Accessibility and mental health

The second in our series of talks from AbilityNet was from Adam Tweed, Service Development Manager, on accessibility and mental health. Adam spoke both from his professional and personal experience, and from his in-depth knowledge of technology. The session was fascinating and very useful. Some highlights for me included…

Helping to understand the complexity of the issues

Adam talked about training, as a runner, as a way of understanding what physical physical pain you can push through and what you can’t – and the idea that the same holds for mental stresses and strains. Some you can push through and some you can’t – and they will be different for different people. He also talked about the idea that there is an increase of perfectionism in younger generations, be that self-improvement, down to social pressure, or outward facing (expecting more of others).

Do’s and don’ts

The accessibility posters produced by GOV.UK are a great set of resources, and people have been adding their own. Adam showed the posters on designing for users with anxiety which would be a really useful checklist for a number of our services

Technology tips

There were lots of great recommendations of apps and tools. The ones that stood out for me were:

  • Word can now check for clarity, conciseness and inclusiveness (for example, unnecessarily gendered language)
  • Presenter Coach which comes free with PowerPoint online and allows you to rehearse your presentation to an AI audience could be useful both to improve your own clarity and to give students a non-threatening way to rehearse
  • Text-to-speech tools are great for proofreading (this is a revelation to me) and also for getting an unemotional reading of emails that have been sent to you
  • Forest app rewards you with your own virtual woodland for spending time away from your phone

Finally, as a back-to-paper fan, I love the idea of Google’s printable phone.

What next?

This was another great session with AbilityNet, the two remaining sessions are:

We’ll be releasing some ‘Top Tips’ videos for each strand after the event. We’ll also try to make recordings of the sessions available.

If you would like to talk to the Digital Education Office team about Digital Accessibility, Blackboard Ally or just have related questions do feel free to contact us via:

Email: digital-education@bristol.ac.uk
Tel: +44 (0)117 42 83055 / internal: 83055

Notes from the reading group – free choice

Digital wellbeing toolkit from BBC R&D (notes from Suzi Wells)

This is a toolkit from BBC R&D is designed for addressing wellbeing in digital product development. Given the increasing focus on student wellbeing, I was interested in whether it could be useful for online & blended learning.

The key resources provided are a set of values cards along with some exploration of what these mean, particularly for young people (16-34 year olds). These were developed by the BBC through desk research, focus groups and surveys.

The toolkit – the flashcards especially – could certainly be used to sense-check whether very digital teaching methods are really including and supporting the kinds of things we might take for granted in face-to-face education. It could also be useful for working with students to discuss the kinds of things that are important to them in our context, and identifying the kinds of things that really aren’t.

Some of the values seem too obvious (“being safe and well”, “receiving recognition”), or baked-in to education (“achieving goals”, “growing myself”), and I worry that could be off-putting to some audiences. The language also seemed a little strange “human values” – as though “humans” were an alien species. It can feel like the target audience for the more descriptive parts would be someone who has never met a “human”, much less a young one. Nonetheless, the flashcards in particular could be a useful way to kick off discussions.

Three example flash cards showing the values: being inspired, expressing myself, having autonomy

New studies show the cost of student laptop use in lecture classes (notes from Michael Marcinkowski)

The article I read for this session highlighted two new-ish articles which studied the impact that student laptop use had on learning during lectures. In the roughly ten years that laptops have been a common sight in lecture halls, a number of studies have looked at what impact they have on notetaking during class. These previous studies have frequently found a negative association with laptop use for notetaking in lectures, not only for the student using the laptop, but also for other students sitting nearby, distracted by the laptop screen.

The article took a look at two new studies that attempted to tackle some of the limitations of previous work, particularly addressing the correlative nature of previous findings: perhaps low performing students prefer to use laptops for notetaking so that they can do something else during lectures.

What bears mentioning is that there is something somewhat quaint about studying student laptop use. In most cases, it seems to be a foregone conclusion and there is no getting it back into the box. Students will use laptops and other digital technologies in class — there’s almost no other option at this point. Nevertheless, the studies proved interesting.

