Formal exams and essays have formed the backbone of academic assessment for centuries, but they are far from perfect, and they don’t suit everyone – tutors and learners alike. Alternative assessment methods have been growing in popularity. Could it be the accelerating adoption of artificial intelligence that finally forces us to fully embrace them?
What are the alternatives?
Alternative assessment refers to any assessment method that is not a traditional timed exam paper or academic essay. This can take different forms, including:
Portfolio: a collection of student work that demonstrates their learning over time.
Project: a longer-term assignment that requires students to apply their knowledge and skills in a real-world context.
Presentation: an opportunity for students to share their learning with an audience.
Performance: a task that requires students to demonstrate their skills in a hands-on way.
Media: students submit their work using video or audio recordings.
There are numerous benefits to embracing alternative assessment. It makes it possible to assess a wider range of learning outcomes, such as critical thinking, problem solving and creativity, thus potentially providing a more comprehensive assessment of student learning. It also increases student engagement – alternative assessments can be more engaging and motivating for students, which can lead to improved learning outcomes.
Another benefit would be closing the awarding gap and increasing access. Alternative assessments provide students with a variety of ways to demonstrate their learning, which can be beneficial to those with disabilities or from diverse backgrounds. And, of course, it would help to address the challenge of artificial intelligence, because it is much more difficult to use AI to submit via an alternative assessment method.
Even before the rise of AI tools such as ChatGPT Dr Carli Rowell, (Sociology and Criminology), approached Educational Enhancement to deliver a workshop highlighting different alternative assessment methods. Dr Charlie Crouch (Academic Developer) and Rachael Thomas (Learning Technologist) were delighted to have the opportunity to collaborate on this workshop (Sussex login required).
Professional Services collaboration
Educational Enhancement are often engaged in blue-sky thinking with academic colleagues but are also regularly asked about how changes can be made within current university systems. Accordingly, there was great benefit in collaborating with Professional Services colleagues to identify where and how any changes to assessment could be accommodated.
A beautiful collaborative relationship was born among the Professional Services teams providing support to the Social Sciences cluster of schools.
Charlie Crouch (Educational Enhancement) drew from pedagogic literature on the benefits and challenges of alternative assessments, and what has been successful in other institutions, to facilitate the workshop.
Amanda Bolt (Academic Quality and Partnerships) gave practical advice about the School Education Committee process for when, how and whether to make changes to accommodate alternative modes of assessment.
Anna McCall (Academic Regulations) provided information about assessment regulations and common pitfalls in assessment briefs.
Rachael Thomas (Educational Enhancement) provided expert knowledge of specific university systems and instruction on how to set up assignments to accept the different ways students might submit work.
Together, they provided a rounded picture of the process, and were able to respond to queries which arose during the workshop.
The workshop started with an activity, asking participants to add post-it notes to a wall, saying why they think we need to assess students. This was followed by an explanation of why alternative assessments are desirable, what they could look like, some case studies and student feedback.
Participants in the workshop were then asked to play a game (described below), to identify different methods of assessment, and how these might work within Sociology and Criminology. After the game, there was an opportunity for participants to ask questions about the practicalities of how they would implement the assessment types they had discussed and identified as appropriate for their learning outcomes.
The larger part of the workshop focused on participants taking part in Assessment: The Game – an activity developed by Ian Turner, a professor in learning and teaching in higher education at University of Derby, to ’break down existing barriers and preconceptions about assessment modes that can be used in higher education.’
The workshop attendees were split into small groups, and each member was dealt three cards from a deck of 60, each showing a different type of assessment mode. They were invited, as groups, to consider one of the learning outcomes associated with their module and create an assessment which aligned with that learning outcome, using one of the assessment mode cards in their group. They were given 45 minutes to discuss this in their groups, with an opportunity to swap their cards if they couldn’t find a match with one of their learning outcomes.
Feedback during and following the workshop included some robust discussions about the concerns that assessment might become less academically rigorous as they became more varied. Inevitably, conversations also touched on the possible implications of ChatGPT for assessment. And there were suggestions for how the skills gap in academic staff and students could be addressed to enable the use of different tools and systems.
The game was well received, with one participant commenting ‘it was really great and worked well’ and recognising that it was structured enough to provide direction, but free enough to allow discussion of issues important to the school. As a result, a strong interest in podcasts was identified and a follow up workshop on designing podcasts as assessment has been arranged. Everyone involved enjoyed spending an afternoon together dedicated to exploring the possibilities of alternative assessments.
If you would like the Educational Enhancement team to deliver this workshop in your school, please contact email@example.com.
’Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.’
In today’s blog post we are going to embark on an adventure into the wonderful world of Playful Learning! What is that I hear you ask wonderful imaginary audience, well Playful Learning is a pedagogical theory examining how the act of play can be applied to education. Anyone who’s ever watched a toddler examining the world will know that the act of playing is vital to our early life learning, but can the act of playing be applied to the Higher Education field? Yes, I believe it can and in this blog post I will attempt to convince you why that is the case.
So, lets dive a bit deeper into what Playful Learning actually is. Essentially, it’s the idea that when students are actively engaged in enjoyable and meaningful experiences their capacity for learning and retention increases.
Play vs work or fun vs seriousness.
There is often a false dichotomy whereby anything that is playful or fun is seen as the opposite of work and seriousness, the idea being that they are opposite spheres that cannot intersect, if you are having fun then what you are doing cannot be serious, if you are playing then you are not working But this is clearly rubbish, we often do our best work when we are fully engaged and indeed having fun, it’s a win-win for everyone except for antiquated ideas. All intelligent life on earth appears to engage in play and humans engage the most in play, there’s strong evidence that from an evolutionary stance the act of play has helped create our current intelligence.
This is not to say that we must always be playing and having fun, sometimes there are areas of life which we will find boring, but we must pursue them anyway, rather the idea is to minimise these areas where we can.
There is also something to be said for subjective experiences, what one person considers fun may be anathema to someone else. I find it fun to run for many miles in the rain across the Downs but I’m sure that’d be torture to someone else. No-one wants to be forced into a ’fun‘ experience they won’t enjoy. So Playful Learning is not always the solution for every use case, but it does have its place and some key benefits. below:
Engagement and motivation
We all learn best when we are engaged and indeed often the hardest part of learning is getting students to the point at which they are fully engaged, when they have intrinsic motivation to pursue a subject and learn as much as they can. What causes us to be unengaged when attempting to learn? Usually, it’s being bored and so losing any motivation to continue. But if we are having fun then our engagement increases, we can stay engaged for longer periods and develop a deeper understanding of our subject.
Play can give agency to students, allowing them direct choice over how they engage with and respond to a Playful Learning activity. This can give students a strong feeling of empowerment and agency allowing them to decide on their own approach, vital to ensuring consistent engagement.
Curiosity, creativity, and the acceptance of failure
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut when dealing with knowledge and learning. Being playful can often be novel and foster a sense of exploration and trying things out, this enables students to examine new and innovative approaches.
Tied to this is creating an environment where failure is accepted as a vital part of the learning process, which is important as failure will frequently be encountered when learning anything. If you have a more ’serious‘ environment then students may end up being more risk adverse and will fear failure, for example the student that does not want to answer a question posed in a classroom as they worry about the risk of feeling stupid in front of their peers. Play can help overcome this, enabling students to feel safe to take risks, learn from their failures and build a level of resilience within a playful environment.
Even as a teacher, when you attempt to run Playful Learning activities they hold an element of risk, they may go well but, in some cases, they may be a failure. Leading by example to show your students it’s okay to try and fail sometimes and to just accept and learn from our failures allows our students to do the same. You can change the framing of failure from a negative to a positive.
Encouraging active participation and collaboration
Too often learning can be a passive process, students simply listening to someone talk. We know this is not the best way to learn, rather we want students to be active within the learning process. Play can help to encourage this as by its nature it must be active and whilst it can be done alone it’s far more likely to be a collaborative activity where students can all engage together in an activity such as a simulation, a game, or a building activity. If students are having fun, then they are also more likely to work together.
Play allows students safer ways of working together, having fun together and learning to work as a team and collaborate. Reluctance to engage in collaborative activities can often be overcome with a fun or playful activity that reduces some of the stress that can arise during collaborative activities.
The present state of the world is filled with stress and divisions in many ways, and this has an effect on the teaching environment, but we can in some ways help to counteract this by creating a playful space within our teaching. In a world overshadowed by war, pandemics, advancing AI, and societal breakdown, it can’t hurt us to embrace a sense of playfulness.
If you’d like help exploring or using Playful Learning in your teaching, please get in touch with Educational Enhancement at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last month, 46 colleagues participated in the first ever Education Festival at Sussex. Ahead of the Education Awards in the evening, we enjoyed a half-day of speed presentations, interactive workshops and a solution room dedicated to generative AI. We discussed a broad range of topics such as building inclusive learning communities, assessment and feedback, communicating scholarship, online learning, co-creation and dis-metacognition. To find out more about the day, dedicated to sharing good practice, research and innovation in teaching and learning, you can read our recent blog.
Education Awards 2023
The University celebrated and recognised teaching and professional services staff at the Education Awards on 4 May, with a ceremony followed by canapes and drinks in the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, and The Educational Enhancement team were thrilled to win an Inclusive Sussex Award.
Education and Innovation Fund
We’re delighted to announce the winners of the second round of the Education and Innovation Fund are Dr Victoria Walden (MAH), Dr Dave Smalley (Psychology) and Dr Emily Danvers (ESW).
There is one more opportunity to apply for this year’s round of funding, and colleagues can apply through this online form. The closing date for the third round of applications is Friday 14 July 2023, and the outcomes will be announced a few weeks later.
If you have a project that you would like to put forward we would strongly encourage you to work you’re your Academic Developer. They are ready to provide advice and guidance on the awards and how best to complete your application.
Teaching with AI Community of Practice
Educational Enhancement is launching a Teaching with AI Community of Practice. This will be a cross disciplinary network for sharing concerns, ideas and examples of practice in teaching and assessment in response to the recent emergence of AI tools such as ChatGPT. Events and resources are coming soon. Please register your interest by emailing Simona Connelly (S.Connelly@sussex.ac.uk)
Let me first make it clear I’m not talking about software hacking, but about lifehacks. A lifehack is ‘a tip, trick, or efficient method for doing or managing a day-to-day task or activity’ (source: Dictionary.com).
This post will show you some tools and functions in Canvas that you may not have been aware of, which can save you time and stress.
See what’s what.
Sometimes we have so much information available to us we can’t find what we are looking for. In Canvas, most teaching staff use the Card View on their Dashboards. This option has some great little tools to help you make it easier to see what you are looking for.
Not every module you have a current role on needs to be on your Dashboard. By using the ‘star’ icon in your list of Modules you can choose which cards appear on your dashboard. So you can keep your teaching modules where you see them first, and others where you might have less involvement (as moderator, for example), can stay in the Modules list.
Even within the collection of cards you want on your Dashboard there are likely to be some you use more often than others. You can rearrange the cards on your Dashboard into any order you prefer, so the ones at the top can be the ones you access most often.
You can move cards by dragging and dropping, or by using the Move options under the 3 dots on each card.
If you have several cards with the same or similar names (such as undergraduate and postgraduate versions) you can add a Nickname that only you will see to help identify them. The real name of the module will still appear underneath your chosen Nickname.
Some people like to use colours to distinguish between things. Whilst not something we would advocate generally, as it is not accessible, here we are talking about things only you will see. So if it helps you, go ahead and use the card colour option to change the colour of the dot, the title, and if there’s no module image, the colour of the card itself.
