Hi! My name is Emma Cripps and I am the eLearning Coordinator in the Graduate School. When asking a colleague what I should write my first TEL Tales blog post about, the response was “something you are interested in”. There are a lot of aspects of my job that interest me, but at the moment there is one topic that I am particularly focussed on – the way in which online learning resources are created.
Having worked with undergraduate, and some postgraduate taught courses for over 8 years, my move to the Graduate School in 2019 required me to approach online learning from a completely different viewpoint. Having previously worked with academics to develop online resources that mostly supplemented face-to-face courses, I am now presented with the challenge of creating fully online, standalone, self-paced learning modules. The Graduate School, through the Graduate School Development Programme (GSDP), usually delivers over 150 face-to-face workshops a year that support postgraduate research (PGR) students at key doctoral milestones, helping them to become independent researchers and employable graduates. Part of my role is to develop some of these face-to-face workshops into online learning modules, that any PGR student can complete at any given time. Whilst to some, this type of online content may be seen as more suitable for distance learners, the content I create is intended for all research degree students. The most popular workshops we run as part of the GSDP can be repeated up to five times in any given academic year, but for students who are busy undertaking research, working on their personal and professional development, teaching, and trying to maintain their wellbeing, along with any of the other daily tasks required of them, it can be difficult for them to commit to attending one of these workshops. And, given the current situation, the online versions of our workshops are now crucially important to our PGR students.
Online resources, now more than ever, play such a huge role in research students’ development. The ability to log on at any time, from anywhere (with an internet connection) and choose what it is they want to learn, allows research students the flexibility to fit their development around their other commitments. With this idea underpinning the work I do, I have not only continued to develop our online workshops, but have worked with colleagues in the Graduate School to curate resources from many different sources, such as LinkedIn Learning, Future Learn, SAGE Research Methods and many more, to ensure that every topic we cover in our face-to-face workshops has at a minimum, one good quality online resource. However, online resources may not always be full workshops or additional resources from other providers. Within the Graduate, we have been able to record aspects of some of our workshops, which we have been doing for over 4 years now, and provide these, along with additional resources from the face-to-face workshops via our Moodle sites. This results in our online provision being quite varied, engaging, and interesting for PGR students.
When thinking about the content I create, manage and recommend to PGR students, I have always used the following considerations as my starting point. In the current situation, and knowing that I will need to develop even more online resources in the future, I believe these are still some of the best questions to ask at the outset when developing online content:
- Is the content actually needed?
What is it that I am looking to develop, and is it suitable to be created in an online format? Is there an alternative option that already exists, and if there is, does it meet the learning outcomes, the students’ needs, and is it a high-quality resource? There are some workshops that we would not develop into an online format, such as our “Mini Motivation Boost” workshop. This workshop aims to give PGR students some space and time to reflect on their journey so far, and with the support of the workshop tutor, and other PGR students, consider strategies to get back on track with their research. This workshop works so well because of the interaction between research students, their ability to share their challenges, and discuss ways in which they can overcome them. Unfortunately, this would be particularly difficult to capture as an online learning course, and would not give students the same, supportive experience. Going forward, we would look to deliver this type of session as a live, or synchronous, session, but with additional resources to support it, such as a toolkit of resources, Apps, activities and ways to keep in touch that participants can access alongside the synchronous session.
- Is the content accessible?
The next thing I have to consider is the accessibility of the content I am creating or recommending. I recently participated in a webinar hosted by a large North American company who provide software that’s used to create digital artefacts. The title of the webinar was something along the lines of “creative ways to turn PowerPoints into online courses”. Great! A lot of the content I work with starts off as a PowerPoint, so this would give me some really creative ideas for content development. How disappointed I was when the first 20 minutes of the webinar was spent demonstrating how a PowerPoint can be saved as individual image files and uploaded as an image gallery! Not only does this create a completely inaccessible item for those using screen readers and other assistive technology, but it is also not very interesting for learners to engage with! What I am trying to say here is, I think we still have some work to do in how we develop online content that is both interesting to engage with and accessible, but it is possible to do both, it might just take a little more imagination and creativity!
- Is the content usable?
The term usability describes the “ease of use” (Church, 2015) of a product, and is an aspect of user experience, as is accessibility. When thinking about the usability of online resources, it is important for me to remember that PGR students are going to have to navigate and find this content, with little or no help. Whilst we provide guidance, videos, quick links and more, there will be times when PGR students don’t know exactly what it is they are looking for, or even if it exists at all! Because of this, everything related to the Graduate School’s online learning content must be easily found, easy to navigate, easy to interact with, and work across all devices and systems that students may be using. Not only that, but the actual content needs to be useful (see point 1!), interactive and engaging. There is certainly more I can be doing in this area, but for now, I am working to reduce the amount of searching PGR students have to do to find what they are looking for, and ensuring that there is a consistent experience with all of the online content that we create.
- Do I have the knowledge and skills to develop or evaluate the content?
This final consideration is actually a really important one. I have been working in online learning for almost 10 years now, and the online environments and content that I create have changed so much in that time, as have my skills and knowledge! What hasn’t changed though is the supportive community of online course developers, educational technologists, enthusiastic academics, and engaging professional service staff. One thing I have had to do a lot more in the last year though is network with subject matter experts (SMEs). SMEs have knowledge or skills in a specific topic (“What’s a”, n.d.), and can be a really helpful source of information, feedback and experience. The relationship with SMEs in the Graduate School makes up the foundation of our development programme, and we are always so grateful to the staff who give up their time to support us. I certainly would not be able to create content for the Graduate School without the input and feedback from staff who have a greater knowledge in complex areas of researcher development, and in aspects of online content creation that I am less familiar with.
Whilst this blog post has been written in the context of postgraduate researcher development, and the work that the Graduate School undertakes, I believe that the considerations I have outlined above, and the approach I take to online content creation can be applied across all levels and courses at the University. One additional thing I would like to add is that with the provision of online resources, the number of PGR students attending Graduate School workshops has not decreased, and we were able to support over 2,600 students in our workshops in the 2018/19 academic year. That being said, with over half the PGR students at the University of Portsmouth undertaking their research degree part-time, our online provision is an important support mechanism for any and all research degree students. Given the uncertain future we are currently facing, the provision of online resources will continue to be of massive importance, and you will find me hard at work reviewing, collating, creating and checking all the online content we provide to our PGR students to ensure that it continues to support them in their research, academic, professional and personal development.
Church, S. (2015). Usability and user experience. Retrieved from https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/usability-and-user-experience
What’s a Subject Matter Expert (SME)? (n.d.). Retrieved from Articulate website: https://community.articulate.com/series/everything-you-need-to-know-about-working-with-smes/articles/what-is-a-subject-matter-expert-in-e-learning
The Graduate School supports a community of over 1,000 research degree students from across the University, including MRes, Professional Doctorate and PhD students. We offer bespoke training and professional development workshops that allow our research degree students to grow their personal, professional and research skills and career aspirations. We are also the first port of call for Research Supervisors, offering guidance, support, and development events. Find out more on the Graduate School webpages.
Credit Image: The feature image is from the Marketing Portal, and is “Free for use” and “Available for Third Party”. It shows ‘imaging phantoms’ which have been created and used by one of our PhD students, and were showcased at our 2019 Doctoral Festival of Research.