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Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Archive for the 'Rowett’s Ramblings' Category

Update on Jisc Learning Analytics

SteveRowett23 October 2015

On Monday 19th November Steve Rowett attended the 4th Jisc Learning Analytics Network meeting in Bradford.  Jisc have been running their leaning analytics  R&D project for just over a year now and their plans are really starting to take shape. The aim is to provide a learning analyitics service for the HE/FE/skills sector that – at least at a basic level – institutions can take off the shelf and start using. There are also likely to be more sophisticated premium offerings from the vendors involved. The components of this solution are becoming well defined and I report on these below.

The architecture of their system looks quite complex, but focuses on different elements for storing, processing and displaying back data to various audiences. For many of the components they are working with multiple vendors to offer alternative options.

Already produced are a number of documents including a state of play review, literature review and code of practice – all available from http://analytics.jiscinvolve.org/wp/

Now, the technical systems are in development. Michael Webb from Jisc focused on systems for student and staff use rather than back end processing, and include:

The staff dashboard or ‘student insight tool’

This is currently 98% ready and due to be launched in November 2015. The tool has a simple purpose: to predict withdrawals and dropouts amongst the student cohort. The system is pre-programmed with 3 years of student data which it analyses to predict the metrics that increase probabilities of withdrawal. It then applies this model to current trends. 

The interface starts at programme level, and allows drill-down to modules and then to individual students giving a ‘withdrawal risk score’ for each. The types of data that that system can handle are:

  • enrolment and demographic data (essentially things the student can do nothing about): previous exam results, education history, school/college, demographic data
  • engagement (things the student can change): library/campus visit activity, books or journals used, VLE data, attendance data, student society membership, submission time before deadlines
  • academic performance (the outcomes): coursework and exam performance.

Current estimates are that the predictions are about 70% accurate although this will need to validated by early institutions and maybe improve as the models get further developed.

Alert and Intervention system (the ‘Student Success Planner’)

Currently 70% ready, expected to launch in Q1 2016. This system provides alert to nominated contacts (typically a student’s personal tutor or welfare officer) based on pre-determinted criteria. The alert is reviewed and any appropriate intervention can then be taken. It is expected that around 10 criteria would be sufficient for most cases. At the moment the focus is on intervening to support students in difficulty, but it could also be used to offer reward or praise mechanisms for behaviour likely to lead to successful outcomes. 

Learning records warehouse (‘Learning locker’)

Nearly complete, launch imminent. Back end system which stores learner activity in a simple but powerful form: X verb Y at time Z. For example ‘Paul visited library’ or ‘Irrum completed coursework’. This provides a the data used to build the models

Student app 

Currently still being designed. Borrowing concepts from fitness apps the student app provides feedback (“you are in the top 25%” etc.) and encouragement, allowing students to set targets and monitor progress (“I will complete 10 hours reading this week”). Also allows self-declared data such as demographics or even general happiness to be added.

The presentations from the event will shortly be on the Jisc Learning Analytics blog, and they have also developed some Moodle courses with more information – self register and find the LA-prefixed courses.

My thoughts were that Jisc is moving quickly here, and these products are really taking shape. However much of the day focused on the legal, cultural, ethical issues around learning analytics; the technical readiness of our institutions to integrate so many different data sources; and the (perhaps) high levels of variability in the types of models that would best predict outcomes in very different institutions. The technology looks fairly straightforward, but every institution that wishes to adopt these tools will need to choose their own focus and rules of engagement that works best for them and their students.

Update: Notes and presentations from this event are now available, along with a fuller description of other presentations and activities during the day.

Teaching and Learning with Forums

JessicaGramp2 March 2015

Discussion enables students to aquire and check their ideas, as well as promote deep-learning by allowing students to build upon and challenge each other’s ideas (Weimer 2011).  If you want to use online discussions in your own course, the first question you should ask yourself is “What do you want the discussion to achieve?“.

You might consider using discussion to allow students to share and collaborate about:

  • Expectations and experiences
  • Individual tasks
  • Group tasks, using the discussion as a collaborative constructive workspace

Or you may use discussion forums to enable:

  • Questions and answers (how often will you respond?)
  • Reflection
  • A social space

Whatever the purpose, you should use clear signposting, outline ground rules (personal conduct, language, spelling and grammar) and make a warm and welcoming initial post. When setting up a new discussion forum it is advisable to set it to auto-subscription so your initial welcome post is emailed to everyone enrolled on the Moodle course, but staff and students have the option to unsubscribe if they choose to.


