Well … 2020 has been quite a year. The most extraordinary 12 months any of us have experienced. Although 2020 has had its stresses (to put it mildly) I’m proud at how the TEL team has helped the University maintain its mission. Our existing students were able to progress and new students have been able to start their University career. Without technology, that would have been impossible.
Like many people, we understood the disruptive potential of Covid-19 in late February. By early March we started thinking about the support we could offer if the University had to deliver teaching remotely. We thus had the elearning Tools website ready to publish when the VC sent his email about home working.
That move to home working affected the TEL team less than many other teams in the University – partly because many of us already had some experience of home working and partly because we work with technology on a daily basis. All we need to do the basics of our job is a fast, stable internet connection. (One team member, stuck abroad when airlines began to remove scheduled flights, spent several days working from Australia. For a while we truly were providing around-the-clock service!) It helped the team enormously that we used SLACK: the platform held a record of our thinking and enabled people to catch up on discussions they might otherwise have missed.
That’s not to say working at home (or living at work?) was without challenges – especially for those of us who were homeschooling children or who had other caring responsibilities. One lesson I think we learned far too late was this: when we’re working at home we don’t need to be available all the time. Too many of us jumped to respond to a SLACK message immediately or to answer an email the moment it reached our inbox. It’s nice to know our team members are conscientious – but that “always-there” mentality is ultimately self-defeating. And although SLACK enabled us to work efficiently while we were remote, it’s undeniable that face-to-face communication is quicker and less prone to misunderstanding than text-based communication. All that raises an interesting question: when we get back to some sort of normality, will we all rush back into the office? Not many people miss their commute, but some do miss the office environment – so will we work more flexibly, with one or two days spent in the office and the rest working at home? Or will some of us become full-time home-workers?
Returning from speculation on future events to events that happened back in the spring of 2020: the University started to develop its “Blended and Connected” approach to the new academic year. To support that initiative, the TEL team created the website Preparing for teaching in a blended learning context, with content coming from across the whole of DCQE. We also worked closely with our colleagues in Academic Development to put on the TEL Tales Blended Learning Festival (and more recently a Blended Learning Mini-Fest).
The “Blended and Connected” approach allowed us to address a long-standing complaint from students. In response to our yearly Digital Experience Tracker, students regularly criticised the lack of consistency across their Moodle modules. We now had the chance to develop and implement a templated approach to Moodle. The TEL team also improved the Moodle theme, in light of co-creation work with a group of University computing students studying UX/UI design.
Of course, all those other tasks involved in running a large Moodle installation did not go away because of the pandemic. Integrations with other systems (more of which below) had to be managed, the upgrade to Moodle version 3.9 had to take place, and all of this took place as the University moved from Quercus to SITS. (Can anything be more stressful for a university than changing Student Record systems in the middle of a pandemic?) The SITS project touched most aspects of University life; for us, it required the development of new feeds into Moodle.
Moodle itself has performed robustly since the start of the academic year, despite routinely serving numbers of students that in previous years would have been considered extraordinary. By the start of December our new Moodle had clocked up 1,264,306 logins and students had engaged in 14,088,187 activities (read/writes). Phew…
Throughout 2019, discussions and consultations around content capture had taken place (and a new policy on content capture was eventually agreed). We entered 2020, however, in a difficult place. We were concerned about the technologies we had available to support content capture: our existing platforms had reached end-of-life. The team facilitated a number of supplier demonstrations early in the year, with the last demonstration taking place just before the work-from-home directive took hold, and UoP chose Panopto – the most widely adopted video platform within universities. The implementation and roll-out of such a platform would normally take place over the course of a full year, but we made Panopto available (complete with Moodle integration and a support website) within six weeks. Quite an achievement! And the platform is being heavily used: by November, we had 29,793 videos created; 10,464 hours of video created; 736,081 views and downloads; and 97,759 hours of video delivered. Again, phew…
To support synchronous delivery for the new “Blended and Connected” approach, the University purchased Zoom. And, of course, we were quick to integrate this with Moodle. One useful feature in Zoom, which at that point could not easily be replicated by existing options such as Meet and WebEx, was the easy creation of breakout rooms. (Offering a plethora of technologies that do similar things – Zoom, WebEx, Meet – has the potential to lead to confusion for staff and an inconsistent experience for students. It can be difficult to take options away from people; in some cases, it might be technically impossible to remove options. But – in the interests of a consistent student experience – perhaps we need to be firmer in our recommendations of what tools to use?)
We invested in other tools, too: Padlet to facilitate collaboration; Vevox as an audience response system; and we continued to push Nearpod for interactive lessons. For all of these, we continued to provide our usual training support for staff, and offered face-to-face and small-group sessions – mediated by Zoom, WebEx, and Meet!
Throughout the pandemic, the TEL team has been active on social media – and the stream of positive, uplifting, motivational messages from TEL accounts were well received during the lockdown. More than one member of staff said the posts cheered them up!
We worked with staff across DCQE to help them create support sites (for example the Wellbeing and ASK sites) and with staff across the University in workstrands, workstreams, and elsewhere. We supported departments in adapting to an online alternative to their usual ‘go-to method’ of face to face presenting such as the Staff Induction Welcome Event for new staff members held by HR. I hope that cross-institution working carries on when we return to some form of normality because everyone agrees it has been beneficial.
What else? Well, we have kept abreast of accessibility issues and our responsibilities under PSBAR. This is a difficult issue for all universities: the legislation was written, I believe, with static content in mind. But a VLE contains rapidly changing content from thousands of users. The sector as a whole is grappling with the implications of this.
We hope to develop our (externally hosted) CPD Moodle. As more people become aware of the platform, more courses are going on there. And we are working closely with CEG Digital, the University’s partners for expanding our DL offering.
Questions around analytics and data have been of interest and, when we’ve had any spare time (hah!), we’ve tried to make progress in this area. We have liaised with a Business Analyst on the creation of a Student Engagement and Monitoring dashboard; locally, we have started to look at how to surface useful statistics on the Moodle dashboard. Watch for developments over the coming months!
I could write much, much more about the team’s attainments – but I’ll leave it there.
We have encountered many setbacks and challenges – inevitably so, given the amount of change that has been implemented over such a short period of time – but the team, as part of the wider University, has achieved so much this year. We can leave the plague year behind us and enter 2021 knowing we have a bright future.