Innovative Teaching with Technology

This is a general category in which we recognise people who have made creative use of digital technologies other than WebLearn in their teaching. Entries this year were of such a high standard that we have awarded two honourable mentions in addition to the main prizes. Along with the four listed below, a number of other entries will find their way into Academic IT’s collection of case studies to inspire teaching staff across the University.

Winner: Peter Judge for Clickers in Biochemistry

pjudge_tIn this category the judges look for a strong pedagogic rationale behind the use of digital technology. Peter’s entry stood out because it clearly stated a particular problem – students’ difficulty turning the material learnt during lectures into strategies for solving problems – and how he used clicker technology to address it. The lectures form part of the first-year Biophysical Chemistry course and is generally perceived by students to be the most challenging of their courses, in part because of its significant mathematical component. So, Peter sets four or five questions over the course of each lecture and asks students to select one of five possible answers using the clickers. He then runs through the calculation after revealing the students’ choices and the correct answer.

The advantage of the clickers over previous strategies that Peter tried is that students are able to contribute anonymously. Even if a student has made a mistake and given a wrong answer, it’s unlikely that they are the only one to have done so. The clickers also allow Peter to gauge whether the pace of the lecture is appropriate for the students and whether he needs to go back and cover some points again.

Peter also provides tips and advice for others wishing to do something similar, to help them avoid the perils and pitfalls that he encountered along the way.

Runners-up: Damion Young & Jon Mason for ‘PULSE – Pop-Up Learning Space Experiment’

pulse-william-morris-wallpaper-slideDamion and Jon’s entry demonstrates the varied and, more importantly pedagogically effective uses to which mobile technology can be put. Two years ago the Medical Sciences Division identified compelling needs for mobile devices in four areas of students’ learning:

  • Online examinations were putting pressure on the division’s IT suites, and it was felt that tablets to enable up to 30 students to sit an exam at the same time might relieve that pressure. The portability of the tablets would also mean that students based in the hospitals in Headington would not have to go down to the MSD teaching building in the Science Area to take their exams, as the tablets could be taken to them.
  • The division’s learning technology team has developed a repository of virtual microscopy, and some academic staff wanted to have these scanned slides available in laboratory classes in histology. Tablets, with their intuitive swipe interface (and wipe-clean surface!) were ideal candidates to make this possible.
  • Attempts to introduce audience response technology in lectures had been unsatisfactory, in part because of problems with wireless connectivity. Tablets that connect automatically to the wireless network were considered a possible solution and could also be lent to students who do not have a suitable mobile device on which to respond to a poll.
  • The process of delivering and marking Objective Structured Clinical Examinations (OSCEs), a crucial component of assessment in clinical medicine, was paper-heavy. Once again, tablets emerged as a potential solution.

Perhaps most importantly, a suite of tablets would give MSD an opportunity to discover, work through and solve some of the technical issues that it will face as technology for teaching, learning and assessment becomes increasingly mobile.

The purchase of 35 Asus T100 tablets with detachable keyboards has enabled MSD to address all of these issues with very positive feedback from staff and students alike. Damion adds: ‘By allowing us to get students online wherever it is needed, academic staff have been more ambitious in what they can hope to achieve with technology-enhanced learning.’

Their entry was particularly strong for its potential applicability to other disciplines – with a little rethinking, of course!

Honourable mention: The Oxford Human Rights Hub for the OxHRH Webinar Series

OxHRH webinarThe Oxford Human Rights Hub (OxHRH) was established in 2012 by Professor Sandra Fredman (Law Faculty). It strives to facilitate a better understanding of human rights, to develop new approaches to policy, and to influence the development of human rights law and practice. It is also a central pillar in the teaching of human rights, providing innovative pedagogical resources to students and teachers all over the world. The OxHRH Webinar series achieves three goals:

  • Increase global access to high-level human rights resources;
  • Allow Oxford students to gain a comparative perspective on human rights and to discuss human rights issues both with their colleagues here in Oxford and with their global colleagues via the virtual audience;
  • Encourage conversation on pressing human rights issues between participants cross-nationally.

