Learning Spaces Inspiration

Last week I attended a Heads of eLearning Forum (HeLF) event on Learning Spaces at Birmingham University.  It was good timing, as GCU is planning to transform a floor in the Hamish Wood Building with state of the art teaching spaces, as well as refurbishing a number of lecture theatres.  Learning from the experiences of others who are further down the road with these changes is really inspiring.

We heard first of all about past and future developments in teaching rooms and study spaces at the University of Birmingham, guided by their Learning Spaces Strategy. It’s interesting to note that Learning Spaces projects come under the wing of the Centre for Learning and Academic Development and Learning Spaces, where they have a Learning Spaces Development Officer.

Caroline Pepper from Loughborough reminded us of the UK Higher Education Learning Space Toolkit produced jointly by UCISA, SCHOMS and AUDE, which is a practical guide and another source of inspiration. I like the fact that the toolkit focuses very much on facilitating learning. It emphasises the diverse range of stakeholders who should be involved from the outset, including students and teaching staff.  The fdevelopments at Loughborough are based around a set of key principles.  Useful practical advice included the importance of flexibility to allow spaces, technology and learning to evolve over time, and the importance of natural light, especially in IT labs where it is often forgotten. Establishing an evaluation baseline early on against which success can be measured is vital.

We were also reminded that when new active learning classrooms are established, academic development is key to ensuring lecturers are prepared for making best use of the spaces with their students.

Peter Ryan of Canterbury Christchurch University shared experiences of the development of a new state of the art library building in its Canterbury campus as a learning space, including ‘maker spaces’ to encourage collaboration and co-creation among students.

We also heard from Paul Burt of UCL, who outlined the highly ambitious programme of teaching space upgrades that is taking place across UCL’s London campuses. It was interesting to hear that they have created new specialist AV/Learning Spaces posts (4 in all) rather than employing external consultants. This is allowing them to build up in-house expertise resulting in speedier start-ups and greater success for new projects.  UCL are sharing their experiences with the sector and have produced their own learning spaces and AV guide.

All in all, the day allowed a really useful exchange of experiences and ideas. There was also some future-gazing into a shift away from fixed lectern equipment and the standard ‘teaching wall’ at the front of a room.  Wifi capacity is key. As one participant put it, ‘If I can connect my iPad easily to my TV at home, why is it still so difficult to enable that for students and staff using their own devices in a teaching space?’ Why indeed.

UCISA Learning Spaces Toolkit


Blended and flipped at BETT2016

This has been the week of BETT 2016, the ‘world’s leading learning technology event’ according to the blurb, held at the gigantic Excel exhibition centre in London. I would say its main focus is really the schools sector, although there have been specific themed speakers and events for HE and FE too. The several thousand delegates came from all over the UK and Europe, and it was interesting to hear about learning technology developments in France and elsewhere.

I was there for one day only, having been invited to speak as part of a panel session on ‘Moving away from traditional lectures: Incorporating blended learning and flipped classroom models’. The session was well attended and there were lots of questions around embedding blended and flipped learning, measuring success, and the impact on students to highlight just a few. Strategy and policy were also mentioned. We don’t have a separate strategy for blended learning at GCU as we see it as a core aspect of all learning and teaching. It is however a key priority in our Strategy for Learning, and an annual operational plan sets targets for digital learning (now including online developments), allowing progress to be monitored. We also gather examples of innovative practice to showcase here in this blog, on our WillItBlend site in Coursesites (open to all but initial sign up required), and through our regular face to face Blended Learning Coffee Club sessions. There are also support resources for staff, including for online developments, under the Staff Help tab in GCULearn.

BETT 2016 was exhilarating, exhausting and inspiring, with lots of suppliers touting gadgets, ideas and new, swishy applications. It highlighted for me the ‘big business’ that learning technology has become, but at the same time reminded me that creative  and evidence-based approaches to embedding technology in learning and teaching are more important than ever.


Open Education in Europe

I was lucky enough to be invited to attend an OpenEdu workshop at the end of November, hosted by the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS), part of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, in Seville. There were 25 participants from 17 member states, and I think it’s fair to say that a wide range of views on open education in higher education was represented. The working definition for IPTS is –


The main focus was the OpenEdu project which aims to ‘propose a framework for opening up practices in higher education institutions’. The purpose of the workshop was to ‘sense check’ the draft strategic framework, and to get feedback on the extent to which it could be useful for European universities. More details on the draft framework and its dimensions are in the workshop slides.

The framework was welcomed although we felt that it was probably a bit too complicated in its current form. I could see how useful it could be though in clarifying what is meant by open education and in challenging some current assumptions, e.g that open is just about OERs or Moocs.

Participants also gave short updates on developments in their own institutions and countries. It was interesting to hear that universities in Greece are looking into the possibility of a shared open platform, while in Slovenia the priority is increasing the numbers of fee-paying students in universities rather than opening up education. I was able to feed in some information about the open education developments in Scotland, including the Scottish Open Education Declaration and the SFC funded OEPS project led by the OU in Scotland.

For those who like facts and figures, the IPTS also presented the findings of an interesting survey on open education practices in HE across France, Spain, Germany, the UK and Poland. They show that overall, 39% of respondents currently provide open education, with the UK well ahead at 63%. Around 22% of respondents currently offer Moocs and another 19% are considering them.

Use of OERs was more widespread with 51% of institutions already promoting them. Only 32% had a policy on open education though, so GCU’s OER policy is still keeping us ahead of the game. It wasn’t surprising to find that the need for staff CPD and a lack of formal academic recognition were cited as the major barriers to engagement with open education. It’s certainly something we need to keep moving on in GCU.

All in all it was a really useful couple of days, helped of course by blue skies, sunshine and some very tasty tapas!

