This week 3 members of Digital Learning, Roo Pescod, Dave Pollard and Robert Stillwell headed to Birmingham to attend the 2023 JISC Digifest conference.
This year AI is was a prominent theme given the recent hype surrounding chatGPT and the concerns about it’s potential to have significant impact both positively and negatively. There has been a recent scramble around the sector to improve tools that detect plagiarism in order to mitigate an anticipated increase in use of AI created content within assessment submissions.
The keynote on day 1 was an inspiring talk by Inma Martinez who is a leading authority in the fields of digital technology and machine intelligence actively working as an advisor to business and government internationally. She confidently demonstrated the breadth of her knowledge and expertise through her talk.
There is understandably a lot of anxiety about the potential impacts of AI within both society along with our field of education. Martinez began by discussing the way chatGPT had been irresponsibly unleashed online bypassing all the usual ethical rules of AI testing. In her opinion this was done intentionally by silicon valley to create hype around AI technologies which it certainly has succeeded in doing. She highlighted a number of the issues around chatGPT including the fact it was It was an unfinished system and contained significant bias.
Martinez then continued with a more positive reminder of the fundamentals of what AI can offer and why it could have such significant positive impacts for humanity – namely it’s ability to identify patterns within huge data sets, something well beyond human capability. Then followed a reminder about what AI’s weakness and why humans partnering with AI systems is key – tacit knowledge, situation knowledge and experience.
The talk then moved into a discussion about the potential opportunities that AI could afford education. Utilising it’s strength in identify patterns through large data sets it was highlighted that AI could be used to identify not only struggling students but help support them in their areas of weakness in ways that suit their individual needs or preferences. Of course in order for this to be possible requires much progress to be made in terms of learning analytics and data quality.
As a team, a significant part of our remit in Digital Learning at Falmouth is online course development. This is another area that AI could have implications for – identifying areas of courses that could be improved and making suggestions for those improvements. AI also offers the potential to create smart content to optimise the way you teach and how students are learning. It could be possible for every student to have content delivered to them in a personalised construct and format that suits their preferences and level – likely based on previous analysis of optimal methods based on performance of outcomes.
Another area of discussion in a few sessions was how do we address the subject of AI generated assignments. Fear of technological developments is certainly nothing new. It questioned the importance for retention of information vs the ability to locate and critique information and use it in a meaningful way – e.g. does the recall of information make a doctor effective vs what you do with it and the importance human soft skills and instincts. Universities in general have very rigid structures and processes designed to efficiently process essay submission. It is one of the most time and cost efficient ways of assessing but likely for many students not the most effective or fairest way of measuring knowledge attained and comprehension. There could be a need for these was of assessing to change radically should we choose to not accept and embrace AI content generation.
In a panel session I attended there was talk of using AI to create a starting point- for example, in creative writing. Rather than dealing with a blank page, having something you could then modify or build upon could really help some students or even practitioners in general. A key skill going forward will be the ability to critique content created by AI rather than simply trusting it as a truth.
Another very important point made in a few talks including the keynote by Martinez was in importance of digital access and inclusion. It’s vital people aren’t left behind with these rapidly technological developments.
One thing that was also made clear particularly in the session with Martinez was the increasing importance of creative thinking. This feels particularly pertinent at Falmouth and I feel our values of being creative, connected and courageous are as relevant as ever.
Another take away from the conference for me was the excellent session I attended by Lev Gonick, chief information officer, Arizona State University. They are doing some fascinating work looking to impact their community and improve access to learning but whilst there are clearly significant differences between such a huge US university and Falmouth. It was interesting to hear about how they had flattened much of their hierachy in order to be able to work in a much more agile way to respond to challenges and innovate more effectively.
However, I felt a key message was the importance of being willing to take risks in order to innovate. I feel these don’t always need to be at large financial expense either, small interventions for example using existing tools in original ways have the potential to deliver positive impacts. ASU have been incorporating AI within their curriculum for a few years now but it was interesting Gonick highlighted use of AI within creative writing specifically.
