1c: Supporting the deployment of learning technologies
CMALT portfolio – was given a Strong.
Support has always been a part of my role, including both undergraduate/postgraduate students and colleagues (teaching and professional support). However, during the pandemic this minor element of my job became the major element of my role, with other elements being pushed out to after the end of the working day. Given the level and scale of support during this period I am confining my discussion to my pandemic response, working within the Office for Digital Learning (ODL) at the time.
1. Pandemic support
Not only did I support a significantly higher number of teaching staff but I also supported other professional support departments such as Marketing, Recruitment, Student Wellbeing and the Student Union etc.
Ulster University has three regional campuses, 80 miles separating the farthest locations; Belfast, Coleraine and Derry/Londonderry (Magee). It is a civic university based in Northern Ireland. ODL supports 31,000 students and approximately 2,000 staff. ODL has nine permanent members of staff providing digital learning platform administration, helpdesk support, academic development and delivering innovation projects. ODL supports Blackboard Learn as UU’s virtual learning environment (VLE), Blackboard Collaborate, Panopto, Turnitin, Qwickly attendance and Office365 for teaching and learning.
Through online seminars, one-to-one drop-ins, group drop-ins, emails, calls, recordings, written materials and more, I interacted with an unprecedented number of colleagues within Ulster and beyond in my communities of practice.
I coached colleagues on the practical how-to for using Blackboard Collaborate for live sessions and for recording, Panopto video platform, Blackboard Learn Tests, Blackboard Assignments and Turnitin. In addition, I also led student engagement sessions as well as digital accessibility, and including ensuring staff were aware that they needed to add captions to their videos. I cover this in more detail within 3. Wider Context. In respect of Panopto, this was a relatively new institutional platform and I was therefore effectively deploying it institution wide in an accelerated time scale.
My individual contribution to the support for colleagues and students across Ulster during this time fed into the team’s contribution which in turn had transformative impact by contributing to UU’s shortlisting for ‘University of the Year’ in The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2021 (5 shortlisted among 135 institutions). High student ratings for our pandemic response underpinned this achievement. It is also echoed in Jisc DEI Survey data; in 2021/2022, 84% of students rated the quality of the online learning environment as good or above, up from 72% in 2020/2021.
Beyond internal institutional support I contributed as much knowledge and experience to the wider community as possible during such difficult circumstances. This included student engagement webinars, accessibility sessions and more for other institutions, sharing as much of my knowledge and experience as I could manage. One example of this was a session I did with a colleague for the Cara programme, with refugee academics on Teaching Technologies.
2. Using Teams for High Stakes Entrance Interviews
In addition to the broader pandemic support, I led several other strategic projects that had to take place regardless of workloads. The one I will discuss here is the new medical school entrance interviews.
The new Graduate Entry Medical School was a critical strategic objective at Ulster University. The approval timing meant the first entrance interviews would occur during the pandemic. Once it was clear that it would not be safe enough to facilitate these on campus, as the lead for the medical school within my department (the Office for Digital Learning), I was given the task of delivering a robust digital solution to ensure that the interviews could still take place. This meant designing, testing, training (school staff, external assessors and candidates) and implementing the solution during a pandemic in less than three months.
These interviews would take the format of Multiple Mini Interviews, which meant that a group of 8 candidates would undertake eight different stations, each with a dedicated assessor. In a physical setting, this is a very complex, resource-intensive activity. Therefore, there were going to be elements where I could help to streamline the process via a remote design. These include the need for a smaller physical space on campus, fewer support staff required, reduction of travel, reduction of printing needs, reduction of station set-up with curtains, equipment etc, and increased inclusivity.
Following consultations with the Assessment Lead, I carefully considered the complex requirements specified and devised the following plan:
- Deliver in Microsoft Teams
- One Teams meeting link for each round of 8 candidates (so four sessions / day)
- Create the 8 stations (breakout rooms) in advance of the meeting and allocate the appropriate assessor
- Add a lobby (this was the key deciding factor for not selecting Blackboard Collaborate Ultra) (neither the medical school nor ODL held Zoom licenses and institutionally we did not officially support the platform)
- Add the key staff to each meeting, such as project manager and Head of ODL
- Include a test Teams meeting each day 8am to 9am for all candidates sitting that day
- Delivered a single training session for candidates via Zoom
- Delivered multiple assessor training sessions in Zoom, and additionally how to use Teams
- Facilitated the actual sessions and moved the candidates around each station according to the schedule, leading the timing of the open and closing of the breakout rooms
- Troubleshot all technical issues for both candidates and assessors
The first run of these high stakes interviews took place during the months when globally schooling and work was continuing online and the load on the internet was at a peak. My priority throughout the week was to ensure that both assessors and candidates were reassured that I would be dealing with all the technical stress so that they could concentrate fully on the interviews themselves. Each day consisted of:
- 1 test meeting from 8.00-9.00am for all the day’s candidates with myself and Head of ODL
- 4 sessions, all with the same assessors (each day had a different set of assessors)
- Each session with 8 assessors, on campus appropriately distanced from one another
- 8 candidates to do 8 stations remotely
- Each station running for 6 minutes
- In room support from an ODL colleague, IS support when needed, admissions colleagues and School of Medicine staff
For equity, the interview question was only revealed once all candidates were safely in the breakout rooms. I controlled the lobby, the movement between the main room and breakouts, the timings and communications to the breakouts. Given the high internet load each movement in and out proved time consuming and glitchy, therefore each session overran however, this was a strategic decision taken as a collective to ensure each candidate successfully completed all 8 stations. I had designed in buffer time which helped ease this overrun and also meant that assessors were still able to get appropriate breaks, as I was the only one affected.
