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.

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

Curriculum theories – notes from reading group

Thanks to Sarah Davies for setting us some fascinating reading!

Connected curriculum chapter 1 (notes from Chris Adams)

The connected curriculum is a piece of work by Dilly Fung from UCL. It is an explicit attempt to outline how departments in research-intensive universities can develop excellent teaching by integrating their research into it; the ‘connected’ part of the title is the link between research and teaching. At it’s heart is the idea that the predominant mode of learning for undergraduates should be active enquiry, but that rather than students discovering for themselves things which are well-established, they should be discovering things at the boundaries of what is known, just like researchers do.

It has six strands:

  • Students connect with researchers and with the institution’s research. Or, in other words, the research work of he department is explicitly built into the curriculum
  • A throughline of research activity is built into each programme. Properly design the curriculum so that research strands run though it, and it builds stepwise on what has come before.
  • Students make connections across subjects and out to the world. Interdisciplinarity! Real world relevance.
  • Students connect academic learning with workplace learning. Not only should we be teaching them transferable skills for a world of rapid technological change, but we need to tell them that too.
  • Students learn to produce outputs – assessments directed at an audience. Don’t just test them with exams
  • Students connect with each other, across phases and with alumni. This will create a sense of community and belonging.

This last point is then expanded upon. Fung posits that the curriculum is not just a list of what should be learned, but is the whole experience as lived by the student. Viewing the curriculum as a narrow set of learning outcomes does not product the kind of people that society needs, but is a consequence of the audit culture that pervades higher education nowadays. Not all audit is bad – the days when ‘academic freedom’ gave people tenure and the freedom to teach terribly and not do any research are disappearing, and peer-review is an integral part of the university system – but in order to address complex global challenges we need a values based curriculum ‘defined as the development of new understandings and practices, through dialogue and human relationships, which make an impact for good in the world.’

I liked it sufficiently to buy the whole book. It addresses a lot of issues that I see in my own department – the separation of research from teaching, and the over-reliance on exams, and the lack of community, for example.

Connected curriculum chapter 2 (notes from Suzi Wells)

As mentioned in chapter 1, the core proposition is that the curriculum should be ‘research-based’ – ie most student learning “should reflect the kinds of active, critical and analytic enquiry undertaken by researchers”.

Fung gives a this useful definition of what that means in practice. Students should:

  • Generate new knowledge through data gathering and analysis
  • Disseminate their findings
  • Refine their understanding through feedback on the dissemination

All of it seems fairly uncontroversial in theory and tends to reflect current practice, or at least what we aspire to in current practice. There’s some discussion of the differences in what research means to different disciplines, and how that filters through into assessment of students, and potentially some useful studies on just how effective this all is.

Fung mentions the Boyer Commission (US 1998) and its proposed academic bill of rights, including (for research intensive institutions): “expectation of and opportunity for work with talented senior researchers to help and guide the student’s efforts”. Given increasing student numbers, this is possibly a less realistic expectation to meaningfully meet than it once was.

There’s some useful discussion about what is needed to make research-based-teaching work.

I was particularly interested in the idea that providing opportunity for this form of learning isn’t everything. Socio-economic factors mean that students may have differing beliefs about their own agency. Fung cites Baxter-Magdola (2004) on the importance of students having ‘self-authorship’ which includes ‘belief in oneself as possessing the capacity to create new knowledge’ and ‘the ability to play a part within knowledge-building communities’. You can’t assume all students arrive with the same level of this, and this will affect their ability to participate.

This part of the chapter also talks about the importance of not just sending students off “into the unknown to fend for themselves” – imagine a forest of ivory towers – but to give them support & structure. Activities need to be framed within human interactions (including peer support).

Towards the end there is a nod to it being anglo-centric – African and Asian educational philosophy and practice may be different – but little detail is given.

How Emotion Matters in Four Key Relationships in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education” (notes from Roger Gardner)

This is a 2016 article by Kathleen Quinlan, who is now Director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education and Reader in Higher Education at University of Kent, but was working at Oxford when this was written.

She writes that while historically there has been less focus on Bloom’s affective domain than the cognitive, recently interest in the relation of emotions to learning has been growing although it is still under-researched. The article comes out of a review of the existing literature and conversations with teachers at the National University of Singapore in August 2014.