It is easy to forget that AI features are already widely in use across the education sector. For example in institutions using Office365, (a few I’m sure), Microsoft Word has a number of AI enhancements already built in. In one of the panel conversations I attended it was pointed out that students could be in a position later this year where our own institutional tools could cause students to create work that is in breach of our own assessment policies. Clearly we need to react to these developments quickly.
The second day of Digifest coincided with International Womens Day and featured a fantastic keynote by Prof Sue Black. An emotional and inspiring journey through her life and career demonstrating the importance of supporting women in developing their digital skills and confidence and huge impact that can have on future generations through her #techmums social enterprise. This also led me to reflect on the many talented women we have within our Digital Learning Team and the invaluable part they play in our team culture and the work we deliver.
This my first conference attendance since joining the team at Falmouth and felt proud of what we are looking to build here. Whilst the is always a lot that can be improved, I feel that we have much of the right ambition, skills, strategy and people to really aspire to innovate and create meaningful, effective and inclusive blended and online learning.
My key take aways were in summary
Rather than fear tech developments such as AI, think creatively about how you can include them in your teaching / assessment
AI will likely deliver real world tools that our students will need to be able to understand and utilise these technologies in their professional careers – we should be preparing them for this.
AI has the potential to improve access to content and how we create and deliver online learning along with identifying and supporting struggling students.
Accessibility, equality and inclusion are more important than ever to ensure we don’t end up with divided and disempowered sections of society.
Taking risks and being innovative will lead to huge changes and potential improvements in how we use technology in education
Large organisations could increase their agility and abilities to handle change through flattening hierarchy and encouraging collaboration
Falmouth University is going through a period of rapid growth, by significantly increasing the amount of online degrees that we offer to students. This offer already includes an impressive variety of creative courses including degrees in Visual Communications, Creative Writing, Fine Art, Indie Game Development, Comedy Writing, and many more.
Delivering effective online learning environments for creative courses requires online solutions to support students through their studies. Where traditional campus-taught courses may find students sharing studio space, having group seminars, or working with physical artefacts that can be shared and annotated, synthesising these learning experiences online takes a different approach.
Many of our online courses resolve this by using a WordPress blog provided by CampusPress which we call the Falmouth Journal. WordPress is an extremely powerful website building platform, on which over 43% of all websites are built (w3techs.com. (2022)). Working with industry standard software like WordPress helps to improve digital skills and gives students great experience for future self-employment or working in the creative industries.
Falmouth Journal fulfils many roles across different online courses, depending on their needs. Some courses provide private online blogs for weekly tasks, some blogs are open to other students to share and comment on each other’s work. Academic staff can access student journals to comment on work and check in on student progress.
We have tailored the Falmouth Journal blogging experience to keep it as simple and effective for students and staff as possible. We have incorporated student guidance into the tool, and embedded an introductory quiz into our VLE to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to learn the basic WordPress skills they will need to use their journal.
All online courses use the same templated Journal that students take with them for the duration of their course.
When students arrive, their site front page includes guidance to get them started and category headings in the menu referring to the type of work they will be creating on the course. Work can also be categorised to keep the journal well organised over the course of study.
Journals can be lightly customised by students, and all sorts of media can be uploaded into blog posts and linked, providing a good range of formats for displaying and sharing work.
Example 1: Falmouth Online MA Fine Art – Sharing work and receiving feedback
A great example of the default template for Falmouth Online working well is the MA Fine Art course.
The importance of Journals for this course is driven by the nature of the work being produced (physical visual art, or art that produces visual artefacts), and the logistics of distance learning. Where students studying Falmouth’s traditional on-campus Art courses are provided with studio space to create and show their work, online students create their work all around the world and need to synthesise the natural sharing and conversations which happen when staff and students are physically in the same space.
