In recent months staff from Digital Education have been engaged in a project to migrate the public-facing short courses platform, UCLeXtend, to a new hosting provider. As part of this process the platform will be upgraded to a version of Moodle that offers several GDPR compliant features in addition to an updated interface.
A change of theme
As part of the migration we are also taking the opportunity to refresh the platform’s aesthetic, or ‘theme’, which in recent years has required continued investment to remain functional. This change will mean that the platform’s existing courses look different, although underlying functionality will remain the same and the content and activities present will not be changed. Course layouts will bear greater similarity to the internal UCL Moodle platform and course teams will have more choice over how their courses are structured and presented.
The new site theme’s primary differences are as follows.
At site level
The UCLeXtend homepage will be refreshed with a change in colours and imagery, in addition to separate buttons for UCL and non-UCL logins (see work-in-progress screenshot below);
Upon login, learners and staff will be presented with a dashboard of their courses. This dashboard can be controlled by individual users, giving the opportunity to highlight recently visited courses and ‘favourite’ or hide courses.
At course level
Section navigation will move from the top of the page to the left-hand side. The left-hand navigation panel can be expanded or collapsed by the user;
There will be greater control over the layout of each course with course formats;
Courses can feature an illustrative image that is presented on both the course dashboard and as a background upon entry (see work-in-progress screenshot below).
The migration is anticipated to be completed in the week commencing 18th November 2019 (updated: 13/11). A notice will be applied to the front page of the platform as to the precise date and time and it should be unavailable for a few hours at most. Teams with live courses during this period will be contacted separately with further information about how to manage the transition.
If you have any questions please get in touch with the Digital Education team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UCL Digital Education Advisory members contributed to a new Open Access e-book that provides valuable insight into the way technology can enhance assessment and feedback. The book was launched formally on 26th October by Birkbeck College Secretary Keith Harrison, with talks from the editors Leo Havemann (Birkbeck, University of London) and Sarah Sherman (BLE Consortium), three case study authors, and event sponsor Panopto.
The book is a result of a two-year project on e-assessment and feedback run by the Bloomsbury Learning Environment (BLE), a collaboration between five colleges, including the UCL Institute of Education, on issues around digital technology in Higher Education. It contains three research papers which capture snapshots of current practice, and 21 case studies from the BLE partner institutions and a little beyond, thus including practice from wider UCL.
The three papers focus on
the use of technology across the assessment lifecycle,
the roles played by administrative staff in assessment processes,
technology-supported assessment in distance learning.
The case studies are categorised under the headings:
As one of the speakers at the entertaining launch event, I suggested three reasons why everybody involved in Higher Education should read this book, in particular the case studies:
Processes in context:
The case studies succinctly describe assessment and feedback processes in context, so you can quickly decide whether these processes are transferable to your own situation, and you will get a basic prompt on how implement the assessment/feedback process.
Problems are highlighted:
Some case studies don’t shy away from raising issues and difficulties, so you can judge for yourself whether these difficulties represent risks in your context, and how these risks can be managed.
All case studies follow the same structure. If you are in a hurry, make sure to read at least the Take Away sections of each case study, which are full of tips and tricks, many of which apply to situations beyond the case study.
Overall, this collection of papers and case studies on assessment and feedback is easily digestible and contributes to an exchange of good practice.
About the BLE: The Bloomsbury Learning Environment is a collaboration between Birkbeck, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Royal Veterinary College (RVC), School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), UCL Institute of Education (IOE), and the University of London with a focus on technologies for teaching and learning, including libraries and administration.
See www.ble.ac.uk for more information.
My first two days as Digital Education’s new Distance Learning Facilitator (hi!) were spent at the UK and Ireland edition of MoodleMoot 2017 taking place in London. Presentations ranged from the more technical aspects of Moodle implementation to reports into its more pedagogically-driven uses and impacts. My note-taking over the course of a packed conference schedule was frenzied and now, upon writing this post, occasionally unintelligible, so rather than provide a full overview I’ll reflect upon two presentations in greater detail.
A Head Start for Online Study: Reflections on a MOOC for New Learners. Presented by Prof. Mark Brown (Dublin City University)
This project was described by Mark as a means of supporting flexible or distance learners’ transitions into higher education. Despite an established distance learning provision, DCU’s programmes had, like many institutions, experienced higher levels of attrition than those seen with more traditional face-to-face courses. Mark reported that this is largely attributable to the diverse motivations of flexible learners and lack of support at key stages of the study life cycle. DCU thus applied for and gained funding to produce resources that would attempt to bridge these gaps and improve outcomes for flexible learners.