Although the webinar series is still in its early stages, the judges felt it deserves a special mention for creating a classroom not only without walls, but also without borders.

The OxHRH blog was winner in the ‘outreach’ category at OxTALENT 2014.

Honourable mention: James Robson for ‘New Life to an Old Language’

The traditional method of teaching ancient languages is to drill grammar and vocabulary, working deductively from a text-book. In this world, audio-visual innovation is presenting the grammar using PowerPoint! Many students struggle with both motivation and retention. As a teacher of Hebrew, James Robson wanted to introduce some of the modern methods of Second Language Acquisition and to provide an interactive, dynamic and multi-sensory engagement with the language and texts of Biblical Hebrew. So he arranged the procurement and installation of a Smartboard at his college (Wycliffe Hall) and set about redesigning his teaching around the use of the board.

For introductory Hebrew, James created pages in the Smartboard software in advance of the classes. These gave an outline of the class, with hyperlinks to songs, games, texts, PowerPoint presentations and to other pre-prepared Smartboard pages where particular teaching points or tasks could be found. Students could then engage directly, sometimes coming to the board and participating in the games or in identifying features. He could easily add new pages to explain different points, and refer backwards and forwards to these pages.

RobsonFor intermediate Hebrew, James created diagrammatic analyses of set texts. In class, he and his students could read, discuss and annotate the texts in real time, with students contributing. Sometimes he invited students to come up and identify features in the text using a different-coloured pen. Another benefit of the technology is that, at the end of the class, James could make the pages available on WebLearn.

The outcome, James reports, has ensured variety in the classroom and enabled much greater student interaction and participation. Comments that he has received from students include: ‘The use of technology really lets us get on with the job of learning…so much more packed into the 50 minutes.’

The judges wished to commend James for the variety of learning activities which he has built in order to take full advantage of smartboard technology, demonstrating that it’s far more than an illuminated whiteboard!

James is a past winner of OxTALENT for his innovative use of WebLearn.

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Follow OxTALENT2015 online

Poster - celebrating the digital - whiteToday’s award ceremony is invite-only! If you didn’t make the list you can see our winners announced via this blog or by following the #oxtalent2015 hashtag on twitter.

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OxTALENT 2015 Speakers

In just a few hours we will be kicking off our annual OxTALENT Awards ceremony and we are looking forward to celebrating the use of digital technologies across the University. Again, this year, we are delighted to have a number of speakers included in the event. We especially look forward to hearing from the winners of two of our main categories – ‘Use of WebLearn to Support Teaching and Learning’ and ‘Public Engagement and Outreach’ – but their identities are under wraps until the prize giving! We can, however, introduce our other speakers:

Stuart Lee

stuart-lee2Stuart is IT Services deputy CIO, Reader in E-learning and Digital Libraries and a member of Oxford’s English Faculty. He has championed the innovative use of digital technologies across the University for many years, leading change in the delivery of IT services to staff and students, and most recently establishing funding channels to challenge the university  to experiment in using technology to make improvements to teaching, learning, research. Stuart will talk to delegates about innovation.

Catriona Cannon

p-IMG_2795-use-smCatríona took up the role of Deputy Librarian at the Bodelian Libraries in September 2014. She is responsible for overseeing the academic and public services of the Libraries, aligning the information services with the teaching and research needs of the university and providing support for approximately 34,000 registered external readers. She also provides strategic leadership of special collections, and the University Archives. In addition, she is responsible for coordinating the Bodleian’s Public Engagement Strategy.  Catriona has been invited to speak to us on the topic of intelligent search and retrieval and Oxford collections.

Anne Trefethen


Anne is Chief Information Officer and Pro Vice Chancellor (Academic Services and University Collections). We are delighted that Anne will conclude today’s ceremony.

