The future of online learning

Written by Kesta Kemp.

Kesta was one of our first Student Digital Champions and is now a graduate of Bristol University. This post was written in July 2020.

Covid-19 has proven to be an extraordinary challenge for both university staff, lecturers and students alike. The demands have been unparalleled, having to shift to a new and unfamiliar way of teaching and learning, in the midst of unrelenting uncertainty. However, both students and staff have met this challenge with creativity and determination, and shown the opportunity that such a shift can have in the future.  

In a recent World Economic Forum article, it stressed that Covid-19 has caused universities to challenge deep-rooted notions of when, where, and how they deliver education, the distinction drawn between traditional and non-traditional learners and the importance of life-long learning. It is clear that the lessons learned from this transition can, if purposed effectively, lead to the evolution of a new, more effective, educational model.  

The perks of Online Learning:

Before the pandemic, online learning environments existed as a backup, It was a store of course materials; it wasn’t where the learning took place. However, Covid-19 has highlighted the opportunity of the digital learning environment: it can be engaging, enriching, and accessible. While this transition has definitely not been plain sailing, there are some definite perks of online learning that students have pointed out.  

Flexibility:

Online learning offers a more flexible education system. This relates not only to the place of study, but also the timing.  

Students have been able to study from across the globe, no longer having to be in the University’s radius. This has led to some students making the decision to not return to Bristol, and live at home or in other cities of their choosing.  

Online learning has also meant that students have been able to fit their other commitments, such as work or their personal life, around their studies rather than what has previously had to be the other way around. They also have had more time in their days – with the commute to campus gone. In this way, university has become more inclusive and accessible to a greater number of people.  

Multimedia Learning:

University of Bristol in the past year has been working hard to ensure that online learning is more than just a recorded lecture. New and more inventive forms of learning have been introduced and tested, with student feedback being pivotal in these transformations.  

Videos, quizzes and other interactive media are now part of how students learn, and discussion boards allow for conversations to continue and ideas to be recorded outside of lectures. Shorter lectures have also been encouraged, splitting the traditional 2-hour lecture into smaller, separate parts. Indeed, The University of Leeds’ vice-chancellor, Simone Buitendijk, has said 45-minute lectures are “outdated” and “pedagogically not sound”. She is in favour of shorter online chunks, which can be debated in class, and completed in the student’s own time.

Digital Skills:  

The move to online has also mirrored the increasing focus on, and opportunities for students to become more digitally comfortable and confident. Experience in online meetings and online platforms such as Mural and Teams, are crucial skills that make students more attractive to employers. Students’ ability to adapt to this shift in learning hones them with the skills they will need in the future workforce.  

The future needs to be human-centred:

While it is important to focus on the positive, it is important to note that online learning can equally be disengaging, isolating and lack the spontaneity of in-person experiences if it consists of merely uploading a recorded lecture online. Like in other aspects of society, the future is likely to be a hybrid model of online and in person-teaching, but to be successful it needs to be human-centred, creative and dynamic. Indeed, giving students the options to pick predominantly online or in-person modules allows both flexibility and the personalisation of the degree experience, which is long overdue. It has to be said that while many are excited to be back on campus, many modules have been more successful online.  

The focus, therefore, needs to be on enabling interactions between students and staff.

This means re-using recording asynchronous material to free up staff to be able to engage with students in more 1:1 time. 

The focus on experimentation needs to continue.

Including students in the conversation even as this transition starts to feel more normal. This period if anything, has shown the value and importance of co-creation in the learning experience.  

Assessment needs to be more creative.

While the pandemic has shown that timed, silent exams are outdated, the week-long exams are equally not productive for student wellbeing. Assessments need to be chosen based on their ability to represent real world settings, creativity and learning, rather than memory. The inclusion of podcasts, blogs and research-dissertations is a good example of this.  

