Hold Your Digital Horses. Time for an Online Symposium.

The University of East London (UEL) hosted their Learning & Teaching Symposium on Microsoft Teams on Thursday 17th September. A slide from the final keynote delivered by Simon Thomson (@digisim) from the Centre for Innovation in Education exploring the Physical and Digital: Exploring places and spaces for hybrid teaching in a post-lockdown world.

Pivot within a Pivot. Digital Wheel within a Digital Wheel.

Both Zoom and Microsoft Teams have played an important role at RAU, a Zoom with the SDAU project which was the topic of a poster presentation delivered at the event by @digitalrau, Digital Learning Manager and @pipmcdonald, Learning Technologist. The event had different rooms with different themes where presentations were delivered simultaneously. Our room explored Teaching Principles in Practice. We successfully submitted a proposal to the symposium exploring the transnational online pivot relating to the longstanding project the RAU is involved with working with Shandong University in China. The transational pivot was almost like a pivot within a pivot, a digital wheel within a digital wheel.

A Learning & Teaching Symposium: Tech Incognita for Terra Incognita?

As a learning and teaching event, my initial concern was that both our roles and activity were concerned with learning technology and not pedagogy in an explicit capacity. Some Learning technologist roles are more technical and others are more focused on pedagogy. However, the more work I carried out on the project the more I realised the pedagogy was driving the narrative of the project rather than the technology. This was echoed In the Microsoft Teams chat during our poster presentation.

Never Mind the Buzztech. Putting the Learning in Learning Technology.

“When a ‘learner’ sits alone in front of a computer and engages with a text displayed on screen there is more going on than the interaction of that individual with the screen” (Jewitt, 2006: p76). An evaluation form in Microsoft Forms with a range a questions including using Likert scale and ranking was created and emailed to lecturers who taught on the project. The benefit of using Microsoft Forms is that the results are created in real time. One of the questions asked what types of learning took place during the interactive sessions? Lecturers identified that multimodal learning was form of learning that took place the most. Multimodality can be understood whereby “…all modes of communication are attended to as part of meaning making…” (Jewitt, 2006: p3 ). More specifically, multimodality can be seen as “…images, sounds, space, and movement representing and communicating meaning (Kress, 2010, in Miller & McVee). Multimodal approaches to pedagogy are becoming widely used in academia (Jewitt, Bezemer & O’Halloran, 2016). Having explored multimodality in education at the MFL Twitterati conference at the Ashcombe school  in Dorking organised by the Association for Language Learning (ALL) in 2019 and at the Missing Maps mapathon event at University College London (UCL) in 2019 – , I was keen to explore this more. Zoom could be argued to be a platform for “multimodal discourse” (Kress & van Leewen, 2001). It could also be argued that multimodality literacy could potentially help to move across any potential language barriers. Participating in a Zoom meeting is a multimodal experience – “When a ‘learner’ sits alone in front of a computer and engages with a text displayed on screen there is more going on than the interaction of that individual with the screen” (Jewitt, 2006: p76). A further study could be completed to explore the impact of multimodal approaches to learning and teaching.  

The Power of Research Informed Pedagogic Practice

Lecturers wanted to explore how to use the interactive features in Zoom included break out rooms, polling and whiteboard. The technology was a platform for the pedagogy. There is a well-known quotation that ‘When the student is ready the teacher will appear’. What about the Learning Technologist?  The truth is Learning Technologists appeared in a radical way particularly during lockdown to facilitate the online pivot.

When asked what approaches Lecturers took in the interactive sessions on Zoom, the majority used the chat function and share screen. What emerged pedagogically was that some teachers wanted to explore more features such as polling, breakout rooms and whiteboard. As a Learning Technologist, this was exciting to support and a model we hope to follow up on the next iteration of the project. Pedagogy driving the narrative of the project and not necessarily the technology was the critical thread we wanted to stress in the presentation.

With respect to how Lecturers engaged with students in interactive sessions, approaches included  team teaching or having more than one lecturer is a Zoom meeting. This seemed like an effective approach for example while one Lecturer presented content, another Lecturer could manage the chat. This approach makes sense particularly in virtue of the fact that over one time with a hundred students were in meetings at any one time.  Successfully engaging with such a large number of students is always challenge. Lecturers’ ideas were impressive, for example, one lecturer was going to do a live auction in Zoom which was a really engaging scenario-based approach.

Two Hats or Two Tribes: A Teacher & A Learning Technologist

From my experience in the role of a Teacher of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), one of the challenges is that few students speak up in transnational contexts. This was also a point that was raised as part of the research project.  One of the approaches one Lecturer took was to have smaller groups running consecutively where students had to work collaboratively to create a proposal on PowerPoint and each person would have a role assigned to them a bit like De Bono’s thinking hats (De Bono, 2000). We hope to take this model forward. Emergent pedagogies were important for us. We could move towards a model of De Bono’s Digital Thinking Hats. One of the questions we were asked about our research project was about this approach:

My response was to remind everyone that learning is always about relationships and explained how the approach worked in terms of smaller groups helping students to actively contribute. It was also meaningful to feedback to the lecturer who created the approach that the approach he took was shared and successful.

Zoom, Boom & Bloom

Both student and lecturer feedback was similar about not having a personal connection in a face to face setting, there was evidence of valuable personalised touches to pedagogy. The phrase I used in the presentation was that it was not the ‘ghost ion the zoom machine’. For example, one of Lecturers showed the students her garden and environment during an interactive session. Students of Agriculture as a curriculum area would find this helpful in real time. Additionally, a Lecturer allowed students to talk with her son who was a student studying Mining Engineering and they shared a valuable discussion on sustainability. Even given the contextual restraints of the transnational online pivot, unplanned valuable pedagogic moments can still take place. It is not just Zoom, doom and gloom, but rather Zoom, Boom and Bloom! Bloom’s taxonomy has been revised to include digital skills (McNulty, 2020). Perhaps a specific taxonomy could be created for Zoom or video meeting-based platforms.

Back to the Future, Feedback & Feedforward

The first keynote of the symposium was delivered by Dr. Naomi Winstone (@DocWinstone) from University of Surrey exploring moving feedback forwards in higher education. She showed a word cloud about how people feel about feedback and talked about embracing vulnerability in feedback scenarios:

The idea of feedback was also relevant to our research project. We wanted to explore the extent to which peer review of the interactive sessions would be helpful:

We also received some positive feedback from our poster presentation from one of the session Chairs, Ella Mitchell (@meatyloafy) on Twitter:

The Power of Blogging, Reflection and Digital Transformation

At RAU we have a digital transformation blog as a platform for reflection. One of the interesting parts of this project was the reflective blogs posts created by Marieke, myself and Bonnie Wang and Lola Huo from Sinocampus in China. Reflective blogs are useful tool particularly in a case study to dig deep and immerse in the complexities. The blog series can be accessed here. When working in a collaborative capacity with transnational patterns, it felt important to invite our colleagues, Bonnie Wang and Lola Huo from Sincocampus in China to reflect too.

The Dissolution of face-to-face learning. You have reached the end of education. Stuck between a digital rock and a digital hard place?

Lecturers are used to traditional face-to-face settings and one lecturer made reference to how they checked students faces for understanding in the online questionnaire. As Simon Thompson (@digisim) said in the final keynote, “We hold face to face very dear” (Thompson, 2020). Notwithstanding, the Lecturers’ ability to adapt content and deliver was impressive. In the final keynote of the Learning & Teaching symposium, Simon Thompson (@digisim) said “we have all had to learn new skills in digital space. [It’s about]…digital need not digital skills” (Thompson, 2020).  The need to adapt was undeniable. Perhaps we can change the saying ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’ to ‘when the lecturers are ready the learning technologist will appear’.

Thoroughly Modern Technology. Unpacking the logistics of Online Learning

Other presentations were both relevant and helpful. For example, it was interesting to hear how David Murray, Dr Caroline McGlynn and Khadija Ahmed from the University of East London (UEL) had introduced welcome slides as a simple yet highly effective way to engage students and overcome what they called what they called ‘unexpected barriers’ to online learning and teaching. The Salsa music was an effective way to engage students.

Going, Growing & Knowing?

In conclusion, we hope to explore working with China within the JISC international community, we are keen to unpack how digital accessibility will have an impact on how we plan the delivery of next part of the project, more specifically with respect to captions. We hope to contribute to the #ChinaHE20 online event by University of Manchester exploring how to work with uncertainty – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/china-and-higher-education-navigating-uncertain-futures-tickets-112516945212. A key idea that resonated with me in relation to this project was that “We don’t just go through projects, we GROW through projects”. The opportunity to participate in this symposium in this capacity as a research informed model has undoubtedly helped us with this growth process. Pivots aside, let’s keep growing together.

It is possible to access the poster on Slideshare here.

The video recordings of the presentations can be accessed on YouTube here.

The recording of our presentation can be access at 19:04 here:

Bibliography

De Bono, E (2000) Six Thinking Hats (Penguin: London)

Guy, M & McDonald, P (2020) The Transational Online Pivot: A Case Study Exploring Online Delivery in ChinaIn: University of East London (UEL) 2020. Learning & Teaching Symposium. 17th September. Online.

Jewitt, C (2006) Technology, Literacy, Learning: A Multimodal Apprach (Oxon & New York: Routeldge)

Jewitt, C, Bezemer, J & O’Halloran, K (2016) Introducing Multimodality (Oxon & New York: Routledge)

Kress, G & van Leewen, T (2001) Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication (London: Arnold; New York, Oxford University Press)

University of East London (UEL) 2020. Learning & Teaching Symposium. 17th September.

McNulty, N (2020) Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy (Cape Town: HH Books)

Miller, S, M & McVee, M, B () Multimodal Composing: The Essential 21st Century Literacy in Multimodal Composing in Classrooms Learning and Teaching for the Digital World (Routledge: London and New York). pp1-13

Murray, D, McGlynn, C & Ahmed, Khadija (2020) The logistics of online learning. In: University of East London (UEL) 2020. Learning & Teaching Symposium. 17th September. Online.

Thomson, S (2020) Exploring places and spaces for hybrid teaching in a post-lockdown world. In: University of East London (UEL) 2020. Learning & Teaching Symposium. 17th September. Online.

UEL Learning and Teaching Symposium 2020 (2020) UEL Learning and Teaching Symposium 2020 – Room 1 – Teaching Principles in Practice [online video] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtvJB4KnO2Q&list=PLuuOV6nj7vpT9pbYj2Xy889O4C0X6_FoZ&index=4&t=1154s [Accessed 6th October 2020]

Winstone, N (2020) Moving feedback forwards in higher education. In: University of East London (UEL) 2020. Learning & Teaching Symposium. 17th September. Online.

 

Dēng gāo bì zì: Delivering online teaching in China

In the fourth blog post in our series on the delivery of online teaching to Shandong Agriculture University (SDAU), Bonnie and Lola from Sinocampus are taking the baton and sharing their perceptions and reflections about our online teaching delivery experience.

Bonnie Wang and Lola Huo from Sinocampus

Bonnie Wang (left) and Lola Huo (right) from Sinocampus

Due to the influence of the epidemic, not only our lecturers, but also the students cannot return to campus. All the students in SDAU have had to study and take the online classes at home. After discussion, the format of 3 pre-recorded lectures and 1 interactive session per day for each module was set.

Pre-recorded Lectures

For the pre-recorded lectures, Marieke and Pip opened the permissions on the Panopto videos and shared the lectures’ links to us so that we could download the videos. As we have mentioned in the previous post, attendance accounts for 30% of the marks. In order to urge students acquire the knowledge better, make students study as if they were in the classroom settings, and record their attendance, we decided to play the pre-recorded lectures for students in the form of normal classes with 45 mins of each. At first, we would like to use Zoom to play the lectures. However, it was found out that Zoom has suspended all new user registration in China. After searching and discussion, we finally found VooV meeting to deliver the lectures instead of Zoom. VooV meeting is free to the public during the COVID-19 outbreak to help people stay connected while working remotely. It supports up to 300 participants and offers secure, reliable, convenient and cloud-based HD conferencing services so we can host video meetings freely. But it cannot directly play web videos because the sound will be distorted. Luckily, after further study of this software, we found later that the videos downloaded to the computers could be played well with no worry of affected sound. Furthermore, unlike Zoom, VooV meeting cannot provide attendance monitoring reports to us. Thus we had to check the participants one by one by ourselves and keep an eye on them when they were listening to the lectures. At the end of the day, we would organize all the video links for different lectures and send them to the students for review. Besides this, we also reminded them not to spread the Panopto videos outside.

A picture of pre-recored lectures delivered by VooV Meeting

A picture of pre-recored lectures delivered by VooV Meeting

Interactive Sessions

The interactive sessions were conducted via Zoom using the RAU account. All the students loved this part very much since they could communicate with the lecturers directly and discuss questions they didn’t understand with teachers. One problem we encountered was that some meetings were conflicted at the beginning because there were two or three interactive sessions for different courses at the same time normally. But as we mentioned, the same host cannot host two or more meetings simultaneously with the same account. Thanks to Pip, this problem has been solved perfectly. We also took part in the interactive sessions with the lecturers and students and followed through. Once any problem happened, we contacted the corresponding people immediately.

A picture of interactive sessions on Zoom

A picture of interactive sessions on Zoom

After three whole weeks of teaching and learning, we asked for teaching observations from our students on their lecturers. It is apparent that the students generally think highly of teachers and the online teaching.

