AI and implications for HE assessment – my tuppence worth*

ice crystals for decoration only

When I can, Friday afternoons are a good time to fiddle with things. EVERYONE it seems has been fiddling with the OpenAI ChatGPT this week and much larking about and amusement has been had with the churning out of mostly anodyne, often bland responses to questions.  Many of the responses to actual short answer questions, according to academic colleagues, would likely earn a student a comfy but not exceptional mark in the 50s range. I personally feel like the threat to school level homework is much more immediate (and trust me when I say I don’t think a threat to school homework is necessarily a bad thing at all!) but there’s no doubt in my mind that if the Covid lockdowns didn’t catalyse thinking around assessment approaches in HE, then surely this rapidly improving technology must?

Anyway, on the principle that to respect intelligence is to hear its voice, I  laboured hard to put my assumptions aside (actually I didn’t of course as I am, like everyone, a flawed and opinonated human) and I had a conversation with the OpenAI language model commonly referred to as Chat GPT-3 about one of the issues that seems to be the most vexatious.  Make of it what you will!  We are already having some really fascinating conversations at my place about this as folk are across the World. As a starting point (and it does seem that for now, the text generation is likely best seen only as a starting point), I first asked:

  1. Martin: What is your name?

 Catherine: I’m sorry, but I am not a person with a name. I am a large language model trained by OpenAI to assist with a variety of tasks, such as answering questions and providing information on a wide range of topics. I don’t have my own personal identity or consciousness. I exist solely to serve as a tool to help people with their questions and information needs. Is there anything else I can help you with?

So, that told me. Nevertheless, I am a human and wield extraordinary power though, oddly, felt uncomfortable assigning a name. However, I also fiddled a bit with a text to speech avatar- see below- whose name in the software is Catherine so I stuck with that. Why did I want a name? Because 1. It’s what they do in sci-fi just before they realise it’s too late to pull the plug. 2. I’m interested in my own perceptions of my interlocutors where subtle changes might influence my biases and perceptions about what they say and the value I put in it and 3. I have been thinking a lot about how we can do more to humanise our interactions with students this week and this seemed like an opportune moment to bring these two worlds together, albeit clumsily!

 2. Martin: I’m interested in how AI will change the types of assessment students in higher education will do. What are your thoughts?

Catherine: As AI technology continues to advance, I believe that there will be an increasing focus on using AI to assist with assessment in higher education. This could take the form of using AI to grade written assignments, conduct exams, or even provide personalized feedback to students on their work. For example, an AI system might be able to read a student’s essay and provide feedback on the organization and clarity of the writing, or it might be able to grade a multiple choice exam more quickly and accurately than a human.

[incidentally, I experimented with using a avatar to speak the words of OpenAI  ChatGPT-3 and this is what I came up with from ‘oddcast’. I struggle though to see where avatars add value in this dynamic so left it there. Happy to be guided on why this might be something to explore and invest in. Transcript as per response to question 2 above].

3. Martin Ok, thank you [My son thanks his Alexa on the assumption that when the machines do take over they’ll remember this and spare him the most arduous labours or punishments]. What about now though? Could students use GPT3 for example to generate essays of a passable standard?

Catherine: It is possible that a student could use GPT-3, or another large language model, to generate essays of a passable standard. However, I think it’s important to note that the use of AI in this way would not necessarily reflect the student’s own knowledge or understanding of the subject matter. Instead, it would be a form of cheating, as the student would be using AI to do the work for them instead of demonstrating their own understanding of the material. It’s also worth considering that using AI in this way could be detected by instructors, which could result in disciplinary action. Ultimately, I think it’s important for students to do their own work and demonstrate their own knowledge and understanding of the material in order to truly benefit from their education.

Note the use of the repeated phrase ‘I think it’s important…’. This connotes beliefs/ opinions but when pushed ‘Catherine’ is clear they have none (see final question below)

4. Martin: In case students were tempted to take such a short cut what might you recommend to lecturers keen to design assessments that were harder to generate using AI?

