Yībù yīgè jiǎoyìn: Delivering online teaching in China

The Chinese proverb Yībù yīgè jiǎoyìn means ‘Every step makes a footprint’. In the second of our blog posts on delivery of online teaching to Shandong Agriculture University (SDAU) we will start to look at how our steady work started to make good progress, and some of the curve balls that were thrown at us. We will cover how the pre-recorded video content was created, our initial interactive session plans using WeChat and then pass the baton on to our new Learning Technologist support.

At the base of Taishan Mountain

At the base of Taishan Mountain, Shandong

As explained in the previous post SDAU teaching was to commence in China in June and would last for three weeks. This three weeks would become (to some extent) our pilot project.

In discussions with SDAU it was agreed that the format for a day of module teaching would consist of 3 pre-recorded lectures (approximately 40-45 minutes each) and 1 interactive session. These teaching sessions would follow the existing timetable. At this point it was not know if the students would be back on site or still at home, we also didn’t know if Panopto would work completely…so there were plans and contingency plans, and then further contingency plans! They looked a little like this:

If Panopto works in China:

  1. Setting up an account for the SDAU Sinocampus staff and allowing them to deliver the content from Gateway during lessons
  2. Making the Panopto videos open and sharing the links so the SDAU Sinocampus staff could share in lessons

If Panopto does not work in China:

  1. Delivering the videos through an alternate video service like Stream, or another Webinar service
  2. Downloading the videos and sharing either through Gateway or some other online service (depending on which service works in China)
  3. Downloading the videos and sharing through a file transfer service
  4. Downloading the videos and sharing using old school methods such as CDs, memory sticks etc.

If the students fail to return to campus:

  1. Allowing the students to access the Panopto content themselves using open links
  2. Passing all video content over (either using Panopto or a download service) to the SDAU Sinocampus staff so they could pass on to the students

Sinocampus is an education provider that helps broker our relationship with SDAU.

We weren’t very keen on giving access to our VLE so number 2 looked the favourite at this stage.

Pre-recorded content

As explained in the previous post some of the SDAU lecturers were externals so we began by setting up RAU accounts for them giving them access to our VLE. Our VLE (Moodle) is integrated with our video management system (Panopto). A page was set on Moodle for the SDAU delivery and Panopto folders were created for every module to be delivered. The academics were trained in creating Panopto videos and given advice on content creation e.g. use of language, structure of lectures, folder usage and naming conventions.

  • Day X – Lecture X – Title of lecture – Initials e.g.
    Day 1 – Lecture 1 – Food supply chain – MG

For the first three weeks of teaching there were approximately 200 videos required so managing this process involved some very big spreadsheets!

Examples of pre-recorded content in Panopto

Examples of pre-recorded content in Panopto

Interactive sessions and WeChat

Once we had started the ball rolling on content creation the focus began to move to how these interactive sessions would work. Ideally they would be led by the academics and offer opportunities for students to work together as a class and in groups. Chinese class sizes are large and the small-group element was important in ensuring all students would get their turn to discuss topics. Initial investigations and trawls of mailing lists suggested that while there were many webinar solutions that might fit the bill (for example Zoom was working well and had been used for some of our meetings with China) there was only one service that could be guaranteed to work in China – WeChat. Other services such as Zoom were currently working but there was no guarantee long term.

WeChat is (according to Wikipedia) a “Chinese multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app developed by Tencent. It was first released in 2011, and became one of the world’s largest standalone mobile apps in 2018, with over 1 billion monthly active users”.  It has video and chat features and has been used by SDAU and RAU to organise groups and to engage with students. I used it while out in China to communicate with classroom monitors and other people. However while it is well-used and loved in China there are some security concerns predominantly about around its use of data. Many of our academics have used WeChat while out in China but in late 2019 our ITS department sent out an email setting out some concerns:

  • There is no end-to-end encryption making traffic vulnerable to being intercepted and viewed
  • The Chinese Government actively monitor WeChat traffic to gather information
  • Once WeChat is installed on a device, it can be used as a remote listening device
  • WeChat can also be used to gather other data stored on devices, such as emails, documents, photos and videos
  • WeChat Pay is frequently used as a means for attempting credit card fraud