Student Digital Champions: Summer 2021 Update

Suzanne Collins

Digital Education Office


Since November 2020, we’ve been lucky enough to have worked with a team of Student Digital Champions from across all six faculties in the Uni. They’ve been out and about, talking to students and course reps to tell us what’s important to students in their digital learning experiences.

This summer, we have had a new team with us, who are helping us with key work we’re now doing to prepare for the new academic year ahead. They’ve been looking at assessment guidance, hybrid learning, support for students using MS Teams for learning, improving our digital skills courses Digitally Ready and Digitally Ready: Reflect and Reboot (which you can find from our Student Support page), and more. We also have a dedicated team of Student Digital Accessibility Champions, as accessibility and inclusion is going to be a real focus for all our work over the next year.

This summer, we’ve been working with:

Arts:

Annie Walsh (UG) and Hollie Smith (UG)

Engineering:

Deepthi Nanduri (UG) and Gloria Bosi (UG)

Health Sciences:

Jessica Mounty (UG) and Emma Ford (UG)

Life Sciences:

Leah Parker (UG) and Helena Thornton (UG)

Science:

Hamzah Teladia (PGT) and Estefania (Nia) Deniz Fuentes (UG)

Social Sciences and Law

Olivia Muggleton (UG) and Alex Maskell (PGT)

Our Student Digital Accessibility Champions are:

Freya Selman – Social Sciences and Law UG
Elizabeth Hodge – Life Sciences UG
Georgie Pitts – Social Sciences and Law UG
Isabella Coombs – Engineering UG

Reflecting on the Student Digital Champions in 2021

At the end of our first group of students, we made with them a short video reflecting on our experiences, which you can watch here.

Why the student voice is so important, and how I am using mine to shape the digital learning experience for others

Written by Helena Thornton

Student Digital Champion and Undergraduate student of Psychology


When I began at the University of Bristol in September 2020, I had no idea what to expect. If university at all is a big step to take, moving across the country to start my degree in the middle of a pandemic felt like a giant leap. There were so many unknowns: of course, I had the more usual university concerns of whether I would like my flatmates, learning to cook for myself, and working out how to write a university-style essay. However, alongside these I faced Covid-specific questions: How I would receive my teaching? What would online teaching look like? Would it be accessible and engaging, or isolating and frustrating? Could I still build a social life with impending lockdowns and restrictions? 

A year on, many of these questions have been answered in some way or another. And, I am pleased to say that, while my first year of university was certainly a strange one, there were definitely positive elements of the experience. A lot of this has been down to how the university has managed to facilitate learning and even social opportunities online over the past year. 

Online learning took a while to get used to. One of my favourite things about it has been the flexibility it provides: I have enjoyed being able to watch pre-recorded lectures wherever and whenever during the week! This has been particularly helpful for me as someone with a disability: being able to break a lecture up across a longer period of time when needed, or spend a bit of time re-playing a part I didn’t understand, has definitely made the content more accessible.  

As expected, there have also been difficulties associated with learning almost completely online: from the more general problems, such as feeling more isolated from others on the course, to the more specific confusions around how to get Blackboard and other pieces of software to work!  

As the year progressed, I began to realise that, despite having almost exclusively online learning, there were still a lot of ways I could get involved with the University, and with other students. I started off by joining societies, and as I had an interest in Accessibility and Inclusivity, I sat on various committees as a Disability & Equalities Representative. This was a great way to meet people, and to help to build student communities online, by organising virtual events and participating in campaigns.  

It also made me realise the huge variation in student experiences of online learning, and of university as a whole. The switch to remote learning and online assessments has been much easier for some than others. It’s so important that anyone disadvantaged by the new systems, or struggling to adapt to them, is given a voice, and access to the support and resources that can improve their experience.  

With this in mind, this year I have started as Chair of the University’s Disability and Accessibility Network, leading the student platform for students with a disability, mental health condition or neurodivergence. This is an exciting opportunity to work with other students, finding ways to amplify their voices and improve their experience. 