The first of the highlighted studies featured an experimental set up, randomly assigning students in different sections of an economics class to different conditions: notetaking with laptop, without laptop, or with tablet laying flat on the desk. The last condition was designed to test the effect of students’ being distracted by seeing other students’ screens; the supposition being that if the tablet was laid flat on a desk, it wouldn’t be visible to other students. The students’ performance was then measured based on a final exam taken by students across the three conditions.

After controlling for demographics, GPA, and ACT entrance exam scores, the research found that performance was lower for students using digital technologies for notetaking. However, while performance was lower on the multiple choice and short answer sections of the exam, performance on the essay potion of the exam was the same across all three conditions.

While the study did address some shortcomings of previous studies (particularly with its randomized experimental design), it also introduced several others. Importantly it raised questions about how teachers might teach differently when faced with a class of laptop users or what effect forcing a student who isn’t comfortable using a laptop might have on their performance. Also, given that multiple sections of an economics class was the subject of the study, what role does the discipline being lectured on play in the impact of laptop use?

The second study attempted to address those though a novel design which linked students’ propensity to use or not use laptops in optional-use classes based on whether or not they were forced to or forced not to use them in another class on the same day. Researchers looked at institution-wide student performance at an institution that had a mix of classes which required, forbade, or had no rules about laptop use.

By looking at student performance in classes in which laptop use was optional, but by linking that performance to whether students would be influenced in their laptop choices based on other classes held the same day, researchers wanted to be able to measure student performance when they had a chance not to use a laptop in class. That is, the design allowed researchers to understand in general how many students might be using a laptop in a laptop-optional class, but still allowing individual students to make a choice based on preference.

What they found was that student performance worsened for classes that shared a day with laptop mandated classes and improved on days when classes were shared with laptop prohibited classes. This is in line with previous studies, but interestingly, the negative effects were seen more strongly in weaker students and in quantitative classes.

In the end, even while these two new studies reinforce what had been previously demonstrated about student laptop use, is there anything that can be done to counter what seem to be the negative effects of laptop use for notetaking? More than anything, what seems to be needed are studies looking at how to boost student performance when using technology in the classroom.

StudyGotchi: Tamagotchi-Like Game-Mechanics to Motivate Students During a Programming Course & To Gamify or Not to Gamify: Towards Developing Design Guidelines for Mobile Language Learning Applications to Support User Experience; 2 poster/ demo papers in the EC-TEL 2019 Proceedings. (notes from Chrysanthi Tseloudi)

Both papers talk about the authors’ findings on gamified applications related to learning.

The first regards the app StudyGotchi, based on Tamagochi (a virtual pet the user takes care of), which aims to encourage first year Java programming students to complete tasks on their Moodle platform in order to keep a virtual teacher happy. Less than half the students downloaded the relevant app, with half of those receiving the control version that didn’t have the game functions (180) and half receiving the game version (194). According to their survey, of those that didn’t download it, some reported that was because they weren’t interested in it. Of those that replied to whether they used it, less than half said they did. According to data collected from students that used either version of the app, there was no difference in either the online behaviour or the exam grades of the students, between the groups that used the game or non-game versions. The authors attribute this to the lack of interaction, personalisation options and immediate feedback on the students’ actions on Moodle. I also wonder whether a virtual teacher to be made happy in particular is the best choice of “pet”, when hopefully there is already a real teacher supporting students’ learning. Maybe a virtual brain with regions that light up when a quiz is completed or any non-realistic representation connected to the students’ own development would be more helpful in increasing students’ intrinsic motivation, since ideally they would be learning for themselves, and not to make someone else happy.

The second paper compares 2 language learning apps, one of which is gamified. The non-gamified app (LearnIT ASAP) includes exercises where students fill in missing words, feedback to show whether the answer is correct/ incorrect and statistics to track progress. The gamified app (Starfighter) includes exercises where the students steer through an asteroid field by selecting answers to given exercises and a leaderboard to track progress and compete with peers. The evaluation involved interviewing 11 20-50 year old individuals. The authors found that younger and older participants had different views about the types of interactions and aesthetics of the two apps. Younger participants would have preferred swiping to tapping, older participants seemed to find the non-gamified app comfortable because it looked like a webpage, but were not so sure about the gamified app. The game mechanics of Starfighter were thought to be more engaging, while the pedagogical approach of LearnIT ASAP was thought to be better in terms of instructional value and effectiveness. While the authors mention that the main difference between the apps is gamification, considering the finding that the pedagogical approach of one of the apps is better, I wonder if that is actually the case. Which game elements actually improve engagement and how is still being researched, so I would really like to see comparisons of language learning apps where the existence or not of game elements is indeed the only difference. Using different pedagogical approaches between the apps is less likely to shed light on the best game elements to use, but it does emphasize the difficulty of creating an application that is both educationally valuable and fun at the same time.

