Reading, United Kingdom
The University of Reading, located in South East England, has been taking giant steps to fully introduce its whole community of academics, lecturers, administrators, support staff and students into the world of technology for teaching and learning purposes. Its first efforts took place about 16 years ago, but it was in 2013-14 that the institution started a real and exemplary plan to transform the educational environment called TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning).
The initiative works hand-in-hand with the university’s human resources, especially academics with teaching responsibilities, to engage and support them in the use of new technologies that can improve their courses, as well as their entire assessment process for submission, grading, and feedback. This process also includes converting all these steps into an electronic activity. For this reason, the Electronic Management of Assessment Program (EMA) was built in order to set a framework for the entire institution.
To dive deeper into the subject, we talked to some of key members of the university who work hard to establish virtual education practices within the institution and create new approaches to convince the sceptical: Angelique Chettiparambil, Director of Studies at the Real Estate and Planning department and expert in e-assessment; Lauren McCann and Maria Papaefthimiou, both Senior TEL Advisors, are specialists in Learning Management Systems like Blackboard Learn and e-learning tools like Turnitin.
Engaging the academics to use technology is not an easy task, considering the different ages, skills, and backgrounds. This is why the TEL team (made up of six advisors) and other experts in different departments, put into practice different creative ideas:
Lauren McCann: “We encourage our academics to use technology enhanced learning through different events, for example, our App’etite sessions. We have a menu of activities and offer a free lunch to help create a relaxed, informal atmosphere. It is an opportunity and a space for staff (academics and lecturers) to share apps that they use in teaching and learning.”
María Papaefthimiou: “We also have TEL showcases that are run in conjunction with our innovators and early adopters; this is how we highlight our staff in terms of technology enhanced learning. It’s also a space for them to showcase what they are doing and to convince their colleagues to embrace similar practices.”
Angelique Chettiparambil: “The university uses Blackboard Learn. Recently, it decided to shift from hard copy submissions to electronic submissions. What we did in my department is that we chose to adopt online marking and feedback as a strategy to meet our Teaching and Learning challenges. Our experience was as a pilot in the PEAR project (Project for E-assessment at Reading). The PEAR project has now evolved into a multi stranded and comprehensive project titled the Electronic Management of Assessment (EMA).
The University of Reading works with two main LMSs to embrace technology enhanced learning:
“Our main institutional technologies are Blackboard Learn, which is our virtual learning environment across the University, and everything that comes with it: blogs, journals, discussion boards, etc.; we are also piloting Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. The other big technology that we support is Turnitin, which is a separate platform integrated into Blackboard Learn that we use mainly for similarity checking, online submissions, electronic marking, and e-feedback”.
Angelique Chettiparambil: “During the first year implementing EMA, we had a discussion about which marking system to use and it was largely decided to go for the Blackboard Assignment tool as the Turnitin system does not support multiple file submissions or group submissions. We also piloted Turnitin in some modules so that we could be in a better position to compare the two systems. This year we have included both, mainly so that our staff can choose the system they are more comfortable with. The truth is that while some markers have gone for the Turnitin system because it has a quick marking tool, especially if they don’t have multiple files in one coursework to submit, the majority has chosen to remain with Blackboard, probably because this was the system that most staff were familiar with from our first year of implementation”.
María Papaefthimiou: “We have a large demand for interactivity in the classroom. At the moment, the university doesn’t offer any formal solution for this, but we engage academics with free tools, apps mainly, so they can use them to have discussions with the students.”
Training and support programs
Because encouraging is not enough, the university offers continuous trainings to share the necessary knowledge:
Angelique Chettiparambil: “To implement EMA, we had three sessions of dedicated training for staff and they could sign up for any of them. The university also has ongoing sessions throughout the year. Besides one-to-one help was available as and when required to deal with specific problems that staff encountered.”
Lauren McCann: “We have TEL staff development programme made up of various training sessions. The programme is a combination of face-to-face training sessions, online training sessions, and webinars using Blackboard Collaborate.”
“We work with the academics through one-to-one consultations. We offer them the opportunity to come and talk to the TEL advisors about their specific questions and problems, then analyze what they want to accomplish and discuss how they could achieve their desired outcome. We also provide day-to-day support; this allows them to contact us directly for help if they are doing something on Blackboard and they have a problem. We help with the academic’s requests each day and, with the help of colleagues in the IT and TEL Support teams, we make sure that we resolve their queries as soon as they arise.”
Technology for learning purposes has been recognized within the university’s community as a positive thing. These are some of the reasons:
“After the first year, we did a student survey and also a staff survey. The students, for instance, find the e-submission better because they can work up to five minutes before the dead line, there is no cost of printing, and they don’t have to travel to hand in hard copies if they live far away. The staff finds ease of use in the electronic assessment because even if they have a conference and are travelling, they can still do the marking. They don’t have to come to the university just to hand in coursework because they can do it from their homes. E-assessments also make it easier in terms of processing; administrators don’t have to deal with piles of papers and the systems are secure.”
Lauren McCann: “In training, we talk about how technology can improve teaching practices. We had a particularly interesting case recently as part of our piloting of Collaborate Ultra: one academic ran an online event about the US elections, bringing together students and experts from all over the world through Blackboard Collaborate. Now, this is something that was only possible because we have that tool.”
María Papaefthimiou: “One of the things I say is that the students’ experience gets better. Now, they come with expectations for technology to be used in teaching – they’re digital natives”.
Results and challenges
While some academics are taking technology very seriously, some find it more difficult. Good results are a reality, but there are also a few challenges for 2017:
Lauren McCann: “I think the vast majority of our staff is happy to engage and they can see the potential that technology enhanced learning has. Although, sometimes they find it difficult; not because they are not willing, but because they have so many other things to do and technology is not a priority. I would say that their limited time is a challenge to us.”
Angelique Chettiparambil: “In my department, we don’t have hard copy submissions anymore. We are fully, 100% electronic, except when the students have to do presentations or projects in class or engage in other types of activities for assessment”.
María Papaefthimiou: “Right now, we have academics like Dr. Mathew Nicholls, who has developed a virtual model of Ancient Rome over the last ten years. He is now running an open online course. He has taken technology to another level. We also have some staff that would use Blackboard Learn with some help from administrators, but we have have staff members how are really lacking the technology skills needed. The university doesn’t have a policy of TEL being compulsory, so it’s up to the academics to embrace TEL at a certain level. What we do have is the Electronical Management of Assessment Program and now everybody will be obliged to use electronic submissions. This is the start of a different era for us.”
Even though there is still a lot to do, the University of Reading is transforming into a challenging example of how to use technology enhanced learning, especially because all of its strategies are based on people. Like the three experts said, one of the priorities for the institution is to involve everyone in the process and offer them a range of training opportunities to help them acquire the skills they need to harness the potential technology has to enhance teaching and learning.
*Angelique Chettiparambil, Director of Studies in the Real Estate and Planning department at the University of Reading.
*Lauren McCann, Senior TEL Advisor at the University of Reading.
*Maria Papaefthimiou, Senior TEL Advisor at the University of Reading.
*Photos by: AFP Isabel Infantes