Digital is the convergence of a variety of technologies and social changes that have led to a new way of living our lives. Our students are the epitome of this new digital reality – they create and consume content in a very different way to previous generations.
“The integration of digital technology into all areas of a business resulting in fundamental changes to how businesses operate and how they deliver value to customers.
Beyond that, it’s a cultural change that requires organizations to continually challenge the status quo, experiment often, and get comfortable with failure.
Digital transformation is not solely about technology. In fact technology is only one part of the puzzle. Digital transformation is about meeting the needs of the new digital consumer – be they staff or student. It involves new understanding and cultural change. For more on this see Paul Boag’s Digital Transformation: The six questions you need to answer.
At the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) we are at the beginning of this transformation process. There is a commitment to develop and a will to act, but so far efforts have not been as co-ordinated as they could be.
However this is about change. We are working on a new digital-focused strategic approach to be integrated in our IT strategy and Learning and Teaching strategy. It will form the backbone of our digital activity and allow progress to be made in a comprehensive and integrated manner.
We want to share our transformation with you and intend to blog about the journey, bumps and all.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to run any events but as a team we did attend many of the interesting webinars that took place, including the all-day event run by the Government Digital Service. One of their sessions was on ‘How to avoid common accessibility statement fails’ and considered the public sector accessibility statements that need to be online by September this year in order to comply with the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018. The event provided a final check list for the VLE statement that we have been working on.
The statement is one of many measures we are taking to ensure we comply with the digital accessibility regulations. This summer we plan to have a comprehensive training programme for our academics and accessibility will be one of the core areas we cover. We will also be promoting the great accessibility tools that we already have as an institution (SensusAccess, Read&Write, Office 365 tools, MindGenius). Currently we are carrying out a lot of work looking at our pre-recorded video captioning, this will be using Panopto Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) and other captioning services. There is a lot going on!
I wrote and performed the TEL TALE immersive audio drama exploring the inner thoughts of Learning Technologis.. Check out epsiode 1 Blend it Like Beckham.
During Lockdown I presented at the PressEd2020 conference which takes place on Twitter exploring the use of WordPress, Education, Pedagogy and Research. Presentations invove a series of curated and time bound tweets. The presentation explored digital accessibility on WordPress. The Twitter ‘Moment’ can be found here – Close Encounters of the Accessible Kind.
The other day Jisc posted a little video taken at Digifest 2020. The video featured Steven Hope, Head of Independent Learning at Leeds City College, Esam Baboukhan, Microsoft Learning Consultant and I chatting about communities. It was the result of a 20 minute session that we took part in as part of the Jisc community champions 2020 activities. You can watch the video here or from the tweet below.
Today I was interviewed by Hannah Tennant from Jisc for an article they are writing on communities. I waffled a lot (as I do) but I think one thing that crystallised for me was how communities have helped us during the Coronavirus period.
The main ways are:
Filtering out the noise – there was so much information flying around as we pivoted our courses online but communities helped separate the wheat from the chaff.
Collating and organising resources – communities and individuals took all this information and organised it. I saw lots of collated lists with explanations on why these resources were useful.
Sharing best practice – communities have helped us share best practice and come up with consensus as to how we, as the online learning/learning tech sector, should act.
Sanity check – for those working in smaller organisations it is often difficult to know if you are on the right track. Communities offer reassurance and allow you to have confidence in your actions.
Advocating – communities are a little like mission groups in that they advocate on your behalf to senior management. Being able to cite suggested approaches from an established community makes your case.
Image from the Planning for the end of lockdown online webinar. Attendees were asked to indicate where on the line they were in starting to prepare for September delivery. How reassuring to see others were also far from ready.
So thanks to some of the communities that have helped so much during this busy time:
Jisc – They’ve put on lots of events and surgery sessions, created a Coronavirus page, set up a useful Coronavirus Team site and the Jiscmail groups keep us all going.
ALT – They have produced some great reports and their weekly newsletter is essential.
AdvanceHE – Lots of very well though out guidance and support.
DigiLearn – A great Teams based community with lots of fantastic practical webinars.
HELF – Discussions on the Heads of eLearning Forum (HeLF) list are incredibly useful at a strategy level.
UCISA – In particular the Digital Capabilities Group and the Digital Education Group.
Twitter – Always useful.
OER communities – too many to mention but sharing is most definitely caring.
As part of online teaching our academics are facilitating more and more online seminar sessions. We have been sharing what works well and what doesn’t and here are some of the tips so far.
Before the session
Prepare – have a plan in your head, even if you don’t share it with students.Decide when exactly things are going to happen e.g. when will you run a poll.
Create teaching notes or add notes to PowerPoint slides.
Have a clear goal for the session e.g. “we are going to come up with 3 recommendations for Defra on xxxx”.
At the start of the session
Arrive reasonably early to give yourself time to deal with any issues.
Warm up activity e.g. getting people to write in the chat where they are located, or scribble on a Whiteboard their favourite snack.
Informal chat – start with an informal catch up but then announce the official start of the session.
Technology – Run through the buttons with students at the first session, suggest they mute mic and turn off video if lots of them.
Video recording – be clear on if the session is being recorded, explain who it will be available to and how people will get hold of the recording.
Assign roles – ask one student to take notes, one to check the chat, one to keep an eye on timings etc.
Questions – decide how you are going to deal with these. Should people raise their hand, should they ask in the chat, should they wait till the end of a talk? Should questions be prefixed with a Q so you can easily pick them up?
Provide clear expectations for students e.g. you should set yourself a target to write 2 chat comments and make 1 audio comment.
During the session
Share something – could be slides or notes, gives students something to look at and comment on.
Break time – Get everyone to stand up and touch their toes half-way through!!
Chat – Encourage people to use it.
Group activities – people go off, start their own Team meeting and then come back and share feedback.
Timer – time different activities e.g. we are going to talk about A for 10 minutes, then talk about B for 10 minutes, we then will decide on C
Polls (use Whiteboard, use forms, use Polly, use Polleverywhere or another free tool).
Questions in chat – add in questions to the chat and get students to comment on them.
Land Based Learning Online – A collection of online courses that students can register for complete in collaboration with Landex Colleges and Universities. Some complement face-to-face courses and students can be registered by their institution. Others allow self-enrollment.
PDF library – 130 Landex PDF packs converted into online learning.
On 22nd April the RAU had its first undergraduate online open day. The day was co-ordinated by marketing and combined a number of different elements.
Pre-recorded online introduction videos – From our Vice-chancellor and key academics. Many of the academic videos introducing our schools and programmes were delivered in Panopto.
Live Q&A/Chat sessions – These Zoom webinar sessions were for different academic subject areas but also covered support services (Admissions, student finance, bursaries; Accommodation, student support services and careers; Student life; International students). Sessions were facilitated by marketing but also included key staff and student union representatives.
Email follow ups – Attendees could follow up the sessions with provate conversations by sending in emails to key staff.
Chatbot – We have an RAU chatbot who can answer general questions about courses and other areas.
Other videos and support materials – A selection of other videos and web pages cover areas including a day in the life of a student, a virtual campus tour, social life at the RAU, bursaries, admissions and Coronavirus.
A list of our forthcoming open days is available from the RAU website.
Unfortunately due to the current situation we have had to postpone our Vevox pilot. Vevox is a live polling app that supports real-time audience engagement. We went through a procurement process at the end of last year and were really impressed by the ability to integrate Vevox with PowePoint and our Moodle VLE. It would have been a great tool in the box for our online delivery, but timings have got the better of us. We hope to restart things in the new academic year.
In the meantime the Vevox community have been really welcoming and invited us to their Vevox arms virtual pub quiz. The quiz was run in Zoom but used the Vevox app to deliver a series of questions, from straight multiple choice questions to numeric scales and word clouds.
The setting for the quiz was the Vevox Arms and the quiz master, Peter Eyre Managing Director for Vevox, kept us entertained with jokes and tales of Vevox life. There were also some interesting warm up questions like ‘what do you miss most now you are isolated?’ – it won’t be long till the hairdresser beats the pub!
Vevox is clearly a very friendly company and we are really looking forward to getting our pilot set up and ready to go!
Just a few short weeks ago we were exploring ideas on how we would change some of our learning spaces into more versatile spaces that would allow more student led collaborations and still work well for didactic teaching methods.
