Learning to write for non-specialists: the role of peer assessment

Training students to engage with the public

Each year as part of the Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) programme in Environmental Research, students are asked to write 500-word blog posts on scientific topics of their choice. This important assignment not only introduces the students to writing for a non-specialist audience but also builds their online presence as environmental scientists. In previous years, students would email their blog posts to the course director, Lizzy Jeffers. She would then mark them and make them available in a shared Dropbox folder for the academic director to upload to the DTP blog, which is publicly available. Unsurprisingly, Lizzy wanted to find a more efficient way for students to submit their assignments and to receive feedback from both their peers and tutors.

Exploring the potential of peer assessment

To address this problem, Lizzy and her colleagues explored the possibilities within WebLearn for handling online submission and assessment. They settled on the Assignments tool, which proved to be an effective solution for managing the transfer of content. However, for Lizzy and her colleagues the most exciting feature of the Assignments tool was the peer assessment option. This gave students the essential experience of providing and receiving critical feedback to and from each other. It also broadened the range of views that each student received for their work before it was published as a post on the DTP blog.

The DTP course team created four blog assignments for students to complete before the end of their first term. Detailed instructions for submitting text and files were included on the assignment page in WebLearn, and the deadlines for each task were added to the class WebLearn calendar.

For the peer assessment activity, Lizzy asked students to review two posts written by their peers. Weblearn would make the allocation based on who already had submitted work (and thus was deemed available to review). Students had to provide constructive feedback on each post and mark it according to the rubric provided: e.g. ‘ready for publication’ or ‘in need of amendments for clarity.’

Once the students had given their verdicts Lizzy, as the tutor, was able to review the draft posts and peer assessments. If necessary, she could revise the marks herself.

One of the student’s blogs on the DTP website

One of the student’s blogs on the DTP website

The outcome: greater breadth and depth in feedback

The Assignments tool in WebLearn has made it possible for the course team to achieve their aim to streamline the submission process, incorporate peer review into the blog assignment and manage the flow of content from students to the public blog. However, the most positive outcome has been achieved through using the peer assessment feature. The depth and usefulness of peer assessments exceeded the expectations of most students and was much better than anything that could have been obtained from just one faculty assessor. Feedback also reflected a broader range of views than would otherwise be possible. The students were particularly good at identifying aspects of a blog that might be unclear to non-specialist readers, which is especially important in an interdisciplinary programme such as environmental research.

From the tutor’s perspective, Lizzy has appreciated the dashboard – which allows her to see who has or hasn’t submitted their own work and/or carried out their peer reviews – and the mechanism for moderating the peer review marks. The only unsatisfactory aspect from the students’ viewpoint is having to wait until the submission deadline has been reached before they can begin their peer reviews, even if everyone has submitted their work early (a restriction imposed by the Assignments tool).

Overall, the use of the peer assessment feature in WebLearn has resulted in higher quality publications for the DTP blog.

Preparation is paramount

Lizzy highlights the importance of careful planning before using the technology in this case study. She gives the two following examples:

  • Give yourself time to learn how the WebLearn tools work so that you can try out new activities and make the most of what the platform has to offer you and your students.
  • In preparation for peer assessment, provide students with clear guidance on how to construct useful feedback and set submission deadlines so that everyone can obtain feedback in a timely manner.

Further information

  • To find out how to implement peer assessment with your own students, read our step-by-step guide to the peer assessment option in the WebLearn Assignments tool.
  • Read other case studies in this collection showing the different ways in which WebLearn can support your students’ learning.
  • To find out more about WebLearn, contact the WebLearn team.
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Virtual language classrooms enable staff and students to share resources and engage online

Looking for another way of working

At the University’s Language Centre, tutors teach approximately 200 different language classes a year. In every class there are about 15 students, often with very different backgrounds, since any member of the University can apply to study a language. Each class is fast-paced, and so it is essential that students catch up on missed content before they attend the next one. For the tutors, this entailed sending out hundreds of emails and letters a week to ensure that the students received the material they needed.

Having taught German at the Language Centre for several years, Christina Hell could identify with these challenges, and her experience inspired the concept of the Virtual Classroom for the Language Centre. The plan was to create a WebLearn site for every language class to help make tutors’ work more efficient and engage students in a better way.

A WebLearn solution

Christina began this work by carrying out an online survey in order to find out how knowledgeable the tutors were in using technology, how they currently utilised digital resources with their students, and what they would like to include in their future teaching. Equipped with these valuable insights and those gained from her own teaching, she selected some basic tools in WebLearn for the Virtual Classroom sites, along with a standardised home page. The tools include:

  • Syllabus –for the tutor to post an outline of the classes.
  • Resources – for students to access their learning materials, both those used in class and other recommended learning materials.
  • Announcements – for informing students about important events (e.g. exams).
  • Forum – for students to explore topics together and discuss them online.

