Biosciences e-learning workshop: follow-up article

On Monday 20th March 2017, the Biochemical Society hosted an e-learning training event at Charles Darwin House in London.

During the morning talks, afternoon workshops and our discussions with delegates at our stand, it was great to see so much interest and passion for innovative teaching with technology. We were proud to sponsor and attend the event.

We all really enjoyed the morning talks, each of which offered thought-provoking ideas to take away. Here’s a summary, followed by our thoughts and reflections:

---

Peter Alston kicked off the morning with an overview of e-learning - including past, present and future trends.

He first surveyed the room about use of education technology using plickers, a QR-like quizzing system.

The findings revealed (perhaps unsurprising, given the context!) that the majority of attendees consider themselves “avid” tech users. However when considering overall departments, technology tends to be used at an individual activity level rather than embedded into module design (if it’s used at all).

Referring to the recent NMC Horizon Report (also covered in our News Digest), Peter then highlighted upcoming trends and challenges in Policy, Leadership and Practice of education technologies. These included redesigning learning spaces and enhancing personalised learning.

He described some of the changes made at his own institution, the University of Liverpool. From 2013 onwards, they have moved away from paper-based systems and embraced blended and flipped teaching methods and online assessments.

Peter advocated for utilising technology right from the start of teaching. If it’s embedded into the module design - when considering Aims and Learning Outcomes - then the methods of delivery are more likely to be active considerations, rather than an afterthought.

With planning, training and preparation ahead of time, e-learning can be incorporated successfully and seamlessly into modern students’ learning environment.

---

Dr Gus Cameron introduced virtual labs - their variety, uses and future potential.

The idea of "learning by doing" in a safe, scaffolded environment has been around for many decades. In some ways, flight simulators from the early 20th Century were one of the first forms of virtual lab!

With increasing computer power, interest and expertise in the area, virtual lab solutions are becoming more widespread in education and training.

These include the exploratory journeys of Google Cardboard, the molecular handling of Nano SimBox, and our interactive prelab and postlab resources here at Learning Science.

The benefits of virtual labs in education are manifold. As Gus described, they include:

  • Attainment - better preparation enhances understanding and attainment of a wet lab practical.
  • Efficiency in Assessment and Feedback - used well, they could save staff time by reducing marking burden
  • Remediation and Review - they may be used as supplementary material as revision or for those who missed a lab session.
  • Motivation - the extra attention a virtual lab demonstrates can inspire, enthuse and show students an extra level of professionalism and care.

How to decide what solution works best for you? Part of the decision will be based on whether the activity was optional or mandatory for students, whether it was a standalone resource unconnected to labs or designed to directly support or replace specific wet labs.

In all cases, a focus on quality assurance is more likely to win out in terms of engagement and learning gain.

---

Dr Pamela Scott’s talk focused on apps. We learned that by 2020, an estimated 20 billion apps will have been downloaded in the UK alone! They are simply part of our lives now, and students know it.

So why not use them as e-learning tools? Pamela described impressive grade increases from two-stage modifications to a practical and computer-heavy module she co-ordinated. Stage 1 was to make lectures more interactive, with more group activities like think-pair-share. Stage 2 built upon this by providing more e-learning resources via a web app (and later, a downloadable mobile version) which included quizzes, a glossary and links to their YouTube channel.

The quantitative results showed a significant increase in the proportion of students achieving As and Bs rather than Cs. It was great to see this example of how thoughtful e-learning interventions can make a real difference in student attainment.

---

Discussion about e-learning is (rightly) normally centred on the student experience, but Dr Peter Klappa also considered the flipside, also known as WIFM: “What’s In (it) For Me?” Staff only have so many hours in a day, so it makes sense to find tools which make their lives easier without sacrificing student learning.

Peter’s humorous talk offered a range of impressive tips and tricks, using familiar software in innovative ways.

He showed us how rapid, personalised feedback can be generated with a combination of Excel, data validation and mail merge. Also Google Forms can be converted into gradable quizzes using add-ons like Flubaroo. It’s great to see how a little innovation can go a long way!

---

Dr David Smith wrapped up the morning talks with a report of his and Dr Catherine Duckett’s undertaking of converting physical reflective portfolio assignments into an e-portfolio system.

Reflective portfolios offer an evidence trail of growth and accomplishment, and were a valued means of assessment. However, they were bulky. The switch to a digital format saved 900 ringbinders-worth of paper, office-space and manual labour per year! They can be used at all levels, indeed Catherine’s portfolio was used for her RSC accreditation.

They chose PebblePad as the system of choice - a text-editor and website maker combined. But WordPress, Google Sites and Word are alternative options available.

As with any transition, there are always lessons to be learned. Staff and student buy-in were major focuses. To this end, David emphasised the importance of tech support and training. He made screen-casts and offered both drop-in and top-up sessions to increase familiarity with the new software.

---

After lunch, there were demo sessions where delegates got to experience some of these approaches first-hand, and think about the myriad ways they could be applied.

---

A lot of what was said in the talks and surrounding discussion resonated with our motivations here at Learning Science.

For 10 years now we have been championing digital learning methods including flipped teaching and blended learning.  

Our interactive prelab resources are designed to focus student effort before the lab, not just during and after it - a form of flipped lab teaching. The resources are designed to enhance and support rather than replace wet labs, fitting in with a blended teaching model.

With virtual lab elements, these interactives allow students to practice key skills before a practical.

We are also developing new Smart Worksheets which have the option to include embedded virtual lab components. Data generated by the virtual lab is used as the basis of calculation questions. This way they can be flexibly integrated into teaching to suit requirements - for postlabs or supplementary lab practice.

With staff time at an ever-increasing premium, our products are designed to sustainably support learning, assessment and feedback to reduce burden on staff, especially the marking load.

We also understand the importance of tech support. Our resources are designed to be intuitive to use, however we offer support throughout design, development and implementation.

---

Many thanks to the organisers for putting this event together, the staff at Charles Darwin House and everyone who came and talked to us. It was great to meet you and we look forward to continuing our conversations.

If you didn’t have a chance to speak to us, or could not make it to the event on the day, do get in touch if you would like to see a demo or be added to our mailing list. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback.