Optimising the online learning experience of autistic students

Autism is a spectrum condition with wide-ranging symptoms, presentations, and needs. When behaviours are dubbed ‘normal’ the response is often ‘what’s ‘normal’?’. Yet anyone whose behaviour is considered unusual, not normal, can be called autistic with no sense of irony. This ‘one term fits all’ often morphs into ‘one approach fits all’.

Tip one: Awareness for educators

So many locks; not enough keys.

Autistic individuals are often ‘bottom-up’ thinkers (‘can’t see the wood for the trees’). This cognitive process affects problem solving, decision making, and knowledge assimilation.

Speech patterns, verbal and written, may be rambling as thoughts are gathered and facts are disseminated. Very focussed online comments to elicit information and respond to questions may seem blunt, even rude and are common criticisms of the communication style. Anger or humour may mask feelings; coupled with deep fear of rejection, it’s a no-win situation.

Awareness of specific, individual approaches to learning are essential aspects of inclusive online course design and delivery.

Tip two: Complex sentences add to confusion

Words and meanings blur and conflate.

Individuals on the spectrum are likely to take literal meaning from instructions. Consider the following sentence:

To help your Mentor make the most of their allocated time please post your questions in the comments section of the Help Area step at the end of the week to which your question relates.

This complex sentence – five parts, without punctuation – I took to mean that I should post questions ‘at the end of the week’. Now I think that it refers to location rather than time. But I’m still not sure. This confusion is especially relevant when reading and also when completing tasks. An estimated time for completion may in reality be the time it takes to understand what is required. A 20-minute online search may take twice that to sift through a plethora of lists and side-questions and links.

Tip three: Limit sensory information

Making sense of confusion is exhausting.

Complex sensory issues – sensitivity to light, sudden, loud noise, or unexpected movement -can be common features of autism. Advance warning of upcoming soundtracks or moving images would be very welcome as sensory overload can lead to a shutdown of hours or even days.

Tip four:  Engage the individual

Masks can be the only reality, sometimes.

Bullying and abuse are common backstories resulting in vulnerability and apprehension around social interaction. Ask about individual triggers so that alerts can be given.

Tip five: Plan for time-out

Repetitive behaviours (‘stimming’, e.g. hand-flapping, rocking, hard blinking, or manipulating a fidget toy) during video conferencing are coping mechanisms, and signs of stress. Educators need to be able to recognise these, with an agreed understanding that all participants are free to take time out in place.

Being autistic is a lifelong gig. Attempting to assimilate into a generic system impacts severely on mental health and wellbeing. In breaking through formulaic barriers, adapting, monitoring, and determining individual need, educators demonstrate an appreciation for and validation of autistic learners.

Embedding mental wellbeing into university life in a pandemic

2020 has been a year of ongoing fear and uncertainty that has affected university staff and students in many different ways. In these times of stress and anxiety, it is more important than ever that universities build mental wellbeing into everything they do.

Increasing numbers of young people have been experiencing mental health difficulties in recent years and the stress, uncertainty, loneliness and anxiety caused by Covid-19 has heightened these issues for many. It’s no longer enough for universities to assume that only a minority of students will experience mental health difficulties, and to offer support as service provision to those few. Now, more than ever, learning and teaching need to be designed to support mental wellbeing from the outset, and managing mental health needs to be a central focus of universities’ recovery curriculum. 

Several aspects of the university experience need to actively address student wellbeing. Firstly, learning environments, including distance and blended spaces, need to be positive spaces that openly acknowledge, de-stigmatise and engender wellbeing. They need to support community, openness and compassion, throughout the many different facets of student life.  

Secondly, curricula and tuition need to build confidence, provide respite, celebrate achievements and encourage growth. Skills for study success and managing mental wellbeing need to be actively embedded, and the crossover between these skills should be openly acknowledged. Curricula should both include content that explicitly covers mental health, compassion and wellbeing (framed within the subject discipline) and should also be designed in a way that supports wellbeing (i.e. avoiding practices that have been shown to trigger mental health issues). Crucially, assessment strategies need too begin moving away from high-pressure exam environments, and instead be designed in a way that enables students to demonstrate and develop skills to cope with the changing world they find themselves in. 

Thirdly, university leadership needs to commit to a whole-institution approach to embedding mental wellbeing through every aspect of student and staff experience. This includes university systems and processes, which need to support staff and students instead of testing them and to flex according to student needs rather than obstruct them. It includes giving voice to people, both staff and students, who can act as role models, and acknowledging the intersectionality of mental health with other protected characteristics, tying it in with equity more broadly. Finally, it includes ensuring that university values, policy and strategy embody an institution’s commitment to mental health and actively support opportunities for success for all students.