There is also an option to have a colour overlay on all the cards on your Dashboard. This is on by default, but if you don’t need it, you can turn it off from the 3 dots at the top of the Dashboard. This will generally make your Dashboard look brighter and card images clearer.
For these and more options to personalise your Dashboard see the Canvas Guide (please note, Canvas uses the term Courses for what we call Modules).
Turn back time.
We all make mistakes from time to time, and Canvas gives you a couple of options for undoing them.
When you are editing a Page it is easy to accidentally delete something important, or maybe you changed your mind about some changes. As an editor you have the option to view all the previous versions of a Page (please note this only applies to Pages, not other types of content). You can select a version to look at it and then click on Restore this revision to make it the current version.
Because you have this tool available it’s a good idea to Save often while making big changes to a Page so if you do need to go back, you won’t lose too much progress.
If you accidentally delete an item from your Canvas site it is probably not gone for good. If you type /undelete at the end of the site’s URL (so if your module URL was https://canvas.sussex.ac.uk/courses/45679 it would become https://canvas.sussex.ac.uk/courses/45679/undelete) you will see Assignments, Quizzes, Announcements, Pages, Units and more that has been deleted from the site. To restore something just click the Restore button – disaster averted!
As always, if you want any help with these tools, please contact your Learning Technologist via email@example.com.
Last month, 46 colleagues participated in the first ever Education Festival at Sussex. The sun was shining on the ACCA on May 4th, perfect for a half-day dedicated to sharing good practice, research and innovation in teaching and learning.
After some refreshments, we began the day with a welcome from Kelly Coate, who placed the Education Festival in its wider context, such as the DARE to Transform network and associated Pedagogical Revolution events. We then began our first panel of speed presentations dedicated to building inclusive learning communities.
Up first, Katherine Kruger and Heather Taylor presented reflections on their inclusivity connector project, which explored how students’ racialised identities impact their learning experience here at Sussex. Katherine and Heather shared their students’ reflections so far, including how inclusive initiatives can be othering and the need to make space for students’ own perspectives and experiences in the classroom. Next, Dorina Cadar shared her thoughts managing emotions in the classroom, including practical advice on how we can respect and use those emotions to support students’ learning experiences. Lastly, Clare Hardman and Adam Bradley presented reflections on their pilot module mentoring project, alongside some humorous illustrations! They explored an issue we’ve all been thinking about a lot recently: encouraging student participation.
The second speed panel focused on assessment and feedback. Josephine Van-Ess introduced self-reflective logs and their potential for life-long learning. Then, Masters students, Tsholo Molefe and Marlene Gadzirayi, drew on their experiences of writing self-reflective logs to explain how powerful they can be, in particular for developing a sense of belonging and empowering students in their learning journey. Sam Hemsley showed us Buddycheck, a new peer evaluation and scoring platform which will be integrated into Canvas from September. The tool simplifies the collection and review of peer comments and scores on contributions to group work, and provides students with automated feedback. Lastly, Jo Tregenza showed us an alternative assessment from a unit of work on the needs of pupils with EAL and bereavement. Over the semester, her students compile sketchbooks full of activities and reflections, with some truly inspiring results.
After a break (with our Education Festival playlist in the background), we divided into two groups for the interactive sessions. First up, participants had the choice between Lucila Newell and Brena Collyer de Aguiar’s workshop on gamified learning practices, or Carli Rowell’s workshop on staff student co-creation. Lucila and Brena introduced a new gamified Online Distance Learning module. They explained why gamified learning is effective and allowed attendees to try one of the module challenges by imagining themselves in 2047. Carli introduced us to the pedagogic motivations behind student co-creation and showed us how she co-created one of her modules with her students. Drawing on this experience, Carli then offered a guide to embedding co-creation in the curriculum. Next up, Brena and Helen Todd shared their practical learnings from supporting online students. Examples included providing audio recordings of content for students so they have flexibility and where are how they study. Meanwhile in Marcelo Staricoff’s workshop on dis-metacognition, two volunteers were asked to demonstrate the different experiences of navigating the ‘pit of not knowing’, before we considered practical examples, including framing learning outcomes as questions.
