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Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Archive for the 'Vicki’s Verisimilitudes' Category

Summits and Horizons, 9th June 2014

By Vicki Dale, on 16 June 2014

Last week saw the final session in the current series of Summits and Horizons, a seminar series jointly organised by the Centre for the Advancement in Learning and Teaching (CALT) and E-Learning Environments (ELE). Appropriately, the session focused on the predictions of the 2014 NMC Horizons Report, in the context of use of emerging technologies to support teaching and learning at UCL.

Fiona Strawbridge highlighted the trends, challenges and emerging technologies identified in the report:

Trends Challenges Technologies
Near term (1-2 years):

  • Ubiquity of social media
  • Integration of online, hybrid & collaborative environments

Medium term (3-4 years):

  • Data-driven learning (analytics)
  • Students as creators (makespaces and hackspaces)

Far term (5+ years):

  • Agile approaches to change (students as entrepreneurs)
  • Evolution of e-learning as a viable alternative to traditional face to face teaching

  • Low digital fluency of staff
  • Lack of rewards for teaching versus research


  • Competition from new educational models such as MOOCS
  • Scaling innovation within historically conservative institutions


  • Expanding access to higher education
  • Keeping education relevant for the future workforce
Near term (1-2 years):

  • The flipped classroom
  • Learning analytics – using big data to drive and support student learning

Medium term (3-4 years):

  • 3D printing
  • Games and gamification

Far term (4+ years):

  • The quantified self – using smart technology to track your daily activities
  • Virtual assistants – lifelike interactions with technology

Fiona’s slides, and a video précis of the report are also available.

Ros Duhs highlighted the need to consider the relevance of what students are learning at university for the future workplace, and stressed the importance of authentic learning, teaching and assessment strategies.

Janina Dewitz considered recently emerging technologies including semantic aware applications and smart objects (predicted in the 2009 NMC Horizons report) and affective computing. Her take on these technologies was that although many are being taken up by the consumer market, they have yet to make a substantial impact on higher education. Janina also mentioned individuals’ right to privacy and the lack of trust surrounding commercial access to their personal data. Similarly, students may object to the transparency associated with learning analytics; there is also the difficulty of measuring learning online since learning happens all the time and in other places.

Clive Young presented the results of a survey ELE conducted with teaching staff about their use of external cloud-based tools. The survey revealed that a large range of external tools, which are used personally, are also being used to support teaching, research and administration, but more support may be necessary to increase adoption beyond the early adopters. The results are being reported in more detail in another blog post.

Nick Grindle looked back at the technologies predicted in earlier NMC Reports. While some technologies such as mobile computing and apps, cloud computing and geo-everything have materialised within the predicted timeframe, one area which has still to reach its potential is gaming and gamification, first mentioned in the 2005 report. This is one of the themes of the forthcoming call for submissions for the E-Learning Development Grants, so hopefully at UCL we can make progress in this area.

A closing panel discussion highlighted the role of the Arena Scheme, in partnership with ELE, in promoting digital scholarship. There was also a discussion about the importance of the institutional learning environment for security and support in using e-learning. While Moodle works extremely well and is very highly rated by students, we should be alert for the emergence of other platforms which might best serve longer-term future needs. Finally, thanks were given to Moira Wright for overseeing the successful and smooth administration of all nine sessions this year.

Grounding the Cloud

By Clive Young, on 16 June 2014

DropBox blueprintIn April, Vicki Dale and Clive Young, E-Learning Environments carried out a survey with UCL teaching and support staff about their use of cloud-based tools for teaching, research, administration and personal use.

We wanted to find out if ELE should support any of these tools at all and if so to what extent, given the external and rather fluid nature of such services. Over 200 staff – mostly academic colleagues – responded to the survey from across UCL. We found evidence of use of a wide range of external cloud-based tools, many used personally, but also to support teaching, research and administration.

Although overall use was not as high as we had anticipated, some specific tools were used quite a lot. Skype was the most personally used technology (52%) while for teaching and research Dropbox was top (both 39%) and more than half of respondents had used Doodle for admin.