We wanted to gain insight into the pedagogical areas/ concerns that were key drivers in the project as well as what other changes they needed to make to maximise the use of the spaces, basically learn from their hindsight before we embarked on our own project.
We visited UWE first and had the chance of viewing spaces on two of their campuses, namely Glenside and Frenchay. Both had completely different feel in the spaces and quite rightly they were set up for different delivery approaches.
We started off at Glenside campus; which in a lot of respect is like our RAU campus, steeped in history and mishmash of old and new. The main building was a Bristol mental asylum back in 1844 and over the years it has been a war hospital and now an educational setting. The campus has health and applied sciences degrees only being taught there which is evident with the different types of simulation suites dotted around the campus.
We were shown a few rooms and the ideas that led to the design or choice of furniture. The pictures below show their first ever learning space that they redesigned to be a more collaborative teaching space. It was novel at the time and the approach was not driven by pedagogy as such at the initial stage. They had a vendor and showed them the space and the design brief was open- “What can be done with the space that will maximise the floor space and not have tables and chairs in a row?”
Here are our very own Head of ITS Alun Dawes and Learning Technologist Chantal Schipper watching a presentation delivered by the health and applied science faculty Digital Learning Manager Tom Buckley.
Being the first space to be converted, adoption was mixed and took a bit of time. Training was provided to staff on how best to use the space and even a chart on how to use the rooms was used to spark ideas for the users when they booked the rooms beyond the initial training sessions. This is still in use today.
Frenchay was our next stop on the tour. It is the biggest campus and we saw spaces in three faculties: health and applied sciences, business and law and mathematics. We got Senior Learning Technologist Glenn Duckworth who drove the project for the business and law spaces to present how they started and how the learning spaces went through different iterations; each offering a learning curve that would feed into the next. The pictures below are the TEAL rooms (Technology Enhanced Active Learning).
These designs were driven by pedagogic needs around student led learning, enhanced learning through collaboration and flexibility of teaching. Lot of consultations were done with the academics in order to titrate these needs. The final output were these TEAL rooms that have 6-seat bays which have about 6 in a room with extra seating at the front. The set up uses Kramer to allow staff and students to wireless project their content to the class via the screens in the room. Power supply for student devices were integrated into the tables and are well sought after by the students.
The bay- layout allows for fluid sessions as the academic can move around and engage with groups easily. These are now well used, very popular and frequently booked for teaching by staff. Due to the uptake they are now looking to increase the number of TEAL rooms on the campus. Feedback from students is that they like the rooms because it means any research-based task can be done in the same space as there is power, connectivity and the available screens to share content with their peers easily for discussions.
We then looked at quiet study rooms which have similar design concept in the library that are used by students for small group work. They had room booking displays so users can clearly see when they can use the space.
The rooms in the Mathematics department had similar arrangement but simpler solution with regards to how the PCs, screens were set up in the bays. What was transformative was the informal learning space outside the classes that transports one’s mind to want to learn. The spaces were set in a cool, contemporary and informal design. Using booths, tables and benches with some breakout spaces that were set up for hydration and taking breaks. This meant students could be there and do some pre-session learning before their classes and even thereafter, as they had most of what they would need in one place. I didn’t get a clean shot because it was heavily used and lots of students were about.
We ended the day with our Catalyst project presentation delivered by Chantal to the learning technology team at HAS.
Our next plans were to visit the University of Gloucestershire; we had everything coordinated; who to meet, which campus to visit and so on, then COVID19 hit the UK and all the lockdown measures were swiftly implemented.
We didn’t let this veer us off course. Our contacts at the university were so kind to host an online meeting to give us the insights of their project, how it all started and how it has transformed the spaces and usage across three campuses.
The meeting was chaired by the Strategic Academic Project Manager Dr Nic Earle. The key set of objectives for them were to provide spaces that would give opportunities for more enhanced learning, provide flexible technologies and decentralise the rooms. These were some of the images from that meeting.
From the images and discussions, we saw that each space had its unique set of design features that was suited for the space and how it would be used optimally. The changes are visibly dramatic as well as the change in how they are being used today.
What we took away from all this
Having this opportunity to see what has been done by other HEIs, showed we had a lot in common with regards to the design objectives
1.We all wanted to have learning spaces that would allow for fast transition from broadcast style set up into group discussion or student led work.