The paper focusses on four relationships: students with the subject matter, teachers, their peers and what she calls “their developing selves”. For each section Quinlan includes a summary of implications for teaching practice, which provide some very useful suggestions, ranging from simple things such as encouraging students to introduce each other when starting activities to help foster peer relationships, to advocating further research and exploration into when it is appropriate and educationally beneficial for teachers to express emotions and when not.

Quinlan says “discussions about intangibles such as emotions and relationships are often sidelined”, but it now seems essential to prioritise this if we are to support student wellbeing, and this paper provides some helpful prompts and suggestions for reflection and developing our practice.  If you are short of time I recommend looking at the bullet point “implications for practice”.

What is “significant learning”? (notes from Chrysanthi Tseloudi)

In this piece, Dr. Fink talks about the Taxonomy of Significant Learning; a taxonomy that refers to new kinds of learning that go beyond the cognitive learning that Bloom’s taxonomy addresses. The taxonomy of significant learning – where significant learning occurs when there is a lasting change in the learner that is important in their life – is not hierarchical, but relational and interactive. It includes six categories of learning:

Foundational knowledge: the ability to remember and understand specific information as well as ideas and perspectives, providing the basis for other kinds of learning.

Application: learning to engage in a new kind of action (intellectual, physical, social, etc) and develop skills that allow the learner to act on other kinds of learning, making them useful.

Intergration: learning to see, understand, and make new connections between different things, people, ideas, realms of ideas or realms of life. This gives learners new (especially intellectual) power.

Human Dimension: learning about the human significance of things they are learning – understanding something about themselves or others, getting a new vision of who they want to become, understanding the social implications of things they have learned or how to better interact with others.

Caring: developing new feelings, interests, values and/ or caring more about something that before; caring about something feeds the learner’s energy to learn about it and make it a part of their lives.

Learning how to learn: learning about the learning process; how to learn more efficiently, how to learn about a specific method or in a specific way, which enables the learner to keep on learning in the future with increasing effectiveness.

The author notes that each kind of learning is related to the others and achieving one kind helps achieve the others. The more kinds of learning involved, the more significant is the learning that occurs – with the most significant kind being the one that encompasses all six categories of the taxonomy.

Education Principles: Designing learning and assessment in the digital age (notes from Naomi Beckett)

This short paper is part of a guide written by Jisc. It covers what Education Principles are and why they are such a vital characteristic of any strategy. Coming from someone unspecialised in this area it was an interesting read to understand how principles can bring staff together to engage and develop different education strategies. The guide talks about how principles can ‘provide a common language, and reference point for evaluating change’.

The paper talks about having a benchmark in which everyone can check their progress. I like this idea. So often projects become too big and the ideas and values are lost on what was first decided as a team. Having a set of principles is a way to bring everything back together and is a useful way to enable a wide variety of staff to engage with each other. The guide mentions how having these principles means there is a ‘common agreement on what is fundamentally important.’

Having these principles developed at the beginning of a project puts the important ideas and values into motion and is a place to look back to when problems arise. Principles should be action oriented, and not state the obvious. Developing them in this way allows for a range of staff members to bring in different ideas and think about how they want to communicate their own message.

I also followed up by reading ‘Why use assessment and feedback principles?’ from Strathclyde’s Re-Engineering Assessment Practices (REAP) project.

Suggested reading

OU Innovating Pedagogy 2019 – notes from reading group

All read sections of the OU Innovating Pedagogies 2019 report

Learning with Robots (read by Naomi Beckett)

This short piece talked about how Robots are now being used for educational purposes and which ones are being used. The article talked a lot about how Robots can be used in a way that enhances learning by learning things themselves. Learners can teach something to the Robots as a process of showing they have accomplished a new skill and in turn the Robot is gaining new information.

The article also talked about how Robots can enable a passive approach to teaching. Robots won’t raise their voice or show (real) emotions in a session. Having this calm approach to teaching, it is argued, will now allow students to learn in a calmer environment. It also discusses how having a Robot as a learning tool may excite or motivate learners too. Although it only briefly mentions how a Robot would souly conduct a class full of students.

There were some aspects of the article that did make some sense on how Robots could aid learning, but these ideas didn’t go into much depth. It was discussed how Robots could talk in several languages so could be able to converse comfortably with a wider range of students. It also talked about how Robots could act as mediators to students, being able to check in, or provide advice at any time of the day. They could conduct the routine tasks and issues, freeing up teacher’s time so they can spend it with their learners.