Kate Lindsay

IMG_6019Kate is Head of Technology-Enhanced Learning at IT Services and will host today’s award ceremony.

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Sprucing up the red carpet for 16th June #oxtalent2015

CC0 from Pixabay

CC0 from Pixabay

The judging is over, the winners and runners-up have been notified, and the organising teams have swung into action to prepare for a very exciting awards ceremony on the afternoon of Tuesday 16th June. This year has been exceptional for the number and quality of entries (if we say that every year, it’s because Oxford’s staff and students are becoming ever more adventurous in their use of technology!). The ‘Innovative Teaching’ and ‘Outreach’ categories in particular have garnered strong fields, an indication that digital technologies have entered the mainstream in two of the University’s strategic areas.

Judging was completed on Wednesday 27th May, and we are now in the process of informing entrants of the outcome. Such is the calibre of the entries that many will be added to our collection of inspirational case studies in the innovative use of technology, even if they have not received the top awards.

You can follow our preparations and the ceremony itself on this blog and on Twitter: the hashtag is #oxtalent2015.

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Announcing OxTALENT 2015

Evaluation of an interactive revision session using mobile phones in WebLearnIT Services is delighted to launch the OxTALENT Competition 2015, celebrating and rewarding the innovative use of technology in teaching, learning, research, and outreach at Oxford. Once again, we have an array of categories for both staff and students to enter, whether you have developed a new tool, used existing technology in an exciting way, or designed an eye-catching conference poster or data visualisation.

We have additional categories for innovations that we have discovered during the year or that have been brought to our attention. So, if you haven’t used technology to enhance students’ learning yourself but you know someone who has, please tell us! In each category we are offering Amazon vouchers to the value of £150 (first prize) and £75 (second prize).

This website is the one-stop shop for everything you need to know about the competition. You can find instructions on how to enter and details of past winners to give you inspiration, and you can follow this blog to keep up to date with developments as they unfold.

And don’t forget two very important dates:

  • Friday 22nd May – closing date for entries (at midday)
  • Tuesday 16th June – the OxTALENT 2015 Red Carpet awards ceremony
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Under wraps: OxTALENT 2015…

Dark Dwarf - CC BY ND - Under Wraps at MNH - Flickr

Dinosaurs under wraps at the University Museum in 2013. CC BY ND Dark Dwarf; from Flickr

Planning is now under way for the 2015  OxTALENT competition. We will be open for entries in early March, and applicants will have until mid-May to send in their forms. The awards ceremony will take place on the afternoon of Tuesday 16th June, so mark the date in your diaries now!

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OxTALENT 2014: Thank you and so long until next time!

OxTALENT 2014 Red CarpetThe OxTALENT awards for innovation and creativity in the use of digital technology in the University were presented in a packed Isis room at IT Services on Wednesday 18th June. This has been a particularly fruitful year, with the number of categories expanded to 11, including awards for the use of technology to support students in transition. In all, 27 prizes were given to individuals and teams, and you can read about the winners here.

No OxTALENT ceremony is complete without a lively closing speaker. This year we were treated to a characteristically entertaining yet thought-provoking talk by Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Marcus conducted a mini-experiment with the audience through Twitter to illustrate how social media are enabling researchers to engage with the wider community in new ways (and in the process inspired at least one new tweeter).

Organising the OxTALENT competition and awards ceremony is one of Academic IT Services’ key activities in supporting technology-enhanced teaching, learning, and outreach in the University. So, we are proud to share with you some of the warm and appreciative feedback which we have received during the past week:

I just wanted to thank you for another lovely evening at OxTalent yesterday …  I hope you … are feeling justifiably proud of last night’s success.

I was not aware of what a big event it was – and how fabulous to see all the innovative ideas that are around the University.

