Friday, 3 September 2021

The BLE is supporting prospective doctoral studies applicants

This academic year, the BLE will be developing a free, open course aimed at prospective doctoral students - especially those from underrepresented communities. The course will help participants decide if a PhD is right for them and if indeed they are right for a PhD. We are therefore collecting advice from current/recent doctoral students (e.g. studying for an MPhil/PhD, professional or practice-based doctorate) and supervisors to help us design the course.

The survey will only take 5-10 minutes to complete. Contributions will be treated completely anonymously, we just ask that respondents are really honest about their answers and draw on their personal experiences. The survey closes on 30th September 2021.

Complete the survey here or send this link to colleagues, friends, families, neighbours, etc:

For further information and to find out how to get involved, contact 

Friday, 13 August 2021

BLE welcomes a new associate partner for 2021-22

We are excited to announce that City, University of London has joined the Bloomsbury Learning Exchange (BLE) as an Associate Partner for 2021-22. We will work closely with colleagues in Learning Enhancement and Development (LEaD) and especially the Digital Education team, headed up by Dr Julie Voce – who will also be joining the BLE Steering Group.  
As an Associate Partner, staff at City will be invited to attend BLE events, participate in our activities, have access to our resources, and contribute to our special interest groups.
Since last year, Julie has supported the BLE’s CMALT cohort contributing to the monthly sessions and bringing along a number of City colleagues who participated in our scheme. As an active member of the University of London, City’s vision and ambition for d
igital education closely aligns with the current BLE partners and we're delighted to be welcoming them into our fold.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

The BLE wins the 2021 Roger Mills Prize for Innovation in Learning and Teaching

I am delighted to announce that the BLE has won this year's Roger Mills Prize for Innovation in Learning and Teaching for our approach in designing, developing and sharing our digital skills awareness courses for incoming students and teaching staff.

Ensuring students have appropriate digital skills upon entering the world of higher education is essential for their academic success, especially in these changing times of flexible, distance and blended delivery. Similarly, teaching staff have a responsibility to meet the level of digital proficiency now expected by their institutions. Our response to this need was the creation of two short online courses: the Digital Skills Awareness Course for new and prospective students (DSAC) and the Digital Skills Awareness Course for Teaching Staff (DSAC-T).

Our two courses have been designed in Moodle, trialed and adopted by BLE partners and are now openly available to the UK Higher Education sector. 

These courses are “blueprints”, which can be repurposed and adapted to suit the needs of the institution that adopts them. For example, the DSAC has been adapted by the University of London’s PGCert Learning and Teaching in Higher Education programme and recommended as a supplementary module. 

The approach we have taken offers benefits to over-stretched digital education and staff development teams across the BLE partnership and beyond.

More information at

The judging panel provided the following feedback:

The promotion and support of digital skills for academics and university professionals as well as students is central at this pivotal point in the move to blended technology supported learning, and what was remarkable about this project were the ways in which transferability and impact were built into its very identity, through its construction on the principles of Open Education Resources. The success of this approach and its value to the sector as a whole is validated by the issuing already of 49 OER licenses by the Bloomsbury Learning Exchange to other institutions to use and adapt the Digital Skills Awareness course for their own purposes.

Friday, 21 May 2021

Open book exams: open season for cheaters or a better form of assessment?

This post by Gwyneth Hughes at UCL was originally posted here

photo of exam hall

The start of the pandemic in March 2020 caused universities to do a rapid pivot from the well-entrenched invigilated, timed, unseen exams to online tests mostly taken at home.

Software can monitor students taking exams in their own homes by using video or proctoring methods, or by locking down the examinee’s computer. But by far the most straightforward option is open book exams with extended timescales. This is mostly what happened at the University of London. But does this mean better assessment or more cheating?