Digital Accessibility and Sight Impairment

Adi Latif from AbilityNet presenting on Sight Impairment.Last week we hosted the first of four Digital Accessibility sessions with AbilityNet, the UK charity supporting those with impairments or disability to use digital technology.

The first session focused on Sight Impairment and was presented by Adi Latif, an accessibility consultant with AbilityNet. Adi lost his sight in his teens as a result of a degenerative eye condition. Adi gave us a potted history of his experiences going into Higher Education and how technology had evolved and helped his journey since. From clunky archaic looking speaking watches to the Uber app, he painted a picture of the difficulties he’d had historically accessing the digital world and how he now uses tools to navigate both real life and online spaces.

It was humbling seeing him demonstrate how he uses assistive technology like screen readers or mobile phone apps to make sense of the world. The fact he was continuously slowing down the audio playback for these tools so we could understand the feedback really struck me. My experience of using screen reading tools to check over digital content I’ve created has been painful at best, with content read back at real time speeds. Adi appeared to be reading back at double time, if not faster.

Adi demonstrated some of the regular pitfalls sight impaired users come across accessing documents and covered some best practice to improve accessibility. He also covered just how awful an experience using a PDF file can be, essentially saying “Actually, if I hear a hyperlink say it’s a PDF I probably won’t open it”. After years of advising people to include a PDF it was slightly horrifying to learn that they are so inaccessible, and an alternative version should be included.

That makes sense when you consider that PDF is a format created for print, so is primarily concerned with creating an exact copy of the source material. I’ll certainly amend my practice on this front.

Adi discussed various ways to improve accessibility, from the Microsoft Accessibility Checker tool to Blackboard Ally.

This was a great first session with AbilityNet, we have three more to go focusing on:

We’ll be releasing some ‘Top Tips’ videos for each strand after the event. We’ll also try to make recordings of the sessions available.

If you would like to talk to the Digital Education Office team about Digital Accessibility, Blackboard Ally or just have related questions do feel free to contact us via:

Email: digital-education@bristol.ac.uk
Tel: +44 (0)117 42 83055 / internal: 83055

AI and education – notes from reading group

Will Higher Ed Keep AI in Check? (notes from Chrysanthi Tseloudi)

In this article, Frederick Singer argues that whether the future of AI in education is a positive or a dystopian one depends not on a decision to use or not use AI, but on retaining control over how it is used.

The author starts by mentioning a few examples of how AI is/ may be used outside of education – both risky and useful. They then move on to AI’s use in educational contexts, with examples including using an AI chat bot for students’ queries regarding enrolment and financial issues, as well as AI powered video transcription that can help accessibility. The area they identify has the most potential for both risk and benefit is AI helping educators address individual students’ needs and indicating when intervention is needed; there are concerns about data privacy and achieving the opposite results, if educators lose control.

The final example they mention is using AI in the admissions process, to sidestep human biases and help identify promising applicants, but without automatically rejecting students that are not identified as promising by the AI tool.

I think this is something to be cautious about. Using AI for assessment – whether for admission, to mark activities, progress, etc – certainly has potential, but AI is not free of human biases. In fact, there have been several examples where they are full of them. The article Rise of the racist robots – how AI is learning all our worst impulses and Cathy O’Neil’s Ted talk The era of blind faith in big data must end report that AI algorithms can be racist and sexist, because they rely on datasets that contain biases already; e.g. a dataset of successful people is essentially a dataset of past human opinions of who can be successful, and human opinions are biased –  if e.g. only a specific group of people have been culturally allowed to be successful, a person that doesn’t belong to that category will not be seen by AI as equally (or more) promising as those who do belong to it. AI algorithms can be obscure, it is not necessarily obvious what they are picking up on to make their judgements and so it’s important to be vigilant and for the scientists who make them to implement ways to counteract potential discriminations arising from it.

