Supporting Student Success for flexible/distance learning

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How can we support student success? Julie Voce, Dom Pates and Rae Bowdler attended a workshop by the University of London (UoL) Centre for Distance Education (CDE) to find out. The programme grappled with various big-ticket items such as how we explore retention and progression in the management of flexible learning, through to using various tools such as chatbots to improve student progression and achievement in distance learning.

Exploring retention and progression in flexible learning provision. 

Firstly, the head of the CDE, Dr Linda Amrane-Cooper, and CDE Fellow Professor Alan Tait presented results from a project on retention and completion along with another Fellow, Dr Pete Cannell. Alan Tait started the first presentation by placing issues of retention and progression in the context of the University of London and its International Programme.

Student completion rates are a big challenge in higher education and decrease from full-time to part-time provision, and, for part-time students, from campus to distance-based education. Furthermore, it is particularly challenging to retain students from non-traditional backgrounds, who work or care for families (or, in some cases, do both) or have disabilities. These students are often attracted to the flexible, distance-based education offered by the International Programmes and the UK’s Open University, so it is not surprising that these institutions often report low completion rates at both the module and the qualification level.

Much of the discussion of retention in the UK institutions focus on data metrics such as the results of HESA student surveys. It can be challenging to obtain similar data for distance students, particularly those based overseas: some have good reasons to not respond to answering questionnaires or can’t be made to squeeze into demographic categories that don’t work particularly well for them.

Linda presented results from a survey of the student data that had been obtained from three distance-based UoL programmes between 2012 and 2017. This showed that many students had complex ‘learner journeys’ with changes of career pathways and long gaps, but that this did not include a longitudinal study of their career trajectory nor the challenges of the first year.

This data suggests that paying more attention to students in that crucial first year could improve retention. Fortunately, it seems that the UK’s Office for Students is showing signs of re-thinking its apparent bias in favour of the most straightforward, traditional student pathways.

Using chatbots improve student progression and achievements in distance learning

Dr Alberto-Asquer introduced us to chatbots and highlighted where they have been used in other institutions, such as ‘Chat to Becky’ at Leeds Beckett University to assist students with selecting university courses and Woebot for mental health assistance based on cognitive behavioural therapy. Could chatbots be used to support distance learning? Alberto suggested that there was a continuum between transactional chatbots and conversational chatbots such that the former would be useful for providing answers to simple questions whilst the latter could provide a dialogue for knowledge development. His research is split into two stages:

  • Stage 1 – a transactional chatbot for teaching simple accounting basics. Using BotStar with Facebook Messenger it acts as an interactive textbook with questions, quizzes and answers to simple queries. Feedback from the student focus group was positive and students felt this was a useful supplementary learner resource, however, the chatbot was seen as a novelty. Students liked having visual examples embedded in the responses. Try out the accounting chatbot (Facebook login required)
  • Stage 2 – conversational chatbot based upon a case study. Students are given a scenario based on the procurement process at the Junta de Andalusia where they play the Head of Treasury and need to meet with the Head of Finance. They can ask the chatbot questions as part of a fairly open-ended dialogue to help respond to the scenario. It took a lot of time to develop the potential student questions and suitable responses but has value in helping students with sense-making and problem-solving.

Dr Asquer summarised by noting that there is a limited role for transactional chatbots, however, they are still useful. He noted that there is a lot of investment required, especially for conversational chatbots to determine potential student questions. One suggestion moving forward is to engage students in the design and development of the knowledge base and interaction design.

Business simulations, peer reviews and African Maths educator development

Jennie Goulding, presenting a talk at the CDS workshop on student success

Jennie Goulding of the IoE on teacher educator development in Sub-Saharan Africa

Drs Dimitrios Koufopoulos and Ioannis Gkalitis provided some tales from their explorations into simulated games in business and management education for the University of London’s Global MBA programme by sharing some of their prelimary findings. They spoke about a business simulation called ‘The Icarus Game‘, whereby Global MBA students take on roles in the ongoing everyday experience of running an airport. Conducting a series of semi-structured interviews with participating students over Skype, responses were themed under putting theory into practice, learning process, teamwork, and developing skills and competencies.

The simulation activity was found to give students good management practice in working together as a team, helped them to learn to collaborate and listen to other points of view. Students also considered the Icarus Game as helping them with their decision making, developing critical thinking, and helping them with complex problem solving. Some valid questions also emerged from the audience, such as one around ensuring equity of access to learning when the requirement was also to simulate a competitive environment, and another around how to fairly assign groups in such contexts.

Dr Gwyneth Hughes and Lesley Price from the UCL Institute of Education (IoE) brought comparative tales of peer reviewing verses discussion forums for promoting online learner success in professional development. It was one of the few sessions that began with an interaction activity for the audience, so that instinctively warmed people up to their talk. Hughes and Price introduced the term ‘ipsative assessment’, which they described as assessment of the overall learner journey. The assessment tools they used included a reflective journal, self and system tracking of task completion, peer review workshops, and a weekly topic discussion forum, with the peer review coming out on top as most helpful by one of the students surveyed. Hughes and Price linked peer review to success on several grounds – providing a ‘safe space’ to share a growing understanding of ideas, for providing an opportunity to reflect on their own understanding of the course material, and on the grounds of co-constructed knowledge.

Dr Jennie Golding, also of the IoE, brought proceedings to a close with a talk about teacher educator development for supporting Mathematics education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Golding described educational cultures that tend to value oral traditions and rote learning, and that Sub-Saharan Maths attainment on global indices is usually low. The educational environments she described were most challenging, with very large classes and limited resources, although she nevertheless noted significant use of smartphones. She stated that the best way to work to address these attainment challenges is through teacher educators and recounted her experiences of doing just that. A very interesting talk that also raised questions about balancing supporting attainment in these contexts with being mindful of colonialist legacies, and not being perceived to ‘impose’ solutions from outside.

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