Moving on…

After twelve years, I’ve decided to leave CETIS and I finish today. In my final blog post, I just thought I’d share with you with a couple of things that have really stood out for me during my time as an e-learning technologist. I had thought about reviewing the changes in e-learning technologies over the past twelve years – and there have been huge changes: tablets (and phablets), MOOCs, Moodle, and ebooks, to name but a few. But the technology isn’t important, that will always change. What is important is the people who try and make that technology work for the benefit of the student.

I have admired and been inspired by the sheer dedication, passion and hard work of staff, who are trying to make the tertiary education experience better for students, despite a myriad of challenges. This work is often unheralded and yet has a huge impact. It’s been a joy working with so many wonderful people.

I have also loved seeing people collaborate, both in the accessibility and relationship management arenas. It’s not always easy to share issues and experiences with potential competitors and yet when staff at different institutions do come together to do this, the student and the institution are left the richer. It been a pleasure to bring people together via the Accessibility SIG (Special Interest Group) and the JISC Relationship Management Programme and to see relationships grow and blossom.

I don’t have any plans as yet, which is somewhat scary and exciting at the same time and I feel a bit like Mr Benn, with a whole world of adventure before me. Of course, I will miss my CETIS colleagues, we’ve been through a lot together, and so rather than say goodbye, I’d just like to say remember the good times and celebrate!

Relationship Management: Be transparent and sincere

Following on from my previous post (Relationship Management: Communicate, communicate, communicate),  based on the Compendium of Good Practice in Relationship Management in Higher and Further Education, written by myself and Lou McGill, this post will focus on culture change. We’ve already stated the importance of communication, which is the glue that binds the various stakeholders together.  In this post, we’ll be taking a look at the institution’s and management’s role in relationship management with regard to culture change.

“The project, as a change management initiative, has contributed to the University [of Southampton's] understanding of its institutional context. Opening up our data silos is more political and cultural than technical, and these domains are starting to change. There is little concrete evidence of the fruits of the change yet, but the change process has begun… We have been able to make extensive preparation for change, and there is commitment within the University to continue with it.” (Moore, I. and Paull, A. (2012). JISC Relationship Management Programme – Impact Analysis: Strands 2 and 3. (Not publicly available)

Taking an institution-wide approach to relationship management presents opportunities to identify where existing cultural approaches and practices may be ineffective. Sometimes the introduction of a new software system can highlight areas where cultural change needs to occur. It can show where current procedures inhibit agility, or where collaboration and innovation initiatives are not working. Introducing new software often acts as a catalyst for change in policies, practice and culture, whilst improving access to data can encourage the organisational culture to be more innovative and transparent. Changing an organisation’s culture is not without its problems:

“For context we would note that the staff and student population of an average university is equivalent to that of a small town (and the largest universities to small cities). Planning for change on this scale is not easy.” (Moore, I. and Paull, A. (2012). JISC Relationship Management Programme – Impact Analysis: Strands 2 and 3. (Not publicly available)

Cultural change comes with a myriad of challenges and is probably one of the hardest aspects of relationship management to address. For example:

  • staff may view changes in processes and the introduction of new software systems as threatening to their working practices; eg at Loughborough University, some staff who considered their own processes to be fit for purpose were concerned about proposed changes
  • concerns around budget reductions
  • resulting staff turnover

Champions can help drive change. At the University of Nottingham, for example, senior management is encouraged to champion good practice for placements, with the placement co-ordinator acting as the central conduit for relationships and communication. Senior management buy-in or sponsorship can help to raise the importance of relationship management within the institution, but it must be sincere, otherwise an institution’s organisational structure will remain a barrier no matter what improvements are suggested:

“The process of change needs to be managed with care to ensure that all stakeholder are positively engaged, especially those who have the power to implement the change (primary stakeholders), and those who have influence over opinion within the organization. Hence it is essential to carry out a full stakeholder analysis. As with any change management, when it comes to implementing the change it is important to identify champions in each of the stakeholder groups, coupled with clear and regular communication.” (Davis, H., Howard, Y., and Prince, R. (2012). Ninjas and Dragons. University of Southampton)

Consultation with a wide range of departments and stakeholders can also help to identify new champions. For example, new enthusiasts at the University of Nottingham were instrumental in spreading the word about placements and sources of expertise. As a result, existing good practice (for example from the School of Veterinary Medicine) has now been incorporated into the placements process and at least five academic schools in the University have expressed interest in using ePortfolios to support placements or work-based activity.