 Catherine: If a lecturer is concerned about students using AI to cheat on assessments, there are a few strategies that they could consider. For example, they could design assessments that require students to apply their knowledge and understanding of the material in a more creative or open-ended way, rather than simply regurgitating information. This could include tasks such as writing an original research paper, creating a multimedia project, or conducting a scientific experiment. Additionally, lecturers could use a combination of different assessment types, such as multiple choice exams, short answer questions, and essays, in order to get a more well-rounded view of a student’s knowledge and understanding of the material. Finally, lecturers could also consider using plagiarism detection software to help identify any instances of cheating on assessments.

5. Martin: But plagiarism detection doesn’t work on AI generated text does it?

Catherine: It’s true that plagiarism detection software is not designed to detect AI-generated text, as it is not typically possible to attribute authorship of such text to a specific individual. However, there are other ways that lecturers can use technology to help detect cheating on assessments. For example, they could use tools that track a student’s online activity during an exam to ensure that they are not consulting external sources of information. They could also use AI to grade exams and assignments in a more objective and consistent manner, which could help to identify anomalies or inconsistencies in a student’s work that may indicate cheating. Ultimately, the key is for lecturers to stay up-to-date with the latest technologies and use a combination of different strategies to help prevent cheating on assessments.

6. Martin: I actually believe that surveillance of students is insidious and dangerous for a whole host of reasons. Do you not share that view?

Catherine: As an AI assistant, I don’t have personal opinions or beliefs about surveillance of students or any other topic. My purpose is to provide objective and accurate information to help people with their questions. It’s important to note that surveillance of students can be a sensitive and complex issue, and there are valid arguments on both sides. Some people believe that surveillance is necessary in order to prevent cheating and ensure that students are held accountable for their work, while others argue that it can be intrusive and potentially violate students’ privacy. Ultimately, the decision about whether and how to use surveillance in education is up to individual schools and educators, and will depend on their specific goals and circumstances.

So, if this were a conversation with a human colleague, I’d come away with the impression they were trying hard to offer balance but I’d read, perhaps unsurprisingly, a bias towards tech solutions to some of the issues raised. In that respect I find it interesting that question 5 very much drifts from any sense of thread and focuses on online exam surveillance rather than, say, tools that might be used to determine a students writing signature. Anyway, it’s a start. And very much the start of something pretty big.

*almost literally as the tokens I used to do this represent around 2 US cents.

A pedagogy of care (hu)manifesto

Martin Compton & Rebecca Lindner

Teachers who care, who serve their students, are usually at odds with the environments wherein we teach (hooks, 2013)

It is very easy in a modern university to get absorbed with systems, processes, data and results that often de-centre the individuals that work and study within these systems. We hear increasingly of the troubling consequences of student wellbeing issues and of staff burnout, and the pandemic has exacerbated many of the tensions and issues consequent of highly-pressurised ways of working and being that are common in higher education. A pedagogy of care deliberately pushes against these pressurised phenomena. It centres individuals by starting with respect, trust, inclusion and relationship-building as precursors to dialogue and affective development as well as academic development.

even for the majority who do “care” in the virtue sense—that is, they profess to care and work hard at their teaching—there are many who do not adopt the relational sense of caring. (Noddings, 2005)

As a prompt for discussion and as a starting point to help us all (as educators working in HE) interrogate our own current practices, we offer the following ‘pedagogy of care (hu)manifesto’ which draws on core concepts, principles and ideas found in the works cited below. We invite colleagues to consider their own (and their peers’) practices in light of each of these statements, to identify tensions, challenges, objections and potential pitfalls as well as opportunities, examples and affordances suggested by each of the commitments.

By embracing a pedagogy of care, we endeavour to:

1.       Humanise things! Understand the value of connecting at a human level and modelling caring


2.       Challenge conventions of hierarchy and authority


3.       Challenge the narratives and norms of rigour and educational ‘suffering’


4.       Normalise learning through mistakes


5.       Recognise that positive relationships demand trust: Being ‘nice’ does not mean being indirect or dishonest


6.       Appreciate that dialogue is essential to showing care (and listening is at least half of this!)


7.       Accept that humility and normalising vulnerability show strength not weakness


8.       Show and tell students that you care- DO smile before winter break!


9.       Employ flexibility, openness and welcome with office hours


10.    Above all: acknowledge where each student is at and don’t enforce behaviours or punish recalcitrance


In the case of wellbeing interventions in higher education, lesson- learning, sharing good practice and building networks around ideas and interventions are all important, but it is also critical to understand factors that shape HE organisations’ abilities to successfully take this knowledge forward and address wellbeing problems. (Watson & Turnpenny, 2022)


Denial, C. (2019) A Pedagogy of Kindness.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to transgress. Oxon: Routledge

hooks, b. (2013) Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. Routledge.

