Understanding University Lecturers as Learners

Passing the Sheldonian. By me, 2006. (CC-BY-NC)

I have found that providing pedagogical staff development for academics raises a whole heap of challenges in terms of engagement. As part of the Enhancing Teaching Programme I am undertaking with the Oxford Learning Institute I have had the opportunity to reflect on this in relation to the digital pedagogies we hope to embed more as part of staff development programmes. These are my current thoughts:

Academic Identity and University Culture

  • Academic staff are deeply engaged in their subjects, most likely with a Doctorate in the field. They are also quite likely to be researchers.
  • By holding post in a research-intensive University academics are likely to be embedded in a culture where research is valued much more highly than pedagogy,
  • Lack of recognition for teaching is exacerbated by underlying issues such as casualisation, and lack of a defined career progression. This raises the potential for the roles of expert and teacher to stand in opposition to each other.
  • This can cause scepticism on the part of the academic-learner regarding the value of professional development in teaching, and impinge significantly on the focus they give to staff development programmes a whole (Davies & Maguire, 2013).

Never enough time

  • Time-commitment is also a significant challenge for academic-learners. Research commitments take precedent, and there is a host of other academic activities such as admissions and exam marking, college commitments, committees etc.
  • Robbins & Dermo (2016) found that ‘although the learners are academics, it is not unheard of for them to engage with the PGCert in the same manner in which their own decried, supposedly, overly ‘exam focused’ students may engage.’ Learners may draw on surface learning approaches, focusing on summative deadlines and ‘jumping through hoops’ as opposed to engaging deeply in the reflection necessary to review and develop one’s own practice.


  • A programme of study on pedagogy such as a PGCert or PGDip will have a diverse range of learners, uniquely in terms of the variety of disciplines they come from.
  • This may influence how they engage with the requirement to reflect on their practice, which is fundamental for their ongoing development as teachers (Bell, 2011).  For instance social scientists and those in health studies may easily engage in this approach, whilst those in engineering, computational and physical sciences may benefit from more scaffolding and support (Robbins & Dermo: 2016).

The Technology

Whilst issues such as academic identity and culture of teaching can only really be addressed at institutional and departmental levels, in designing pedagogical staff development I must consider educational approaches, assessment designs, and strategies that can be employed which make it easier for academic-learners to engage without challenging their values.

Breaking down the barriers, breaking down the vision…Canvas@Oxford

1600 pandas Nantes 2009-3.jpg by Stéfan. cc-by-sa-2.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1600_pandas_Nantes_2009-3.jpg?uselang=pt
1600 pandas Nantes 2009-3.jpg by Stéfan. cc-by-sa-2.0.

Our programme to bring in a new VLE for the University is more than a technology replacement programme. Canvas@Oxford is an opportunity to open up conversations around digital education and the role of the VLE.  It also provides an opportunity to break down some of the barriers that exist around using digital tools and spaces in teaching and learning. As such it is vital that we have a vision statement which reflects our education-first approach, how our new VLE, Canvas by Instructure, will support this, and who will benefit from this change.

This is the vision statement:

Advancing education at Oxford by providing an intuitive digital platform for all.

As a team of learning technology  experts we need to be able to talk about this vision in our discussions with academic staff and course teams, so that we can paint a picture of the job that we have hired Instructure to do; the student experience we are aiming for; and importantly address the whys around why we are changing.

Lets break down the vision statement into its three core parts.

Advancing education at Oxford…

Oxford provides a world-class education, and regularly tops the global HE league tables. This educational model, known fondly as the Oxford Experience, is built on a set of core educational principles: Providing intellectually stimulating conversations (through tutorials); small scholarly communities (through the colleges); research-led teaching; and a flexible, personalised curriculum that enables students to go beyond their disciplines and decide the shape of their own course of study.

To advance these principles is not to replace them. The mechanisms through which they are enacted – the tutorial system, the colleges, are unique and for many highly effective, but they are not the only ways in which these principles can be realised. By being more digitally engaged and pedagogically reflective we can explore how Canvas can support Oxford’s ethos. At a basic level huge benefits can be realised – through time-saving streamingling resources, and providing the digital integrations that students expect in the 21st Century. This supports and enriches current practice.

At an advanced level digital spaces can provide enhanced and alternative opportunities to learn and collaborate in learning. The digital classroom is a global classroom, and provides opportunities for cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural, and cross-geographical learning . There are also opportunities for individual academics and course teams to plug-in digital tools specific to their course learning objectives, and design rich online learning activities. Canvas’ ability to network with social media platforms and external blogs, as well as its mobile applications opens opportunities to teachers and students to interact with the platform in the same ways they interact with the rest of the Web: creatively, socially, dynamically.