I particularly enjoyed the quotes from winners about their experiences of their projects, and in particular the frequency with which we heard that the creators of such accomplished work had started out with only an idea and a can-do attitude.

It’s nice to get recognition. We do all this work and we just assume everyone else is doing something similar. It’s nice to have someone else look at the work and recognize that its not being done everywhere else and the techniques are useful to others.

Presentation for hard workSadly for us, Melissa leaves Oxford for the University of Edinburgh at the end of the month. In recognition of her leadership in supporting and promoting technology-enhanced learning and teaching, she received bouquets at the ceremony from Dr David Waters (chair of OxTALENT) and Professor Sally Mapstone (Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education).

In the post-ceremony blog entry in 2013, Melissa signed off with the words ‘See you, same time, same place, next year.’ So, in the hope that curiosity prevails and she’s tempted to pop down for the 2015 awards, we say again to Melissa – as well as to all of you who have reached (or will reach) new creative heights in teaching, learning, and outreach with technology -

See you, same time, same place, next year!

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OxTALENT Speaker- Marcus Du Sautoy

Marcus_du_SautoyMarcus du Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford.

In his launch talk for engage: Social Media Michaelmas in 2012 he talked about how he uses digital media to fulfil this role. For Marcus, engaging the public digitally is about converting passive audiences to active participants. He advocates creative thinking to find various simple effective ways to open up two-way communication with the viewing public.

Marcus’s series of mathematical programmes The Code is now held up by the BBC as exemplary digital engagement practice because of its inventive and successful online partner project. This series had a very real off-screen life in its puzzle-solving initiative. Marcus explained how thousands of viewers followed the series closely in order to find the clues to solve the Code Challenge. Furthermore, the series also produced a complicated 82 page online puzzle book. Around this challenge an enthusiastic community of amateur puzzle-solvers grew. They set up their own wikis (e.g. ‘Crack the BBC Code‘ and ‘The Code group‘) and collaborated to work out the trickiest puzzles. The final of the competition was held in Bletchley Park and televised. This project shows how, given the opportunity, a dynamic community of active, collaborative and driven people can be mobilised and engaged in scientific ideas.

Marcus also experimented with crowdsourcing in an online partner project to Numbers, the first episode of The Code. He asked viewers to upload photographs of numbers from 1 to 2011 to an online portal and was delighted with the community that sprung up around the building of this collection.

Marcus has contributed to nine series in our podcast collection:

  • Alumni Weekend
  • Oxford Research in the Humanities
  • The Secrets of Mathematics
  • Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences at the Department for Continuing Education
  • Engage: Social Media Michaelmas
  • Department for Continuing Education Open Day 2012
  • Christmas Science Lectures
  • Kellogg College
  • Inside Oxford Science

Together, these series account for more than 65,000 downloads in iTunesU.

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Student IT Innovation

In this category we invite students to show how they have used technology to enhance the experience of studying at Oxford, both for themselves and for their peers. Our three equal winners have worked to find innovative solutions to challenges in three different areas of student life: their subject of study, keeping up with the student news media, and increasing their brainpower.

Amber Barton: Mechanisms of Gene Evolution

GenesAmber, an undergraduate at Corpus Christi College, has produced a colourful website to support revision. She writes:

Although much of university learning seems to revolve around essay writing, many of us are visual learners and retain facts much better when presented to us in an aesthetically pleasing and memorable manner. I wanted to demonstrate that biochemical topics could be presented in a fun, colourful way and that revision can be more interesting than re-reading one’s lecture notes.

Having researched the topic, Amber designed a simple website using the software Serif Drawplus X3 and then published it using the Moonfruit site builder. She received good feedback from her tutor about the content of her site, and it is now going be used as a teaching material for future undergraduates.