As well as this, this role – alongside the others I have had in the past year – have (and continue to) offers fantastic opportunities to work with University members of staff, particularly those focussed on improving the student experience. As someone both with a disability and in a representation role for other disabled students, it has been really great to get involved in this type of work, being able to feed back about the different experiences students have had, and looking at ways to resolve the difficulties that come up.  

When students are placed in a position where they can speak and be listened to about the problems – and successes – of university learning, powerful changes can be made. For example, last year the Disability & Accessibility Network worked with the University to highlight the gaps in disability accommodations being provided in online assessment formats. As a result, new solutions were found, which have had an important impact across the University to the student assessment process. 

Going into second year, I have also started working with the Digital Education Office as a Student Digital Champion, a student role where I can give feedback, work on projects, and create resources alongside the DEO staff members. Although I haven’t been in the role very long, working with the DEO has been a really positive experience: it not only gives students a voice, but also provides a channel through which to collaborate with staff at the University to improve the resources available to students ourselves.  

The Student Digital Champions, alongside the DEO, are able to work together to improve the online learning experience for students. As we all have unique experiences of online learning and assessment, we can use these to ensure that the DEO’s priorities are as relevant as possible, and are approached in ways that can make a lasting impact for students.  

As a result, I am now not only able to answer the questions I had as a new student facing online learning, but am able to help create these answers myself! At a time when there has been so much change to the university learning experience, this is a great way to ensure that the new systems and ways of learning are positive changes, and I am very pleased – and proud – to play a part in that. 

If you would like to find out more about the Disability and Accessibility Network, feel free to visit our SU Network Page: https://www.bristolsu.org.uk/groups/bristol-su-disability-and-accessibility-networkor our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BristolDSN,or join our Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/bristolsudisabilityandaccessibilitynetwork/. 

Digital Skills: What are they and what’s the point?

Written by Hamzah Teladia, Student Digital Champion.

We live in a digital age, and more of our lives will become digitised – therefore we must embrace technology. But where does University fit in? We all come to university for one primary goal – to get some kind of employment afterwards. For the vast majority of us, we will join an organisation that operates on digital platforms, and if you are in an ‘office job’ your whole job will likely be done via a laptop or computer.

Laptops on a table
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

University develops you as a person, giving you increased confidence and allowing you to develop your basic skills. These include organisation and communication skills, as well as increasing your knowledge in your chosen subject area or in whatever else you chose to be involved in. Underpinning all of this are your digital skills and competencies. For those of us who are getting through the Covid era, this has been more so the case than ever before. Before, as a basic, most of the material we accessed was via virtual learning platforms such as Blackboard, and we communicated with the University via email when we needed to. Now, we do this much more and have to rely on videoconferencing to interact with the absence of in person contact.

This means that these skills are more valuable than ever before. The workplace is changing, with employers who were not so receptive to remote working beforehand now embracing it. Those who already were have taken it further, therefore the culture of the workplace is changing, and we as the generation growing up with this change are equipped for it.

So, what are digital skills?

Simply, even checking emails and responding in a professional manner where necessary constitutes the basic of digital and professional skills. Employers look for and expect this as a precursor, and this impacts on the way you portray yourself during application processes.

Picture of a laptop keyboard
Photo by Chris J. Davis on Unsplash

Or, digital skills can be as complex as being versed in coding, data processing and visualisation technologies, if you have the opportunity to be exposed to these – likely those in computer science related fields or just a keenness to digitally upskill. If so, you are equipped for the data explosion the world is currently undergoing, and which underpins most of our institutions already – it is also experiencing more demand than supply.

Digital skills are therefore everything in between, but we can start with the small, basic steps. Check your emails regularly, as emails are part of professional life. Manage and use a digital calendar to schedule your time and meetings as a minimum. Think about netiquette and your wellbeing online. Exploit the access to various platforms on offer, such as the Microsoft Office suite. Cloud based platforms, such as Office 365 are all the rage and another additional to your digital toolkit, allowing you to collaborate effectively.