Rather than simply providing an ‘online version’ of a subject, we can reshape it. To do this we need staff and students with digital literacies, who can be effective tutors and learners in an online context. We are finding that we can begin using the VLE not to just build courses but to organise thinking about courses. As such Canvas@Oxford is not just about the tool itself, it is also about supporting and evolving the development of lifelong digital capabilities and blended curriculum design.

by providing an intuitive digital platform… 

Aesthetics matter. Usability is key to technology uptake. Interface design can shape the learning experience. In our review of our existing VLE one of the key findings was that staff and students found its usability, navigation and interface cumbersome and clunky, and as such we ranked these features very highly in our tender evaluations of VLE platforms. By removing usability barriers we are enabling students to engage more with content and activities, and educators to engage more with learning design. Furthermore the view of what an intuitive digital platform is moves on at a rapid pace. A VLE does not only exist on the desktop computer or laptop, they need to be rendered seamlessly across mobile devices and operating systems. Regular, frequent interface updates are easily provided through a cloud-based VLE, and dedicated mobile applications can enable access to learning and teaching anytime, anywhere.

…for all.

Our core learning platform will provide a digital space that is available to all our students, all who teach, and all who support teaching and learning.  Through simply making learning resources available online we can offer greater flexibility and accessibility to learning. This is powerful. The digital allows us to meet more people’s needs than ever before. We are currently looking at accessibility plugins to enable us to unlock the full potential of the VLE to support those with disabilities, those with specific learning difficulties, and those with access requirements. There are also a huge cohort of staff and students who benefit from online accessible provision but who may not ask for help, such as staff and students with mental health problems, those with carer responsibilities, or those with less flexibility because of other academic commitments or the need to work as well as study.

Personally, for me, the exclamation that it is ‘for all’  that is the most powerful part of this  statement. The University’s 2018-2023 draft strategic plan sets out a desire to “set ambitious targets” to “reduce by 2023 gaps in attainment by gender, ethnic origin and socio-economic background”. It also wants to “substantially increase” the number of undergraduate places offered to students from groups who are currently under-represented, and “accommodate growth in student numbers” overall. But yet it costs almost double to fund an undergraduate’s place at Oxford than what they pay in fees, largely due to the face-time intensive tutorial model and collegiate setting. It is time to explore how the Oxford Experience can exist at a consistent high calibre across physical and virtual spaces, support both retaining and refreshing the University’s rich academic environment – not only as a means to develop  personal and transferable skills to succeed in a global workplace, but to reach out wider, be more inclusive, and continue to advance excellence in teaching and learning.



Scaffolding on Oxford's Radcliffe Camera Library. Photo by me, 2009 (CC-BY-NC).
Scaffolding on Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera Library. Photo by me, 2009 (CC-BY-NC).

The subject of putting reading lists online is a rather contentious one at the University, and one which colleagues at other Universities struggle to understand. I was fist met with ‘strength of academic opinion’ when I was undertaking some institutional research for my MSc in Education in 2006, during which I interviewed academic colleagues on their perceptions and experiences of technology use in University teaching. I was rather interested by the angry pushback to my suggestion that reading lists could be shared in a VLE and link students directly to items in the library catalogue. This, it seemed, encouraged our students to be ‘little birds with their mouths wide open, waiting for knowledge to be fed to them with a silver spoon’.

It is important that our students develop the skills to discover readings, interrogate the catalogues and critically assess what is relevant to their studies and what is not. Our TEF submission states clearly we want our students to be independent and critical learners. But that is a difficult point to start from as a new first year student. Scaffolding is needed to be taken to that point. Teaching ethos is not the only barrier, there are concerns around intellectual property and teaching viability, especially in terms of our college tutors whose research is often embodied within their small group teaching and their reading lists. Publication can take so long, and it is seen as risky to make open it up online, including reading lists.

We are embarking on our third attempt to introduce a University online reading list management system in the 17 years I have been here. And this time student voice , addressing the no longer acceptable time-consuming processes of our librarian colleagues, and wider support for digital education will see a University-wide roll-out in the 18/19 academic year. However, I feel we will be working particularly hard to get academic support for this development, and endeavour to make it part of the wider conversation on how digital can create opportunities in teaching and learning, not chip away at the Oxford-experience, but enhance it.