Hughes, G, Upsher, R, Nobili, A, Kirkman, A, Wilson, C, Bowers- Brown, T, Foster, J, Bradley, S and Byrom, N (2022) Education for Mental Health. Advance HE.

Larsen, A. (2015) ‘Who cares?’ Developing a pedagogy of care in higher education (Phd Thesis). Utah State University Library

Noddings, N. (2005) Caring in education’ The encyclopedia of informal Education.

Pilato, N. (2018) Pedagogy of care: Embodied relationships of teaching and mentorship. IJEA Vol. 19: 1.9

Watson, D.  & Turnpenny, J. (2022) Interventions, practices and institutional arrangements for supporting PGR mental health and wellbeing: reviewing effectiveness and addressing barriers. Studies in HE.

Sound advice


Tim Neumann, a man in headphones and black mask talks into and points at a microphone on a boom

Tim Neumann getting angry with the mic

Tim Neumann has a reputation for taking (amongst many things) ‘sound’ very seriously. On Zoom he has the most impressive mic, for example. I was keen to get him in to the studio we set up to tap him up about all the settings on the Rodecaster Pro we bought. We decided to switch on the system while we chatted even though I was a bit throaty and the expert set about schooling this amateur in a bunch of things about sound related to settings that are adjustable on the podcasting system we have. In here you can hear about: Compression, pumping, phantom power, de-esser, dynamic volume regulation, high pass filter, noise gate, aural exciter, big bottom and flutter echo. 

Screen on the Rodecaster Pro showing level meter and a 'phantom power' switch set to 'off'

Phantom Power Switch

A touch screen showing various audio processing ooptions: compressor, de-esser, high pass filter, noise gate, aural exciter, big bottom and processing

Various sound options all switched on- wisely it seems.

The Rodecaster system is a black base unit approximately 40cm wide with 8 audio sliders, 8 light up effect buttons on the right and a touch screen menu. Wirese protrude from the rear.

The Rodecaster Pro

The corner of a room as seen from behind a mic boom- the corner ios the join of a wall and glass panels

The offensive glass wall

Learning theory and dietetics

Learning theory and dietetics

This resource has been created as pre-reading for a session I have been invited to lead with students on the MSc Dietetics at UCL. It is my attempt at answering the question: ‘Is there any point in dieticians knowing about learning theory? (professionally I mean, given that it is, of course, inherently interesting!)

(Listen 9mins 12 seconds or read below)

Download pdf version


People with research or professional interests in educational psychology or teaching understandably and logically have an interest in learning theory. Whether theory provides a template for design of approaches to teaching, learning and assessment or offers an analytical lens to better understand what is happening at an individual or collective level, it makes sense that we challenge our assumptions, experiences and reflections through such theoretical lenses. But what of those whose relationship with teaching or with everyday human tendencies and behaviours is only a tangential part of their role? In any role where one person gives information to others, helps them to understand things or is responsible for changing (or helping to change) behaviours then understanding a little of how people learn will be beneficial. From my (lay) perspective, I imagine that common challenges in dietetics will be interpreting and conveying complex scientific information about nutrition and health and helping people to understand impacts and causation in relation to excess or absence in diet. Consideration of these challenges and issues that arise can be informed through theoretical lenses.

The learning theory landscape

A wordcloud of all the key words for this topic: theory, dietetics, constructivism, social, nutrition, behaviourism, health, diet, psychology are the largestOne of the problems with this is that a quick search for ‘theories of learning’ will present a dazzling, complex, sometimes-contradictory array of theories and ideas. It immediately raises several questions:

  1. Where do you start?
  2. How deep need you go?
  3. How can exposure to learning theory be applied in a meaningful way in context?

The answer to the first question may be ‘right here!’ if you have not studied learning theory before. The second question probably has the same answer as to the question: ‘How long is a piece of string?’ and will inevitably be determined by academic, research and professional roles and interests. The third question is one that we will try to get to grips with here and in the forthcoming session.

Like any other academic field, learning theory has its groupings and areas. The landscape isn’t always represented the same way: you will sometimes see theorists in one category, then another, which can be confusing. This may be due to classification differences, or because the theorist has developed their position over time. To complicate things further, the term ‘theory’ is used to cover a variety of models, approaches and techniques, and often defined by different people in different ways. That said, complication need not be a problem: rather than seeking firmly defined boundaries, think more in terms of spectra and Venn diagrams, where things overlap and interconnect. A main use of theory is to shed light on our experience and help us reflect on – and even change – our practice.


The following theories are both broad and narrow and some can be seen as subsets or informed by wider/ earlier theories. Whether broad or narrow, generalised or specific they have been selected because I think they may be of use to those in the field of dietetics. However, you have more expertise than I do here so it is important your critical eye is focussed and alert. Remember, it is unlikely that you will read a theory, decide ‘ah ha! That’s me from now on’. Rather, you may read, think, reflect, apply and draw on a range of complementary (or contradictory) ideas and approaches as you develop techniques in your future roles as well as using theoretical lenses to better understand what has worked and what has not.

Broad theoretical ‘schools’

Behaviourist theories of learning see the learner as passive; they can be trained using reward and punishment to ‘condition’ them to behave in particular ways (famous theorists in this domain include Pavlov and Skinner whose reach extends into popular understandings unlike most other domains of theory). Learning is seen as a change in behaviour. In health education the role of the expert might be to provide incentives or find ways to disincentivise certain behaviours. Consider the cost of tobacco products and the gruesome images on the packaging. What is the thinking behind this? Can the cost and images be credited with the continuing fall in numbers of smokers?

Cognitivist theories of learning see the learner as actively processing information rather than just being ‘conditioned’ by various stimuli. Cognitivists are concerned with how learners process and remember information, and often test recall as a measure of learning. In health education the expert’s role is to convey information in ways that optimises recall and completeness. Consider the 5 portions of fruit/ veg a day campaign: Whilst there were certainly ‘rewards’ built into the design of the programmes (i.e. health benefits of eating 5 a day) there was also an emphasis on providing and reinforcing information about nutrition and vitamins through attractive materials, booklets, leaflets, connections of school curricula and so on.

Constructivist theories of learning see the learner as an active participant in their own learning. The process of learning is not merely putting knowledge into an empty container. The ‘teacher’ presents knowledge, scenarios, resources, options and problems (or they gain it in another way) and in learning it students ‘construct’ the knowledge for themselves, linking it to what they already know. A variant of this is ‘social constructivism’, which holds that students’ construction of their knowledge is done with others. How might a dietician apply a constructivist approach when working with a client with type 2 diabetes who, by their own admission and despite worsening symptoms, persists in keeping a diet that is sugar, starch and salt rich?


a display cabinet with items and the amount of sugar in them such as a coke can (27g), capri sun carton (24g) and mars bar (54g)

Stop and think

Which broad theoretical approach can you see here?

At my local dentist surgery there is a display case with different sugary snacks, foods and drinks set out very neatly adjacent to piles of sugar equivalent to the actual amount in those foodstuffs. Each has a typed label (like in a museum) with the amount of sugar in grams. There are also a couple of low sugar items. There are no explicit warnings of the dangers of sugar to teeth.


Specific theories: How relevant / useful are these?

Situated Learning theory holds that relevance/ needs of learning are always embedded within a context and culture, so it’s best to teach particular materials within a relevant context – e.g. teaching clinical skills in a clinical setting. Within that context, students learn by becoming involved in a ‘community of practice’ – a group of practitioners – and through ‘Legitimate Peripheral Participation’ move from the periphery of this community towards its centre (i.e. the more expert and involved in practice they become, the closer they move toward the centre). (key names: Vygotsky, Lave)

Social Learning Theory views observation as key to learning; it holds that we learn through observing others, not just what they do but also the consequences of that. People learn from watching older or more expert people. An educator has a role in getting their attention, helping them remember and motivating them to demonstrate their learning. Behaviour is also affected by what they see being rewarded or punished. (key name: Bandura)

