Talking about transition at Media & Learning Autumn online conference

How are media and learning services in higher education transitioning during the pandemic? What have we learned so far, which practices are emerging and how can we move forward? (Presentation videos and slides here[i].)

At the Media and Learning Online Autumn Conference (November 18th, 2021) more than 140 international participants shared some of their insights. (Disclosure: As a member of the advisory panel, I was involved in the build-up to the conference, presented in one session and moderated another). The participants were technical support, faculty, researchers and those interested in the technical and didactical aspects of higher education. Many familiar faces were there along with several new members joining. Sally Reynolds from Media and learning introduced us to the day.

This blog highlights a selection of the sessions I attended. A complete overview is available here.

“I want to make a video… Where do I start?”

University centres of teaching and learning support faculty in making video and media to support their teaching. Often faculty come to them and say, ‘I want to make a video’. It can be challenging for the centres to provide a clear overview of what this might involve. What is the purpose of the video? What might be an appropriate media type? Could faculty make this themselves (DIY)? Or do they need support from the centre? What is the size of this project? And what are examples to help understand this format?

The open access spread sheet provides a functional overview of media types

Delft University of Technology have set up a free and practical tool that clearly presents an overview to these questions. Their openly available overview[ii] is a dynamic tool that can be copied, downloaded, and modified for you to customise. Wiebe Dijkstra and Pim van Schöll from the NewMedia Centre presented[iii]. They aim to inspire colleagues regarding media possibilities and to give a realistic insight into expected effort required. After Wiebe and Pim presented, I acted as moderator in the discussion with Nawaal Deane ofthe University of Cape Town, Lana Scott of MITx and Anke Pesch of KU Leuven.

Nawaal explained that the context of working at a university in South Africa impacts on the way in which videos and media is created and distributed. Students during the lockdown had limited access to data and the Internet. Use low-tech approaches and universal design pedagogies that are inclusive of differently abled students to reach students from marginalised areas. 

Lana Scott of MITx explained how in a year and a half MITx has produced 180 online courses. This includes a module that explains how to create an online course. Their department highlight the pros and cons of using different video genres along with price. The TU Delft sheet has useful information and is laid out in a way that is easy for faculty to understand.

Anke Pesch emphasized how the KU Learning Lab uses a layered model to define how they work together for media production within the university. As central services, they primarily support faculty teaching assistants, who work with the didactic teams and faculty. Their set of criteria helps assess the demand for professional multimedia. The TU Delft sheet could support the way they work. The category ‘DIY’ on the sheet was also discussed. There was a lot of interest in TU Delft’s tool. This was a lively and engaging session (but then, as moderator, I would say that!)

Active learning supported by media

Despite the limitations of lockdown, it was still possible to create active and engaging media-supported learning for students. What lessons did we learn, regarding designing education for the future? Tracy Poelzer of theUniversity of Groningen examined some unintended positive pedagogical consequences of the pandemic. And Peter Musaeus and Mads Ronald Dahl of Aarhus University presented their four phases of video streaming with Nicolette Karst of Lund University acting as moderator. In their four phases of video streaming, Peter and Ronald mapped technological complexity against pedagogical complexity[iv]. They integrated the TPACK and SAMR models.

What happens when you combine TPACK with SAMR (screen shot from Aarhus) 

In the ‘enhancement stage’, streaming video is a substitution for the lesson content. Next it augments the context with interaction. In the ‘transformation phase’ the context is modified and redefined the context through live streaming. The interactions from the initial classroom setting have been transformed. Increasing complexity on the vertical access, moving from the simplest option (linking to YouTube) to the most complex (virtual/mixed reality).

Streaming Media: Technology complexity vs Pedagogical complexity

Their visual presents the more complex classroom settings, with combinations of cameras, microphones and screens in what they call a Hyflex configuration. They aim to keep things simple and easy for teachers. Complex studio productions are not needed. The technology has developed rapidly but the pedagogy still needs to catch up.

Tracy Poelzer of Groningen described the impact of the pandemic as putting us in emergency triage mode. We had already been supporting media production well, but we now had a chance to re-design and change direction. But it takes time. Small and consistent efforts can have a large long-term effect. Her presentation clearly followed Richard Mayer’s principles of multimedia learning in an exemplary manner. Her slides had almost no text, and she talked clearly over the top which was easy to follow.