Student Joy said excitedly that every academic year’s foreign teacher curriculum is his most anticipated part, and this year is no exception. He didn’t expect to receive such high-quality teaching from foreign teachers even under the influence of the epidemic. When we asked his reflections about the online teaching, he added that:

Everyone’s enthusiasm for learning has not been reduced even if we are online. We could see the fast rolling barrage in each session. The interactive session not only stimulates my interest and determination to participate in the discussion, but also makes me feel the sense of responsibility and deep concern of foreign teachers across the ocean.

Student Mike also said,

The two ways of online teaching — pre-recorded lectures and interactive sessions — complement each other, providing students with a good learning atmosphere, improving our learning enthusiasm and promoting our autonomous learning ability.

Almost all the students who were interviewed stated that they are really looking forward to the next meeting of foreign teachers! We think the high evaluations of students should be contributed to the efforts all the staff working on this project have taken. However, we knew that we still need to keep working in the future. Thus we will make best use of the advantages and bypass the disadvantages to better improve the teaching quality, promote the projects and strengthen the cooperation.

The stone tablet of Dēng gāo bì zì at the foot of Mount Tai

The stone tablet of Dēng gāo bì zì at the foot of Mount Tai

Dēng gāo bì zì (登高必自) is a stone tablet at the foot of Mount Tai and also the motto of SDAU, representing that climbing must start from a low place. We believe this is just our first step and we would climb higher and do better in the future.

Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zú xià. Laozi: Delivering online teaching in China

In the next in our series of blog posts on delivery of online teaching to Shandong Agriculture University (SDAU) Pip takes over and shares highs and lows from the first week of interactive teaching.

And remember each 10,000 mile journey begins with just 1 step (千里之行,始於足下 Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zú xià. Laozi.

IMG_9810

I started working at RAU in May 2020 and immediately started on the online teaching project at SDAU in June 2020. Early in June it was acknowledged that students would not be able to return to campus and so all pre-recorded content was passed over to the SDAU team, they would take responsibility for delivering it to students. When teaching officially began on 15th June our biggest concern was the interactive sessions.

Interactive sessions using Zoom

We had changed from using WeChat to using Zoom a short time before teaching was planned to go ahead. It was time to ‘deep dive’ into exploring how to use Zoom as a platform on which interactive sessions would take place. Zoom had become used widely as a platform for remote and online learning and working throughout the pandemic. I had heard a great deal about new phrases such as ’Zoom bombing’ (O’Flaherty, 2020). Additionally, there was a great deal of discussion of ‘Zoom fatigue’ (Fosslien & Duffy, 2020). Whilst I had some experience of using Zoom before for example as a platform for delivering presentations using the chat and sharing screen features but I was not a Zoom expert and did not have experience being a ‘host’ so I felt that I needed to rapidly upskill if I was to support our lecturing staff using Zoom.

To support use of Zoom I offered ‘Zoom Drop In’ sessions to our lecturers who wanted to try out some the features before teaching went live. I was committed to exploring what ‘Zoom Literacy’ would be. When you have to teach someone else something, it is a good way of making sure you know how to use to first. I created approximately one hundred meetings so experienced my own version of ‘Pre-Zoom fatigue’. What we discovered during the first week was that it was not possible for the same host with the same account to host simultaneous meetings which prevented some of the interactive sessions from taking place on time or altogether. The error message ’The host has another meeting in progress’ became very familiar. This meant that we rapidly developed a workaround to solve the problems. For example, Chantal and Husna, the other RAU Learning Technologists created meetings. When it became clear that there were just too many parallel sessions required our IT Service Desk created some additional accounts for me to use. As a result, the timetabling process became very complex. Some of the interactive capabilities were restricted as the lecturers were not ‘hosts’. As a result, one of the Lecturers, Deepak Pathak and I decided to test out polling and break rooms in an exploratory longer case study interactive session. The two hour session involved exploring Starbucks. Deepak shared screens to reinforce the correct answers for example showing a Google Map of the location of RAU.

It was positive when the lecturing staff emailed me after their session to reflect on how it went. This helped identify ways to improve what we do for subsequent iterations of online teaching. I dropped into the majority of interactive sessions to see how teachers were using Zoom to engage students for example one of our lecturers, Nicola Cannon used a quiz format effectively.

Later on in the week I set up an online community of practice on Gateway, RAU’s Moodle VLE as part of a forum to share best practice.

“We all belong to communities of practice” (Wenger, 1998, p6)

An additional idea I had was to create a ‘sandbox’ approach on Zoom where all the Lecturers could share ideas of how to create interactive sessions without worrying about making a mistake during a live session.