The co-creation aspects of the service design approach can help to improve staff buy-in, because it empowers staff to take ownership of any process improvements with a good chance of long-term impact. Taking this approach and talking to people on their own terms may also win over ‘difficult’ institutional characters, thereby enabling ‘change by stealth’. Sometimes, it is necessary to establish new organisational structures to facilitate change and create new staff roles to reflect changing priorities. Communication is vital for promoting an understanding of what people are doing and why.

Change must be managed carefully to ensure that all stakeholders are engaged, especially those who have power or influence in the institution. For example, rather than imposing wholesale change across the whole institution, the University of Nottingham has taken a ‘hub and spoke’ approach in which new developments are conceived centrally and delivered locally. The primary focus is on the spokes, rather than the hub, which start to establish change across the institution. Similarly, encouraging staff to make bite-sized changes that do not take them away from day-to-day operations can reduce resentment to any new methods of working.

Changing the mindset of staff can have a huge impact, even if significant changes to processes are still to be made. For example, instead of just providing advice and guidance to students thinking of leaving, staff at the University of Derby now pro-actively reach out to students who wish to withdraw. This helps the student, who may not be able to articulate their reasons for withdrawal and who may just need additional support. It also provides the institution with useful feedback for making further improvements.

How to approach culture change

  • Establish champions to drive through changes
  • Senior management buy-in or sponsorship must be sincere
  • Talk to people on their own terms
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Use co-creation to encourage staff to take ownership of process improvements
  • Aim for small-scale rather than large-scale changes

Further information

 

Relationship Management: Communicate, communicate, communicate

This is the first in a series of posts based on the Compendium of Good Practice in Relationship Management in Higher and Further Education, written by myself and Lou McGill. The Compendium will be made available shortly, but I thought I’d post up a few samples to whet your appetite.

Increased and improving use of electronic communication tools across a wide spectrum give the greatest number of contact opportunities for the widest number of students, representing increased capability.” (Moore, I. and Paull, A. (2012). JISC Relationship Management Programme – Impact Analysis: Strands 2 and 3. (Not publicly available)

Communication is at the very heart of relationship management and is linked strongly with both staff and student well-being. Staff working in student support services, for example, recognise this, but do not always have the resources to provide effective support to everyone. It is not only communication between the institution and students that is important, but also communication between different departments and staff roles. Some processes, such as recording mitigating circumstances where emails are triggered at different stages, can be quite complex.

Students prefer a single communication channel to multiple emails and sources for accessing support services. When developing digital resources for student support, consider how students will interact with them and how communication with the support service will be handled; for example social media is ideal for presenting bite-sized pieces of information tailored to student requirements. Therefore:

  • resources should be designed to work on both computers and mobile devices, eg tablets and smartphones, so that students can access them any time, anywhere
  • self-check facilities, such as psychological assessment questionnaires, should be made available to help frame the context for support issues for both staff and students and personal online feedback should also be provided once any self-check questionnaires have been completed
  • social media services, such as Twitter, Facebook and even email can help engage and inform students about support services; for example, the University of Sheffield’s Well Connected Twitter stream is followed by over 200 students
  • SMS (Short Messaging Service) texts can be used to send key information to students about their course or institution, as well as personalised information relating to bursaries, for example
  • consider the terminology being used; for example, both staff and students may have differing interpretations of words such as ‘placement’, ‘work experience’, or ‘internships’.