Video turned out to be the superstar of the pandemic. It provides information just in time, just for me and just enough (the triple J of personalised learning). Giving students control of what is needed, when they want, with a personal touch. Video can lead to improved learning[v]. Access options include pause, rewind, replay, watching slower or faster. Any time any place anywhere. We can frame, zoom in, on our own screen, choose what we watch. This interaction can engage the learning with additional layers laid over them (e.g, H5P or Feedback Fruits). She gave an example of a course that was converted online and which managed to engage the students using multiple short clips. Synchronous online interaction is only used for debate and discussion focusing on the human interaction, not for delivering new content. When creating videos make sure they can be reused to increase their ‘shelf-life’. This overview connected to my own experiences of placing lesson content online, and then focusing on interactive discussions in the class.

Teaching in a Hybrid Learning Environment

In the last few years, there has been an increase in Hybrid Virtual Classrooms. In this context, faculty teach students physically present in the classroom, while at the same time, other students join the session online. The challenge is to ensure both groups (in class and online) feel engaged in the lessons and there is sufficient interaction. There are different names used to describe this format; Hybrid Virtual Classroom, HyFlex, Flexible and Dual Mode to name but a few. It can be a challenge to support teaching staff in this situation.

Fleur Braunsdorf of the University of Amsterdam was moderator. I joined the session as one of the presenters, see my slides on Teaching in a Hybrid Environment[vi]. The other presenters were Danielle Hinton[vii] of the the University of Birmingham, Anas Ghadouani of The University of Western Australia and Rónán Ó Muirthile of IADT Ireland. We had a lively discussion in which the complexities of this format were shared. Anas presented in an animated and engaging format, standing in his room, with no PowerPoint slides talking directly into the camera, using physical props from his office, and showing how video communication can be dynamic and hold our attention. The other presenters all had varied experiences with this format and were developing some new approaches. I use the definition from Raes, Detienne, Windey and Depaepe from 2020[viii]; ‘Synchronous hybrid virtual classrooms have been designed to connect both onsite students and remote students during synchronous teaching.’ I place the emphasis on the word ‘designed’ since a lot of what we have seen in during the pandemic is a reactive approach, where hybrid classroom has been used as a solution to a logistical problem (limited physical classroom space due to pandemic rules, inability to travel to campus), rather than a pedagogical design to suit certain circumstances.

Teaching in a Hybrid Environment (slide Z. Woolfitt)

Based on recent interviews with my colleagues at Inholland, my conclusion is that you need sufficient technical and pedagogical assistance to manage this classroom environment effectively. One colleague said that it is perhaps a myth to imagine that teaching in this format can be managed without assistance. Faculty should identify clear reasons for using this format. When in doubt, consider rethinking the lesson based on the synchronous/asynchronous activities to avoid having to deliver to the two groups. Don’t underestimate this format. It should not be an improvised solution to logistical challenges accelerated by the pandemic. Only use this format for very specific activities such as webinars, or Q&As to bring diverse groups together. I will cover this subject in more detail in an upcoming blog.

How video can support initial teacher education

John McCullagh of Stranmillis University, Belfast gave an overview[ix] of supporting pre-service teachers through the use of video. He was joined by Christian Kogler, University of Education Upper Austria and Janne Länsitie, School of Professional Teacher Education. The session was moderated by Jim Bain of Queen Margaret University. During the pandemic, John saw an increased awareness of the value video can bring in general to teacher education. What re the qualities of ‘good teaching’, our beliefs and values? Teaching may seem straightforward to the untrained eye. But the craft of being a good teacher is subtle and often hidden. Using video recordings of lessons is a good way to break down the complexity and make it more manageable and easier to reflect on.

To understand the pedagogies of practice in professional education we can look at the following three concepts. Representations of practice (making practice more explicit and learners more mindful). Deconstructions of practice (chunking classroom footage into smaller units of action and thought), and Approximations of practice (activities outside of a professional setting) based on Grossman et al (2009). Using video annotation can provide clearer guidance and help the teacher in training to assess their progress. Teachers annotating videos of their teaching provides a deeper access to their thinking, with the lesson analysis framework.

Video Reported Reflection (screen shot from J. McCullagh’s slides)

Video reflection allows teachers in training to shorten the gaps between reflection and adjusting practice. Watching themselves provides evidence that is permanent and accurate. This is very different to trying to ‘remember’ what happened in class. In the last 15 years we’ve moved away from watching VHS recordings to having digital access of recorded lessons. These are easier to review to find meaningful content. See a link to John’s book[x] and an article[xi].