As mentioned in the article ‘many people have an inherent distrust of advancing technologies.’ There are several questions to ask on how much a Robot is integrated into a learning environment, and when does it become too much. But there are a number of interesting points in the article about how Robots are making small steps to aid and enhance learning.

Reading this section got me thinking about the AV1 Robot. A robot created by NoIsolation. They created a robot to ‘reduce loneliness and social isolation through warm technology’. AVI was a Robot created for children who are too ill to go to school. The robot sits in the class and the child at home can connect through it. Using an app, the children can take part in the classroom. They can raise their hand to answer questions, talk to nearby students, ask questions, and just listen if they want to. A great use of technology to keep students engaged with their learning and classmates.

Decolonising learning (read by Sarah Davies)

This section was not about decolonising the curriculum – itself an important area for Bristol – but rather reflecting on how digital environments, tools and activities can be used in ways which invert power relationships and cultural and educational capital of the dominant culture, and support colonised or marginalised populations in education, sense-making and cultural development which is meaningful to them. It notes that decolonisation requires systematic unsettling change.

The article reminds us that we need to acknowledge the ways in which digital presence can contribute to colonisation – so digital environments created by a dominant culture may not create spaces for the kind of discussions, activities and issues which are meaningful to those of other cultures. It suggests that MOOCs can often be a form of digital colonisation – people from all over the world learn from massive courses produced in just a few countries.

In contrast, digital decolonisation considers how to support colonised, under-represented, uprooted or otherwise marginalised people with technology in order to:

  • connect them with a shared history,
  • support a critical perspective on their present,
  • provide tools for them to shape their futures.

But how to use the technology must be decided by the people themselves.

Critical pedagogies – in which students are expressly encouraged to question and challenge power structures, authority and the status quo – provide frameworks for the academic success of diverse students – eg by seeking to provide a way of maintaining their cultural integrity while achieving academic success, or to sustain the cultural competence of their community while gaining access to the dominant cultural competence.

Digital storytelling is an example of a pedagogical tool that can be used for decolonising purposes – empowering students to tell their own stories, turning a critical lens on settler colonialism, capturing stories of indigenous or marginalised people taking action on issues, critiques of colonial nations.

Two final messages from this article which resonated for me were that success in or after HE for some groups of students may be at odds with notions of success in the dominant society (as captured in things like Graduate Outcomes); and that education needs to be reimagined as an activity that serves the needs of local communities – though what that means for Bristol and the local, national and international communities it exists within, I’m not sure.

Virtual studios (read by Suzi Wells)

I found this a useful exercise in thinking about what a studio is and what it is for – and how much of that might be reimagined online. Studios are described in the report as collaborative, creative, social, communal spaces. They contain creative artefacts (sketches, models, objects). Learning in studios is by doing and is often peer-supported with tutors facilitating and guiding rather than instructing.

The report describes virtual studios as being focused on digital artefacts. “Virtual studios are all about online exchange of ideas, rapid feedback from tutors and peers, checks on progress against learning outcomes, and collaboration”

The first benefit of virtual studios given is scale: a studio can be for 100s of learners. This left me wondering if this is in conflict with the idea of studios as a community.

Virtual studios are also described as “hubs”, an idea I would have liked to explore further. I wanted to know how a hub is different from a community. What are we trying to achieve when we make something hub-like? I suppose a hub is a place which provides a starting point or a loose join between disparate activities or organisations. It’s not just a community, but has other communities floating around it.

Virtual studios can be a way to give more people (fully open even) access to experts and facilities. Example given was the (oft cited, so fairly unique?) ds106 Digital Storytelling.

Areas to explore further:

  • Could e-portfolios benefit from being grounded in something more virtual-studio-like (how much are they doing that already)?
  • How big can a virtual studio be before it loses the community feeling? Is there a way to scale community?

Place Based Learning (read by Michael Marcinkowski)

While the article on place based learning only provided a surface view of the approach, I found it very interesting in two distinct ways.

First, it focused on place based learning as not being solely the province of lessons conducted in the field, away from the classroom. What was highlighted in the article was the way that place based learning could just as easily take place in the classroom with students studying their local communities or local histories from their desks. Whether in the classroom or the field, the focus is on how students are able to make robust connections between their personal situation and their learning.

