HEIR: A crowdsourcing approach to researching and tracking our changing landscapes

A treasure trove of images, but a lifetime of work

In 2012 Dr Katharina Ulmschneider and Dr Sally Crawford of the Institute of Archaeology were conducting a scoping survey of the University’s humanities and social sciences archives when they came across a treasure trove of images of landscapes, including many lantern slides and glass-plate negatives. The images constituted a fascinating portrait of a world gone by, but there were few catalogues of their contents and no knowledge of their importance. Katharina and Sally realised that these images, if scanned and made available on a research database, would have an enormous potential for researching and tracking change over time. However, identifying and tagging over 15,000 images of sites, places, and monuments worldwide would take one person a whole lifetime, and so the team, together with Dr Janice Kinory, decided to draw on the help of citizen scientists.

The solution: share the workload with citizen scientists worldwide

HEIR websiteKatharina and Sally worked with a commercial developer and their departmental IT manager to build a crowdsourcing website, HEIRtagger, which makes it possible for people of all ages and backgrounds to engage with the images. The HEIR mobile phone app was also developed to encourage people to search for and re-photograph sites.

The HEIRtagger website has been designed around the metaphor of a quest, with citizen scientists travelling the world through old photographs to help researchers discover a century of global change. Following a brief tutorial, users can choose either to travel to a particular country or to be ‘surprised’ by a random image. They are then given the task of clicking on a specific image, describing what they see and tagging it according to six broad categories; for example, ‘buildings and archaeology’ (e.g. pyramid, church), ‘transport and travel’ (e.g. cart, bicycle); or ‘people and objects’ (e.g. woman, fishing, book).

‘Do you know more?’ boxes are provided for users to provide specialist knowledge. Users can also start a discussion about an individual image, which is proving a popular way to generate additional information and to facilitate knowledge exchange both between citizen scientists and academics and between citizen scientists themselves.

The data is vetted and fed into the HEIR database, an interdisciplinary, open-access research resource, which brings together images from a number of faculties, departments and other bodies: Archaeology, History of Art, Geography, Plant Sciences, the Ashmolean Museum, Beazley Archive, Oriental Institute, Harris Manchester College and privately owned collections.

The HEIR mobile phone app is intended for re-photographing images. It allows citizen scientists to be sent old images of their vicinity and to take a photograph of the object or site as it looks today. The app contains an overlay function, which allows the current camera view to be superimposed on the old image to ensure the best possible fit. The re-photographed images, together with data about their location, are sent to the crowdsourcing platform, where they can be viewed alongside the old images.

HEIR app

The HEIR app. Left: superimposing the historical image over the present-day view. Right: uploading a photograph of the present-day view to the HEIR database

HEIRtagger additionally has an active presence on social media, with thousands of followers on Twitter (@HeirOxford), Facebook and the team’s blogs. These followers have helped the University team identify lost sites and provide further research input.

Benefits to both research and outreach

By the end of 2016, 1688 images had been tagged in the HEIR database, and the 216 taggers had between them generated 925 discussions – all before the public launch of the platform.

This growing resource has provided the impetus for new research projects (e.g. the Roman project at Royal Holloway University, London), student theses, volunteering and internships. Members of the HEIR team have worked with public bodies (e.g. CADW, Heritage England, Winchester Cathedral and Chichester Cathedral), museums and organisations in the USA, Europe and China. HEIR has also been involved in in several outreach activities including academic talks, two exhibitions at the Ashmolean Museum, two lantern-slide performances with musical accompaniment (National Festival of the Humanities, November 2014), and numerous conference papers and articles.

Top tips

Katharina Ulmschneider draws on the team’s experience to offer this advice for similar crowdsourcing projects:

  • Make sure you have excellent IT support and back-up options in case things go wrong.
  • Build enough contingency into your funding bid to allow for a) equipment failures and b) extra expenditure. Technical specifications and requirements change over the lifetime of the project.
  • Sustainability is an on-going issue with web data, so think about how to future-proof your project. Questions to ask yourself include: How long do you want the project to run? Who will host it? Who will bear the costs when the grant runs out?
  • Plan realistically for the amount of time it will take to respond to enquiries and maintain the public profile of the site from day to day.

Further information

  • Read other case studies in crowdsourcing in this collection.
  • The Technology-Enhanced Learning team in Academic IT offers consultation and advice on crowdsourcing platforms. To find out more, send an email to engage@it.ox.ac.uk.
  • Visit our Engage website for information and advice on digital technologies for public engagement, knowledge exchange and impact.