Teaching and Learning Centres of Technology

The responsibility for supporting academic staff and students in the recent move online included a dramatic increase in the use of media to support, facilitate and enhance learning. Where and how were the centres positioned within the university, how did they describe themselves and what roles did they have? This session[xii] examined how higher education is managing the move online and providing support to colleagues. Alexandra Mihai of Maastricht University, Laura Czerniewicz of University of Cape Town, and Deborah Arnold of AUNEGe France shared their ideas (moderated by Michel Beerens of the NewMediaCentre of TU Delft).

One support centre said; ‘We do a lot, but faculty are surprised that we exist’. The pandemic has made these centres more visible and engaged.

The names for these centres varies. Terms include digital education, innovation and multi-media video services. Some emphasised their pedagogical role and others their digital focus. Centres can be physically located in different spaces in the university; by the main entrance or in the library. Some are linked to professional or research services, others connected to student services.

Different names for Media and Learning Centres (Screen shot from A. Mihai). 

These centres are at the crossroads between academic and support staff. They can be positioned as part of the top-down structure. These centres fill a ‘third’ space; an ‘emergent territory between academic and professional domains’. [xiii] This may be in a hub, such as in the university of Northampton which is one central physical place where everyone works together hot desking in an open office. Or as in KU Leuven, more of a conceptual third-space which operates over geographically dispersed locations. The culture and history of the university affects how the centres position themselves and the place of the student in this relationship. One of Laura’s colleagues had said that ‘The classroom has been made strange again’ which is an opportunity to reflect on our practices and interactions, in person and via media.

Media and Learning Centres occuyping the  ‘third space’ (slide from A. Mihai)

The pandemic has caused additional fatigue and stress in the centres. Burnout was a high factor with an increased workload. There were also financial pressures; from having no budget, or a budget crisis, to receiving additional money. There were staffing issues, some lack of skills and knowledge and issues of unrealistic expectations from management. Some of the centres thought there was a lack of educational vision from top down. From a strategic perspective, there were different university visions, sometimes with lack of clarity, or trying to reach short vs. long-term goals. Some centres found it difficult to communicate clearly, to keep everyone in the loop. In one case there was ‘extreme siloing’ with communication only happening vertically. Teaching online can be more team based which can challenge established roles and structures. Centres experienced low buy-in from management, faculty biases to digital learning, a desire to return to ‘as-was normal’ and campus cultures that were more (or less) open to learning new pedagogies. It was not always clear to everyone within an organisation what the Teaching and Learning Centres were actually doing. Some staff felt under appreciated and not empowered.

Additional tasks were added to the workload. There was a shortage of learning designers. Some of the educational challenges were complex such as teaching in a hybrid virtual classroom; ‘staff having to do hybrid teaching with some in the room/some online simultaneously. … the workload and complexity of this approach has been severely under-estimated; purely online was actually simpler.’

On a positive note, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for change. There was an emergence of fluid digital teaching and learning formats, increasing of distance learning and teaching skills, and space for innovation. The use of educational videos and educational tools increased with structured use of the flipped classroom. Established bureaucracy suddenly loosened up and things became possible. In the past, some staff had been frightened of educational videos, but were becoming less so. The centres finally felt there was some recognition for what they did. When they were needed, they delivered. Their role became more visible. The new dynamic can lead to additional motivation and developing roles.

68% of the audience in the conference said they thought the pandemic had, on balance, been a ‘good thing’ for centres of teaching and learning. 32% were not sure. This session highlighted the very important role that the centres of teaching and learning played during the pandemic and how they supported faculty, students, and organisations to evolve new relationships and ways of learning. We could not have done it without their support!

See you in Leuven in 2022!

I could not attend all of the sessions in the afternoon, so missed the awards and the closing discussion. But you can watch these on the main web site. Overall, the conference was well run and there was a good participation rate from those who did attend. Several sponsoring partners presented their latest offerings and their presentations are available on the Media and Learning site.

We are planning to meet in person in Leven, June 2-3, 2022. The call for proposals is now open[xiv]

Editor’s note: This article appeared first on Zac’s blog which you can check-out here.


Zac Woolfitt is a lecturer and researcher at Inholland University in the Netherlands.