This kind of connection between the learner and their local community provides the foundation for the second point of interest in the article: that place-based learning can easily incorporate aspects of critical pedagogy. As students explore their local communities, they can both explore critical issues facing the community and build on their own experiences in order to support their learning. One example that was noted was having students explore the function of public transportation networks in their community, looking at questions of availability, accommodation, and planning.

An important development in place based learning has been the rise in the ubiquity of smartphones and other location-aware devices. By tapping into GPS and other forms of location networks, it becomes possible to develop applications that allow learners to dynamically access information about their surroundings. The article mentions one project that allows language learners to access vocabulary specific to the locations in which it is used, for instance, having transit based vocabulary guides triggered near bus stops. The idea is that such systems allow for the in-situ acquisition of vocabulary in a way which is both useful in the moment and that reinforces learning.

There are already a number of good examples of place based learning that have been developed out of the University of Bristol, including the Bristol Futures Course which encourages students to explore and engage with the wider city of Bristol and the Romantic Bristol smartphone app which highlights places of historic and literary importance around the city.

Particularly as the University begins to confront its legacy of involvement with the slave trade, there look to be a number of ways in which place based education can continue to be fostered among the University community.

Roots of Empathy (read by Chrysanthi Tseloudi)

This section describes a classroom programme that aims to teach children empathy, so they can have healthy and constructive social interactions.

In this programme, children between 5-13 years old get visits in their school class every 3 weeks from a local baby, their parent and a Roots of Empathy instructor. The children observe how the baby and its feelings develop and its interactions with the parent. With the guidance of the instructor, the children learn about infant development and identify the baby’s feelings, their own and those of others; they then reflect on them, describe and explain them. There are opportunities for discussion and other activities, including the children recording songs for their baby and reflecting on what they would like the baby’s future to be like. The curriculum is broken down into themes, which are then broken down further into age ranges. While the activities focus on feelings, some use knowledge and skills from school subjects, e.g. mathematics. Research on the programme has shown positive results in decreasing aggression and increasing positive social behaviours.

It was interesting to read about this approach. Something that stood out for me was that while the learners identifying their own feelings is mentioned, it is not obvious if this is an explicit aim of this programme. That made me wonder whether it is assumed that a person that is able to identify others’ feelings is definitely able to identify their own (in which case this programme addresses this skill implicitly), whether it is assumed that the children are able to do this already or whether knowing one’s own feelings is not considered an important skill in healthy social interactions. I also wondered how children that have significant difficulties identifying their own or others’ feelings fare in this programme and if/ how they are further supported.

JISC Horizon Report on wellbeing and mental health – notes from reading group

Suzi read the first section of the JISC Horizon Report mental health and wellbeing section. This talked about the increasing demands on mental health services and discussed some possible causes including worries about money and future prospects, diet, use of social media, and reduced stigma around talking about mental health.

Many institutions are increasing their efforts around student wellbeing. The report mentioned a new task force looking at the transition to university and support in first year: Education Transitions Network.

Four technologies are mentioned as currently being used within HE:

  • Learning analytics to identify students in need of being checked in on
  • Apps and online mood diaries, online counselling
  • Peer support (overseen by counsellors) via Big White Wall
  • Chatbots

The report didn’t have a great amount of detail on how these are used. Using learning analytics to see who’s not engaging with online content seems like the simplest application and is doable in many systems but even this would require care. Revealing that you are keeping students under surveillance in a way they might not expect may cause them to lose trust in the institution and retreat further (or game the system to avoid interventions). Then again, maybe it’s just helping us know the sort of things a student might expect us to know. Universities can be quite disjointed – in a way that may not seem natural or helpful to students. Analytics could provide much needed synaptic connections.

It also struck me that using technology to support wellbeing (and even mental health) is in some ways similar to teaching: what you’re trying to achieve is not simple to define and open to debate.

Johannes read the blog post Learning Analytics as a tool for supporting student wellbeing and watched a presentation by Samantha Ahern. Samantha Ahern is a Data Scientist at the UCL and does research concerning the implications of Learning Analytics on student wellbeing.

In her presentation, she outlined the current problem of the HE Sector with student wellbeing and provided some alarming numbers about the increase of reported mental disorders of young adults (16 –24 years old). According to the NHS survey on mental health in the UK, around 8% of male and 9% of female participants had diagnosed mental health issues in the year 1992. This numbers increased to more than 19% of males and even 26% of females in 2014. Interestingly, females are much more likely to report mental health issues than males, who, unfortunately, are the ones doing most harm to themselves.

