If we can’t all be the OU by September, what can we become?

Simon Kear on the possibilities of technology enhanced learning and the journey one provider has been on since Covid-19 hit.

Most of us haven’t really had time to breathe and reflect on what has happened since the Covid-19 crisis struck.

I lead a small technology enhanced learning team that is responsible for Moodle, Turnitin and Zoom – which fortunately we’d been using extensively in our courses for several years. We are very familiar with both Zoom Meeting and Zoom Webinar. Like others, we have very limited systems integration.

In late March it was decided that all our teaching would be delivered remotely for Term 3, due to start on 14 April. It was a highly complex lift and shift – moving our timetabled face to face sessions into Zoom.

The good news was that we’d been discussing our response to the pandemic since late January. We’d already sketched out our processes – and now we had a chance to roll them out.

Execute the plan

First, our senior learning technologist worked with a member of the Dean’s Office to map the Term 3 timetable. We needed to know how many events there were, when they were being taught and by whom. By the end of the Easter holiday, we’d identified around 3500 events (roughly 400 per week) and approximately 300 teachers – most of whom are visiting lecturers with very limited digital skills.

At the same time, I decided it would be too complex to host or manage Zoom events within TEL – and we would certainly drop the ball if we tried. Technical delivery had to be by the teachers themselves. So our learning technology officer contacted every single one of the 300 teachers in order to create and then test their own Zoom basic account. We needed to be sure they could use Zoom on their hardware and home WIFI.

As Zoom was new to most of these teachers, our learning technologist built a Dr Teacher Tavistock Teaching Room Zoom link within each account, each with a waiting room and password. These single links and passwords were aligned to the newly presented timetable, and posted on individual course pages in Moodle for students to access.

We have a limited number of Zoom Pro licences. Every morning, I demote teachers who taught the day before and promote those due to teach that day, removing the enforced 40-minute break.

Planning all this was a mammoth task of 15-hours days – but it paid off.

At the time of writing (end of Week 5 of Term 3), we’ve not registered a single incident where a planned Zoom event (lecture, group seminar, work discussion) failed to take place. In other words, in every case the correct cohort of students found the correct teacher at the correct time plus the teacher managed to facilitate the session. This is staff digital capabilities on steroids.

Lessons to learn

I’ve reflected a great deal on what we’ve achieved and paths we’ve chosen over the last few months.

First is that the student experience must be the priority. We wanted to reassure our students that the digital delivery of their teaching would succeed, be of the highest quality and allow them to progress in their degrees. We could only do this by taking full control of developing the Zoom sessions.

Part of that is about understanding what our students want. There were multiple complex ideas around at first, but when we spoke to students we found it was simple for us – they want to continue live contact with our clinician trainers. Synchronous delivery supported by asynchronous discussion. Working this out and delivering it has been really important.

Support for teachers has been crucial. We didn’t give teachers a Zoom account and a PDF user guide and just send them on their way. We managed the creation of teaching links and offered extensive daily training sessions in the first few weeks. We now have teachers managing innovative pedagogic sessions using breakout rooms, demotions to waiting rooms, family therapy sessions and so on.

Continuously evaluating and gathering the data has also been vital. Whether it’s a QI project or the deeper dive of survey evaluation, we need continuous data to feed into decision making.

Understanding and supporting our own internal specialists has been a really important component too. Our learning technologists, learning designers, instructional designers, teaching enhancement units, platform managers, educational theorists and so on have an excellent understanding of our courses, the people who deliver them and our students.

In terms of the pedagogic relationship between teacher and student, this is the time for the MEd, EdD, MA ODE and PHD – not the MBA or the CMI.

2020/21 and beyond

Face-to-face institutions have no chance of offering a high quality, Open University-type, online learning experience for all courses by September. But they have tremendous existing assets – established courses, lecturers, PowerPoint slides, lecture capture recordings, VLEs, EMA and so on.

And until March this year, most places still relied predominantly on the knowledge transmission model of large lectures supported by small group seminars.

Social distancing has disrupted one element of the current HE delivery model of teaching – the live lecture or seminar. Everything else is the same.

So why reinvent the wheel now? Wherever our students plan to be in September – and it will be a personal choice – we should plan to offer these sessions in Zoom, not try to hybrid them. It’s logistically easier to plan for some socially distanced, face to face students on a campus to watch a Zoomed lecture on a big screen or personal laptop in halls than try to live stream a (physically present?) lecturer to Zoom participants. Easier to record too.

At the same time, we should make sure – by whatever means possible – that the VLE experience is of the highest possible standard (e.g. pre-lecture availability of PowerPoint slides). We shouldn’t rely on your teachers to do this; we should ask TEL teams to lead. This is about planning now.

With September covered, our parallel medium and long-term strategy is to develop our programmes as high-quality online and/or blended offerings using established and well-researched models and, if necessary, external providers. Using realistic timelines based on years and not months and weeks, and keeping potential switch-back in mind throughout.

2 responses to “If we can’t all be the OU by September, what can we become?

  1. Thanks for this. It’s based on experience and it unpacks ‘switching to online/blended delivery’ – rarely do people try to spell out what this actually means (and that lack of explicitness makes one wonder about the quality)

  2. I agree with your main points here Simon, and think that blended learning is the future. Perhaps encouraged by the current situation, I believe education was working towards that end point anyway, albeit very slowly. In my experience, educational organisations are reluctant to branch out into something that appears radical however the current situation has necessitated online learning and this has given them impetus to innovate and encourage their staff to do the same. I put myself in that category, I would have shied away from online delivery prior to the lockdown but now I can see the benefits. I feel the saying ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ is wholly apt when referring to online learning and the potential future of it.

Leave a Reply