For an open-book exam, students can search online and access books, notes, and other available resources online or in print. If the exam writing window remains similar to that of previous exams with perhaps some extra time for uploading answers, then there is not much opportunity to look up answers and students will not have any advantage. However, if students are given longer ­– for instance, a 24 hours gap between releasing the exam questions and sending in answers – then they can do some research for their answers.

Students like online exams but not just because they can cheat more easily

A study from the Centre for Distance Education | University of London has shown that students doing online exams for the University of London’s distance learning programmes preferred the online exams done from the comfort of their own homes without the pressure to travel to an examination centre and with a bit more freedom from relying on memory alone. Cynics might have it that open book exams give students carte blanche to plagiarise copy and collude with other students and no wonder they liked the experience. But cheating is not inevitable. The study provides  evidence that some programme teams changed exam questions for the online shift to ensure that students could not copy and paste answers.

If questions requiring memorisation were replaced with more probing ones and questions that require application of knowledge, then cheating would become much more difficult. It is also possible that these better designed exams will encourage students to learn more deeply in future.

Some markers also noticed that giving students more time to write their answers meant they could make better use of references and correct errors. Again, this indicates that students could be advantaged by the online exams.

Rethinking exam design

The big worry about exams, and indeed other forms of assessment, is student cheating – but that does not mean that heavy-handed electronic monitoring, restriction on using resources or plagiarism detection software is the answer. The pivot to online testing has encouraged exam designers to think more about how exams support student learning. Even if there is a post-pandemic return to attendance in person next year, many programmes at the University of London will continue with online open book exams and/or move to coursework assessment, which is the ultimate open book experience.

Here’s one tough question: Will more discussion of how to prevent plagiarism and cheating through improving assessment design follow?

Friday, 14 May 2021

Dealing with dissonance: now is the time for open, critical and mediated reflection on remote teaching and learning

This post by Martin Compton from UCL was originally posted on the UCL Reflect blog here

The necessary, pandemic-enforced modifications that teachers and lecturers made over the last year have often been nothing short of miraculous. Most frustrating perhaps is where effort has been huge but responses (either engagement levels or evaluation responses) have been less than hoped for. I have heard colleagues desperate for a return to ‘normal’ and others very keen to hold on to and develop approaches they have honed or learned from scratch. Whatever teaching, learning and assessment look like next year, there will no doubt be degrees of ‘blendedness’, hybridity and necessary flexibility. Whatever our disciplines, it makes sense to take a moment to reflect on the experiences of the year and to consider what worked, what didn’t, what we WANT to keep, what we HAVE to keep and what that means for our workloads and impacts on our own and our students’ mental health (I originally typed ‘wellbeing’ but am starting to feel as though this word is being stripped of tangible meaning and weight). Anyway, so far; so obvious.

woman in glasses looking at screen full of computer code

image: geralt via pixabay

One of the things that has become clear over my years working in teacher and lecturer development is that ‘reflection’ as a process is not necessarily something that happens naturally for us all. And, even where reflection is happening, we can find ourselves (for SO many reasons) not modifying our behaviours and approaches. If we are going to properly address the issues in the paragraph above- in context- it may be that we need time (!) and perhaps some form of mediated dialogue to push reflection. As part of that, we need to open ourselves to candid and perhaps even difficult challenges to our thinking. One way we can do this is to see how far we as individuals (or collectively as members of a department, faculty, institution or disciplinary ‘tribe’) may be subject to cognitive dissonance and immobile thinking.

