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

Monday 4 April 2022

Facilitation? Moderation? A Model for Clarifying Educator Presence in Online Learning Discussions

Last week we ran a seminar (a Moderation Masterclass) for new moderators on our recently launched FutureLearn course, Digital Skills Awareness for Starting Higher Education in which we tackled head-on the thorny issue of Moderation v Facilitation -- what do these terms mean? How do they differ? In preparation for the session, I started work on a little diagram for helping to establish distinctions between the terms, which are often used interchangeably. 

I started working in this area way back in the early 2000s, when online discussions, if not new (discussion boards had been around since the mid-90s), were certainly hot technologies in the burgeoning world of online learning. A lot of research and influential ideas came out around that time about building online communities and engaging participant interaction from the likes of Gilly Salmon, Nancy White and Etienne Wenger (amongst others). I'm not going to do a survey of literature here, but you are invited to go look. While online learning has changed a lot (especially the technologies and dependence on video and video conferencing), discussion forums themselves have not (please see my blog post about that). Nor has the way we use them.

For the purposes of our seminar, my diagram needed to be a quick way to conceptualise the key educator roles (that is, the delivery and support sides of a learning activity) and the way these relate to the learner's engagement with the activity and, specifically, the educator. 

The primary elements of the model are:

  • Educator role: Monitor, Moderator, Facilitator, Tutor
  • Role category: continuum from Admin to Teaching
  • Level of learner independence versus dependence on educator (apart from interaction with other learners)
  • Level of educator "presence" within the activity (visibility as well as active intervention) 
Courses, and even individual activities, will often overlap or complicate these elements, but the overall model is useful for developing an understanding of what is required in a specific instance and -- vitally -- for getting a team of educators all on the same page.  

Monitoring and Tutoring, at either end of the spectrum, are relatively clear. Monitoring involves virtually no educator presence. It is simply oversight to keep an eye on proceedings and report problems while the learners engage with the material and each other, independent of educator intervention. Tutoring involves strong educator presence carefully leading the dependent learners through the discussion as an expert in the subject.

Moderating and Facilitating are the two terms most often confused and ill-defined, especially in terms of online discussions. In my model, Moderation is further up the Admin end of the scale than Facilitation, which has more of a teaching function. 

Moderation requires no subject knowledge. It's about keeping a discussion ticking along smoothly and, unlike monitoring, allows for occasional visible interventions, especially to counter incorrect or potentially enflaming contributions from learners. In addition, a moderator can respond to learners directly to point to sources of assistance or answer a pressing question that the other learners cannot answer. Moderation usually does not include interventions about the ideas or topics in the course. It takes a judgement call to avoid setting up expectations that the discussion will be actively facilitated while also making sure learners are not neglected. 

Facilitation picks up where Moderation leaves off, involving the kinds of skills that encourage learners to respond to each other and extend their thinking and also the ability to summarise key points and present the learning developed in the discussion back to the learners. Maybe surprisingly, Facilitators do not have to be experts in the subject; they need to be experts in facilitation. Facilitation requires a judgement call to avoid dominating discussions by presenting as subject experts while also making sure the learners are sufficiently engaged with the topic and with each other.

Which type of role, category, level of independence and presence is appropriate for any discussion will depend on a range of contexts, such as the purpose for the discussion, the course it sits within, the subject matter, the type of course, the group size, learner expectations, staff availability, budget, platform, technical and other factors. Above all, the originating design for the course needs to take into consideration these constraints to create and present a holistic learning experience with well-planned activities, whether simply monitored, moderated, facilitated or fully led by a tutor.

Do you have thoughts and experience with these roles? We'd love to hear your views.

Friday 18 February 2022

Technology, racism and unpeeling the onion

This post by Samanatha Ahern was originally posted here:

Members of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) Anti-Racism and Learning Technology Special Interest Group have been developing a free set of tools to address racism. The draft toolkit is currently available and community feedback is being sought.  

Explore the toolkit and provide feedback:

Digital technologies and media in all their forms are increasingly ubiquitous in broader society and education, both nationally and globally. However, they are not neutral. They are both socially constructed and construct society. The social nature of their construction bakes in and reinforces existing epistemologies and biases, both conscious and unconscious. This can lead to the exclusion and isolation of the non-normative group(s). In teaching and learning contexts this can impact learners’ sense of belonging, engagement with their course of study and ultimately their outcomes. 

Overview of the toolkit

The draft toolkit developed by the ALT(Opens in new window) Anti-Racism and Learning Technology SIG provides a series of prompts to help un-peel the onion and support those designing and creating digital learning, and supporting and procuring digital tools.

The ‘Tool’ section of the site links to a form containing a series of prompts one could use while working on a technology enhanced learning project or piece of work. The broad categories of prompts the toolkit provides are as follows:
  • Communities
  • The project team
  • Learning content
  • Tools and platforms
  • Post-project reflection
A ‘Further Resources’ section offers suggestions mapped to the five category areas in the toolkit and a ‘AR in LD and ID’ section is aimed at scenarios where one is facilitating learning or instructional design workshops that draw on frameworks that aren’t specifically anti-racist. This part of the toolkit offers guidance on where in those frameworks you might incorporate anti-racism, for a wide range of frameworks.

In order to further develop the toolkit, both in terms of usefulness and usability a community consultation is currently underway. Colleagues are invited to engage with the prototype prompt tool and to provide feedback.

Thursday 17 February 2022

New BLE MOOC on FutureLearn is now live!

Our new MOOC, which offers prospective students the opportunity to learn key digital skills to succeed in Higher Education, has recently landed on FutureLearn!

The course is particularly relevant after a recent Jisc survey showed that 87% of students are studying online with a further 12% studying in a hybrid model.

DigitalSkills Awareness for Starting Higher Education is delivered online over a three-week learning period.

The course, which is free for everyone, has been developed by the BLE to introduce the digital skills students will need when they start their degree or other Higher Education courses.
And it has never been more necessary, with the Jisc survey* showing that:
  • 87% of students studied completely online last year
  • A further 12% studied online and in person, with only 1% studying solely in-person
  • Less than half (41%) said they received guidance about the digital skills they needed for their course and
  • Only one in four (26%) said they had an assessment of their digital skills and training needs.
The course introduces students to the important skills, systems, and core technologies for learning to help them succeed at university and Higher Education.

Dr Nancy Weitz, Digital Education Specialist at the BLE, created the course to help students get to grips with essential technologies to support their learning.

She said: “The course we’ve developed is aimed at all students before they are due to start studying  and will teach them about the various online platforms and learning environments, study and assessment tools, and advice for staying safe online.

“As the recent Jisc survey shows, this has never been more important, with virtually all students studying either exclusively online or as part of a mixture of online and in-person. We’d encourage all students to take our free course as a vital introduction to their Higher Education study.”

Students on the course will be guided by experts from the Bloomsbury Learning Exchange (BLE), an organisation dedicated to sharing digital education expertise.

Learning with the BLE means learning with a digital education association comprised of six prominent Higher Education Institutions in Bloomsbury, Central London: Birkbeck, LSHTM, RVC, SOAS, UCL, and the University of London.

Course Outline:

Week 1: Your Learning Environment
  • Access and accounts 
  • Online learning environments
  • Assignments and assessments 
Week 2: Foundations of Digital Study
  • Study skills tools   
  • Written communications
  • The Internet and searches
  • Working with files 
Week 3: Digital Safety and Wellbeing
  • Safety and security 
  • Social media for learning 
  • Digital wellbeing 
  • Time management

The course, delivered through FutureLearn “on demand”, is available absolutely free and will take just a few hours each week to complete. Enrol now here!

*About the Jisc digital skills survey

Student digital experience insights survey 2020/21; UK higher education (HE) survey findings (

The survey was conducted between October 2020 and April 2021 and there were 38,917 participants in the HE survey from 41 different universities. This represents 12% of all universities and HE institutions in the UK. 27 of these were based in England, seven in Wales, four in Northern Ireland and three in Scotland.

The Survey There was a mismatch in students' expectations in how they would be studying this last year – 55% expected to be fully on campus but the reality was that only 1% were able to do so and 87% did their studying online (a further 12% said they studied using a mix of online and on campus). Only 41% of students agreed that they received guidance about the digital skills they needed for their course and just 26% said they had an assessment of their digital skills and training needs. These figures are a concern.