The top tools were:

Purpose Most used single tool Average use (across teaching, research, admin and personal) Mostly used for …
Filestore/file sharing Dropbox 43% Personal (48%)
Video/voice calls Skype 37% Personal (52%)
Event organisation Doodle 27% Admin (54%)
Professional networking LinkedIn 21% Personal (36%)
Social video sharing YouTube 21% Teaching (33)
Short message broadcasting Twitter 17% Personal (24%)
Social networking Facebook 17% Personal (42%)
Online office tools Google apps 16% Personal (17%)
Web conferencing & webinars Skype 16% Research (19%)
Instant messaging SMS texts 13% Personal (40%)
Filestore/file sharing Dropbox 43% Personal (48%)
Video/voice calls Skype 37% Personal (52%)
Event organisation Doodle 27% Admin (54%)
Professional networking LinkedIn 21% Personal (36%)
Social video sharing YouTube 21% Teaching (33)
Short message broadcasting Twitter 17% Personal (24%)
Social networking Facebook 17% Personal (42%)
Online office tools Google apps 16% Personal (17%)
Web conferencing & webinars Skype 16% Research (19%)
Instant messaging SMS texts 13% Personal (40%)


It seems though that many of the tools are still only being used by enthusiasts, especially for professional purposes. This group could broadly be regarded as the self-starting ‘innovators’ and ‘early adopters’ (as identified in Rogers’ innovation curve), who are keen to experiment with new technologies without organisational support or encouragement.

Although not really surprising, this interpretation runs slightly counter to the popular notion that such tools are largely self-supporting and need little guidance.  Nevertheless there may be a silver lining in this metaphorical cloud. Some tools are used much more for personal use and people are comfortable in using them. There could be the potential to adopt some of these tools for educational purposes.

We concluded that, firstly despite the hype around cloud-based tools and services, they are actually much like any other technologies. To increase their take-up, staff need to be provided with adequate support to work out what tools are appropriate to use and how they may be used in a professional context. Secondly, tools that we (as learning technologists) regard as ‘cool’ and cutting edge, may be seen by non-enthusiasts as unstable, unsupported and risky.  We may have to rethink what tools and services we provide centrally. How can we provide the functionality of cloud-based tools that our colleagues evidently want for teaching, research and administration, but in a more supported and stable low-risk environment?

Image: dropbox.com

Doing more with media – first meeting of the UCL Media and Video SIG

By Vicki Dale, on 26 November 2013

Today a group of 15 enthusiasts representing all three schools met for the first Media and Video SIG. This special interest group has been established to explore the growing role of video and audio in teaching, create a community of practice and offer practical solutions. Clive Young (E-Learning Environments) and Paul Walker (Centre for the Advancement in Learning and Teaching) led a brainstorming activity to identify opportunities, problems, areas of interest and potential activities for the new SIG.


Interactive lectures in Management Science & Innovation: A pilot evaluation study of LectureTools

By Vicki Dale, on 12 August 2013

Jane Britton and Matt Whyndham recently piloted LectureTools with a small group of 17 students in a short course in project management. LectureTools is a cloud-based electronic voting system which students and their teachers can access via their laptops or mobile devices. The system works by importing an existing PowerPoint presentation and then adding interactivity to it, through varied question formats. LectureTools allows students to take notes on their devices alongside each slide; they can also flag when they are confused about a particular slide, or submit questions, which will be displayed on the tutor ‘dashboard’ (see the screenshots below, click on each one to see a full size image).


LectureTools presenter screenshot

LectureTools presenter interface  (the ‘dashboard’), showing an activity slide at the top, student responses and comprehension on the right, and a panel displaying student questions on the middle left. A preview of the adjacent slides is shown at the bottom of the screen.


LectureTools student screenshot

LectureTools student interface, showing the PowerPoint slides on the left with the interactive options above and the note-taking area on the right.


As E-Learning Evaluation Specialist within ELE, I carried out an evaluation, gathering data from a range of sources. These included an observation of one of Jane’s interactive lectures and a student questionnaire followed by a focus group discussion with a sample of participants. Both educators were also interviewed at the end of the course. Students rated the system positively overall for stimulating their engagement in the subject, allowing them to measure their understanding, fostering discussion in the classroom and facilitating easy note-taking. In addition, they perceived that it helped them prepare for their forthcoming examination.  Student comments included:

“I liked the LectureTools a lot.  I’m really impressed by it. It’s so easy to use and so helpful and most of us nowadays work on computers anyway during the lecture so it just makes it easier not to write everything in Word, copy the slides, we have everything on one screen.”

“We haven’t really asked a question to a lecturer but I think that’s great, that you can write a question and then the lecturer looks there and then they can answer it.”


Both Jane and Matt felt it was helpful to know what students were thinking and to be able to provide timely feedback, although having a class of students all staring at their laptops at various points was initially disconcerting:

“I think I notice that you get a lot of heads down working all of a sudden and it looks very disconcerting at first … you need to just be aware that they are working and they’re thinking about your stuff but they’re not looking at your face.”