2. We all want flexible technologies that would allow for the academics to be able to push content around the rooms and be able to move fluidly to engage with the students on a deeper level
3.We wanted the learning to be deeper, active and engaging.
4.We all wanted spaces that would not hinder the learning process but rather encourage it in any way possible
What came out of this that we will consider, moving forward are
1.Power supply for student devices need to be integrated significantly in the rooms. This would allow the students ample time to commit to tasks and not be distracted by moving away to charge devices. Trunking around the room has been the most successful way of getting power into these rooms with minimal cost
2.Ventilation and lighting are critical to the ambience of the room and promote well being. Poor lighting could cause visual distress if there are reflections on projector screens or make the visual not clear if the lights are too bright. The advice we got was to use dimmers.
3.Flexible furniture are always sought after in consultation with staff but are seldom used in different configurations of the classrooms, using bays were preferred in the long run.
4.A lot of training for staff is required for the AV equipment and how they can use that in different teaching scenarios.
With the impact of COVID-19, no one is sure of how the learning environment and indeed the learning itself will be in the future.
So watch this space as we will continue on our learning spaces project and pivot our direction of travel to whatever the future holds; we will see the end of COVID-19 and thank you to our University of the West of England and University of Gloucestershire contacts for all their input.
We have now advertised for a Learning Technology support person to help us deliver high quality learning materials to our students. As those working in online learning will be aware, this is an incredibly busy time and there are a multitude of opportunities for those enthusiastic about technology and how it can support learning and teaching.
This is a 1-year fixed term post. Applicants can work remotely but may be required to attend meetings in Cirencester (when restrictions are lifted). The post is for an immediate start and applicants will be interviewed on an ongoing basis until the
position is filled. The interview will take place online.
These difficult times have resulted in a mass exodus from our work places and an exponential increase in home working. Prior to the outbreak Office for National Statistics data shows that only 8.7 million have ever worked from home in their current job, this is less than 30% of the workforce. The OFS fortnightly survey indicates that since the outbreak 46% of businesses have said that they have encouraged their staff to work from home in line with the government’s guidelines
For many this has been an abrupt and initially unwanted experience. As Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of WordPress and Tumble puts it in this Guardian article: “This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold”.
But for me it has felt a little like a flash back. I spent 8 years as a remote worker working and learned to love its quirks and embrace its benefits.
Ramblings of a Remote worker
My change in situation happened back in 2007 when looking after my young children whilst commuting to work became difficult and time consuming. The research department I was working in at the University of Bath was pretty forward thinking place and allowed me to start working from home provided I came on to site for important meetings. This approach meant that as a department we could recruit the best from round the country. I ended taking on a support role for our remote workers – at the time the biggest challenge was making sure that off site workers were not disadvantaged in relation to onsite workers – and it was at this point that my line manager recommended I start writing a blog to share my experiences. My blog was called Ramblings of a Remote Worker and by the time I closed it down in 2015 I had published 378 posts, which included 59 guest posts, had 914 comments and been linked to by over 2 thousand websites.
A tag cloud of the topics covered on my Remote worker blog
Even early on the blog took on a life of its own and I ended up being seen as a small-scale expert on the trials and tribulations of remote working (you can see my related presentations and publications, my Pinterest board, and my Slideshare). I’m not sure I was an expert just that not many people were blogging about it at the time. In 2009 I was lucky enough to win the remote worker of the year award and came home with a new laptop and a ticket for a weekend away at Cleveden house.
After leaving the University of Bath I moved to working for an completely distributed organisation. When I started at Open Knowledge (now Open Knowledge Foundation) we had a co-working hub office in London,. This was physical location at which to meet up, financial pressures at the time meant we stopped using it. Open Knowledge had hubs of people in particular locations (London, Cambridge, Berlin) but we comprised of employees from all around the world. This brought new challenges: how do you work remotely globally? What about time differences? Cultural differences? We would all meet each other twice a year for a week of intense face-to-face time. For many of us who had chosen to work as a part of a distributed team this physical experience was useful but also incredibly draining – you get good at working a certain way.
Working from home changed the way I worked. It turned me in to an open practitioner, someone who knows how to build community and work collaboratively. These things don’t come easy when you are far away from people and initially there is a tendency to over compensate and be a little needy. After a while you find your rhythm and settle on a balance of getting work done and networking with others.