After lunch, we enjoyed another speed panel which focused on different ways of disseminating scholarship. Sue Robbins introduced us to the Infographics Project, which is exploring novel and engaging ways of communicating scholarship. Catrina Hey informed us about an innovative Library pilot project focusing on creating open access teaching resources, and Sarah Watson introduced us to a new online resource dedicated to developing the scholarship of teaching and learning. The new webpage has cross-disciplinary and disciplinary specific resources, as well as a guide to progression for colleagues on Education and Scholarship pathways.
Lastly, we could not host an Education Festival in 2023 without the mention of the infamous generative AI! Sam Hemsley provided us with a timely awakening post-lunch with the deliberately provocative statement: ‘ChatGPT means the essay is dead’. The statement was certainly divisive! We split into groups to discuss our initial reactions to Sam’s statement before opening our Solution Room. Participants considered whether they agreed with the statement, and what the implications for future assessment could be. Thoughts varied from practical, immediate actions such as how we can design written assignments to be more robust in the face of AI, to the fundamental, pedagogical underpinnings of how and why we assess students. We ended with a call to action in the form of a new community of practice focused on generative AI. If you’re interested in being a part of this community, please email the Academic Development team who will let you know what’s coming up.
Overall, we were thrilled with our first Education Festival at Sussex. The day felt very collegial and ‘warm’, and we left with pages of notes and further avenues for development. Thank you again to all of our speakers and participants. We hope to see you and many more for more education fun at the festival next year.
Links to presentations in this post are limited to University of Sussex staff only
When I started my English PhD in the US, it was expected that I would teach the introductory composition courses that are required for all first-year students. I was surprised to find that I did not really know how to speak to my students about writing. During my undergraduate English degree in the UK, I had picked up how to write a literary analysis essay, albeit with much confusion along the way, but I still did not know how to explain and conceptualise the conventions of my discipline nor how it was different from writing in other disciplines. Later, after training as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) fellow and in my role as an Associate Professor of English, I learned more about the US’s approach to writing, which is one that embeds writing and metacognitive reflection about writing in multiple spaces across the curriculum. Now that I am an Academic Developer at Sussex, I see that much has changed since I left the UK and that teaching academic skills, especially student writing, is an important topic of conversation. Thus, in this blog, I will give a brief overview of WAC in the US, and, while acknowledging the differences between higher education in both countries, I will discuss what we might learn from the US’s more systematised approach to developmental writing.
What is Writing Across the Curriculum in the U.S?
Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) is an initiative in US higher education that calls for frequent opportunities for students to write, revise, and discuss writing in all their classes, not only in introductory writing courses. The idea behind WAC is to help students develop their writing skills while learning the content of various subjects. WAC encourages active learning and the construction of knowledge through writing and reflection, all of which help students to develop critical skills for success in all fields of study and in the workforce. WAC programmes in the US support collaboration between writing instructors and faculty in different subject areas to develop assignments that are contextualised and relevant to the learning objectives of each course, while also providing students with opportunities to practise and develop their writing skills.
Over half of all universities in the US have dedicated WAC programmes, but in Britain WAC is mostly a primary and secondary school initiative (Russell, 1991). Why is this? Structural differences between US and UK higher education can explain why WAC did not take off in the UK. Students in the UK specialise earlier, narrowing down their disciplinary focus for A-Levels. The British degree is shorter and more focused, and assessment is largely essay and exam based. By contrast, students in the US study a wide range of subjects until they graduate from high school. At the university level, students spend their first year taking a range of general education courses and enrol in composition classes to practise academic writing and research. Students in the US usually do not decide upon their disciplinary focus, their major, until they are in the second year.