The need for a proactive, holistic approach to student mental wellbeing is increasingly well recognised in the sector, and is championed by sector bodies such as UUK, Advance HE and Student Minds. However, there is a paucity of guidance for university staff on the practical application of this advice. Open questions remain around how curricula, pedagogy and assessment strategies can be conducive to wellbeing, and what a whole-institutional approach looks like in practice. To address this need, the Institute of Educational Technology at The Open University has created a microcredential – Teacher Development: Embedding Mental Health in the Curriculum. This 12-week course shares best practice with educators and institution leaders alike, developing their knowledge and skills to apply inclusive teaching strategies that support students’ mental health and help them develop resilience in the modern world. It has been said about Covid-19 that while we may all be in different boats, we are all in the same storm. Covid-19 has rocked higher education. We now need to work together to support our students and each other; we need mental wellbeing to be openly spoken about, and for our curricula and learning environments to reflect and teach the caring and compassion skills that can get us all through these difficult times.

OU open and inclusive special interest group presentations on wellbeing available

51 people attended the open and inclusive special interest group on Monday 14th September which saw three presentations from Elena Riva, Theo Gilbert and Kate Lister on the topic of embedding student wellbeing in the curriculum. The recordings and slides can be viewed in the blog post Presentations on wellbeing: recordings and slides.

Guidance: Designing Learning for Autistic and Neurodiverse Students

Designing learning for autistic and neurodiverse students

Collaboratively created guidance from the OpenTEL Open & Inclusive SIG, July 2020

Autism and neurodiversity

Autism and neurodiversity are labels used to describe people who have certain differences in the way in which they think and in the way they interact with society. Typically, people on the autism spectrum may be less aware of, bound by, aligned to or responsive to societal expectations or constraints. This different way of thinking can be an enormous strength, and some great thinkers and innovators are autistic. However, this can lead to challenges for autistic people, especially in settings like the workplace and education, where specific things are expected that might not align with an autistic person’s skills or abilities.

This guide aims to help raise awareness of some of the differences autistic people may experience, and to help educators design learning, activities, tutorials and assessment that can help autistic students demonstrate their potential on a more level playing field.  It was collaboratively created with autistic people (OU staff and students.)

Terminology

Language and terminology used to describe autism is highly debated, so we start with a note on the definitions and terminology chosen for this guidance. 

Autism is a catch-all name for a spectrum of social and learning differences. Some resources refer to autism spectrum ‘disabilities’, ‘disorders’, ‘developmental issues’ or ‘conditions’, but these have been criticised for positioning autism as negative or something that needs to be fixed, using a ‘deficit model’ and positioning autistic people as ‘not normal’. Studies have suggested that the terms ‘autistic’, ‘autism’ and ‘the autism spectrum’ are preferred by autistic people (e.g. Kenny et al, 2015), so we use these terms in this guidance. Additionally, whilst the diagnosis Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer given you might find students using this term (Asperger’s Syndrome is a type of autism.)

Neurodiversity is a wider term that relates to autism, AD(H)D and some other differences, and works to recognise and celebrate differences as normal, natural variations in human genomes. In this guidance we follow these principles.

There is a debate around inclusive language models, particularly whether ‘person first’ (i.e. ‘person with autism’) or ‘identity-first’ (i.e. ‘autistic person’) language is preferable. Studies suggest that identity-first language is preferred by most autistic people and their families, so in this guide we use we use identity first language throughout.                                                                                                                                                                Don’t generalise

All autistic people are different. Societal generalisations about autism, such as that ‘autistic people don’t make eye contact’, or ‘autistic people are hyper-intelligent’ are only true for certain people, often not the majority. These stereotypes can be distressing to the student, and can damage their chances of success in education, if a one-size-fits-all approach is taken. It is always best to ask the student about their needs, and then arrange for adjustments to suit the student. This guidance lays out some common adjustments and considerations, but these are by no means an exhaustive list.

Avoid figurative language

It is well documented that many people on the autism spectrum can struggle with figurative language, such as metaphors, similes and irony, and may interpret literally spoken or written language that has intended nonliteral meanings. This means, when you’re teaching or writing, make sure your language is easy to understand and that there aren’t any hidden or implied meanings, things that neurotypical students would understand, thus placing autistic students at a disadvantage.  In your own communications be as explicit as possible. For example, if expecting students to complete a task, it is better to state what exact outcomes you require, e.g. rather than saying “Research X topic”, say “Spend thirty minutes reading about X topic and write down some notes summarising your reading.”  Executive functioning can be difficult for many autistic people, so being clear about how long tasks should take is beneficial.