Feedback has shown that students favour using digital media for accessing student support services and information. They value resources that have the backing and authority of the institution as it can be trusted to provide dependable advice. Offering support services online can provide the following benefits:

  • Cost saving: For example, the University of Nottingham uses Mahara to communicate with students on placement, because it’s more efficient than sending individual emails to students; it also enables visibility and tracking of what has been communicated to students
  • Informs potential students: online information, such as blogs, can inform potential students and can be reused by staff for guidance, marketing and recruitment
  • Provides a channel for communication for staff-student and student-student online conversations
  • Promotes sharing: staff and students can share information when it is all in one place.
  • using web based social and professional networking tools can reduce challenges around data ownership and institutional support requirements and takes advantage of systems that students and alumni may already use for career and personal development

When developing digital resources for students, internal communication for staff must be open and inclusive. One way to ensure this is to include representatives from a variety of backgrounds (such as faculty, IT, Student Services, Registry, Statistics Units, Students’ Union etc) and talk to stakeholders on their terms. This approach can strengthen collaboration across departments (and even across institutions). It will also encourage ownership, stimulate creativity and provide multiple perspectives and solutions.

Digital resources that provide student support can be marketed to students using a variety of formats from conventional posters and flyers to messages sent out through social media, such as via Student Union Facebook newsfeeds, which can reach thousands of students. Timing is important, so it is important to focus on times when students need this information most, for example at the beginning of the academic year and exam time. Institutional branding is important as students view any university branded support service, as comforting, supportive, reliable and trustworthy.

Institutions can work with alumni to support final year students as they prepare for employment, particularly in the role of mentors, who can offer recent experience of the transition. This can alleviate some of the burden of student support provision from within the institution, but still requires appropriate management. Alumni can also act as important links in professional networks by introducing students to employers and other professionals.

Professional networking, particularly that with a strong discipline focus, can be supported by institutions to maintain connections with alumni and help to consolidate links with employers. Integrating this aspect into student modules also serves to connect students to important networks before they leave and helps them maintain links with the institution once they have graduated. For example, Aston University has integrated:

“…business engagement content into the new website. Stakeholders can now get direct access to relevant business contacts, case studies, and partnership opportunities.” (Pymm, S. (2012). A Report on the implementation of AstonConnect+. Aston University)

How to approach communication and networking

  • Internal communication for staff must be open and inclusive
  • Talk to stakeholders on their terms
  • Consider how students will interact digital resources for support and how communication with the support service will be handled
  • Tailor information and the communication method to student requirements
  • Consider the terminology being used
  • Design resources to work on computers and mobile devices
  • Use self-check facilities and provide personal online feedback once completed
  • Use social media services to engage and inform students
  • Focus effort on the time of year when students need particular types of information most
  • Institutional branding is important
  • Integrate professional networking into the curriculum
  • Work with alumni to support final year students as they prepare for employment

Further information

MOOC is not a dirty word… at least for the student

Photo of a mortar board hat and scrollThere seems to be a lot of animosity toward MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) at the moment, mostly it seems because they don’t offer the same experience as a traditional on-campus course and because of the issues around assessment.

But I wonder how many of those nay-sayers have actually taken a MOOC? From a student point of view, a MOOC is a wonderful opportunity to try something for free, with no obligation if it doesn’t work out, or if circumstances force a change of mind.

So I’ve taken off my e-learning hat and I’m writing this from a student point of view. I’m currently doing Stanford University’s HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) course. As I live in a rural area and work full-time, there is no other way that I would be able to access such a course. I’m not doing it for the “statement of accomplishment”, which if I complete the course, I’ll get at the end (although that carrot does help). I’m doing it for my own personal development, skills upgrading and enjoyment. In any case, I wouldn’t be able to take such a course in my own time at my own institution.

As I said in my previous post, MOOCs and Carrots back in September, the types of students on these courses are not students who would normally be able to study in a campus setting. People seem to be taking such courses to upgrade or complement their existing skills or even just for the challenge. There are mothers with young children, housebound people, people with disabilities, people who don’t live anywhere near an educational institution, unemployed people, etc. Not only that, people can take each week’s module whenever they want, wherever they want. Be it at 9pm at night when the children have gone to bed or on the train on the way to a meeting. These are non-traditional students who would be unable to attend a class in a traditional setting.

