Ute Barrett on "What Works in Distance Learning?"

We catch up with Ute Barrett, Learning Technology Specialist at the University of Glasgow to talk distance learning and the future of online.

Ute Barrett has been at the University of Glasgow since 2009 as a learning technologist and tutor. She has also been an instructor of college-level communications, numeracy, and ICT courses and e-learning developer at West Lothian College.

As educators around the world continue to deal with the implications of the coronavirus, there has been a new emphasis on distance learning provided primarily online. To help ensure that online education is effective for both instructors and learners, we invited Ute Barrett, learning technologist at the University of Glasgow, to join us to talk about what works in distance learning.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got to the position that you’re in? And what you’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis?

I’m a learning technology specialist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I support all of our academic and teaching staff in the School of Psychology and also in the School of Education. I previously worked a lot on online distance learning programs. For the last three and a half years, my daily work was online distance learning programs and blended learning. That all changed in March when we all started pivoting online. Then all of the learning technologists at the university were included in a network to help staff, especially those who have never taught in an online space.

A lot of them felt very insecure about what exactly they had to do, and how to make this work and all that kind of thing.

And I’m still supporting our online distance learning programs. I still have to create content for them. So there’s a lot of discussion about how to create the content online, because we couldn’t go out and film anymore. We do a lot of filming.

For instance, we run a museum’s course, which is all about museums. So a lot of people who want to be become curators or staff in museums, do this course. They really respond to videos and curators themselves, in museums, talking them through all sorts of different aspects of that.

That’s really the power of distance learning, when someone who is in one location, can see museums all over the world, so that they get that breadth of knowledge, without having to have the means to travel.

That’s exactly it, and that was one of the things. I always try and find a unique selling point of a program. Sounds a bit commercial, but in many ways, this is the kind of thing that you need to think about.

One thing is, how do I get across how amazing the teaching staff are, and the academics are, and the experts are. I always try and speak to them about what really makes them tick, in terms of engaging learners, and how they teach, and what their content is like, and what they find particularly interesting about their content. That’s what I use as a basis for building learning in an online space. My ethos is really to make it personal.

For example, when I met one of our instructors, she looked at me and she said “Oh, and another learning technologist showed me all about Camtasia and how to record my lectures. I really, really hate to do this, and it’s not me. I don’t feel comfortable doing it. I’m just telling you now, I’m not doing it.” I thought, ” She clearly feels very strongly about this, and I’ve not even been able to show her anything or even talk her through anything.” And this is the first thing that I encountered.

I had two options. I could either try to talk her into doing this, or I could just say to her, “You know what, if you don’t feel comfortable doing it that way, then we’ll find another way.” I went for the second option. Suddenly, the spark was there.

What else works really well in distance learning?

You start with the pedagogy and then find tools or technologies that will get that across. The instructor I talked about earlier is an active lecturer. So a Camtasia video of her talking wouldn’t work. She moves around a lot, and she uses her hands and her arms. The whole thing just becomes this engaging performance. What we really needed to do is get a camera and film her. We filmed short snippets of her lecturing, and she pretended that she had an audience there. That’s what we did, and she absolutely loved it. The spark came across, and the students all commented on it at the end of the course.

Have you had any instructors who were doing really hands on things?

I know there are universities in the States who for instance, do their chemistry labs in Second Life and literally, are titrating and performing experiments. You can be in Second Life as an avatar, and do all of the things that you would normally do in a real lab, with your hands, by a mouse click. You add such and such to this and this, and there’s all the paraphernalia that you have in a lab —the vials, and a Bunsen burner and all that kind of stuff. It’s all basically displayed, and you can follow what type of recipe they have for chemical reactions and everything.

It then gives you an accurate reading. Someone’s actually done some research on this, and they said that the one in Second Life was more accurate, than what students were doing in an actual lab.

Then there are virtual reality anatomy programs. They model all of the anatomy so you do dissections by hiding some of the structures on the top, and you see structures underneath. But when you’re actually dissecting a cadaver there is a feeling, too. You would need haptics for that kind of thing, to make it completely authentic. You can’t yet feel what it feels like cutting into something.

What should instructors avoid as they move to or increase their presence in online learning?

We’ve found it’s really important for teachers to be present on the platform if they expect students to interact. It all comes from the actual tutor or lecturer — whatever they put in is what they will get out.

Instructors also can’t expect assessment to be the same. Assessment online is totally different from face to face. We can’t have those three-hour exams in exam halls anymore. Closed book exams, forget that. It needs to be some sort of open exam. I actually think that’s a really good thing –students are never going to sit a three-hour exam in their job after they leave the university. These assessments need to be authentic. When students go out into the world, what will they do? Kind of what we’re doing right now. We’re all presenting and discussing and collaborating and talking to each other. Having really good presentation skills is a great thing. So ask students to do a poster and let’s have a mini conference about that. And they get graded on that. And that’s it.

So things like that, I would say it’s important to keep that in mind, that that kind of thing is very different online. I mean, obviously the engineers use quizzes and things like that, so if they have that there, that’s perfectly fine and the medics and the vets do everything by multiple choice anyway, even before online, it was like that. Yeah, so I’ve gone off on a tangent again.

Looking toward other new directions, what are you excited for people to start studying in distance learning?

I would really like to investigate hands-on content. Things like the STEM subject labs. They really, really important. And the face-to-face applications such as for medics and vets, for instance, animal handling or actually seeing patients. Or education students working in the schools. That’s the kind of thing I would like to find out more about and where there’s probably a huge growth area. Certain subjects just can’t do without it.

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