WAC emerged in the US when scholars in the field of composition and rhetoric argued that writing is central to disciplinary teaching and learning and that it should be embedded across the curriculum and contextualised within a particular discipline (Bean & Meltzer, 2021). WAC includes Writing to Learn (WTL), writing activities that allow students to learn foundational concepts and instructors to check students’ understanding of material, and Writing in the Discipline (WID), the embedding of writing within the genres and conventions of specific subjects. Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) note that: disciplines “differ extensively in their fundamental purposes, genres, symbolic artifacts, traditions of communication, evaluation standards of quality and precision, and use of language” (9). Thus, WID develops authentic writing tasks for audiences that students will write for when they are professionals and promotes classroom reading and writing using materials that support the development of content-specific knowledge.
WAC and WID promote writing beyond the traditional essay by having students read and write in genres that mimic professional writing and that introduce students to the conventions of a discipline, such as grant proposals, progress reports, management plans, lab reports, position papers, literature reviews, case studies, and many more depending on the discipline. Students engage in rhetorical analyses of disciplinary genres that not only focus on content but also on rhetorical elements such as scope and focus, organisation, types of evidence used, use of citations and style, and they record what they learn in reading and “jargon” journals. These writing activities help students to practise critical thinking skills that are relevant to analyses in their chosen discipline and to provide a broader field-wide context for the subject (WAC Clearinghouse). WID asks faculty to make it more explicit to students how they are participating in a particular discourse community that has its own way of thinking, reading, and speaking.
WAC in UK Higher Education
Earlier specialisation in UK higher education has meant that students are expected to be familiar with the writing conventions for their discipline when they enter university. Yet, there has been a long-held concern that students do not know how to write, which has only intensified with the recent emphasis on Widening Participation and inclusivity. Indeed, with the changing context of higher education, we can no longer assume that all students will be proficient in academic writing when they start their degree. Wingate (2009) notes that in contrast to the US, writing support in UK higher education often takes a remedial approach and skills are taught separately from the subjects students are studying for their degree (A15). As a result, students struggle to understand the requirements of their discipline and what lecturers expect of them.
In their study of UK higher education, Lea and Street (1998) found that what faculty viewed as good writing, and the type of feedback they provided students, was defined through “implicit assumptions about what constitute valid knowledge within a particular context,” assumptions that were not clearly understood by students unfamiliar with the language and writing conventions of that discipline. They argue, therefore, that student writing in UK higher education should be understood not only through a study skills model but through an academic literacies approach, which like WAC, acknowledges that “From the student point of view a dominant feature of academic literacy practices is the requirement to switch practices between one setting and another, to deploy a repertoire of linguistic practices appropriate to each setting, and to handle the social meanings and identities that each evokes” (Academic Literacies).
While some universities have established writing centres that promote WAC and WID, there has been a mixed response to introducing Writing Across the Curriculum in U.K. higher education. Clughen and Connell (2011) report that although faculty support for writing instruction is high, there is often tension between literacy development tutors who argue that students need to learn writing in the context of a particular discipline and lecturers who prefer the provision of skills-based support outside of subject curricula (333). This debate, they note, raises doubts as to whether WAC’s integrative approaches to writing development can be incorporated into UK higher education because the issue of who is responsible for writing instruction is still contested (334).
Despite these challenges, as the University of Sussex embarks on its ambitious Curriculum Reimagined, especially in its goals to be entirely inclusive and future-proofed, we should consider what we can learn from WAC’s focus on engaging students in constructive and experiential learning. As well as embedding employability initiatives across the curriculum, there should be an emphasis on supporting and developing partnerships between writing specialists and faculty so that writing instruction is embedded within specific writing cultures and aligned with the specific expectations of different disciplines.