Your role as an e-moderator

Moderating an online discussions involves a number of roles in which you will:

  • Control
  • Facilitate
  • Encourage
  • Prompt
  • Challenge
  • Regulate


Practical Tips

Some practical tips for moderating discussions online include:

  • Keep discussions focused on a specific task;
  • Ease people in to using discussion forums with an icebreaker – such as asking each participant to introduce themselves to the group;
    • Setting an introduction task allows students to practice using the forum, and writing to their peers and teachers, in a safe way, without the added pressure of having to formulate an academic argument or query.
  • Large numbers of small activities work better than one or two daunting ones;
  • Remember that you set the environment and tone – make it welcoming and model good online behaviour;
  • Small interventions go a long way in providing support;
  • Encourage people to discuss rather than giving them the answers straight away;
  • You need to spend more time initially to support participants and get the discussions started, however, over time the group becomes more self-sufficient.
  • If students ask questions via email rather than post them to the discussion forum, you can either:
    • summarise their question anonymously and respond on the discussion forum for all to see; or
    • ask them to post their question on the discussion forum, so tutors (or in fact other students) can reply to everyone.

It can take a while for students to get used to posting questions on Moodle, rather than emailing or asking questions in person, so you may need to encourage them to do this over a number of weeks at the start of term. If students are nervous about asking questions in front of the entire group, anonymous posting can be enabled using the Advanced forum in Moodle.



Here are some example welcome posts that can help you to get started with forums:

Expectations and experiences:
‘Describe your expectations of this module, your experiences of this subject in the past, and whether or not you are looking forward to the work to follow. If you have any early questions, post them here and I’ll give a reply.’

Individual task:
‘Think of a film that you have recently watched. Based on the criteria you have seen in the lectures, comment on the roles and development of the characters, and their interplay with the dialogue and staging. Reply with your thoughts (perhaps 300-400 words) in this discussion before the next lecture.’

Group task:
‘You will be assigned into groups of four people, each with a private discussion forum. You are asked to produce a requirements specification (no more than 10 pages) for a software system to manage patient records and appointments at a doctor’s surgery. Use the discussion to collaborate as you produce your document, and submit it at the end of the term in the usual way.’

Questions and answers:
‘This discussion board is for you to ask questions about the module or the work that we are covering. I will check the discussion on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and will respond to your posts at those times. If a number of people are having difficulty with the same area, then I will arrange additional workshop sessions, details of these will be posted in this discussion.’

‘Many of you will have used hardware or software packages with pupils with special needs. Choose one, and reflect on how you used it, what worked well, what could be improved, and whether you would recommend it to others. Also comment on how your skills developed as a result, and any recommendations you would make to others using the same software.’

Social forum:
‘This discussion forum is set up to allow you to talk socially to other students on the module. Discussion of work is permitted, but not posting of answers to questions or any attempts at plagiarism. I won’t be responding directly to your posts, but I will pop in occasionally. We will keep a log of all the messages posted, so be polite and constructive in what you say.’


Help using discussion forums

If you are a UCL staff member and want to discuss your use of discussion forums with someone please contact the UCL E-Learning Environments (ELE) team.

Two books are available from the UCL Library to help you discover more about using online discussion forums with your students:

Authors: Steve Rowett and Jessica Gramp

Learning and teaching spaces update

SteveRowett28 May 2014

It has been a little while since we gave you an update on progress in transforming our learning and teaching spaces, so here’s one now.

We’ve done a lot of work over the last two or three years, from full room refurbishments to ensuring that each centrally bookable teaching space has a PC. It’s great to see that these changes are making a difference. A full room survey by the independent Alexi Marmot Associates rated the equipment and technology in our spaces as 50% four years ago – we now score 80% on the same measure. That’s great progress and thanks to everyone who has been involved.


Easter 2013 and Christmas 2014 programme

To help us deliver more we now undertake smaller work programmes over the Christmas and Easter holidays, with 9 refurbishments already under our belt this year:

  • Chadwick 223 and Bedford Way G11 computer rooms: a full makeover with redecoration, new lighting, furniture and new AV teaching facilities.
  • Gordon House 106: new AV teaching facilities (including its first ever network point!).
  • Foster Court 112/113/114/124 and 14 Taviton 534 and 535: new AV teaching facilities.

The upgrades to the computer rooms are the most impressive. Both rooms were very tired and unattractive before, and now look clean, modern and bright – see an example below. Phil Spencer would be proud of us!


Bedford Way G11 after makeover

Bedford Way G11 after makeover

Thanks to all those in ISD who contributed to these projects and to the many UCL Estates people and external contractors who are involved.

Summer 2014 programme

The summer is always the busiest time for refurbishments, especially those big projects that cannot be fitted into the short timeframe at Easter and Christmas.

Capital projects

This year sees seven major refurbishments led by UCL Estates and funded as UCL capital projects. Roberts 309/508 and 1-19 Torrington Place basement lecture will be stripped back and rebuilt; and Roberts 421 and 422 and 26 Bedford Way G03 will be freshened up with new decoration.

The large computer room in 25 Gordon Square will receive the biggest change, with a full redecoration, new furniture and new all-in-one PCs. E-Learning Environments have been working with UCL Estates on the design of this room, including custom-built furniture which not only enhances the layout for teaching but also increases the capacity of the room.

Summer works

A further 20 or so rooms will receive replacement audio-visual facilities along with associated minor redecoration as part of the ‘summer works’ programme jointly funded by UCL Estates and ISD and managed by Tim Burles in the ISD ITCPD team. A summary of the works planned are given below, but please note these are still subject to change:

  • Archaeology 117 and 501: redecoration and new teaching facilities (small computer room specification: teaching PC and display)
  • Small classrooms in Cruciform and Rockefeller (10 of them): redecoration and new teaching facilities (small classroom specification: wall mounted PC and display)
  • Chadwick B05: New teaching facilities (standard classroom specification)
  • Pearson G23: New teaching facilities (standard classroom specification plus repeater screens)
  • Pearson G26: New teaching facilities (standard classroom specification)
  • 26 Gordon Square B32: New teaching facilities (standard classroom specification plus extra projector to accommodate L shape)
  • Roberts 110: (upgrade of projection/wiring)
  • Rockefeller G02: New teaching facilities (standard classroom specification)
  • Chandler B01, B02, G10 and 118 (standard classroom specification – B01 still under discussion due to need to maintain fire exit access)

Note that a number of these projects are now using the UCL standard classroom specification, albeit occassionally with some modifications such as repeater screens to accommodate awkwardly-shaped rooms. Details of this specification and much more information about our aspirations for learning spaces are available in UCL’s Learning Spaces Guidelines.

Other projects

Some further projects aim to tackle service and technology issues that were raised in the 2013 staff survey:

  • Ensuring that each teaching space has a working phone, clearly labelled with its number, and fixed or attached to a wall or desk.
  • Microphone improvements to reduce the number of silent Lecturecast recordings.
  • A full room audit to update the information on the room bookings website.

It’s a busy programme, and thanks in advance to the many people in ISD who will be involved for their efforts.

UCL students shine in JISC contest

SteveRowett26 July 2013

Back in May 2013, JISC announced a programme of grants for students to create new technologies to develop teaching and learning, research and academic practice within their institutions.

At short notice, and during the exam period, students were asked to make videos and submit their ideas.  The result: 36 high quality entries, of which 21 have made the grade for funding.

Even better, two of them are from UCL, so we congratulate Alex Gibberd and Adam Plowman on their success. Do take a look at their ideas and the others listed on the JISC site.

We look forward to seeing how their projects develop.

The spaces of envy

SteveRowett11 March 2013

Paul, Vicki and myself had the privilege of welcoming Graham Walton from Loughborough University to UCL following a reciprocal visit last week.

Our two campuses could not be more different.

UCL is landlocked in Bloomsbury, heart of the University of London, in one of the most intense concentrations of college buildings in Europe. Every virtue and vice of the capital is on the doorstep. Loughborough is a low-rise, spacious campus with excellent sports facilities and acres of playing fields.  And a long walk to the town centre.