In her opinion, the HE institutions have a great responsibility to act when it comes to tackling mental health problems. However, not all activities actually support students. She argues, that too many university policies put the onus to act on the student. But the ones that would need help the most, often do not report their problems. Therefore, the universities should take a much more active role and some rethinking needs to take place.

Her main argument is, that although learning analytics is still in its beginnings and it might sound like a scary and complicated topic, it is worth doing research in this field, as it has the capabilities to really improve student wellbeing when it is done correctly.

It was very interesting to read and listen to her arguments, although it was meant to be as an introduction to learning analytics and did not provide any solutions to the issues.

Roger read “AI in Education – Automatic Essay Scoring”, referenced on page 27 of the JISC Horizons report. Is AI ready to give “professors a break” as suggested in a 2013 article from the New York Times referring to work by EdX on development of software which will automatically assign a grade (not feedback) to essays. If so then surely this would improve staff wellbeing?

Fortunately for the Mail Online, who responded to the same edX news in outraged fashion (“College students pulling all-nighters to carefully craft their essays may soon be denied the dignity of having a human being actually grade their work”) it doesn’t seem that this is likely any time soon.

Recent work from 2 Stanford researchers built on previous results from a competition to develop an automatic essay scoring tool, increasing the alignment of the software with human scorers from 81% in the previous competition to 94.5%.  This to me immediately begged the question – but how consistent are human scorers? The article did at least acknowledge this saying “assessment variation between human graders is not something that has been deeply scientifically explored and is more than likely to differ greatly between individuals.”

Apparently the edX system is improving as more schools and Universities get involved so they have more data to work with, but on their website they state it is not currently available as a service.  The article acknowledges the scepticism in some quarters, in particular the work of Les Perelman, and concludes that there is still “a long way to go”.

Chrysanthi read Learning analytics: help or hindrance in the quest for better student mental wellbeing?, which discusses the data learners may want to see about themselves and what should happen if the data suggests they are falling behind.

Learning analytics can detect signs that may indicate that a student is facing mental health issues and/ or may drop out. When using learning analytics to detect these signs, the following issues should be considered:

  • Gather student’s data ethically and focus on the appropriate metrics to see if a student is falling behind and what factors may be contributing to this.
  • Give students a choice about the data they want to see about themselves and their format, especially when there are comparisons with their cohort involved.
  • Support students at risk, bearing in mind they may prefer to be supported by other students or at least members of staff they know.
  • Talk to students about how to better use their data and how to best support them.

Chrysanthi also read the “What does the future hold” section in JISC Horizon Report Mental Health and Wellbeing, which attempts to predict how wellbeing may be handled in the next few years:

  • Within 2 years, students will have a better understanding of their mental health, more agency, increased expectations for university support and will be more likely to disclose their mental health conditions, as they become destigmatised. Institutions will support them by easing transitions to university and providing flexible, bite-sized courses that students can take breaks from. The importance of staff mental health will also be recognised. New apps will attempt to offer mental wellbeing support.
  • In 3-5 years, institutions will manage and facilitate students supporting each other. Students’ and staff wellbeing will be considered in policy and system design, while analytics will be used to warn about circumstances changing. We may see companion robots supporting students’ needs.
  • In 5 years, analytics may include data from the beginning of students’ learning journey all the way to university to better predict risks.

The Horizon group then gives suggestions to help with the wellbeing challenge, including providing guidance, offer education on learning, personal and life skills to students, and regularly consulting the student voice. Next steps will include exploring the possibility of a wellbeing data trust to enable organisations to share sensitive student data with the aim of helping students, of a wellbeing bundle of resources, apps, etc and more work on analytics, their use to help students and staff and the ethical issues involved.

Naomi read ‘Do Online Mental Health Services Improve Help-Seeking for Young People? A Systematic Review’.

This article from 2014 talks about young people using online services to look for help and information surrounding mental health. The review investigates the effectiveness of online services but does state that a lot more research needs to be done within this area. The article flits between the idea of seeking help and self-help and talks about the benefits of both. It mentions how young people now feel they should problem solve for themselves, so providing an online space for them to access useful information is a great way for them to seek help.

The review mentions how ‘only 35% of young people experiencing mental health problems seek professional face to face help’.  This statistic adds to the fact that online services are needed to provide help and assistance to those in need. It does add that young people do have improved mental health literacy and are better at recognising that they or someone they know may need help. With face to face professional help becoming increasingly harder to access more are turning to online information. It has to be said however that online help has no follow up, and young people can often be given information online, with no way to continue gaining assistance.