OxTALENT 2016 Logo - web versionJoint runner-up, OxTALENT 2016 award for the use of technology for outreach and public engagement. The text in this case study has been adapted from Dr Katharina Ulmschneider’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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Expanding scholarship and facilitating outreach through collaborative translation

Translating the untranslated

As part of her doctoral research, Fiona Whelan was faced with the challenge of translating a 2,840-line poem written in medieval Latin. Where passages proved particularly difficult, she enlisted others to help, and this sparked an idea. Could collaborative translation be a solution?

Fiona’s research field – medieval literature – includes countless texts that have not yet been translated into modern English and are therefore under-utilised in scholarship. Academics often lack the time to dedicate themselves to translation work, and although students and amateurs can translate very competently, they often feel ill-equipped to translate to a publishable standard. To address this situation, Fiona decided to bring together academics, students and enthusiasts through an online platform on which they could collectively translate medieval texts in different languages and from different periods. She hoped that the work would both inspire new research collaborations and facilitate meaningful knowledge exchange between the academic community and the general public. The resulting resources would be made available online for the benefit of all.

From concept to proof using freely available (and free) technology

Med Texts home page

The home page of the Medieval Texts Translation Project

To promote the concept, Fiona set up a WordPress site entitled Medieval Text Translations, a Twitter account (@MedTextTran), a dedicated email account and a Facebook group. She also conducted a survey to determine whether people considered crowdsourcing translations to be a viable pursuit. Many respondents indicated that they were interested in the idea of collaborative translation and the potential outputs, but were less willing to participate. To gauge the validity of these responses, Fiona designed and led a pilot from May to July 2015 in which three poems in Medieval Latin, Middle-English, and Anglo-Norman were translated through crowdsourcing. She chose texts which were relatively short and familiar to her so that she could double-check the translations while they were being made.

TitanPad poem

A poem in the process of translation in TitanPad, showing participants’ comments in the right-hand panel

Fiona ran the pilot on two free platforms. The first, Google Docs, worked reasonably well, with two translations completed successfully. The second platform, TitanPad, proved more effective as it was easier for Fiona to track each participant’s translation, along with their comments.

On average, each poem took a week to translate. Fiona tidied up the completed translations and asked participants to check them for a final time. She also asked them whether they wanted to be included in the list of named authors. The translations are now in the public domain for scholarly use and can be found on a separate page of the WordPress site.

The twofold benefit: an enthused public and new possibilities for researchers

As a result of Fiona’s initiative, there are now three new translations of medieval texts in the public domain that were not previously available. Indeed, this was the essence of the project: namely, to increase scholarship and speed up the rate at which texts were translated.

Med Text Trans views

Social media analytics showing the global reach of the project

More important, the pilot indicated that there is an audience for collaborative translation projects such as Fiona’s, with willing volunteers and an enthusiasm for the potential to generate new scholarship – whether in medieval literature or in other research fields.

During the pilot, the site received over 1,000 unique visitors from around the world, and the Twitter account @MedTextTrans gained over 500 followers. Data from surveys, Twitter and other social media networks indicated that people enjoyed taking part in the project.

The pilot attracted a number of participants outside academia who had prior experience in translations and medieval literature, either from their studies or through personal interest. This indicated that it also served a valuable outreach function, enabling the public both to take an active role in the work and to share in the ownership of the outputs.

Medieval Text Translations has made positive steps to bring academics and the wider community together. Even so, it remains a work in progress, and the next step will be to receive funding to develop a more sophisticated platform.

Words of advice

Fiona Whelan offers these tips for researchers who are inspired to follow her example:

  • To develop a trial, start by harnessing your pre-existing skills and the tools already at your disposal.
  • Experiment with new online platforms to experience the project from the perspective of your participants.
  • Capitalise on your social network to recruit participants.
  • Give participants a reason to be involved through incentives – and remember to thank them afterwards!
  • Don’t be deterred by an initial lack of funding. Time and effort, in conjunction with free online resources, can demonstrate proof of concept and, hence, strengthen bids for funding.

Further information


OxTALENT 2016 Logo - web versionJoint runner-up, OxTALENT 2016 award for the use of technology for outreach and public engagement. The text in this case study has been adapted from Fiona Whelan’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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Border Criminologies: a multi-stranded online platform for research and outreach

Connecting an online community of researchersbc pic

The study of migration control and criminal justice is a highly topical and growing field of academic research. To connect and engage with those involved in border control research and work, Professor Mary Bosworth and colleagues set out to create a new knowledge-sharing platform for free and open access content. The result was the Border Criminologies website and research network which was funded by the ERC as part of the five-year Starting Grant ‘Subjectivity, Identity and Penal Power’. By sharing data and research designs, and promoting interdisciplinary collaborations, the project has sought to accelerate theoretical and empirical thinking in the area. Launched in April 2013 and supported by a core group based at the Centre for Criminology, the network and website have grown rapidly to become the primary site for research in this area.

Facilitating outreach and the exchange of ideas

Border Criminologies was conceptualised and designed as a multi-aspect outreach platform to share knowledge and advance the study of border control in criminology. This innovation has been implemented in stages as the project has developed over time. It has a number of strands:

The Border Criminologies website offers a portal to applied academic research on border control within criminology and related disciplines, in Oxford and internationally. The site makes available data, research, teaching resources, and open access publications along with an events list of seminar series and conferences around the world.

Situated in the website, the Border Criminologies blog is a particularly important feature of outreach, showcasing original research from around the world, first-hand accounts of border control and book reviews. The blog features monthly themed weeks organised by a specialist, tackling topics in-depth to provide an opportunity for interdisciplinary dialogue. Blog content is syndicated by Newstex, a web-based business which feeds content to online users, thereby expanding the site’s reach.

With funding from the Leverhulme International Network on External Border Control, Border Criminologies established the first open access journal on the intersections between criminal justice and migration control. The SSRN Criminal Justice, Borders & Citizenship Research Paper Series currently includes more than 180 papers, freely available to download. The SSRN increases the exposure and enhances the public value of the founders’ research.

In addition to the blog, Border Criminologies has an extensive online presence on social media, with an active Twitter feed and Facebook page. As part of the project’s focus on visual methods, the team is collating images of border control on Flickr and Instagram and will be launching a digitised Immigration detention archive.  The project also hosts a private research forum page on Facebook where students and scholars can discuss practical problems that they encounter in their writing and research in a safe and supportive environment.

Lastly, Border Criminologies organises regular seminars, conferences, and discussion group meetings, which are recorded as podcasts, shared on iTunes and summarized on the blog.

 Homepage of the Border Criminologies blog

Homepage of the Border Criminologies blog

A positive outcome without borders

Border Criminologies has made international work on border control much easier by offering a unique platform for discussion, while reaching out to, and embracing, diverse groups from around the world and across disciplinary boundaries: academics, practitioners and those with lived experience. The Border Criminologies network currently includes nearly 50 members (academic researchers, postgraduate research students, and practitioners) and an international advisory group whose 14 members represent academic, government, and non-government sectors. In addition the project has facilitated a valuable link between the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford, the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, and Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo. In December 2016, the network expanded to include partners at Leiden University Law School. Colleagues at these institutions are working on a range of interdisciplinary border control issues with the aim of generating new knowledge in the field and increasing its impact through stronger relationships, new communication strategies and mentoring schemes. Members of the network have collaborated on articles and books.

Web statistics indicate that the blog was viewed around 13,000 times in February 2016, with more than 11,300 unique visitors per month. While the main viewers of the website are from the UK, US and Australia, Border Criminologies also has viewers from countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. It has a strong following on social media and the blog has been a particularly effective mechanism of outreach to the wider public.

Top tips

Mary offers the following advice to other academics looking to run a similar initiative:

  • Make sure your webpage is user-friendly and easy to navigate.
  • Keep your blog alive by adding new content regularly and ensuring that events lists are up-to-date.
  • Invite a diverse range of people to contribute to the blog to gain a wide array of insights.
  • Be methodologically creative.
  • Disseminate your posts widely through linked social media accounts.
  • Whenever possible, podcast events to share knowledge and reach out to those in other locales.

Further information

Find out more about the Department of Criminology and Professor Bosworth’s work.

The IT Learning Programme in IT Services offers courses on building a blog and writing for an online audience.

OxTALENT 2016 Logo - web versionWinner, OxTALENT 2016 award for the use of technology for outreach and public engagement. The text in this case study has been adapted from Mary Bosworth’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.


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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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