Clearly in an ideal world we would not recommend WeChat but on occasions it is the only practical method for communications with China. ITS were taking a number of steps to help mitigate the risks of using WeChat which included only using temporary RAU-supplied mobile phone to access it and insisting that academics must not use this phone to access RAU emails. These suggestions had not really been put into action before but meant in practice that if we were going to recommend WeChat for the interactive sessions we would need to provide SDAU lecturers with an RAU phone each with WeChat on it. These might be regarded by some as ‘burner phones’ in that they would serve one purpose and would be separated from user data. Our Service Desk purchased 15 android phones for us to use. Due to Covid-19 getting hold of the phones and the sim cards wasn’t easy and it took a few weeks for their delivery – which left us with very little set up and testing time. Once they arrived each phone was given a Gmail account and set up with nothing but the WeChat app on. The plan was to start testing how the interactive sessions would work once we had a couple of phones up and running.

However setting up the accounts proved to be more difficult than initially anticipated. In order to set up a new WeChat account it needs to be verified by an existing user. The criteria here was for someone who had registered over 6 months ago, uses WeChat pay and hadn’t registered another user in the last month. There was also a very short time period after the account was ready to go (with a numeric code and QR code) that the registered user could verify in. Numerous attempts by many of our SDAU colleagues resulted in failure and with only a couple of weeks till the first delivery date we decided to abandon our WeChat plans.

Discussions with SDAU Sinocampus staff also highlighted a few issues that may have caused problems later down the line. WeChat can be used for sending text and voice messages, files and pictures. Hundreds of people can chat in a Wechat group by text messages but it only supports nine people at most for voice and video calls, and the function of polling is not available.

Getting the band together

By now we had appointed our new Learning Technologist support person – Pip McDonald. Pip has done an amazing job of taking this project forward and will be writing the next posts in this series.

Our first Zoom call with Bonnie and Lola

Our first Zoom call with Bonnie and Lola

Not long after Pip’s appointment we had a Zoom call with the SDAU Sinocampus staff on the ground – Bonnie Wang and Lola Huo. Bonnie and Lola have also been incredible throughout this project.

At RAU the academic leads on the project are Xianmin Chang and Steve Finch.

SDAU Systems

During this time we began to understand the SDAU systems that were being used a little better.

These include:

  • VooV meeting – A webinar system similar to Zoom
  • Rain class – A teaching tool that is available as a WeChat app

In our next post Pip will take the baton and look at our new approach to interactive sessions, assessment plans, attendance monitoring, teacher observation and the lead up to the first week of teaching.

Communities: Support through sharing

Jisc have done a stellar job of not only supporting the FE and HE digital learning community but also highlighting the real benefits of communities during the last couple of months dealing with Covid-19.

Their website now features an article entitled Communities shining through COVID-19 which features some quotes from e-learning people including yours truly! Communities also featured very heavily in their most recent Jisc Inform. And you might be able to catch me at the start of this great video on the importance of communities (22 seconds in).

 

The communities idea stems from our Jisc community champions work at Digifest earlier this year.

Sometimes it is tricky to look outward when you are so busy, but for me it is what has kept us all going.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Quán lì yǐ fù: Delivering online teaching in China

This blog is the first in a series of posts covering our delivery of online teaching to Shandong Agriculture University (SDAU).

The RAU have had a partnership arrangement with SDAU for many years and our academics teach on a number of Food and Real Estate Management courses at the University. In normal circumstances our academics, some of who are RAU staff members and others who are external lecturers, would fly out to China and spend several weeks teaching the students in a classroom setting. [You can read more about my 2019 visit to China to teach on the English for Academic Purposes course.] It is great experience for both the students and the academics.

Shandong Agriculture University (SDAU)

Shandong Agriculture University (SDAU)

As Covid-19 progressed and we headed towards lockdown it became apparent that sending people over to China in June was not going to be possible and we needed a different approach. This realisation came around the same time that we were pivoting all our onsite courses to online and a solution was needed that could be implemented both quickly and with as little resource as possible.

We were already in discussions with the Jisc team regarding TNE provision in relation to a new partnership with another Chinese institution, so we contacted them to ask for guidance and support.  Mailing lists also proved invaluable and we began to monitor what other institutions in a similar predicament were doing.

