Monday, 4 October 2021

The hierarchy of priorities on a digital learning technologist during the national lockdown of 2020-21

The BLE Executive team, Sarah Sherman (Director), Nancy Weitz, (Digital Learning Specialist) and Julian Bream (Coach for Digital Education Leadership) have been reflecting about how learning technologists coped during the thick of the global pandemic. We've been talking through the pressures our colleagues faced when demands were being thrown at them - thick and fast, from all directions - all requiring immediate attention and resolution. There was no time for anything, yet everything had to be done. In the early days of the national lockdown in March 2020, learning technology and digital education staff were working all hours of the day - whilst somehow trying to manage their private lives (caring responsibilities, household obligations and attending to their own wellbeing). It was a nightmarish time for everyone involved in learning, teaching and assessment delivery - but, in our opinion, our coworkers were at the sharp end. During our discussions, Julian described how he had envisaged a hierarchy of pressures - or impacts - on an average learning technologist, similar in design to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. 

The basic level of concern, as we saw it, lay in the working environment: access to equipment, functional technology, space to work. Some of our colleagues were forced to work on the edge of a sofa, resting on a coffee table where others converted children's bedrooms into a second office whilst their partners worked in another room. A space to work was fundamental to establish before anything else.

Prior to the pandemic, learning technologists rarely had a quiet working day: training colleagues, developing content, designing courses, administering learning environments, producing audio and video material, etc, etc. The unprecedented volume of work caused by the pandemic hit our colleagues hard - but it wasn't until later on that the learning technologists were realised by all to be the heroes of the pivot to online learning, teaching and assessment. 

Interactions with colleagues - teammates, managers, those that they supported (academics/students) became a source of pressure. These interactions were intense - online meeting followed online meeting, with no time for comfort breaks or space to think (or do the actual work). Interactions were difficult because in a traditionally in-person role, these all had to take place virtually; many between colleagues who had never met in person, since recruitment (in this area) was not frozen and new starters were joining all the way through lockdown.

Learning technologists had to work through the initial lack of institutional support - from personnel understanding to the creation of policy and strategy of remote learning and teaching. These developments came later but for the learning technologist, there was no time to wait. 

Learning technologists had to work through despite (or in spite) of institutional culture. For universities where a willingness to be open in practice, flexible about sharing and adaptable to change was not the norm, the learning technologists had to strive on regardless.

And there was certainly no time for professional development or career recognition; CMALT portfolios and applications for HE Advance Fellowship were abandoned due to just needing to get on with the job.

To illustrate this hierarchy of pressure points, Julian and Sarah drew out (remotely!) a pyramid placing working space at the bottom (as the fundamental layer) and career progression at the pinnacle. However, inverting the pyramid offered a better visual representation of the force and weight of the individual pressures.

As a result - and thanks to Nancy for designing exactly what they wanted to convey in their model - we present the Hierarchy of Priorities on a Digital Learning Technologist During the National Pandemic (select the image itself to see a larger version):

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?