Digital skills matter more than you think, even the simple ones, and even realising this unnoticeable skillset will enable you to actualise the foundation for your future career.

Check Edge and Chrome are up-to-date if submitting work to Turnitin through Blackboard

If you are submitting work to Turnitin through Blackboard, please ensure your Edge or Chrome browsers are up-to-date, or use a non-Chromium browser such as Firefox or Safari. If you don’t, you may find your ‘resubmit’ button doesn’t work.

How to check your browser is up-to-date: Edge, Chrome

ICT Proficiency icon

ICT Proficiency

Knowing how to keep your browsers, software, and apps up to date is a really important digital skill. Often, updates fix known problems, improve security, and give you a better experience. As in this example, sometimes older versions of software experience bugs or problems, which can impact you at important times like when you’re submitting assessments. Most of the time, you’ll find the option to update your software in that software’s settings. If you follow the links in the post above, you’ll see how to do this in Edge and Chrome.

Digital Research Database – Promoting collaborative research in an online setting.

Written by Tadeas Dvorak, Student Digital Champion

Group of young students
Group of young students in cooperation By Jacob Lund from Noun Project”, under CC BY 2.0.

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post on the various pedagogies that support students to become better researchers. There I was making an argument for higher education to act as a platform for communities of practice (CoP), a learning partnership between learners themselves. CoP is a participatory approach to embedding research into curricula, where students practice research together. The University and Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching have delivered a set of activities that take a form of CoP, be it the Festival of Undergraduate Research or the Undergraduate Research Journal.

In the past few weeks, I explored the idea of a digital research database, that would run on CoP principles. This would be a database where students could register the topic, timeline and contact details for their research project. When starting on a new research project, students would be encouraged to check if someone else has explored a similar research question. If interested, they could contact the original research team to discuss the topic, share findings and tips on how to take that research question forward. Likewise, when carrying out a research project and in need of advice or skillset, they could add a note to their project page, asking other students for help.
There is a ton of student research projects being carried out at the University. The database could foster collaboration across disciplines and years, ensuring that research progresses, and we build on the findings of previous projects.
The database would work in line with pre-registration and open science. Researchers register their study in an online database (such as OSF or PROSPERO), this includes basic information about the research question and the study design. When developing a new hypothesis, researchers screen the database to ensure they do not duplicate an existing research project.

Digital Research Database – Is it worth it?

I began exploring the desirability and feasibility of this idea. Feedback received was positive and suggested the database could be benefit students, bringing them together and sparking new research interests.

‘I would love this, I’d find it so interesting to find out what others are doing, and to see who has had similar ideas to me before me, or wants to collaborate with me! And also, it might inspire people seeing the work of others, and get them thinking about what they could do. I would also be really happy to be contacted after graduating if I’d done some research that a student is interested in, as I think this boosts conversation between alumni and current students!’ [undergraduate student]

‘Great idea to rise. Primarily as when it comes to dissertations, this is always a very important place for this kind of resource to be available. Our course kindly made all past years dissertations available, and I personally am building upon the conclusions of a past dissertation so have found it invaluable.’ [postgraduate student]

It would however require a good deal of UX design to make the database efficient and easy to use for students.

‘I could definitely see myself checking it around my workload, although it depends how easy it would be to filter, as I wouldn’t want to waste ages just scrolling through tons of research that I’m not interested it, I’d much rather only see research I’d want to read / collaborate on.’ [undergraduate student]

Digital Research Database – Can we build it?

I was in discussions with BILT and an Engaged Learning Coordinator at the University to explore the feasibility of the idea. The University has previously run SkillBridge, a platform aimed at connecting external stakeholders and organisations with student researchers at Bristol. There is currently the myOpportunities portal run by Bristol Futures and Careers Services, aimed at advertising volunteering and skills exchange. There is however no platform that would exclusively act as a research repository, promoting research collaboration.