Sarab Sethi, Patrick Beardmore, & Max Bossino: Cherwell Apps for Android and iOS

Nowadays most news is read on smartphones and tablets enabling the public to keep up to date with the latest and most exciting stories as they break. However, Sarab Sethi, a student at Mansfield College, noticed that student newspapers had yet to make the full transition to the digital format. Even though the award-winning website of the Cherwell newspaper was registering approximately 100,000 unique views monthly, there was still no easy way to view articles on a mobile device.

cherwellappSince Sarab had experience in developing Android apps and was interested in taking on a larger project he approached the director of Oxford Student Publications Limited (OSPL), Max Bossino (Brasenose College) asking whether he was interested in an official Cherwell app. Patrick Beardmore, a deputy editor of Cherwell and student at St Hugh’s College, was keen to develop the iOS app. So, with the backing of OSPL, they got going, setting a deadline of Fresher’s Week 2013 for the launch. They also enlisted the help of Adam Hadley, an Oxford alumnus who had developed the Cherwell website.

Developing the apps was only one part of the challenge; the next part was getting people to use them. The team pursued an active advertising campaign, both in the printed newspaper and online, to encourage readers to download and engage with the app.

The apps have really made an impact, with more than 1,000 downloads across the two platforms. They have an average of 4.85 stars out of 5, and with reviews such as ‘Perfect accompaniment to the newspaper’, ‘Easy to use’, and ‘Well designed and quick’ the project seems to have been a success.

The team plans to release the code for both apps under an open source licence on GitHub. They hope that this will contribute to the sustainability of the project and ensure that the apps stay up to date with best practices in the software industry.

Sarab’s tip to would-be app developers? ‘Just go for it and get started, but be prepared to learn on the job.’

Taimur Abdaal: Speedsums

Speedsums - Dave mockupTaimur, a student at University College, has developed a simple web-based application to help students hone their mental arithmetic skills. In an era where students are relying on calculators for even basic arithmetic, he hopes that the site helps to remove some of the stigma associated with maths and to show that it can actually be quite fun.

Speedsums received over 32,000 visits and over 100,000 pageviews in the first month after its launch. Four hundred and fifty  people have tweeted about it, and  530 people have shared it on Facebook. In total, over two million sums have been done worldwide

Taimur advises:

Think of a reasonably simple idea that you might like to build, and then find out what you need to build it – which technologies and programming languages etc. Online resources are amazing when it comes to learning to code. No matter what programming problem you face, if you spend long enough trying to solve it, you’ll either figure it out or figure out a way around it. The first few things that you make will be absolutely rubbish, but eventually you’ll get the hang of it and people will end up liking what you built.

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Open Practices

Reflecting the diversity of activities and initiatives that come under the ‘open’ umbrella, we have changed the title this category from ‘open education initiatives’ to ‘open practices’.

Politics in Spires Blog Editorial Team: Workshop on Academic Blogging: Political Analysis in the Digital Age

Blake Ewing, Katharine Brooks, Chris Prosser, Dr. Stuart White, Dr. Scot Peterson, Kate Candy, Liz Greenhalgh

academicblogThe Politics in Spires blog started as a joint project between Oxford and Cambridge, funded by JISC in 2010-11 as part of its Open Educational Resources programme. It is now recognised as a core part of the output of the Department of Politics and International Relations, with a regular flow of 3-5 posts a week. Blogging is now seen as a way to increase academic output, reach new audiences and foster original debates.

The challenge for the Politics in Spires Editorial Team this year was to extend the understanding and commitment of department members, in order to increase their participation and contribution to the blog and to  ensure its long-term success as a part of mainstream departmental activity.

The half-day event on the 25th February, Academic Blogging: Political Analysis in the Digital Age, was held to raise awareness, review the range of practice, reflect on the realities and increase our understanding of blogging as an aspect of academic life. The event was intended to create an opportunity for a wider audience to learn about the world of academic blogging and to understand current trends. It was successful on all these counts, with over 50 participants and talks by speakers from The Guardian newspaper, the LSE, OII, and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism among others.