Design for anxiety

Autistic people may get anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events. They request detailed information well in advance so they can visualise the situation (be it a tutorial, event or course) and plan it in advance, or may prefer to avoid them altogether. Educators should aim to provide this information as far as possible, and should be understanding if an autistic student chooses not to participate. Give as much information as possible to reduce anxiety. For example, at the start of a tutorial state when breaks will be, when questions should be asked and what tasks are going to be undertaken during the session.

‘Stimming’ can be a useful coping mechanism for autistic students, particularly when they are anxious or feeling under pressure.  Stimming is a repetitive action that can calm or sooth; whilst many non-autistic people will stim by fiddling with pens or their hair, autistic people may exhibit more unusual actions, with common stims including flapping hands, rocking, rubbing a leg or arm, spinning, or repeating specific words or phrases. Stimming is extremely normal, and educators in a classroom environment should ensure that autistic students feel comfortable if they do need to stim, and that other students don’t feel threatened or concerned if one of their peers stims. Specifically, you should not try to stop or distract a person from stimming as this will usually increase their anxiety.

Educators should also try to design learning so it doesn’t provoke unnecessary anxiety. Activities such as ice breakers are particularly likely to be anxiety-inducing and should be designed so that they don’t put students on the spot, or necessitate eye contact, verbal contribution or proximity to other students. Assessments can also provoke anxiety; educators should endeavour to make assessments as inclusive as possible, and work to support students in the run up to summative assessments with adjustments such as practice sessions or exemplars (please note, this does not give autistic students an unfair advantage, it merely levels the playing field.)

Inclusive collaborative work

Collaborative work can be challenging for many students. Students with and without disabilities have reported feeling anxious about working with others, unsure about how roles and workloads are to be allocated, frustrated when others don’t work in the way they need or expect, and unhappy about how this affects their final grade. Autistic students can be particularly affected by this, and they have the right (under the Equality Act 2010) to request adjustments to the way they are required to engage in groupwork, including an alternative activity if necessary.

If group or paired work will be part of a session, keeping working partners the same throughout, or offering an individual activity as an alternative, may help. Be explicit up front about how this will work and don’t insist that the groupings are constantly changed between activities.

As educators, there are two areas we can support students: firstly, by designing groupwork to be as inclusive as possible so it is less likely to be an issue for students, and secondly, by being flexible and making adjustments to groupwork activities if they are required. McPherson et al have detailed guidance on designing and delivering inclusive groupwork, available on the IncSTEM project website.

Adjustments to reflective activities

We know autistic people have different ways of thinking and experiencing the world. Studies have suggested that some autistic people think more visually than verbally, thinking more ‘in pictures’ than using an ‘inner voice’, whilst others may have a reduced ability to visualise. Verbal processing may be delayed, with more time and energy needed to process verbal information, so allow them space to do this. Diversity in thinking is clearly a strength and something to be celebrated, but tasks and activities involving written or oral reflection can be challenging for autistic students who have less experience using an ‘inner voice’, and we often receive requests for adjustments for reflective activities.

When making an adjustment to a reflective activity, it’s best to speak to the student and find out what would be most suitable for them. A typical alternative is asking students to produce a factual account rather than a reflective account and then asking the student certain questions to guide them to reflect on it. This can result in a strong reflective account, and can help the student gain valuable skills. Another option is to ask for a visual representation of the reflective account, such as a mind map, timeline, or other form of representation. It is important to consider that the student may have had negative experiences in the past, and terms like ‘reflection’ can provoke extreme anxiety or stress, so understanding, empathy and kindness will go a long way.

When designing a reflective activity or assessment, consider the language you use and try to build in flexibility. Terms like ‘reflection’ can be very loaded and distressing for students, so it’s good to define clearly what they mean in your particular context. Also, try not to mandate a written account if an oral or visual account would also meet the learning outcomes.

Avoid overstimulation

Autistic people can find bright lights, strong odours, garish colours or loud, repetitive or continuous noises stressful or uncomfortable. At times this can become overwhelming, and the person may need to stim or remove themselves from the environment. Knowing how and when it’s ok to leave a group can be stressful, so ensure they are able to do this with a minimum of disruption.

Educators should try to avoid these kinds of sensory antagonisms. In designing course materials, try to adopt soothing colour combinations and avoid too many bright, clashing or garish colours. Some studies suggest yellow is a particularly problematic colour, but further research is needed. Similarly, when creating podcasts or multimedia learning resources, try to avoid loud or relentless noises, and when arranging a physical learning environment (such as a classroom) try to consider lighting and décor as well as giving the student opportunity to choose their own seating to reduce stimuli.