Without being immersed too deeply in the psychology, I am leaning on the language of ‘cognitive dissonance’ (Festinger, 1957– good summary here for non-psychologists) and the ‘fixed and growth mindset’ conceptualisation of Carol Dweck (core ideas summarised in 9 min video by Prof Dweck here). Cognitive dissonance is anxiety caused by our own behaviours that challenge what is known (for teachers, a belief in the self and what constitutes effective teaching is important). ‘Forced compliance behaviour’ is the most useful way to think about this in the Covid context because the vast majority of lecturers and teachers have had to act in ways that conflict with beliefs and pre-conceptions about what equates to good teaching and what shapes us- what defines us- as teachers. Pre-pandemic, ‘digital education’ could be ignored and the research dismissed where there was no perceived need or obligation to engage. Clumsy edicts without clear rationalisation or evidence and behaviouristic award systems for degrees of compliance have often led to cynical compliance or overt resistance. Witness the frustratingly frequent phenomena of VLE ‘scrolls of doom’ and too oft-repeated references to ‘death by PowerPoint’.

hammer banging in a bolt while a spanner tackles a nail

image: stevepb via pixabay

When Covid hit and the ‘emergency response’ morphed into something much longer, there was an inevitable and essential upskilling and mode switching but these pre-existing tensions framed persistent deficit narratives. When enforced, those most resistant (and fearful) are most likely to be subject to confirmation biases and this is completely normal and understandable but anxiety inducing and ultimately a barrier. Dweck’s notions of fixed and growth mindsets are useful ways of framing this, especially if ‘mindset’ is expanded to include departmental or institutional cultures.

Like many, I championed compassion as a driver and for it to be at the forefront of our pedagogy in terms of the way we interacted and supported students as well as centring care in expectations and sensitivities around how we worked with colleagues. I don’t want colleagues to be anxious! According to Festinger, to resolve the anxiety and stagnation, something needs to change: beliefs and/or actions. The pandemic forced us to change our actions. But to what extent have we fully embraced the wisdom of the research, the learning techs and instructional designers rather than ploughing on with what is most familiar (or a replica of that)? And in terms of beliefs, how much have we built in time for mediated reflection that can reframe negative experiences in our actions? Do we understand why some activities are more likely to work than others? Are our individual and collective minds open to the difficult questions of what scholarship and experts say- weighted against our ‘intuitions’? I have witnessed how the two big aspects of HE pedagogic conservatism – lectures and examinations- have been challenged. In some ways their persistence as defaults in the context of a HUGE library of pedagogic scholarship can be framed as an example of collective cognitive dissonance.  I felt that those that missed/ craved the lecture most were often those that suffered most; not because of ability or kit differentials but because of how wrapped in their identities the lecture is: teaching as performance. It is fascinating to witness how quickly debates about the future of lectures, for example, have become something of a false dichotomy, framed as: ‘your way is just fusty, boring lectures’ versus ‘you want to throw the brilliant lecture baby out with the pedagogic bathwater!’ This lack of nuance and this doubling down may be seen as a reflection of the populist zeitgeist but are we not supposed to be centres of research, debate and critical engagement?! We need time and mediation and space for openness to explore disciplinary-specific understandings, needs and possibilities.

large auditorium mostly full of people waiting for a lecture

image: alieino via pixabay

We can’t get everyone to change and shouldn’t force people to change. But in the clamour to get back to normal we are in danger of conflating the affordance of digital education more broadly with the experiences of 2020-21. What I’m saying here is as much about cultures and leadership as it is about individual examples of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Whilst this IS a challenge for colleagues to think critically about their work and thinking this is not meant to be read as a critique of that work. So, for people in my sort of role we have delicate job: I do NOT want to be seen to accuse anyone of closed-mindedness, entrenched thinking, suffering from confirmation bias…but that shouldn’t stop me from trying to push challenging conversations. How do I engage colleagues without the arms folding though?

In my view, those that are at the centre should be provoking and mediating discussions and debate around these issues; prepared to challenge intuitive discourses. Whilst I do not have the gift of time to offer, this is one of my goals this coming year and I want to take as many people as I can with me. I believe that cognitive dissonance is a useful vehicle for considering how powerful our mindsets are, opening this particular reflective doorway may be one way to start reconciling what has been a manic year.

Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. New York: Random House.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


Martin Compton is an Associate Professor working in the Arena Centre for research-based education at UCL. email: Twitter @mart_compton