One interesting part of the article talked about structured and unstructured online treatment programmes. Although effective at reducing depression and anxiety, structured programmes had poor uptakes and high drop outs with no way for help to be maintained. Unstructured programmes are more useful in the sense that the user could select links that appear useful and disregard to information that seems irrelevant.

This article wasn’t student focused and only covered data collected from younger people, but the ideas behind the review are poignant in a higher education background.

Suggested reading

Jisc Horizon Report mental health and wellbeing section

Or investigate / try out one or more of the online services listed here (or any other – these just seem like helpful lists):

Or related articles

Wellbeing – notes from the reading group

Roger read: Curriculum design for wellbeing.

This is part of an online professional development course for academics, produced by a project run by a number of Australian Universities co-ordinated by the University of Melbourne. It aims  to build the capacity of University educators to design curriculum and create teaching and learning environments that enhance student mental wellbeing. There are 5 modules: on student wellbeing, curriculum design, teaching strategies, difficult conversations and your wellbeing.

I focussed on module 2 which is on curriculum design. It starts by stressing the importance of students, through the curriculum, experiencing autonomous motivation, a sense of belonging, positive relationships,  feelings of autonomy and competence (M-BRAC). All of these are aspects of good practice in curriculum design.

It goes on to consider how elements of curriculum design support student mental wellbeing, covering alignment, organisation and sequencing of content, engaging learning activities and a focus on assessment for learning.

For example, aligning ILOS with assessment and learning activities helps student autonomy as they understand how what they are doing contributes to their goals and they develop their knowledge and skills, including self-regulation, to achieve the ILOS. Assessment for learning plays a key role here. Clear organisation and sequencing of content contribute to effective learning. Both alignment and structure help to build students’ sense of competence.  Engaging and meaningful learning activities can increase student motivation and encourage peer interaction, which can contribute to building relationships and a sense of belonging.

It suggests that when reviewing the curriculum one should ask:

  • How will the curriculum be experienced by my (diverse) students eg international students, mature students, “first in family” students?
  • Will the curriculum foster or thwart experiences of M-BRAC

The module then has a number of FAQs you are asked to consider, with suggested answers. These were really useful as they tease out some of the complexities, for example “Is setting group assignments in the first year a good way of helping students develop positive peer relationships, and feel a sense of connectedness or belonging?”  Here they recognise that if not well-designed or if students are not supported to develop group work skills it can have a negative impact.

The module ends with a set of case studies illustrating how curricula have been re-designed to better support M-BRAC.

Amy read: Approach your laptop mindfully to avoid digital overload.

This was a short article that recognised the ever-increasing belief that we are being constantly bombarded with masses of new information which, in turn, means that many are suffering with stress-related diseases, anxiety and depression. The reliance on digital devices to provide constant streams of information in the form of news articles, social media feeds and messages mean that without these devices we feel lost without them. A full digital detox is suggested at the beginning of this article, though this may be a short-term solution and often an impractical one.

The authors of this article suggest introducing the practice of mindfulness into our lives to combat this. They describe mindfulness as ‘a moment-to-moment attention to present experience with a stance of open curiosity’. Mindfulness has been studied extensively by the medical community and has shown to help with stress, anxiety and depression in individuals. One can ‘reprogramme’ their mind to deal with stresses more easily by training it to be more present. The authors suggest two key ways they suggest to introduce mindfulness into our use of digital devices to reduce the pressures they can put on us.

One of the methods they suggest is ‘mindful emailing’, which includes practices such as taking three breaths before responding to a stressful email and also considering the psychological effect that the email will have to the recipients.

The second method they suggest is the mindful use of social media, citing ‘checking our intentions before uploading a feed (post?), being authentic in our communications and  choosing the time we spend on social media, rather than falling into it.’

If you haven’t tried mindfulness before take a look at these tips and short audio meditations.

