The Open University runs a centre called eSTEeM which funds research and scholarship to enhance and develop STEM education. For the last few years, the centre has run a conference that serves a number of purposes: to showcase research, to create a space to get people talking (and potentially collaborating) with each other, and to offer an opportunity for academic professional development.
What follows is my own personal summary the two days of the conference. There were a number of parallel sessions to choose from. My approach to choose them was very simple: I chose the sessions that packed a lot in. This meant that I chose the paper sessions rather than the various workshop sessions were on offer. At the end of the blog I offer some very short reflections based on my experience of the session.
The conference was opened by Diane Butler, who introduced the introductory keynote speaker, Tony Bates who used to work at the OU and also the University of British Columbia. Tony has recently written an Open Text Book called Teaching in a Digital Age. I made a note that Tony opened with the observation that there is ‘a lot of change’ and this has direct implications for teaching and learning at the university. One of the key forces of change is the need for skills, i.e. IT skills that are embedded within a subject area; knowing skills that are specific to a discipline. An accompanying question was: what are employers looking for? Certain skills are really important, such as active listening, speaking and critical thinking.
Learners need to practice and develop skills and to do this they need regular feedback from experts. I made a note about that technology isn’t perhaps the most appropriate way to develop the soft skills that Tony mentioned earlier. An interesting question was posed: what does an advanced course design look like? There were some suggestions (if my notes serve me well): perhaps there might be student generated multimedia content and assessment by e-portfolios.
Tony also spoke about trends: there are new models of delivery; there is face to face teaching on one side, and fully distance learning on the other (and everything in between). An interesting point was that every university in Canada had fully online courses, with 16% of all course enrolment being to online courses and programmes. Traditional universities are moving into the space where distance learning institutions used to dominate.
An interesting new trend was the notion of hybrid learning: looking at what is best done in the classroom and what is best done online. I made a note that Tony said there was ‘no theory about what is done face to face versus online’, which strikes me as surprising.
A significant trend is, of course, MOOCs, but it was reported that there was no MOOC mania in Canada. Other trends included open educational resources and open text books. The point is that we’re now at a point where university professors offer learning support and not content and this has implications for teaching and learning.
Tony concluded by leaving some points for the university: that technology is continually changing, that there needs to be flexible accreditation for life-long learning, and perhaps there needs to be an agile approach to course (or module) development. Also, all universities will be or are going to be digital (in some way or another).
Paper session: Supporting students
Lessons in retention success: using video media to influence students
Jessica Bartlett spoke about her experiences working on S282 Astronomy. There are some immediate and obvious challenges: students numbers are falling and the module contains a lot of maths. An interesting point is that 50% of the students studying this module were not from the STEM faculty (which is where all the maths is studied).
The aim of the project was retain more students and help more students to pass exams. The module uses formative tutor marked assessments (TMAs) which means that the module team can reuse questions but can’t (of course) provide model answers to students. I recognised an interesting comment: ‘students don’t often look at their mark, ignoring their feedback’. The module team made videos about how to deconstruct and approach the TMA questions. I made a note of something called ‘reviewing your TMA’ activities, which encourage students to look back at what they’ve done (which sounds like a great idea). There were also weekly videos, where the filming and editing was done by the module team.
Evidence that bootcamps can help student retention and progression
Tom Wilks also spoke about S282 Astronomy but within the context of a ‘bootcamp’ that was designed to offer addition student support. Tom recorded short tutorial sessions that covered a range of topics: basic maths and physics, general OU study skills, how to use the VLE and how to use the Adobe Connect conferencing tool. 28 Adobe Connect sessions were recorded, each lasting between 2 and 10 minutes in length. These sessions were advertised to all students, who could access a forum and an Adobe connect room. Other resources include something called an ‘are you ready for quiz’ which is also used with some computing. Tom commented that tutors can refer students to his recordings if some students were struggling with certain concepts, and he also found that students did re-engage with materials when they were approaching their TMA.