At Sussex, the Academic Skills Hub already offers support to faculty in the embedding of academic skills across the curriculum, and the Academic Skills team, led by Clare Hardman, is keen to collaborate with faculty in the disciplines. Russell (1991) points out that lecturers are crucial partners in this endeavour because they “bring to bear their resources as specialists, addressing the unique curricular and pedagogical problems of their disciplines” (19). Since the U.K degree is shorter and there is less time and space than in the American curriculum, it is important that WID initiatives are mapped along with course learning outcomes to allow for progressive interventions in the curriculum over the course of a degree.
WAC does not look the same in every institution, but a more recognised and systemised recognition of WAC pedagogy could help to solve some of the most contested debates about student writing. For instance, viewing writing as a mode of learning rather than a means of assessment brings a different perspective to the debate about Artificial Intelligence technologies such as ChatGTP. In their statement about AI, the Association of Writing Across the Curriculum (AWAC) noted that although AI can be integrated in fruitful ways into writing pedagogy, it cannot facilitate the kind of deep learning that happens when students construct knowledge through writing to learn or through writing in the context of a particular discipline. The statement concludes by reaffirming best practices in WAC pedagogy:
Current AI discussions remind us, yet again, of long-established best practices in Writing Across the Curriculum, grounded in research and extant for decades: designing meaningful and specific assignments that foster learning and develop skills; focusing on processes and practices such as peer-response and revision; encouraging writing in multiple genres, including ones connected to specific disciplinary practices (2023, para. 7).
Perhaps most importantly, WAC initiatives promote equity and inclusivity by seeking to ensure that all students have access to the tools they need to succeed in college and beyond. Moreover, by helping students to see that literacy is socially situated and contextualised, WAC encourages critical thinking and innovation. Being able to identify the ways in which academic writing is constructed to establish and promote the values of specific academic cultures also reveals the ways in which those who do not share this culture’s way of thinking, writing, and speaking are excluded. Indeed, Clugen and Hardy (2012) argue that integrated approaches to writing are “not just about socialising students into a particular writing culture, but also about opening opportunities for them to enter into a dialogue about and even shape the cultural convention of writing so that their individual contexts are recognised as being central to the culture in which they are participating in” (xxiii). In this, WAC and WID can engender the very transformational learning that is at the heart of Sussex’s mission.
Wingate, U., Andon, N., & Cogo, A. (2011). Embedding academic writing instruction into Subject teaching: A case study. Active Learning in Higher Education, 12(1), 69–81. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787410387814
The recent Global Accessibility Awareness Day got me thinking of whether there’s just one thing you can do as module convenor to improve the accessibility of your Canvas module sites for next year. But I kept coming up with just one more thing. So here’s a fewthings you can do when setting up your Canvas module sites to make them more accessible.
Use the Canvas Accessibility Checker
An oldie but a goodie. When editing your pages in Canvas, always use the accessibility checker before saving. But using that doesn’t cover everything on your module site. You also need to:
Fix the alternative text in files before uploading.
Before I started my role here at Sussex, I worked at another institution, whose virtual learning environment (VLE) had a handy tool which not only checked the pages of the module sites, but the content of any files uploaded to module sites too. The number one issue with accessibility across the VLE? Missing alternative text on images in files uploaded to the modules. By a mile.
Now, Canvas doesn’t have that handy tool, and I’m not suggesting we switch our VLE, but let’s assume that our files are probably in a similar state. What can you do?
It may feel overwhelming to retrospectively check all of the files on your Canvas sites. But you can start making a difference by checking that all the images in a file have alternative text, before you upload the file to Canvas. You can use the accessibility checker in Office to help. Just doing that will make a big difference for making your Canvas module more accessible. If the accessibility checker throws up other issues, our Digital Accessibility Toolkit can help you fix them.
Avoid veering from your schools agreed module layout.
All schools have module templates to give students a consistent experience when navigating different module sites. Having certain links or information in the same place on all module sites makes it easier for all students to find what they need quickly but is especially important to support neurodivergent students. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines consortium (WCAG) state that ’predictability in navigation, … increases accessibility for all users, in particular those with autism, ADHD, and other neurodivergent ways of interacting with their environment.’ [WCAG Blog. (2022). Digital Accessibility and Neurodiversity: Designing for Our Unique and Varied Brains. Accessed 18/05/2022]
So wherever possible, stick to the agreed template structure for your school: Keep the left-hand menu links in the same order; stick to the agreed page layout and location of key information; don’t rename key links. And follow this year’s guide to updating key information for your school to ensure consistency.
That’s just a few things you can do to make your Canvas module sites for the coming year more accessible. Do you have any other tips to share? If so, please let us know via the comments below. And if you need any help with anything to do with your module set-up, including the accessibility checks mentioned above, please contact your Learning Technologist via firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m hoping to tell you something you already know. This post is as much a celebration of the team I work in as it is a mission statement for the year ahead. This is a post about kindness. First, some reflections.
Reflection 1: Our team
Over the last year, our team of Learning Technologists have all either been new to Sussex, started a new role within the team or had their role changed in some manner. Over and above this, we’re all working in different ‘post-pandemic’ ways. As a hybrid team, we’re in the office some of the week, at home the rest. Some of our team are on reduced hours, some on compressed hours. The support for flexible working at Sussex appears to be, well… working.
As the manager of this team, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how to get this balance right, how we become a great team and how to ensure we’re meeting the needs of the individuals in this team and those of the university.
Reflection 2: What is a learning technologist anyway?
As Learning Technologists, one of our fundamental activities is building relationships. Across the organisation we work with central teams, school teams, senior leaders and students. Building relationships enables us to affect change, question existing norms, and enable people to feel comfortable addressing any perceived shortcomings in using technology for the betterment of their and their students’ experience.
Unofficial motto 1: Embrace the chaos
It’s well documented across the sector how varied the role is, let alone the title. There is a great series over on the #ALTC blog about it. Our work often takes us on journeys around the institution, picking up pieces from various initiatives, starting our own or helping people build their confidence in the classrooms. There is no typical day and priorities shift daily.
Unofficial motto 2: Don’t be afraid to be the idiot
We expect our colleagues to recognise their own need for development, often requiring colleagues to accept they need help or have a digital skills gap. So we expect this of ourselves, we challenge each other to feel comfortable asking the ‘silly questions’, if not, how can we expect people to be comfortable doing that with us?
Reflection 3: The climate in and around higher education
In recent years, I feel there has been a shift in the underlying themes of conversations within and around academia. Themes of kindness, inclusion, community, conversation and relationships have been recurring. Having recently attended events on the topics of learning technology and student-staff partnership activity, it really stood out to me just how front and centre some of this stuff is.
Perhaps the pandemic and the need for collective healing have contributed to this shift in tone. Or maybe recent tensions across the academic community have forced various communities to rally around and rebuild bridges. Whatever the reason, this shift has resonated with many individuals and teams, including ours.
So, against the ever shifting landscape of the UK higher education world we inhabit, how do we build as a team, grow in the roles and meet the needs of our colleagues across the organisation?
Can you keep a secret?
[Whispers] Kindness is the cheat code. Really, it’s magic. Recently the Educational Enhancement (EE) team won the Inclusive Sussex Award at the education awards, for demonstrating one or more of the Sussex values. Kindness being one.
At the beginning of the academic year, two thirds of the the Learning Technologist team within EE were new to the role and half were new to the organisation, yet they have achieved an incredible amount in no time at all. I’ve little hesitation in attributing this to the immense kindness they show each other, and importantly to themselves, in allowing themselves to ‘be the idiot’, to ask the silly questions and build relationships founded on, you guessed it, kindness.
As I head into my second year in this job, my focus will go deeper into asking, what does being a Learning Technologist at Sussex mean? I think by having the above reflections, I already know what the foundations are for this. It starts with kindness, to others in building relationships, and to ourselves in being comfortable with vulnerability.
As we move forward, our team of Learning Technologists will make it our mission to prioritise kindness, it’s the cheat code, the rest will fall into place.