Christina also created a Virtual Tutors’ room where teachers and other members of staff at the Language Centre can stay in touch, share material and discuss ideas.

Tutors are responsible for maintaining the Virtual Classroom sites for their weekly courses. To help them, and to give tips on how to customise their sites for learners, Christina created a user-friendly handbook with a task sheet for those new to WebLearn. She also organised three tutor development days, hands-on workshops and Q&A sessions.

In addition to setting up the individual Virtual Classrooms, the Language Centre’s WebLearn home page had to be redesigned. This was done with the help of IT officer, Martin Hurajt. As a result, the site is now more straightforward and easier to navigate. In addition, the Language Centre’s librarian, Lucile Desligneres has redesigned the WebLearn presence of the library, making it an important online space with additional resources for tutors and students.

Bildschirmfoto 2016-10-24 um 17.19.53

The redesigned home page on the Language Centre’s WebLearn site

The language of success

The Virtual Classrooms have become a useful educational tool that has added value to teaching and learning in the Language Centre. An evaluation conducted at the end of Hilary term 2016 showed that the majority of tutors had put in a lot of work and had embraced the new Virtual Classrooms. Site statistics also showed that students were using the sites and engaging online.

An additional survey carried out at the beginning of Trinity Term 2016 showed that tutors were enjoying working with the Virtual Classrooms and would not want to teach without them anymore. Student feedback indicated that they considered the Virtual Classrooms a valuable addition to their language classes at the Language Centre.

Further information:

  • Read other case studies in this collection showing the different ways in which WebLearn can support your students’ learning.
  • To find out more about WebLearn, contact the WebLearn team.

OxTALENT 2016 Logo - web versionRunner-up, OxTALENT 2016 award for the use of WebLearn to support teaching and learning. The text in this case study has been adapted from Christina Hell’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.


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Online learning hub helps staff coordinate free Latin course for schools

Creating a central learning space  

The OxLAT programme makes it possible for students at Oxfordshire state schools where Latin isn’t taught to receive free tuition ab initio through to the GCSE examination. Students attend lessons each Saturday during school term-time at the Faculty of Classics and are taught by two professional school-level Latin teachers. This intensive schedule places high demands on the teachers when it comes to giving students timely feedback on their work. The teachers soon found that pupils needed a better means to consolidate their learning outside lessons, and that email was an ineffective and unwieldy system for managing homework submissions.

To address the problem, Emma Searle and her colleagues in the Faculty of Classics decided to create an online learning hub in WebLearn that allows teachers to store and distribute classroom materials and revision resources. It also enables tutors to receive homework in a more organised way, with pupils’ work filed automatically.

The home screen of the OxLAT online learning hub

The home screen of the OxLAT online learning hub

Selecting the best online tools for staff and students

Most schools have some form of virtual learning environment for sharing resources and information with students and parents. Informed by the design of such VLEs, the team created a sub-site in the Faculty of Classics WebLearn area which students access using external WL user accounts. They decided on three key functions, to enable students to:

  • upload their homework;
  • view lesson plans and the material covered in each class, along with links to download any relevant worksheets; and
  • access further supporting materials and revision resources for individual papers as recommended by their tutors.

Each of these functions has a corresponding WebLearn tool, which is one of the reasons why the team chose to use WebLearn to host the online learning hub. A learning technologist from the WebLearn team in Academic IT gave advice on which tools to use, which meant that the OxLAT team could focus on optimising the layout and structure of the site.

In particular, staff use the Assignments tool for managing homework submissions. Students are set mini-assignments each week with details of the homework and what resources they need to complete it. The tool allows students to upload their work (in either PDF or Word format) and teachers to access it quickly and efficiently from any location. Additionally, the teachers find the Lessons tool helpful in giving students structured (lesson-by-lesson) access to the material covered in each class (with page references to the textbook), together with downloadable copies of worksheets, handouts and/or tests used in the lesson.

The homework submission page

The homework submission page

Useful way to monitor student performance and promote independent learning

The online learning hub has made several positive differences to those involved in the OxLAT programme. It has made collecting and marking homework more efficient, and the teacher can collate everything into one easy-to-use place. They can also view details about students’ activity, including whether or not homework has been submitted on time. This allows them to spot patterns in students’ behaviour and, hence, to identify who might need extra help and support, not just with academic content but also with managing their time on a very demanding course.

Furthermore, the hub has had an encouraging impact on the students, who are able to access information from earlier classes independently and take the initiative when it comes to their own learning: an important, transferable life skill.

Important to guide students first

Whether you are setting up a WebLearn site for outreach purposes or for supporting your own students, Emma Searle counsels against assuming ‘a high level of computer know-how and efficiency.’ She recommends organising an induction session to guide students through the site.