It’s not hard to see how this could apply in educational contexts. For example, algorithms that use datasets from disciplines that are currently more male dominated might rank women as less likely to succeed, and algorithms that have been trained with data that consists overwhelmingly of students of a specific nationality and very few internationals might mark international students’ work lower. There are probably ways to prevent this, but awareness of potential bias is needed for this to be done. All this considered, educators seeing AI as a tool that is free of bias would be rather worrying. Understanding the potential issues there is key in retaining control.

How Artificial Intelligence Can Change Higher Education (notes from Michael Marcinkowski)

For this meeting, I read ‘How Artificial Intelligence Can Change Higher Education,’ a profile of Sebastian Thrun. The article detailed Thrun’s involvement with the popularization of massive open online courses and the founding of his company, Udacity. Developed out of Thrun’s background working at Google in the field of artificial intelligence, Udacity looks to approach the question of education as a matter of scale: how can digital systems be used to vast numbers of people all over the world. For Thrun, the challenge for education is how it can be possible to develop student mastery of a subject through online interactions, while at the same time widening the pathways for participation in higher education.

The article, unfortunately, focused most on the parallels between Thrun’s work in education and in his involvement with the development of autonomous vehicles, highlighting the potential that artificial intelligence technologies have for both, while avoiding any discussion of the particulars of how this transformational vision might be achieved.

Nevertheless, the article still opened up some interesting concerns around questions of scale and how best of approach the question of how education might function at a scale larger than as traditionally conceived. At the heart of this question is the role that autonomous systems might have in helping to manage this kind of large scale educational system. That is, at what point and for what tasks is it appropriate to take human educators out of the loop or to place them in further remove from the student. In particular, areas such as the monitoring of student well-being and one-on-one tutoring came out as areas ripe for both innovation and controversy.

While it was disappointing that the article largely avoided the actual issues of the uses of artificial intelligence in education, it did offer an unplanned for lesson about AI in education. Like in the hype surrounding self-driving cars, the promises for a new educational paradigm that were put forward in this 2012 article still seem far off. While the mythos of the Silicon Valley innovator might cast Thrun as a rebel who is singularly able to see the true path forward for education, most of his propositions for education, when they were not pie-in-sky fantasies, repeated well worn opinions present throughout the history of education.

Suggested reading

Digital Accessibility Events for 2019/20

The Digital Education Office are hosting a series of events focusing on Digital Accessibility. AbilityNet are running four sessions on individual accessibility needs. Speakers will share their lived experience of various conditions and impairments and discuss how these influence the way they access and consume digital content.

They will share their professional experience as Accessibility and Assistive Technology Professionals in supporting Disabled Learners in the context of accessing digital platforms and content.

The sessions will engage participants by developing their understanding of potential pitfalls when creating digital content and will include easy to consume guidance on creating accessible content for all audiences. Additional support videos and guidance will be provided after the events.

With new legislation requiring the University to ensure that all content published on websites, intranets or mobile apps is accessible, these talks offer a chance to learn how to improve the materials and content you create to support students learning.

 

You can find out more and book tickets for the individual sessions via the following links:

Digital Accessibility and Sight Impairment 30th October 2pm – 4pm

Digital Accessibility and Mental Health 13th November 2pm – 4pm

Digital Accessibility and Physical Impairment 4th December 2pm – 4pm

Digital Accessibility and Neurodiversity 15th December 2pm – 4pm

 

 

Writing down my thoughts of ALTc 2019

The ALT Conference this year was held in Edinburgh. It was my first experience of ALTc and I was pretty excited about heading up to Scotland. Getting off the tram in the city centre on the Monday evening with Edinburgh Castle illuminated in lights was pretty amazing 

The conference was held in the University’s McEwan Hall. The building was incredible, as was the auditorium inside. Sat within the hall you couldn’t help but look up at the beautiful windows and artistry that covered the walls. Luckily not too distracting to keep me from listening in on the keynotes talks. 

McEwan Hall

McEwan Hall

The list of workshops and talks over the three days was huge, so I took some great advice from my colleague, and steered away from my usual subjects. I took away a huge amount from these three days in Edinburgh, but I’ll mention the three keys areas that stood out for me. 

