Matt East, Learning Technologies Lead at Talis is responsible for Product Development of Talis Elevate and supports academic adopters. Since the beginning of lockdown for universities, he’s been working closely with Talis Elevate users to support them as they shifted their approach to 100% online delivery.
In this post, he talks about what they’ve been doing, and Dr Jamie Wood, Principal Lecturer in History in the School of History and Heritage and School Director of Learning and Teaching at the University of Lincoln talks about the experience from his perspective and shares feedback from colleagues and students.
Matt East: When lockdown began, Jamie and I had had conversations about how Talis Elevate could enable academics to maintain their core teaching values within the school, active engagement with resources. We worked in partnership to devise a plan for how to quickly onboard the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln, so they could get to grips with the platform in a short space of time.
We tried a few different approaches but kept the core value at the heart of everything we did. We stressed this message throughout the guidance and instruction we provided to academics, from how to practically use the tool, to how to effectively incorporate it into teaching. We wanted to bake sound pedagogy within the use of the product, so the academics could get the most from it.
Jamie and I worked closely to reposition the existing ‘getting started’ guidance. At the point where all teaching was shifting online, we understood that the Learning Technologies teams were being pulled across the university. So, we wanted to make this as simple and as self-serving as possible so that staff wouldn’t need to rely on their support. We redesigned our support guidance to have a very straight forward end to end written guide, and also a visual set of slides that showed the navigation through the product and the key parts of the interface.
At the start of this, we were aware that bringing in new technology in a time of crisis can further add to stress and anxiety of an already difficult situation, particularly whilst taking on a new approach to teaching.
All academic staff were set up on the platform immediately. We prioritised this within the Talis Services Team, shifting our Talis Elevate support to getting new staff up and running, providing guidance and responding quickly to troubleshooting where required (although we were pleased to see that this was not really needed). It was great to see so much growth within the department, particularly following the start of the second semester. We’ve seen really positive success stories come out of these efforts.
One of the things that quickly became clear to us early on in the shift to online was that there were gaps in the types of activities that typically occur face to face, for example within seminar environments, particularly around visual artefacts like images. We knew there would be a need for recreating this kind of collaboration around image-based content when moving to online.
At Talis we had already been working on this area with a new product feature called ‘image annotation’, and we’d been working with the University of Lincoln on gathering requirements and feedback when designing, and looking to release this feature. When the shift to online happened, we worked with colleagues at the University of Lincoln to get this released early, as we knew it would be critical to help people teach with image-based content. I’m really proud to say this clearly had an impact; one module alone had over 200 comments on image-based content after lockdown.
Jamie Wood: Talis Elevate core practice in historical study, which is the idea of critical reading and analysis. This is key to many of the subjects within the School of History and Heritage here at the University of Lincoln. Talis Elevate has proven to be a very powerful tool as it facilitates active reading very effectively.
The shift to teaching 100% online was daunting, but we started positively as we had a good baseline in terms of engagement with technology for teaching methods. All of our modules were already using the virtual learning environment (Blackboard), everyone was already using Talis Aspire reading list (to varying degrees), and we used online submission for pretty much 100% of assignments.
History is quite a traditional discipline in its teaching methods, generally adopting a lecture-seminar format, with assigned preparatory reading. This approach is quite prevalent across the school. In terms of what we’ve been asking students to do in Talis Elevate, which is actively engaging with preparatory material ahead of face to face sessions, it has fit really well with this approach.
Talis Elevate has been a positive thing for us. I’ve been working with Matt and Talis Elevate as a Beta Partner since 2018 and then I got more colleagues on board in 2019. The institution then purchased it and there’s been gradual growth across the institution since, and we’ve seen further grow with the shift to online.
When COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, it all happened very quickly. Luckily we were able to adapt quite quickly. We had less than 24 hours before everything was moved online, and then another 24 until the campus was completely closed down and we had to work from home. There was a challenge ahead of us, as we had been focused on face-to-face learning, and we all had a lack of experience around distance teaching and supporting distance learning.
We saw a huge uptick in engagement with Elevate during the lockdown period:
- 3000 comments were made following lockdown and the shift to online;
- there was a 200% increase on the previous count in History & Heritage.
One of the main reasons for this was that one colleague used Talis Elevate on a core first-year module that had about 200 students. It was a required activity for the final 4 seminars, so it meant that usage really took off. I see this as a huge positive because it means that when these students are in 2nd year in the next academic year they will have already had experience with it.
Image annotation has opened up new possibilities for academics. I knew this would be key for online teaching, and I worked with Matt to get this tested, and released early at the start of the shift to online teaching. Talis did this a week after lockdown started following staff testing. One academic using this feature said:
“I think it is a really welcome addition to Talis Elevate which has taken it to a new level in terms of possibilities and applications for teaching and learning; it allows students to engage with images in engaging and collaborative ways that simply weren’t possible before. It has also opened up lots of new possibilities for students to prepare for, and participate in, seminars, which is particularly welcome at a time when online teaching has become the new normal.”
One thing I’ve noticed, which comes back to supporting our core disciplinary value is that many of the people who have been most enthusiastic weren’t the ones I’d expected. They perhaps hadn’t been that enthusiastic with other forms of technology before, or with innovative pedagogy generally. It was great to see. A number of those who weren’t able to fit it into their teaching plan for the end of this academic year were keen to try it out for next year, so I think we will see a further increase in engagement.
Many colleagues have seen a lot of value in the active reading element, as it encourages active engagement with an online task rather than a passive one. Asking students to do things like ‘think of a question after you’ve done the reading’ or ‘annotate things you don’t understand’ are seemingly minor activities that really help students engage with and therefore understand the material.
We got student feedback on the overall experience of lockdown. There were a couple of comments that reference Talis Elevate:
“Talis Elevate was a useful way of viewing other’s thoughts on readings and getting feedback from seminar leaders”
“Talis Elevate was very useful as we could still access sources and comment directly on them and our seminar leader replied. This allowed us to have a more detailed discussion and it gave an opportunity for people who are less inclined to speak in front of others to get engaged with the sources more thoroughly…”
One of the students commented that Talis Elevate allowed them to get higher participation marks. We usually awarded these based on their interaction in class, but most students like the idea that they are rewarded for working outside of class (but in the past we’ve struggled to track this and therefore reward them for their overall engagement in the module). Using something like Talis Elevate allows the tutor to get a more holistic view of what the student is doing and how they are engaging with the module.
This has been useful during the lockdown and it served to motivate the students as well, as they could see how others were engaging with preparatory material ahead of seminars. Most students used it asynchronously to prepare, but a number were using it during digital classes as well. I would like to build on this in future. We’ll be doing more training and raising more awareness over the next couple of months to keep the engagement going, ready for the new academic year.
Talis Elevate will be a core part of a number of the blended learning modules that we will be delivering next academic year as it supports the development of a core disciplinary practice – active reading. Over the past year an increasing number of colleagues in the School have got on board with this approach.
Matt East: I think this emergency has helped us refocus our attention on training and onboarding in a really useful way. Upon reflection, we previously didn’t make enough around the simplicity of getting started with this tool. We’re all time poor in this sector, so anything that helps staff slot in their own self-led onboarding should be seen as a positive.
The feedback we’ve had from the School has been really positive, on the product, the early feature releases, the ease of use for staff, and most importantly, the impact this has had on the learning experience for students.
I’m particularly enthused to hear that students’ feel this method of engagement can actually be more accessible for many than the traditional commenting in class. Moving forward into the new academic term, I think we must all be conscious of this.
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