For the OxLAT programme, the team led an orientation session to ensure that students knew how to access the site, log on and navigate around it. In particular, it was beneficial to demonstrate how to upload their homework. This is because most students said they would not have understood the WebLearn terminology by themselves or known how to find the right file on their computer to upload. Thus, the session helped them feel confident that could find the information they needed.

Further information

  • Read other case studies in this collection describing outreach activities with schools by University staff.
  • Read other case studies in this collection showing the different ways in which WebLearn can support your students’ learning.
  • To find out more about WebLearn, contact the WebLearn team at weblearn@it.ox.ac.uk.

OxTALENT 2016 Logo - web versionWinner, OxTALENT 2016 award for the use of WebLearn to support outreach. The text in this case study has been adapted from Emma Searle’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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Reshaping an online course in response to students’ needs and preferences

A fresh start informed by students’ thinking

In his new role as course director for the MSc in Teaching English Language in University Settings, Dr Heath Rose faced the challenge of creating an entire set of online modules from scratch. At the time, he was new not only to teaching online but also to using Weblearn to create and share learning materials. The course is distinctive as it is designed for part-time distance learners in full-time work. To gain a better sense of learner preferences, Heath consulted with second year students before the start of term. From these discussions, he was able to ascertain existing elements of the course that they enjoyed in the first year of their studies (the structure, the asynchronous nature of the tasks, the detailed feedback on tasks) and new elements that they wanted to be added. These included webinars (online video lessons), a wide range of course materials and clearer integration of features such as forums. Equipped with this information, Heath set out to design the course according to the students’ needs and preferences.

All the information the learner needs in one place

Heath began by designing the curriculum for the new term and familiarising himself with the main features of WebLearn. This process largely consisted of learning by doing. He was particularly keen to explore the possibilities offered by the WebLearn Lessons tool as a means to deliver weekly themed content. He soon discovered its main benefit to lie in the way it allows tasks, learning materials and useful links for lessons to be housed in one place. For tasks that required students to post a short response, he added the ‘comment’ feature so that they could contribute and view responses directly under the task description. For extended tasks, he included links to the relevant forum, where students could post their responses, and read and respond to others. This represented a step towards better integrated, linear lessons.

In response to the students’ request for webinars, Heath found that the most practical method was to stream the lecture portion of the session from a YouTube channel. After careful consideration, he settled on a split screen format, with a video of himself delivering the lecture on the left side and his PowerPoint slides on the right. The recordings were then uploaded to a private YouTube channel, and the links pasted into the WebLearn Lessons tool ready for students to watch and comment on.

Screenshot of a webinar

Screenshot of a webinar

Heath also used two other WebLearn tools. The Chat tool enabled students to pose questions informally to their peers, the course lecturers and teaching assistants. The Drop Box tool proved a useful means to provide feedback for summative assessment tasks.

A positive story of progress

The students expressed a high level of satisfaction with the webinars and new course structure in the end of term evaluation. Their comments include:

‘The content is well tailored and weekly modules are equipped with good media resources ’.

‘I really enjoyed the webinars’.

‘I felt the readings were balanced and varied, a good mix of textbook type reading, seminal primary source reading and original research studies’.

‘I like the fact that the main concepts were introduced in detail by the tutors and then the topics were suggested for discussion and interpretation.’

In particular, they found it useful to view the PowerPoint slides in the webinars, but also appreciated being able to see Heath himself, which lent a personal touch to the lecture. The forums were very active during the course which further demonstrated students’ engagement. On average, each student contributed 320 posts during the two terms, equating to roughly 20 per week. This high level of participation was particularly pleasing to Heath, considering that the students had to balance their studies with full-time work and other commitments.

Top tips for creating your own online course

Based on his experiences of designing and creating an online course, Heath offers the following advice to lecturers in a similar context:

  • If you require students to discuss something in the forums, it may be best to start the conversation yourself, so that students’ comments and responses are shown together within the same conversation.
  • Embed videos as well as links to resources directly into lessons. This creates a more diverse and colourful interface. YouTube is a treasure trove of interviews with scholars, recordings of plenaries and TED talks which can offer a lot to students.

Further information

  • Read other case studies in this collection showing the different ways in which WebLearn can support your students’ learning.
  • To find out more about WebLearn, contact the WebLearn team.
  • To learn how to record lectures, capturing both the tutor’s voice and slides, visit the Replay web pages.

OxTALENT 2016 Logo - web versionWinner, OxTALENT 2016 award for use of WebLearn to support Teaching and Learning. The text in this case study has been adapted from Heath Rose’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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The Viral Outbreak iCase: realistic problem-solving in a virtual environment

A time for change

Laboratory-based practicals provide medical students with essential hands-on experience in problem solving, but where safety is a consideration they may not be an option or they invariably get reduced to a meaningless ‘follow these instructions’ that is not representative of real world experimentation. This where technology comes into its own, as students can carry out realistic investigations in a virtual environment without risk of harm.

