a reminder that digital technologies are woven into the fabric of the way students learn and teachers teach as well as our institutional strategies. We continue to look forward to working together by blending the digital with education and making UCL excel at delivering world class teaching and learning to its students for many years to come.

From consumption to competency and creation

By Fiona Strawbridge, on 12 November 2012

The 'I see what you mean' bear at the Denver Convention CenterThree plenary talks nicely framed this year’s Educause conference and, in their own ways, called for the involvement of students in designing and building their learning experiences and outcomes.

Clay Shirky (author of ‘Here Comes Everybody’ and ‘Cognitive Surplus’) opened the conference by talking about the way in which technology (especially social media) is enabling us to use our collective cognitive surplus to do increasingly creative and productive things in our spare time; we still like to consume, but we also like to create and share. This socially mediated approach to creativity has unexpected benefits for society and from education.  Shirky argued that the interesting thing about MOOCs is not their massiveness, but their openness and potential for sharing.

In the keynote ‘blueprint for change’ talk Christine Flanagan (Student Experience Director from the  Business Innovation Factory) talked about a ‘student experience lab‘ which had travelled the US and found that many are unprepared for student life and want more from higher education, some questioning the importance of a degree.  In the same session Elliot Masie (expert in workplace learning – see Masie.com) had pointed out that in many subjects the half life of what people learn is less than four years and so the ability to update knowledge and skills is essential – we all need to be lifelong learners and our campuses need to accommodate multi-generational learners.   Both argued that we need to take risks and accept failure in developing new approaches to teaching and learning.

Flanagan argued that students are less immersed in their studies than in previous generations which means that there needs to be better incorporation of extracurricular achievements into their HE outcomes. She claimed that competency-based learning, in which students demonstrate mastery of a series of tasks which can be rolled up into a degree, is an effective approach.  In contrast Ed Ayers, in the closing plenary, focused on the need for students to be able to deal with the kinds of complex and contested subjects in which complexity is accepted; knowledge is not just learned but must be created, aggregated and synthesised.  He bemoaned the focus of much e-learning on teaching procedural and processural topics (especially in STEM subjects) that can be taught in chunks and called for its development to help aggregate and visualise information to create new knowledge and understanding – digital scholarship or generative scholarship.   Ayers’ insitution – the University of Richmond – has a Digital Scholarship Lab which involves computer scientists working with humanities academics and students.  Ayers showed wonderful examples of animated maps telling some of the human and political stories behind the emancipation of slaves during the American civil war in very direct and graphical ways. He argued that by focusing on the use of technology to drill and grill, we are missing its potential to create and transform understanding.

Ed Ayers on stage at Educause

Ed Ayers on stage at Educause

It seems to me that although Ayers appeared to be have a very different perspective from Flanagan and Masie, the two could be reconciled if we can involve students in designing and developing new ways to use technology to go beyond knowledge consumption and find new ways to create, present, aggregate and synthesise information to allow new understandings to emerge.  Flanagan had suggested that if you want new models you could talk to innovators, look to industry, or talk to students, and that student involvement can help break down silos within an institution and promote experimentation.

For some academics who already have the necessary imagination, skills and access to technologies (which are probably not those traditionally viewed as ‘learning technologies’), and who are willing to work collaboratively with students, this may be relatively straightforward; for many though it may involve partnerships with learning technologists, and experimentation with unfamiliar technologies with help from research support staff. And of course the involvement of students in design and implementation needs to be carefully managed. But in all won’t this support both deeper learning whilst also providing the kinds of practical experience that will enhance students’ wider skills and employability? And, going back to Shirky’s opening remarks, make good use of some of our collective cognitive surplus.

Meet the Active Learning Classroom

By Fiona Strawbridge, on 8 November 2012

The term Active Learning Classroom seems to be quite well established in the US and Canada but I have to say isn’t something I’ve consciously encountered at home. I attended a great workshop at the Educause conference on active learning classrooms – and specifically on the kinds of activities that can take place in them – led by the very energetic Adam Finkelstein of McGill University in Montreal.

What are they? 
Simply spaces designed for students to learn together in groups – with or without technology. Typically there are tables for 6-9 students, with one or two (or no) screens per table for them to use with their own devices,  writable surfaces around the room, acoustics that can cope with multiple conversations, and  space for the teacher to move freely amongst the students.  There is no front podium for the teachers – they are normally in the middle of the room. The idea is that they promote collaborative learning experiences and provide more interaction between students and staff. There are some terrific videos from McGill showing classes and academics’ perspectives on them.