Support behaviour decoding

Autistic people may communicate and interact with people in ways that are different from what society categories as normal or socially acceptable. This can lead to frustrations, misunderstandings, and can mean autistic people feel anxious about social interaction. As part of this, autistic people can sometimes (although not always) find it hard to intuit how other people are thinking or feeling, and may have learned to decode behaviour and facial expressions to compensate for this. Educators should be aware of this, and if an autistic student requests things that would help (having the video function on during Skype calls, for example) they should do their best to support them.

Avoid timed information assimilation activities

Autistic students (and students with a variety of additional needs or disabilities) may take a different length of time to understand or assimilate information; they may be faster or slower than neurotypical students, depending on the student or the type of information. As part of creating an inclusive learning environment, educators should be aware of this and should not expect information to be assimilated in a timed context.

Clothing and presentation

Autistic students may find a particular outfit, style or colour makes them feel more comfortable, so educators should avoid making judgements or avoid drawing attention to the student if they often wear the same clothes, or if they wear something different from the usual style expected of students. This may also be linked to sensory overstimulation, and some students may find formal clothes excessively uncomfortable.

Autistic people can sometimes present in their communication style differently – i.e. using repetitive phrases, overly formal language or pauses, and should be given time to respond and not made to feel awkward or different.  Also, if they are studying something of particular interest to them, they may appear to become obsessive about a particular topic and want to discuss it at length.  This can be difficult for tutors and in the tutorial environment.

Additionally, studies have suggested that a higher number of autistic people may be gender-fluid, transgender or non-binary (enby), when compared to the neurotypical population. Therefore, as part of a wider commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, educators should work to ensure that their learning environments are safe spaces for students to present in different gender identities, and that other students are similarly understanding and welcoming.

Masking and mental health

Many autistic people learn to hide or ‘mask’ their challenges, and this means that they may be struggling in ways that are not apparent to others. Don’t judge their need for support, or assume everything about your learning environment is fine with them, based on your own observations. Autism is about the student’s experience of the world, not how the world experiences the student.

Masking can consume a vast amount of energy and over time this can be detrimental to their mental health. For this reason, they may need to chunk learning down into smaller pieces and take regular breaks; ‘intensive’ programmes may not be suitable. On the other hand, an obsessive special interest may need to be indulged intensively, with time to rest and recuperate afterwards. Check in regularly with the student in a way that doesn’t make them feel singled out. Ensure that all students are aware of any sources of pastoral support for their mental health.

Feedback on this guide

This guide was collaboratively created with a range of OU staff and students; people with lived experience of autism and of supporting autistic people in learning, and people with research expertise in autism in higher education contexts. We recognise that there are many other perspectives to explore, so if you would like to give feedback or add additional information to this guide, please contact kate.lister@open.ac.uk.

Download PDF

Reblogged from http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/opentel/guidance-designing-learning-for-autistic-and-neurodiverse-students/.

2018 Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarships for the Masters in Online and Distance Education

Do you have experience of, or a serious interest in, technology-enhanced learning?

Would you like to gain a Master’s degree with one of the UK’s leading providers of digital teaching and learning?

Are you a citizen of one of the following developing Commonwealth countries, a refugee from one of the following countries, or a British protected person?

Bangladesh, Cameroon, The Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, India, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tuvalu, Uganda, Vanuatu, Zambia

The Open University (OU) has been awarded 5 fully funded Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarships for citizens of the above countries to study The OU’s Masters in Online and Distance Education (MAODE). We are pleased to invite applications for these scholarships.

The closing date for applications is 23:59 (BST) on 20 June 2018.

These Scholarships are funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and are intended to contribute to the development needs of Commonwealth countries by providing training for skilled and qualified professionals in key development areas.

Intended beneficiaries

High-quality postgraduate students who wish to access training not available in their home countries, who wish or need to remain in their home country while they study, and who have the potential to enhance the development of their home countries with the knowledge and leadership skills they acquire.

About the Masters in Online and Distance Education

The Open University Masters in Online and Distance Education is studied entirely online. The Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarships are for three years’ part-time distance learning, commencing in February 2019. The scholarships will cover the full cost of tuition fees but no other expenses.

It is likely that Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarship holders will study the following modules, in the order stated. However, there may be some variation in the exact content offered.

Two compulsory 60 credit modules

  • February 2019: H880 Technology-enhanced learning: foundations and futures – the first module of the MAODE. This module develops a range of information literacy skills, introduces various educational technology tools and practices, and introduces key debates in educational technology, with a particular focus on mobile learning, open learning, citizen science and learning at scale.
  • February 2020: H817 Openness and innovation in e-learning. This module explores OER, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Learning Design, learning analytics and assessment within an overall focus on openness and innovation.

A further 60 credits, currently comprising the following modules, though provision may have changed slightly by 2020:

  • October 2020: H818 The networked practitioner. This is a project-based module in which learners explore an aspect of their own professional practice by building a collection of assets (e.g. videos, PowerPoint presentations and/or posters). With their peers, they collaboratively reflect on these assets through forums and then present on their created asset at an online conference.
  • April 2021: H819 The critical researcher: educational technology in practice. This module focuses on developing skills in finding, interpreting and evaluating research and cutting-edge innovations in educational technology, from a global perspective.

Who can apply?

To be eligible for a Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarship to study the Masters in Online and Distance Education you must:

  • Be a citizen of, or have been granted refugee status by one of the eligible developing Commonwealth countries listed above, or be a British protected person; and
  • Be permanently and continually resident in one of the eligible developing Commonwealth countries listed above; and
  • Hold a first degree of at least upper second class (2:1) standard. A lower qualification and sufficient relevant experience may be considered in certain cases; and
  • Be unable to afford to study your chosen course without this scholarship.

You will also need access to a computer with reliable broadband internet access.  You do not need to be working in technology-enhanced learning but you should be interested in developing expertise in this area.

Full terms and conditions are available here: http://cscuk.dfid.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/terms-conditions-distance-learning-scholarships-2018.pdf

How to apply

Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarships

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Are you a citizen of a developing Commonwealth country, refugee or British protected person?

Do you have experience of, or a serious interest in, technology-enhanced learning?

Would you like to gain a Master’s degree with one of the UK’s leading Institutes in digital teaching and learning?

The Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology (IET) has been awarded 10 fully funded Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarships for citizens of developing Commonwealth countries who wish to study IET’s Masters in Online and Distance Education (MAODE). We are pleased to invite applications for these scholarships.

The closing date for applications is 23:59 (BST) on 12 May 2017.

These Scholarships are funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and are intended to contribute to the development needs of Commonwealth countries by providing training for skilled and qualified professionals in key development areas.

Intended beneficiaries

High-quality postgraduate students who wish to access training not available in their home countries, who wish or need to remain in their home country while they study, and who have the potential to enhance the development of their home countries with the knowledge and leadership skills they acquire.

About the Masters in Online and Distance Education

The Open University Masters in Online and Distance Education is studied wholly online. The Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarships are for three years’ part-time distance learning, commencing in February 2018. The scholarships will cover the full cost of tuition fees.

It is likely that Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarship holders will study the following modules, in the order stated. However, there may be some variation in the exact content offered.

Two compulsory 60 credit modules

  • February 2018: H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates – the first module of the MAODE. This module develops a range of information literacy skills, introduces various educational technology tools and practices, and introduces key debates in educational technology (e.g. the relative contributions of acquisition and participation in learning, situated cognition, OER, the boundaries of institutions and the role of personal learning environments).
  • February 2019: H817 Openness and innovation in e-learning. This module explores OER, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Learning Design, learning analytics and assessment within an overall focus on openness and innovation.

A further 60 credits, currently drawn from the following modules, though provision may have changed slightly by 2019:

  • October 2019: H818 The networked practitioner. This is a project-based module in which learners explore an aspect of their own professional practice by building a collection of assets (e.g. videos, PowerPoint presentations and/or posters). With their peers, they collaboratively reflect on these assets through forums and then present on their created asset at an online conference.
  • April 2020: H819 The critical researcher: educational technology in practice. This module focuses on developing skills in finding, interpreting and evaluating research and cutting-edge innovations in educational technology, from a global perspective.

Who can apply?

To be eligible for a Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarship to study the Masters in Online and Distance Education you must:

  • Be a citizen of a developing Commonwealth country, refugee, or British protected person; and
  • Be permanently resident in a developing Commonwealth country; and
  • Hold a first degree of at least upper second class (2:1) standard. A lower qualification and sufficient relevant experience may be considered in certain cases.

Full terms and conditions are available here: http://cscuk.dfid.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/terms-conditions-distance-learning-scholarships-2017.pdf

You will also need access to a computer with broadband internet access.  You do not need to be working in technology-enhanced learning but you should be interested in developing expertise in this area.

How to apply

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Open and agile: creating IET’s new kid on the block in Open edX

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A sneak preview of Week 2 of H819 The Critical Researcher, viewed in the Open edX studio authoring environment

By Leigh-Anne Perryman, H819 Production Chair

The Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology (IET) is well known for cutting-edge innovations in many fields, including learning design, learning analytics and open research. This year, IET continues to demonstrate its pioneering spirit by designing and authoring its newest module – H819 The Critical Researcher: educational technology in practice – on the Open edX courseware development platform.

Traditionally, The Open University (OU) has authored its modules using a ‘waterfall’ process, whereby individual authors create draft content in Word (or other word processing) documents and then share them with fellow authors and critical readers for comment, before creating a new version based on those comments. This process has worked fairly well but doesn’t allow for authors to see each other’s work ‘as it happens’ and, due to the emailed exchange of word-processed documents, can be quite slow.

Authoring in Open edX is both agile and liberating, allowing authors to imagine and then immediately to create.

I’m currently the module production chair for H819 and have found authoring in Open edX is both agile and liberating, allowing authors to imagine and then immediately to create. In addition, the process saves time compared with traditional module production and allows authors to see each other’s writing in real time. As such, authors can give immediate feedback on their colleagues’ work and very quickly get a clear sense of the overall narrative of a module as it begins to fall into shape. Consequently, we can easily react to developments in the educational technology field, and in the wider world, and update our module content accordingly.

H819 The Critical Researcher focuses both on developing skills in critically interpreting and assessing educational technology-related research, and in designing research studies intended to evaluate teaching and learning strategies. Fellow production chair Liz Fitzgerald (now on maternity leave) and I made the decision to author collaboratively in Open edX based on a shared vision of the benefits of authors being able to see their authored content in the format in which it is likely to be presented to students.

While it took a little time to get used to working in the Open edX environment, it’s really exciting to be able to see the module grow into something like its final shape as we work. It prompts us to try things out, for example innovative ways of setting activities and of presenting multimedia content. Liz and I are convinced we made the right decision in choosing to author collaboratively, and our module team colleagues Ann Jones and Simon Cross are also finding the authoring process much more straightforward and engaging than the traditional alternative.

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Editing H819 content in Open edX

Liz Fitzgerald and I were inspired to use Open edX by Angela Coe, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Science at The Open University. Angela is the module chair for OU module S309 Earth Processes, the first OU module to be authored in Open edX. In a series of interviews (Part 1 and Part 2), Angela discusses ‘how she managed to organise 600 hours worth of content in just a few days’ using the open source platform.

The first block of H819 The Critical Researcher is currently going through a two-stage critical reading process and, once again, the affordances of working in Open edX are clear as critical readers can see the module content in the format in which it will finally be delivered, allowing them to assess the balance between text, images, videos and activities and to evaluate the rhythm of the module from a student’s perspective. As the module grows we will continue to report the story of its creation on this blog.

‘Open Education in an Open Landscape’: The H818 online conference

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By H818 tutor Simon Ball

The third annual online conference for the Masters in Online and Distance Education (MAODE) module ‘The Networked Practitioner’ (H818) was held in February 2016. For this conference, every student on H818 is invited to deliver a short presentation on the theme of ‘Open Education in an Open Landscape”, selecting a sub-theme of Inclusion, Innovation or Implementation. The conference audience includes not just the current cohort of H818 participants, but former students, MAODE alumni and staff from The Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology, which manages the MAODE.

Getting there

During the module H818 students undertake a project of relevance to their own context, relating to one of these themes. The experience of undertaking the project usually forms the core of their presentation. Usually, a few of the students have presented online before, more have presented in face-to-face contexts but not online, and a few have not presented at all. So we have a range of experience and a spectrum of confidence!

In the months leading up to the conference we offer students training and coaching, to increase confidence and familiarity with the OULive system used to deliver the conference. Often students practice in small groups, using the OULive system to test out features such as polling the audience, or broadcasting their project resource direct from the web or from their own computer. It is also important that students practice the timing of their presentation as they are limited strictly to their allocated slot, in order to keep the programme on schedule. This can be quite a tricky task initially!

The big day

The conference is divided into three sessions on different days and at different times, to try to best accommodate our international cohort with all their various life commitments. Our opening session this year was on a Saturday afternoon, giving plenty of time beforehand to test out microphones, check slides were loaded, and generally calm any last minute nerves. As conference host I try to put everyone at ease ahead of the scheduled start time, making sure the speakers for the session are as comfortable as they can be. Sometimes we have students with particular anxiety issues, so I keep a separate chat window open with them to make sure they have an opportunity to discuss any difficulties they may be facing, right up to the minute of their presentation. So far everyone has managed to deliver their presentation on schedule!

Opening keynote

In addition to the student presentations we were fortunate to receive three keynote presentations this year from highly regarded experts in open and online education. One of these, from higher education consultant Terry McAndrew, opened our conference. Terry has spent more than a decade working with the Higher Education Academy and its Bioscience Subject Centre, specialising in Open Educational Resources and also accessibility, and his keynote illustrated how open education practices and resources can expand knowledge and skills for everyone. Terry’s relaxed, informal style of presenting online with highly visually stimulating slides really demonstrated well to the student presenters how the format can be used to its best.

Day 1 Student Presentations

Ten students delivered their presentations during the first conference session. The contexts presented included primary schools, secondary schools, further education colleges, higher education institutions, industrial settings and entrepreneurship. The topics covered ranged from creating resources for staff (plagiarism advice, e-portfolios, dyslexia, mechanisms for recording scholarly activity) to the implementation and development of teaching and recording techniques (collaborative forums, flipped classrooms, online learning plans) to training modules for use in the credit management industry.

Afterwards, some of the student presenters provided feedback on their experience:

“I was nervous but really enjoyed presenting.”

“It was immensely useful to get that insight into everyone’s work and the timings were spot on – detailed enough to get insight without going on for too long.”

“It was a little daunting but a good experience which has provided experience of going through the process from abstract through to the presentation.”

Conference back-channel

Although the conference attendees could use a chat pane to ask questions and discuss issues raised, we also recommended the use of a conference back-channel via the Twitter hashtag #H818conf. With almost 300 Tweets using the hashtag it provided a great way for presenters to share core links, and for audience members to discuss further the issues raised in the presentations.

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Selection of tweets from the #H818Conf twitter stream.

Day 2 Conference

The second session of the conference was scheduled for a Monday evening. We had eight student presenters and a keynote this time from Dr Bart Rienties, an expert on learning analytics from the Open University. Bart’s visually arresting presentation covered a range of topics related to learning analytics and open education, providing fascinating insights without delving too deep into the complexities that can be found in this field!

The student presenters in this session covered a range of topics as broad as on the first day, with presentations on resources created to advise staff on copyright, the use of English in report writing, and the teaching of functional skills, as well as presentations covering MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in South Africa and connected with The University of the Third Age, Specific Learning Difficulties, and an alternative approach to online tutorials.

Feedback from the student presenters on the day included:

“This is the first on-line conference I have attended therefore I didn’t know what to expect. I enjoyed the range of talks and felt the atmosphere was positive, friendly and informal.”

“I did enjoy this conference a lot especially how the different projects addressed issues I face and think about. I also enjoyed being part of the conversation via chat and Twitter.”

Using Cloudworks to support the conference

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The conference programme was initially published on Cloudworks: http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloudscape/view/2945

Every student presenter created a page containing at the very least the abstract for their presentation. Most further enhanced their page with links to their conference poster, their presentation slides or other additional materials. On these pages people could also ask questions about their work – in fact all questions asked during the live conference (whether or not the presenters responded verbally during the conference itself) were also placed onto Cloudworks to allow the students to answer them more fully and link to useful resources etc.

The final day

The last conference session took place on a Wednesday morning. For this session we had  seven student presenters and a keynote delivery from renowned higher education consultant Helen Beetham. Helen’s presentation on ‘From digital capability to digital wellbeing – thriving in the network‘ had to survive the trials of being delivered from a quiet corner of the public library on the Isles of Scilly, but thankfully came through loud and clear! It was a fascinating discussion of who and what a ‘digital learner’ actually is today, and how they consume, participate in, and build their learning.

The student presentations were as diverse as the previous sessions, with topics ranging from the learning of a musical instrument using only OERs, creating an online safety resource for parents, using plagiarism software more effectively, motivating learners, the suitability of digital learning for disabled students, and creating an online learning platform for the green-keeping (golf) industry. As previously the student presentations were of an extremely high calibre, with any nerves being very well hidden and a series of interesting, informative and well-timed presentations being delivered.

Some of the feedback for this session included:

“I was presenting in this session as well as attending as a delegate. My expectations as a presenter were to be given ‘air’ time for my presentation, to receive some interest and support from participants and to be supported through it by Simon both technically and in respect of the question and answer session. These things all happened, thank you, and was very pleased to have achieved it.”

“ I was anticipating a varied mix of student presentations, most of which seemed to be directly relevant to my own interests. I’m very pleased to say that I enjoyed learning about the different projects and I think most of all I noticed some examples of applications and approaches that will inform my future thinking when creating a learning activity.”

And so, looking forward to next year….

Having now organised and chaired three of these conferences, I can say with all honesty that the very high standard set by the initial cohort has been met by both subsequent student groups. Every single presentation has been interesting, professionally delivered, and very well received by the audience. To prove this latter point, we routinely ask attendees to vote for their favourite presentations and over the course of three years every single presentation has received at least one vote (we do check people aren’t voting for their own!). The presentations in each session that receive the most votes receive the H818 Presentation Star Open Badge – these can be seen on the students’ Cloudworks profile pages, alongside the winners of similar Participation Star Open Badges for those students who engage in helpful and supportive interactions in Cloudworks leading up to the conference.

I’m looking forward to welcoming another H818 cohort in the autumn of 2016 and taking them through to next year’s conference, which will take place on February 11th, 13th and 15th 2017 (keep an eye on Cloudworks for the formal announcement in the late autumn). I fully expect more nerves conquered, more hurdles overcome and more great presentations delivered! Organising and chairing this conference remains the highlight of my year, and that is solely down to the enthusiasm, capability and determination of the students. I’ll sign off with one more quote from one of this year’s conference attendees, which makes me feel that it’s all worthwhile:

“All the student presentations I saw were really good. Great ideas and confident presentations. I wish I had seen more. Looking forward to next year.”

One day in the life of an MK newcomer

By John Pettit, MAODE Programme Director

Research at the Institute of Educational Technology feeds into our Master’s programme in numerous ways. For example, the EU-funded MASELTOV project explored the use of mobile technology to help migrants learn a language and develop their understanding of their new cultural context. The Open University – one of 14 partners in the project – trialled the MASELTOV Android app in Milton Keynes in the UK. The Spanish-speaking participants, who had recently come to Milton Keynes from Latin America, were each given a phone loaded with the app. As they moved around Milton Keynes, the app gave them various location-based prompts and opportunities for learning English.

Our Master’s students examine this project within the broad topic of location-based learning – and they also explore some of the issues around data privacy. This is highlighted in, for example, the map showing the path of one of the phones (and presumably one of the participants) that moved around Milton Keynes. Students also get to appreciate the elegance of MK’s gridroads – and those famous roundabouts.

Map of Milton Keynes, showing the path of one of the phones or participants in the MASELTOV trial

Source: Visualisation of geo-context data by JOANNEUM RESEARCH, MASELTOV project (adapted from Google Maps).

 

H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students – a catalyst for change

Post written by MA in Online and Distance Education student Gemma Holtam

Having a personal and professional interest in how technology can be used can create accessible learning, in September 2014 I enrolled onto the Open University masters level module H810 ‘Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students’.  At the time little did I know of the great effect that this course would have on my professional life and the lives of the students at my institution.  For example, as a direct result of studying this course I was offered a new post, led a funded research projected into creating accessible study skills resources and disseminated the findings of this research at national conferences. I am now involved in creating institutional change with regards to how technology is used to support students who are in receipt of Advanced Learner Support. Furthermore, I am part of the Association for Dyslexia Specialist in Higher Education (ADSHE) working party in relation to inclusive design.

The new job

When I began studying H810 I was working as a Learning Technologist. However, having a background in pastoral support this was an area that I was keen to return to, therefore I applied for a post as a HE Study Skills and Progression Coach. As part of the role involves creating online study skills resources I was able to include the accessible learning resource that I created as part of the H810 assessment criteria within my interview pack.

Funded research project

During the course I was offered a research grant from the East Midlands Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training (EMCETT). This was used to investigate a topic entitled ‘Removing barriers, creating accessible online learning’. The timing of this project coincided with the UK government’s indication that they would be reducing the Disabled Student Allowances funding and placing greater expectations on institutions to provide inclusive learning environments for disabled students. I was able to utilise this research opportunity, and what I had learned on H810, to create an accessible online study skills course. The aim of the course was to increase the accessibility of the study skills provision at my institution, whilst providing examples of good practice to inspire other staff and demonstrate how they can create inclusive learning environments.

As well as disseminating the findings from my project at the EMCETT Practitioner Led Research conference I have also presented my findings at the Association for Dyslexia Specialists (ADHSE) in HE annual conference. A copy of my slides from the ADSHE conference can be seen below. An accessible version of the PowerPoint presentation, which also contains a written commentary, can be downloaded here.

Creating institutional change

I am now working with the college’s Advanced Learner Support team to increase the use of both assistive technology and learning technology across our FE provision. This includes creating video and text-based help guides on the different tools that can be used to support a student’s studies. In addition to this, I am part of the Association for Dyslexia Specialist in Higher Education working party, whose aim is to increase the use of inclusive design in HE.  H810: Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students has certainly been a catalyst for personal and institutional change, with the ultimate outcome of improving the student learning experience.