Wednesday 15 May 2024

Digital Accessibility at SOAS


Today, we're diving into an insightful presentation by Sultan Wadud, the Learning Technology Manager at SOAS, who shared at the Spring 2024 Moodle User Group Greater London (MUGGL) event hosted at King's College how the team has worked to introduce Digital Accessibility.
In his presentation, Wadud sheds light on the importance of digital accessibility, emphasising its role in ensuring that content, websites, and applications are usable by everyone, including individuals with disabilities. He also touches upon how digital accessibility contributes to compliance and standards, making online content more inclusive.
One of the highlights of Wadud's presentation is the introduction of Ally, a powerful tool aimed at enhancing accessibility in digital course content. He elaborates on how Ally scans content within the LMS, generates alternative formats, provides insightful analytics, and offers feedback to improve accessibility - truly a game-changer in the realm of digital accessibility.
However, Wadud doesn't shy away from discussing the challenges the team encountered along the way, including delays in contract negotiation, technical hurdles, and limited academic engagement. Despite these obstacles, he also shares some notable achievements, such as creating online guidance, conducting workshops, establishing a working group, and notably improving the institution's overall accessibility score.
Looking ahead, Wadud outlines the team’s plans, which include renewing the contract for Ally, ramping up training and awareness initiatives, collaborating with specific departments, producing more concise educational videos, and striving to reach and exceed the Ally sector average of a 78% accessibility score.
Link to recording:

Thursday 25 April 2024

Distance Learners share their experiences of decolonisation

The Bloomsbury Learning Exchange (BLE) joined forces again with the Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE) and the London International Development Centre (LIDC) to extend the conversation around the decolonisation of digital education, which started last year with our first joint webinar. On 17th April, our follow-up webinar, Decolonising Digital Education – Lessons from Distance Learnersfocused on distance and online education, and specifically on the experiences of remote learners. We were delighted to convene a panel comprising three students who had recently completed or were currently pursuing online courses offered by the University of London. What followed was a lively and engaging panel discussion, chaired by CODE Fellow and vice-principal for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at the Royal Veterinary College, Dr Christine Thuranira-McKeever, with thought-provoking questions posed by the audience.

photo of the panelists

Our student panelists each introduced themselves and presented the ways in which they have experienced decolonisation in respect to technologies used to deliver online courses. Conrad Francis is an Australian Sri-Lankan dual Olympian (Sydney 2000, Athens 2004) who has coached across the world, working in schools and universities in countries including China, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. Conrad completed a PGCE in International Sports Management at the University of London in 2022 and provided a truly international perspective. Conrad stated that student empowerment lies at the heart of decolonising education. He encouraged students to question what they already know and what they are learning.

Dr Swati Aggarwal holds a doctorate in AI and has extensive experience in research and teaching in India. Moving to a teaching position in Norway in 2023, she completed the online Postgraduate Certificate Learning and Teaching in Higher Education provided by the University of London. As an educator herself, Swati drew on her experiences of decolonisation both in delivering and being a recipient of learning. She exposed the need to diversify the voices that shape education itself to reflect the multi-cultural world.

Finally, Sanjeeva Singh, an Olympian Archer, shared his experiences of working towards a Post Graduate Certificate in International Sports Management at the University of London whilst studying at a distance in India. Shaped by his distance learning experience, Sanjeeva argued that decolonisation in education comes down to three key components: inclusivity, diversity and innovativeness. He believes that learning material should be as diverse as the students accessing them.

The audience posed many interesting questions regarding access to digital technology, differences in cultures, and how institutions can ensure inclusivity and promote diversity to prevent prejudice and bias towards Western approaches to learning and teaching.

Dr Linda Amrane-Cooper (Director of the University’s Postgraduate Certificate Learning and Teaching in Higher Education) responded to the need to acknowledge sensitivities and apply feedback from learners in order to ‘decolonise’ the professional framework in which educational providers must work. Taking on board these lived experiences can only improve the quality of the courses that are delivered. As Elizabeth Charles (Assistant Director of Library Services at Birkbeck) reported, the panelists’ “different perspectives were a wonderful cross-section of learning from theory and applying to their individual loci and how enriched they felt as a result of this. Linda’s contribution was also very welcome; that level of engagement of acknowledging where the programme or institution is located and starting from, given the validation requirements, yet not shying away from the need to turn that critical lens on the epistemological pillars that support the programme”.

You can watch a recording of the event here:

Wednesday 17 April 2024

AI for the Overwhelmed: a webinar


Report on the BLE webinar held on 16th April 2024

image of Metal Mickey, the robot from a TV show
This session served as a supportive introduction to GenAI and what it can do in the context of higher education. It was purposefully not recorded in order to offer attendees a safe space to find out what GenAI is, to share experiences and to feely ask the questions they were too afraid to ask for fear of looking ignorant. Over 80 people registered for the webinar, which in itself spoke volumes. Attendees represented a broad range of staffing areas including teaching, research, course administration, HR, library, IT and digital education. So many colleagues wanting to gain a better understanding - and to discover what others know/are doing. We are, after all, human and not machine. So many of us are feeling overwhelmed by AI in different ways, from what it is to how to help others.

screenshot from CoPilot
CoPilot's response to the query 'What does GenAI mean?'

I opened the session with a personal explanation of why I had organised the event. And here it is again in a nutshell: Upon returning from parental leave at the start of February 2024, the emergence (or crash-landing) of GenAI was being discussed everywhere – e.g. the impact it was having on learning, teaching and particularly assessment. There was a constant stream of events being organised, courses to take, articles to read, policies to develop - I felt I was very far behind everyone else and I panicked that I had too much catching up to do. Being out of my depth in the world of technology was something I hadn’t experienced before – I was drowning in a sea of information and discourse, and I didn’t know where to start. I was overwhelmed. But the more I spoke to learned colleagues, the more I realised that everyone was feeling the same. I hadn’t really fallen behind – the development and pace of AI is so fast-changing, it is hard to keep up - and many people still haven’t had the chance fully engaged with it at all. I wanted to connect with others feeling the same as me and to start to investigate how the BLE could support them (us).

image of robot Johnny 5 from the Short Circuit movie

Deborah Grange, Head of Student Learning Development at Birkbeck, has been running a regular workshop specifically for students since the start of this calendar year. Interestingly, staff have also been attending. I knew she was the person I needed to provide a gentle introduction to GenAI. Deborah ran through the most commonly-used Gen
AI tools (or Large Language Models, LLMs) that are available. She explained in simple terms how they work and why we need to use cautionary behaviour when using them. AI outputs are only as good as the data that is fed in; the tool doesn't 'think' and it can offer incorrect yet convincing-looking responses ('hallucinations'). Deborah demonstrated Microsoft's CoPilot (based on GPT-4, the same 'engine' that Chat GPT uses) and Google's Gemini by entering a query and comparing the results. 

From this 'basics of AI' presentation, I then invited Sultan Wadud, Learning Technology Manager at SOAS, to share how he uses AI in his every day work. Wadud's talk presented several advanced examples of AI usage from generating images to convey concepts for presentation slides to helping him make a start on writing policies and emails.

Throughout the session, attendees contributed to this Padlet board to share their motivations for attending the session, examples of their use of GenAI tools and then what the BLE can do next. The BLE Team will be using both this and the chat contributions made in the session to inform our planning. Suggestions for follow-ups so far include regular online 'show and tells with AI' to share what people are doing and a hands-on workshop to try out tools for those who are not experienced. Please contact us here if you would like to make a suggestion.

In conclusion, like the web browser, which changed the face of education forever, GenAI is already doing the same - and it is here to stay (well, evolve), We can’t avoid it – we have to embrace it, or at least acknowledge and work with it.

If you work for one of the BLE partner institutions*, join our mailing list here to be the first to find out about all our events and activities:

* Birkbeck, LSHTM, RVC, SOAS, UCL and the University of London

Thursday 22 February 2024

Launch of our latest course: Is a PhD Right for Me?

Is a PhD Right for Me?

The BLE's new three-week course on FutureLearn offers a comprehensive approach to considering, applying for, and beginning doctoral study in the UK. The course dispels misconceptions, examines real-life concerns and speaks to a wide range of groups and individuals traditionally under-represented in doctoral study.

Throughout the course, learners discover strategies to help them work effectively, manage their wellbeing, maintain good working relationships with supervisors and clarify potential career paths after the PhD.

Week 1 helps the learner decide whether to pursue doctoral study. We provide an overview of  fundamental personal, practical, and financial aspects of the decision.
Week 2 provides guidance on making a PhD application, such as how to  search out opportunities, put together a research proposal, find the right supervisor and apply to an institution or research project.
Week 3 focuses on managing day-to-day life as a doctoral student. 

Learners take an active role in their learning, completing reflective and practical tasks and  taking part in conversations with each other. Highlights include interviews with current doctoral students, supervisors and staff who share their experiences, expectations and advice. Learners also follow four diverse student characters in their  journey to decide whether or not doctoral study is the right path for them.

Really amazing! [This course] opened my mind to the ''secrets'' of PhD study and had so many tips to follow. (Learner feedback). 

Video link for course introduction

Course introductory video

Thursday 8 September 2022

BLE Director and UCL Learning Technologist are filmed in the Channel 4 News studio!

The Association for Learning Technology (ALT) and ITN Business have co-produced a news-style programme, launched this week at the ALT Annual Conference.

With 66% of ALT members now using blended and hybrid models in the classroom, it is now more important than ever to be tech-savvy in the educational landscape.

 Digital Transformation” highlights the importance of investment in both the right infrastructure and the people behind the technology, delving into the latest learning technologies and strategies enabling change.

The full programme aims to encourage new strategies to further the offering to educational institutions, while raising awareness, champion partnerships and support the next stage of digital learning. You can watch the showcase with all the highlights here.

Anchored by ITN Business presenter Michael Underwood, the film consists of interviews with industry thought leaders discussing the positives of the new direction of learning following the pandemic, the importance of the staff behind the technology and the key issues the sector is looking to address.

Michael was joined in the ITN London studios by the BLE's own Director, Sarah Sherman and Carol Worsfold, Learning Technologist at UCL who discuss ALT's accreditation scheme, CMALT. The BLE has been running an annual CMALT scheme for seven years - more information about that is available here