Going back to basics

 

A large area for discussion throughout the conference was the idea of taking learning back to basics. Working within the learning technology field, there is often the assumption that we must always look for new and exciting technology that we can filter into our teaching. This can often mean the pedagogical side of the discussion or project can get lost within the technology.  

Jesse Stommel’s keynote also talked about how some tools are ‘problematic to the core’. There were times in the talk where he was quite critical of certain tools we use. However, being critical is not always a bad thing and it leads us on to really think about the tools we are using and decide whether they are beneficial to our students, staff and our own learning. 

It wasn’t however all doom and gloom, and I sat in on several talks that were using technology quite simply, but to great effect. 

Here be Dragons: Dispelling Myths around BYOD Digital Examinations: Claudia Cox 

This was a great short presentation on the use of digital exams at Brunel University. It was good to see a simple approach being taken to an area that could cause quite a lot of disturbance and resistance within a University. They broke down their projects into three areas; infrastructure, technical support, and training. Tackling these challenges in this way allowed the team to put more thought into their projects and focus on their objectives and outcomes. I liked how research even went into how different noises would affect students e.g. keyboard tapping.  Digital exams can seem quite a challenge to take on, and albeit a student who managed to guess a password hours before an exam started, Claudia relayed how smooth and simple the process was, and how the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Under the right circumstances and with the right support, BYOD can allow for students to feel happier and calmer when undertaking exams. 

Creativity through video in Heriot-Watt Online: James Igoe and Mari Cruz Garcia 

A great talk on how video can enhance and improve learning and teaching in an online course. This session looked how simple approaches can be of great value to an online course and allow the students to feel more engaged. The team here were using Lumen5 to create short and snappy videos that they could get out to users in record time. It took a step back from high level video production and focused on getting the information over to the student. 

Another part of this talk I found interesting was their use of lightboard technology. This maybe doesn’t fall quite under the ‘back to basics’ theme but I’ve been informed by a colleague there are certain DIY hacks to create this mirrored effect of presenting on a much simpler level – something I’m keen to try! 

Inside McEwan Hall

Inside McEwan Hall

Working with our students in higher education. 

 

“Trust students. Ask them how they learn and what challenges they face. Believe them” Jesse Stommel 

I’ve always been an advocate for understanding the importance of listening to student’s views, but this was a theme I felt cropped up a lot within the conference. In Jesse Stommel’s keynote he reminded us that we need to trust our students and learn from them. They are the epi-centre of our institutions and should be taken into the equation more when we think about course design and how we want to teach. 

Ollie Bray also talked about this on the final day of the conference; 

“We hear a lot about learning from our students, but less about learning with them. If we want young learners to be creative, we need children and adults working together in co-creative learning teams.   Despite the rhetoric that AI will “solve” education, solving complex problems comes down to people, pedagogy and leadership. 

A few talks I went to really related to this: 

Designing a new digital arts curriculum where technology inspires new stories, new experiences and new realities: Paul Proctor and Jacqueline Butler 

This was an interesting talk looking at co-creating courses across different disciplines for the new School of Digital Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University. As well as speaking about how they wanted to bring academics and practitioners together to collaborate in one bespoke place, they also talked about how they tackled and questioned the different roles that made up their team who were working on the project. Involvement from all areas of the institution was monumental to the success of the task in hand. 

The new curriculum was being created through a series of short developmental ‘curriculum design sprints’, involving students, alumni, staff, external industry partners, international colleagues and partners from the creative, tech and business worlds. Again, a great way to work with our students and a simple approach on keeping objectives compact and achievable. 

How user experience research is shaping the changes to our Virtual Learning Environment: Paul Smyth, Duncan Stephen, Karen Howie 

A quick mention of this talk which I thoroughly enjoyed. The team used feedback from several surveys to highlight the inconsistencies and frustrations that were coming out of the use of VLEs for students. They embarked on a project to make these courses more accessible and relevant. Again, they took a simple approach and focused on six work streams: templates, checklists, training and support, terminology and automation. 