The HCI course is peer-reviewed, which I think is a sticking point for many educationalists. This is not without its challenges from both a student and educationalist perspective as some of the forum posts testify. However, as a student, it enables me to see other students’ work and how they have approached a particular task. The learning comes not just from following the video lectures and attempting each week’s practical assignment, it comes from what my peers say about my work as well as from what I can observe in theirs.

One student asked if the online HCI course was any different to the one that Stanford’s own on-campus students take. Both online and on-campus students have the video lectures (although some are done physically by the on-campus staff), the on-campus students have 10 weeks to complete the course (online students have 9), on-campus students also have an hour’s lab time per week (presumably with some sort of assistance from staff), and of course on-campus students’ work is assessed by teaching staff. In both cases, the content is the same.

Some students do want that (electronic) piece of paper at the end, perhaps for the prestige of successfully completing a Stanford course (the type of statement of accomplishment depends on the student’s average marks for the course) or for demonstrating to their employers that they have completed it. Many other students are completing the course at their own pace (it is quite intensive) and are doing it because they want to learn about HCI in their own time and their own way. For them, a MOOC is a way to facilitate that – they get the guidance and support they need but there is no fear of failing or dropping out, as the course can always be taken again next time or over an extended period of time. For many students, the learning goal is not a piece of paper, but the acquisition of a new skill or undertaking a personal challenge.

Institutions and educationalists should not look at the MOOC as a threat to the sector (at least not yet), because the type of people taking these online classes are generally not able (for whatever reason) to take a traditional on-campus course. It may be some time before the assessment side of things is robust enough to enable students to receive proper accreditation.

MOOCs do fill a need, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many thousands of people flocking to take them (the other course I’m taking has over 34,000 students registered). So before, we look at MOOCs in a negative light, let’s look at it from the student point of view. After all, as educationalists, isn’t that who we’re here to serve?

Alumni Engagement: Supporting Graduate Employability at Cardiff Met University

Photo of graduates wearing mortar boards and gownsHere is the final post in my series of short project overviews from the JISC funded Relationship Management Programme. Last, but definitely not least, the project team at Cardiff Metropolitan University have developed an online learning environment (GradSpace), as part of the DePCEA (Developing a Professional Community Engagement Environment for Alumni) project, for supporting the development of graduate employability skills, assisting alumni in their transition to work and encouraging lifelong learning and professional development.

Challenges

GradSpace was developed to try and meet the following challenges:

  • it’s becoming harder for graduates to find employment after leaving university
  • the transition into work is not always easy
  • students expect their time at university to prepare them for employment.

Benefits

GradSpace has a number of functions: learning objects to help support the transition into work and professional development, an ePortfolio, and communication tools for promoting alumni services and events. Alumni are also offered taster sessions on postgraduate courses. Benefits have so far included:

  • a greater sense of confidence when applying for employment noted by alumni
  • improved application skills, such as the quality of CVs and application forms
  • improved loyalty as graduates feel that the University still wants to help them once they’ve left.

Recommendations

Engaging alumni by offering them a dedicated set of resources may encourage them to re-engage at a later date. However, it may be worth considering:

  • if more than one system is used, ensure that integration is smooth; for example alumni had to log on separately to both Moodle (GradSpace) and Mahara (ePortfolio), which meant that they did not perceive the ePortfolio to be part of the Gradspace offering
  • implementing employability resources early in the student lifecycle to ensure that lifelong learning skills and reflective practice are embedded
  • ensuring that any learning resources and materials are selected carefully; for example the project team found that practical resources were most valued.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

Student Progression: Smartcard Bursaries and the Students FIRST Project

Photo of a brass compassThe JISC funded Students FIRST Project has been improving the use of bursary schemes for purchasing learning materials and other services at the University of East London and Anglia Ruskin University, in conjunction with AMOSSHE and John Smith’s Booksellers.