That the college lecturer could be replaced by the Gramaphone…

It seems that University Union debating societies in 1931 were having very much the same discussions that we have had in the past few years on the subject of recording lectures, albeit the technology may have moved on somewhat.

Scan of University College of South Wales Union Debating Society Programme 1931-1932.
University College of South Wales Union Debating Society Programme 1931-1932. 20th Nov 1931 ‘The the college lecturer should be replaced by the gramophone’. Shared by colleagues at our Lecture Capture Forum.

As we move into the second year of our opt-in lecture capture service, lectures have been recorded, lectures continue to be attended, no one has been replaced by a gramophone (or any other form of technology, that we know of). Our students with recorded lectures are pleased.

Lecture recording at Oxford, like at many institutions is an educational technology driven by student demand. And we took it on to deliver.  The feedback we gather throughout the year from our students is almost exclusively positive. Our students particularly value:

  • reviewing lectures for exam revision
  • listening in lecture rooms rather than focusing on writing notes (with more comprehensive notes being enriched after with the aid of the captured event),
  • replaying lectures at a pace that suits them, to understand the more complex issues covered in the lecture
  • the ability to catch-up if they have a clash with another class or miss a lecture for another reason
  • connecting departmental teaching and college teaching in a more timely way (a term of tutorials on Feminist Literary Theories may be quite a distance away from the lecture series).

The recording of lectures supports students with accessibility and disability requirements, especially after the withdrawal of the Disabled Students Allowance meant HEFCE/BIS put the onus on universities to remove paid-for notetakers. However, we need to be careful in promoting this a major driver when advocating lecture capture. Making recorded lectures only available to students with registered disabilities, who request them, is not what this service is about. It is to support all, inclusively, whether those disabilities are visible or hidden, physical or mental, registered or not. A student with depression can struggle to keep up, recorded lectures provides them with an opportunity to revisit their classes gently in their own time.  Lecture recording supports varied learning styles and the varied strategies students employ to assimilate and critically reflect on the huge amounts information they receive in their studies. As one student put it at a recent event  I attended ‘Lecture capture is part of the toolkit students need‘.

As is the case at most other institutions, the threat to attendance at lectures continues to be debated. By and large it has not been an issue, students miss lectures for many reasons, generally not because they consider the recorded version to  be a replacement for the lecture experience. Our feedback from students is that they plan to continue attending their lectures citing structure to their studies and contact opportunities with their peers and subject experts as key reasons. The lecture has a social context and this is key, particularly at Oxford where  undergraduates are largely taught in small groups in their colleges, and lectures provide an opportunity to engage with a wider discipline cohort and connect with their departments. *

Whilst things are looking positive in relation to the student experience, some interesting questions are being raised by academic colleagues. These were echoed by the sector at the University of Leicester’s event Implementing Lecture Capture: what are we learning? which I attended earlier this term. Some lecturers, who have employed more interactive methods in their sessions, have expressed that capture is forcing them to retreat to didactic methods of teaching – knowing they are being recorded keeps them positioned at the lectern and compelled to deliver a ‘to-the-camera talk-piece’. But, on the ‘flip’ side others have reflected on the traditional practice of the lecture and are now setting their students pre-lecture ‘viewing’ of previously recorded sessions, or specially produced own mini talk pieces, then release the lecture time for other group learning activities to test, reinforce and explore foundational knowledge and understanding.

This is great example of digital enabling an extension of teaching practices and fostering  more active blended learning. The role of the learning technologist is vital here, professionals who can advise not just about what digital tool to use and how, but provide exemplars of how it can be used to meet learning outcomes. This was echoed in a fantastic talk delivered at our own Lecture Capture forum by Tony Lancaster and Karl Luke from Cardiff University who advocated the role of the learning technologist in supporting change and iterative design of learning strategies.  

Four years on from introducing lecture capture at Oxford, conversations are happening around the role of the lecture in education.  More and more academic colleagues are exploring flipped learning and student response systems , the lecture space is shifting.  It would be over-zealous of me to suggest that lecture capture is the reason these conversations are happening, but capture certainly brings an interesting element to the table, not just in regards to recording but the wider use of video in teaching and learning, and the spaces it creates for innovation. The lecture has survived 1000s of years, it has survived books, gramophones, televisions and YouTube. I don’t think we will see the back of it quite yet, although a little disruption is rarely a bad thing.

* Lecture capture should also not be used as substitute for teaching, as in the case of #USSStrikes.