Some examples:

Learning in an ALC
A strength of the session was that it employed active learning strategies in an ALC – the workshop was in a space with all of the main ingredients of an ALC, and Adam modelled an active learning approach in which we had no option but to collaborate and learn together.

We were given a brief presentation on active learning and classroom designs, and then set to work with a short paper to read individually and a warning that we’d be tested on it – this definitely focused the mind.  After the test (multiple choice & short answer) on paper which we had to hand in (quite unnerving) we had to discuss our answers with our table mates and come to an agreement. This activity was a ‘readiness assurance process’, so called because it checks that participants are ready to move on in their learning.

Apparently we passed as Adam then moved on.  He outlined a framework for an active learning class which has four elements:

  1. You start by introducing the approach and orienting the learners
  2. There will be some informing or instruction – whether through presentation, reading, watching a video – whatever is most appropriate
  3. Next comes the active learning bit – time for learners to work
  4. The closing part involves reflection on what was learned and next steps.

He then set us off on another activity – this time a ‘four corners’ activity – in which we were split into four groups and given a couple of minutes to fill each of four whiteboards in turn on each of the four elements we’d heard about; each group built on the ideas of the previous one.  At the end of this he closed this activity by visiting each board and summarising – and challenging where necessary – our work.

Adam circulated a comprehensive list of 26 active learning strategies from brainstorming and buzz groups to interviews, simulations and one minute papers.

The session was backed up by other good online resources which I’d recommend a close look at – start at the resources section for each of the following:

Lots of food for thought and ideas for supporting learning in different sorts of learning spaces. Now we just need those spaces…

The cluster room lives on – but look out for the ‘un cluster’

By Fiona Strawbridge, on 7 November 2012

I spent the morning of the first day of the Educause conference in a workshop on the future of the cluster room (or computer lab) led by Keith Boswell from North Carolina State University and Beth Schaefer from the Uni of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.   It was well attended – I reckon 60 folk in the room – and we spent over an hour going around the room sharing tales of cluster-related challenges – increasing pressure on space, patchy usage, challenges of keeping up with students’ needs and expectations in terms of software and hardware, problems with the balance between open access (wanted by students) and teaching clusters (wanted by staff), with some institutions wondering whether to wait for the next generation of tablet-pc hybrids or to replace old pcs like for like. It’s clear that the challenges that we face at UCL are shared across the pond.  However I’d say that for most of those in the workshop the cluster room remains an important part of their university’s IT provision – the death of the cluster room has been exaggerated.

I did find out about a couple of nice approaches to power management used at North Carolina State – one was setting PCs to hibernate after a few minutes of inactivity can save a lot of money and energy. Another was the use of ‘lab stats’ data which logs which PCs are used most, and for how long – we saw some hot spot maps of cluster rooms showing that students tend to favour certain locations in a room for quick turnaround activities (email/printing/Facebook check) but will sit in different seats for extended work – this allows different power management regimes to be applied for different PCs. Thinking about it, perhaps we might even use this to zone open access spaces with different spec workstations, furniture etc for different patterns of use…

I also heard about the ‘Un Lab’ – again at North Carolina – where the university had looked carefully at what was needed in terms of connectivity, power, space, file storage, software deployment, lockers etc in order to allow students to use their own computers and so reduce the need for institutional workstations. They had focused on Engineering students and called the resulting computing environment EoS.   All useful stuff, though I still predict that the more that students use smaller devices liken iPads the less likely they are to want to bring in laptops and – as I can testify writing this on a iPad (as I don’t have a laptop) – they are not ideal for writing extended prose! So we might want some decent Un Clusters at UCL but we do also need to keep providing hardware…

Printing is a big issue with lots of institutions planning ‘follow-me’ printing and printing from student owned devices although few seemed to have implemented these as yet. The other source of shared pain is weaning students – but more critically staff – off printing and encouraging more reading on screen. A particular gripe is requirement to print coursework for submission even when it is also submitted online.

A couple of leads to follow up :

  • Griffith University in Australia have done some work on innovative technology-enhanced teaching spaces, and have set up a pinterest site with a bunch of images – pinterest.com/learningspaces
  • The University of New Mexico have a number of space-related initiatives including large ‘active learning classrooms’, interactive lecture theatres (set up to allow students to swivel round and work with those behind/in front), wireless projection (which made their network group unhappy…) and mirroring technology (allowing devices like iPads to be mirrored on PCs).
  • And more than one institution cited the University of Minnesota as a source of inspiration (see their active learning classroom site)…

Finally I was surprised to hear that many US institutions levy an ‘educational technology fee’ on their students. Bet that goes down well.

My next post will be about active learning classrooms…