Challenges

The Students FIRST project pulled together a group of technologies – financial information app, bursary on a smarcard, and social messaging tools (texting) – to help improve progression and retention. However, there were some challenges in this approach:

  • technologies, such as smartcard or mobile apps, may be used in a “scattergun” approach and need to be part of a strategic service delivery
  • staff can be unwilling to engage with new technologies; for example, because they don’t want to remember additional logins
  • staff must be trained in the use of any new technologies, but it can be difficult to find the resource to do so.

Benefits

Access to the bursary is staggered according to student progression; i.e. a student must progress to the second year of their studies in order to receive the second installment. Students can then purchase from a list of products specified by their institution, such as books, art materials, nursery fees, campus accommodation, etc. Almost 74% of students surveyed at one university found that the bursary was beneficial. Other benefits include:

  • establishing a clear link between the spend on books and academic achievement
  • a targeted bursary encourages students to achieve and progress
  • such a bursary also equalises opportunity across the student body; for example, one student said “I have access to books that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to own and progress further”.

Recommendations

A collaborative approach to this project was taken with a mix of educational and commercial providers and this gave the project team the opportunity to draw up guidance materials on working across different sectors. Recommendations include:

  • taking a service design approach can help you to understand student needs, expose failpoints in service delivery, and build collaborative relationships between departments/institutions and providers
  • sharing data between institutions can be a cause for concern, so consider alternatives such as using separate hard drives to store data
  • actively engage with technologies with which students are familiar, such as mobile apps, to encourage engagement.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

Alumni Engagement: Using Integrated Web Technologies at the University of Surrey

Photo of graduates wearing mortar boards and gownsThe JISC funded Increasing Engagement and Value Using Integrated Web-Networking Technologies project at the University of Surrey has been putting together an online platform for delivering events to alumni.

Challenges

The project has used a combination of web, social media and integrated web-based technologies to help implement a cost-effective programme of events that would try and meet the following challenges:

  • the creation of mutually beneficial relationships between alumni and the University
  • improvement of the limited online opportunities for alumni with the institution
  • re-engaging with 25,000 alumni “missing” from the alumni database.

Benefits

The project developed a bespoke registration and booking platform for alumni events, set up an online version of the biannual alumni magazine, established social media channels (Facebook, Linked-In and Twitter) for communicating with alumni, and created a library of online events available for download. Benefits include:

  • supporting the recruitment of prospective students, if they are aware that there is an established professional international network of alumni
  • reduction of print costs associated with the hard copy alumni magazine, which can then be used for other aspects of alumni engagement
  • doubling of the number of Linked-In alumni group members since January 2011 by consolidating a number of disparate alumni groups into one official Surry Alumni Group with separate sub-groups.

Recommendations

When taking a technological approach to alumni engagement, the following should be considered:

  • do a full audit on any technologies that will be implemented to ensure that they don’t undermine the institution’s reputation; for example, Tinychat was used to deliver the first event, but it it soon became clear that it did not have a professional look-and-feel, nor was it compatible with a number of browsers or mobile devices
  • consider the timing and delivering of live events, particularly if a large number of international alumni (around a third of Surrey’s alumni are from outside the UK) to ensure that everyone is included
  • consider the sustainability of any web platform, e.g. is a five year shelf-life long enough?

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

Student Retention: Student Dashboard at University of Southampton

Photo of a brass compassThe JISC funded Southampton Student Dashboard Project at the University of Southampton has been aggregating data from across a number of systems and presenting it in a single place, so that pastoral tutors can provide better informed support for students.

Challenges

Data held by institutions is not always easy to access. For example:

  • data held across a number of systems only offers a partial or disjointed view of information that may be relevant to staff and students
  • multiple systems require multiple log-ins; for example, Student Services at Southampton need to switch between four different applications in order to amalgamate student information
  • selecting the data that tutors might need to see on a dashboard can be contentious; for example information from Finance or Student Counselling services.

