X Close

Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Archive for the 'Rowett’s Ramblings' Category

From Bricks to Clicks: the potential for learning analytics

By Steve Rowett, on 9 February 2016

I’ve blogged previously about the work that Jisc are doing in the field of learning analytics. Whilst there are some good case studies within the sector, informal conversations have indicated that most institutions are really only at the start of their analytics journey, or even simply keeping a watching brief on how the sector as a whole will act. Where institutions do have systems in place, they are often based on quite limited data sources (typically attendance data, VLE usage or library usage) rather than more holistic data sets covering a range of student experiences.

A comprehensive picture of the current state of play is provided by From Bricks to Clicks: the Potential of Data and Analytics in Higher Education, a Higher Education Commission report which summarises the field and provides recommendations to institutions. A small number of pioneering institutions (Nottingham Trent, Open, Edinburgh) feature heavily as case studies, but the general argument is that universities are generating significant amounts of data about learning but are not yet in a position to use this data to support student success.

At UCL, early discussions around the use of analytics have started. Our retention rates are generally good, but there is a feeling that students may leave their course due to social or economic factors – perhaps living in poor accommodation, feeling isolated, having financial difficulties or commuting into London. We think we might need quite a large dataset to model these parameters (if they can be modelled at all) although it is possible that attendance would be a good proxy for them. Certainly our journey into learning analytics is only just beginning.

Are we using technology effectively to support student employability?

By Steve Rowett, on 19 January 2016

Employability is something of the elephant in the room in higher education. We dream of students enthralled at learning new knowledge, making discoveries of their own as they develop their curiosity and strengthening their identities as they work with others.

For many of course, the reality is that they are undertaking their programme of study to get a good ‘job’ at the end. I use quotation marks because the nature of the ‘job’ may be wide and varied: it might be traditional employed work; self-employment; voluntary work; portfolio working; or a combination of these.

Jisc Technology for Employability report

Jisc has been exploring the role that digital technologies, and the digital literacies needed to use them effectively, can play in developing employability. Peter Chatterton and Geoff Rebbeck have recently produced a detailed report on the topic on behalf of Jisc. They argue that technology is often woefully underexploited when it comes to giving students the opportunity to develop their professional skills and that both staff and student skill development will be necessary to close this gap.

An introduction to the report is available or you can download the full report from the Jisc website. A webinar summarising the report will be held on 25 January 2016, with free registration.

Update on Jisc Learning Analytics

By Steve Rowett, on 23 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

By Jessica Gramp, on 2 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

By Steve Rowett, on 28 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

By Steve Rowett, on 26 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.