What stood out for me was the involvement of staff as well as students in their project, and how much research and testing went into the development process. They described some of their results as ‘surprising and enlightening’ and went on to discuss how considering different users allowed them to make significant changes to all areas of the VLE, not just the front end. Everyone’s experience was important. 

Edinburgh in the sun

Edinburgh in the sun

#femedtech

 

This was one of my favourite talks, and the FemEdTech team had a positive and enlightening presence throughout the conference. Helen Beetham was a captivating and engaging speaker, and opened my eyes to a subject that I have often thought about, but never knew was so widely talked about. We focused and reflected on four main areas: 

  • Learning technology as a gendered work, looking at how different roles are valued and rewarded. 
  • Learning technology and education opportunity. This looked at the use of digital systems in education in relation to the participation rates and outcomes of women learners. 
  • Feminist pedagogies. 
  • Feminist epistemologies. 

An interesting talk that focused on inclusivity and bringing people together to discuss why or if feminism should hold a perspective with the area of learning technology. This is their twitter account @femedtech if you wanted to find out more. 

ALTc was a great opportunity for me to meet people working in the same area as me and made me aware that there are so many different directions and opportunities to take when thinking about working within learning technology. I still think being a learning technologist at Edinburgh Zoo may be one of the best jobs going. It was a great couple of days and sparked my motivation for putting in a proposal in the future and making more time for research. 

Thanks also to Lorna Campbell for her great write up of the Keynote talks. Reading this made a lot more sense than the notes I took! 

Edinburgh in the rain

Rainy Edinburgh

A few notes from our TurningPoint Lunch and Learn event

Matthew Moss from Turning Technologies was in Bristol on Tuesday to talk to us and a number of academics about TurningPoint. This is a polling software, or student response system (SRS), that we use and manage at the University of Bristol.

As well as taking us through the basics of creating and running a TurningPoint session, and informing us that this is the software used on ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’, Matt also spoke to us about some of the uses which are not as widely adopted at the University. These included: 

  • Private messaging between student and teacher
  • The ability to make polled questions anonymous as you run a session
  • Anywhere Polling – this allows you to run a poll while on any website (or other app) 
  • The ability to reserve 10 session IDs to have as your own
  • Conditional branching in polling
  • The use of word clouds
  • Using the TurningPoint app
  • The use of reporting
  • TurningPoint Web
  • Using Hot Spots in TurningPoint Web
  • Question banks
  • Self-paced polling. 

We hope to run another of these ‘lunch and learn’ sessions in the new year, and would be keen to hear from members of staff who would be happy to talk about the work they are doing with student response systems.

If you would like to find out more, or are interested in getting a licence to use TurningPoint, please contact digital-education@bristol.ac.uk. You can also find out more by going to our website. 

We also have a SRS Yammer Group which you are welcome to join. 

Tiddlywinks of teaching – materials from Playful Learning 19

Chrysanthi and I ran a session at the Playful Learning conference, play testing a game we have developed to help consider issues around accessibility and inclusivity. The title of our session was The Tiddlywinks of Teaching.

A first draft of the materials, all Creative Commons licenced, is now available for anyone who is interested: Tiddlywinks of Teaching materials (zip, 3MB).

We will post more about the game when time allows!

Playful Learning Conference 2019

On the 10th-12th of July I went to the Playful Learning Conference with Suzi Wells, to learn about different approaches to play in adult education and to present our own game.

It was a very lively conference. To the untrained eye, some moments of it looked like a bunch of adults had gone slightly mad and decided to go back to kindergarten to play with balloons and play dough and run around. To a more experienced observer, the attendants were learning about how others use play for learning, and using collaborative, playful ways to:

  • describe the academic writing process

This is our team’s description. The queen bee gives the question. The small bee then goes away to think about it and interpret the question and plans how to answer it. It looks for flowers/ materials to read and then does the research, gathering what it needs to create their work. It then edits it and presents the result in a nice format.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • explore barriers and solutions to being more playful in work and education

According to our team, the most important barriers to play are expectations, limited time and resources. Solutions are to give time and space for playfulness and innovation, change mindsets and normalise play in learning, and get to a point where people trust and believe in it.

 

  • solve the gender pay gap in Higher Education using one of 2 rapidly taught ethical theories.