The Research and Enterprise Development (RED) team at the University manages database of ethical approvals. Most research projects at the University must be pre-registered on this database to obtain an ethical approval. RED stores basic information about the projects but there is no public or student-facing solution. This leaves space for discussions with RED, exploring whether the database could have a front-end solution, where every researcher at the University could go and see if someone has explored a similar research question.

Implementation of this database is beyond the scope of my Student Digital Champion role but I will be very pleased if this blog post inspires someone to explore the idea of a Digital Research Database further. Future Student Digital Champions and BILT Student Fellows, the floor is yours!

Online breakout rooms: a student’s perspective

Written by Alex Maskell, Student Digital Champion.

Image of a girl on laptopAs we were thrown into the deep-end of online learning during the covid-19 pandemic, a new phrase appeared in our vocabulary: breakout rooms. As the concept of breakout rooms emerged, it picked up a rather negative stigma among students. Virtually entering a small room with fellow students, who may or may not sit there in silence for 25 minutes, became a daunting prospect.

Image of Blackboard collaborate room
Image of Blackboard collaborate room

The concept of breakout rooms? Undoubtedly phenomenal. Seamlessly moving from a whole cohort call into smaller groups to discuss the seminar work without the pressure of speaking in front of your tutor or the whole group should have been favoured by students. Breakout rooms provide an opportunity to engage with lecture material and stay focussed in seminars. Furthermore, it would increase social interaction for those struggling with the national lockdown. Breakout rooms are an opportunity to meet other students on your course and discuss the looming deadlines or the questionable jokes made by the lecturer that week. It is this small, indistinct chatter that normally occurs whilst waiting for the class before you to leave the room, or outside the lecture theatre, that many of us have missed this year.

So how is this different on an online call then it is in person? Phone calls and FaceTiming is not foreign to our generation which suggests turning cameras on and virtually communicating with one another should not have been a problem. However, casually catching up with a friend over facetime is a completely different ballgame to addressing academic content with other students that you may or may not know that well. Online learning itself was a whole new experience. I’m sure I speak for many when I say I’ve experienced countless occasions in which no more than 3 words are spoken for the entirety of the breakout room. There are the frustrating technical issues, such as microphone or wifi issues, and the reluctance to turning cameras on which inhibits casual chat. It is also worth noting that the long months of lockdown took a real toll on many people’s confidence with social skills. After spending many months communicating only with those in our households, it is unsurprising that speaking into a laptop, to people we don’t really know, is a nerve-wracking concept. Perhaps too much of a focus was put on the academic requirements of breakout rooms rather than the opportunity to check in with one another.

Hands on a laptop
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

In my opinion, the lack of designated roles made breakout rooms near-enough impossible to navigate. No organisation’s board meeting, or committee meeting, would go ahead without a shared understanding of who would initiate each conversation topic, who would take notes and who would provide further questions for thought. As soon as breakout rooms are set, you question everything. Should I be the first one to speak? Should I start with casual conversation or go straight in with completing the task? Is it my turn to speak? Do I need to give any context of who I am? Am I talking too much? This self-doubt and overthinking leaves you with a sense of relief when the message pops up saying you’re re-entering the main room.

Image of a girl on laptopAs time went on, you’d expect that students would get used to breakout rooms and be more willing to participate. However, stigma surrounding them built, so where do we go from here? Options include scrapping them all together; some of the most engaging online seminars I’ve had this year have been whole group discussions on Zoom, facilitated by our tutor who encouraged contribution from all students. Alternatively, we can re-consider the purpose of breakout rooms and the opportunities they present us. Online learning was an experience we never expected to find ourselves in and the short time frame we had to get used to it has left a number of warped opinions on the digital learning environment. It is unclear what the next academic year will look like but breakout rooms will likely prevail in some shape or form and it is important we look for the benefits in them.

The Digital Education Office are hiring!

Following on from the great work of our Student Digital Champions, Bristol Futures Mentors and previous student interns, the Digital Education Office are now expanding our student roles within the team.

Student Digital Champion 

The UoB Digital Education Office (DEO) are looking for passionate students to work with us to ensure that all students can get the most out of their digital and blended learning experiences at Bristol. As a Student Digital Champion, you will be talking to students, course reps and staff members to hear to what is or isn’t working in our online learning environments, and identify good practice in teaching and assessment. You will be working as a team, with the DEO and other Student Digital Champions, to identify and address key challenges the student body are facing when learning in an online, blended or hybrid environment, and then propose, pilot and implement practical solutions. In addition, you’ll be adding your own personal experiences and feedback to the work of the DEO, and helping us shape the work we do in real time. To apply for this role, you need to be a current student at the University of Bristol. You’ll be working an average of 3 hours per week for three months spanning July – September, and we hope to provide a possibility of continuing in the role for the 2021/22 academic year.

Student Caption Editor

The UoB Digital Education Office (DEO) are looking for a team of postgraduate students with great attention to detail and editing skills.

As a Caption Editor, you will review and edit automatically generated captions through the Re/Play Service. You will consult academic staff where needed and will work with the DEO to provide feedback on the accuracy of the service and help identify areas for improvement.

 

Whilst you’re here and if you’re a student, why don’t you subscribe to our blog? Student facing and all things digital.

Bringing the cohort together: Student solutions to the problems of online isolation

It’s no surprise to anyone that a lack of social interaction has been really difficult for many of us this past year. In our context of university life, this has shone a light into what a social experience learning really is for a lot of us, and what a huge loss there is when suddenly you’re studying alone. Learning together adds motivation, a sense of belonging, a sense that others are in it with you, a way to sense check your own ideas. It’s that intangible magic of feeling like you’re ‘at university’ which is easy to lose online. How can we possibly foster that feeling when we’re all in our own four walls and without the atmosphere of a lecture theatre, library or seminar room? 

This year, the DEO have been working with a team of Student Digital Champions, spread across all faculties in the university, to try and find out. They were tasked to listen to students, hear their concerns and bring them to us so that we could foreground that student voice in our work. They didn’t stop there though, once they identified common issues arising in the student experiences of online learning, they wanted to do something about it. 

One thing they head from students is just this problem of isolation: students were finding the experience of online learning lonely, and felt that they are missing out on the social aspects of university study. We know that a lot of work has already gone into solutions for this problem across the universityThe brilliant Study Skills team ran ‘Study Lounges’ as early as last summer, and we at the DEO worked with them to make a toolkit for these sessions, so that anyone could run them with their students too.  

The Student Digital Champions decided they too wanted to do something practical, and worked with staff and students in their schools to develop and pilot a series of toolkits and case studies for different kinds of events and activities aimed to bring students together online. The idea is that staff or students can use these as inspiration and practical help to run a session like these in their own contexts. 

All of our Student Digital Champion case studies can be found from the DEO Case Studies pageHere are a few examples which are all focused on increasing a sense of belonging and overcoming student isolation when studying fully online, whether that’s within an online session, at a school level, or as a networking or social event. 

Working with the students in this way this year has been incredible for us in the DEO. They’ve been coming up with ideas and suggestions for how to make positive changes, and we’ve been co-creating solutions which are already impacting the current cohort of students. It’s not always been easy, and these aren’t magic bullets, but maybe they’re a step in the right direction? 

If you want to try out any of these ideas, why not find a few likeminded people in your school and give it a go. Don’t forgot to let the DEO know how you get on, we’re really interested in hearing from students and staff about whether these suggestions are helping to make a difference.  

The new space by the Digital Education Office to talk digital

This blog is a work in progress. It’s being created by the Digital Education Office in collaboration with our Student Digital Champions.

In time we hope it’s a space full of ideas, contributions and tips by students for students on all things digital learning. It’s also a space for the DEO to alert students to news or information on our software.

For all things digital education, contact the DEO via the usual channels, or visit our website bristol.ac.uk/digital-education

Find out more about the Student Digital Champions