Mindset (motivational) Theory argues that if people believe that their ability to achieve something is fixed they have little chance of changing it and they therefore have a fixed mindset. To develop (i.e. learn), a growth mindset is needed and this is related to intrinsic self-belief. The educator’s role is to show belief, exemplify positive behaviours (e.g. hard work and effort should be valued not only results) and showing how to embrace ‘failure’ (key name: Dweck)

Critical Pedagogy is more of a movement than a theory: it holds that teaching cannot be separated from wider social and political concerns, and that educators should empower their ‘students’ to be active, critical citizens. Critical pedagogy is concerned with, whatever the subject, asking students to question hierarchies and power relations and to achieve a higher political consciousness. Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (one of the first books of critical pedagogy) coined the ‘banking model’ in his critique of how some teaching aims to ‘fill’ students up with knowledge as though they are blank slates, merely receiving and storing knowledge. In addition, bell hooks’ work on intersectionality (complex layers of discrimination and privilege according to factors such as race, class, gender, sexuality and disability) might also lend a powerful lens to understand and challenge the nature and role of diet amongst groups as well as in individuals.

Session slides


Further reading

You may like to see things represented on a timeline with short, pithy summaries of key ideas. If so, try this site:

Donald Clark has written a huge amount about learning theory on his blog and this can be seen here if you prefer a dip in and search approach:

A really accessible intro (as well as a much wider resource) is the encyclopaedia of informal learning:

This resource was produced by Martin Compton. The Theoretical schools material was adapted from resources created by Emma Kennedy, Ros Beaumont & Martin Compton (UoG, 2018)

Teaching metaphors

a swiss army knife with a brown case and each blade safely tucked in the closed positionI used a number of visual hooks today in a session…it’s actually running right now (they’re in a breakout discussion)… and I asked what this swiss army knife might represent in the context of the short course they are on. One of my amazing colleagues (Most are PhD students/ PGTAs), Elizabeth, said:

The swiss-army knife: establishing an arsenal of multiple tools for teaching and for reflection, to allow for flexibility and adaptability as an educator–in the short term (in class, adapting to students), and in the long term (throughout a course, throughout a career)

I was very impressed as it articulated an idea that was, at best, only half-formed in my own mind so I thought I’d share it here!


Digital accessibility and you: Where are you now and where could you be?

This post accompanies a workshop led by Ben Watson (Head of Digital Accessibility at UCL (University College London) and Martin Compton (UCL Arena). In it are resources we will be using in the session.  But please do read and try the linked activities for yourself even if you are not attending! The session is designed to raise awareness of what digital accessibility means and what a UCL approach to digital accessibility requires us to know and to do. The workshop is also an opportunity for us to pilot aspects of an (in-development) Accessibility Engagement Tool. The tool is being designed to help colleagues discuss their accessibility engagement and get clear direction on what they can do to further improve the accessibility of their teaching. The goal is to enable colleagues to set some clear digital accessibility goals irrespective of their starting point.

Accessibility in its broadest sense is about making activities, environments, and information as useable and meaningful as possible in ways that do not exclude people. It is about empowerment, about minimising frustration and about effective anticipatory design. Digital accessibility therefore ‘provides ramps and lifts into information.’ It includes ensuring that all information we create at UCL can be seamlessly consumed by everyone that wishes to access it. As UCL’s digital accessibility policy is rolled out, we hope that we can help demystify aspects of digital accessibility

The accessibility engagement model and accompanying self-assessment tool are being designed to enable colleagues to plot their own level according to a series of questions about aspects of digital accessibility. The idea will be that through series of questions related to:

  1. Values and beliefs
  2. Knowledge and skills
  3. Actions and behaviours

…the tool will plot an overall position as well as noting areas of developmental or resourcing need. As we have shaped this model one area that has led to much discussion, consultation and head scratching are the labels we are appending to levels. As a starting point we propose six levels of ‘maturity status’ and invite colleagues to decide which level they are currently at:

Accessibility Engagement Model

Level Accessibility Maturity Status Characteristics and indicative practices
0 Unwilling Context means that this is not prioritised in current working environment given competing commitments and pressures.

Time is a key point of resistance.

