Friday, May 1, 2015

eSTEeM conference 2015

eSTEeM is an organising group within the Open University which brings together people doing research into teaching and learning in the STEM disciplines, Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Naturally enough for the OU, a lot of that work revolves around educational technology. Once a year they have an annual conference for people to share what they have been doing. I went along because I like to see what people have been doing with our VLE, and hence how we could make it work better for students and staff in the future.

It started promisingly enough in a way. As I walked in to get my cup of coffee after registration, I was immediately grabbed by Elaine Moore from Chemistry who had two Moodle Quiz issues. She wanted the Combined question type to use the HTML editor for multiple choice choices (good idea, we should put that on the backlog) and a problem with a Pattern-match questions which we could not get to the bottom of over coffee.

But, on to the conference itself. I cannot possibly cover all the keynotes and parallel sessions so I will pick the highlights for me.

Assessment matters to students

The first was a graph from Linda Price’s keynote. Like most universities, at the end of every module we give have a student satisfaction survey. The graph showed the student's ratings in response to three of the questions:

  • Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of this module.
  • I had a clear understanding of what was required to complete the assessed activities.
  • The assessment activities supported my learning.

There was an extremely strong correlation between those. This is nothing very new. We know that assessment is important in determining the ‘hidden curriculum’, and hence we like to think that ‘authentic assessment’ is important. However, it is interesting to see how much this matters this is to students. Previously, I would not even have been sure that they could tell the difference.

The purpose of education

Into the parallel sessions. There was an interesting talk from the module team for TU100 my digital life, the first course in the computing and technology degrees. Some of the things they do in that module’s teaching is based around the importance of language, even in science. Learning a subject can be thought of as learning to construct the world of that subject through language, or as they put it, humanities style thinking in technology education. Unsurprisingly, many students don’t like that “I came to learn computing, not writing.” However, there is a strong correlation between students language use and their performance in assessments. By the end of the module some students do come to appreciate what the module is trying to do.

This talk triggered a link to back to another part of Linda Price’s keynote. An important (if now rather cliched question) for formal education is “What is education for everything is now available on the web?” (or one might put that more crudely as “Why should students pay thousands of pounds for one of our degrees?”). The answer that came to me during this talk was “To make them do things they don’t enjoy, because we know it will do them good.” OK, so that is a joke, but I would like to think there is a nugget of truth in there.

Peer assessment

On to more specifically Moodle-related things. A number of modules have been trying out Moodle’s Workshop activity. That is a tool for peer review or peer assessment. The talk was from the SD815 Contemporary issues in brain and behaviour module team. Their activity involved students recording a presentation (PowerPoint + audio) that critically evaluated a research article. Then they had to upload them to the Moodle Workshop, and review each others presentations as managed by the tool. Finally, they had to take their slide-cast, the feedback they had received, and a reflective note on the process and what they had learned from it, and hand it all in to be graded by their tutor.

Now for OU students (at least) collaborative activities, particularly those tied to assessments, are typically another thing we make them do that they don’t enjoy. This activity added the complexities of PowerPoint and/or Open Office and recording audio. However, it seems to have worked remarkably well. Students appreciated all the things that are normally said about peer review: getting to see other approaches to the same task; practising the skills of evaluating others’ work and giving constructive feedback. In this case the task was one that the students (healthcare workers studying at postgraduate level) could see was relevant to their vocation, which brings us back to visibly authentic assessment, and the student satisfaction graph from the opening keynote.

For me the strongest message from this talk, however, is what was not said. There was very little said about the Moodle workshop tool, beyond a few screen-grabs to show what it looked like. It seems that this is a tool that does what you need it to do without getting in the way, which is normally what you want from educational technology.

Skipping briefly over

There are many more interesting things I could write about in detail, but to keep this post to a reasonable length I will just skim over the posters with lunch. For example,

And, some of the other talks:

  • a session on learning analytics, in this case with a neural net, to try to identify early on those students (on TU100 again) who get through all the continuous assessment tasks with a passing grade, only to fail the end of module assessment, so that they could be targeted for extra support.
  • a whole morning on the second day, where we saw nine different approaches to remote experiments from around the world. For example, the Open University's remote control telescope PIRATE. I was left me with the impression that this sort of thing is much more feasible and worthwhile than I had previously thought.

Our session on online Quizzes

The only other session I will talk about in detail is the one I helped run. It was a ‘structured discussion’ about the OU’s use of iCMAs (which is what we call Moodle quizzes). I found this surprisingly nerve-wracking. I have given plenty of talks before, and you prepare them. You know what you are going to say, and you are fairly sure it is interesting. Therefore you are pretty sure what is going to happen. For this session, we just had three questions, and it was really up to the attendees how well it worked.

We did allow ourselves two five-minute presentations. We started with Frances Chetwynd showing some the different ways quizzes are used in modules’ teaching and assessment strategies. This set up a 10-minute discussion of our first question: “How are iCMAs best be used as part of an assessment strategy?”. For this, delegates were seated around four tables, with four of five participants and a facilitator to each table. The tables were covered with flip-chart paper for people to write on.

We were using a World Café format, so after 10 minutes I rang my bell, and all the delegates move to a new table while the facilitators stayed put. Then, in new groups, they discussed the second question: "How can we engage students using iCMAs?" The facilitators were meant to make a brief bridge between what had been said in the previous group at their table, before moving on to the new question with the new group.

After 10 minutes on the second question, we had the other five-minute talk from Sally Jordan, showing some examples of what we have previously learned through scholarship into how iCMAs work in practice. (If you are interested in that, come to my talk at either MoodleMoot IE UK 2015 or iMoot 2015). This lead nicely, after one more round of musical chairs, to the third question: "Where next for iCMAs? Where next for iCMA scholarship?". Finally we wrapped up with a brief plenary to capture they key answers to that last question from each table.

By the end, I really had no idea how well it had gone, although each time I rang my bell, I felt I was interrupting really good conversations. Subsequently, I have written up the notes from each table, and heard from some of the attendees that they had found it useful and interesting, so that is a relief. We had a great team of facilitators (Frances, Jon, Ingrid, Anna) which helped. I would certainly consider using the the same format again. With a traditional presentation, you are always left with the worry that perhaps you got more out of preparing and delivering the presentation than any of the audience did out of listening. In this case, I am sure the audience got much more out of it than me, which is no bad thing.