Solstice Conference at Edge Hill University – Day Two

I attended the second day of the Solstice Teaching and Learning Conference at Edge Hill University. I’m not sure why I haven’t been to this conference for a number of years, I guess sometimes you overlook things because they are on your own doorstep. I’ll make sure I don’t make that mistake again. The topics discussed on this day admirably represented the current state of play in educational technologies, academic development, as well as the condition and purpose of the “University” at this tumultuous time. The notions of openness and space recurred throughout the day’s presentations. Beginning with Dr John Cater, Vice Chancellor at Edge Hill, addressing the audience with – as he described – his musings on the possible changes to the trajectory of Higher Education after the general election, it was great to see him pull up a table (no lectern or chair) and begin to share and respond to views about the responses around TEF and why we are at this point. He also did a little bit of future-gazing, sharing his ideas about the possible impact that a likely Conservative win would have on the Higher Education sector in general. This was an absorbing, passionate and inspiring talk and one I suspect doesn’t happen in other teaching and learning conferences around the country. Great start to the day.

The theme of openness continued with Prof Keith Smyth’s presentation on the ideas and approaches around the Porous (or leaky) University. Many will be familiar with his previous work and approaches to open practice via the 3E Framework and the Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice. The ideas around this talk weren’t unfamiliar to me. I’d been made aware of them through colleagues Mark Johnston and Sheila McNeil sharing their thoughts on Twitter. As I understand it, the Porous University is an exploration of openness and place – in particular third spaces as described in Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place, the idea being that large amounts of learning can and does (and should?) take place in other spaces beyond the traditional classroom environment. With the increasing commercialisation of Higher Education in the UK, these ideas tend to be in tension with view of universities as a civic good and education as a mission, rather than a marketplace.  Keith went on to share a range of examples from across the country which look at alternative models of higher education as well as challenging the ideas of the current curriculum. What I found valuable about this work was the focus on connecting the University to local communities and other discrete groups in ways that would impact positively on both, becoming valuable to people in the activities it pursues and not just the revenue it generates.

The use of institutional tools came under scrutiny as being potential barriers for collaboration across modules, groups, interests and countries, suggesting that social media spaces are in a better position to encourage sharing and openness, while traditional VLE spaces are bound by transactional delivery of information. This theme was also picked up by Simon Thomson Head of Digital Pedagogy at Leeds Beckett University with his presentation “Disrupting the ownership model of educational technology”.

He has recently begun a project, supported by JISC, which pushes the idea that our digital spaces can be provided by the institution but the ownership, control and the data ultimately resides with the student. Working with his current VLE provider Blackboard, he is exploring ways to allow students to share from their social spaces into the VLE.  Taking IFTTT as his model, where you use existing parts of the web to plug into and connect services and profiles to be able function more effectively.  They are currently testing a product called Pulse which I’ll be keeping an eye (and finger! Boom boom!) on.

With a greater shift into digital spaces, there appears to be an increased level of questioning directed at educational technology providers. I’m sensing that people are no longer willing simply to accept what is presented to them, and adapt. Rather, interrogation of fitness for purpose appears to be becoming the new normal. Perhaps this is not too surprising when you consider that a number of universities in the UK are reviewing their digital spaces by undergoing or planning a VLE review. Continuing this theme was a presentation from Claire Moscrop entitled “Digital Accessibility in Higher Education: a Model for Improvement”. Set against the backdrop of changes to DSA support the talk highlighted a growing number of students that would need further support in the coming year. This context provided the basis of their research study looking into ways to provide guidance to create accessible content for adding to the VLE that would benefit all students.

It was not just the digital space that was being considered, the physical was also under discussion.  Federica Oradnini (University of Westminster) and Prof Peter Hartley (standing in for Prof Gunter Saunders) shared the substantial work being undertaken at Westminster to update and change a large number teaching rooms into effective learning spaces. The presentation highlighted a range of examples across the Higher Education landscape citing examples by Northampton, Leeds and Nottingham Trent Universities.

This project saw investment of £10 million over five years that would develop 260 standard teaching spaces at the institution. They are now in year three of the project and will have completed 100 rooms by the end of the summer. They presented pictures of the 5 different room types that emerged from discussions with staff. I would have liked to have spent a little more time in the session discussing these as a group as it seemed some of the choices were more geared to interactivity than others. Westminster had already adopted a number of in-class engagement tools to make the best use of these spaces including Poll Everywhere, Reflector and Padlet.  To help academic staff make the best of these new spaces Federica and her team created an online module to share good practice and ideas from within the institution.  The early stage feedback from staff and students who had used the room was positive but will be interesting to revisit in a year or two. Peter wrapped up with some considerations about the conditions and good practice needed to develop spaces like these. Key in this appears to be implementation “based on pedagogy not just capacity or efficiency”.

All in all this was a stimulating event with a great mix of workshops and presentations covering many of the key considerations of teaching and assessment in higher education at this current time. They also have ducks wandering around their campus. What more could you ask for? See you at Solstice 2018.



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