Facing Challenges in Education Through Technology

Sebastián Pulido
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Paris, France.

When implementing a new LMS, solutions need to be simple but also adaptive and open. That is one of the main challenges Eric Briantais faces as the Pedagogical Innovation Director at Paris-Sud University, where the institution’s context and its staff’s priorities have shaped the way they find new teaching models and methods trough innovation and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL).

For context, Paris-Sud is a large research-focused higher education institution particularly renowned in science and mathematics, with four Field medalists and two Physics Nobel Prize winners as university associates. It is part of Paris-Saclay, a consortium of almost 20 public education institutions in the Southern Paris region that started consolidating two years ago and is still growing. The consortium will form a scientific research cluster by bringing together close to 20% of French-produced academic research and, to support and coordinate such an effort, the sponsoring institution must be very strong.

In his 15 years at Paris-Sud, Eric Briantais has gained a deep understanding of the University’s context and, along with the other 10 people who comprise the Pedagogical Innovation Management department (Direction de l’Innovation Pédagogique in French, or DIP), they have focused on how to improve their teaching methods for the past seven years. In the process, they have developed digital means to broadcast videos online and new multimedia course content, as well as the possibility to access those courses anywhere through their LMS.

Two years ago, the birth of the Paris-Saclay consortium combined with the lack of maintenance on their LMS software at the time gave Paris-Sud the opportunity to look for alternatives. That was when the university decided to build its own Moodle-based LMS using the assets and strengths available at the time.

At that stage, the question was how to migrate from the old LMS to the new one. Like many institutions, Paris-Sud neither had the people nor the time to maintain their own Moodlerooms platform, so they wanted an editor to do it for them. As Briantais commented, this solution not only provided them with an open platform but also the assurance that the plugins matrix coming from the editor would be open source. This last bit was crucial as they can benefit from the updates and contributions of the Moodlerooms community.

Photo Eric Briantais, Pedagogical Innovation Director at Paris-Sud University
Eric Briantais, Pedagogical Innovation Director at Paris-Sud University

Large Scale Implementation

Briantais and the DIP took their idea of an open source platform to the Paris-Saclay consortium as a first prototype. Although it wasn’t Moodle-based right from the start, they built it according to the challenges they face as a national education institution and the priorities of

the French Ministry of National Education. The first such priority is massification, as the large number of new students entering the University implies diverse profiles. 85,000 people will be ultimately brought together in the LMS via the consolidation of the Paris-Saclay consortium, and the education authorities wish to increase the quality of education for everyone in the system. Another priority is to merge masters’ degree courses across 12 Paris-Saclay institutions, as the different campuses are spread throughout the Île-de-France region and moving between them is very difficult. Given the size of the student body, digital tools come in handy to help leverage facilities and resources, while being able to improve course contents and delivery methods.

However, implementing digital tools is not enough of a solution on its own without a specific approach, one that calls for innovation. What matters the most is the use given to technology and not the technology itself, and under this premise, Paris-Sud started offering flipped classroom courses with the help of the DIP with a strong emphasis on the structure and content of the LMS.

The Approach to Technology Innovation in Education

The DIP has defined a set of activities that should be carried out for the innovation processes to succeed. They span every stage of the implementation and intend to bring together different groups involved in the academic process. Given the history of Paris-Sud, research is embedded in its core, and Briantais has remained true to that fact in the DIP’s approach to innovation.

1. How to Apply Solutions

Within the DIP, there’s the Design and Achievement Center which helps teachers carry out their educational projects. It ensures the development of skills through course design with different Moodle-based tools. For instance, teachers can learn how to use video broadcasts or polls for active learning. It is important that they ask for feedback, to determine whether that’s the best way to achieve the desired results.

2. Training Staff

The Accompaniment Center offers an in-house support network for teachers and technical-administrative staff to transform teaching. This center is aimed to help teachers and provide support in the appropriation of new technologies in the courses. The process involves change management practices (human resources management when implementing organizational changes), which shows how the focus is on people, as they are the ones ultimately using -and being affected by- the technology.

3. Evaluate Change

The Observatory Center brings together students, teachers and research on educational devices, ensuring oversight and identifying and disseminating new educational innovation trends. It evaluates how things are changing through surveys and by sharing practices in spaces like Café Pédagogique, a virtual scenario designed for teachers to

discuss pedagogical methods and their implementation in the classroom. This particularly French solution shows how the approach to implementation must be tailored to the cultural and sociological context of each institution. More importantly, it contributes to the use and deployment of different methods and strategies that have been successfully applied.

4. Improve Pedagogy Through Research

The Reflections and Research Link unit is a structure for the exchange, creation and dissemination of the main currents of reflection on university pedagogies. Paris-Sud has built its reputation on research, so it relies on research laboratories and existing structures that can, in turn, help improve teaching. Two research teams are working to assess the changes that must be applied to teaching practices to better educate the next generations. They are identifying and forecasting the needs of both teachers and students. One team focuses on Physics and Mathematics students and teachers, while the other looks at Sports Science. Both teams can share their research to gain an in-depth insight into which practices work best or could work in the future, and compare the projected practices to ongoing ones.

Customer snapshot

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How Does the Process Work in Practice?

Briantais thinks that the best way to look at it is as a cycle. In Paris-Sud’s case, the cycle begins by taking account of the technologies, training, assessing and sharing practices, research and bolstering technology. Teachers can also enter the cycle by looking at what their peers are doing. To make this possible, the DIP has to ensure participation and motivation within the community. One way or another, it needs to start with human interaction; people are key to the system, so sharing and discussing the tools and their uses is a great starting point.

Briantais also suggests taking a closer look at the interactions between people and the micro-cultures that exist between faculty and students. Understanding these interactions is key to spread innovation, as it can be tailored to specific groups with their own specific features. This is usually referred to as bottom-up innovation: the DIP tracks different trends and patterns to ensure that not only the team is aware of the innovations, but specially the people directly impacted by those innovations.

Other Implementation Tips

If an institution wants people to use the tools, it must keep them simple. Most students and teachers don’t have the time to bother with complicated software or interfaces. In the DIP’s first prototype, for example, the interface was not simplified enough and got negative feedback from users. After that, the Innovation team decided to place every plugin in plain view, which effectively solved the problem.

Finally, the solutions have to be interfaced with the Student Information System (SIS). Time is of the essence, and the institution cannot afford to spend too much time finding ways to get students involved with Moodle courses; that should be done automatically. To that end, the information system and the university’s databases have to be updated and linked to Moodle. This means that not only do the teachers need to be coached in the use of Moodle tools, but also the technical and administrative staff.

Eric Briantais, Pedagogical Innovation Director at Paris-Sud University


AFP Thomas Padilla 

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