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


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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 10.42.19

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

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 10.59.50

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.”

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