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Using technology-enabled learning networks to drive module improvements in STEM

Project leader(s): 
Lesley Boyd and Rob Janes
Faculty: 
WELS and STEM
Status: 
Current

This project provides one way to answer the need to close the feedback loop between OU tutors and campus-based teams, to develop a joint understanding of teaching and learning design challenges, and to put tutors as close as possible to the development of solutions.

This project used a ‘learning network’ approach as a collaborative and inclusive action-oriented problem identification and problem-solving process in Level 2 Chemistry, S215. The project built on and consolidated a previous eSTEeM project on identifying and addressing conceptual misunderstandings or ‘Tricky Topics’ in three OU modules. It is a collaboration between the STEM faculty (School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences), and Lesley Boyd who is undertaking a PhD on collaborative action research using ‘learning networks’ within the OU, for equitable and inclusive problem solving and integration of views from tutors, module teams and students. This means that it provides a process for scholarship researching with, embracing the expertise and experience of tutors, staff tutors, module teams and students, as opposed to more traditional academic researching on or researching for.

In the first project, S215 tutors identified a series of Tricky Topics1 and the tutors went on to design and implement a series of 4 intervention videos. However, concerns were raised by tutors about whether Tricky Topics alone got to the ‘root cause’ of the complex, interrelated and somewhat intractable issues facing the module. These included:

  • pace and volume of material, and students falling behind
  • student preparedness
  • overall study time spent including whether studying online or offline
  • opportunities for consolidation or practice of concepts.

Student preparedness was felt by tutors to be getting progressively worse year on year, in what was already a packed and conceptually challenging curriculum. Learning design mapping data indicated that several Blocks contained more student workload than was appropriate and exceeded current OU guidelines. Learning design analytics visualisations indicated low VLE engagement overall, in an online only module. Thus, the analytics added to qualitative feedback from tutors that pace and volume of material and student preparedness remained significant and ongoing challenges.

The tutors, staff tutor and module team participated in an unfolding collaborative inquiry process hosted in a separate VLE site, or learning network, where all the project data, discussion forums and online workshops could be held in one place, and visible to everyone. The purpose was to interpret the analytics, collaboratively reflect on joint experiences and insights, and decide on improvement action.

As a result, as series of ‘signposting’ materials were developed by a tutor for five Blocks identified by tutors and students as ‘pressure points’. The signposts were promoted to students via Real Time Student Feedback (RTSF) questionnaires in the Study Planner. This communicated to students that the module team were aware of and investigating the workload issue and provided reassurance to students who may have been falling behind. Thus, targeted practical and emotional support was provided to those students requiring it.  

Signposts have been evaluated very positively by students. Tutors considered the project to be a ‘welcome collaborative process’ in which ‘key improvements were made, for students, based directly on the project reflection and solutions put forward’. Project data formed a backbone of evidence for the module Mid Life Review, to chart the development road forward for the module. The project thus contributed to the development of the module as a whole. It is envisioned that the lessons and evidence from the project will be integrated into the forthcoming module re-write (beginning 2021-22).

The entire process was facilitated by Lesley working in conjunction with Rob, and simultaneously conceptualised using Grounded Theory Method (GTM) as part of the PhD work. This has resulted in a new conceptual framework called ULTIMATE – Using Learning Technology in Making Action-based Transformative Enhancements. The ULTIMATE framework will guide teams through a structured but flexible collaborative action research-based process, which is designed to inclusively identify and address issues in complex learning design and delivery challenges. It can also be applied to other contexts and challenging scenarios which may be spread across geographical and functional boundaries.

ULTIMATE could thus assist module teams who are facing uncertain or indeterminate learning design and delivery situations and would like to encourage and embrace the collaborative integration of insights from their tutors, students, module team and other stakeholders, whilst embracing supporting data.

Related resources

Boyd, L. and Janes, R. (2021) Using technology-enabled learning networks to drive module improvements in STEM. eSTEeM Final Report (PDF)

Boyd, L. and Janes, R. ULTIMATE framework  (Excel)

Boyd, L., 2019. Using Technology-Enabled Learning Networks to Drive Module Improvements in the UK Open University. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2019(1), p.16. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/jime.529

Boyd, L., Janes, R. and Olney, T. (2019) Using technology-enabled learning networks to drive module improvements in STEM. Presentation at the 8th eSTEeM Annual Conference, 8-9 May 2019, The Open University. (PPT)

Boyd, L., Leach, C., Janes, R. and Olney, T. (2019) The search for collaborative improvements: using learning networks and learning analytics to drive module improvements in STEM at the Open University. Presentation at the Horizons in STEM HE Conference, 3-4 July 2019, Kingston University London. (PPT)

Boyd, L. and Janes R. (2018) eSTEeM induction presentation

1 See here for a Badged Open Course developed by the OU and hosted on OpenLearn, on Teaching and learning tricky topics, as a practice-based application of Threshold Concepts theory (Meyer and Land, 2006).

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