Yet there was much common ground to enjoy on our tours, not least seeing the ways in which students made spaces their own, confounding our attempts to ‘keep the furniture here’ or ‘make this room silent there’. Lots of thinking about the organic, evolving use of spaces, and plenty of just watching what was happening.

Tours of UCL usually take in three of my favourite spaces on campus.

The UCLU Wolfson Study is a student owned space where anarchy – of the most thoughtful kind – ensures the kind of collective respect of the space and others around, even when they are strangers. The fact that students voted to turn a bar into an alcohol-free study area seems to mark this room as a hard-won achievement; a victory for the student voice that is guarded with a sense of pride.

The second is the BASc (Bachelor of Arts and Sciences) common room, a new type of space at UCL for a new type of programme – and probably a new type of student. These are free-range students, allowed to graze on a diet from across the academic spectrum, and they are experts in negotiation and driving consensus in all that they do. The ever-changing layout of the funky furniture, accessories brought in from home, decorated fish tank with its feeding rota, the self-organising committee posters are the markers they leave in their territory.

The third of my favourites – for today – is the pilot room in the Cruciform Hub. It’s actually very modest in what it does, but its purpose is to try things out, make mistakes and learn from them. And mistakes were certainly made; the benches and seats don’t work well together (unless you have particularly long arms), the exposed group working monitor doesn’t get used due to lack of privacy, and so on. But so much more was got right, and simple observations help us know what to do better when the real Cruciform Hub work starts later this year.

Graham noted that we’d seen about 10 different learning environments in our 90 minutes on the campus, which I reckon is about 5 or 6 more than we had – or at least knew we had – a couple of years ago.  I wish I could take the credit for having written all 10 down in some planning document three years ago, but I didn’t so I can’t. Instead, our students inhabit, colonise, adjust and redefine our spaces to make them their own, and tell us a little more about learning each time they do so.

By the way, if you are a UCL person, feel free to go and look at the Wolfson Study or the Cruciform Hub pilot room.  But as for the BASc common room, you’ll have to make do with just peering in the windows along Malet Place – your card is unlikely to open the door. But see what you think, and if you experience a touch of ‘common room envy’, you won’t be the first.


Chalk and talk, we miss you

SteveRowett4 December 2012

Life in the lecture room used to be so simple. There were some rows of chairs, a blackboard and, if you were lucky, some chalk. Clever teachers always brought their own chalk and I remember one lecturer announcing that their presentation would be a multimedia extravaganza with no less than three different colours of chalk used as they wrote their notes for us to copy.

Since then various classroom technologies have come and gone. The trusted old OHP gave rise to a new form of presentation, along with any number of laser printers gunked up with molten transparencies. The whiteboard seemed altogether more modern than the chalkboard it replaced, even if they do all seem to become smudgeygreyboards in no time at all.

At UCL we’ve been debating which boards are best for our classrooms and seminar spaces. The ideal board would probably allow

  • Writing using standard dry wipe pens – and easy to clean
  • Projection of a PC screen, nice and bright, but not dazzling
  • Some interactive features for annotating slides or doing software demonstrations
  • Simple to use with little new to learn and no gadgets to be lost

It seems remarkably hard to find a board that does all of these well. Some boards are very interactive but can’t be used with normal dry wipe pens. We’ve looked at glass boards, but they aren’t so sharp for projection. The next step will be ceramic surfaces with special sensor pens, but how many of the pens will go walkies and need to be replaced?

Matt, of Matt’s musings fame on this blog, said to me today that gesture boards will be the way forward, with presentations controlled by hand movements using sensors. It’s a nice idea, but I can’t help but feel that many teachers like simple technologies that don’t go wrong. And for that, writing with pens – or even chalk – is hard to beat.

By the way, the OHP isn’t quite dead at UCL yet. There has been a steady removal of them, and often they are left in classrooms unloved and unplugged. But one academic strongly objected to their removal. We were surprised: he normally adopts new technologies with vigour. It turned out that he used them for teaching chemistry. Not for writing equations, but for pouring chemicals on the glass surface and letting students see the reactions take place on the big screen. We replaced his OHP without delay, but advise you not to try this at home.

As yet – chemistry experiments aside – we don’t have a good answer to this simplest of presentation requirements. We’d be delighted to hear what works – and what doesn’t – for you.