Inside Track | Professor Neil Morris – Realising the benefits of our digital and online activities

In this Inside Track feature, I reflect on some of the success stories from our investments in digital technologies and online activities for our students, researchers and global learners.

Digital Practice website relaunched. July 2020

As we herald the official arrival of spring this week, with all the hope it brings, we’re celebrating a number of new arrivals in the area of online and digital education… alongside the welcome news of the safe arrival of the new ducklings in the Roger Stevens pond!

Fully online education strategy

We’ve been very active in the fully online education space for a number of years, creating online short courses and fully online degrees built on the knowledge created through our research and innovation activities. During this time, we’ve amassed more than 100 online short courses delivered on external platforms – FutureLearn and Coursera – including a number of award-winning and chart-topping courses.

These courses have supported our student recruitment and research dissemination and impact activities, enabling more than two million learners locally and globally to engage in high-quality, accessible, flexible, inclusive and engaging online learning.

We’ve also created new fully online degrees in a partnership between the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences and the Digital Education Service, and with support from Pearson Education. The first students on the new MSc Artificial Intelligence online degree started their classes last week, and we look forward to hearing about their experience in the coming months.

We hope it will be as positive as the experiences of students on the MSc Engineering Management course, which has now attracted more than 200 students – largely working professionals studying from overseas – who’ve provided excellent feedback on the quality of the teaching and support available. Watch this short video to hear more from the colleagues involved in creating and delivering this programme.

We approved our new fully online education strategy at the University Senate last week. This strategy will build on our success and experience in this area, and will extend and grow our ambition to deliver fully online degrees, micro-credentials (short credit-bearing courses) and short courses (for professionals and lifelong learners). The strategy describes our ambition to deliver high-quality, research-based, online courses in areas of high demand – aligned to global challenges – to support upskilling and reskilling. We will be running a series of information sessions during the coming weeks and months for colleagues to find out more about the strategy and how to get involved.

Supporting student success with new tools

During the past year, we’ve been working hard to prepare and launch two new tools to support student education – a learning analytics system and an ePortfolio system. These projects are very important to us all, as they signal a significant step forward in our ability to support our students’ learning, personal and professional development and success.

Last week, colleagues in a number of schools started to use our new learning analytics system in a pilot – this was a very significant milestone and the culmination of a lot of hard work from many people. The system will draw together information from a range of sources, and provide our students (and their tutors and professional support staff) with information to help inform conversations about how to maintain and enhance engagement and academic success.

The learning analytics system will be part of Leeds for Life, and will be used by academic personal tutors, and student success and student support staff, as part of an holistic approach to support our students’ learning journey. The system will now be rolled out gradually to more schools and will be available to all students (and their tutors) from September.

In the longer term, the learning analytics system will help us all to understand the impacts of our pedagogical choices in teaching, learning and assessment on students’ engagement and outcomes, and will become an important tool to help us define and deliver inclusive curricula that support all of our students to achieve their learning outcomes.

Portfolios for reflection and personal development

We’ve also been quietly extending our use of our new ePortfolio tool, Pebblepad, during the past few months. Pebblepad is a highly flexible learning space, which has tools that can be used in a wide range of teaching, learning, research and professional development applications.

First, PebblePad provides us with a more dynamic, interactive and reflective approach to learning and personal development, and this is already being implemented in the institutional work on Academic Personal Tutoring. PebblePad facilitates student-led tutorials, which will ultimately be supported by learning analytics data that allow students to monitor and enhance their own individual progress. 

This reflective and interactional functionality can, of course, be immediately put to use in other contexts, so the same shared spaces that will serve tutors and tutees can also provide enhanced experience for students and supervisors during undergraduate and postgraduate research projects, across placements, study abroad and any other experiential learning activity.

Second, PebblePad gives us access to collaborative, multimodal learning and teaching activities in a way some of us might not possibly have previously imagined. The emphasis placed on digital approaches to inclusive, student-centred learning in the new student education strategy leans heavily on engagement with digital technology, and the ePortfolio is clearly part of the response to this focus.

The functionality of the ePortfolio enables us to easily collaborate and share a range of media in a way that was not previously possible. This, in turn, provides us with the ability to tailor our responses to the changing circumstances created by the pandemic and to support student learning in new, hybrid modes. 

The need for online assessments can also be met by PebblePad, allowing us to quickly provide a sustainable approach to online assessment activities that can replace physical examinations. Happily, this also helps us in our over-arching aim to offer flexible, programme-level assessment that is both inclusive and accessible. 

PebblePad is already available to every student and colleague at Leeds. Further information about how to use PebblePad is available on the IT Knowledge Base together with five short introductory videos.  You can also sign up for a new series of live, online PebblePad training.

Digital transformation: Your questions

We’ve now produced a final version of the Digital Transformation Strategy, for approval by the University’s Council at the end of the month – with many thanks to all the students and colleagues who’ve provided ideas, comments and feedback on earlier drafts during the past few months. We will be publishing the strategy soon.

There were a number of questions raised about digital transformation at the University strategy launch events last month, and we didn’t have time to respond to them all. Therefore, I will answer one or two in my Inside Track articles during the coming weeks and months.

A colleague asked the following question: “Does the digital strategy take into consideration staff concerns and suggestions about embedding inclusive baseline standards and digital poverty, as well as staff workload?”

This issue is at the heart of the new University strategy, and the digital transformation and student education strategies. We’re strongly committed to ensuring our students have access to a flexible and inclusive educational experience, irrespective of background or circumstances, and that means ensuring we remove all barriers – including barriers created by lack of access to devices, Internet access or insufficient digital literacy. We also recognise that creating and delivering flexible, inclusive teaching and learning requires time for staff to gain professional development, and time to develop materials. These are also priorities that we’ve detailed within the Digital Transformation Strategy.

Professor Neil Morris, Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Digital Transformation

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