Flexible/early start M140
Carol Calvert gave a talk on her work on introducing a Flexible or Early start to M140 Introducing Statistics. I’ve heard Carol speak about this subject before, and she always delivers a great talk. Her research is based on an earlier study where she looked at students who succeed despite the odds that are stacked against them. One of the key findings of this research that one thing can really make a difference, and that is: starting early.
Carol’s intention was to create an ‘early start’ experience that was close to a student’s experience when it officially begins. This means they have access to materials, can access the VLE site, have access to tutors, and can access to resources such screen casts and software. 400 students were sent a message offering them an invite to start early, and 200 responded saying that they would. Tutors offered sessions on study skills and tutorials on content. Another advantage is that if students do start early, they will know sooner whether they are on the wrong module, which can be really useful, since there are significant fee implications if someone finds themselves on the wrong module. If you’re interested, more information about Carole’s scholarship is available on the eSTEeM website.
Improving retention amongst marginal students
Anactorial Clarke and Carlton Wood spoke about an access module: Y033 Science Technology and Maths. Access modules are important due to the university’s commitment to widening participation. Y033 is studied by 1K students per year and students who have successfully studied this module (as far as I understand things) can apply for a fee waiver. 25% of students declare a disability and access students are offered 1 to 1 telephone tutorials since previous research has suggested that sympathetic and supportive tutoring is crucial to student success. The study that Anactoria and Carlton introduced use a mixed method. They looked at the completion of S111 Questions in Science and Y033. Students who have taken the access module are more likely to stay with the module; the point being that access level study builds confidence (and emphasises the importance of access).
Paper session: online delivery, tuition and international curriculum
Synchronous online tuition: differences between student and teacher
Lynda Cook and other colleagues asked a really important question: what are online tutorials really like? An accompanying question is: do we meet our student’s expectations? Students on 2nd level modules were surveyed, recorded tutorials were studied, and students and tutors were interviewed. Students reported that very few were using microphones (which isn’t a surprise to anyone who had attended an Adobe Connect session) and an analysis of recorded tutorials suggested that lots of features were not used, with the exception of the chat box.
The interviews with tutors revealed that when the recording button goes on, students are reluctant to talk. One conclusion is that students’ value tutorial recordings but students don’t like to interact. A personal note is that there is a conflict between interactive and recorded lectures and I don’t think the university has quite some way to uncovering the pedagogic opportunities afforded by online tools such as Adobe Connect (and, in some ways, this links back to some of the themes mentioned in Tony’s keynote).
Understanding tutorial observation practice
It was time for my session. I spoke about a short project that aimed to ask the question: ‘what is the best way to observe tutorials?’ I approached this question by doing three things: carrying out a literature review (with help from a brilliant tutor colleague), and conducting two sets of focus groups: one with tutors, and another with staff tutors (the members of the university who usually carry out tuition observations).
Some of the themes that emerged from the focus groups directly echoed some of the themes in the literature. An important issue is to understand what tuition observations are for: are they for development, or are they for management? (The answer is: they should be used, in the first instance, for development; the observers can learn a lot just by observing). An outcome from the project was to uncover a set of really useful tuition guidelines that have been used and developed by colleagues in Science. The next step in the project is to formally write everything up.
An international comparative study of tuition models in open and distance learning universities
Ann Walshe, a colleague from the school of Computing and Communications, spoke about her visit to Shanghai Open University (SOU) where she was a part of a group of visiting scholars. Ann reported that SOU emphasises vocational and life-long learning. Whilst it does offer bachelor degrees, it doesn’t offer postgrad qualifications. It was interesting to hear that SOU ‘does its own thing’ and tries not to compete with other local and national universities. It has a particular emphasis on blended learning and face to face teaching, having 41 branch schools for both full time and part time students. Interestingly, students have to attend a mandatory F2F induction.