One potential issue that came out of the observation and the survey of students was the opportunity for distraction; this generally happened when students had typed in their responses to open questions and were waiting for other students to ‘catch up’:

“I do think that the multiple choice questions, or putting the order questions, those are very good ones because all of us answered relatively quickly … so we had no time for distractions but the written ones … when you don’t have anything to do you start to do other things.”


Learning activities need to be carefully structured in order to give students enough time and opportunities to think about their topic, but not so much that they use the laptop to access resources not related to their studies. For this reason, the students and Jane and Matt considered that closed questions such as multiple choice questions might be better than open questions for large lectures.

A working paper of this study will shortly be uploaded to UCL Discovery.

E-Learning Environments is working with other staff in various departments around the university to explore the potential of LectureTools to facilitate interactive lectures. If you would like more information or would like to pilot LectureTools or a comparable electronic voting system, please contact myself or Janina Dewitz, our Innovations Officer.

I made it!

By Vicki Dale, on 25 February 2013

… in both senses of word! 🙂

I’m one of the team of UCL staff who participated in the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (Massive Online Open Course), and I have just submitted my digital artefact, which briefly summarises my thinking about the course. You can view my artefact, created using Glogster, here.

I must be obsessed with shoes, because I have labelled the central feature my ‘digital footprint’. This was a Wordle (tag cloud) of my discussion posts in the forums. I’ve provided some audio narratives too – an overview of my Glog, an interpretation of my tag cloud in under two minutes and finally, some implications for teaching and learning. The sound could have been of better quality – but I think the message gets across. As educators, we often worry too much about delivering a polished performance and actually – it’s the spontaneous, raw, unedited performance that engages people – it might even be what we could call the ‘human’ aspect!

I feel, as we are coming to the end of this particular MOOC, that I’m really just getting into it, so I hope to continue discussions with other participants in UCL and online. For others who might be interested but who weren’t able to take part, Clive has provided a nice overview of the MOOC in his blogs (see ‘Meditations on a MOOC’) and he includes some of the references and links to videos which is a great way of making an online open course even more open!

The next stage for us is to wait patiently until Friday when we will receive the marks given to our digital artefacts by our peers, and in the meantime we will be marking other participants’ work, so this is a nice experience of peer-assessment too (from the student perspective).

‘Til next time …


Brown shoe, try something new!

By Vicki Dale, on 18 February 2013

Today, I did something I’ve NEVER done. I wore – wait for it – BROWN shoes with a BLACK outfit. Crazy, eh? Like I say, it was something I’ve never done before but I had slowly become aware that quite a few people around me were wearing brown shoes with black clothing. It wasn’t my intention to go out to buy a pair of brown shoes at the weekend. No, I most definitely went out to buy a pair of black shoes. But I thought ‘What the heck’ when I saw a pair of brown shoes with some nice shiny buttons that I liked the look of. Well, I tried them on, and suddenly knew I had to have them. It was like walking on air. They did exactly the job I wanted them to, even if they hadn’t been what I was looking for originally.

Technology’s a bit like that. If you are a teacher, maybe you aren’t sure of using a new technology in your teaching. What you do works, so why risk rocking the boat when your students are satisfied with what they’ve got? Maybe you are using technology but you’re not sure whether to try out some new social media, such as blogs, wikis or social bookmarking. Maybe, as a student, you have got used to working in a particular way and it’s worked for you so far, so why change it? One of the much touted advantages of technology enhanced learning is efficiency; however, when used well, technology can be used to promote more effective learning and teaching through improved student engagement. We can also harness the capabilities of new technologies within collaborative learning, to help students develop teamwork and critical thinking skills.

Technology isn’t a panacea; it’s a tool. How successful we are using it depends on us really thinking about our aims and underlying pedagogy (teachers) or study preferences (students). Sometimes it’s easier to chat to someone who is already using the technology and who can then share their experiences. Teachers might want to approach the staff at ELE and the friendly folks at CALT. UCL has also recently welcomed a cross-disciplinary network of E-Learning Champions. These are academic and administrative staff who are championing the way for innovations in learning and teaching, and we’re looking forward to seeing this community of practice grow and help to share good practice in technology enhanced learning.

I felt a bit radical walking to the train station this morning. Surprisingly, no one fell about the street laughing and I didn’t cause any unintentional traffic incidents. But I smiled quietly to myself as I walked (comfortably and confidently) along the road in my new brown shoes. Sometimes changing just one thing (however small) can make a big difference.