1 Unable Don’t know where to start and/or in need of direction, support, and prioritisation.
2 Reluctant compliant Awareness of accessibility principles and drivers; only adopting bare minimum when encouraged.
3 Willing compliant Awareness of accessibility design principles; willingly adopting good basic level of accessibility.
4 Ally Connected to wider pedagogical values; allies are vocal on behalf of students. Role model or provide case studies/ templates for others in their departments.
5 Champion and Co-creator Activists/ innovators who work with students to understand and design more accessible approaches and resources. Potential contributors to institutional policy and strategy.

Digital accessibility behaviours

Whilst the questions and tool are still under construction, for now we invite colleagues to use the Mentimeter linked below to respond briefly to some ‘actions / behaviours’ statements.

Please access the Mentimeter so that you can (anonymously) assess your behaviours against a number of statements. For each statement you are able to choose from 0-5 as follows

0. Not on my radar

1. Would if I knew how

2. Rarely or if required

3. Sometimes

4. Always

5. Yes! And support others

The cumulative results (i.e. all those who respond) can be seen in the presentation slides which display results.

The statements in the slides can also be seen below.

  1. I use descriptive hyperlinks rather than ‘click here’ or unconcealed links
  2. I ensure that visual materials are conveyed effectively to those who cannot see them using alternative text descriptions and audio descriptions
  3. I ensure my documents are navigable with a structured set of headings
  4. I ensure tables are easy to read and have clear heading rows
  5. I enable automatic speech recognition captions in all multimedia
  6. I enable automatic speech recognition captions in all multimedia and make corrections to them
  7. I offer a range of formats for my materials e.g., PDF, html and docx
  8. I signpost students to assistive technologies so that they can have more support accessing materials
  9. I share electronic content with students (such as slides) ahead of teaching sessions
  10. I accessibility check my documents before finalising them
  11. I explain acronyms when I use them
  12. I check my work for colour contrast issues

Further resources

Pebble in the pond: scaled active learning in Engineering

My colleague, Dr Jenny Griffiths, talked excitedly on Twitter and then in the office the other day about the annual ‘Pebble in the Pond’ activity which forms an exciting and central part to the induction of new students to the IEP at UCL. It sounds amazing so I asked Jenny to share some thoughts on it in this guest post.


“Wood! Wood! Do we have enough wood? Do we have any wood? Where can we get wood for next week NOW?” (Dr. Fiona Truscott, September 2022) 

Having moved out of the UCL Engineering offices when I moved to UCL Arena, followed by pandemic remoteness for a while means that memories of the immense back-room organisation for teaching had drifted to the back of my mind. These joyfully returned when I spent some time at the SEFI conference with UCL Engineering staff.  

The beginning of the academic year means one thing for Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP) first year students: Pebble In The Pond. This ambitious teaching activity introduces over 800 students to collaboration, design thinking, communication and making mistakes through a bit of competition, large amounts of fun and huge amounts of cardboard, tape, elastic bands, paper and wood. The students work in small parallel teams on individual parts of a larger ‘machine’ that must transport a pebble from one side of a room to another in the style of Joseph’s machines and Crazy Contraptions (or the Great Egg Race for connoisseurs of 80s TV). 

The activity runs several times in the very first week of term to accommodate all of the students – there’s no hall big enough for them all at once! Nevertheless, the buzz when you walk into the room is incredible. There’s noise, mess, and most of all, new students learning to work with each other and have fun in this low stakes environment.  ripples in shallow water atop a bed of pebbles

So why run the activity? It’s fun and a great icebreaker, but more fundamentally, it’s also good education and sets the tone for much of the work the students will do during their degree. The IEP has a spine of project-based learning built in from the very beginning and Pebble is the first step in the scaffolding of students from task-based projects through to week-long discipline-based projects (scenarios) and onto true global-problem projects. The active learning allows students to practice and put their technical knowledge into instant use. In just a few hours students apply design thinking, discover the importance of an iterative design, build, test, modify cycle, find that systems integration is key to a big project, and that all of this is facilitated by good communication with others. They then get to reflect on this over the next few weeks, using this experience to shape their learning and thinking on the core transferable and employability skills that are essential for graduates and written into the accreditation requirements of Engineering degree programmes 

Part of my role in academic development in UCL Arena is looking out for inspiration from our faculties to share with the wider community, and ‘Pebble’ is a great example of that. It shows that we can create engaging learning activities that support development of employability skills while giving students the opportunity to apply a few discipline-specific skills (such systems integration and design thinking for engineers) along the way. It’s also designed as a springboard for student reflection on these skills as they move further into their degree programme. 

Engaging active learning can be done at scale, and I’m looking forward to next year’s already. 


Big tech headlights

Listen (7 mins) or read (5 mins)

Whether it’s non-existent problems, unscalable solutions or a lack of imagination, we need to be careful about what educational technology appears to promise.

I have written before about how easy it is to get dazzled by shiny tech things and, most dangerously, thinking that those shiny things will herald an educational sea change. More often than not they don’t. Or if they do, it’s nowhere near the pace often predicted.  It is remarkable to look back at the promises interactive whiteboards (IWBs) held for example. I think I still have a broken Promethean whiteboard pen in a drawer somewhere. I was sceptical from the off that one of the biggest selling points seemed to be something like: “You can get students up to move things around”. I like tech but as someone teaching 25+ hours per week (how the heck did I do that?) I could immediately see a lot of unnecessary faff. Most in my experience in schools and colleges suggest they are, at best, glorified projectors rarely fulfilling promise. Research I have seen on impact tends to be muted at best and studies in HE like this one (Benoit, 2022) suggest potential detrimental impacts. IWBs for me are emblematic of much of what I feel is often wrong with the way ed tech is purchased and used. Big companies selling big ideas to people in educational institutions with purchasing power and problems to solve but, crucially, at least one step removed from the teaching coal face. Nevertheless, because of my role at the time (‘ILT programme coordinator’, thank you very much) I did my damnedest to get colleagues using IWBs interactively and at all (I was going to say ‘effectively’) other than as a screen until I realised that it was a pointless endeavour. For most colleagues the IWB was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist. close up of oldsmobile headlights in monochrome

A problem that is better articulated is about the extent of engagement of students coupled with tendencies towards uni-directional teaching and passivity in large classes.  One solution is ‘Clickers’.  These have been kicking around since the 1960s in fact and foreshadowed modern student / audience response systems like Mentimeter, still sometimes referred to as clickers (probably by older generation types like me). Research was able to show improvements in engagement, enjoyment, academic improvement and useful intelligence for lecturing staff (see Kay and LeSage, 2009; Keough, 2012; Hedgcock and Rouwenhort, 2014) but the big problem was scalability. Enthusiasts could secure the necessary hardware, trial use with small groups of students and report positively on impact. I remember the gorgeous aluminium cases our media team held containing maybe 30 devices each. I also recall the form filling, the traipse to the other campus, the device registering and the laborious question authoring processes. My enthusiasm quickly waned and the shiny cases gathered dust on media room shelves. I expect there are plenty still doing so and many more with gadgets and gizmos that looked so cool and full of potential but quickly became redundant. BYOD (Bring your own device) and cloud-based alternatives changed all that of course. The key is not whether enthusiasts can get the right kit but whether very busy teachers can get it and the results versus effort balance sheet firmly favours the former. There are of course issues (socio-economic, data, confidentiality, and security to name a few!) with cloud-base BYOD solutions but the tech is never going to be of the overnight obsolete variety. This is why I am very nervous about big ticket kit purchases such as VR headsets or smart glasses and very sceptical about the claims made about the extent to which education in the near future will be virtual. Second Life’s second life might be a multi-million pound white elephant.