Me back in 2009 as a remote worker
Why Covid-19 is causing home working fatigue
At the RAU most have risen to the remote working challenge and our IT department (from Service desk and systems analysts, to business analysts and us the Learning techs) have done a impressive job of supporting people. Our one-year Office 365 implementation plan has been squashed in to three weeks and staff are living and breathing tools they hadn’t even heard of a month ago.
Since I closed my blog in 2015 the world has moved on. The tools have changed (it is all Zoom and MS Teams right now), hardware has improved (I now have three screens!) and modern culture has shifted ( vlogging, streaming services, phygital experiences, mobile as default – see my recent post on Digifest and Gen Z). However some of the challenges remain the same.
While we are struggling though people are getting incredibly tired. This Twitter thread unpicks some of the reasons why online calls are so draining. Of course we musn’t forget that this exhaustion is exacerbated by our global stress level.
This drain is something that our academics will want to keep in mind for when they start online teaching. Despite their love of Facetime and mobile apps most students have not had to learn like this before.
My suggestions for us as an institution going forward are that we:
Try and have less catch up meetings and use asynchronous tools like chat to keep in touch.
Turn off video on calls. When training people my advice is that if you want to you can turn video on at the start at the call and wave at people, this can be particularly useful if you don’t know people, after that it isn’t needed. In fact with the broadband issues that most of us are facing it is preferable to not have video on.
Only attend meetings we really need to be at, for example if we are key in the decision making, or are taking minutes. People can share updates so we feel informed but there is nothing worse then sitting there for an hour having to listen to other people talk and not participating. Some communication forums (like an all-staff meeting) might be the exception, and of course there are regulatory reasons why some people must attend but the general rule is if I am surplus to requirements then set me free.
Are clear on the purpose of a meeting or catch up. If a meeting is informal then keep it informal and don’t make people attend unless they want to. There is definitely room for water cooler spaces and we need to build these in but at the moment people are so paranoid that people can’t see them working that they are actually making it difficult for themselves to work.
When your staff work from home you become an output driven organisation, rather than one where people clock watch. It is a big mindset shift and requires trust from employers and commitment from staff.
Missing each other
People often asked me why I ended up returning to a physical workplace after so long of working at home. The tipping point for me was reading an article (and I apologise for not being able to find the source) that said that once you had worked at home for 10 years you became institutionalised, or actually the opposite of institutionalised, in that you couldn’t return to the constraints of onsite working. I started to worry that this was true and I would spend the rest of my days without a ‘work home’. The time seemed right to move back to a physical location, my children were getting older and my home working set up had changed (my parents had moved in with us and so there were a lot more day-to-day distractions).
There are two main reasons I often cite for why I moved back. The first is the blurred boundaries between work and home – I became fed up with them. I would be hanging the washing out in my lunch break and finishing projects at midnight. I craved some clear lines between the work me and the home me. People used to joke about the concept of ‘working from home’, the air quote implying that people who work from home are skiving. I’ve never worked as hard as I did when I was a remote worker. It galvanized me. When you work from home you can’t hide behind office hours. It is like the difference between measuring physical attendance and engagement. I think many of those who viewed working from home as easy will be laughing on the other side of their faces now. Good home workers are dedicated, efficient and motivated. They are effectively ‘work grown ups’.
The second reason for why I moved back is the Christmas party. After a few Christmas parties on Google hangouts you start to yearn for a face-to-face party. Today people laugh at my enthusiasm for the Christmas party, but you always appreciate things more when you’ve been without. I’m sure now people will understand what I mean. As Keir Starmer said in his labour party leader acceptance speech on Saturday “Coronavirus has brought normal life to a halt. Our cities, our towns and our villages are silent, our roads deserted. Public life has all but come to a standstill and we’re missing each other.” I missed people then. And we all miss people now.
Remote working is a little like riding a bike. I feel that I have managed to get back on pretty quickly. The last few weeks have brought on a real sense of déjà vu and it has been interesting, and at times difficult, to watch people go through the learning experience of remote working that I recognise so well. The challenges aren’t always easy but our staff are doing a grand job and I think the skills they are learning (both digital and cultural) will really enhance our institution and create an empathetic and dedicated work force.