DCU’s subsequent Student Success Toolbox, containing eight ‘digital readiness’ tools, and the Head Start Online course, piloted on the new Moodle MOOC platform Academy, aim to help potential flexible learners ascertain whether online higher education is right for them, how much time they have and need for study, their sources of support, and the skills they will need to be a successful online learner.
Mark focused on the outcomes of the Head Start Online pilot course. Of the 151 users registered as part of the pilot, 37 were active after the first week and a total of 24 completed the entire course. However, Mark was keen to stress that learners were not expected to progress through the course in any strict or linear fashion, and completion/non-completion can thus be an unhelpful binary. Feedback from learners proved very positive, with the vast majority believing that they were more ready to become flexible learners, better equipped to manage their time, and more aware of the skills needed for online study after taking the course.
Towards a Community of Inquiry through Moodle Discussion Forums. Presented by Sanna Parikka (University of Helsinki)
Sanna’s presentation described her use of Moodle discussion forums to facilitate meaningful and constructive online conversations that adhere to the principles of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework theory. Use of the CoI framework defines three vital elements of any educational experience as:
Social presence: the ability of learners to communicate and engage in social interactions within the learning environment
Cognitive presence: the means by which learners can build meaning through reflection and discourse
Teaching presence: how we design, facilitate, and guide learners through experiences to achieve the desired learning outcomes.
Sanna reported upon a range of approaches designed around the CoI framework, suggesting that it is possible to build social presence and give learners the chance to project their personalities online through simple ice breaker activities. Cognitive presence, meanwhile, can be developed through jigsaw learning activities. Cohorts are split into smaller groups of students who discuss and specialise in one specific topic before being redistributed evenly to new forums with specialists from each area and tasked with teaching their new group about their specialism. Teaching presence is built and threaded through each task by providing direct instruction, scaffolding understanding, facilitating discourse, and sharing personal interpretations of meaning.
Discussion forums are often unfairly criticised, most frequently for lack of student engagement. However, Sanna’s position was that basic interaction is not enough to develop engagement and create new meaning. Her framing and examples of practice underscored the forum as a versatile, flexible means of delivering not just discussion-based tasks but collaborative exercises too.
Consumer-ready virtual reality is just around the corner
Next year is touted as a potential for the ‘year of VR’ and as a wonderful precursor, people are already selling the hardware required for only 99p. Some are even giving it away. This will ripple into higher education with video being a likely contender for early adopters. But what is VR and how does one get it for 99p (or free)? Well you need a smartphone and around 10-15 minutes of your life…
What is VR?
Virtual reality was resting firmly in the ‘cold’ part of the ‘what’s hot’ spectrum for about 20 years; but over the last 18-24 months it has leaped from the ice to the fire in a rapid way. It is now so cheap you can have it for 99p; which smacks the technology depreciation/throw-away market so hard in the face it may have to reinvent itself too (some people already talk of throwaway tablets). But what does it mean, and why does higher education care?
If you want to find out about VR I’d point you back to a previous post, or you should search around the internet a little bit. It’s an emerging technology which places screens very close to your head, and sensors to know where you’re looking, to simulate you being in another environment. It also needs a computer to power the images you see, and the movements you make to look/move around it.
Oculus Touch – Coming Q1 2016
Oculus Rift is a simple example of a complex tech landscape. Popularised when bought by Facebook for $lots the technology plugs into your computer and can provide you with an experience which some say is immersive, and others say is nauseating or induces cybersickness. But please remember, these are developer units; they’re not consumer friendly (yet – Q1 2016 isn’t far off). This sickness is as close as you may ever want to get to experiencing a software bug!
Oculus, and many others, share a similar trait – they need a powerful computer to use them. I’ve tried it on my Macbook Air – I had forgot the machine had a fan; it became too hot to touch (near the back). The lagginess from the ultraportable didn’t help the sickness. All in all, eww & gross. Some other laptops are better, but it’s still a little off-putting when you’re new toy needs to be put away and you need to go lie down as recovery.
Enter: the smartphone.