Chrysanthi read: Designing a product with mental health issues in mind,

This article – true to its title – talks about including technological features that aim to help the vulnerable users. While the examples given are taken from a banking application context, the suggestions can be applied to other contexts. More specifically, the article mentions positive friction and pre-emptive action. Positive friction goes against developers’ usual desire to make everything easier and faster and aims to put some necessary obstacles in the way instead, for users that need it. The example used is allowing certain users with somewhat “impulsive” behaviour to check their recent purchases and confirm that they indeed want them. This would help eg bipolar disorder sufferers, who overspend in their manic phase, often at night, and slip into depression in the morning because of their irreversible mistake. In the specific app, this is still a speculative feature.  Pre-emptive action aims to prevent trouble by anticipating certain events and acting on them, eg perceiving a halt in income and sending a well timed notification to start a conversation so the person doesn’t end in debt (and therefore create more stress for themselves). Also, allowing vulnerable customers to choose their preferred time and form of communication (eg phone might be anxiety inducing or email might seem complex).

In an education context, positive friction could be relevant in cases where students are repeatedly doing things they no longer need to do. This would help when – under the illusion they are still learning – students are focusing on redoing exercises they already know how to do – which might help them feel accomplished but doesn’t add value from some point on – or on consuming more and more content, even when they haven’t actually digested what they have learned so far. It isn’t very clear how this could be applied during exam period, though. Pre-emptive action is perhaps easier to translate in an educational context. Any action (or inaction) that is either outside the student’s usual pattern or outside a successful pattern, might be a conversation starting point, or a trigger for suggestions for alternative ways to handle their studies. Also, allowing them different options to learn and communicate with their professors and peers.

Chrysanthi also read: E-mail at work: A cause for concern? The implications of the new communication technologies for health, wellbeing and productivity at work.

This paper explores the potential negative implications of using email at work. The email features they consider as potentially problematic are: speed, multiple addressability, recordability, processing & routing. Essentially, email as a message that can be instantly transmitted to several people at once, automatically stored, easily altered and different versions of it sent to various people, not all of which necessarily visible on the recipient list. According to the authors, emails may increase stress by increasing workload and interruptions, adding difficulty to interpretation of the message and tone, increasing misunderstandings and groupthink, reducing helpful argumentation and social support, increasing isolation and surveillance – which increases discontent, offering a new ground for bullying and harassment, or hindering the processing of negative feelings. Having established these potential negative implications, the authors point out that more research is needed to understand the optimal ways to use email at work, for effective communication and humane workplaces.

Naomi read: Did a five-day camp without digital devices really boost children’s interpersonal skills?

This article was about a brief study led by Yalda Uhls in Southern California. It studied two groups of pupils ‘who on average spent 4.5 hours a day ‘texting watching TV, and video gaming’. Half of the children were sent on a five-day educational camp in the country side where all technical devices were banned. The other half stayed at school as usual. Emotional and psychological tests were carried out on the students before and after the 5 days were completed.

There was a small amount of evidence to suggest the children who had spent time away from devices improved psychologically over the five days. However, because there were several small problems with the study no firm answers can be taken from it. Its suggested the children who went away for the five days only looked like they improved on the tests because they started at a lower level then the children who stayed at school. It was also suggested that the children who stayed at school tests deteriorated because they were tired from doing a week’s work.

As it suggests in the article, the results of this study weren’t particularly hard hitting but it does raise the question of how much the younger generations are using their devices throughout the day. Uhls does admit in the article that there were shortcomings to the study, but they suggest that these findings relate to the ‘wider context of technology fears’ and hope their paper will be ‘a call to action for research that thoroughly and systematically examines the effects of digital media on children’s social development.’ Although the study needed a more comprehensive approach the ideas behind it are interesting and relate to several issues that we see in everyday life – is it good for us to spend so much time on our devices, or is it integral to how we live now?

Suzi read: Learning in the age of digital distraction

This interview with Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist, is a plug for a book called The Distracted Mind in which he and and research psychologist Larry D Rosen talk about the way our brains are wired influences how we use technology.

They suggest that information-foraging is a development of our evolved food-foraging mechanisms, and so is to some extent driven by our very basic drive to survive. Because of this it is hard to prevent it from distracting us from our ability to set and pursue higher-level goals.

Information-foraging doesn’t just impact on people’s ability to focus, it can cause anxiety and stress, and affect mood.

Suggestions for possible ways to combat this include:

  • accepting that we need to (re-)learn to focus (they are also developing brain-training video games)
  • using play in education (but this was only very briefly mentioned I wasn’t clear if this was playfulness or gamification)
  • physical exercise
  • mindfulness
  • sitting down to dinner as a family, or otherwise building in device-free interaction time

Suggested reading