During the first year this was delivered over multiple days in January and June and then for the following years only in January as the medical school liked the inclusive design despite teaching returning to on campus. To date the interviews have continued to be delivered remotely implementing my design. As far as I am aware we were the first medical school to take a live and remote approach to the MMIs.
As with many other learning technologists I had areas were I felt very comfortable and knowledgeable and therefore comfortable in support situations, planning these in advance also ensured a level of control on my part. The pandemic support response, however, meant that I had to dismiss this need for comfort as every 30-60 minutes a colleague (often a total stranger to me) would arrive in my Collaborate Ultra room and I would have no idea what they needed from me. I had to simply be honest and help immediately when possible and if not say that would speak to x, the expert in that area and then forward the answer as soon as possible. This approach meant that I learned more over a twelve month period that I had probably had learned over my whole career (CV2).
Despite the stress of possibly not knowing the answer to questions on my part, was nothing like the stress levels of my colleagues. It turned out that my ability to remain calm under pressure and exude calmness had more impact than giving the technical support. So much of my feedback from staff reflected this. This was ever more important during the medical school project as everyone was incredibly stressed and the remote delivery escalated this further. As I facilitated the actual remote interviews. The key element of my design was that I shouldered the majority of the technical stress to allow the assessors and candidates to focus 100% on the interview itself. During the first run when everyone across the globe was learning and working online and the breakout function was brand new the technical hurdles were immense. Every single session had multiple issues and I had to resolve each one calmly and considerately. I entered a Teams meeting before 8am and then finished at approximately 7pm. Due to limited capacity of our department at the time I only had one other colleague for support. Overall, it was several days of extreme stress and exhaustion but I managed to get every single candidate successfully through all stations one way or another. Problem solving again and again. The worst point was when MS Teams repeatedly crashed the breakout room functionality on my system and I ended up moving 8 candidates to their next room without knowing who they were as each name was displayed as ‘Guest’. Thankfully over the next two years Microsoft improved the reliability of the system in many ways, including the functionality to have shared management of breakout rooms which from an ODL perspective removed a significant single point of failure.
None of this would have been possible without the support, guidance and advice from colleagues, from my personal learning network and amazing communities such as AbilityNet, the many Jiscmail forums that I subscribe to, the Irish Blackboard Community, EDTL and countless others (CV3). This knowledge and experience gave me the confidence to plan the upcoming Escape Rooms in Education event within a Teams site for potentially hundreds of participants.
It is difficult to reflect back on this period but writing about the positive outcomes individually here and collectively in the award applications brought about unexpected closure for us all. We talked together about our approaches, what went well, what was challenging and used these to reshape our support provision once teaching returned to a on-campus first format. We retained the one-to-one drop-ins for example, as feedback was that this was the element that staff valued most. This was an interesting outcome as at the time when several of us proposed that approach we were met with resistance given that it was considered an ineffective use of our time. It may not have been an effective approach on paper but overall the amount of care and listening that was required by colleagues proved the approach more than effective. We were repeatedly told that people got a lot less from the large webinar sessions.
This human connection and care for each other is something that I will take forward in my career and I can see that there is the same need within the teaching sphere as was in the support sphere.
Now that I am in a position of academic developer, my technical support time has significantly decreased and the format has changed from a direct focus on how to use technology for teaching and learning to one that is more about influencing and demonstrating good practice within Heriot-Watt and across the sector. This includes leading the monthly Global Digital Pedagogies Reading Group and teaching on the PGCertTL. I am enjoying this transition but have been pleasantly surprised that the majority of the skills required are the same: good communication, strong project management, empathetic and constructive feedback, networking and strong knowledge of sector issues. For the future, I want to focus on how I can scale these across the institution, such as partnering with an expert in podcasting to create a Learning & Teaching podcast, which shares colleagues’ work openly (CV3, CV1).
“Hi Clare – thank you so so much for all your hard work and unfailing support. We could not have done this without you. As you know these students are our frontline workers who are, despite everything, trying to improve themselves and the lives of others. Please know your contribution to this has been huge and key. Thank you“, Social work lecturer
“Thank you for all your help and support, you literally saved me and I am not exaggerating. I know I wouldn’t have got through without you!“, Marketing lecturer
“I hope you have recovered from the mammoth task of coordinating the MMIs this week. I just wanted to express my sincere gratitude for all your dedication and hard work with this project. Overall, it worked extremely well, and we managed to interview xxx applicants. The assessors also enjoyed the experience and found the Teams’ system very user friendly. It was so impressive to see the system in action. This would not have been possible without your expertise – so thank you very much.“, Assessment Lead, School of Medicine.
“Good afternoon, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone involved in today’s MMI. Please extend my warmest thanks to Claire for her fantastic IT organisation and support and to all of the interviewers for their time. I’d also like to thank the admissions team for all their work organising and planning the MMIs. I enjoyed meeting everyone and got a fantastic sense of the Ulster University community. Best wishes and many thanks,“, Medical school candidate, via email
“I am back on track and just wanted to thank the two of you for your great soiree session and your support of our programme.” Programme Officer (Database and Online), Council for At Risk Academics (Cara)
Statistics: March 2020 to December 2021
The small ODL team led the pandemic challenge to maintain high-quality student experiences, delivering live webinars (2371 attendees), 3861 recording views of support videos and a staggering 2138 drop-in sessions.
Example support video: