A team of eLearning Technologists from the Faculty of Medicine have been working tirelessly to support the digitisation of its Postgraduate courses.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, significant aspects of the Faculty's education courses have been forced to digitise, creating a blended combination of on-campus (in-person) and remote (online) learning. Alongside this essential work, there has also been a wider project in the Faculty to use digitisation to open our education offering to a broader audience in order to improve health training, share world-leading research and build capacity among a wider variety of communities.
In the second of a series of interviews, we spoke to Sam Kennedy to find out about the tech solutions he is using to help with PG education and the advice he gives to students adapting to online learning.
Who are you and what do you do?
I am Sam Kennedy, eLearning Technologist for the Department of Surgery & Cancer and I support the development of remote and online learning on PGT programmes in S&C.
Where were you working/studying before you joined Imperial? And how did you find joining the during the midst of a pandemic??
I’m from an Art & Design/technology background - MA Digital Art (UAL, Camberwell), BSc Software Systems for the Arts & Media (University of Hertfordshire) - and for almost 20 years I’ve been promoting and supporting TEL (Technology-Enhanced Learning) in FEIs & HEIs.
Over the first lockdown, I freelanced as a Digital Learning Specialist on projects with Oaklands College and the University of Hertfordshire, helping lecturers to find rapid ways to bring face-to-face teaching activities online. Imperial is the first role I’ve ever had where the work is, and the entire recruitment process was, conducted 100% online. That said, I don’t have to be on-site to realise that Imperial is huge! I’ve had a really warm welcome and I think joining in July was useful as it gave me time to find my way around the organisational structure and systems and to get to know colleagues before the Autumn onslaught.
What does an e-learning technologist do?
This varies depending on the institution, project and teams you’re working with. For me, it currently involves a mix of hands-on work (including formatting and incorporating content into Blackboard modules, MS Teams, Leganto, Panopto etc) and supporting colleagues by producing plans, guides, bespoke training, investigating new tools and testing/ troubleshooting solutions. I’ve also joined the Surgical Education team part-time to help develop their new Online PG Cert in Surgical Education – exciting times!
One of the most rewarding aspects of the eLT role is hearing positive feedback from colleagues and students about learning activities that you’ve had a hand in developing.
Even prior to the pandemic, there was growth in remote learning, EdTech and digitisation of courses, why do you think that is and what are the benefits?
Educators have always been a resourceful, inquisitive bunch and they’ll exploit whatever technology is at hand to break down barriers to learning. Before the
Internet, Australians were teaching over vast distances via CB radio; before that it was ‘correspondence education’, where printed ‘lessons’ and assignments were sent backwards and forwards via the mail…
Nowadays, the ubiquity of internet-enabled devices, on-demand media services, social media platforms and busy work schedules means we expect flexibility and control over how and when we consume media and collaborate with others. Online learning can provide that flexibility through on-demand content and asynchronous activities, combined with occasional scheduled or ad-hoc live meetups.
What challenges have you found specifically in relation to digitising medical courses and are there any exciting technological solutions you have used to overcome these?
‘Burst’ weeks - where the delivery of a whole module is condensed into a single week – are particularly challenging for everyone involved. At PG level there’s a lot to cram in but students need space to flourish; deciding what to leave out is difficult.
EdTech is exciting if it ‘works’, even if it’s low-fi or simply mirrors face to face practice, e.g. in virtual face to face delivery, breakout sessions - where students work on a challenge in small groups then feedback to the whole group – are already making a difference in terms of developing students’ confidence and creating a sense of community and accountability.
Collaborative mind-mapping type tools such as Miro.com are real swiss army knives too; they can be used both live and asynchronously and, used appropriately, they can successfully emulate the buzz of face to face group work.
What advice would you give students navigating multimodal and fully digitised learning for the first time?
Join or set up a study group with your peers, even if it’s just two of you, and build in opportunities to meet informally. You’ve lost the opportunity to sit face to face in the canteen or chat on the way to lectures. Connecting informally and having a laugh are important for humans.
If it’s a course with a significant asynchronous component, timetable in when you’re going to do the work. Timetable in meals and down-time too. You could consider approaches like the Pomodoro technique, where you structure your time into 25-minute bursts of activity on specific tasks, followed by breaks. Some people say helps to instil a sense of urgency, whilst making it easier to quantify your progress.
If you’re studying on a programme which involves lots of virtual face-to-face sessions, take opportunities to look/move away from the screen as often as possible - you can still listen. Remember that online learning is a comparatively new concept and it can take many forms. If you have ideas about how you/your peers’ experiences on a module could be improved, exploit opportunities to discuss them with your course rep, module or programme lead.
If you’re struggling, tell someone. It’s easy to disconnect when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Look after your health. If you’re not walking to the bus/train/college, keep the routine going by walking around the block instead. That way, you can still ‘go’ to college and ‘go’ home at the end of the day.
What continued benefits can remote learning give us as things return to normality?
Covid has been a real eye-opener in that it’s probably immersed us all in more live, online meetings than is good for us! We know what it feels like to be Zoomed or Teams’d-out by the end of a day, and this should encourage everyone to think critically about online learning experiences.
I think this insight and collective experiences over the autumn term should lead to a richer mix of online learning in future, where live lectures still play a role but there’s a greater emphasis, where appropriate, on asynchronous lectures, content and activities. This takes significant time to design, of course, but the benefits are that any live sessions can then be weighted towards reinforcing and deepening learning through small group interaction, problem-solving and discussion.
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