For some years the Dunn School of Pathology had been using an online practical class for students to explore different virological techniques as they investigated an imaginary outbreak of influenza. However, the software lacked visual appeal and, over time, became difficult to modify. More significantly, Dr Kenny Moore and his colleagues were finding that students tended to ‘follow the recipe’ without engaging fully with the context and purpose of what they were doing – in part because the practical was focused on information assimilation at the expense of intellectual stimulation. It was thus clear that change was needed to make the software more user-friendly, robust and challenging for learners. The team also wanted to make the resource open-source to benefit other institutions.

The redesigned online practical, The Viral Outbreak iCaserequires students to decide which experiments to perform in order to uncover a key piece of information about an imaginary outbreak of influenza in two fictitious primary schools. Importantly, there is no single ‘right’ answer to the problem.

Bringing the case to life through gamification, short videos and realistic data

The iCase team comprised members of the Dunn School of Pathology and the Medical Sciences Division Learning Technologies group. They began by updating the existing sections of the practical so that they addressed the teaching aims more effectively.

For example, at the start of the iCase a multiple-choice quiz (MCQ) tests the student’s current knowledge. The original version of the MCQ required students to get all the answers correct, but did not tell them which of their responses were right or wrong. As a consequence, students became frustrated and disengaged from the remainder of the iCase. To remedy this, in the revised MCQ the students receive detailed feedback to each response, explaining why they are right or wrong, thereby reinforcing the knowledge learned.

Next, the team added two new sections. One of these asked students to think about sample collection and the impact their procedures might have on the sick children. The other included a more playful aspect, integrating two open-source teaching games.


A screenshot of the redesigned iCase

A screenshot of the redesigned iCase

A major objective of the iCase is to introduce students to a number of virological techniques, which they can then use in later sections. Previously, students learned about these techniques through reading a text online. In order to give the students a feel for how the techniques are carried out and what they can be used for, the team produced a series of short videos in which experts explain their respective techniques. The videos have since been made publicly accessible via the Dunn School of Pathology’s YouTube channel.

Experts explain virological techniques in a series of videos

Experts explain virological techniques in a series of videos

A key decision that students have to make in the iCase is which experiments to perform in order to uncover a key piece of information. To encourage them to fully engage with each of the techniques, the iCase includes a set of simulated data that students have to process for themselves. This has the advantage of being more visually appealing and more representative of real-life experiments.

Students are presented with raw data to interpret

Students are presented with raw data to interpret

A promising antidote to previous issues

The team was pleased to observe that students’ reports (the assessed part of the iCase) were generally of higher quality and demonstrated greater understanding of the key learning outcomes than in previous years. In the past, a small number of students had been asked to rewrite their reports to address major flaws, but in the year that the new iCase was trialled not one rewrite was required. As in previous years, drop-in sessions were provided, where demonstrators were available to assist the students in working through the iCase and writing their report. The demonstrators found that students arrived at drop-in sessions with a better understanding of what was required; indeed, a number had already completed the entire practical class over the preceding vacation without need of assistance. This indicated an improved workflow and suggested that students found the course easy to use.

In a feedback survey, 94% of students reported that they found the iCase interesting and 87% found it enjoyable. Many of the students also preferred it to the practicals they had been used to, despite finding it more difficult and demanding. In response to other survey questions, 69% of students said that they would like more practicals in this format, and 51% agreed that the iCase would change the way they thought about problems on the rest of the course.

Useful pointers

Dr Kenny Moore offers the following advice for developing online problem-based learning resources:

  • Try to develop a clear vision and plan for the structure and flow of your exercise before turning it into an online learning package.
  • Keep the learning outcomes at the front of your mind: don’t get caught up in the scenario and the urge to make things absolutely true to life.
  • Keep videos short and focused on the key points that you are trying to get across.

Further information:

  • If you don’t have access to video-recording software, you can use the University’s Replay lecture capture software for the purpose. See the Replay web pages.
  • The IT Learning Centre in IT Services runs courses on planning, producing, filming and editing short videos.
  • The Educational Media Unit in IT Services provides digital video production and editing services (chargeable).

OxTALENT 2016 Logo - web versionRunner-up, OxTALENT 2016 award for innovative teaching. The text in this case study has been adapted from Kenny Moore’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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Teaching with Replay: Lecture capture in the History of Art Department

Automated lecture capture is an evolving technology that allows students to review online what they have learnt in the lecture theatre or classroom and provides an archive of recordings for revision in preparation for exams. Access to the recordings is via a suitably configured WebLearn site. Lecture capture is the service most requested in surveys of Oxford students. The Educational Media Services Team in Academic IT Services conducted two projects to explore the potential for lecture capture at Oxford during 2014 and 2015. The lessons learned have informed the development of a service, known as Replay, available from August 2016. In this case study staff from the Department of the History of Art share the benefits of lecture capture experienced through participation in the projects.

Using Replay to complete the picture

Audio-visual provision is central to teaching in the Department of the History of Art. It is essential that the spoken words and images used in lectures interact successfully with one another to aid students’ understanding of visual culture. Previously, lecture recordings were only made available on departmental computers and access had to be requested in advance. This meant students often struggled to pair the audio commentaries with the corresponding PowerPoint slides.

The pilot of the Replay lecture capture software during 2014 and 2015 presented an ideal opportunity to improve the Department’s teaching and learning provision outside the classroom. In particular, it helped students with learning difficulties or those unable to attend lectures due to extenuating circumstances, as Replay supports a more flexible mode of learning on which these students rely.

A portrait of the process

In preparation for using Replay, two teaching rooms in the Department were set up with remote recording equipment, and administrative staff were trained to schedule, manage, and edit the recordings from desktop computers.

During 2014 the Department recorded one lecture series, Prelim Antiquity after Antiquity. The recordings were made available to students via links in their WebLearn course sites.

A screenshot of the Prelim Introduction to the History of Art series in Replay

A screenshot of the Prelim Introduction to the History of Art series in Replay

Although its primary function is to allow students to listen back to lectures, Replay can also be used more interactively. Each student has their own profile, and can search within a recording for keywords. They can bookmark certain sections and slides, and make time-specific notes which, when saved, will reappear each time the student opens the recording. These additional features are particularly useful for when students come to draw upon these materials as part of their revision.

Search results for the word 'national' in one of the Prelim 'Antiquity after Antiquity' lectures showing the time within the recording where each one occurs

Search results for the word ‘national’ in one of the Prelim Antiquity after Antiquity lectures showing the time within the recording where each one occurs


Using the 'Notes' feature in Replay to annotate one of the department’s careers seminars

Using the ‘Notes’ feature in Replay to annotate one of the Department’s Careers Seminars

An image of success

Replay’s simple audio-visual interface has successfully solved the students’ previous problem of matching words to images. A Second Year undergraduate said that they “found the online recordings of lectures in sync with the pictures […] really helpful”. Students have reported that the lecture recordings offer an invaluable resource which help to consolidate their learning away from lectures: “[they are] good as an aural learning device as well as jogging my memory on the significance of certain images” (First Year undergraduate student). Feedback confirms that the recordings have not replaced live lectures; rather, they complement them. Students who are unable to attend a live lecture for reasons beyond their control appreciate the ability to catch up, thanks to the recording.

Additionally, everything was set up in advance for the lecturers which meant they were not required to do anything beyond deliver their talk. This alleviated concerns that lecture capture might be intrusive and distracting, and the result was a strongly positive attitude in the Department towards using the Replay technology.

Following these highly encouraging findings, the department now records two more core lecture series: Prelim Introduction to the History of Art and FHS/MSt Concepts and Methods (open to undergraduates, graduates and other University members), as well as three optional courses.

The use of Replay has contributed to the Department’s wider outreach and research goals as staff have released a number of recordings on iTunes U. They have also recorded careers seminars and research papers, both for general release and for departmental records.

Recommendations for adopting lecture capture

Rachel Leach and her colleagues in the Department of the History of Art offer the following suggestions to other departments that might be considering recording their lectures:

  • Consider investing in a lapel microphone. This will improve the quality of recordings and allow the speaker to roam around the room.
  • If a lecture theatre doesn’t have enough capacity, use Replay to live-stream the presentation to an overflow room.
  • Explore ways in which Replay can help foster inter-departmental collaboration. The Department suggests that ‘there is a huge interdisciplinary benefit across the University if more departments and faculties decide to opt in to Replay. [In a survey] 65% of our students said that they would listen to recorded lectures from other courses.’

Further information:



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Flipping the mathematics classroom

The flipped classroom is a teaching technique that has gained worldwide currency during recent years. In a flipped approach, the information-transmission element of students’ learning is moved out of the classroom; instead, students view recorded lectures in their own study time ahead of the live session. This frees the class time for activities (such as discussion and problem-solving) in which students can apply their knowledge and potentially gives the teacher a better opportunity to detect their misconceptions. In this case study, Professor Simon Benjamin describes his successful application of the technique with students in the Department of Materials.

A digital alternative to the traditional lecture model

Having taught the undergraduate course Vectors, Matrices and Determinants for several years, Simon was looking for a way to free up lecture time for more interactive and interesting problem-solving discussions. Traditionally, he would explain how to work out a particular mathematical result and go through several examples on the board, and the students would copy down notes. However, he decided that this material could be better presented using short videos to be viewed before the lecture, along with some practice exercises. This way students could work through the techniques at their own speed. They would also arrive at lectures equipped with an improved understanding of the topic under discussion and (hopefully) some probing questions ready to pose to the tutor.