Our team decided to use the theory of deontology to solve the gender pay gap in HE. There should be an equal amount of men and women in all kinds of posts, an equal amount performing all kinds of tasks, equal opportunities for promotion. For this to work properly, men and women should also do an equal amount of housework, spend an equal amount of time with their children, do an equal amount of emotional labour.

All genders should be included in this absolute equality, including those that do not identify as men or women (percentage arbitrarily chosen and subject to change to appropriately reflect society).

 

Our own session went better than we could have expected. All our room’s tables were full, and people were engaged with playing our game (working title: The Tiddlywinks of Teaching).

Attendants playing our game that helps think about inclusivity and accessibility when designing learning innovations.

 

They seemed to enjoy it and gave us very useful feedback. I would have been happy to keep talking to the participants about it for another hour. Also, I was very pleased to see some admittedly very happy faces when we told them they could take sets of cards with them!

A few things stood out for me at this conference:

  1. The vast majority of playful activities were physical, not digital.
  2. For many people engaging in playful learning, play = creativity. There were many sessions and activities where different creative processes – physical or digital – were used/ suggested to learn either about play itself, or as a tool to engage with different topics.
  3. Escape rooms have become quite popular in the area of playful learning. Their potential to help practice and enhance communication and teamwork skills, as well as to help in team building are easy to see. Their potential to learn domain-specific skills, not so much yet.
  4. Conferences such as this, that allow for more hands on sessions are an amazing way to playtest and get feedback for learning games. I am sure that our own game will greatly improve as a result of our session.

Playful Learning 19: mega games, promoting play, and wellbeing

It’s a week since I returned from my three days in leafy Leicester at the Playful Learning conference. It’s an event I have watched from a distance with envy in previous years, so I was very excited to be able to attend, and to play-test a game Chrysanthi Tseloudi and I developed around accessibility and inclusivity.

Some highlights and useful takeaways:

  • Mega games – Darren Green and Liz Cable ran a Climate Crisis mega game: a simulation of negotiations between countries around reducing carbon emissions. This session was for about 20 people but would have scaled well for much larger numbers. It was fascinating and absorbing. You would need some caution about what lessons students would take away – if you asked me what I learnt I’d have to say: China are key to solving the crisis but impossible to work with (which is obviously down to the way the players interpreted their roles) and I’m too gullible (which sadly is not). Even so, I can see real possibilities for this.
  • Promoting play in HE – I love the sound of the University of Winchester’s festival of play and creativity. At Bristol we have our Learning Games Lunches a few times a year but a festival allows so much more scope to innovate, play test, and to take ideas directly to and from the students.
  • Play for all – There were differing views around whether play had to be voluntary or not, which is obviously an important issue if you are trying to incorporate play within HE, and particularly within the taught curriculum. Reflecting on the kinds of sessions at the conference that worked well for me, and those that didn’t quite, I’m increasingly persuaded that you can only invite people to play and you can’t require them. Maybe providing choice within a set of playful options, so that people retain a sense of ownership or control, would be enough.

I was expecting – hoping I suppose – the conference would introduce me to new game mechanics for use in teaching, and maybe some facilitation ideas. In the end, the more significant focus for me was around wellbeing. It can be too easy to feel invisible and without agency, not part of anything. At Playful Learning everything was very active and collaborative. For three solid days I felt both seen and heard (a phrase which sounds rather corny to my ears but I can’t think of a more accurate one to describe the feeling). Being so connected was hard work at times but a very positive experience.

The idea of play as an indicator of wellbeing was introduced in by Alison James in her keynote. She mentioned that animals who are sick or scared can’t play. I now wonder how much play can promote or amplify wellbeing. Can behaving in a playful way sometimes trick you into being more well? I’m reminded of the work of Clowns Without Borders, taking laughter to children who you might imagine couldn’t benefit.

By the time Friday morning came and it was our turn to present, my feeling was that we were addressing a room of supportive friends. Not people who would never criticise, we got some very useful criticism, but friends all the same. This building of community and connection – both for students and staff – is a key thing that playfulness and games could bring to universities.

(Yellow-team-lego photo shamelessly stolen from @malcolmmurray – but myself and two mysterious strangers (or people whose names I have forgotten) built the thing so I’m hoping that’s ok.)

 

 

I