Online and Open at GCU

Last week Sheila MacNeill and I attended the Association for Learning Technology conference (ALTC) in Manchester.  The theme of the conference was ‘Shaping the Future of Learning Together’.  The keynote speakers were excellent, and you can get a flavour of them in Sheila’s recent blog post.

Given the current interest in online learning and especially moocs, it shouldn’t be surprising that online and open education featured strongly throughout the conference programme.  Although GCU is not going down the route of large scale Mooc development, we are making progress in our approach to openness as an integral part of the curriculum design process for new online programmes.  The recent approval of an interim Open Education Resources (OER) policy, led by Marion Kelt in the Library, is also a major step towards moving this forward.

My presentation outlined the strategic approach we’re taking to developing online programmes and open learning at GCU, viewing them as complementary to each other and integral to the development of learning and teaching across the campus.  They also chime well with GCU’s Common Good mission and our commitment to social innovation.

There was quite a lot of interest in our approach from colleagues in other universities, so it looks as if we’re moving in the right direction.  Often it’s only when you go to a conference and find out what’s happening elsewhere that you get a sense of where your own university sits in relation to sector wide developments.

I concluded that we are indeed making progress, but that we still have some way to go to transform thinking and fully embed both online and open across the curriculum. We know from colleagues that time and resource for staff to engage in these kinds of developments is still a key issue.  I summed this up with the ACE model (slide 18) – Awareness, CPD and Examples – which shows some of the steps we’re taking to move forward with online and open at GCU.

Exciting times and big plans

Well, it does feel as if a number of things are starting to move forward now across GCU. Last week there was a cross-university consultation event led by Bernadette Kelly, CIO, on the direction of travel for GCU’s new Digital Strategy. Lots of ideas came through about making the student/staff experience more effective and coherent, and ensuring our various business systems are fit for purpose and more ‘joined up’. The learning and teaching aspects still need fleshed out a bit, especially the alignment with the Strategy for Learning, but no doubt these will develop further as discussions continue. Learning and teaching is after all our core ‘business’.

The consultation builds on last year’s discussions around what it might mean for GCU to become a Digital University, based on the work done by Sheila MacNeill and colleagues Prof Keith Smyth (UHI) and Dr Bill Johnson (formerly Strathclyde). The key themes that emerged then are still relevant –

• Digital Infrastructure
• Digital literacy (for students and staff)
• Policy and guidelines
• Learning Analytics
• Open Education & Digital participation
• Need for a GCU definition of ‘Digital University’

These are all big issues which need to be taken forward, but it does feel now as if there is some positive momentum building up and a sense of common purpose emerging.

The day after the consultation event we had a demonstration of some of the features of Lynda.com which provides extensive online resources for a wide range of software applications and approaches to blended learning. A number of us will be piloting and demonstrating these videos and courses to colleagues in June, with a view to deciding whether to go ahead and purchase a university wide licence for staff and students. Extending digital capability is key to moving GCU forward.

The development sessions for the new online postgraduate programmes are also continuing with the 5th in the series taking place next week on the 21st May. Local workshops on curriculum planning have also been held with programme teams in Schools. Marketing, and Governance and Quality have also been involved in looking at some of the broader issues such as marketing and branding, and quality processes for online programmes.

Exciting times indeed. Work on all of these areas will continue over the summer. Summer break? What summer break?!

Open Educational Practices Advisory Forum

Last Thursday I boarded the train from Glasgow to Stirling to attend an Advisory Forum event for the Open Education Practices in Scotland (OEPS) project.  OEPS is led by the Open University in Scotland and has been granted £1.25m by the Scottish Funding Council to ‘enhance Scotland’s reputation and capacity for developing publicly available and licenced online materials, supported by high quality pedagogy and learning technology.’ http://oepscotland.org/

On the train I met four tourists from Arizona in the US, all of whom worked in tertiary education. They were complimentary about the lovely countryside we were travelling through and remarked on its greenness. They were also keen to find out more about further and higher education in Scotland. It occurred to me then too that we really need better ways to showcase and share the best of Scottish educational practices on a global scale to build on this kind of interest.

The international theme continued at the event with a stimulating keynote (via Skype) on ‘An international perspective on opening educational practices’ from Professor Laura Czerniewicz, Director of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) at the University of Cape Town. For me, this was the highlight of the day. Laura’s presentation is available at www.slideshare.net/laura_Cz/oep-scotland-19-march and is definitely worth a look.

Laura was honest about the barriers Africa still faces in attracting and retaining students and the shocking inequalities that still exist in their societies.  Even access to reliable electricity is limited, although fortunately there were no unexpected disruptions to Laura’s presentation.  She sees open education and open resources as having a key role to play in helping to address inequalities in access. She highlighted the growing trend towards global ‘piracy’ of digital resources by young people who are deliberately flouting copyright laws to share e-text books and other online resources to further their education. One student asked “Is it unethical to want to be educated or is it unethical to charge so much [for books]?”

It’s a slow process though, and I enjoyed hearing about the new theory adopted by Laura and her team to advance open practices in their own institution, called the ‘drip, drip, drip’ approach. I think we can all recognise that one.

Other presenters showcased developments across education in Scotland, including the trade union sector where there is a lot of activity to engage potential learners in open online learning in workplaces. It was also interesting to hear that Edinburgh University are developing an OER policy (just as we are) and adopting an ‘open as default’ approach to content developed for their large scale Moocs. Lorna Campbell of Cetis presented the draft Scottish Open Education Declaration, developed by the Open Scotland group and supported by the OEPS project, the interest in which continues to gather pace declaration.openscot.net/.

All in all it was an interesting day, and it does feel as if there is a positive momentum building up behind the open education agenda in Scotland, both at policy level and in practice. We just need to make sure we’re part of it!