The workshop sessions were recorded and are now available as a series of five audio and video podcasts under a Creative Commons licence.

Professor Timothy Garton Ash & Kim Wilkinson: The FreeSpeechDebate

Professor Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies and Director of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Anthony’s College. Kim Wilkinson is a DPhil student at Wolfson College and editor of the FreeSpeechDebate.

FreeSpeechDebate blogThe internet has transformed the conditions for both free speech and for debating free speech, as images, information and ideas move between frontiers. The rationale behind the FreeSpeechDebate project was to use these new possibilities to promote a well-structured and well-informed debate about what the terms of free speech should be. More than this, it intended to harness digital technology to allow for such contributions to be accessed in multiple languages (13 in total) so that the discussion can be opened up to a wider range of cultures and communities.

The FreeSpeechDebate has helped to develop 10 guiding principles which aim to sharpen and structure free speech of the future. The majority of principles, discussion pieces and case studies are commissioned from a carefully selected, international cast of academics, journalists and experts in the field (e.g. lawyers). However, there is also an active team of Oxford graduate students who write, edit and translate articles, which means that the site is an excellent platform for early career researchers to showcase their language skills and academic insights. Some of these videos have been condensed to make them suitable for classroom use.

freespeechThe FreeSpeechDebate has received over 588,000 unique visitors from all over the world during the 2 years since its launch with an average of 30,000 a month. Updates are disseminated across a multitude of social media channels including Facebook, Twitter, Webo and YouTube, and the team have found this a particularly useful tool in gaining feedback of users’ experiences with the site.

All of the content is released under a Creative Commons licence, enabling others to share the materials in a variety of contexts.

Sophie Kay: Scientific Reproducibility: Learning with Lego

Sophie, a doctoral student in the Department of Computer Science, won an award last year for her Open Science Training Initiative. It is always good to see how colleagues build upon and develop their open practice.



The role of good communication in scientific research has been a hot topic for some years now. An increasing emphasis on the reproducibility and repeatability of scientific results places demands on researchers to enhance and hone their communication skills in the delivery of their research outputs. Sophie’s Lego-based teaching scheme provides a means of educating young students and researchers in communication of methods and techniques, through the fun and engaging medium of Lego.

The workshop sessions centre around teams reproducing a full Lego model from written instructions (no images!) which have been intentionally designed with flaws. Time pressures require each team to deliver a finished model within 30-40 minutes. Participants then have to identify why the instructions failed to deliver their information successfully.


CC BY Neil Chue Hong

The pilot workshop took the form of a one-hour session at SpotOn London in November 2013, the Nature Publication Group’s annual conference. Interest from delegates was so great that a queuing system had to be operated. Sophie had advertised the session ahead of time on her blog, and also provided the instructions on her blog so that people could participate remotely. The workshop was live streamed, and Sophie’s instructions have since been downloaded 182 times.

Thaddeus Aid: Use of OER Courseware in an ITLP Online Course

Thaddeus is studying for his doctorate in the Life Sciences Interface Doctoral Training Centre (LSI DTC) in the Department of Statistics, and also teaches for IT Services’ IT Learning Programme (ITLP).

aidBecoming proficient in a computing language takes time and practice. Standard ITLP courses give a brief introduction to programming, but don’t have sufficient time or resources for extended teaching support to the participants. It was felt that an on-line course over a period of four or five weeks might give participants more exposure to the topic, and provide some support from a tutor during the extended self-study that the course would entail.

Thaddeus’ idea was to use an existing course that might be available as OER, so he researched the available courses and found How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning with Python, produced by staff at Luther College in Iowa, USA. Although the course provides a great deal of interactivity, Thaddeus also set up a discussion forum in WebLearn so that he could interact with the students, and they could engage with each other.

The course has proved to very popular, and Thaddeus has used the feedback from students to make improvements: for example, he now holds an introductory one-hour face-to-face session so that the students can get to know each other.

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