Inside Track - 9 January - Professor Tom Ward

Professor Tom Ward, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Education, reflects on 2017’s Digital Festival and Student Education Conference.

The Student Education Conference ‘Spreading the word’ and the Digital Festival took place on 5th and 6th January. This was my first encounter with what has become a large and highly successful event, bringing together impressive numbers of professional services and academic staff from across the University and beyond. Under a broad theme of storytelling and spreading the word, we enjoyed two distinguished keynote speakers. Simon Nelson from FutureLearn gave an overview of the potential for digital technology to support and to develop higher education and his views on likely future developments. Pauline Kneale from Plymouth University – a good friend of long standing to education at Leeds – gave an insightful overview of her experience in leading and supporting cross-institutional and collaborative educational research, including founding the Pedagogic Research Institute and Observatory (PedRIO).

The workshops, panels, and presentations over the two days reflected three remarkable attributes of education at Leeds. Diversity, with a wide range of topics and ideas discussed; quality, with presentations supported by a rich base of evidence and scholarship; and breadth, with speakers and projects from many different discipline areas and professional services divisions.

It was impossible to attend all the events but from those I could, three strong impressions emerged.

The first was the huge potential of what we can achieve in digital education. We have invested significantly, have an exceptional body of expertise to support this, and are better placed than most universities to develop our digital presence. Through new Online Distance Learning initiatives, the established relationship with FutureLearn, and our on campus blended provision we are in a good position to further improve our students’ learning, offer our exceptional education to new audiences, learn to operate confidently and effectively in this new arena – and to diversify our income streams. Learning to do new and different things is never easy – but is always worthwhile.

The second was the urgency behind a set of issues that come under the heading of inclusive education. Here too the potential is enormous. The more we find ways to develop the curriculum – and above all the assessment practices – so that students from different cultures, from different backgrounds and with different needs (for example, on the autistic spectrum, with dyslexia, and so on) are accommodated within rather than outside our regular practice, the better we will be delivering genuinely inclusive education. Organisational Development & Professional Learning (ODLP, formerly SDDU) and Disabled Students’ Assessment and Support (DSAS) have coordinated the development of a series of practical guides to support this, and this area builds on research expertise at Leeds.

The third is the pervasive power of assessment design. Several presentations involved ways to use assessment in a thoughtful and evidenced way to support learning, and I was delighted to see that some of the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE) Excellence and Innovation Fellowship projects and the University Student Education Fellowship projects will involve exploring further innovation in assessment. I look forward to seeing emergent ideas in the effective and efficient use of assessment design from those projects – and from the many colleagues thinking about this.

I would like to thank the organisers of and contributors to this event, with particular thanks to Kelvin Tapley for the special leadership role he has played in running this series of conferences. LITE will now be taking the lead in running the conference, and I look forward to its continued success.

Tom Ward

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