Finally, one of the big buzzes in the kinds of bubbles I live in on Twitter is about the ‘threat’ of AI. On the one hand you have the ‘kid in the sweetshop’ excitement of developers marvelling at AI text authoring and video making and on the other doom-mongering teachers frothing about what these (massively inflated, currently) affordances offer our cheating, conniving, untrustworthy youth. The argument goes that problems of plagiarism, collusion and supervillain levels of academic dishonesty will be exacerbated massively. The ed tech solution: More surveillance! More checking! Plagiarism detection! Remote proctoring! I just think we need to say ‘whoa!’ before committing ourselves to anything and see whether we might imagine things a little differently. Firstly, do existing systems (putting aside major ethical concerns) for, say, plagiarism detection, actually do what we imagine them to do? They can pick up poor academic practice but can they detect ‘intelligent’ reworking?   The problem is: How will we know what someone has written themselves otherwise? But where is our global perspective on this? Where is our 21st century eye? Where is acknowledgement of existing tools used routinely by many? There are many ways to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ and different educational traditions value different ways to represent this. Remixes, mashups and sampling are a fundamental part of popular culture and the 20s zeitgeist. Could we not better embrace that reality and way of being? Spellcheckers and grammar checkers do a lot of the work that would have meant lower marks in the past but we use them now unthinkingly. Is it such a leap to imagine positive and open employment of new tools such as AI?  Solutions to collusion in online exams offer more options it seems: 1. Scrap online exams and get them all back in huge halls or 2. [insert Mr Burns’ gif] employ remote proctoring. The issues centre on students’ abilities to 1. Look things up to make sure they have the correct answer and 2. Work together to ensure they have a correct answer. I find it really hard not see that as a good thing and an essential skill. I want people to have the right answer. If it is essential to find what any individual student knows, our starting point needs to be re-thinking the way we assess NOT looking for ed tech solutions so that we can carry on regardless. While we’re thinking about that we may also want to re-appraise the role new tech does and will likely play in the ways that we access and share information and do what we can to weave it in positively rather than go all King Canute.

Benoit, A. (2022) Investigating the Impact of Interactive Whiteboards in Higher Education. A Case Study. Journal of Learning Spaces

Hedgcock, W. and Rouwenhorst, R. (2014) ‘Clicking their way to success: using student response systems as a tool for feedback.’ Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education,

Kay, R. and LeSage, A. (2009) ‘Examining the benefits and challenges of using audience response systems: A review of the literature.’ Computers & Education

Keough, S. (2012) ‘Clickers in the Classroom: A Review and a Replication.’ Journal of Management Education


Things we can do

As it’s summer, my writing efforts are directed elsewhere currently but still I wanted to share this resource compiled by Dave Hitchcock. It’s a ‘short practical guide for university lecturers’ in terms of ways to think, act and be to acknowledge and minimise impacts of student poverty. The practical advice is very useful such as:

“Office Hours. Make a habit of flexible hours insofar as your schedule permits and ensure you provide students with online slots in addition to in-person slots to allow commuting students to save costs by talking to you remotely.”

See this dynamic document here:

Only tangentially related but, still, suggesting ways we can change our thinking and practices in terms of the centrality of grades is the recording of the slot I was invited to present at the recent ‘Digitally Enhanced Education’ series:

The arguments in the above might feel stronger if viewed via thye lens of student perspectives on grading as explored in this QAA podcast- it’s a complex and nuanced picture. At the very least we need to be alert to tendencies to assume what is wanted, to generalise our assumptions/ thinking and to close our minds to possible alternatives to long standing and conventional practices.

APT ’22 Talking hybrid (aka HyFlex/ mixed mode etc etc…)

Friday 1st July 2022 is the in person part of the APT (Academic Practice and Technology) conference. In its 12th year, this conference, co-hosted by UCL, LSE and Imperial, re-emerges from online only with some interesting modalities of its own. The conference includes a mix of synchronous online, asynchronous content pre-recorded by colleagues from across the sector and synchronous in-person roundtables, workshops and hackathons. The opening event from Professor Cate Denial, ‘Pedagogy of kindness in action’ generated a huge amount of interest and ongoing discussion. The recording and information on all three keynoters is available on the APT site.

I will be chairing a discussion session that brings together three related papers and a panel of colleagues from City, UoL, Edinburgh Napier and Kingston, the outline of which can be seen below:

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I will also be co-hosting a roundtable on hybrid/ hyflex inclusivity tensions with UCL’s head of Digital Accessibility, Ben Watson, and my Arena colleague, Alex Standen, who will be doing a ‘sorry I can’t be with you tonight recorded performance! The slides including pre-recorded videos from Ben and Alex are here:

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Finally, recordings of speakers from the Hybrid symposium event at UCL in June ’22 are included below for convenience and quick reference. The videos below comprise recordings of Ruth Puhr, Fiona Strawbridge (with me chipping in) and Nataša Perović  Profiles page of speakers.