Inside Track – Professor Neil Morris: Exploring our use of digital technology

As we approach the start of the summer term, Professor Neil Morris, Dean of Digital Education, explores our use of digital technology to support students’ learning, success and outcomes.


I want to start by saying thank you to all staff involved in student education, who have worked tirelessly to support the delivery of learning and teaching, prepare for alternative assessments and examinations, and provided support for our students.

There have been herculean efforts by academic and professional services staff right across the University, directly with students and behind the scenes, and although it has been a very challenging period for us all, we have all been working with our students’ interests right at the centre of everything we have been doing.

This year’s examination season will be like no other – no rush of students towards the sports halls carrying dog-eared revision notes; no clusters of students gathering outside the Great Hall waiting for admission by invigilators; and no envelopes stuffed full of examination scripts distributed between academic staff for marking.

Will this enforced change to the examinations result in lasting change to our over-stretched and traditional examination system? Will we return to unseen, closed book examinations next year, or will we see value in open-book assessments, and other alternative assessments, completed online?

Final year medical students at Imperial College London successfully took an online open-book assessment in March 2020 in what was described as a ‘world first’ – activities like this may signal the beginning of the end for closed book hand-written examinations at universities.

As you read this, you may be preparing to engage with online marking for the first time. This may be a daunting prospect after many years of established practice, marking and providing feedback on thousands of hand-written examination scripts. Of course, this abrupt change to online marking is a consequence of our circumstances, but we were moving in this direction institutionally, and I hope your experience of using the online marking systems will be positive. As with all of our digital education systems, online marking systems are not perfect, and are evolving and improving over time, but, hopefully, you will realise some of the benefits available and adopt them for the long-term.

One system that has come into its own during this situation is the online exam and marking system, Gradescope. We had only just installed this system and initiated a pilot when we went into lockdown, and our institutional knowledge of its capabilities were very embryonic. However, it is now being used widely across the University to set, and assess, alternative assessments for students to undertake remotely. Gradescope is our first online marking system to use artificial intelligence to improve marking efficiency, and save time, so it will be fascinating to hear about colleagues’ experiences during the coming months.

One project that we have delivered during lockdown, which will certainly have a lasting impact on our students’ education, is the availability of captioning for all Mediasite content. Many of you may have missed this during the flurry of communications before Easter, but I hope you will spend some time now enabling automated captions on your existing and forthcoming Mediasite recordings; the process is easy and the results are very good in many circumstances.

For many of our students, having the ability to read captions whilst watching recorded learning content is an additional benefit, which improves inclusivity and can support engagement and deeper learning. However, for some students, captions are essential, and enable them to access, and engage with, learning resources you provide. Of course, machine-generated automated captions are not 100% accurate, and we need to gather evidence and feedback now, to enable improvements and provide guidance for students, in advance of enabling captions automatically on all Mediasite content from September 2020.

A key aspect of our activity during the coming period will be to develop our shared understanding of the most effective approaches for designing, developing and delivering high-quality, flexible, inclusive, online learning materials. We have produced an online course for all staff engaged in teaching and learning, which will be available shortly in Minerva – this will help colleagues to think about effective pedagogies and curriculum design approaches for online learning content, and online delivery.

Whilst we made a rapid, and largely effective, pivot to ‘online learning’ in March, it was an emergency response – we now need to begin to prepare for online scenarios in the 20/21 academic session, and where better to start than with thinking about curriculum design, pedagogy and the most appropriate technologies to use to support your students’ learning. If our students are learning online during the next academic session, they need to receive a high-quality education and experience, and we will need to work hard to ensure that happens for all of our students. It is worth remembering that this investment of time in creating online content will deliver returns during the coming years – high-quality online learning materials can be re-used, and re-purposed, and support our strategy to provide a student-centred, flexible, inclusive learning experience for all our students.

I want to end by musing over a question I’ve been asked: what will be your ‘lockdown legacy’ to your students? Will you continue to offer office hours via Collaborate Ultra to enable students to gain your insight and advice flexibly, without needing to travel to campus? Will you continue to create short multimedia learning assets and formative quizzes to enrich your Minerva module area, to stimulate and engage your students, and provide them with opportunities to test their understanding? Will you consider changing the assessment regime for your module(s) to incorporate authentic, multimodal, open-book, digitally created and marked activities?

Professor Neil Morris

Dean of Digital Education

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