Videos + quizzes = flipped classroom

Simon began by filming 10 short videos and uploading them to YouTube. Each video is 5-10 minutes long, which he considered the smallest possible size to introduce a particular technique or idea. In each video Simon draws out a mathematical problem and provides an audio commentary to explain his thinking.

A screenshot from one of Simon’s videos showing his teaching notes

A screenshot from one of Simon’s videos showing his teaching notes

Once filming was complete, Simon used Final Cut to edit, compose and export the videos.

The next step was select problems from the course’s work sheets. Working with graduate student Amir Fruchtman, Simon converted the problems into a series of online multiple-choice quizzes designed for students to test their understanding of the preceding video. If they make a mistake, they can try again and may receive a hint such as ‘Close – did you forget the minus sign on the second term?’ Students’ performance is recorded by the quiz tool and can be reviewed by their tutors.

The materials and quiz questions were uploaded to the Moodle VLE with the help of staff from the Department for Continuing Education. Before the start of term the students were informed about the novel structure of the course, and tutors were shown how to access the system to see how their students were getting on, and to request feedback.

Greater than the sum of the parts…

Simon was pleased to find that, by moving the more rote-learning elements of the course out of the main lectures, he was indeed able to spend more time simply conversing with the students about how the techniques could be used to solve problems. Furthermore, he has found this kind of ‘free-form lecturing’ rewarding, as it allows for more variety: each lecture takes on a different shape from those in previous years since students’ comments and questions differ. This presents an exciting new challenge in his teaching. Additionally, the videos tend to attract more views in the lead-up to exam time, indicating that students are using them to brush up on their techniques as part of their revision.

Initially, Simon was concerned that the total time students would need to commit to the course might increase; however, this proved not to be the case. Each video is typically less than ten minutes long, while the online quiz is the same material that in previous years would have been part of the problem sheets. Even though the problem sheets are shorter than before, the quality of the tuition has not been compromised.

Simon has now taught the course in this new format twice and students’ feedback has been very positive – so much so that the department’s director ofstudies, Dr Adrian Taylor, has asked him to describe his work to colleagues.

The videos are now hosted on an open Moodle platform under a Creative Commons CC BY licence available for anyone to use and learn from.

It all adds up: top tips

Simon offers the following advice for other academic staff who are considering flipping their classrooms:

  • If you create and edit the videos yourself, ensure that you realistically account for editing time in your planning. Although the videos created in this work were only short, they took at least 10 times as long to edit and that is aside from any training time to become accustomed with the software.
  • Consider recruiting students to help upload the online materials. Simon comments that ‘Producing an interactive online quiz is time intensive; fortunately for me my department paid a graduate student to do the conversion process after I identified the problems that I wanted to be part of the quiz.’

Further information

  • You can view the full set of Simon’s mathematics videos in the Vectors, Matrices, Determinants and Eigenvectors playlist on YouTube, and view the videos together with their accompanying quizzes in his open Moodle course.
  • If you don’t have access to video-recording software, you can use the University’s Replay lecture capture software for the purpose. See the Replay web pages.
  • The IT Learning Centre in IT Services runs courses on planning, producing, filming and editing short videos.
  • The Educational Media Unit in IT Services provides digital video production and editing services (chargeable).
  • For more about the flipped classroom, see these articles:
    • Bogost, I. (2013). The Condensed Classroom. The Atlantic.
    • O’Flaherty, J. & Philips, C. (2015). The use of flipped classrooms in higher education: A scoping review. The Internet in Higher Education, 25: 85–95 (available through OxLIP+ e-journals).

OxTALENT 2016 Logo - web versionWinner, OxTALENT 2016 award for innovative teaching. The text in this case study has been adapted from Simon Benjamin’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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Department of Oncology engages budding scientists with school video competition

Encouraging school students and researchers to learn from each other

The competition aimed to inspire students about the Cancer research led at Oxford

The competition aimed to inspire students about the cancer research carried out at Oxford

Public engagement is widely perceived as important within higher education, but it can often be difficult to facilitate a genuine conversation or collaboration. With the aim of engaging secondary students, the Department of Oncology decided to coordinate a video competition. The idea was to open students’ eyes to Oxford’s cancer research by challenging them to create a usable resource communicating what they had learned to a wider audience. The Department welcomed entries that were suitably short, visually appealing and appropriate for online dissemination.

The competition was designed to be a two-way process whereby researchers and students could learn from each other. Firstly, students would gain an insight into the latest cancer research at Oxford and meet University researchers inspiring them with the prospect of a scientific career. However, more than this, they would get the opportunity to influence and contribute to the Department’s work with their creative thinking.