Benefits

In common with other projects that have focussed on using data to identify “at risk” students, the project team identified the following benefits:

  • providing a complete view of an institution’s student data enables staff to identify any early signs of problems and possible non-progression
  • improving access to data can encourage the organisational culture to be more innovative and transparent
  • by allowing a small set of data to be shown to pastoral tutors, it is expected that this will generate requests for more data to be included.

Recommendations

Encouraging people to open up access to data can be challenging. Issues of data access and organisational culture can be difficult to handle, so try to:

  • manage change carefully to ensure that all stakeholders are engaged, especially those who have power to implement change and those who have influence over opinion in the institution
  • identify champions in each group of stakeholders, who will help drive through changes
  • find out what data is held by each stakeholder and how it is accessed (some of it may be paper-based) as this can help determine how that data could be accessed in a dashboard; it can also expose information that some stakeholders didn’t even know existed.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

Student Retention: Mental Health at the University of Sheffield

Photo of a brass compassThe DCSMH (Digital Communication and Student Mental Health) project at the University of Sheffield has created a website, Well Connected, which provides a library of self-help resources, a self-check facility, and social media functions for supporting students with mental health difficulties.

Challenges

Many HE (Higher Education) institutions are facing increased demand from students for mental health services. There are increasing numbers of students with complex difficulties, so the institution needs to be able to promote mental health support effectively. The challenges include:

  • students with mild difficulties may not be prioritised for face-to-face support whilst those with more severe difficulties do not always access the services provided
  • the area of mental health can be a sensitive topic for the institution, staff and students, which needs careful handling
  • increased demand for mental health services means that traditional face-to-face support is becoming severely stretched.

Benefits

The Well Connected website, which was co-created with students, has provided benefits for both staff and students:

  • non-clinical student support and academic staff feel more confident in their response to students with mental health difficulties
  • the site includes a validated online self-check or referral tool which may help students wary of contacting mental health support services to make the first step to getting help
  • using digital communications to keep students informed can relieve pressure on physical support services and provide a channel for communication messages of wellbeing, especially at particular times of the academic year.

Recommendations

During the project, feedback from students has shown that they favour digital media for finding out about mental health issues. However,

  • don’t underestimate the strength of institutional branding and authority; for example because the Well Connected website has the University’s stamp of approval, students feel that they can rely on it and that it can be trusted
  • ensure that training is put in place for support staff in the use of any online resources
  • although online support resources can relieve some of the pressure on face-to-face support staff, remember that there will be additional work required in the support and maintenance of an online resource and in managing communication campaigns.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

Student Retention: Project fulCRM at Roehampton University

Photo of a brass compassProject fulCRM, funded by JISC, at Roehampton University has brought together two existing processes, one technical and one manual, in order to reduce the number of students leaving their course early.

Challenges

The initial challenges faced by the project team included:

  • over 2000 mitigating circumstances requests were made each year by students in the University, which were all handled manually
  • lack of consistency in the way in which mitigating circumstances were handled, which was a cause for student concern
  • data formats that are not designed to integrate with other applications.

Benefits

Two existing processes (a spreadsheet-based Early Warning System of lack of attendance and other indicators and the manual process of applying for mitigating circumstances) have been improved by taking a technological approach. This has resulted in a number of benefits for staff and students alike, including:

  • improved communication by ensuring that students are kept informed via e-mail of the progress of the mitigating circumstances process
  • flagging up of students who need additional support
  • automated data collection which has replaced complex and time-consuming activities and reduced staff workload.

Recommendations

Students now feel that the technological improvements provide them with a safety net and they will also be able to view their performance alongside their tutor. However, arriving at this stage has not been easy and the following suggestions may help:

  • in order to gain acceptance across a number of disparate Departments, ensure that any system can cater for the creation of different student performance indicators
  • if data (such as data relating to the number of times a student accesses a VLE) is held in the cloud, accessing that data and moving it across to private university servers may pose a security risk, therefore additional servers with secure links direct to the VLE may need to be built
  • do not underestimate the amount of manipulation required to access complex data which is often housed in various disparate systems.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help: