Update on Toolbox for Flexible Learners Project

The following brief update and presentation slides giving a progress report on the Toolbox for Flexible Learners Project were prepared for the 2014 Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund Review Day hosted by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning. Project lead Dr. James Brunton, with support from Nuala Lonergan, presented on behalf of the project team.

Project Title                     

Student Success Toolbox for Flexible Learners: Supporting Transitions from Thinking About Study to the First Weeks

Project Website

This project’s website can be found at www.studentsuccess.ie. This website is being used to disseminate project information and publications and facilitate national and international discussions on the project, specifically through the use of the linked Flexible Learner Success twitter hashtag #FLSuccess.

Project Overview

Introduction

The project seeks to address the problem of effective transitions and the foundations for student success during the initial stages of the study lifecycle with a specific focus on flexible learners. In the context of this project a broad definition is adopted of flexible learners, which includes adult learners engaged in part-time and online/distance learning. Enhancing retention and completion rates of this group of flexible learners is a significant problem both globally and within the Irish context. Although the number of flexible learners in Ireland is relatively low in comparison to many other countries, around 17% of all undergraduates (HEA 2012)[1], there are increasing concerns about their ability to progress towards successful completion.

The particular focus of this project is on supporting flexible learners through key transitions in the early stages of the study lifecycle: from thinking about study, making choices, the registration process and through to the first few weeks. A basic premise of the project is that the foundations for student success start early in the study lifecycle, and that insufficient attention has been given in the literature and within institutions to the importance of the period before flexible learners formally commence their study. A related underlying assumption is that this crucial transition period may be enhanced by the availability of appropriately designed digital readiness and preparation tools, which help to scaffold both prospective students and those about to embark on part time or online/distance study for the first time.

Project Plan

There are five phases to this project.

  • Phase One involves the project establishment, including formalising the project team, partner agreements and scope of the work packages.
  • Phase Two involves an analysis of relevant literature and current digital readiness tools available internationally to support successful transitions during initial stages of the study lifecycle for flexible learners. The main deliverable of this phase is an analysis of the digital tools adopted internationally to enhance transitions to study for this unique sub population of learners.
  • Phase Three involves building on the above synthesis to develop a strategically targeted suite of research-informed digital readiness tools. While they will have wider application across the sector, the tools will focus on facilitating adult learners who are transitioning to part-time undergraduate study. The major deliverable from this phase will be the development of a toolbox of eight digital tools that can be used and/or adapted by other institutions in the Higher Education sector to support student success at this crucial period of the study lifecycle. The final selection, design and appropriateness of the digital readiness tools is being informed by the analysis of the literature and institutional analysis completed in Phase Two.
  • Phase Four involves a series of pilot evaluations of the digital tools across the partner institutions. Based on feedback gather during this evaluation phase, the digital tools will be adapted/augmented to ensure that they are fit for purpose.
  • Phase Five will produce a Digital Guide for Supporting Flexible Learners, which will provide guidance for institutions and discipline teams on how to effectively deploy the suite of digital readiness tools. Another key deliverable of this phase is a series of workshops delivered in different higher education institutions on how to support transitions for flexible learners.

At the start of June 2015 the project is in phase 3, with the development of the eight tools being progressed by a number of sub-groups. The eight tools are listed in the table below with working titles:

1. Readiness for study self-assessment quiz 2. Student workload calculator 3. Student self-assessment support network mapping tool 4. Digital study/learning skills tutorials
5. Guide to Information literacy, digital literacy, and academic literacy 6. Guide to proactively preparing for study 7. A crowd-sourced guide to flexible learning 8. Online induction for flexible learners

Impact Evaluation Strategy

To assess the impact of the project, the project is using the Impact Evaluation Framework (IEF) for teaching and learning projects employed by both the Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT) in Australia and the New Zealand National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence (Ako Aotearoa). The framework examines:

  • Reach (generation and dissemination of project outputs)
  • Impact on teaching practice
  • Impact on learners
  • Impact on the project teams themselves

Also, as part of the project’s impact evaluation strategy, Professor Terry Anderson of Athabasca University will act as an international advisor on to the project.

Project Partners:

Project Partner Partner Contact
National Institute for Digital Learning, Dublin City University Dr. James Brunton, (Project Lead) james.brunton@dcu.ie
Maynooth University Lisa O’Regan, lisa.oregan@nuim.ie
Dundalk Institute of Technology Ann Cleary, ann.cleary@dkit.ie
Institute of Technology Sligo Jennifer Gilligan, gilligan.jennifer@itsligo.ie

Key Outcomes of the Project (June 2015):

  • Phase 1 – This phase involves the project establishment such as formalising the project team and agreement on the format of the digital toolkit to be produced in Phase Three.

– Output: Project plan. Status – Complete

  • Phase 2 – This phase involves an analysis of relevant literature and current digital readiness tools available internationally to support successful transitions during initial stages of the study lifecycle for flexible learners. The main deliverable of this phase is an analysis of the digital tools adopted internationally to enhance transitions to study.

– Output: Analysis of literature and current digital readiness tools. Status – Complete

  • Phase 3 & 4 – A toolbox of eight digital tools that can be used and/or adapted by other institutions in the Higher Education sector to support student success at the early (crucial) stages of the study lifecycle.

–   Output: Toolbox of digital tools. Status – Ongoing

  • Phase 5 – A digital guide for supporting Flexible Learners which will provide guidance for higher education institutions and discipline teams on how to effectively deploy the suite of digital readiness tools. Another key deliverable of this phase is a series of three workshops delivered in different HE institutions on how to support transitions for flexible learners.

–   Output: Digital Guide and Project Dissemination (workshops, a publication(s) and a project webspace). Status – Phase yet to begin.

Benefits to the Higher Education sector nationally

This project will produce both a guide for the sector on how to improve flexible learner readiness, and a suite of digital readiness tools for the initial stages of the study lifecycle that will aid programme teams/institutions in facilitating part-time, flexible undergraduate learners to transition into Higher Education. The project will leverage digital technologies to establish new approaches to assist advisors in helping new applicants to assess their own readiness for part-time, flexible learning and in providing learners with relevant, timely feedback to enhance their chances of success. The digital tools developed through this project will impact on the ability of part-time, flexible learners to make a successful transition into Higher Education. The utilisation of these digital tools to increase student readiness, both by the learners who engage with certain tools and the discipline teams who will access the guidance tools and also choose, adapt and deploy tools for use with students as required on their programme, will aid in the fostering of a culture that fully embraces digital learning and digital innovation.

Benefits to students

While the principle target for this project are programme teams/institutions that wish to support their flexible learners’ transition into higher education, there are clear benefits to students where the tools are used effectively. In such a context, before students start a course of study the student success toolbox will enable them to:

  • Assess their readiness for study as a flexible learner
  • Assess their computer skills and study skills (e.g. digital literacy, information literacy) and receive advice about how to prepare in these areas.
  • Assess their capacity to take on a study workload, and evaluate their personal support network(s)
  • Understand how to proactively prepare themselves for study, as well as what will be expected of them as learners in Higher Education.
  •    Access study tips given by staff and other existing students.
  • Experience a digital orientation of a Higher Education institute.
  • Understand the grammar and expectations of Higher Education institutions.

The result is a student who is well informed about their choice of study and who has access to a suite of supports that facilitates their transition into Higher Education.

Other national/international development work that complements this project:

The National Forum’s first enhancement theme is “Teaching for Transitions”, and as such there are currently a number of other funded projects that are also focused on aiding different learner types such as school leavers and international students transition into Irish Higher Education, for example the project led by IT Sligo that focuses on how a MOOC can improve the transition from 2nd to 3rd level (see http://www.teachingandlearning.ie/priority-themes/building-digital-capacity-projects-2014/). There are also a number of seminars taking place in 2014-2015 with a focus on transitioning different learner types into Irish Higher Education, for example the seminar held by University College Dublin in May 2015 “Challenging Assumptions: Transitions and Widening Participation (see http://www.teachingandlearning.ie/national-seminar-series-2015/).

Phase two of the Student Success Toolbox project involves an analysis of relevant literature and current digital readiness tools available internationally to support successful transitions during initial stages of the study lifecycle for flexible learners. As part of this a number of international initiatives were identified, for example the range of tools in use in other institutions internationally that are used to support flexible learner transition into Higher Education. The phase two report will be available from the project website (www.studentsuccess.ie) in July.

Next Steps:

  • Phase 3 – Development of the toolbox of eight digital tools
  • Phase 4 – Piloting and evaluating the digital tools across the partner institutions. Based on feedback gather during this evaluation phase, the digital tools will be adapted/augmented to ensure that they are fit for purpose.
  • Phase 5 – Production of a Digital Guide for Supporting Flexible Learners. Delivery of a series of workshops in different higher education institutions on how to support transitions for flexible learners.

[1] HEA ( 2012). Part-time and flexible higher education in Ireland Policy, practice and recommendations for the future. Available from http://www.hea.ie/sites/default/files/part_time_report_0.pdf

Summer Update

We took a short break from updating our blog over the summer months as many of our NIDL staff was away on annual leave. Having said that, we have been busy on a number of fronts with a range of activities over the last couple of months as indicated by the following brief highlights: General

  • We completed the refurbishment of our reception area
  • We welcomed Muireann O’Keeffe as a new staff member in the Teaching Enhancement Unit

Receptions DCU Connected

  • Successful DCU Connected marketing campaign through radio, bus stops and electronic media
  • Double digit growth in number of confirmed registrations through DCU Connected with a significant increase in postgraduate students
  • Teaching began at both DCU and Arizona State University in the new online Masters in Biomedical Diagnostics with more than 30 students

Events and New Initiatives

  • Hosted a Hackfest Day in August
  • Open DCU Staff Forum in September to share new and forthcoming NIDL initiatives
  • Successful launch of Loop as the new overarching name for DCU’s new online learning environment.

Talks and Presentations

  • Presentations given to Governing Body and Academic Council on the work of NIDL
  • Dr Mark Glynn participated in two radio interviews on EduTalk
  • Keynote presentations given by Dr Mark Glynn at UK e-assessment conference and the Annual Conference for SQT Training,
  • Muireann O’Keeffe gave a keynote at the Symposium for Engineering Education in Manchester
  • Dr Pip Ferguson presented two conference papers
  • Director gave keynotes and presentations at the 3U N-Step Conference, University & College Teaching Conference, Birmingham, and Sloan (now rebranded Online) Learning Consortium Conference on Blended Learning in Denver
  • Director contributed to the Knewton Designing the Future Event in San Francisco which was attended by Hillary Clinton
  • Hilary_Clinton

Research and Development

  • Success in winning EU funded project called “Support Centres for Open Education and MOOCS in different Regions of Europe 2020” (SCORE2020) with a total budget of €300k
  • Developed and submitted three funding proposals to the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning to support building digital capacity
  • Successful application to the National Forum’s National Seminar Series for Reaching the Stars Symposium
  • Member of the National Forum funded Virtual Learning Envrionment Student Survey Project
  • Director invited to join the Editorial Board for the Journal of Open, Flexible and Online Learning
  • Hosted an open networking event to share ideas with other institutions for applications to the fund for Building Digital Learning Capacity
  • Networking Event

External Engagement

Brief Summary of Networking Event

The National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) hosted a Networking Event on Wednesday to discuss the Call for Proposals to the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund for Building Digital Capacity in Irish Higher Education. 47 participants attended the event from 17 different third level institutions. Billy Kelly, Dean of Teaching and Learning from Dublin City University, welcomed participants and then Professor Mark Brown explained the purpose of the event.

In his introductory comments, Mark drew on his previous New Zealand experience of several digital learning development projects to emphasise the importance of not leaving collaboration to chance. Mark also made it clear that the intent was to use this networking event as an opportunity to discuss ‘what’s right for Irish Higher Education as a whole, as distinct from what might be in the interests of a single institution’.

Networking Event

The first part of the event focused on better understanding the Call for Proposals. Some of the key points identified during the discussions from reviewing the written documentation included:

  •  Strong focus on collaboration
  • Strong focus on the enhancement theme of ‘teaching for transitions’
  • Value of a programme-based approach is emphasised
  • Role of assessment is emphasised
  • Importance placed on articulating a strong vision for building a digital learning culture (note bullet points under Section 2.2)

In reviewing the Actionable Steps, it was observed that Actionable Step 2 is essentially a call for funding for a clearly defined sub project. It was also noted from the response to questions on the website that the date for completion of this project has been extended (should read 30th June 2015).

It was pointed out that rightly all proposals are expected to have a lasting impact. While there is a section dedicated to impact in the online submission form a question arose how impact would be evaluated and whether the emphasis on lasting change was explicitly part of the selection criteria and scoring.

The strong focus on ‘teaching for transitions’ was once again identified in the criteria where it comes through in several places.

A number of other points noted during the discussion included the exclusion of overheads (see response to the relevant  FAQ on the website), how ethical issues may need to be considered in applications if students’ learning is potentially affected, and whether institutions with relatively immature strategies in the area (see Actionable Step A) could potentially be disadvantaged by criterion C.

In the second part of the event, staff from within the NIDL shared some of the potential projects they had already identified from preliminary discussions (see related slides for a list of these projects). Two of these initiatives were used as examples or case studies to see how they fitted the criteria. Participants were also invited to brainstorm and share their ideas for potential projects, and a diverse and interesting mix of initiatives was identified — ranging from MOOCs, developing e-textbooks, discipline-based OERs, online support tools for international students, and the promotion of digital literacy, to name a few.

The final part of the event considered the issue of finding suitable collaborative partners. There was an interesting suggestion put forward of using cloud technology as a solution to create a type of project exchange.

Based on the feedback and informal discussion that continued after the event most participants appeared to find the afternoon useful, and already there have been some follow up conversations about some of the ideas and potential collaborative projects. We welcome further feedback on the event and the opportunity to collaborate on submissions where projects align with our own interests.