Journal’s layout and multimedia capabilities are perfect for this, allowing students to share pictures of work and blog about how their practise and artworks are evolving, as well as providing space for reflection on their own and other artist’s work
Importantly this doesn’t refer exclusively to finished work. Part of artistic practise is experimentation with ideas and materials, skill sharing, and investigation. The Fine Art journals offer a curated look at what the students are working on, rich with images and reflection.
The Fine Art course leader was pleasantly surprised by the success of Journal on the online course.
“The students really like it, and started using it much more than we expected. Because of that we’re spending a lot more time sharing work in Journal than in the forums”.
This enviable culture of sharing didn’t happen by accident, and has evolved through dedicated engagement from the staff on the course. What has made these journals so successful is that students are incentivised to post because they know that staff are regularly looking at their Journals and giving feedback through the platform.
When academics on other courses tell me that students are not engaging with their Journals, I always talk about Fine Art. Rather than seeing student disengagement as a failing of the technology, the design, or the students, I think it is important to ask the question: what are students are getting out of using their journal?
In my experience, students engage with Journal for two reasons:
Because they are required to (i.e. when the journal is an assessed artefact)
In order to receive feedback from academics when they share work
Although Fine Art’s journal is not assessed, they manage to combine these two motivations by integrating use of the Journal as a core part of the course. Fine Art students absolutely have to use their Journals because it is the platform where they share their work.
Notice that these motivations are both about using Journal to share work. The biggest mistake I’ve seen in Journals that fail is that academic staff expect students to create blogs posts that nobody is looking at.
Example 2: Architecture online exhibition space
Although the vast majority of Falmouth Journals use the same individual template, there are some other supported uses which fulfil different learning and teaching needs. One example of this is the Online Exhibition template, pioneered by the Architecture department during the Pandemic.
Staff wanted a way to simulate small mid-term exhibitions that all years of the Architecture courses previously participated in to share their work with staff and students in the department.
The template we designed is a shared Journal, where every student can create their own ‘project post’, curate the content, and categorise it by their year of study. The front page shown in the screenshot acts as a filterable catalogue, with one image from each project displayed alongside the student’s name. Each project has its own comments section where staff and students can comment on student work.
The template has since been used by other courses for similar internal exhibitions, and some common themes of support have arisen through that use.
Where individual journals are structured into the fabric of online courses, students are supported to use them by embedding a short course of instructional videos within a concept checking quiz in the VLE. Thereby teaching students the basics of Journal before they need to use it. With the one-off nature of the Online Exhibition template, this structured introduction usually doesn’t exist, and therefore the burden of teaching students to correctly use the Journal falls on the academic staff.
Connected to this, the workflow for students follows a specific process of creating a project, giving their name as the title, correctly categorising it, and adding a featured image, all of this before adding the content of the project. Any of these steps that go wrong need troubleshooting by the academic, so ideally the Journal needs a member of academic staff to take responsibility for the exhibition. In fact, the most successful examples have been curated entirely by an academic, with students supplying their work and the academic uploading it to the Journal themselves.
As always with Journal, this is a successful example because it is being used to share work and to give and receive feedback. Although again this isn’t an assessed piece of work, engaging with Journal is essential to participate in the exhibition, so there is sufficient impetus for students to engage.
When used well Journal can be a useful tool for sharing work and facilitating feedback online for a range of tasks. However these individual portfolio and group exhibition templates are simply tools, the learning experiences that students engage in still need to be well planned, structured and nurtured by staff.
Before using Journal it is important to remember that there is a staff and student learning curve which needs to be considered, and an ongoing admin commitment for academic staff. If students are not seeing the benefits of the platform they may not be motivated to use it, so staff need to be checking in and giving feedback throughout a module in order to maintain that motivation.
As useful a tool as Journal can be, there are many situations where simpler, lower time-cost tools like Padlet, MURAL, or simply a discussion forum are more suitable platforms.
Designed to facilitate collaborative peer to peer feedback, the template can be used to facilitate peer review activities in online sessions and face-to-face classes, and can be deployed as a live or asynchronous activity.