For the Department of Oncology, the competition represented a chance to engage students and their teachers with its work and the careers of its researchers. It was hoped that the videos generated would be of sufficient quality to use on the web to promote the Department’s activities. Furthermore, the Department wanted to establish positive relationships with schools which would (hopefully) lead to regular engagement with each year group of students.

Students impress judges with up-to-the-minute videos

To get things started, the Department attracted a small funding pool which was used to offer prizes in the competition. It was then advertised to schools across the Thames Valley area, asking students to submit a video which could be in any format, but not more than two minutes long. They were instructed that the video should explain both an aspect of the Department’s work and its potential impact to patients. Students were given a six week period to complete the videos, and Dr Martin Christlieb (the Department’s Public Engagement Manager) provided basic guidance on useful resources to complete the task, and background information on the selected areas of science.

The judging panel consisted of two public engagement professionals, a member of the University’s video team and two scientists. The results were annnounced to participants when they visited the Department to tour its research facilities.  The winners received Amazon vouchers in addition to unique trophies made of ‘frozen lightning’ using the Department’s linear accelerator.

The winning entry was produced by the students using a small digital camera and open-source editing software. It uses a highly current format (as previously seen in MinutePhysics) and explains some of the Department’s most significant ongoing research in using viruses to treat cancer. You can view the video, entitled Oxford Cancer Clips – Virus Therapy, on YouTube.

Success as students boldly go beyond the syllabus

The winning video is the most important testimony to the effectiveness of this project since it would not have been created without the enthusiastic engagement of two year 12 students. It also led to nine students and two staff from two schools visiting the department and engaging with the Department’s work. The winning students went far beyond what is required for exams and learned about the potential impacts of science in a way that will stick with them. As Dr Christlieb points out, ‘You can’t teach with such clarity if you don’t understand the material in question.’  Moreover, the Department is now left with a dynamic resource that it can publish online and help to inform the general public.

Advice for working with schools

Dr Christlieb offers the following tips for others looking to engage with schools in a similar way:

Students were given a tour of the lab and workshop at the Department of Oncology.

Students were given a tour of the lab and workshop at the Department of Oncology.

  • Be willing to be surprised and don’t attempt to manage the project at a detailed level. Let the participants exercise their creativity and imaginations within broad constraints set by the material you’re trying to communicate.
  • Set the parameters of the project so that it can be done without too much support from schools. Teachers are often constrained by the time and resources that they can offer to extra-curricular activities. Thus, if students are directed towards easy-to-find tools,  they will be able to operate independently, thereby circumnavigating some the barriers they may have otherwise met.
  • Aim to keep deadlines fairly short so that students can do a good job with their entry and then return to thinking about revision and exams. This stops the project dragging on and becoming a burden. Running the competition within the time-frame of the Michaelmas term can be a good idea.

Further information

  • The IT Learning Programme in IT Services offers courses on media production and editing.
  • Staff in Academic IT Services can help you to create and share learning materials with the school community via the Oxford TES Resources repository. For further information, send an email to academicit@it.ox.ac.uk.

OxTALENT2014_BlackOnWhiteRunner -up, OxTALENT 2014 award for support for outreach. The text and images in this case study have been adapted from Martin Christlieb’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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Mapping uncharted territory requires creative new uses of technology

Overcoming resource constraints with online mapping tools

Marco piloted his method in the beautiful province of Gansu, China.

Marco piloted his method in the beautiful province of Gansu, China.

An important part of most Oxford degrees, both undergraduate and postgraduate, is the opportunity to carry out individual, original research. Yet students are often constrained by the (limited) resources available to them. For researchers in disciplines such as Geography and International Development, financial and time restrictions can render survey research almost entirely infeasible. In particular, household registers and administrative data for low- and middle-income countries, especially rural areas, are notoriously difficult to obtain.

In order to save cost and manpower without compromising the quality of his project in rural China (Gansu), Marco Haenssgen developed an innovative approach to sampling villages and households using Google Maps and their geographical coordinates. This methodology has since been shared with other young researchers in the field to support their studies.

How the method was first used

At the start of the project, the only administrative data available to Marco was a complete list of villages in his three selected districts (approximately 2,000 villages in total). Since he did not have the resources to physically go out and list each building in these areas, he carried out the following tasks as part of his unique method:

  • verified the location of select villages through Google Maps (using their Chinese names);
  • extracted the geographical coordinates of these sites;
  • stratified the sample according to the village distance to the nearest township (16 villages plus 32 replacement villages were selected in this way); and
  • used satellite imagery from Google Maps and Bing Maps to establish the sampling frame* for each village.