I shared a Zoom webinar led by Eden Project Communities which was a ‘testpad’ for Zoom practices with Lecturers. I attended and it was great to see one of RAU’s Lecturers participate too. The session involved taking part in a breakout room as a student which was helpful to understand what the Zoom experience is like from the perspective of the student. One of the most helpful activities was a collaborative whiteboard led by host Samantha Evans where we explored games, collaborative activities, Zoom and other tools.

At this point in time we are currently starting the third and final week of teaching. My reflections are concerned with moving towards an evaluation of the project, I’ve recently created a problem-solution spreadsheet where I identified areas of development and potential strategies to overcome the problems.

Assessment

Throughout the three weeks of teaching, it was intended that assessments would take place every Friday. Accordingly, I tried to develop a workflow for assessment which involved the Lecturers creating the tests with the answers and articulating what invigilation might look like with Bonnie Wang and Lola Huo from SDAU. Early on in the process we found out that 30% of the marks were for attendance. We explored how Zoom can provide attendance monitoring reports and discovered that this was possible. Another challenge we experienced was that during week two of teaching, the Department of Education of Shandong informed SDAU that examinations need to be postponed. As a result, we responded by identifying alternative dates and ways of carrying out assessment.

The SDAU project journey began with one step. We learned a great deal in a short space of time and developed ways to overcome challnges rapidly. I’m looking forward to the next steps. In future, we would like to work with JISC to explore how their transnational expertise can help us improve what we do. We attended a webinar led by UCISA on the topic of Improving online access in China and had a positive meeting with Dr. Esther Wilkinson, Baoyu Wang and Anne Prior from JISC about how we can work together in a constructive capacity. JISC have recently launched a pilot to explore what quality online education looks like for Chinese students (JISC, 2020).

A huge thank you to Marieke Guy, Xianmin Chang, Steve Finch, Bonnie Wang and Lola Huo for their hard work and support to make the project happen.

In the next post we’ll look the final week of teaching delivery and lessons learnt.

By Falling We Learn to Go Safely, Chī yī qiàn, zhǎng yī zhì,吃一堑,长一智

Bibliography

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.

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.

Checking the Tech in China

I have been lucky enough to spend the last couple of weeks teaching at Shandong Agricultural University (SDAU) in Tai’an, China. The RAU have a partnership arrangement with SDAU and our academics teach on a number of courses out there. SDAU is a multi-disciplinary university which covers agriculture, science, engineering, management, economics, humanities, law, medicine and education and has an enrollment of around 30,000 students. It is based in Tai’an, a large city in Shandong province which is known for its mountain – Mount Tai, one of the five most important mountains in China.

SDAU and Tai'an

SDAU and Tai’an

While the main focus of my trip wasn’t technology it is hard to visit China without noticing the role tech is playing in their modern lives.

Here are some observations I made while there:

It’s all about the QR code

QR codes are everywhere. From paying for your products (through WeChat and Alipay), sharing your contact details with strangers,  to using them to find out public information and what type of trees are in the park (botany is often labelled with a QR code!). As this Technode article explains, QR code scanning has gained prominence because it is a “cheaper alternative to traditional payment systems” and China is now leading the way in building the regulatory framework for QR codes.

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Smart phone use is ubiquitous

Phone use has permeated every aspect of people’s lives. They seem to spend even more time on them than we do. It is pretty normal for Chinese (both young and old) to be riding their electric scooters while playing on a gaming app and speaking on the phone at the same time. They have apps for everything and have customised every part of their phone including the digital keyboards (think crazy colours and lots of emojis). As I’ve already mentioned they use their phones to pay for stuff – credit cards just resulted in odd looks.

WeChat is China’s most popular app and is used by absolutely everyone. Some of the main features are messaging, payments, phone management and games. WeChat has been described as a ‘superapp’ as a multitude of mini apps created by external developers can be integrated within the one service.

Learning technology is on the rise

I played Kahoot with my class and they loved it. While the classrooms have a traditional lecture room layout (with fixed seating and teacher at the front) there does seem to be a will to experiment more. With large class sizes technology could make a real difference. 

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Technical innovation is the norm

Everywhere you look there are technical innovations. For example back up cameras projecting on the rear view mirror are fairly standard, drones for delivering orders, ipads are often used for menus, scanners and barcode readers are owned and used by everyone, from street sellers to hi-tech shops.

China is also aiming to be a global leader in AI and is investing huge amounts of money in research. The biggest Chinese search engine (Baidu) recently poached a former Microsoft executive to lead on AI efforts. The west is watching with interest as China takes the lead in many areas. For a good overview see this recent Wired article: From imitation to innovation: How China became a tech superpower.

Visiting the great wall of China

Visiting the great wall of China