Lecturers are expected to create content on VLEs such as moodle, sometimes with no training in technicalities or design (be it graphic or instructional). Below are some pitfalls noted while dealing with helpdesk queries relating to Falmouth University’s VLE, Learning Space.
Each module has its own page split into weekly sections. Within a section, you need to balance the number of clicks a student makes against the amount of scrolling they have to do.
The use of Folders or Pages or downloadable documents can greatly reduce the need to scroll and allow the student to grasp an overview more easily. However, it is all about balance: don’t ask students to download multiple documents that each only contain a paragraph of text.
Chunking is worth planning from the start as it is time-consuming to put right once content has been created.
Use of icon-style images can be appealing and helpful when done professionally. However, over-use of large images that aim to function like icons can create clutter and confusion. If you are not “graphic design aware” then keep things simple and avoid.
Whether an image serves a serious purpose or is merely “eye candy”, it needs to be kept to an optimal filesize. This is an issue most lecturers are unaware of and have no training in, resulting in some module pages that require students to download 100 (yes, sometimes 100) times more data than is necessary. Staff need to know how to resize and compress an image BEFORE they upload uploading and embed it.
Poor text formatting
This may result from cutting and pasting from either a webpage or a Word document, or may be overzealous formatting, with copious amounts of bold, underlining and colouring. To avoid carrying unwanted formatting into Learning Space, paste plain text into the editor (on a mac, Cmd+Shift+z) rather than a simple paste (Cmd+z). Thereafter, exercise restraint when tempted to add formatting.
Presenting the same thing in the same way is difficult to achieve in a UK HE setting where module leads may be left to “get on with it” with little guidance. If you can’t be consistent with your colleagues, then do strive to be consistent within your module and “chunk” in the same way each week.
You’ll have noticed that the above all relate to basic content presentation and not to choice and use of activity tools. That is for another time!
In this article, Digital Learning takes a look at a shared space within the Learning Space built for the School of Film and TV.
Collaborative learning will not be unfamiliar to our students, indeed it’s built into the curriculum in ways students will recognise such as group work and projects. These collaborative opportunities will be common to arts subjects and are especially relevant for those studying Film and Television where working inter and intra-disciplinary is vital. (more…)
As a relatively new arrival to the team (3 months in) I felt it might be good for me to share and briefly discuss this article capturing the excellent work that has gone on at Falmouth developing an excellent environment for online working. Having had mixed experiences in the past with working remotely and the support I received, this was an important consideration to me joining this team at Falmouth and how it would impact requirement of my role in coordinate the work of the Learning Technologists team.
Amy Sampson, as leader of our department has worked hard over the last few years putting together a number of “ways of working” which have been adopted and are now our norm. Our department has been growing rapidly with some of us working fully remotely and this work has been key to our success so far and will be more so going forward.
I am a passionate believer in the importance of staff being supported and empowered in order to be happy in their work and productive too and I have found since working in Falmouth that this work has helped significantly in achieving this working predominantly online within a growing department.
As we reflect on a successful roll out of MURAL across all 9 departments, we continue our series of posts with our practical top-tips for facilitation.
1. Start simple
MURAL has brilliant functions for slick facilitation and media-rich contributions from students and staff, but we recommend you start simple and ease your students (and yourself) into using a new tool.
By starting simple you’ll remove barriers to engagement and ensure learning and progression can be accessed by all.
A few weeks ago we invited all of our colleagues at Falmouth University to an event presented by the team behind MURAL. For those not in the know, MURAL is a digital tool that enables collaboration online between staff and students. It allows users to easily share ideas, images and designs for brainstorming and teaching purposes!
When our account manager from MURAL, Sasha, offered to run a session with Falmouth it was too good of an opportunity to turn down! In this post we want to share five things we learned from the session which may also help take your facilitation to the next level!
The Learning Designer is a relatively new role at Falmouth and is often referred to as an ‘academic developer’ in our community.Our responsibilities mostly involve being the voice of the intended person a learning activity is being delivered to. Through our experiences and research, we advocate for good practice, proven pedagogical practices, and the learner’s motivations.