The initial decisions made were:

  • That a Learning Technologist support person would be required to project manage the delivery as the existing RAU team would not be able to cover the work. An advert went out for someone to fill this role.
  • That in this particular case content was key and that in order to fulfil our teaching obligation we would need to start collecting content as soon as possible. It was agreed to pre-record this content using Panopto, our existing video content management system and the tool we were already using for lecture delivery. This content would need to be delivered to the students either in class (if they returned to University) or at home.
  • That this content would need to be complemented with an opportunity for students to interact with the academics delivering the lectures. This could be done using an asynchronous mechanism (such as chat) or some form of online webinar. The solution would clearly need further investigation, possible options were Zoom, WeChat (the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp), Office365 (Teams).
  • That various services would need to be tested. Due to the restrictions of the great firewall of China some technologies are known to be blocked (for example YouTube and Facebook) while others are unreliable. The restrictions are a movable feast and can be changed with little notice. Some tools such as WeChat have significant security implications. The Comparitech site monitors the status of sites in China to check if they are blocked.

There were also many other questions including:

  • How would we work with the SDAU team? What would be the division of labour?
  • What about assessment? How would it be delivered and marked?
  • What about training for the academics? This was particularly pertinent for the external academics who didn’t currently have RAU accounts and weren’t familiar with our tools.
  • How would we translate the onsite timetable to online?
  • How would teaching be assessed?

Quán lì yǐ fù is a Chinese idiom that means to give something your all. Its literal translation is to “exert all your strength for a goal”. Given the tight timeline for this work we really needed to exert all our remaining strength and start thinking very creatively about routes forward.

In the next post we will talk about the first steps in collecting content and initial investigations in to interactive sessions.

VLE Accessibility statement

This Thursday (May 21st) was the ninth Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

global accessibility awareness day 2020

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.

We are now excited to be be able to launch our VLE Accessibility Statement. on Gateway.

The statement considers:

  • the overall accessibility of our site
  • any problem areas and how we are addressing them
  • contact details for those experiencing accessibility issues
  • associated services
  • Our recent accessibility audit and the Jisc accessibility audit that took place in 2018

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!

Bigging up communities

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.
  • Training – the countless webinars and training events have been a huge help, especially on areas and tools we are relatively new to – like MS Teams. My favourite so far has been the Jisc event on Planning for the end of lockdown online.
  • 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.
jisf-event

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.

Facilitating an online seminar

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.

intro-slideDuring 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.
  • Try group work e.g. breakout rooms in Zoom.
  • Online quizzes.

At the end of the session 

  • Closing comments e.g. Write one word for how you feel today’s session went. 
  • Follow up activity e.g. Write a paragraph reflecting on the areas or agreement and areas of disagreement.

General 

  • Practice with your colleagues. Test out your ideas. 
  • Start simple, don’t be too ambitious till you have got your head around the technology. 
  • Build your confidence. 
  • Be understanding about other people’s fears about technology and sharing in an online space. 
  • Enjoy!! 

Resources 

Landex blended learning project

At today’s Landex Learning Materials and Technology Committee we discussed the Land Based Learning Online site that the group has been developing over the past few years. I have mentioned the site before but the content has progressed and is now ready for use.

Land based learning platform User guide

The site includes:

  • 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.

Landex have recently tweeted a video introducing the site.

landex

A sub-committee of the Landex Learning Materials and Technology Committee has also been working on a blended learning module which will show tutors how to get the most out of online material.

The module will have 4 different units:

  • Unit 1 – Engagement with materials
  • Unit 2 – Develop confidence & skills in concept of blended learning
  • Unit 3 – Demonstrate how to remove barriers to using materials effectively
  • Unit 4 – Demonstrate different uses of materials

This work will allow us to take the courses from the Land Based Learning Online area and embed them in our own Moodle VLE and reuse as appropriate. Which will be very exciting for us at the RAU!

plant

Online open day

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.

Online open day

  • 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.
  • chatbotLive 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.

virtual-open-day

A list of our forthcoming open days is available from the RAU website.

Vevox pub quiz

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.

vevox

Picture1The 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!

The next pub quiz is on Friday. You can register if interested.

Vevox have also shared 5 top tips for running an interactive quiz with Vevox.

q2

Learning Technology Support person required

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.

A full person specification and details on how to apply are linked to from the RAU jobs page on our website.

If you’d like to know more about what the RAU IT department looks like and gets up to you can see our recent video.

What exactly does the RAU IT Department do?

What exactly does the RAU IT Department do?

Please do apply. We’d love to welcome you to our team!