Google Cardboard was a mini-revolution in the VR field. Being provocative, ‘not evil’ and generally idiosyncratic in their approach, Google released what seemed like the most basic VR product possible – Cardboard. This was a few years ago now but it enabled anyone with a smartphone to start playing/developing. Developers, techies and big children started buying these and exploring a new world.
Smartphone + Video = one way to VR
Your smartphone is insanely powerful for the size of it. It has a tiny display, a powerful CPU and GPU, motion sensors, location awareness, it is personalised and portable. Slotting it into a Google Cardboard now makes it a Virtual Reality device; as it can show content and sense your every movement. It’s also low-threshold, in some sense, because you are already comfortable with it. Video on smartphones is already mainstream. So what about 360, spherical or immersive video?
One example is vrse.works who released two documentaries; Clouds Over Sidra and Waves of Grace. These two UN-backed ‘films’ were two, touching, compelling and utterly enthralling pieces of cinematic content. Watchers in a UN building, somewhere nice and safe, watched in Clouds Over Sidra how Sidra, a young girl in the Za’atari Refugee Camp and having fled from Syria, would offer a chance to explore her world. Chris Milk, Director at vrse.works commented in a TED talk how VR can be a bridge to empathy for the experiences of others.
Google Cardboard wasn’t technically doing too much; it’s a complex puzzle the first time but you’re folding cardboard, adding lenses and sticking on a magnet. Children can do this; and many will this Christmas. The reason why? Cheap manufacturing has taken the cheap Google Cardboard and made it as cheap as the market can go; 99p! I have hunted on eBay and bought four of the rival offerings. I’ll report back with which is best, but from experience I am sure they’re all the same.
NYT- Free VR Kit
Just to kick it to everyone – on Sunday 8th November 2015 the New York Times gave a free Cardboard VR kit to every reader. Just to make a point? At this stage it doesn’t really matter; it got VR into another new audience, NYT readers (or their family/friends). You might even know someone with an unused voucher from their digital subscription, or willing to share theirs. NYT also released an App to share content and introduce their first documentary shot for the giveaway. Maybe, just maybe, they know it’s a part of the future landscape of journalism (like VICE News knows already) and want to break their readers in gently…
Back to the content – video first
Google Cardboard is also an app for Android and iOS. It has a video player which links to YouTube, which now supports 360 and VR video. If that doesn’t mean anything to you – STOP – and load this link (on your smartphone is best)
Welcome back to 2015
People are already making this content and there is a whole YouTube channel dedicated to it. There are also an increasing amount of apps for games, simulations, experiences, stories, social networking, explorable environments and more.
So what about higher education?
Video is the first logical step for changing HE. Who has not tried, or considered, lecture capture yet? Obiquity is likely but not so for VR, not yet anyway. To make 360/VR/spherical video you’ll need at least a 360 degree camera, which are also still quite expensive. But with this you’ll be able to capture any environment, action or event that is taking place. The trick isn’t necessarily in the editing, it’s in the experience you’re trying to capture. Imagine a researcher on a field trip; taking the watcher to a place they simply couldn’t go. Lab experiments can capture multiple synchronous events. How about an event that is so hard to replicate that you’ve only really got one shot – a rocket launching, blue moon Panda birth-type thing. The kind of event you want to capture but can’t even predict what should be in the frame, and what shouldn’t. VR video offers the playback of the whole environment, the viewer choses what to watch. It’s experimental now; but the power shifts towards the experience of viewing. Additionally; cameras can go when you can’t send a person; a volcano, to Mars or into the body – all quite tricky.
Proper VR needs a powerful amount of hardware; 99p VR does not. Video is a way in.
Limitation, there are still a few:
You need a smartphone. The cardboard on it’s own is only going to distort the back of a pice of cardboard – very real, not very virtual.
The official Google Cardboard app is for Android and iOS and it has a load of great content already (and more coming).
It’s 99p. It will not feel comfortable, it’ll break, get dirty easily and probably not hold all types of smartphone.
The really cheap ones don’t come with a strap for your head, so it’s hands-up to hold it.
They are not shaped to any head.
You’ve still got to put a thing on your head. Daftness points++
Throw it around, take it places and share it with people. It’s so cheap that 99p cardboard VR is worth the experiment if you have a smartphone. Also once used (or you’ve got bored of it) pass it on. Someone else can try it.
