Research in Distance Education (RIDE) conference 2023

As part of a continuing journey to improve my hybrid teaching, I paid a visit to London to attend (and present at) the Research in Distance Education (RIDE) conference. I was particularly interested in team working, peer learning and community, so my notes reflect that.

The event started with a keynote from Mike Sharples talking about (yes, inevitably) ChatGPT. Mike is quite authoritative on the subject having spent his entire career in this area. He has also published some freely shareable slides (with acknowledgement). We talked about the ways a student could work with AI, for example, using AI as a tool for initial research, maybe checking or suggesting phrasing in a non native language. Students would need to validate the accuracy (eg hallucinated references). Critique the output. They could even use AI as a respondent in a socratic dialog (so the skill is setting the right questions). I still have to consider how to use it my assessments.

Mike made the provocative assertion that within 6 months we won’t even ask if a student has used AI, we will just assume it, much as we today assume that a student has used a spellchecker, grammar checker or a calculator. Assuming Microsoft (Bing) and Google (Bard) build AI into their products, this is probably true. In any case, we certainly need to develop AI literacy in our students (and in ourselves!), knowing its strengths and limitations, and consider which skills are augmented by AI. In the discussion, my colleagues shared that their students were looking for guidance on how to use AI responsibly and effectively. For me, the realisation of how much this is embedded in professional practice was a conversation with an experienced accountant who had used ChatGPT to generate a template contract for a client.

At the moment of course ChatGPT isn’t so good at creativity and keeping on top of current events, but with various plugins available (stockmarket reports, expedia etc) it is only a matter of time before ‘topical generative AI’ becomes mainstream. Could AI be used for creativity in the same way the a calculator is used for accuracy? Whether it will perpetuate biases and inaccuracies is of course a concern, which is why the work of research centres like ART-AI is so important. Ethical training is key. There was a comment about moving from ‘fast food’ to ‘slow thinking’. As an aside, I noted that in the plenary discussion all the people jumping up to comment were white males.

The conference then split into various workstreams. I chose one on ‘Futures’ where I was delighted to learn about efforts to engage sustainability into courses, including sustainability competencies and systems thinking.

Another session, on supportive design, covered the sense of belonging for remote students particularly those in digital poverty. The Pedagogy of Care was discussed and used as a framing for engaging with online students. Use of collaborative documents and other asynchronous modes can help. Icebreakers are helpful, but these need to be meaningful. Polls, quizzes can help. Breakout rooms need to be structured and directed. One nice idea is to get students to change their profile to a relevant image for the class. Another is using methods for synchronous interaction that don’t rely on the camera – eg pointing, clicking, posting, moving objects on a shared canvas. Role plays (eg mock cop) and movie nights were mentioned. I was reminded of a course a colleague of mine ran, using the Netflix movie Print the Legend to prime a discussion about technology management.

I was delighted to see a suggestion of a change of sequence, from the traditional lecture-Q&A-exercise-assignment to the flipped pre learn-discussion-share. I was particularly interested in the idea of sharing being personal and contextual – eg sharing a (relevant) problem that the student cannot (yet) solve, a contextual perspective drawn from their own experience, or making an informed prediction that can be compared with others.

All of this takes time of course, which certainly gives the lie to the oft-repeated claim of lazy teaching (I can’t resist posting a link to this blog, written pre pandemic).

I was super delighted to see that the winners of the Roger Mills Prize for Innovation in Learning and Teaching went to James Findon and Francesca Cotier from Kings College London for their work on – you guessed it – Team Based Learning (TBL). They gave a really nice presentation on online TBL and hopefully gained a few more converts. Most of their tips aligned with my experience, it was particularly interesting to note the emphasis on the importance of team allocation.

We finished the first day with a panel on open educational practices, with a nod to the excellent portal on Edniburgh’s website. There was also a reception for the launch of the book Online and Distance Education for a Connected World (available online for free).

Day 2 started with a keynote on research in hybrid education by Melissa Highton with some provocations that I at least found quite – well, provocative. For example, “innovation undermines sustainability” – a ‘strawman’ argument against change which created some good discussion. I also detected (perhaps erroneously) a general bias against hybrid synchronous learning, which I think reflects the perceived position of the OfS (although a look at the summary suggests a number of good practices with which I am entirely comfortable). Nevertheless, depending on the cohort, it may be important to design learning to meet the needs of asynchronous learners who cannot attend synchronous sessions (this is the mantra of the Hyflex approach). Or as Melissa pithily put it: “Any time, any space, any place”.

Speaking of OfS, it was noted that one potential drawback of a review looking back over the covid years risks giving a rather negative view of blended learning. To take just one example – recorded lectures can be deeply uninspiring, yet online video learning resources, properly structured, can be highly engaging.

One side note – the diversity of contributions to this session was much better including insights from the Nigerian education system.

The workshops today covered more topics on community for distance learners, with use of assessment quizzes (on Vevox), polls, whiteboards (for threshold concepts) – note to self, both Teams and Zoom have both been working on their whiteboards, it’s probably worth checking out what more they can do now. Again, including something personal – eg students providing their own observations and results for discussion – really helps with engagement. Getting feedback on ‘the most challenging topic’ also helps. One learning (and I know this from experience) is that real time problem solving (eg going through a worked example on the board) can take too long (and if speeded up will leave a lot of students behind) – best to leave this for asynchronous work so students can work at their own pace.

Students also led the creation of a resource (a wiki) which again builds asynchronous community. Other presenters used tools like flip (aka flipgrid), pecha kucha presentations, photo essays and creating funding proposals. Another idea was to have student profiles on padlet (or similar).

We discussed cultural differences – UK students (in general) are less “into” gamification than their US counterparts, and need a while to warm up to it. My feeling is that as long as the game is meaningful – linked to learning outcomes – ie a serious game, then the students will engage.  

Another theme was accessibility – there are some simple but rarely followed ideas ; for example, having a consistent image for each course, and varying the colour/shade subtly for each week in the course. The palette of colours can be designed to be ‘colourblind safe’ and be consistent between courses. This really helps students finding their way around.

My own presentation – on Hyflex Team Based Learning – was pretty well received with some interesting comments. Participants were intrigued by the potential to lower the carbon impact of teaching (reduce unnecessary commuting) and suggested other questions I could ask to evaluate this.

The conference concluded with a discussion session about leading change which I largely missed due to having some useful discussion with some of the conference attendees. Which made me glad I had made the effort to travel in. That said, I was grateful the conference was hybrid (and free!) as it was able to bring in a wide variety of attendees, speakers and objectives.

Overall, lots of thoughts, but also some great contacts and connections to share ideas with as I build the detailed hybrid delivery plans for our upcoming Zero Carbon Futures MSc.

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