The visiting scholar group were from a range of different institutions, including Chongqing radio and TV university, University of South Africa, the National Open University of Nigeria, Cavendish University, Zambia, Jose Rizal University, Phillipines, and the Netaji Subhas Open University, India (which apparently has 120 study centres, with more opening). Ann’s talk emphasised the importance of distance learning and its global reach.
Unpacking the STEM students’ experiences and behaviours
Jenna Mittelmeier’s presentation was about the challenges of Online Intercultural group work. I enjoyed Jenna’s talk, since it was a very research focussed talk that asked a very specific question: are students more motivated when they study materials related to their own cultural background? In other words, what are the benefits of matching content and activities to the membership of a multi-cultural group? Jenna described a randomised control trial in the context of a Dutch business school. In an activity, students were asked to look at something called the World Bank statistics dashboard and it was found that students participated more when using content from their own background. A qualitative survey suggested that internationalisation (of a study context) did improve participation but did expose tensions. There was an important point, which is that content needs to be made relevant to student’s lives and experiences.
Paper session: supporting students – STEM practice and engagement
Using a dedicated website in the continuing evolution of a statistics community of learners
Rachel Hilliam and Gaynor Arrowsmith introduced us to something called the Maths and Stats Subject Site. Before the university restructured and closed regional centres, students could attend course choice events where they could look at module materials from the regional centre library and talk to academic support colleagues and speak with other students. In an environment that is increasingly digital, an important question is: can we recreate that in an online environment? I made the note that it is (of course) important that students feel a part of a community. There is a Maths and Stats advice forum, maths education forum, and information about professional and subject societies. There is also advice about preparing to study, revise and refresh resources, are you ready for quizzes, and early units from some modules.
Implementing additional maths support for Health Science students
Nicola McIntyre, Linda Thomson and Gerry Golding spoke about their experiences on SDK100 Science and health: an evidence based approach. An important aspect of the talk was that a maths tutorial was replaced with 18 short videos covering mathematical concepts, such as decimals, percentages, scientific notation and powers. There were also two workshops which were advertised students by email, and two tutors selected and briefed on format of the workshop. I noted an important point: it’s not enough to only provide videos, the workshops are considered to be an essential component.
Two mathematicians and a ukulele
Hayley Ryder and Toby O’Neil are module team members for M208 Pure Mathematics. The module is run through a single ‘cluster’, which means that there is only one group of tutors who teach on the module, and it has 25 hours of tuition sessions. From what I remember, there was a view that students wanted more contact with module team.
One way to address this is to record a series of informal online tutorial sessions where Hayley and Toby talk through different mathematical concepts and also discuss what is discussed on the module forum. The idea is to convey a sense of ‘what mathematicians do’ and to build ‘mathematical resilience’, a concept that has a number of aspects: (1) the fostering of a growth mindset, (2) that maths has personal value, (3) knowing how to learn maths, (4) knowing how to find appropriate support. The sessions focussed on the first three of these aspects.
An important point was that the presenters can easily make mistakes when doing things ‘live’ and this shows that real mathematicians can get stuck, just like everyone else. As for the ukulele, this also connects to the concept of learning; this is an instrument that Toby is learning to play (and I understand that he plays it during sessions!)
A secondary analysis of SEAM responses for programming and non-programming modules by gender
Joseph Osunde from the school of Computing and Communication studies the issue of gender disparity in computing and IT. Joseph offered an important comment during the start of his talk: ‘reasons [for gender disparity] may include learning environment[s] that convey gender stereotypes on interests and anticipated success’. To learn more, Joseph has been looking at university Student Experience on a Module (SEaM) survey results.
As a staff tutor, I regularly get to see SEaM survey results and I have my own views about their usefulness as personal development tools and sources of useful research data. This said, Joseph found that there were no significant differences in achievements between gender for modules that required students to learn about programming and those that didn’t. Joseph (with Anton Dil) looked at M250 Object-oriented Java Programming. It turned out that for modules that contained programming, like M250, men seem to be more satisfied with them. When these were again compared with non-programming modules, the result is a bit more mixed.
Whilst this is an interesting finding, this does suggest that there is some more research to be done. A related question is: to what extend are different people motivated by modules that contain programming? Also, just as our colleague, Gerry Golding has carried out research (which I mention later on) into ‘mathematics life histories’, I do feel that there might be an opportunity to study something that might be called ‘computing life histories’ to understand the qualitative reasons for differences in satisfaction.
Closing keynote for day 1
The closing keynote by Bart Rientes was entitled a ‘critical discussion of student evaluation scores and academic performance at the OU’. Bart began by telling us that he used to be an economics teacher where his teaching performance was regularly evaluated. Drawing on this experience, he asked a significant question: ‘did my increase in my [evaluation] score mean that I was a better teacher?’ He asked everyone who was attending a similar question: ‘are student evaluations a good proxy for teaching excellence?’ Bart directed us to an article, entitled: Student satisfaction ‘unrelated’ to academic performance – study that was featured in the Times Higher.
We were given another reference to some published research that was carried out on behalf of the QAA. Digging into the QAA website later took me to two reports that are both connected to the themes of learning, student satisfaction and quality assurance. The first report, entitled Modelling and Managing Student Satisfaction: Use of Student Feedback to Enhance Learning Experience was by Rienties, Li and Marsh. The second report has the title: The Role of Student Satisfaction Data in Quality Assurance and Enhancement: How Providers Use Data to Improve the Student Experience was by Williams and Mindano.
Onto a personal reflection about this (keynote presentations are, of course, intended to get us thinking!) As mentioned earlier I’m very aware of the OU SEaM surveys. In my experience as a tutor line manager, tutors only tend to receive a couple of responses for a group of twenty students, and the students who do respond often have a particular cause to do so. This observation connects back to Bart’s opening point, which is: what can these measure of performance (or satisfaction) tell us? The fact is that education can be difficult and frustrating, but it can also be transformative. Sometimes we only can truly judge an experience (or feel satisfied with it) when the effects of our experience have become clearer over an extended period of time.
Paper session: Supporting students and technologies for STEM learning
Using student analytics with ALs to increate retention
Gerry Golding spoke about some of his own research into Maths life histories, an idea that, as far as I remember from Gerry’s talk, originated from a researcher called Cobden. Gerry interviewed people to understand how adults coped when studying advanced maths topics and touched on the importance of high school experiences and maths anxiety. Maths life histories can students help to understand the cause of their anxieties and help them to think about what affected them. In turn, these reflections can be used to build and develop self-efficacy to help them through the hard times and facilitate the development of a growth mindset. In terms of this bit of scholarship, initial contact with students is important. Also, the university virtual learning environment (VLE) is not a big deal, because students are studying using books. I have to confess, that I didn’t pick up on the main outcomes of this bit of research, since I started to think about Gerry’s idea of ‘life histories’.
Analytics for tracking student engagement: TM355 Communications Technology
Allan Jones spoke about TM355 Communications Technology, an important module in the computing and IT undergraduate programme. The module has three 10 point blocks, printed books, 3 TMAs and a final exam. It is also a module that makes extensive use of the VLE.
Students study what is meant by communication technologies and how they work, such as how you modulate waves and signals, encode data and correct errors. The module also makes use of 30 computer aided learning packages. Data analytics are used to track the use of the online parts and comparisons are made between two presentations and students are interviewed to understand their motivations.
It’s a bit more complicated than that: STEM OU analyse evaluation
Steve Walker asked a question that was implicitly linked to Allan’s presentation: can learning analytics help students to complete modules? The answer was: no… until something is done with the data. The reason for looking at this subject was both simple and important: retention is important and there is the need to figure out what works, for whom and in what context, and why.
Steve introduced a term that I had never heard of: realist evaluation, and directed us towards a paper by Pawson and Tilley (PDF) which is (apparently) used in medical education. Points that I noted down that sounded important included: mechanisms, interventions, outcome and context. 7 associate lecturers (ALs) were interviewed by members of a module team using something called ‘intervention interviews’. An observation is that the term ‘analytics’ is used in different ways. I also made a note of a simple model, which has the components: identify, diagnose and intervene.
Java specification checking
Anton Dil spoke about the evaluation of a prototype tool for M250 object-oriented programming tutors. M250 students need to write some object-oriented software code. This includes creating something called ‘classes’. These classes have contain a number of ‘fields’ (or data stores) and are designed to carry out certain actions which are started (or invoked) using something called ‘methods’. Student code can be automatically evaluated in a couple of ways: you could write something called a ‘style checker’ to assess what code a student has written, or you could assess its functionality through using something called unit testing. The module team have written a tool called checkM250 that could be used by tutors.
Eight tutors were surveyed and 6 tutors were interviewed. Tutors didn’t use the tool because they didn’t know about it, didn’t have enough time, or didn’t think they needed it. If they did use it, they were likely to recommend it, but they were unsure whether it could highlight things that were missed. I made note of the quote: ‘if you asked me previously whether I missed things, I would say: of course not’. Tutors did report that it could be useful. My own take on tools for tutors is that any tool may be useful (and I write that in the context of being a tutor!)
Digital by Design: workshop
The conference workshop was, interestingly, run by a theatre group. The key concept behind the workshop was an observation that the ‘coffee break’ discussions in conferences that can be just as useful as formal presentations. Instead of having further talks, the idea was to create a long session that is, in fact, one long coffee break where participants could move between different discussion groups.
Another important idea is that anyone can propose a topic for discussion. Whenever someone decides on a topic, a delegate chose a post-it note that indicates when the topic is going to be discussed, and where in the large room that discussion is taking place. Participants can see a summary of the topics that are being discussed at any one time and participants are, of course, encouraged to move between different groups, according to their own interests. It was a neat idea.
I proposed a topic: how do we develop and support our associate lecturers to do ‘digital’ in the best possible way?’ Examples of other topics included: how should we be using social media apps to communicate with students and each other, how do we become experts in advising students at how to study onscreen, and how do we decide when digital is appropriate and when is it not?
During our ‘coffee’ conversation, I was joined with two colleagues. I soon began to think about whether there might be something that could be very loosely called the ‘digital associate lecturer capability model’. I sketched out a model that had three levels: university systems and tools (such as Adobe Connect), module tools (such as module specific computer based learning products, like there is in TM355) and common IT systems and products (such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint).
During these discussions, I was reminded of a JISC project called Building digital capability that the OU library was connected to and involved with. This also provided a useful framework that could be used to guide AL development. In later discussions, I discovered that colleagues from the OU library were already using this framework in AL development sessions.
Everyone’s experience at a conference is, of course, likely to be different. I had a simple objective when I was attending this eSTEeM conference, which was to attend as many presentations as I could to try to get a feel for the breadth of projects that were happening across the university. In some respects, there was one commonality that jumped out at me, and that was the use of videos or personalised recorded tutors that were customised to the needs of students. Underpinning this is, of course, the use of technology.
During the conference, I heard presentations from module teams and presentation from tutors. I also understand that some students were attending too, but I didn’t get to speak or hear from any of them. This links to an important reflection that it is really important to hear the student voice; we need to hear stories about what has worked and what hasn’t worked. This said, eSTEeM scholars are always asking students questions through surveys and module teams are always looking to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
A final thought is this: I’m still not sure is meant by ‘digital by design’ but I don’t think that really matters. We access materials, write materials, and carry out our scholarship using digital tools. What I think is really important is how we use these digital tools in combination with each other. Digital technologies in their various forms might new and seductive, but ‘digital’ tools cannot be transformative if you can’t see or understand how they might be used. There’s something else that is even more important: what really matters in education is people, not machines. It is people who can show us which digital tools can help our studies.
Note: A version of this blog was also published on Chris Douce’s personal blog on 25 May 2018. Slight editorial differences may exist between the two version.