VR is nauseating but it also bring people right into an experience. Bugs will be fixed, hardware will improve, but this lack of gap between cheap and professional is similar to disposable cameras and SLRs. Say what you will about the smartphone requirement but it’s ever-more true that the world is connected via these devices. If they can also deliver a VR experience (and soon, capture them), imagine what’ll it be like when we’re all making the content too. It’s unlikely to become an immediate new must-have, but VR is coming and lodging itself in.
Closing thought on distance learning and virtual reality
I am learning, but the power of giving cheap VR to distance learners is certainly something to keep an eye on. This is one of my topics for exploration during 2016. I think it offers a unique and unchallenged method for connecting remote people to important things. We’ll see where it goes.
BoB (Box of Broadcasts) National is an innovative shared online off-air TV and radio recording service for UK higher and further education institutions.
Staff and students can record programmes from 65+ TV and radio channels. The recorded programmes are kept indefinitely in an media archive, which currently stores over 2 million programmes and are shared by users across all subscribing institutions. The archive also includes searchable transcripts and one click citation referencing.
The recordings can be set before or after the broadcast (30 day recording buffer). The programmes can be edited into clips and shared with others. They can also be embedded into Moodle.
To start using BoB, log in with your UCL user details http://bobnational.net/
Case study 3 – Facilitating communities of practice at UCL and beyond
At UCL I have facilitated and been involved in two active communities of practice. One external group called ‘Moodle User Group Greater London’ (MUGGL) is for e-learning professionals with an interest in ‘Moodle’ – an online learning environment. More historically, I helped this community have an agenda for meetings with a colleague, Sarah Sherman in a neighbouring university consortia the ‘Bloomsbury Learning Environment’ . The other, the ‘Distance Learning, CPD and Short Courses Network’, is an internal network I help steer for colleagues at UCL. These communities focus on “sharing best practices and creating new knowledge to advance a domain of professional practice”. Drawing on my enthusiasm for e-learning and connecting people, the communities I facilitate take me beyond my desk and into the wider sector (A5, V3, V4).
People often disappear into enclaves, with daily priorities overarching valuable reflective opportunities. I work responsively to sustain and grow communities with common needs, values, locale and domain of discourse. All too often communities around information technology end up as one-way monologs beset by dry jargon. Instead I plan active pedagogically-focused sessions and encourage sharing and collaboration. This provides a vital source of information, future utility (V3) and cross-sector discovery (A4).
I regularly participate in wider CPD events and read literature in the areas of distance learning, MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) and e-learning to remain current in my understanding and share my experiences within networks and social media (V3). For the internal community, I organise and deliver centralised updates from professional services and the wider context of relevant developments so colleagues can gain purview of the changing landscape of higher education and e-learning (V4).
Both communities started three to four years ago as special interest groups created around particular foci. I have encouraged expansion of both networks, with events often attracting 50–150 people and a core membership of many times that figure. With this increasing range of members I must ensure to maintain respect for the needs of the group when planning three-four hours of their professional development time (V1). Communities are grown, not constructed, and sharing and learning cannot be “legislated into existence”. I sideline my leadership in alignment with members’ interests to ensure events are planned with consultation and encouragement for active participation in each session. I make events accessible by adding remote attendance options and capturing them on video, to encourage participation and preserve inclusion for the diverse members of the community (V2).
I have received feedback stating I “did a great job organizing everyone and your presentation was beautiful”. Comments for MUGGL events have noted a “big crowd for the #muggl Moodle 2 meeting today” and “spent the morning at #muggl good presentations from @mattjenner […] we watch and learn!” Connecting people is an integral part, with one group visit commenting “how proud we are to work in such an engaging institution. Most participants left inspired”. In relation to expanding the community a senior member of staff spoke of a well-attended event that “the increase in numbers and interest across campus reflects the importance of this area”. Feedback is can be sporadic, but I take comments on board for future sessions and resolving any issues.
HEA Professional Standards Framework links referenced in this case study:
Areas of Activity
A4 Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance
A5 Engage in continuing professional development in subjects/disciplines and their pedagogy, incorporating research, scholarship and the evaluation of professional practices
V1 Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities
V2 Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners
V3 Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development
V4 Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice
 Dubé, L., Bourhis, A. & Jacob, R. (2005). The impact of structuring characteristics on the launching of virtual communities of practice. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 18(2): 145-166.