In this case, the chosen sampling frame consisted of maps containing up to 950 numbered and labelled houses for each village, which he produced by extracting and collating highest-resolution aerial images (5 to 40 images per village). He segmented the villages, some of which were highly dispersed, in order to ensure better spatial representation of the households. Once the houses had been stratified by segments, Marco selected individual households using a systematic random sampling method based on the household number per segment, a random starting point and a fixed interval. Through this method, he selected 25 households per village.


Screenshot of a village map including selected and back-up households.

Marco also used printed maps, compasses, smartphone map applications, and handheld GPS units to help:

  • approach the village via the fastest route;
  • brief the field investigators about their selected households;
  • locate the selected houses in the village; and
  • verify afterwards whether the investigators had indeed interviewed members of the correct household.

A practical, cost-effective method to facilitate research

This effective approach can be replicated in a multitude of contexts where resources for household listing are limited, sampling frames cannot be produced from administrative data, and residential structures are homogenous and distinctive. As a result, student researchers can save substantial expenses that would otherwise be required for transportation, accommodation, subsistence, and insurance expenditures. For Marco, the use of this strategy helped reduce the workload of his research team in China by at least 64 to 80 person-days and consequently, saved the project approximately £4,500.

The importance of this work has been recognised in several ways. For example, it has been taught to DPhil students in Trinity Term as a means to extend their methodological toolbox . It was also presented at the 6th Conference of the European Survey Research Association in July 2015, and will likely result in a journal publication to reach a broader audience.

Top tips for following in Marco’s footsteps

Marco offers three key strategies to help student researchers maximise their gains from collecting data in this way:

  1. Before using this methodology, you should have completed basic training in survey sampling and be comfortable working with maps.
  2. Make sure you have the correct equipment, including a laptop with Microsoft Office and a VPN client (e.g. to access Google Maps), a colour printer to produce maps, a smartphone to navigate within the field, and compasses and GPS units to verify specific households.
  3. It is wise to sample more house than you actually need in case some of the houses selected from satellite maps turn out to be abandoned or non-residential.
  • i.e. a list of all those within a population who can be sampled, and may include individuals, households or institutions.

Further information

OxTALENT 2015 LogoRunner-up, OxTALENT 2015 award for support for student innovation. The text and images in this case study have been adapted from Marco Haenssgen’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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UBlend: helping students to keep up with what’s on

Using technology to help students make the most of their university experience

ublendEvery day Oxford University buzzes with exciting and alluring events, ranging from talks by world leaders to topical debates and college balls. These can present excellent opportunities to be inspired, meet like-minded people and potentially, discover one’s path.  The problem students often face is that there is too much information to process, leaving  a feeling of frustration when notices of upcoming events are lost to the daily barrage of emails. For this reason, Jean Petreschi and Anders Krohn (both Oxford students) thought it would be useful to create a mobile app which makes it easy for people to see what’s on and decide what’s worth attending. From this simple idea sprang Ublend, a quick and accessible way to see: what’s happening at the University, what’s trending, and pinpoint activities and groups of interest. Students can also use the app to connect and discuss content with other members of the Ublend community.

A growing network of students created by students

After teaming up with another couple of students, Jean and Anders built an innovative platform connecting students and event organisers at Oxford. The platform comprises a website and an iOS app. Market research showed that students are also very interested in corporate events and profiles, an area that the pair were planning to develop over the summer of 2015. However, the app has wider appeal beyond students. To an event organiser, Ublend  promises more exposure and provides a simple platform to better manage events. Newsletters can be sent to subscribers through MINT, an intuitive newsletter tool, and messages go straight to followers who will be notified directly on their phones.

The student team launched a prototype of the app in November 2014, and  released a more advanced version in April 2015, which also made the app available on Android. A month later, over 1,700 students had downloaded Ublend. Feedback was generally positive and it received a 4+ star rating on the iTunes app store. Over 120 event organisers have signed up to Ublend and created over 500 events in Michaelmas 2014 and Hilary 2015.

How the app appears on an iPhone

How the app appears on an iPhone

A year later the Ublend network had expanded to over 20,000 students across 12 institutions (Bristol, UCL, Warwick, LSE, Cambridge, Imperial, CBS) including a couple of universities in Europe (Copenhagen and St Gallen in Switzerland ) and North America (Yale and John Hopkins, Maryland). This process was a result of a ‘student ambassador’ model, whereby a selected student at a university took responsibility for launching the app in their institution in exchange for useful work experience.

The key to it all: put the emphasis on people

For anyone considering a similar start-up, Jean recommends putting people first and to take great care in choosing your partners. ‘I was lucky to find a great co­‐founder from the beginning, and that makes a real difference,’ he says. ‘Overall, always prioritise the team, over the product and over the profit, in that order.’

Further Information

Winner, OxTALENT 2015 award for support for student innovation. The text and images in this case study have been adapted from Jean Petreschi’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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